Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Speaking of Bad Science

Speaking of bad science ("the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”), sometimes something is so bad that it's good—particularly when it actually is intended as a joke.

At any rate, I always enjoy reading the Tumblr and following the Twitter account of "Fake Science," which, as it explains, is a "100% Fact-Free Alernative" "for when the facts are too confusing."

Smithsonian has a nice little profile this week.

Unfortunately, some people have no sense of humor: the Houston school system recently banned Fake Science's book version as something "not permissable [sic] for you to distribute or your students to have."

Problem is, with all the bad science and scientific ignorance surrounding us today, it's getting harder to tell the parody from the reality.

New Construction? Name Your Poison. But Greenest is not Always Easiest

More than ever, the historic preservation movement is aligned with the sustainability movement in seeking to use what we have wisely in order to create healthier, more livable communities. As the new mantra goes: the greenest building is one that is already standing. Translated: Reuse an existing structure is environmentally preferable to new construction. The savings involve not just the materials themselves, but the energy and related costs: sequestered carbon that went into the original construction, demolition waste and its disposal, and so forth.

Marlboro Lights vs. Reds? We're still smoking

A recent much-discussed study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation provided empirical proof for this belief. That was the lead-in of an article in the Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce, which also gave me a nice pull quote illustrating the point:
When we say something is green and it gets some sort of accolade or LEED certification, in my opinion, what we’re really doing is simply smoking Marlboro Lights as opposed to Marlboro reds,” said Jeff Myhre of Myhre Group Architects. “We’re still smoking. We’re still paving. We’re still polluting. We’re still having an environmental impact on the planet, and that’s for any new building, period.
The principle is sound, and the quote serves as a great cautionary reminder. However, other cautions are also in order. There are times when new construction is simply necessary, or at the least, on balance the most practical choice. The new integrated science center at Amherst College (about which more in the future) is one such example. The green reuse principle could moreover be prefaced with the phrase, "all things being equal." Of course, things are not always equal. As the article points out, even assuming a structure is suitable for the intended purpose, adaptive reuse poses many practical challenges.

Portland, Oregon, the article explains, is a particularly instructive case because various factors complicate the equation of reuse with best practices. On the earthquake-prone west coast, for example, required code upgrades for seismic protection can be very costly, to the point that reuse is not economically viable or at least not attractive enough to owners or investors. In addition, one needs to take into account the nature of the specific structure, meaning both the type of building and the time required to recoup the energy savings of new, efficient construction. (Preservationists are well familiar with the latter issue from their attempts to caution property-owners regarding the exaggerated claims by manufacturers of replacement windows—which reminds me that I need to do a post on that one of these days.)

Do the homework, do the math

The general preference for reuse as a green policy must therefore be differentiated:
But environmental benefits of such projects can also be significant.

The “Greenest Building” study concluded that if Portland were to retrofit and reuse the single-family homes and office buildings likely to be demolished over the next 10 years, it could reduce carbon emissions by approximately 231,000 metric tons – 15 percent of Multnomah County’s total reduction target for the next decade.

The report compared environmental impacts of seven types of renovations – such as commercial to office, warehouse to office and warehouse to multifamily – in four cities: Chicago, Atlanta, Phoenix and Portland. It found that 10 to 80 years are needed for a new building 30 percent more efficient than an average-performing existing one to overcome the negative climate change impacts related to construction.
The article goes on to consider further details, including policy "carrots" that can make reuse more affordable and attractive. It also notes that the Historic Preservation League of Oregon will come out with a report on this issue in October.

So, no easy and automatic, one-size-fits-all answers, but a sound principle that should be remembered and applied first. As always, one has to do one's homework—and the math.

Reference: Lee Fehrenbacher, "The high cost of adaptive reuse in Portland," Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce, 21 August 2012.

My Take on Akin: The Republicans' Dismal Science

 Are the Republicans leading us back into the seventeenth century (or beyond)?

The history of the Old and New Testament: extracted out of Sacred Scripture 
and writings of the Fathers...translated from the Sieur de Royaumont, by several hands;
 supervised and recommended by Dr. Horneck, and other orthodox divines (London, 1711) 

The papers and web were filled with denunciations of Representative Todd Akin's asinine remarks about "legitimate rape" and pregnancy. In fairness, he was not saying that "rape" as such was legitimate. Rather, as far as I could tell, he was using the word, "legitimate," in the sense of "genuine": i.e. trying to say that, when a woman is clearly forced to have sex against her will, she cannot become pregnant. That is ignorant and offensive for another whole set of reasons:  unacceptably narrowing the definition of rape, while betraying an abysmal understanding of science as well as current social and political standards (the more so, as it is all tied up with regressive ideas on reproductive freedom). But wait, it's worse. He sits on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

At any rate, despite the fact that so much had already been said, I thought I would add some historical context. It's no mystery, but (no pun intended), I found it in a historical mystery set in Restoration England.

Read the full story in The Propagandist: "Republicans. Confidently Leading America into the 17th Century."

As a bonus, you can also see there Jonathon Narvey's take on a nice little video clip of Bill Nye the Science Guy: "Creationism is Anti-American."

Confusion to our enemies!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Getting the Christian Right

I recently mentioned David Sugarman, "Melville in Jerusalem," Tablet Magazine, 16 August 2012.

It's a fine piece, but there is one odd phrase, describing Melville as:
 The philosophically inclined child of a Christian father and pious Calvinist mother.
Yikes. This is the sort of thing I get from my students (though from them, it's usually: "Catholics and Christians"). Last I checked, Calvinists were indeed Christians. And pretty serious ones, too. Ever heard of the Puritans? or at least the Pilgrims?

Although Tablet describes itself as "a new read on Jewish life," I don't think this is what was intended.

Charitably interpreted, perhaps Sugarman meant merely that the father was of conventional generic Christian disposition in contrast to the more fervent mother. But then, one should say what one means.

A little proof-reading here? Please?

Melville Update: Diasppointing Sales of Moby-Dick Followed by Disappointing Trip to Middle East

Rushing around in August, I somehow omitted mention of a nice little story relevant to my post about Melville and Hawthorne. The fateful meeting of those two men in the Berkshires in 1850 was the beginning of a fertile friendship, as Melville set to work on Moby-Dick, which he dedicated to Hawthorne.

Now, as we all know, Moby Dick, although one of the greatest American novels, was a commercial failure. It is with this fact that David Sugarman begins his essay on Melville in Tablet Magazine:
Herman Melville, the popular writer of adventure stories, all but lost his readership with the publication of Moby-Dick; or The Whale. “Mr. Melville has survived his reputation,” one critic wrote in 1851 of the “imposing” novel, with its diatribes, tangents, and verbosity. “If he had been contented with writing one or two books, he might have been famous, but his vanity has destroyed all his chances for immortality, or even of a good name with his own generation.” While some reviewers recognized the greatness of Moby-Dick, it failed to achieve the success Melville had hoped for, selling only a scant 3,100 copies during his lifetime. “Though I wrote the Gospels in this century,” he lamented to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I shall die in the gutter.”
However, the "failure" of the novel is just the point of departure (no pun intended) for the real subject of the piece: the resultant trip that Melville took to the Middle East in 1857 as a sort of spiritual and psychological compensation. (And in the process, Sugarman gets to talk about Pittsfield and the Berkshires and the present-day Call Me Melville celebrations.)

There is quite a tradition of such trips to the "Holy Land" in the nineteenth century. Mark Twain undertook one, too, and didn't like it much better. As the subtitle of the essay puts it, "The Moby-Dick author sought spiritual connection on an 1857 Holy Land trip. He found dust and rocks instead." Sugarman sees Melville's frustration as a reaction to both the objective decrepitude of the scene and the particular disappointment that he felt as someone who, although neither observant nor orthodox in belief, nonetheless intellectually and psychologically identified with the Christian tradition.

Worth a read. And a look, just for the whimsical image of the white whale's tail by Rockwell Kent superimposed on a historic photograph of the Ottoman-era walls built by Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent.


David Sugarman, "Melville in Jerusalem: The Moby-Dick Author sought spiritual connection on an 1857 Holy Land Trip. He found dust and rocks instead." Tablet Magazine, 16 August 2012.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Eid Mubarak!

"A blessed festival" and conclusion to Ramadan to all my Muslim friends.

I put up my main Ramadan post for this year a few days ago, but here are a few stories for the end of the month of prayer, fasting, and charity.

Noting that mobile apps can now inform users of fasting times, mosque locations, and sellers of halal goods, The Economist marked the end of the holiday with a piece on Muslims' use of digital technology as a whole, observing that they "have embraced the internet and smartphones just as the rest of the world has—and, in some ways, even more." It's part of a trio of pieces on Islam, the others of which deal with religious observance and changing attitudes toward alcohol.

President Obama sent greetings on the occasion of the Eid:
Michelle and I extend our warmest wishes to Muslim communities in the United States and around the world as they celebrate Eid-al-Fitr. For Muslims, Ramadan has been a time of fasting, prayer and spiritual renewal. These past four weeks have also been a time to serve the less fortunate -- a reminder of the obligations that people of all faiths have to each other.
In the United States, Eid-al-Fitr speaks to the truth that communities of faith -- including Muslim Americans -- enrich our national life, strengthen our democracy and uphold our freedoms, including the freedom of religion. That is why the we stand with people of all faiths, in the United States and around the world, in protecting and advancing this universal human right.
On behalf of the American people, we congratulate Muslim Americans and Muslims around the world on this joyous day. Eid Mubarak.
The Empire State Building, as has been the custom since 2007, turned on its green lights to mark the holiday.

One of the things that struck me this year was the number of comments to the effect that people had found in their friends and neighbors, and in America as a whole, such a supportive and welcoming environment in which to undertake the fast and celebrate the holiday. Among the stories in that vein was this report of a Virginia synagogue opening its space to Muslims whose mosque was too small to accommodate all the worshipers.  (Of course there are the regrettable exceptions. The title of this Huffington Post article speaks for itself: "Hank Williams Jr.: Obama Is 'A Muslim President Who Hates Farming, Hates The Military, Hates The U.S. And We Hate Him'.")

In the Palestinian Authority, residents of Ramallah filled the streets to shop and relax, taking advantage of the calm and their relative prosperity despite general concerns over economic and political stagnation. Meanwhile, in the neighboring territories still under Israeli control, "Activists in 'Land of Peace', a movement of settlers and Palestinians acting for good neighborly relations," offered candy and holiday greetings to Muslim shoppers and construction workers. As one participant said, "Who knows, maybe hope will come from this." It won't solve the problem, but it is certainly a sentiment in the spirit of the holiday.

[Update: updated image]

Saturday, August 18, 2012

These little piggies just keep trying to go home

Time for the latest animals-behaving-badly roundup. The saga of those naughty western Mass farm animals just will not end.

As our reader will recall, when we last left the wild domestic animals of one Mr. Cosimo Ferrante, a judge had ordered that he remove them from Goshen, where they were running loose and destroying the neighbors' property. Frank Ryan's lively report in the Gazette brings us up to date.

Apparently the prodigal porkers have absorbed our ethos of "question authority," for they were back this month, to the frustration of neighbors and chagrin of Ferrante. David Richardson said, "This has gone on long enough and I have had it." "I will be 75 in a couple of weeks. I like to go out in my yard without worrying if I am going to step in a rut or a hole and fall down." He threatened to take matters into his own hands, warning Ferrante that he would send him both a bill for the landscaping and a pile of carcasses: "After three or four years of this, I told him the next time his animals are on my property, they will be shot and he will be picking them up in a truck." Joel Carr, whose property had been damaged by runaway cattle, said "Its just crazy. No matter what we do, we just can't seem to get rid of this guy and his animals."

Ferrante, for his part, was by turns despairing and angry. He said that bears had entered his property, scaring the pigs, who had fled.
"Honestly, I am an emotional wreck over all of this," Ferrante said. "I can't seem to get a break. Things happen, and I try to make it right, but people here won't even talk to me anymore. I am not a bad guy, and I am really trying to work things out, but I get met with this kind of hostility."
Ferrante and the farmers whose property he had been renting are due in court on Monday, but something tells me that may not be the end of the story.

Meanwhile, in a Connecticut restaurant, a venerable lobster earned his freedom thanks to a spontaneous act of mercy. The 17-pound, 80-year old creature known as Larry was about to meet his maker when Don MacKenzie outbid the prospective diner:
"This lobster has seen World War I, World War II, seen the landing on the moon and the Red Sox win the World Series, he's made it this far in life," MacKenzie told the local paper. "He deserves to live." 
Something about the timeline doesn't add up (World War I ended in 1918), but the man's heart is in the right place. The report went on to explain that Larry would be returned to a part of the sea in which he would be safe from renewed capture.

As it turns out, even animals in "old Europe" yearn for freedom. An intrepid trio, like the pigs of Goshen, made their escape without human assistance, but in a sequence of events that sounds as if it came from an action film. "Fox and Boar Aid in Captive Kangaroos' Brazen Escape," read the headline. Three kangaroos broke out of a German zoo thanks to a most unlikely series of coincidences:
According to Michael Hoffmann, deputy head of the Hochwildschutzpark Hunsrück park, the kangaroos managed to escape their confines by crawling through a hole an unwitting fox had dug at the base of the fenced-in enclosure. With that hurdle passed, the brazen trio caught another lucky break in their hop towards freedom -- finding a hole in the park's exterior wall, left behind by a wild boar, that was big enough for the kangaroos to pass.
Things are tougher in Tajikistan, where, we learn: "Donkeys Banned From Tajik President's Sight." There's a lot you get away with when you are a dictator. Here in Amherst, where the wheels of our representative political system turn a lot more slowly, a step like that would take years of committees, consultants, and hearings. Although we did manage to legalize backyard chickens in 2011, we've been arguing for months about how to handle the question of dogs in recreation areas.

But at least we're relatively safe. Some of our neighbors to the south in the Mid-Atlantic hesitate to venture outdoors at all for fear of turkeys, who are said to "terrify" humans, "harassing even attacking folks in one New Jersey town."

By contrast, the turkeys in my yard are always peaceful; even camera-shy.

Yet another reason to be glad we live in western Massachusetts rather than New Jersey.

* * *

Pig picture from from The Child's First Reader, by Salem Town, L.L.D. [1848] (Buffalo: Phinney & Co., 1858).

History Channel Puts Western Massachusetts History on the Mobile App

A song of ascents:
I make fun of History Channel
For its Ancient Aliens crap,
But credit where credit is due:
I'm trying its History app.
As my followers on Twitter are aware, I have been known to poke gentle fun at the History Channel and its sibling H2 for their steady descent into banality or outright intellectual bankruptcy. Whereas they used to run real documentaries, nowadays there is hardly anything worth watching.

We all have our bugbears decide which burdens to assume for the sake of the common good. For me, it's about vigilance in the face of shows on Ancient Aliens and history—or shows that don't even pretend that they have to do with history: "Ice Road Truckers"? "Swamp People" "Shark Wranglers"? (wtf?)  For Gordon Belt, Director of Public Services for the Tennessee State Library & Archives, it's the never-ending battle against "History Buffs." We're all allies in this great war on behalf of civilization.

But one has to be fair. The Channel still does broadcast some history, and its website and Twitter feed likewise pay more attention to its supposed raison d'être. I was therefore pleased to see them announce their new "History Here" app for iPhone, described as "an interactive travel guide to thousands of historic locations across the United States."

So I decided to give it a try.

It's a fairly simple little thing, though serviceable enough in its way.

You get a Google road or satellite map with little pins that lead to descriptions of sites (with driving distance, contact information, and URLs; videos, in some cases).  One can search by location, view sites on both maps and lists, save "favorites," etc.

 Checking out those that appeared on the screen when I used my home location, I found:

It's not always easy to tell why a given site was included or omitted.

In Amherst, of course, I expected to find the Dickinson Museum, as it has National Historic Landmark status and is our principal tourist attraction. I was pleasantly surprised to see a listing for the National Yiddish Book Center, on the campus of my own Hampshire College. But Amherst has, in addition to the 2 Dickinson houses, 5 other properties on the National Register of Historic Places, two of them open to the public: West Cemetery  (where Dickinson is buried, thus likewise one of our major tourist attractions—even a pilgrimage site), and the eighteenth-century Strong House, home of the Amherst Historical Society and Museum.

It's great that Northampton (or Florence, as the case may be) includes two sites associated with the Underground Railroad, but then one might assume it would also have included the David Ruggles Center for Early Florence History & Underground Railroad Studies. And any reason not to include Historic Northampton? Or perhaps the Sojourner Truth monument in Florence?

In the case of Springfield, the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum makes sense, not least because it is part of the larger, acclaimed five-museum Springfield Museums campus. But then why leave out the Springfield Armory National Historic Site

Looking to our west, it is eminently sensible to include Cummington's William Cullen Bryant Homestead but (unless I really missed something), Historic Deerfield, just down the road from Amherst, is absent. (To the east, Old Sturbridge Village made the cut). Delighted and relieved to find Arrowhead, home of Herman Melville—whose birthday and meeting with Hawthorne we marked this month—in Pittsfield, but then why not Hancock Shaker Village, located in the same town?

I was certainly glad to see the boyhood home of W.E.B. DuBois in Great Barrington, as well as Edith Wharton's The Mount in Lenox on the map. But then why not Chesterwood—home of Daniel Chester French, sculptor of the Lincoln Memorial and  Minuteman statues?

It seems that the National Park Service Heritage Travel Itinerary and National Register of Historic Places were the source for many of the listings, and that is as it should be. As the example of the Yiddish Book Center shows, there were obviously also other sources of information, and one hopes that the list will be broadened. The nice thing about apps versus books is that the latter can readily and continually grow in scope as well as robustness.

Summary: Given that the thing is two years old (the first incarnation for Windows, came out in 2010), one might expect more of it. Then again, given that the new app  is described as "free and ad-supported" (see also below), you get what you pay for. (The old one cost $ 2.99; this says something about our rising expectations of apps, among other things.)

In addition, there are sometimes practical limits to what sort of data one can conveniently collect and display in software designed for small handheld devices. I just took part in a workshop on digital mapping, so I am getting a better idea of what goes into the making of these things.

Balance sheet: It's simple and useful. I didn't find every historic site that I expected (to cover the entire country is after all quite ambitious), and I didn't find a great deal of technical sophistication or even information—but I also didn't find a single alien.

That's a start. Baby steps.

Update, 20 August 

History Here, a decent but no means distinguished app, just dropped another few notches in my estimation. When I first tried it out, the ads for some reason never appeared. Now, however, they're here. Annoying advertisements appeared at the bottom of the screen. One promoting an alleged iPad giveaway, was particularly annoying and intrusive flashing incessantly. As I said, you get what you pay for.

What's on the President's Plate These Days (and in his glass)

Hops, from an edition of Lonicer's Kreuterbuch, circa 1590
Speaking of President Obama and meals, there is a fine blog that allows you to keep track of his conspicuous consumption, from sumptuous state dinners to the more staid fare of the state fair: Obama Foodarama, by Eddie Gehman Kohan, calls itself "The Blog Of Record About White House Food Initiatives, From Policy To Pie." (So, there's some serious stuff there, too.)

Naturally, I am interested, among other things, in the beer coverage (all part of being a cultural historian). One report noted that the President consumed a Bud Light at a pub in Cedar Falls, Iowa. This preference for an insipid, mass-market substitute for real beer concerns me because it forms part of a disturbing and well-established pattern: in Amherst, Ohio (of all places!) last month, Mr. Obama also had light beer (one Bud, one Miller), as he did at the so-called "beer summit" of 2009 at which he brought together distinguished African-American scholar (and Massachusetts resident) Henry Louis Gates and the police officer who arrested him in a notorious case of racial profiling.

Evidently there are experts who worry about what sort of beer the leader of our nation and the free world should drink. It's just that they're not beer experts. So, it seems that a "light" beer is seen as the safest, healthiest, and politically correct choice, a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to present Mr. Obama as a (suitably restrained) man of the people. (Not that Mr. Romney would be any more successful, for some similar reasons as well as some very different ones.)

Still, we find both hope and change in the knowledge that the White House has, since 2011, been producing its own signature malt beverage, which our leader takes with him on these campaign outings. As the blog—which broke the news—also observes with some frustration, the information about the Presidential mini-brewery has in fact been out there for all with eyes to see for quite a while, but the mainstream media somehow just never bothered to absorb and cover it. (In that regard, I suppose it's a bit like the progress of the Iranian nuclear program.) But news of the POTUS private stock is not an unmitigated blessing. Obama Foodarama worried, "The President's regular-guy beer drinking image was dismantled somewhat on Tuesday by the revelation that he's toting White House homebrewed beer aboard Ground Force One."

I'll say. But again, the analysts got things wrong. I would be worried about the President's image less because this is an "elitist" craft brew than because it is an effete "Honey Ale" that should not pass muster as real beer with either the toiling masses or the zymurgic cognoscenti. Bud Light is lousy beer, but it does convey a simple, no-nonsense populist message. "Honey Ale"?  Come on.

What should the President drink, then? I think a classic American India Pale Ale would do the job. Not one of those faddish ones so overhopped that drinking it feels more like a masculinity test than a social and gustatory pleasure; that's more reminiscent of George W. Bush's brutish and blustery foreign policy. Instead, a well-balanced IPA, medium-bodied and highly but not heedlessly hopped, would convey just the right message of strength and sophistication befitting a superpower comfortable with its status, neither pusillanimous nor posturing.

I mean, seriously: Are you surprised that Netanyahu felt there was no cost to rebuffing Obama's demands? Do you think Assad and Ahmadinejad lie awake at night worrying about a guy who drinks "Honey Ale"? Seriously. Now, photograph Obama with a "Victory Hop Devil" in hand, and you'll see world leaders start to show him some respect.

Back to domestic politics. As for that "man of the people" thing: forget it. It's a lost cause, and the worst thing you can do is try to pretend to be something that you aren't. (Romney and Obama in blue jeans? Dukakis in a tank?) So, even if the President served this White House Honey Ale at his Superbowl Party, it just doesn't quite give off that "normal guy" vibe.

President Obama redeemed himself (sort of) as a populist on two occasions, first by giving one of those special homebrews to a resident in Knoxville, Iowa, and then, at the State Fair, by buying a round for ten people, who were chanting, "Four More Beers! Four More Beers!" (Who says we Midwesterners are slow thinkers lacking wit and humor?)

This was of course a play on words on "Four More Years!" But for those of us possessed of historical knowledge or direct experience of the Nixon era, this slogan first became prominent in the ill-starred electoral campaign of 1972, which took place under the growing shadow of the Watergate scandal. The appropriately nicknamed "CREEP" (Committee to Re-Elect the President) came up with the slogan, which was widely circulated, even on buttons and stickers in the languages of the various ethnic constituencies that the Republicans had wooed away from the Democratic Party.

Thank God, we've come a long way since the Nixon era, in more ways than one.

Speaking of which: the President himself has got a long way to go before he can be a real man of the people. That populist publicity stunt in Iowa came at a cost: literally. In the words of Obama Foodarama:
But the State Fair beer was reportedly an expensive cup, and came with a foamy head of criticism: Secret Service essentially shut down the fair for the President's visit. Mark Cunningham II, 39, a Republican and the third generation owner of the 65-year-old Bud Tent where the President enjoyed his brew (they were photographed drinking together), later complained to the Des Moines Register that the President's photo op cost him $25,000 in profit.
And the President has a really long way to go before he can catch up with the late Czech President Václav Havel. Havel, although a scion of one of the wealthiest families in pre-Communist Czechoslovakia, was nonetheless a man of the people in a way that Obama never can be. And when he wanted to go to the pub for a beer with the guys, he wasn't about to have his security forces clear the guys out.

As Radio Praha explained:
Ex-President Vaclav Havel may be the best spokesman beer has ever had in the Czech Republic, at least in public office. Havel loves to take visiting politicians to pubs. He once skipped a function in the U.S. to go drink beer and watch John Cale. In fact, one of Havel's plays is based on the time he spent working in a brewery before the Revolution.
It quotes Havel as saying (1995):
"I suppose that drinking beer in pubs has got a good influence on the behaviour of Czech society, because beer contains less alcohol than for example wine, vodka or whisky and therefore people's political chat in pubs is less crazy." 
Given the nastiness and lies of the US Presidential campaign at this stage, "less crazy" sounds pretty good. Maybe it's time that we all just relax and enjoy a good Czech beer.


19 August: I was pleased and amused to see that our friends at The Propagandist cited this post, adding a fine video of President Obama at the Iowa State Fair, ordering up that round of beers for his supporters (and denying one to the guy with the Romney sign).


Historical context:

• the recent post on the problem of student drinking in Amherst also describes the historical drinking habits of the early American republic (including politicians and clergy), which may come as a surprise

• the habits of a famed British wartime leader, by contrast, will come as no surprise: "Winston, Churchill: Smoker, Drunk, One Tough Dude—With Good Judgment"

Our colleague, @AmyMittelman, has both a book and a blog
about beer and (in the latter case) other matters (mostly political), as well.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

August Anniversaries: Melville Meets Hawthorne in the Berkshires, 1850

Summer always seems in some way to be Melville season, in western Massachusetts, at any rate.

On August 1, we mark his birthday.

Part of the Literary Arts Issue, this postage stamp (Scott # 2094), based on a portrait by J. O. Easton in the Fogg Museum at Harvard, was designed by Bradbury Thompson, modeled by Frank J. Waslick, and printed by the American Banknote Company in a run of 117,125,000. It was issued at the New Bedford Whaling Museum on the anniversary of Melville's birth, August 1, 1984.

The summer also brings multiple Moby Dick marathons in New England. Whereas New Bedford holds its group reading of the novel in frigid January, other locales opt for the war season. Mystic Seaport held its marathon from July 31 through August 1, whereas Pittsfield, Massachusetts, locale of Melville's home, Arrowhead, has chosen for its "Call Me Melville" program leisurely chapter-a-day online reading schedule, stretching over 135 days, from Memorial Day weekend through Columbus Day.

And, the gods must be smiling upon us, because an appropriately snarky little piece about stupid new Olympic sports even managed to work in the opening line of Moby Dick:
Call me Ishmael, but I don’t care about the synchronized-diving competition the Chinese won yesterday, except trying to figure out how exactly one decides to go into synchronized diving.
August 5 marks the anniversary of his famed and fateful meeting with Nathaniel Hawthorne. And as chance would have it, that date in 2012, as in 1850, was marked by a great thunderstorm (in our case, a welcome relief after a terrible drought and the hottest July on record).

Mass Moments has seen fit to include the event on its calendar of significant days in Massachusetts history, though the description is rather anodyne:
On this date in 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville were among a small group who climbed to the top of Monument Mountain in the Berkshires for a picnic. Hawthorne had recently published The Scarlet Letter and was living in nearby Lenox. Melville was visiting Pittsfield. The two writers were meeting for the first time. A passing storm drenched the hikers, but the day marked the beginning of a warm friendship between the authors of two of the greatest American novels of all time. Melville dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne, with "admiration for his genius." 
The bulk of the piece deals with Hawthorne's literary career.

The Tale of Tanglewood,* an early chronicle of the summer home of the Boston Symphony in Lenox, tells the story with more detail and verve. The book begins by noting the significance of two thunderstorms: the first being the aforementioned, the other, one in the year 1937, which destroyed the festival tent and led to the construction of the now-famous Koussevitzky Music "Shed" (which took the place of Eliel Saarinnen's more ambitious design).

Hawthorne, who had his first big commercial success with The Scarlet Letter in March 1850, rented a cottage on the estate of the Tappan family (whose Highwood House is today the Tanglewood visitor center) from that summer through the fall of the following year.

His Notebooks record his enthusiasm for the beauty of the setting, overlooking Lake Mahkeenac and the more distant mountains. At times, though, he grew frustrated, missing the sea, the city, and his wife. He had some choice comments about our classic western Massachusetts weather:
This is a horrible, horrible, most horrible climate. One knows not, for ten minutes together, wheter he is too cool or too warm . . . I detest it! I detest it!! I detest it!!! I hate Berkshire with my whole soul, and would joyfully see its mountains laid flat! (31)
Although he claimed to miss urban comforts, he also did not go out of his way to socialize.  As The Tale of Tanglewood puts it:
It was in the summer of 1850 that Melville and Hawthorne, meeting as strangers to each other on a picnic party near Stockbridge, were driven by a violent thunderstorm—according to a persistent legend—to seek refuge together in the crevice of the rocks of Monument Mountain. Neither had yet made a full discovery of the other as a great writer, and Hawthorne in particular was extremely war of strangers; but there they were, face to face, in close quarters, exquisitely adapted to the breaking down of reserves. There were two hours of it, and when the romancers emerged, they had laid the basis for a rapidly ensuing intimacy. (19)
      Two days after the meeting on Monument Mountain, Melville with others called on Hawthorne at the Red Cottage, drank champagne, and walked to the lake. From that time forth, the meetings with Melville, who lived only a few miles away at his Arrowhead farm in Pittsfield, were frequent and intimate. Melville would appear, sometimes in the guise of a Spanish cavalier, often with his large black Newfoundland dog; and on horse or dog he would give 'the old man' or 'the little gentleman,' as Hawthorne in his diary called his son Julian, a ride in which the boy took a terrified delight. Melville told his stories of the South Seas with such zest and reality that once after his departure, Mrs. Hawthorne began looking for a club which had figured in a tale of his adventure. There was an evening visit, of which Hawthorne wrote: 'Melville and I had a talk about time and eternity, things of this world and of the next, and books and publishers, and all possible and important matters, that lasted well into the night.' When Melville stayed for the whole night, one can only imagine how far and wide the talk must have ranged.
At this very time Hawthorne was writing his House of the Seven Gables, and Melville, not more than half a dozen miles away, was writing Moby-Dick. They must have had many things to say to each other. When Melville, the more outgoing of the two, could not talk he wrote, in long letters with whole-hearted admiration of Hawthorne and his genius. 'I shall leave the world, I feel,' said one of these letters, 'with more satisfaction for having come to know you. Knowing you persuades me more than the Bible of our immortality." (34-35)
The Red Cottage burned down in 1890, but a plaque has marked the site since 1929. After World War II, the National Federation of Music Clubs presented the Boston Symphony with a reconstruction of the Cottage, also known as the Little Red House.

* Source: M. A. DeWolfe Howe, The Tale of Tanglewood, Scene of the Berkshire Music Festivals. With an Introduction by Serge Koussevitzky (NY: The Vanguard Press, 1946).

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Tempus fugit

The summer has gone too fast. Too much to do, not enough rain, not enough work accomplished.

Time flies, but I would still like to take the liberty of adding a small backlog of brief posts on historical anniversaries of recent weeks. Precisely because they are historical, they don't really go out of date.

Watch for more in this space soon.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Ramadan Reflection

the unity of world religions: Jew, Christian, Muslim, and pagan at prayer
Illustration from the path-breaking multicultural study of religion (1723-43) by Jean Frederic Bernard and Bernard Picart

The timing of Ramadan, the Islamic month of reflection and charity, which is just coming to an end, was noteworthy this year because, for the first time since 1980, the holiday coincided with the Olympics.

As Voice of America News reports, the London stadium was moreover constructed in an area with a large Muslim population:
In East London's York Hall, the United Kingdom's largest civil society organization, Citizens UK, organized an Iftar, the evening meal following a day of fasting during Ramadan.  The group has been involved with the London Olympics Organizing Committee and came in part to celebrate the impact the Olympics are having on the community where the main stadiums have been constructed.

The group successfully advocated for a living wage of at least $12 an hour for everyone working at London Olympics jobs, as well as Olympic funding for local schools, hospitals and new affordable housing.

Neil Jameson, the director of Citizens UK says the involvement of the East London Mosque was essential in ensuring the economic development of this ethnically diverse area of the city.

"The East London Mosque is the largest civil society organization in London, 10,000 people worship there.  So we are them, effectively, and tonight we break the fast - non-Muslims and Muslims together - because that makes for a peaceful world and a peaceful Olympics," said Jameson. (full text and video here)
Ramadan moreover posed a special challenge for the 3000 Muslim athletes, who had to decide whether to observe the fast in part or in full. Going without food and drink during the day can make athletic performance more difficult, and the resultant dehydration may complicate drug tests.

Supposedly for health reasons, though apparently for political ones, the Chinese government ordered Uighurs to ignore the holiday: "It is forbidden for Communist Party cadres, civil officials (including those who have retired) and students to participate in Ramadan religious activities." Elsewhere, the dilemmas of dissent are different. For instance, in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia, observance is compelled rather than prevented. And in many other places, such as Jerusalem and the Palestinian Authority, there is at the least strong social pressure to conform to tradition. As a result, the secular, the self-indulgent, and nicotine-addicted generally keep their backsliding secret. (1, 2). As Diaa Hadid of the Associated Press reports, "a minority in the community goes underground each year during the holy month, sneaking sandwiches and cigarettes when no one is looking."

In the United States the holiday was marked, if not overshadowed, by new debate over religious intolerance, notably the horrific murders in a Sikh temple in a Milwaukee suburb by a white supremacist, and the burning of a mosque in Joplin, Missouri—though, in a hopeful sign, a fund drive for reconstruction exceeded its goal in just three days, thanks in part to donations from non-Muslims.

Ramadan interfaith meals have become increasingly common in recent years. (I have had the privilege of attending the one for Amherst residents, sponsored by the Muslim student organization at the University of Massachusetts.) At a White House Iftar dinner yesterday evening, President Obama speculated that the first such gathering held there might have occurred when President Jefferson entertained an envoy from Tunisia. And, with Jefferson's personal Qur'an on display (a loan from the Library of Congress), he pointed out "that Islam -- like so many faiths -- is part of our national story." After citing the contributions of Muslim Americans, he took the opportunity to condemn not only the murders of the Sikhs, but also all "instances of mosques and synagogues, churches and temples being targeted."
So tonight, we declare with one voice that such violence has no place in the United States of America.  The attack on Americans of any faith is an attack on the freedom of all Americans.  (Applause.)  No American should ever have to fear for their safety in their place of worship.  And every American has the right to practice their faith both openly and freely, and as they choose.

That is not just an American right; it is a universal human right.  And we will defend the freedom of religion, here at home and around the world.  And as we do, we’ll draw on the strength and example of our interfaith community, including the leaders who are here tonight.
Some years ago, when Representative Keith Ellison took the oath of office on that same Jefferson Qur'an, the late journalist and atheist Christopher Hitchens, with typical mischievousness, pointed out that Jefferson, though the staunchest defender of religious freedom, was no friend of Judeo-Christian revelation, and thus would not have thought much of Islam, either. Drawing an obvious parallel to conflicts in our own day, he noted that Jefferson went to war against the Barbary states of North Africa, who had justified piracy and the enslaving of captives to him on Qur'anic grounds. In fact, Hitchens said, because Jefferson had produced his now-famous New Testament expurgated of all miracles and "superstition," one should extend that principle to its logical conclusion: "Is it not time to apply the razor and produce a reasonable Quran as well?" Not exactly the kind of thing that President Obama would have wanted to call attention to at the dinner. But then, that is not  the purpose of such gatherings.

Is there a connection between American wars abroad and intolerance at home? My colleague, philosopher Falguni Sheth, takes on the question and provocatively asserts that there is an intimate relation, in a piece that was also cited nationally. How does one weigh the danger that some may succumb to bigotry against the objective right or need to speak critically about another belief system or culture or aspects of it? Here, as in other cases, the boundary between legitimate criticism and bigotry can itself become a war zone. Philosopher Russell Blackford takes up that challenge with subtlety but firmness in a post on "Islam, racists, and legitimate debate."

Among the international guests at the Iftar dinner was Israel's Ambassador Michael Oren. The choice may have struck some as unusual, but as someone pointed out in the web conversation last night, he represents a state, 20 percent of whose population is Muslim (80 percent Sunni). When Oren hosted his embassy's Iftar dinner last year,  he said:
It is a world grounded in our holy books. Tonight, of course, is Laylat al-Qadr, the night of the Holy Quran’s revelation. As a student, I spent an entire year reading the Quran and vividly remember how it referred to the Jews as Ahlu al-Kitab—the People of the Book. It says in Sura 29, “Our God and your God is one, and to Him do we submit.” And in Sura 3, the Jews are invited to, “Come to a word that is just between us and you, that we worship none but God, and that we associate no partners with Him, and that none of us shall take others as lords besides God.”
Similarly, the Bible tells us, in the Book of Psalms, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.” And the Book of Proverbs says, fittingly for this Ramadan feast, “Better a dry crust with peace than a house full of feasting, with strife.”
Although the sharing of Muslim and Jewish traditions may strike some outsiders as strange, it is in fact entirely natural, above and beyond the probable connection between Ramadan and Yom Kippur (1, 2). Both religions share a similarly austere and pure monotheism as well as similar dietary regulations. A recent article on a Muslim website usefully surveyed the practices of Halal and Kosher slaughter and found more common points than differences. This year, joint Muslim-Jewish celebrations were perhaps more common because the Jewish fast day of Tisha B'Av (marking, by tradition, the date on which both the First and Second Temples were destroyed) fell during Ramadan. In one case, Israelis shared their break-fast with Muslim refugees from Sudan. The most unusual celebration involved Israelis and Palestinians meeting in Tekoa, an Israeli town created near the site of the ancient one of that name in historic Judea, nowadays more commonly known as the West Bank. Jerusalem Online reported:
Amongst the diners, [Israeli] shimon, whose brother Asher and Asher’s young son were killed in a terror attack not far from Tekoa. Their car was hit by stones thrown by Palestinians and overturned, killing them both. Shimon says there is no reason they should not gather together. It is strange, he says, that they have grown used to living apart.[Palestinian] Ziad explains that at the beginning of history, one brother killed another, referring to the biblical story of cain and able [sic]. But, he says, here they are extending a hand to peace. Shimon said this endless cycle of violence [sic] and that he believes things should be different.

Rabbi Fruman said he hopes that all around the world, peoples will sit together and break bread like they are doing here and that people will fight together to defeat those obstacles we all have to being human beings.
(full text and video here).

* * *

• In "Jews and Muslims break bread together at iftar feast," Vered Guttman explains the preparation and celebration of the festive meal hosted at the Israel embassy in Washington,  prepared by Palestinian-American chef Mahmud Abulhawa, Haaretz, 16 August 2012
• "US synagogue welcomes Muslims seeking a place to pray," BBC News, 16 August 2012


Huffington Post has been running a live blog of this year's observation of the holiday
New Yorker Slide Show: The Fasts and Feasts of Ramadan, with selections from recent years
• "Ramadan 2012 in Pictures: Beautiful Scenes from the Streets of Muslim Jerusalem" from PolicyMic

Ramadan posts from previous years:

• 2011: Ramadan in Amherst: Celebration of Community and Concerns Over Intolerance
• 2010: Ramadan Kareem! (with some tools for keeping track of non-Christian holidays)

[links updated/fixed]