1. Lithuania: Now Smaller

    DID YOU KNOW…?

    Lithuania used to be a lot bigger. And more important. As in, other countries used to ask to be ruled by Lithuania. True story.

    In review: Small and obscure now, previously was a great big deal, calling all the shots for a few centuries. There was also something with the Grateful Dead and their Olympic basketball team. And they built the basketball equivalent of Stonehenge.

    That’s all I’ve got. Except this.


  2. A Helpful Reminder That Everything You Were Taught is Wrong

    Matt Yglesias had a good post this morning about the sort of dumbed down cause -> effect common wisdom that gets tossed around at all levels of education and historical analysis.  In this case, he takes aim at the old chestnut we all learned in high school about the poor Germans in the Weimar Republic running around with wheelbarrows full of paper marks to buy a loaf of bread and how that hyperinflation made all the Germans toss up their hands and say “hey, why don’t we give this Hitler guy a try?”

    I understand that this is an accurate recounting of German folk history, but I wish people recounting it would note that Germans sort of misremember what happened. The hyperinflation of 1919-1923 was bad, but there’s a reason charts of it end in 1923, namely that the democratic government of Germany managed to tame the problem and in 1924 a new and perfectly stable currency, the Reichsmark was introduced. The Weimar Republic had its problems, but from 1924 on it was one of the very best places in the world to live in terms of economic prosperity and political freedom. Then came The Great Depression and a certain political party’s rise to power.

    Click through to see some of Magical Matt’s awesome graphs to that point. (Ya can’t stop the man from graphing!)  I distinctly remember being told this as part of my high school world history class as another one of those elegantly reductionist formulas to be memorized and regurgitated for my dark lord, the AP test.  While I do find value in the study of history for root causes and charting their effects, I’m constantly frustrated by how reductionist it all was.  Teaching to the test and teaching to every level of interest/comprehension/attention-span takes an axe to the network of events to serve up little slices of official truth, sometimes bearing little resemblance to actual events.  My post-schooling education has largely been a matter of a pulling at these neatly arranged strings of events to see which connections hold up and where those severed links trail back to.

    Wired‘s June 22 Today-in-History note about a 1783 volcanic eruption that dealt death and disruption across the Northern Hemisphere hit my brain in a similar way.

    1783 was the year of the Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolutionary War.  The traditional line trotted out to American school kids is that we kicked so much British ass due to our guerrilla warfare against the line marching, fife-playing Redcoats of the King’s Army.  The French eventually became our our allies, sending troops and supplies towards the end of the war after we proved our mettle in battle.  Then, the story goes, the French absorbed our gnarly revolutionary spirit, decided they didn’t like getting taxed by a be-wigged, high-living royal dandy either and had themselves an even crazier revolution.

    One facet I don’t recall getting much discussion in the classroom is the scale of French aid to the Americans.  The French spent 1.3 billion livres in their efforts to stymie the British, outspending even the Americans.  For a country that was already sinking deeply into debt, this was a risky move.  Having a volcano erupt at that point was not what Louis XVI needed.  Europe was blanketed with a poisonous haze followed by crop failures from a long, severe winter.  Death and debt naturally followed.

    Why don’t they teach this?  Well, it raises a lot of uncomfortable points: humanity’s susceptibility to natural catastrophe, the high costs of foreign intervention and the uncertainty of the future.   Much more comforting for future Excel spreadsheet operators and fast food counter-wipers to have some dots to connect that spell out “America! Fuck yeah!”.

    So in short, history is all one big Connections episode, with the backbeat of Method Man’s sage advice that Cash Rules Everything Around Me.  Cash and Volcanoes.  And if nothing else, at least we can get a Simpson’s reference out of the deal.  “Slavery it is, sir!”


  3. The Invisible Simian Labor Force

    About a week back I posted a link on Twitter to this article about a Berkeley woman who has been hiring out her pet monkey as a fruit harvester.  For a small free and a cut of the fruit, you can get your trees harvested of all those sweet unreachables.

    Naturally, it took me until this morning to figure out it was an April Fool’s Day hoax.  What? Fact-checking?

    However, the basic idea is not too far fetched.  Humans have gotten a days work out of our simian cousins for a long time and continue to do so.  Helper monkeys aid people with mobility problems, giving them back their independence and providing companionship.  The Monkey Business alluded to seems to be merely a mashup between this concept and open fruit map.

    I was further encouraged to come across a kindred spirit, accused of primate-related gullibility:

    In the issue of Science for February 7, 1919, I published a note entitled “On Monkeys Trained to Pick Coconuts,” the opening paragraph of which read as follows: “Readers of the Sunday editions of some of our metropolitan papers may recall that in the fall,  the season of cotton-picking in the South, waggish space writers sometimes make the suggestion that monkeys be trained to do this work and that thereby the shortage of labor be relieved.” This statement was followed by quotations from the books of Miss Isabella Bird and of Mr. R. W. C. Shelford to show that in the East Indies monkeys are employed to pick coconuts for their masters.

    Some quiet fun was made of me for having been “taken in” by these accounts, but the laugh passed to my side when Mr. Carl D. La Rue, writing front Kisaran, Asahan, Sumatra, published in the issue of Science for August 22, 1919, a note entitled “Monkeys as Coconut Pickers.”

    E. W. Gudger, Associate in Ichthyology, American Museum, goes on to give a brief history of monkey labor, touching on their use in coconut-picking in Sumatra and Borneo, hearsay about Chinese monkeys gathering rhubarb and pounding rice, and West African monkeys who could work a mortar, play the pipes and cook meat.

    It’s the report of José de Acosta, a Jesuit monk in the West Indies, that takes the cake:

    “I sawe one [monkey] in Carthagene [Cartagena] in the Governour’s house, so taught, as the things he did seemed incredible: they sent him to the Taverne for wine, putting the pot in one hand, and the money in the other; and they could not possibly gette the money out of his hand, before he had his pot full of wine. If any children mette him in the streete, and threw any stones at him, he would set his pot downe on the one side and cast stones against the children till he had assured his way, then would he returne to carry home his pot. And which is more, although hee were a good bibber of wine (as I have oftentimes seene him drinke, when his maister has given it him) yet would he never touch it vntill leave was given him.”

    A monkey drinking buddy who doesn’t mind going down the street for another round, kicking a little ass if need be.  Perfect.

    The whole Natural History article (from 1923!) is definitely worth a read as it goes in depth on the smaller, hairier shadow labor force throughout recorded history.  Helping Hands Helper Monkeys, makers of the above video also have a fascinating site for a more modern look at what our furry brothers are doing for us.


  4. I therefore pronounce him a Coward and a Scoundrel

    This photo made my day when it arrived in my inbox. I don’t know who snapped it but I figured there had to be a story.

    And there is.

    William Tradewell, the man who declared General Leigh Read a “Coward and Scoundrel” was a member of the America conservative Whig party and slave owner in the Old South. General Leigh Read was a rising star in the Democrat party whose political naivety  cost him.

    Tradewell requested a duel with Read because of Read’s refusal to “apologise for the insult offered” and the feud between Tradewell and Read’s respective political parties. Read, being a poor shot turned him down.

    Another guy by the name of Augustus Alston also offered Read a duel (but no public notice on his ’scoundrelness.’)

    Read accepted knowing he was going up against a man who was a good shot, wealthy, from a nepotistic family, and vehemently opposed the Democrat party’s bank reform bills. Read stood by his position knowing if he was going to go down, it had to be someone who was a “bulldog” of the dying Whig party.

    In Alston’s arrogance, he misfired and Read killed him with one shot. Alston– and pretty much everybody– planned on a “victory banquet” but Alston’s itchy trigger finger and cockiness caused him a critical delay and certain death.

    Even though this was a duel, that Alston initiated, his sisters deemed it “murder.” Alston’s sisters had the bullet removed and recast. They instructed their brother Willis Alston– then in Texas– to kill General Read with the same bullet that killed Augustus Alston. Willis Alston approached Read at a public speaking event a few weeks later dressed in a cloak and hat to disguise himself. He threw off his disguise and the crowd immediately recognized him. He attempted to stab Read with a knife but was foiled when Read grabbed his gun and grazed Willis Alston’s hand.

    A few years later after keeping a low profile Willis Alston caught up to Read and shot him in the back. Willis Alston was arrested but through family connections and $30,000 in bribes managed to escape to Texas.

    Dr. Stewart a Tallahassee native son and friend of Read living in Texas became enraged that Read’s killer lived nearby– and said several insults about Willis Alston. Rather than post a public notice to apologize, Willis Alston approached Dr. Stewart on horseback demanding he apologize for those ill remarks.

    Stewart refused and shot Willis Alston in the stomach. Though injured, Willis Alston fired back and killed Dr. Stewart.

    Again in jail, Willis Alston hatched an escape plan with his family connections. That night though, friends of Dr. Stewart formed a lynch mob and fired endlessly at Willis Alston until he laid dead.

    Just goes to show you America was– and probably always will be– pretty fucked up.

    Update: @ColinPeters found this wonderful painting by Christopher M. Still check out “18? for more on Tradewell-Read-Alston.


  5. Boris Rose, King of the Bootleggers

    Sucker for buried treasure that I am, the story of Boris Rose, jazz bootlegger supreme caught my attention as I perused Syncopated: An Anthology of Nonfiction Picto-Essays [preview]

    Around 1940, Boris began dubbing 78RPM records to 10-inch red vinyl disks with hand-written white labels.  He would sell these dubs of Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and other great early jazz musicians to anyone interested in buying them….

    Over the years Boris captured thousands of hours of recordings that likely did not exist anywhere else — his was easily the largest private collection of its kind anywhere in the world.  Eventually Boris began recording every sort of broadcast imaginable — he even recorded the soundtracks of entire movies as they were broadcast over television.

    What Rose became known for is the bootleg LPs of these recordings from old 78s and live jazz radio broadcasts.  He sold these records commercially, complete with liner notes and illustrated covers, under the names of invented “foreign” record labels like Alto and Radiex.  Despite being fairly prolific for a unauthorized distributor, the vast majority of his recordings have never been released.

    Boris Rose died on the last day of the 20th century, leaving his collection to his daughter Elaine.  The recordings remain in storage, largely unheard by anyone other than Rose himself an presently unavailable anywhere else.  That’s thousands of hours of unheard sounds sitting in a storage shed in the Bronx, an archive that’s hard to fathom.

    r a n d o m g o o g l i n g p r o d u c e d l i t t l e m o r e i n f o on Mr. Rose.

    illustration by Brendan Burford


  6. God is Not the Creator

    Richard Alleyne in the Telegraph writes:

    Professor Ellen van Wolde, a respected Old Testament scholar and author, claims the first sentence of Genesis “in the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth” is not a true translation of the Hebrew.

    I don’t think Fundamentalist Christians, Nonfundamentalist Christians, or Non-Christians would care. Anyone who has made their mind up on that matter will not be changed by this historically important but practically superficial revelation if true. Already in the Bible is firm on not eating shrimp and sound advice on what to do if the master you sold your daughter to takes another wife. As the Bible is a large work with contradictions allowing followers to pick-and-choose the parts they like no new translation would change their beliefs.

    Reminds me of a corny joke in the book House of Leaves:

    One day, two monks were in the vaults of the monastery going through the old scrolls.

    “You see, there are the originals,” said the first monk. “All the new scrolls were copied from these.”

    “Can I see one?”

    “Sure. This is one outlines the rules for monkdom–” All of a sudden, the monk’s face turns white and he falls to his knees.

    “What? What does it say?”

    “Celebrate. IT SAYS CELEBRATE!”


  7. Manners are the Weapon

    crowd_apehand

    Last week’s pop science debut of the remains of the early hominid species Ardipithecus ramidus was notable for a variety of reason’s, not the least of which was the secrecy and slow, careful approach of the scientists involved, so different from the half-baked, chuck out speculation for the slavering masses approach of so much of what crops up in my internet drain trap.  I particularly liked Carl Zimmer‘s summary of the findings, with this paragraph catching my eye:


    White and his colleagues  found so many teeth of different Ardipithecus individuals that they could compare male and female canines with some confidence. The male teeth turn out to be surprisingly blunted. This result suggests that hominids shifted away from a typical ape social structure early in our ancestry. If this was a result of males forming long-term bonds with females and helping raise young, this shift was able to occur while hominids were still living a very ape-like life. Ardipithecus existed about 2 million years before the oldest evidence of stone tools, suggesting that technology was not the trigger for the evolution of nice hominid guys.

    Paleoanthropologists and their ilk can only work with what they dig up and so quite often charting prehistory can be a little too reliant on tracing the minutia of stones tools and other artifacts, reducing our evolution to a technological arms race that sorted out the killer apes with the best kill sticks and honey diggers.

    But what fascinates me are the inferences into social structure and group relations which I regard as a type of technology in its own right, even more more important to discerning why humans have been so prosperous in a world they are seemingly physically unprepared to thrive in.  A fire can keep you warm but so can rules governing the cooperation of individuals and acceptable norms of contact and exchange.

    Social structure should to be regarded as a technology with profound effects on evolutionary adaptation.  The way we relate to each other in a group is a construct and one that is passed on intact from generation to generation even as outside pressures prompt innovation in its design.  Much as the technique of flint-napping was passed down an refined–yielding meat and defense, fueling population growth and fostering group stability–prodding and bending the ties that bind any two or more humans into a coherent structure that underpins a culture determines the fate of each unit of humanity, both in competition against the elements and against other groups of humans.

    In short, some societies work and some don’t.  Those poorly configured prototypes of how a band of humans should treat each other reap destruction and stumble off into the cliche of cliches, the dustbin of history.  Jared Diamond has a better rap about that than me.

    The lesson to take from this is neither conservative nor progressive.  Yes, this indicates that our social structure is a vital thing that has brought us very far, protecting us from much uncertainty.  So don’t break it, right?

    But still, where would we be without innovations to it?  In the forest with our highly specialized rituals and mores about picking fleas off each others’ backs.  Instead, we’re riding the exponential upstroke of unprecedented connectivity, allowing cultures to meet, mix, exchange and clash like never before.  I’m not telling you anything new here.  You saw the commercial for this back when they still called it the Information Superhighway.

    And so, reading about the ancient teeth of a long-extinct evolutionary cousin has me in awe of what millions of years of figuring out who eats what and when and who sleeps with who has wrought.

    It strikes me that this process has never been entirely peaceful or without uncertainty and often our manners and social rules have been born of far more bloodshed than the usually just annoying culture wars we Americans seem to fixate on over who eats what and who sleeps with whom.  While the random spots where these conflicts burst into violence and hateful breaches of civility make me recoil in disgust, so far the body count has nothing on, say, the Protestant Reformation or European contact with the inhabitants of the Americas.

    What I’m getting at is that while relations between genders, ages, cultures, classes and competing perceptions of reality are artificial constructs, they’re also the code of a society’s operating system.  That code is rapidly forking and millions out there are debugging it everyday.  Some of these will be dead-ends.  (How many versions of Linux are we up to these days?)  But certain codes of tolerance, order and patience at the center of modernity have so far kept this exchange thriving.  This is the promise of our connected future and something to take pride in as a citizen of the world right now.  Be bold, but know what’s worth keeping.


  8. Terra Infirma: Republic of Mainz

    Wappen_mainz_napoleon

    If I were pressed to come up with a guiding principle for my curiosity about the ungainly beast commonly called ‘History’, it’d be that history has margins and a good amount of the interesting stuff is scribbled there, though hastily erased.  Hence, my interest in what could be called ‘ephemeral places,’ that is, geographic entities whose existence was brief, disputed or is often overlooked.

    Here’s a softball: a German democratic state that existed for less than four months in the late 1700s.  The Republic of Mainz was created by a counterattack of the free French army against the Prussians and Austrians, driving out Mainz’s ruler and leading the way tothe first democratically-elected parliament in Germany.

    Like many other statelets allied and/or established by revolutionary France, Mainz soon got trounced by the re-invading forces of the old order, finally being completely snuffed out in July 1793.

    So it goes, but what piques my interest in this brief flash of a republic is what it must have been like to be breathing in those heady Jacobin fumes rolling in over the border in the wake of every big man of the Church-Monarch syndicate taking to their heels.  What a microculture!  Living in an entirely experimental way, figuring out how life works out of the suddenly evaporated old order, first within the borders of the Mainz Republic and then finally just withing the walls of the besieged stronghold of Mainz.

    And all this, never mentioned–probably because it was the sort of thing that gave East German intellectuals a hard-on– in my high school tour of the French Revolution, best summed up as “THANK GOD THAT ENDED!!! THEY WERE RUNNING OUT OF PLACES TO PUT THE SEVERED HEADS!!!”

    image via wikipedia


  9. For Writers/Obsessives: Names and Weather

    In the realm of fiction, the concept of ‘plausibility’ is a tricky little bastard.  Unless you’re writing about dimensionless plasma dragons beyond all mortal physics and continuity, it’s going to be a sticky wicket to lie just right so that your reader swallows it while still being swept away in the unique fantasy world you’ve crafted.

    Even real life often comes off unlikely on the page.  Who among us young, shiftless, creative types has not tried to shoehorn into a plot some personally lived-through story that began with neutral spirits and come away muttering “Naw…. bullshit”?

    As I said, a sticky wicket.  I’ll say it again if pressed.

    Point being, it’s important to give some air of real life to your stories by recreating the milieu they take place in.  Character and setting greatly factor into this.  A couple of resources for this I came across tonight:

    Weather History: The Weather Underground kindly provides historical weather information.  Punch in city, state (or zipcode or airport code) and the date you’re looking for and they’ve got what the weather was like clear back to the 1940s.  This is clutch for scenarios which integrate historical events.  Never again begin your lone gunman love story in Dealy Plaza with “It was a dark and stormy night…”

    Popular Names Since 1879: Sure, everyone is named Jaden or Braden or UltraPeanut these days but naming an old guy ‘Tyler’ is going to fall flat and drag your story down with it.  Look up the top 200 from the approximate date of birth of your characters and pull from there.  It all feels less stalkery than combing through friends’ Facebook friends.

    Both resources are fairly U.S.-centric but, well, tough luck, Nigel.  Post what you use that delivers more Basils and rainfall over Slough in the comments.