08/8/14

My Grandfathers’ War


WWIOne hundred years ago World War I began, a war that started as a clash in a tiny, almost unknown Balkan state and blossomed into a violent, gruesome war that spread across Europe, the Middle East and reached into Africa and Asia. Within a few years, tens of millions would be dead, the political face of the world changed and almost all of the great royal houses of Europe would be deposed and broken. An entire culture, a society of class and place, was overthrown.

The timeline of the origins of WWI is complex and, from this century of temporal distance, confusing and obscure. As Keven Drews wrote in the National Post,

It’s been 100 years since Europe’s major powers, and their colonies and dominions, went to war, but the passage of time has done little to settle the debate about who or what was responsible for the First World War.

Prof. Michael Neiberg of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., said some blame those who held political power at the time, and their divergent systems of government, while others insist it’s difficult to assign blame at the feet of any one culprit.

“If anybody goes looking for simple causes, they’re going to either be disappointed or they’re going to reduce the history so much that it won’t make sense anymore — 1914 was an unbelievably complicated world,” said Neiberg.

It began on June 28 with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, and his wife, in Sarajevo. That event – for political reasons few of us today know about or understand – was followed by a month of drum beating, armies mobilizing and nationalism being tightened to a high pitch throughout Europe. Alliances solidified between the powers. Tens of thousands of men enlisted in a nationalistic fervor.

War seemed glorious, exciting, patriotic.

A steamroller of events followed that shooting. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. On August 1, Germany declared war on Russia and on August 2, Germany invaded Luxembourg. On August 3, it declared war on France. A day later, the UK declared war on Germany, while the USA would stubbornly declare its neutrality (not declaring war on Germany until April, 1917 and on Austria-Hungary in December, 1917).

My grandfathers would both enlist in that hot blush of youthful patriotic passion; my mother’s father serving in Canada’s fledgling navy and my father’s father in the King’s Royal Rifles. Unlike so many of their friends and companions, they would survive, although not necessarily unscathed – the emotional impact must have been enormous.

The whole world changed in those few short years. A new world emerged, one we recognize as our early modern culture, but one that shed the skins of so many social structures that were left in the mud of the trenches.

Some say that was good; that what emerged was a better, stronger and more vibrant world. Colonialism and class were on the wane. Individualism, feminism, workers’ rights and a more open society were on the rise. So some good emerged from the rubble. But along the way, we gained terrorism, fascism, military dictatorships, communism, and a mannerless, self-centred culture.

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08/4/14

What’s in a (Popular) Name?


What's in a name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Juliet, in Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

A recent article in The Atlantic about how our names impact our lives got me to thinking about how and why we name our children – and what they say about us, about our parents, what our names mean to others of their generation. And why are some names popular at certain times in history. Like now.

According to babycenter.com, these are the ten most popular baby names for 2013:

Girls:

  1. Sophia
  2. Emma
  3. Olivia
  4. Isabella
  5. Mia
  6. Ava
  7. Lily
  8. Zoe
  9. Emily
  10. Chloe

Boys:

  1. Jackson
  2. Aiden
  3. Liam
  4. Lucas
  5. Noah
  6. Mason
  7. Jayden
  8. Ethan
  9. Jacob
  10. Jack

That just makes me feel like I’ve missed a genealogical bus somewhere. Of those 20 names, I doubt I’d name a child most of them. But that may be a generational thing; I was raised with a different set of names. Some of these names are also – from my perspective – old-fashioned. I suppose that’s the around-again effect we see in so many other cultural items (like the endless recycling of pop music tropes from the 60s and 70s…).

Still, I wouldn’t name a child a lot of things, from Crystal to Britney to River (or Dweezil or Moon Unit). I might give a girl the middle name of Yseult and a boy Tristam, but only because I would want to be able to explain the wonderful, romantic story behind those names… I wouldn’t want to burden them with these as first names.

My wife’s name, Susan – a name that I love to hear and still sounds like wind chimes to me after more than 30 years – doesn’t appear in the top 100, while my own shows up at a mere number 80. That surprises me somewhat, because at least when I was growing up, my name was a rarity and Susan was popular, at least in my travelled circles.

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08/1/14

Neolithic site dig uncovers sophisticated structures


Orkney dig site
A Neolithic site in the Orkney Islands shows our ancestors had sophisticated building skills more than 5,000 years ago. According to a story in The Scotsman,

A groundbreaking excavation of a 5,000-year-old temple complex in Orkney has uncovered evidence to suggest that prehistoric people were a great deal more sophisticated than previously thought.
The archaeological dig at the Ness of Brodgar, which is still in its early stages, has already thrown up discoveries that archaeologists say will force us to re-evaluate our understanding of how our ancestors lived.
The picture that has emerged so far points to a complex and capable society that displayed impeccable workmanship and created an integrated landscape.

Well, it’s very premature to identify it as a “temple complex.” As for any structure being a “temple” or the whole site being a “temple complex” – that’s just a guess.

The article’s headline is hyperbolic: “Orkney dig dispels caveman image of ancestors.” This is followed by the equally fatuous opening:

THE image of our Neolithic ancestors as simple souls carving out a primitive existence has been dispelled.

I suppose that misrepresentation may have been dispelled from the writer’s rather confused mind, but few others are likely to be that daft.

Orkney dig

The media are ever wont to sensationalize things in this manner. I can’t imagine anyone with at least an elementary school education believes people living 5,000 years ago were “cavemen.” This time is contemporary with the development of early (“proto”) writing in many cultures, and actually later than some finds from 7th millennium BCE China (the Jiahu symbols from Henan, 6600 BCE). It was the time when the first towns were formed.

We’ve known about Neolithic building from the many megaliths and gravesites uncovered, as well as the communities already unearthed. The most famous of which is, of course, Stonehenge, built roughly in the same period as the Orkney site. You can see an imagined reconstruction on the National Geographic site. It’s impressive, but hardly spectacular in the way Stonehenge, Macchu Picu, Angkor Wat or the Pyramids are.

Cavemen, as they are inappropriately called, refers to people living in the Paleolithic period, which Wikipedia reminds us extended,

…from the earliest known use of stone tools, probably by hominins such as australopithecines, 2.6 million years ago, to the end of the Pleistocene around 10,000 BP.

The Neolithic is when human communities first start developing beyond the tribal stage; when architecture and agriculture, music, language and religion all developed. While archeologists and anthropologists bicker over the exact time span, in general it ran from about 10,000 BCE to about 4,500 BCE, although some place it as recent as 2,000 BCE for some groups.
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07/12/14

How to Spot a Communist


America Under CommunismAs I just learned from a recent piece on Open Culture, I must be a Communist. Based on my preference for writing (and reading), that is.

(This would definitely surprise my left-wing friends who often think I’m right of Stephen Harper… himself being so far right of the iconic Genghis Khan that it defines a memetic categorization). Damn, I’ve been exposed…

According to the piece, a 1955 manual prepared during the Second Red Scare for the U.S. First Army Headquarters helped readers identify potential “Communists.” Among these traits, the piece notes, is a preference for multi-syllabic words and long sentences (apparently Real Americans prefer a much-reduced vocabulary a la Winston’s Smith’s Newspeak and eschew the semicolon and a connector of subordinate phrases…):

While a preference for long sentences is common to most Communist writing, a distinct vocabulary provides the more easily recognized feature of the “Communist Language.” Even a superficial reading of an article written by a Communist or a conversation with one will probably reveal the use of some of the following expressions: integrative thinking, vanguard, comrade, hootenanny, chauvinism, book-burning, syncretistic faith, bourgeois-nationalism, jingoism, colonialism, hooliganism, ruling class, progressive, demagogy, dialectical, witch-hunt, reactionary, exploitation, oppressive, materialist.

This list, selected at random, could be extended almost indefinitely. While all of the above expressions are part of the English language, their use by Communists is infinitely more frequent than by the general public…

Why, I recall using the word “parsimonious” at one meeting of council only to have another councillor stop my discussion and demand to know what the word meant, never having heard it before in his life. Exposed, I was, as the Communist among them by my use of Big Words. I slunk back into my seat, afraid he might call me out. I vowed to shave my Lenin-like goatee at that moment…

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06/26/14

The Death of Handwriting?


I almost cried in pleasure when I watched this video; the handwriting is so beautiful. Apparently some viewers have, as Jesus Diaz writes. On Gizmodo he says that it’s:

…a video that caused many to discover autonomous sensory meridian response, a perceptual phenomenon that gives a pleasing tingling sensation. Some said they got it watching people writing. Well, put your headphones on, because this is the mother of all calligraphy ASMR videos.

Okay, maybe it is for me because I was raised with handwriting and still delight in it. Penmanship was taught in school at least for a few years when I was there. In fact, I was in Grade 9 penmanship class when the news of President Kennedy’s assassination was broadcast over the school’s PA system. It’s one reason I can still recall taking penmanship, although I think it was the last year of it for me.

Penmanship taught more than just basic cursive: it skirted the boundaries of calligraphy, trying to teach resistant and recalcitrant students how to craft beauty out of our splotchy letters scratched from ink with clumsy fingers. Control, frugality, grace; things adolescents seldom have in quantity. But somehow, some of it stuck, and even though I lack the grace of the calligrapher in the video, I can still thrill in making those swoops, the lines, to hear the scrape of the nib on the paper.

True, I fail in great part because my gel-point and ballpoint pens haven’t the aesthetic pleasantry of a real ink-and-nib pen.

Diaz also informs us:

It’s a demonstration of a fountain pen—a Namiki Falcon customized by nibmeister John Mottishaw—with crystal clear video and sound, writing with various inks (if you’re curious: Iroshizuku Tsuki-yo, Iroshizuku Yama Budo, Noodler’s Black, Noodler’s Apache Sunset) on Bristol board and Leuchtturm1917 dot grid notebook paper.

I don’t know about you, but even the sight of a well-crafted fountain pen makes my heart beat a little faster. And paper? I’ve been known to loiter in art and stationary shops, fondling the sheets in notebooks, searching for that perfect feel, the ultimate sensation of paper on fingertips that through some osmotic process will encourage me to pick up a pen and dip it in the inkwell.*

Details aside, I find the act of writing itself fulfilling – and watching a master calligrapher at his art even more so, like watching a ballet or listening to a symphony being performed live. And it reminds me that in handwriting there is an enormous cultural heritage we should never lose – can never lose without losing something of ourselves.

But if some muddle-headed educators and some dizzy-wth-digital trustees have their way, our whole culture may suffer from enforced dysgraphia – which Wikipedia tell us is a

…deficiency in the ability to write, primarily in terms of handwriting, but also in terms of coherence.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think that the death of handwriting would be to culture what the death of bees will be to agriculture.
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06/13/14

When good people do bad things in groups


Mob MentalityThe headline is taken from a piece on Science Daily on a study about how groups change personal behaviour and morality. The study is reported on the MIT website. I’ve seen that change myself, many times over the years, and most recently locally. The study adds intelligence on the neurology of how such group activity changed people.

The report itself is called “Reduced self-referential neural response during intergroup competition predicts competitor harm,” which of course would have most people’s eyes glazing over. But the authors of the report start by asking a salient question:

Why do interactions become more hostile when social relations shift from “me versus you” to “us versus them”? 

Why, indeed? Why do people who seem rational and even friendly individually become angry bullies in a group?The authors themselves offer a hypothesis:

One possibility is that acting with a group can reduce spontaneous self-referential processing in the moral domain and, in turn, facilitate competitor harm. We tested this hypothesis in an fMRI experiment in which (i) participants performed a competitive task once alone and once with a group; (ii) spontaneous self-referential processing during competition was indexed unobtrusively by activation in an independently localized region of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) associated with self-reference; and (iii) we assessed participants’ willingness to harm competitors versus teammates. As predicted, participants who showed reduced mPFC activation in response to descriptions of their own moral behaviors while competing in a group were more willing to harm competitors. These results suggest that intergroup competition (above and beyond inter-personal competition) can reduce self-referential processing of moral information, enabling harmful behaviors towards members of a competitive group.

That’s fairly technical and likely not eyebrow-raising for us non-techies. Is this relevant to you and me, to our neighbours and friends and our daily lives? Yes, and very much so.

It means that our personal moral compass may not work, may be disabled when we interact in groups that identify an us-them dichotomy, or see outsiders as competitors. It explains why groups can become uncivil, nasty, aggressive, even violent although their individual members may not be.

It also suggests that to break away from group dominance, one needs to become introspective about our own values and ethics, and one must work hard to recover that moral compass.

We only need read the stories of the brave but estranged family members the late Fred Phelps, leader of the hate-filled Westboro Baptist Church, who broke away from his control. Twenty-three-year-old Zach Phelps-Roper broke from the church recently, and spoke to the Topeka Capital-Journal about his decision:

Empathy and unconditional love, he said, are the keys to solving the world’s problems — a lesson he has learned contrasting his time inside the WBC compound and the past nearly 11 weeks outside it.
“I feel like I have unconditional love for every person around the world,” Phelps-Roper said Friday. “The Westboro Baptist Church sees things differently than I do now.”
The church he grew up in was too busy pointing out problems to look for solutions, he said. He has been able to spend the past two months investigating the second part of that equation.
His conclusion: “Most problems come from a lack of understanding of how we affect other people and things around us. I feel like I have found the holy grail, the overarching solution to solving all of our society’s problems, and I want to learn more. I want to do more.”

What is interesting to me is that Zach, although he broke from the abusive church and its leader, and rediscovered his own moral compass, he also retains considerable religious faith – even a fundamentalist view I would have expected him to abandon. So one can break free of a group’s dominance yet retain shared core beliefs., just behave differently – more normally, more civilly.

That was eye-opening. It certainly isn’t the experience of all Westboro members who have freed themselves of its grip (read this piece about another family member’s struggle; Libby Phelps-Alvarez), although most have said in the interviews I’ve read they are kinder, gentler, more empathetic and humane since leaving the church. I expect most people who break free of any group’s control feel that way.

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