01/29/14

Reading Thucydides at last


BookshelfSomewhere on one of my bookshelves, is an old Penguin paperback copy of History of The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides. It’s a bit worn, pages lightly yellowed, glue a little brittle. It’s been sitting on the shelf, stacked with many other paperbacks, piled two deep, floor to ceiling, for the past two decades and more.

It’s never been read, not completely. I read the introduction, maybe some small sections, back in my wargaming days, 30 or 35 years ago. Like many of its companions on that shelf, it’s a book I put aside for the days when I expected to have more time to read such works. My retirement. Insert canned laughter here.

Of course, when I bought it, in the 1970s, I hadn’t expected to be in politics, writing books and articles on municipal issues, blogging, playing the ukulele, and furiously baking in my “golden years.” How did I ever get so busy?

Nowadays, it seems these books may have to wait a little longer to be read. Some of them, anyway. The pile of books in progress beside the bed seems to get refreshed with new titles all too often, and few of the older ones make their way into it.

Thucydides sits on the shelf with similar Penguin editions of Herodotus, Xenophon, Josephus, Suetonius, Caesar – historians of ancient Greece and Rome. He shares shelf space with Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Hardy, Wolfe, Baudelaire, Austen and other great writers of fiction. Many of them were put aside for later, although others have been read.

There’s a whole collection of Latin American authors I picked up in the 70s; mostly read back then, but many deserve rereading. There are collections of classic Japanese and Chinese poets. Books by popular modern authors – Michener, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Burroughs (read most of those), Kerouac (ditto), Heller, Vonnegut. There are philosophers – Plato, Aristotle, Voltaire, Hobbes, Suzuki, Spinoza. Plays by Wilde, Shaw and Sophocles. Essays by Orwell and Voltaire.

Some days, I despair I’ll ever get to them. They deserve to be read, all of them. Each is a gateway to a whole world, a universe, even. Now and then I pick one up, read a chapter, maybe a poem or an essay, but it goes back on the shelf for years after that.

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01/26/14

The Mac celebrates 30 years


MacintoshA recent article on Gizmodo shows off some previously unseen (or perhaps just forgotten) footage of a young Steve Jobs unveiling the Macintosh computer, back on January 30, 1984.

Thirty years ago, this week.

Seems like forever ago. But I remember it, and reasonably well. I remember where I was living then, what I was working on, and who I was with (I’m still with her…)

The video clip also includes the famous Orwellian “1984″ TV ad Apple used to launch the Mac. That’s worth watching for itself. It was a really cheeky ad, and generated a lot of chatter about marketing at the time. The clip includes other Mac ads you should watch.

I had a Mac around then, bought, as I recall, in late 84 or early 85. I had had a Lisa – the Mac’s unsuccessful predecessor – on loan for a few months in 83 or early 84. I wasn’t impressed with the Lisa, but the Mac really captivated me.

I also had an IBM PC, from 82 or 83, and never quite understood the anti-IBM sentiments Jobs and Apple promoted among users. But then PC users fought back just as adamantly over the superiority of their platform.

As a computer geek from way back, I just loved having any – every – computer. When I started computing, I lived in a two-bedroom apartment; the second (the Iarger of the two, of necessity) bedroom became a workroom filled with computers, books, manuals, printers, modems, tools, chips, soldering irons, cables, and printers. As a technical and documentation writer, I always had extra hardware and software on loan from manufacturers and distributors. I once described my room as looking like a “NASA launch site.”

When we eventually bought our own house, I had a room for my books and computers, too, although they tended to escape and overrun the rest of the house. Same thing has happened here, although the amount of hardware is much reduced from the glory days (more ukuleles today than computers).

But ever since my first computer, I have not been a day without at least one computer in the house, usually several.

By the time the Mac was released, I had been computing for more than six years. I bought my first computer in the fall of 1977, a TRS-80, and soon had several machines (an Apple in 79, an Atari 400 in 1980 and then an 800 in 81). I belonged to user groups, subscribed to at least a dozen computer magazines, and wrote for several, including one of the earliest columns on computer gaming (in Moves magazine). I attended many computer fests and exhibitions in Canada and the USA – in fact, I helped organize a microcomputer fair in Toronto, at the International Centre, in the mid-80s.

As you read this, in 2014, I’ve been at it for almost 37 years.

So I take some umbrage when I read this condescending snippet on Gizmodo:

30 years ago the landscape of personal computing was vastly different. That is to say, it hardly existed.

Hogwash. It was alive and well – thriving in its entrepreneurial glory. Only poorly-informed journalists who have not done their research would make such a claim. Or perhaps they are too young to know of the rich history of personal computing prior to their own acquisition of a device.

By 1984, we had seen the TRS-80, Commodore Pet, Apple II, Kaypro, IBM PC, Atari 400, 800 and 1200, Sinclair, TI-99, the Acorn, Coleco Adam and many others. Apple’s own IIc would be released later in 1984.

We would soon see both the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST 16-bit computers launched. Of which I had them all, and a few others passed through my hands in that time, too.

In the 80s, CompuServe dominated the field of online services with millions of customers as it spread. I was a sysop on CompuServe for many of those years. I even operated my own BBS for a while.

CompuServe was challenged – aggressively, but not very successfully – by several competitors in that decade including The Source and Delphi (I was later a sysop on Delphi, too, before moving to Collingwood).

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01/12/14

The Music of the Templars


Templar chantFor the past 25 years, I have had a mysterious page in Latin, held in a cheap picture frame, and stored in a closet for many years.

It’s a two-sided page from a book, printed in black and red letters. I bought it at a used-book store in Toronto back when I lived there and frequented such stores. I rediscovered it last week when cleaning out my workroom to create a ukulele space.

The page is roughly 21 x 14 inches (53 x 35 cm) and in very good condition, for its age. It’s also quite beautiful, especially to anyone like me who is interested in the history of printing.

I’ve taken some photos today, and posted them here. Click on the images for a link to a larger picture. The paper looks yellow in the photos, but that’s the bad lighting in my room: it’s really a creamy white.

Today I decided to do some research into it and learn more about this page. Is it authentic? if so, where did it come from and what does it contain? And what was its purpose?

A small sticker on the back of the frame gives the only notes I have about its provenance, and they are not properly written:

Antiphoriu hmnorem scancte
Romane ecclesie
Copletu
Impressum venetis
cu privlegio MDIII

Templar chantWhich appears to say it is a page cut from an “antiphonarium” (or antiphonary) from Venice, dated from 1503. That’s 510 years ago, a decade before Machiavelli wrote his famous work, The Prince, in nearby Florence.

Venice was one of the first Italian cities to have a printing press, starting in 1469, barely 20 years after Gutenberg’s press was built in Mainz. It became on of the Renaissance’s hottest spots for printing and had many printshops – and professional editors. More on that, below.

In my research, I found a blogger who also bought one of these pages in Toronto around the same time I did, probably from the same store: Byzantine Calvinist. His post and photos date from 2006, however. I haven’t identified the exact content of his page, but it seems to be the Order of the Mass or perhaps from the Epiphany service.

He writes the sticker notes as:

ANTIPHONARIU hmnorem sancte
Romane ecclesie copletu. . . .
Impressum Venetijs cu
priuilegio. . . .M.d.iij
(Venice 1503)

Another page from what seems the same book showed up on National Book Auctions, lot 6460, in late 2012.
Templar chant

Templar chant

Templar chant


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11/9/13

Bread, Madness and Christianity


St. Anthony's FireThe witch craze of Europe is a popular, albeit often misrepresented, part of our collective history. Everyone knows witches were hunted, tortured and often killed – burned at the stake, a particularly repulsive method of murder. While not a uniquely Christian form of killing, it was practiced widely by Christians throughout history in every European nation, perfected in ritual by the Spanish Inquisition.

Hunting witches in the period between 1480 and 1750 (the so-called “classical period” of witch hunting) resulted in between 40,000 and 60,000 executions, although some authorities guess the total to be as high as 100,000.

While it’s politically correct these days to report they were all  killed at the hands of religious zealots, it’s actually a lot more complicated than that. But that’s not the subject of this post.

What really interests me is the potential cause of this madness, not the religious response to it. Yes, I know the belief in witches has been around since biblical times, in many cultures, and people are still being killed today because of it, but Europe’s witch craze was something different; almost an industrial scale of madness and murder. Why so many?

The answer may lie in that staple of our foodstuffs: bread.

Okay, not all breads. Just breads made with rye flour, it seems (well, not 100%, but that’ comes a bit further down the post, No peeking!). Pumpernickel, a dense rye bread, may derive it’s name from the German for Devil’s Fart. Really. The stuff you learn online. Anyway, witches may be the result of food poisoning – not, as the church believed, the supernatural. Bad case of mistaken identity, that.

Dance of DeathRye grain (Secale cereale) is susceptible to ergot (Claviceps purpurea), a fungus with a whole lot of chemicals in it that, when eaten, have some nasty side effects, from burning to madness to death. I mentioned this briefly in a recent blog post on the history of bread making. It’s a fascinating chapter in the history of bread (which itself is a fascinating chapter in the history of humanity).

The madness comes from the alkaloids in ergot that bear a resemblance to LSD as Wikipedia tells us:

The ergot sclerotium contains high concentrations (up to 2% of dry mass) of the alkaloid ergotamine, a complex molecule consisting of a tripeptide-derived cyclol-lactam ring connected via amide linkage to a lysergic acid (ergoline) moiety, and other alkaloids of the ergoline group that are biosynthesized by the fungus. Ergot alkaloids have a wide range of biological activities including effects on circulation and neurotransmission.
Ergot alkaloids can be classified into two classes:

  1. derivatives of 6,8-dimethylergoline and
  2. lysergic acid derivatives.

Ah, Timothy Leary, where were you when you were needed back in the 15th and 16th centuries? The madness and physical side effects of eating ergot is colloquially called “St. Anthony’s Fire.” We call it ergotism today:

In large doses, ergotamine paralyzes the motor nerve endings of the sympathetic nervous system. The disease ergotism (St. Anthony’s fire) is caused by excessive intake of ergot. This can occur by the overuse of the drug or by eating baked goods made with contaminated flour, as happened in the Middle Ages. (Ergotism also can affect cattle, by their eating ergot-infected grain and grass).

Acute and chronic ergotism are characterized by mental disorientation, convulsions, muscle cramps, and dry gangrene of the extremities.

A psychoactive drug, lysergic acid diethylamide, best known as LSD, is chemically related to ergotamine.

I suspect the effect would have been frightening, confusing and disorienting – combined with the physical pains, burning, convulsions, the gangrene and other effects. No one would connect the effects with rye until the late 17th century. But for more than a millennium, stories of outbreaks of madness and St. Anthony’s Fire would fill the chronicles.**

And it would often be blamed not on the bread, but on a supernatural cause: the devil, demons or witchcraft. Christianity was not particularly kind to people accused of consorting with the devil.

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11/4/13

What Bread Would Chaucer Have Eaten?


Starter mixI was mulling over the growth of the whole ‘artisan bread’  movement as I made another batch of dough last week to cold ferment in the fridge. As I lay in bed reading one night, I started to wonder what sort of bread Chaucer would have eaten. Or Shakespeare.

That led to: how was bread made 500 years ago? 1,000? What ingredients did they use? How did the technology and techniques develop? How was yeast’s work discovered and when? How authentic is today’s bread? Aside, that is, from the  refined flour, sugar, salt and highly domesticated yeast…

So I started to do a little online research. (Visual pun: That’s my latest starter on the left, with my latest effort, a modest pan bread made from a similar starter, a bit further below).

First stop: Gode Cookery, a website dedicated to historical – Medieval to Renaissance – cooking, recipes and food. It offers both pages on Chaucer’s food, but also numerous pages and recipes for bread and here.*

Lots of material for experimentation there, but not a lot of narrative history about how bread was developed and worked. Was it kneaded, or just allowed to rise naturally? Where did yeast come from? Flour? How were loaves shaped? Cooked?

A little note I found elsewhere says the English word “lord” comes from the old English “hlaford” (“loaf ward”) which means “keeper of the bread.” Zingerman’s notes:

Historically bread has played an important role in nearly every major European culture. In the Bible the word “bread” is synonymous with “nourishment.” The English word “lord” is derived from the old English “hlaford”, meaning “keeper of the bread.” The role of challah and matzoh in Judaism and the communion wafer in Christianity are, of course, well known. The word “companion” is derived from the Latin “companio”, meaning “one who shares bread.” And in our society, think about what the use of the slang terms “dough” and “bread” for money says about our 20th-century priorities.

Starter mixBack to Chaucer. Bread is mentioned several times in the Canterbury tales. In  The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, Chaucer wrote:

Her board was mostly garnished, white and black,
With milk and brown bread, whereof she’d no lack,
Broiled bacon and sometimes an egg or two,
For a small dairy business did she do.

Ah, but what kind of brown bread? Was this rye or a whole wheat? In the Wife of Bath’s Tale, he writes:

Let such be bread of purest white wheat-seed,
And let us wives be called but barley bread;
And yet with barley bread, if Mark you scan
Jesus Our Lord refreshed full many a man.

So clearly white and dark breads have different social connotations. Again, bread is mentioned in the General Prologue, in discussion of the Franklin:

He loved to dip his morning bread in wine.
A pleasing live was the custom he’d won,
For he was Epicurus’ very son,
That held opinion that plain and pure delight
Was true happiness, perfect and right.
A householder, and that a great, was he;
Saint Julian he was in his own country.
His bread, his ale were always good and fine;
No man had cellars better stocked with wine.

Bread also appears in other tales; brief mentions, not as a centrepiece, and seldom described with any more detail. Food and drink were literary props for Chaucer, but – according to Food in the Arts - weren’t all that important to him:

Food was simply not that important to him, and this attitude is reflected most in his early writings. There is scarcely any mention of food or eating in his courtly poems, only the occasional feast which is hardly discussed and certainly never described in great detail. Bread, ale, and wine are often mentioned, but other foods are not specifically defined: roasted meat, drink, etc. Such references are used only to add color or flavoring to the story, and don’t give the modern culinary historian much to work on.

Gode Cookery tells us bread was one of the :

 …most common and vital foodstuffs of the Middle Ages, it was, and has always been a daily staple of life. Essential to Medieval society, a rise in the cost of wheat or a scarcity of bread usually marked the beginning of a time of famine or economic calamity. Figures indicate that in England, the average lowly household allowed everyone about 2 to 3 pounds of wheat bread a day, while in France wheat records show that each citizen had enough wheat for about a 2-pound loaf each day. Clearly, bread was the basis of the Medieval diet. References to many varieties of bread appear throughout Chaucer’s writings.

Two to three pounds of bread a day? Of course, the loaves were smaller, and denser, not like the commercial sponge bread we have today.  Still…  This site suggests peasants ate as much as two loaves of bread every day: 2,200 to 3,000 calories in bread alone:

A prosperous English peasant in the 14th century would probably consume 2 – 3 pounds of bread, 8 ounces of meat or fish or other protein and 2 -3 pints of ale per day. The bread was usually mean of rye, oats, or barley. Meat was expensive and usually only available on special occasions. Often eggs, butter, or cheese were substituted for meat. Vegetables such as onions, leeks, cabbage, garlic, turnips, parsnips, peas and beans were staples. Fruits were available in season.

Rye could also be problematic: it is susceptible to a fungus called ergot, which can drive people mad, or even kill them. It might make them appears as ‘witches,’ too (many of the famous witch hunts happened after an outbreak of ergot poisoning, it seems):

Ergot thrives in a cold winter followed by a wet spring. The victims of ergot might suffer paranoia and hallucinations, twitches and spasms, cardiovascular trouble, and stillborn children. Ergot also seriously weakens the immune system.

Note to self: check rye flour before using. People already think I’m crazy. No need to confirm it for them.

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10/13/13

Hijack the Starship


Space station conceptNineteen seventy. A great year for music, and a sad year, too. The death of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin.* Many of the great acts were kicked off their record labels and would struggle to find new publishers.**

The great psychedelic band, Jefferson Airplane was breaking up, but before it did, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick put together a new band, named Paul Kantner and the Jefferson Starship (which would change its lineup before finalizing as the Jefferson Starship a few years later). They released a science fiction-counterculture concept album called Blows Against the Empire in 1970. It would go on to be nominated for a Hugo Award in 1971.

It was the voice of our dreams. Wikipedia tells us of the album:

Side Two is an integrated suite of songs which opens with “Sunrise”, Grace Slick’s allegory describing the breaking dawn the couple was awaiting, while also symbolizing the dawn of an Utopian civilization, freed from conservative mores and violent influences. “Sunrise” leads directly into “Hijack,” in which the revolutionaries storm the transport to the orbiting starship and head off into space, boarding the ship by the end of “Hijack” and leaving orbit in “Home.” As the story progresses with “Have You Seen the Stars Tonite,” hopes and misgivings are revealed. After the ship’s engines and systems are readied in “X-M,” “Starship” relates a mutiny fought for control of the ship, to determine whether to surrender and return or to continue. Eventually the idealists win control and the ship is flung by gravity sling-shot around the sun and out of the solar system.
By Kantner’s admission, the underlying premise of the narrative was derived in part from the works of science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein, particularly the novel Methuselah’s Children. Kantner went so far as to write to Heinlein to obtain permission to use his ideas. Heinlein wrote back that over the years, many people had used his ideas but Paul was the first one to ask for permission, which he granted. Blows was the first rock album to ever be nominated for a Hugo Award, in 1971 in the category of Best Dramatic Presentation. In voting, the album garnered the second most votes for the award, losing to “No Award”, which received the most votes.


The lyrics of Hijack the Starship start with:

You know – a starship circlin’ in the sky -
It ought to be ready by 1990
They’ll be buildin’ it up in the air, ever since 1980
People with a clever plan can assume the role of the mighty
and HIJACK THE STARSHIP
Carry 7,000 people past the sun
And our babes’ll wander naked thru
the cities of the universe.

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