Monday, December 27, 2010

New US Polling Results on Evolution: What Do They Mean?

• Nearly eighty percent of Americans believe God played a role in the development of the human species.
• More than fifty percent of Americans believe in evolution.
• Only sixteen percent of Americans really understand and believe in evolution.

All of these are reasonable interpretations of the latest Gallup poll on American attitudes toward evolution, which, incidentally, have not markedly changed in the last generation.

Is the glass half-empty or half-full? Well, that may depend on how desperate you are for good news.

Gallup headlined its report with the negative, but put a sugar cube at the bottom of the bitter cup of tea, i.e. in the subtitle:
Four in 10 Americans Believe in Strict Creationism
Belief in evolutionary origins of humans slowly rising, however
by Frank Newport

PRINCETON, NJ -- Four in 10 Americans, slightly fewer today than in years past, believe God created humans in their present form about 10,000 years ago. Thirty-eight percent believe God guided a process by which humans developed over millions of years from less advanced life forms, while 16%, up slightly from years past, believe humans developed over millions of years, without God's involvement. (full story, with numbers and graphs)
By contrast, veteran skeptic Michael Shermer simply tweeted his satisfaction, "New Gallup poll shows acceptance of evolution increasing!" and cited a post by the National Center for Science Education, which had likewise led with the positive. Maybe that was because he had also just rejoiced at the fifth anniversary of the Kitzmiller v. Dover Board of Education case, which had dealt a blow to the attempt to sneak cretinism creationism through the back door of the schools by teaching "intelligent design."

The increase is indeed slight: up from 14 percent in 2008 (the low was 9 percent in 1982 and 1999, the average, just over 11 percent from 1982 through 2007). Maybe I'm just an inveterate pessimist, but—stop to think about this—we're still at 16 percent!. For me, the poll reveals the sobering truth that only about one in six Americans believes in the universally acknowledged scientific explanation for the development of life on our planet. Rejecting the "theory of evolution" is only slightly less scary than rejecting the "theory of gravitation."  (Maybe I should have said the glass was only one-sixth full.)

That forty percent of Americans reject the most basic evidence of the archaeological (not to mention, fossil and astrophysical) record is astounding but no longer surprising, if I may put it that way. After all, 79 percent of us believe in miracles, and 62 percent believe in the devil.

Over at Archaeology magazine, scholars are debating (and rejecting) the thesis that a comet's collision with the earth caused mass extinctions—and the disappearance of the early human "Clovis culture" (named for the site in New Mexico where distinctive and sophisticated stone tools were found).  That happened 12,900 years ago. According to nearly half of our population, then, these sophisticated ancestors cannot have existed. And what about all the whack jobs (regularly featured on the History Channel, alas), who insist on the existence of a great, amazingly sophisticated, vanished civilization—so utterly vanished, in fact, that it left behind not a document and not a pot shard, in short, not any of the usual material traces of a civilization—and instead (how, then ??) only the message for posterity that it had been, well, really smart and really special. The adherents all claim that this mysterious disappearing act took place around 12,000 years ago. Even this crackpot theory would seem to become an impossibility for believers in recent human origins.The question, then, is: are we dealing with the same nuts, or is this a case of mixed nuts?

Personally, I was most intrigued by the statistic that "Thirty-eight percent believe God guided a process by which humans developed over millions of years from less advanced life forms." It's not surprising. The mockery of all but the most unforgiving and self-congratulatory atheists notwithstanding, it is well known that large numbers of religious people in the west believe in evolution in the sense that they acknowledge some of its key premises, at least as concerns starting assumptions and consequences:  a very ancient earth and the development of more complex life forms—including humans (this is crucial)—from simpler ones. The Papacy accepts this (1, 2). The Chief Rabbi of England accepts this (1, 2). Mainstream American Protestant theologians accept this.

The question is: is that really belief in evolution?  Strictly speaking (which should be the only manner of speaking about science): no, or at least, not necessarily.  Evolution is an entirely natural process, requiring and allowing no supernatural intervention. The essence is the appearance and preservation of advantageous chance mutations. Chance and nature are the key: the changes occur by chance, and on the genetic level (this is the mechanism that Darwin could not yet explain).  Useful changes are retained in the evolutionary process to the extent that they render the possessor more adaptable, better able to survive.

Unfortunately, we'd really need to drill down deeper than the questions allow. It all really depends on what "guided" means.  There are two possibilities. If the thirty-eight percent really believe that "God guided" the process of evolution from the start in any meaningful sense, such as "intelligent design," or intervened at any point, then that's just hogwash from a scientific point of view (and not even theologically justifiable in some cases). If, by contrast, these respondents in effect adopt something closer to a deist position whereby a supreme being set the processes of natural law in motion at the start of time and thereafter refrained from meddling (again: without any specific intended outcome), then that's somewhat different. Science cannot really address that possibility, for evolution is more concerned with the processes, mechanisms, and results.  A concept of God as merely first cause would, in theory, allow for the scientific process of evolution to unfold. Whether such a notion is scientifically tenable, and what a God confined to that domain would imply for many traditional religions, those are another matter.

So, whether the 38 percent are closer to the 40 percent or the 16 percent is the key question: Do 78 percent of Americans reject or fail to understand evolution? (coincidentally or otherwise, a figure close to that of the 82 percent that believe in God) Or can we instead say that 54 percent of Americans accept evolution?

Bottom line:  We have overcome some of our deepest societal barriers and taboos. We have elected a black president.  We have (in Massachusetts and a few other states) recognized the full range of gay rights, including marriage (42 percent of Americans now accept it). We have, most recently, eliminated discrimination against gays in the military (77 percent of Americans support that). And yet, we shy away from embracing the simple, overwhelmingly demonstrated, objective truths of nature and science.

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Saturday, December 25, 2010

Last Service at Historic North Amherst Church (preliminary report)

Christmas Eve:  The historic 1826 North Amherst Church held its final service tonight.

parishioners and well-wishers leave the sanctuary
 I'll have a more detailed report soon, but reporters from WWLP Channel 22 in Springfield were there,

and interviewed attendees before and after the service for this segment.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Chrismanorah, Hanukkah Bush, and Other Holiday Hybrids

Slightly modified from from a piece from the vaults:

Although the modern reader could be forgiven for interpreting the image of the menorah morphing into the Christmas tree as some sort of cutesy multiculturalism in this age of Chrismukkah, the reality is rather different--though there is a connection.

As an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Berlin from 2005 explained, the concept goes back over a century to a time when increasingly assimilated German Jews appropriated Christmas celebrations in their own secular manner. (The original term was Weihnukkah, of which Chrismukkah is just an anglicization.)

In recent decades, the term has become respectable--half-serious and half-humorous--and taken on a life of its own.

This image of the menorah evolving into the Christmas tree here comes from a postcard sold by the Museum, and the original intent was critical rather than celebratory. The caption reads:
"Darwinian: Zionist caricature on assimilation, from the periodical, 'Schlemiel' (1904)"
It seems bitterly and tragically prescient now, given that precisely these most assimilated and patriotic German Jews were the first to fall victim to the Nazis.

Certainly, issues of identity, assimilation, and faith are important and still stir personal and political passions.  All the more reason, then, to appreciate the value of humor.

In any event, greetings of the season on whichever holiday(s) you happen to be celebrating.

Museums and Archaeology: From Pillage to Partnership

  • An intriguing idea: given that many museums--notably and recently, the Getty, for example--have been caught dealing in stolen goods or artifacts of dubious provenance, the author suggests that museums once again undertake their own archaeological expeditions in search of items for collections. In the bad old days, of course, it was done through sheer hubris, colonialism, and pillage. Nowadays, with laws protecting cultural patrimony and regulating exports in place, such undertakings would occur in partnership with local authorities. In a truly collaborative relationship, both parties would benefit.
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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

How Rigorous Are Anthropology and Physics? Hard to Know

What makes a doctrine or field "scientific"?
Writing in Scientific American, John Horgan observes:
"Two recent science stories, one in anthropology and the other in physics, have me wondering which field is "hard" and which "soft.""
The logic:
1) The American Anthropological Association drops "science" from mission statement, whereupon some members protested.
2) In the meantime, physics, once that "hardest" of disciplines, whose mathematical foundations have since Newton defined what it means to be "scientific," becomes ever more speculative, venturing "beyond the bounds of measurable reality," as evidenced by the recent debate over colliding black holes as the source of the cosmic background radiation.
Much food for thought in a brief piece.
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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Boston Tea Party update

So, just when did people start calling it the "Tea Party"? 1805?  J.L. Bell, who pursued the mystery of David Kinnison's alleged account of the incident, now turns his detective skills from the thing to the name.  Follow the quest at Boston 1775.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Two December Amherst Literary Women's Birthdays: Emily Dickinson and Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson

Today is the birthday of Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson (Deerfield, 1830-Amherst, 1917). Susan married Emily Dickinson's brother Austin in 1856, and the couple lived and raised a family in the newly built Evergreens, next to the Dickinson family Homestead, where Emily resided for the remainder of her life.  Although an intellectual in her own right, and a central figure in Amherst cultural life (she played hostess to figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe), Susan has been overshadowed by the more dynamic and self-promoting Mabel Loomis Todd, with whom Austin carried on a notorious thirteen-year affair. 

One gets a sense of Susan's personality and style from the manuscript, "Annals of the Evergreens" (Harvard University Library), which Martha Nell Smith, who has written extensively on the author, has posted online.  Among my favorite passages are the descriptions of the difference in the rhythms and customs of life in mid-nineteenth-century Amherst and Northampton.


Turning over pages of The History of The Meadow City recently, I was freshly impressed with the chapter on their past social life written by Mrs Emerson of Amherst; who by her temperament, talent, ancestry and social gift was especially fitted to draw the fascinating picture. The social life of Amherst two generations ago was no less unique in grace and simplicity, although differing always from her rival of those days across the river quite markedly in certain usages social habits held contraband by piety and conscience in Amherst, -- usages rather more native to the larger town with its more courtly traditions; and as was natural to the "shire" town touching the world through more cosmopolitan channels than our own. The harmless bores of cards and dancing, common there according to Mrs Emerson, were not even so much as mentioned long after they were common in Amherst as suitable nay possible for ? beings ? ? ? ?

Bless Northampton! If there has been jealousy between us we all boast of her now when we get far enough away from home. Fifty years ago and more I could have shown you, dear moderns, in the small circle of Amherst, -- for there was but one then, -- as beautiful girls, -- or young ladies as they were then called, -- as ever graced any drawing room. As accomplished well poised matrons, as chivalric young men, -- men both old and young as full of high purpose and generous accomplishment as could be found in any town, either university or commercial.

Under President Humphrey and also under President Hitchcock society was one; the village being smaller than now, was represented at all the college "levees" as the receptions were then called, and entered warmly into all the college affairs, lectures and literary occasions. (1)

Northampton! How jealous we were of her as our men trooped to to her banks when for years we had none and the ladies pressed to her dress-makers & milliners or hung over the counter at Stoddard & Lathrops in hopes of some more distinctive elegance than Sweetser & Cutler could offer from their repertoires of sober merinos & good quality of black silk - we felt sure the college was more than bank or Court House and gradually forgave her smartness and praised her beauty. Oh, scimitar of Fate she has more colleges than she can manage to day but they are only womens and we are still amiable! (2)
The occasion of Susan's birthday provides me with a chance to make amends for an omission, as I was ill on the occasion of Emily's birthday, December 10, and thus fell behind in posting.

The Dickinson Museum celebrated the poet's birthday—the 180th, this time—with its traditional open house, though with a slight difference. By custom, the first guests up to the number of the anniversary year have received the gift of a rose sponsored by an anonymous donor. The custom ends this year, but we are compensated by learning the identity of the donor: it turns out that it is retired physicist James Fraser of Acton. As he told the Boston Globe, he happened upon Dickinson's poems almost by accident and eventually got hooked.  Already as a teenager, he found, "There was something about her poems that was a little different."  Much later, a biography pulled him in more deeply.
"My interest just sort of snowballed from there,” he said. He visited the Dickinson house, joined the Emily Dickinson International Society, and initiated the annual gift. This month’s open house and gift of roses was the last of its kind. Times change and so should birthday celebrations, Fraser said. Next year’s observance is a mystery for now.
Fraser in the Homestead with actress and Honorary Museum Board Chair Julie Harris (the Republican)
it is really entirely fitting. I've known Jim for a number of years, and he is the kind of supporter that all such cultural institutions need.  Literature and literary-historical sites remain alive when they speak not just to and for academics, but also to the general public.  One of the most fascinating things about Dickinson, to my mind, is that she is at once one of the most cerebral and difficult of poets, yet also the one who, more than almost any other in American literature, engages all readers on all levels. Somehow, her labyrinthine language and the mystery of her meaning draw people in rather than intimidate them and keep them beyond the threshold.  Fraser embodies the classic but endangered ideal of the humanist-scientist, equally at home in the library and the laboratory. His annual and anonymous gift has, these past thirteen years, quite literally helped to draw people—residents and tourists alike—into the world of Emily Dickinson.

The births of both Emily Dickinson and her friend, Helen Hunt Jackson (née Fiske; profile on this site here), in 1830 are recorded in one of the unassuming treasures of the Jones Library Special Collections here in Amherst.  One Dr. Isaac G. Cutler kept a record of the pregnancies—1276 births; 60 stillborn—at which he had assisted from 1805 to 1833, the year before his death.

Dr. Cutler's book, displayed in the gallery of Jones Library Special Collections
The two births appear on the same page:  Helen Fiske's entry is fourth from the top of the right-hand page, and Emily Dickinson's, tenth from the bottom.The title of the document—"List of Women Delivered by I.G.C."—notwithstanding, births were recorded only under the name of the father. 

As chance would also have it, the lives of the three women converged ever more closely toward the end of Dickinson's life.  In 1882, the poet wrote to Susan,"With the exception of Shakespeare, you have told me of more knowledge than any one living. To say that sincerely is strange praise." In late 1884, Jackson asked Dickinson to "make me your literary legatee & executor."  It was not to be.  She died in 1885, followed by Emily Dickinson in 1886.  As the Dickinson Museum explains, "After the poet's death, her sister Lavinia asked Susan to edit the poems for publication. Lavinia soon grew impatient with Susan's slow editorial pace, however, and transferred the poems into the hands of Mabel Loomis Todd, who published three volumes during the 1890s with the aid of Thomas Wentworth Higginson." The notoriously complex history of the publication and disposition of the manuscripts haunts scholars to this day.

Emily, Lavinia, and Susan Dickinson, as well as Helen Hunt Jackson and Mabel Loomis Todd, are depicted on the Amherst Community History Mural in the 1730 West Cemetery.

 Emily Dickinson (far left), Lavinia Dickinson (with cat),
Helen Hunt Jackson (in purple dress),
Mabel Loomis Todd (in light blue dress, with hat),
Susan Dickinson (right, in deep blue dress, holding son, Gilbert)
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ah, paperwork

Slogging through those papers.

18 December 1794: Charles Bulfinch Obtains Mortgage (and why we should care)

So a fellow, even an important architect—Bulfinch went on to design the Capitol in Washington—got a mortgage: what makes that historically noteworthy? A good question.  Sometimes, of course, MassMoments has to stretch a bit when finding a date to match a person's achievement, but it makes a reasonable case here. As it explains, the importance was several-fold:
On this day in 1794, Boston architect Charles Bulfinch obtained a mortgage for the house he had recently designed and built for his family. The 31-year-old Bulfinch had donated so many plans for city churches, monuments, and public buildings that the architect seemed to be single-handedly re-creating his hometown as a place of classical beauty. A bad investment eventually sent Bulfinch to debtors' prison.
As the article further explains, in 1794, Bulfinch undertook a major Boston project just as the economy tanked:
The result was bankruptcy and time in debtors' prison. The experience forced him, as his wife later said, to make "Architecture his business, as it had been his pleasure."
His career was the more noteworthy as there had been no formal training available to aspiring architects:
There was no such thing as an architectural profession in eighteenth-century America. A few well-educated, wealthy amateurs designed their own homes, but most buildings were the work of men who followed, or occasionally adapted, traditional practices.
Bulfinch acquired his knowledge of the craft from study and travel in Europe, returning with a pronounced neo-Classical taste, which he proceeded to implement in his many projects:
Bulfinch had served on the Board of Selectmen since 1791 and had been active in improving city services and government. Recognizing that he was struggling financially, in 1799 a grateful citizenry elected him chairman and granted him a yearly salary.
For the next two decades, Bulfinch was the moving force behind the beautification of Boston. He turned the Common into a park, laid out plans for Boston Neck and South Boston, and designed an almshouse, a courthouse, a prison, a hospital, churches, schools, and numerous private homes. His crowning achievement was the design for the new State House on Beacon Hill, completed in 1798.
Here, the State House in an 1837 image from a German topographical work:

Here, the State House today:

Saturday, December 18, 2010

16 December 1773: Boston Tea Party (and just how is that related to its namesake today?)

Yes, the anniversary of the famous, original "Boston Tea Party," when riled-up Massachusetts colonists protested against the Tea Act by dumping tea into Boston Harbor, is upon us again. The protests were about policy, not the amount of the tax, as such.  Here is what allegedly happened that night:
They (the Lebanon Club) determined, whether assisted or not, to destroy the tea at all hazards. They repaired to Boston, where they were joined by others; and twenty-four, disguised as Indians, hastened on board, twelve armed with muskets and bayonets, the rest with tomahawks and clubs, having first agreed, whatever might be the result, to stand by each other to the last, and that the first man who faltered should be knocked on the head and thrown over with the tea.

They expected to have a fight, and did not doubt that an effort would be made for their arrest. “But” (in the language of the old man) “we cared no more for our lives than three straws, and determined to throw the tea overboard. We were all captains, and every one commanded himself.” They pledged themselves in no event, while it should be dangerous to do so, to reveal the names of the party—a pledge which was faithfully observed until the war of the Revolution was brought to a successful issue.
Thus, David Kinnison's first-hand account, published in 1850.  Who was he? Can we trust him?  What is distinctive or problematic about his reminiscences?  The document comes from Boston 1775, where J. L. Bell answers those questions and offers his characteristically thorough annual coverage of the Tea Party, as such, including, most recently:
• Dec. 14: "It's Tea Party Season!" (a list of events)
• Dec. 15: "The Revolution May Have Been Astroturfed," a sort of a review of a review essay by Caleb Crain ("Tea and Antipathy") that appeared in the New Yorker, including reflections on the historiography and the way that historians today move between scholarly and popular modes of communication, such as blogs
• Dec. 16: "Why Parliament Kept the Tea Tax"
• Dec. 17:  "David Kinnison:  The Last Survivor?" on how the self-proclaimed last surviving participant became a celebrity in mid-nineteenth-century America
• Dec. 18:  "David Kinnison's Tea Party": excepts from his account, published in 1850, along with commentary and analysis
• promised for Dec. 19: further considerations on the accuracy of Mr. Kinnison's account.
[Dec. 19] And, here's that update. Verdict: "David Kinnison: 'not credible.'" The guy was a fraud. And nice irony, in urging MassMoments to correct its entry, Bell notes that it cites a source that in fact reveal's Kinnison's fraud.  Well played, Mr. Bell. Whoops, MassMoments.
Given that masses of malcontents have taken up the "tea party" label again in the age of President Obama, it was not surprising that some of the anniversary coverage this year focused on the similarities or differences between the two movements.

NPR offered links to both straight historical information and an earlier comparative political analysis:
At the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, for instance, people call in looking for information about the present-day Tea Party.

The ships and museum, says spokesperson Shawn P. Ford, are tourist attractions that commemorate the event of Dec. 16, 1773 — when men, disguised as Mohawk Indians, tossed crates of British tea into Boston Harbor to protest the royal government's tea tax.

Today's Tea Party, Ford says, "has nothing to do with us. When I do get calls about the Tea Party movement, it is a simple misunderstanding."

Misunderstanding, yes. Simple, not always. Kathy Laughlin makes sure her students know the difference. Laughlin, who teaches Advanced Placement U.S. history at William Byrd High School in Vinton, Va., says she has been teaching her students about the Boston Tea Party as part of a "Road to Revolution unit" this school year.

She pre-empted questions about the contemporary Tea Party. "I explained that the current movement deals with big government and excess taxes much like the colonials did, but that the colonials truly had no representation in the legislature that was instituting their taxes," Laughlin says.

Laughlin goes on to explain to her students that today's Tea Partiers have representation; they are just not pleased with the representatives. "Therefore," she says, "the present movement's goal is to unseat incumbents and elect ultra-conservative members to congress.
. . . . . . . . . .
There is one valid point of comparison between today's Tea Partiers and the 18th-century Revolutionaries, says Jack Rakove, a professor of American history at Stanford University and author of several critically acclaimed books on the Revolutionary era.

The Tea Act of 1773 that sparked the Boston Tea Party, Rakove says, was born of the crown's collusion with corporate Britain — the East India Trading Co.

So if Tea Partiers are up in arms over the American government being in cahoots with the corporate world — say, over the Bush and Obama administrations' handling of the Troubled Assets Relief Program that bailed out many faltering financial institutions — the present-day dismay would have legitimate roots in the ire of yesteryear. "That wouldn't be implausible," Rakove says.

But where the comparison between Now and Then breaks down, says Rakove, echoing high school teacher Laughlin, "is the basic issue of representation."

Tea Partiers today have representation in government, Rakove says. The Boston Tea Party participants did not.

The Boston Tea Party was staged in response to the British Parliament handing down laws and meting out taxes willy-nilly to colonists who had no vote, no say-so in their own destiny. "That was the gut issue of the American Revolution."

But still, the debate is being played out in classrooms and in Google searches across the country — and at the Boston Tea Party museum in Boston. The museum, which is under renovation, is scheduled to reopen in the summer of 2011. "As of this moment and time," says Ford, the museum spokesperson, "we have no plans to incorporate the Tea Party movement in any of our interpretations."
Here in the Happy Valley, we actually dealt with the modern rather than historical "tea party" this past week.  The area, including our Five College Consortium, has a reputation for being dominated by leftist political views.  There's nothing wrong with that, of course (or, with a conservative bent, for that matter), provided it does not compromise intellectual integrity or academic freedom.  Some of us have been having a lot of discussions about this sort of thing of late, for it often seems that there is a kind of unspoken orthodoxy. Some faculty and students simply cannot conceive that someone of intelligence and moral character could hold an opposing view on issue x, y, or z—mind you, we're not talking about views that are totally beyond the pale, such as white supremacism, but simply a variant position on any given political issue of the day.  That's not healthy in itself, and it certainly won't help already sheltered students to make it in the real world.  (It is typified in the sorts of inane conversations I used to have. Colleague:  "Well, I don't know anyone who voted for George W. Bush!" I: "Uh, well, that's nice, but more than half the electorate nonetheless did.")

I was therefore pleasantly surprised to see that Mount Holyoke College (which, along with Smith, is one of two women's colleges in the consortium) invited Seattle activist Keli Carender, organizer of the first tea party protest in 2009, to give a major public lecture, "The New Discontent: The Tea Party Movement from the Ground Up." The sponsor was the Weissman Center for Leadership, whose mission is to "provide substantial resources to students as they become effective agents of change in their chosen professions and communities," preparing them to "understand better the ways in which women can and do take action and create positive change in the world."

Director James Harold gushed, 
We are very excited to have Ms. Carender at the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts.  She illustrates the innovative ways in which women leaders can change the world. We welcome a serious discussion of the political positions of the Tea Party movement, which promises to greatly shape the future of conservative politics in this country.
Certainly, one is entitled to ask whether this invitation is not another case of liberal pandering or bending over backwards to appear open-minded—the more so, as Carender, the pierced, tattooed Seattle stand-up comic, is, unlike many Republican activists, an easy cultural fit here, her politics aside (1, 2). Still, there is no question that the event itself is a legitimate one and the topic a fit one for political analysis and open debate.  There were protests, but against Carender's ideas, rather than her presence.  Students respectfully debated her in a seminar and at the lecture. That is exactly as it should be.

In any case, anyone is free to go or not to go, as she or he chooses. I myself did not face that excruciating dilemma, for I was at the Garrison Keillor benefit performance for the Emily Dickinson Museum (post to follow soon) here in Amherst.

Given a choice between the Seattle founder of a national political movement who questions global warming, mocks welfare recipients, and thinks President Obama is a socialist, and a reclusive New England iconoclast who stayed close to home, meditated on art and the human condition, and wrote for herself and friends, I know which one for me will in the long run better represent "the ways in which women can and do take action and create positive change in the world."

To each his (or her) own.  As Emily said (Fr. 888):
When I have seen the Sun emerge
From His amazing House -
And leave a Day at every Door
A Deed, in every place -

Without the incident of Fame
Or accident of Noise -
The Earth has seemed to me a Drum,
Pursued of little Boys
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Tevis Kimball new acting director of Jones Library

One of the open questions at the retirement celebration in honor of outgoing Jones Library Director Bonnie Isman was that of succession. Although the trustees had agreed to seek an interim director rather than attempt to fill the position permanently on short notice, that plan ran into a roadblock when two of the candidates dropped out, apparently because they concluded it was too difficult to relocate for a temporary position.

Writing in the Republican, Diane Lederman reports on the solution:
AMHERST - The Jones Library Board of Trustees has appointed Tevis Kimball, curator of special collections at the library, as acting director until a permanent director is found.

Long-time director Library Director Bonnie J. Isman left Dec. 10 after 30 years. The trustees had planned to interview two candidates for the interim position but both withdrew their names. They had hoped to have hired an interim director before Isman departed.

Kimball will spend about one fifth of her time in special collections and the remainder as director, said library trustee Christopher J. Hoffmann. (read the rest)
Larry Kelley actually ran the story on his blog four days ago, when the announcement came out. His piece moreover includes the text of a statement by Kimball.

I've worked with Tevis on historic preservation issues:  a joint project of the Historical Commission and Library is an ongoing document conservation and digitization program, supported with Community Preservation Act funds. She has also been a great help to my classes as I introduce students to historic preservation, local history, and archival research.

Tevis Kimball showing a 19th-century newspaper to my historic preservation class
 An interview that ran in the Amherst Bulletin in 2007 provides an overview of Tevis's interests and the work of Special Collections.

Recent reports

Larry Kelley, "Jones Library has a new (acting) director," Only in the Republic of Amherst, 14 December
Diane Lederman, "Tevis Kimball named acting director of Jones Library in Amherst," Springfield Republican, 18 December
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Season of Light in the Pioneer Valley

To drive along Routes 5 & 10 in South Deerfield is to be confronted with the dominating presence of Yankee Candle Company, and never more so than at the winter holiday season when this somewhat mysteriously popular tourist attraction goes as overboard with decorative lights as it does with everything else.

Returning to any other local destination, but above all, to sleepy, rough-edged North Amherst, is by definition either anti-climactic or calming (depends on your definition of what is attractive).

Cinda Jones's decoration of the Cowls Company offices stands out as the rarity on Route 63.

Just a little bit further north, nearer to my house, the only two decorations are of a different character.

You know you're back in Amherst.
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Hawthorne Farm Project: Secure Against the Natural Elements and Criminal Elements—But Not Public Criticism

I had to miss the public forum on the Hawthorne Farm project last week because I was attending the Garrison Keillor benefit performance for the Emily Dickinson Museum (coverage of that event to follow in a separate post).  I'll have more to say about Hawthorne as I recap some of Amherst's recent historic preservation controversies in the coming weeks.

In a nutshell, though, the story is this:  the Town purchased the approximately seven-acre former Hawthorne farm (1, 2) with Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds authorized at spring annual town meeting. The declared purposes were recreation—first and foremost, playing fields—and exploration of the possibility of affordable housing in the former farmhouse. This fall, the Town, having concluded that affordable housing in the existing structure was not an economically viable option, took out a demolition permit on the house and outbuildings, though insisting that this action was to a large degree pro forma, as it had neither specific plans nor the required funds for such an action (not to mention, for construction of new units). The Historical Commission, after a lengthy formal public hearing and equally lengthy subsequent deliberations, imposed a one-year demolition delay on the house and larger barn and asked the Town for firmer figures on the relative costs of adaptive reuse of the structures versus demolition and new construction for affordable housing. The Historical Commission and Fair Housing Committee plan to request CPA money to fund such a study at next spring's town meeting.  There the matter rests.

The demolition delay hearing revealed two areas of deep concern on the part of residents—abutters, in particular:  dismay at the prospect that the familiar buildings might be demolished, and more generally, a feeling that the public had not been adequately apprised of plans for the property (Town staff reject the latter assertion). The situation was complicated by the fact that the Town had promised an open forum on uses of the property, but for a variety of reasons (interpretations also differ), no such action took place prior to the demolition delay hearing.

The scope of the Historical Commission hearing was limited to the disposition of the structures, so last week's gathering, by contrast, was the first occasion for more wide-ranging debate between citizens and representatives of the Town.  (Scott Merzbach's article—below—summarizes the points of controversy and some of the key statements.) It raised many of the same issues about the buildings, and about the process. In addition, it provided a forum for those who reject the entire premise of the purchase and wish the land could be used for recreational purposes other than playing fields, or even resurrected as a working farm.

Frankly, I expect that those are non-starters:  the Town explicitly stated that it was acquiring the land for purposes of mainly active recreation though with the possibility of integrating various forms of passive or multigenerational recreation into the overall program.  The Open Space and Recreation Plan articulates the priority for playing fields (see, e.g. Sections 7 C and 8.3, 8.7).  However, the topography and presence of wetlands dictate that considerable areas of the parcel would have to be left open, and they could therefore presumably provide space for, say, walking trails, community gardens, and the like as subsidiary uses.  If the Town were interested primarily in open space or agricultural land, as such, then other parcels would have priority, as dictated by the Plan (e.g. sections 8.1, 8.2).  As for farming, this land has not been in active agricultural use for a good many years, and its soils are apparently not of a sufficient quality to merit protection under the high standards of the Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) policy in any case.
Open Space and Conservation Action PlanHawthorne Farm is part of Circle 3
One concern on the part of Town staff was that extended custodianship of an empty property might allow it to suffer from deterioration and vandalism.  As the photos below show, the house and barns have recently been secured against the proverbial natural elements and anti-social elements.  As the forum at the Bangs Center shows, the project is still anything but impervious to criticism. Another public forum is tentatively scheduled for January.

the circa 1780-1830s farmhouse

the circa 1890 barn

the 1967 horse barn

* * *


Scott Merzbach, "Some say soccer fields are a poor use of Hawthorne property," Amherst Bulletin, 17 December
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17 December 1903/1935: Two Dates When Aviation Changed the World (with some thoughts on the Wright Bros., the DC-3, and the personal computer)

Today is the anniversary of the date in 1903 when the Wright brothers famously changed history with "the first powered, controlled, sustained flight" (note:  all the adjectives are important) at Kitty Hawk.

For the occasion, NASA offers a beautiful image of the 1999 replica in a wind tunnel, where the flight characteristics of the craft were analyzed:

As the repository of the nation's collective memory, the Library of Congress gives us a photo of the historic event itself:

We feature a December 17, 1903 photograph of the first powered, controlled, sustained flight by the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Orville Wright is seen at the controls of the machine, while Wilbur Wright, running alongside to balance the airplane, has just released his hold on the forward upright of the right wing. This image from a glass plate negative is but one of some 200 Wright Brothers Negatives which document their successes and failures with their new flying machines. The collection also contains individual portraits and group pictures of the Wright brothers and their family and friends, as well as photos of their homes, other buildings, towns, and landscapes.
The 1903 event is the sort of thing that shows up on every calendar of major historical anniversaries.  Less well known, but hardly less consequential is what happened on that date in 1935. Today is the 107th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' historic flight, but it's also the 75th anniversary of the introduction of the DC-3.

Over at Wired, Autopia provides a handsome tribute to what it rightly calls the machine "largely seen as the airplane to popularize air travel" and "perhaps the best known military transport ever."

The US military ordered over 10,000 of the planes, which (under C-47 and other designations) were the workhorses of World War II but continued to serve as transports and specially modified gunships down through the Vietnam era. In fact, approximately 400 are said to be still in service around the world for purposes ranging from combat to fire-fighting and commuter travel.

To give you an idea of just how significant this aircraft was, think of it in relation to the personal computer (the analogy is meant to be suggestive rather than ruthlessly rigorous).  The DC-3 appeared in 1935, only 32 years after the Wright Brothers' famous flight, and although it was in production for only 11 years, until 1946, it remained in wide use for at least a generation after that.

As chance would have it, just as the last DC-3 was coming off the production line, the computer, stimulated by wartime needs, was really taking off with the announcement of ENIAC, "the first general-purpose electronic computer, in 1946, and the invention of the transistor in 1947.  Some three decades after that figurative "Wright Brothers moment" in computing, we find the breakthroughs to the consumer market—the equivalent of the "DC-3 moment": the founding of Microsoft (1975) and Apple (1976), and the launch of the early personal computers—the Commodore PET 2001, the Apple II, and the Radio Shack TRS-80 (in 1977)—and the development of Intel's 8086 processor (1978).  Those early consumer computers had all of 4 kB RAM.  That's right, no typo: 4, not 40 or 400. (see, e.g., 1, 2, 3)  Now, imagine that those Commodore PET 2001's and Apple II's were still in widespread use at the start of the twenty-first century, and you'd have a sense of the endurance and influence of the DC-3.

As best I can recall, it was in a DC-3 that I, as a child, made my first airplane flight. These planes were so good, so rugged, so reliable, that they were still used on some regional passenger routes down to the 1970s.  Didn't seem like anything special back then.  Now I know better.  Better late than never.  That's one of the advantages of history.
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Friday, December 17, 2010

New Census Data on the Way

Back in April, I noted the national and local effort on behalf of a "complete count" for the US 2010 census.  The results will be out on Tuesday, and the Census Bureau has a handy new interactive map that allows you to view the data.

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13 December 1621: The "Fortune" Sails from Plymouth to England (and why the Pilgrims were neither "socialists" nor "capitalists")

As MassMoments tells the story:
On this day in 1621, the ship Fortune set sail from Plymouth Colony. The arrival of the vessel two weeks earlier — sent by the English investors who had funded the Mayflower colonists— should have been a cause for celebration. But for the Pilgrims, Fortune was poorly named. The ship brought 35 new settlers, but...
It's an important story in its own right, because it tells us what happened after that fabled "first Thanksgiving," and it indicates how difficult the lives of the settlers remained. But it's especially interesting this year because it helps to debunk the trending right-wing myth about the Pilgrims' economic philosophy.

As I noted in the Thanksgiving post: to believe the Tea Party movement and a host of like-minded critics, the Pilgrims began as idealistic (or was it: dogmatic?) "socialists," who agreed to share burdens and benefits equally, starved, saw the error of their ways, and then finally adopted a "capitalist" model based on private property and incentives. Voilà: problem solved, nation prospers, there's still a Massachusetts, in which I can live today. Whew.

There was a lot going on in that corner of Massachusetts in the early seventeenth century, but the character of the various groups and individuals in the Colony and the contractual terms that governed their relations to one another, the sponsoring body, and the homeland go a long way toward explaining the situation in simple historical terms.

As MassMoments reminds us, the Pilgrims first sought refuge in the Netherlands, and then, when dissatisfied with conditions there, decided to venture across the ocean, a move they had never originally contemplated:
But funding an overseas voyage and establishing a colony would be expensive. There were, however, a number of wealthy gentlemen, merchants, and craftsmen in London who believed that there was money to be made from exploiting America's natural resources. What they needed was a base for gathering and shipping furs, timber, fish, and other trade goods. A group of about 70 of these speculators, whom the Separatists called Adventurers, put up the money to transport and provision the colonists; in return, the colonists, or Planters, agreed to live communally, to work for the company, and to ship goods back to England for a period of seven years to repay their debt.

After several aborted attempts, the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth, England, on September 6, 1620. It was bound for the area around Manhattan in the northernmost part what was then Virginia. No one knows whether the ship was blown off course or purposely headed to a location out of the jurisdiction of the Anglican Church, which was established in Virginia. In any case, the Mayflower anchored in Provincetown harbor on November11th. Some of the non-Separatists on board objected that since they had not gone to Virginia, as planned, they were not bound by their work contracts and needed to take orders from no one. After debating the issue, the group agreed "that we should combine together in one body, and to submit to such government and governours, as we should by common consent make and choose." All free adult male passengers signed the historic Mayflower Compact, the first document in the Americas to embrace the democratic principle of majority rule.
Only thanks to the help of Native Americans did they survive in the new land, but the margin was narrow, and they still expected help from home:
But when Fortune sailed into Plymouth harbor on November 10th, it brought only more mouths to feed. While the Planters were grateful for the additional workers, they were dismayed to discover that the men had been sent without provisions. The ship did not even carry food to sustain the crew on the return trip. The Adventurers also sent a letter castigating the Planters for the fact that the Mayflower had arrived in England with an empty hold and demanding that the Fortune return immediately filled with valuable goods.

The colonists complied. For the next six years, they sent sizable shipments, especially of furs, back to England. But the goods yielded far less profit than the Adventurers had anticipated, and as the seven-year mark approached, the colonists were still in debt. Finally, 27 of them pooled their personal resources and paid off the debt. Once free of the requirement to live communally and hold all property in common, the original settlers divided the land into private grants. The era of the "Old Comers" was over. 
So much for the morality tale or conversion narrative propagated by the right-wing ideologues.  News flash: there was no socialism in seventeenth-century New England to abandon.  To begin with, as James and Patricia Deetz point out, the Pilgrims "bridled at this arrangement [for holding property in common], and it had not been resolved in a satisfactory fashion at the time of their departure" (35). In any case, the Pilgrims had yoked their fate to a classical mercantilist undertaking rather than a proto-Bolshevist one.  Scholars still debate the precise place of mercantilism in the history of economic development, but although it was a certainly a commercial undertaking that generated merchant capital, it was not based on a "capitalist mode of production" in the strict sense. Indeed, as Karl Polanyi says, to the extent that mercantilism "thought of markets in a way exactly contrary to market economy" and was more concerned with regulation than commercialization, "there was no difference between mercantilists and feudalists."  So, not only was the original arrangement with the Virginia Company not "socialist":  it would be fairer to say that we are looking back to the sixteenth century then ahead to the nineteenth.  For that matter, even after the dissolution of the agreement, life in the colony was no laissez-faire paradise.

As Eugene Aubrey Stanton observes,
It would seem as it nothing was beyond the concern of the courts—elections, weights and measures, land grants, permits for ordinaries, excuses from military service, public and private purchases and other transactions, the levying of taxes and troops, fines for absence from church meetings, the recording of apprentice and servant indentures, divorce, regulation of prices and wages, the laying out of streets, the reaction against Quakers, and of course criminal trials.
Constant state meddling in all public and private affairs? Wage and price controls? Hardly the Tea Party's cup of tea, one would think.  Remember, these are the people who just got the rather timid health care package that they label "ObamaCare" provisionally declared unconstitutional. (Georgetown law professor Randy Barnett warned that, as a result of the mandate to purchase health insurance, "Americans will be demoted from citizens to subjects."  more: 1, 2 ).

On both sides of the caesura of 1627, then, the Pilgrims lived lives far removed from anything resembling modern laissez-faire capitalism, which lay over the horizon, and did not really exist even in England itself.  Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of the their evolving social and economic arrangements, to pretend that any of this had anything to do with "capitalism" versus "socialism" is either ignorant or disingenuous.  Face it, that argument is a turkey.


The Plymouth Colony Archive Project

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Amherst youngest locale in Commonwealth: "a town of bachelors and bachelorettes"; "a lot of hipsters going around"

Yup, the Boston Globe actually calls us, "a town of bachelors and bachelorettes."  For a moment, I thought, where am I: in a time warp, on a '60s game show? Then I realized that the writers were just being ironic and campy.  The serious lead of the story was that, according to the new census figures, two towns, both in western Massachusetts, and both of whose names begin with "A" are at the opposite ends of the demographic scale: with a median age of 21, Amherst is the youngest, and Alford, the oldest.

The population of Alford is only 507:
But it has retirees, and it has them in spades, town officials said, giving Alford the oldest median age in the state, 60.5.

The median age in Massachusetts is 38.5 years, according to census data released yesterday.

“The age of the existing residents is older,’’ said Charles Ketchen, 66, chairman of the Alford Board of Selectmen.
Of course that sounds like cheating (and bad science) to me. "[E]xisting residents"?? Even here, in quirky Amherst, we still count only the living. Otherwise, we sure as hell wouldn't be the youngest town.
With students from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Amherst College, and Hampshire College making up about one-third of the town’s population, and many young families choosing to settle in the area, it comes as no great shock that the median age skews young, said John Musante, Amherst town manager.

The town does make an effort to cater to a broad range of ages, though, with restaurants and museums meant for young and old, he said.

“It’s no surprise, I guess, that we would fall into that category,’’ Musante said. “We’re a vibrant college community.’’

Though, at 48, “I didn’t contribute to that stat,’’ he added, laughing.
The accompanying links are provide a wealth of data, and the accompanying video is a hoot.  An interviewer asks passers-by in Boston which Bay State locale has the most unmarried men and women.  Some of the reactions—once respondents learn, to their surprise, that we are the singles capital of the Commonwealth:
• "Tells me that they should get out more?"

• "Move to Boston, maybe, and they wouldn't be single anymore?"

• Q:  "Are you single yourself?"
  A: "No."
  Q: "Okay, so, do you plan on moving to Amherst anytime soon?"
  A: "No." (laughing)
At least she didn't say it was because of the cannibals (though it turned out that the movie got made in Greenfield, in any case).

But enjoy and judge for yourself.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A “Star” in “Paradise”: Amherst and the Commonwealth Honor Jones Library Director Bonnie Isman

The normally cold and dowdy “large meeting room” at the Jones Library became a warmer space in all regards last Tuesday evening, as town residents and well-wishers from around the Commonwealth gathered to honor retiring Library Director Bonnie Isman. With the harsh fluorescent ceiling lights turned off in favor of standing lamps and small festive lights, and the customary serried ranks of folding chairs removed so that guests could sit in smaller, more intimate groups or circulate between punch bowl and hors d'oeuvres, the room provided a surprisingly congenial setting for public remarks and private conversation. Longtime president of the Friends of the Jones Library Katie George coordinated and emceed the ceremony.

Speaking on behalf of the state legislature, Rep. Ellen Story, holding a large blue portfolio, made a point of explaining that she was presenting Isman with “a resolution—not a mere citation” of the sort so often offered to local notables and organizations. This was a much rarer and more significant testimonial.

Story, Isman
Speaking in her own words, she praised Isman as “an absolute treasure” “who has made the Library the heart of the town, the beating heart of the town.” “We couldn’t have had anyone better,” she declared, praising Isman as a “mentor and friend.”

Head of the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners Rob Maier, who made a special trip from Boston for the occasion, added the warm praise of his professional body for the achievements of Isman, who had held a number of statewide posts, including the presidency of the Massachusetts Library Association.

Local author, journalist, and former longtime Jones Library Trustee Chair Cheryl Wilson echoed the praise of Story and Maier and delivered the most extended remarks of the evening.

l. to r.: Isman, WIlson, Maier
“Bonnie Isman has been, as Ellen said, the heart of the Library.” Wilson singled out three representative achievements for particular praise. As Adult Services librarian early in her career, Isman started the “First Call for Help” direct information service for individuals and families unsure of where to turn for assistance in crisis situations. She was one of the seven signers for the application to automate cataloguing in western Massachusetts, which led to the Central/Western Massachusetts Automation for Resource Sharing library network (C/W MARS). Isman was “in at the very base” of these efforts and went on to serve as President of the Board as well as President and Chair of the Board of the Western Massachusetts Regional Library System (WMRLS). (At the state level, Isman served as President of the Massachusetts Library Association.) Finally, she said, Isman took her passion for and knowledge of the profession to the wider world, serving on missions to assist struggling libraries in locales as distant as the Republic of Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.

Those ventures abroad were far less taxing than some of the challenges she faced here at home, as for example, when she led the push to de-accession a major painting by Albert Bierstadt in the Library’s collection. Although controversial in some circles (even among trustees), the action helped to finance the major renovation and expansion of the building that Isman oversaw in the early 1990s.

“We have a star in our midst,” Wilson declared.

She went on to wonder how Isman had done it all. “She always kept calm, and this is what I admired about her.” “What is her secret,” she asked? Mass every morning? Yoga every afternoon? Even simpler than that, she said, citing Isman’s advice in a Simmons Library School profile: “Never let them see you sweat."

Noting Isman’s passion for quilts and puzzles, Wilson played with that metaphor: “I think she has put together the pieces of the quilt of the Jones Library in an absolutely perfect way . . . This place is humming because of her leadership and the wonderful staff she put together. The community, the patrons of the library—they love you and they love the library.”

l. to r.: Wilson, Story, Isman, George, Maier
In ceremonies of this sort, ritual gifts are obligatory. Isman received (what else?) books. One was the Library of America edition of the poetry of Robert Frost, one of her favorites, and of course, a centerpiece of the library’s collections.

With characteristic humility, Isman, obviously moved, said, “Everyone has been very kind,” but she demurred, “It’s not what I do, it’s what our staff does, it’s what our team does.”

Echoing her words of encouragement at the smaller ceremony at the Renaissance Center some two weeks earlier, she said, “I think you folks should be looking forward as well as looking at our illustrious past. I think the Jones will be doing some pretty exciting tings in the future.”

Declaring, “It has been kind of a controversial year, but every heart is in the Library,” Jones Library Trustee Chair Pat Holland led the audience of approximately one hundred in a heartfelt but somewhat shaky song of celebration (yes, individualistic “Amherst, where only the ‘h’ is silent"—and we all choose our own key).

The congratulatory cake was decorated with the deliciously appropriate phrase from Borges: “I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.”

* * *

Press coverage

• Diane Lederman, "Library director bid goodbye," The Republican, 10 December

• Scott Merzbach, "After 30 years at the helm, Bonnie Isman says goodbye to The Jones Library," Amherst Bulletin, 10 December
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