The Invasion of The Dominican Republic

April 28, 2020

Fifty-five years ago today, in order to protect the world from “a second Cuba”, US President Lyndon Johnson — obviously not distracted enough by losing the Vietnam War — ordered the US Marines to invade that Caribbean superpower, the Dominican Republic.  Operation Power Pack was launched on April 28th, 1965 and the occupation by the imperialist forces lasted until September 1966 after a pro-Trujillo, pro-American president was elected.

About 3,000 civilians are thought to have died to save the American Empire.

Lest we forget.


Pandemic History

March 14, 2020

The always useful Visual Capitalist has come up with this timely graphic on the history and comparative virulence of pandemics across history. (You will probably have to select the image to get the full detail).

 

 

It shows that the current virus is small time in comparison to the serious infections we have faced and survived over the centuries. However, there is no doubt the current numbers will swell and this will then allow us to visualise its force as it grows.


My Deep Post Super-Tuesday Analysis

March 4, 2020

 

America never ceases to disappoint.

 


The Oldest Companies In Each Country

February 18, 2020

Here is a fascinating chart of the oldest companies still operating in most countries of the world.  Click on the image to get the full scale.

 

My favourite is probably Ma Yu Ching’s Bucket Chicken House in China said to have been operating since 1153.

Found at the Business Financing Co’s website.


Interest Rate History

February 4, 2020

The often interesting Visual Capitalist has published a graph of nominal interest rates from the 14th century through to today:

Select image for a larger look.

“Today’s graphic from Paul Schmelzing, visiting scholar at the Bank of England, shows how global real interest rates have experienced an average annual decline of -0.0196% (-1.96 basis points) throughout the past eight centuries.

Collecting data from across 78% of total advanced economy GDP over the time frame, Schmelzing shows that real rates* have witnessed a negative historical slope spanning back to the 1300s.  Displayed across the graph is a series of personal nominal loans made to sovereign establishments, along with their nominal loan rates. Some from the 14th century, for example, had nominal rates of 35%. By contrast, key nominal loan rates had fallen to 6% by the mid 1800s.

Centennial Averages of Real Long-Term “Safe-Asset”† Rates From 1311-2018

% 1300s 1400s 1500s 1600s 1700s 1800s 1900s 2000s
Nominal rate 7.3 11.2 7.8 5.4 4.1 3.5 5.0 3.5
Inflation 2.2 2.1 1.7 0.8 0.6 0.0 3.1 2.2
Real rate 5.1 9.1 6.1 4.6 3.5 3.4 2.0 1.3

*Real rates take inflation into account, and are calculated as follows: nominal rate – inflation = real rate.
†Safe assets are issued from global financial powers

Starting in 1311, data from the report shows how average real rates moved from 5.1% in the 1300s down to an average of 2% in the 1900s.

The average real rate between 2000-2018 stands at 1.3%.”

The current rash of negative interest rates that we see today is therefore in line with historical trends.


Mesolithic Cooking

January 11, 2020

New research in South Africa has indicated that early homo were cooking carbohydrate-rich rhizomes about 170,000 years ago:

“[C]ircumstantial evidence for cooking is compelling. The spatial context of the rhizomes in ash rather than adjacent sediment is significant. Further support for cooking comes from amylase gene analysis results, which indicate that a high starch diet, possibly involving processing and/or cooking of carbohydrate-rich geophytes by early humans, was already in place by the Middle Pleistocene. Cooking enables dietary diversity, and transporting geophytes to a home base like Border Cave facilitates both food processing and sharing …

“The Border Cave discovery is early evidence of cooked starchy plant food. The wide distribution of Hypoxis, particularly the small, palatable Hypoxis angustifolia rhizome that grows gregariously in many habitats, implies that it could have provided a reliable, familiar staple food source for early humans moving within or out of Africa.”

This is additional evidence for the hypothesis that cooking made us human (or at least played a significant role in our societal development).


When A Regime Goes Pear-Shaped

January 9, 2020

In the Public Domain Review, Patricia Mainardi has a fascinating essay on how the image of the pear became a symbol of opposition to the French monarchy in the 1830s.

The most famous of the images was probably this:  Daumier’s The Past, the Present, the Future, depicting Louis-Philippe’s pear head in triplicate, his topknot defining the fruit’s stem. The caption (possibly written by Philipon himself) notes: “What was in the beginning: fresh and confident; What is now: pale, thin, and anxious; What will be: despondent and broken. ”

 

 

While originally based on the supposed physical shape of King Louis-Phillipe, it quickly became a general symbol for the anti-monarchists.

The essay goes into great detail about how this symbol developed into a political tool — a proto-meme.

“While the government at first responded to these drawings with repression and seizures, they gradually came to adopt, however reluctantly, a laissez-faire approach. In the course of numerous prosecutions, Philipon had learned how to turn court cases into circuses, much to the amusement of jurors who often declined to convict him.”

A really interesting piece of political history.


Anarchism on The Drive — Tonight!

November 24, 2019

Erica Lagalisse will be talking about her recent book, Occult Features of Anarchism: With Attention to the Conspiracy of Kings and the Conspiracy of the Peoples, tonight at the People’s Co-op Bookstore, 1391 Commercial from 7pm to 9pm.

Erica Lagalisse is an anthropologist and writer, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the London School of Economics (LSE), and board member at The Sociological Review. Lagalisse’s doctoral thesis,“Good Politics”: Property, Intersectionality, and the Making of the Anarchist Self, explores anarchist networks that cross Québec, the United States and Mexico to examine contradictions within indigenous solidarity activism and settler “anarchoindigenism”. The comparative work also throws into relief the idiosyncracies of university-educated Anglo-American leftists, and draws on anthropological, feminist and critical race theory to show how they have preempted the black feminist challenge of “intersectionality” by recuperating its praxis within the logic of neoliberal self-making projects and property relations.

As always, the event is free!


JFK and False Memory Syndrome

November 22, 2019

Fifty-six years ago today, my mother and father visited their closest friends, Ron and Betty, who lived a few miles from us in West London. I was in the backseat of the small black car.  It smelled of leather and my parents’ cigarettes. I was sullen because I was just turned 14 years old and I had far better things to do than visit my parents’ old fogie friends to play cards.

I remember this all so clearly because, just as we pulled up outside Ron and Betty’s row house, the car radio broke off its normal programming and a solemn voice replaced the happy chatter.  The voice announced that President John F. Kennedy of the United States had been shot and probably killed.  I can still feel the goose-flesh that crawled over my skin. I remember the loud gasp as my father realized what had been said.  John Kennedy was one of my father’s heroes, and he was mine too. He was our hope for the future, and now he was dead. Nothing else about that evening do I remember. I’m sure my folks and their friends discussed the assassination, but that has passed from recall.

Within two years of that day, though, JFK had — in my eyes at least — fallen from the pedestal upon which his charisma, his beautiful family, and his martyrdom had placed him.  He was quickly revealed as just another centre-right US politician who was happy to send the boys to war, who was happy to squander the nation’s wealth on weapons and imperialism, who had no answer to segregation but brother Bobby’s federal agents.  We also learned (perhaps we always knew) he wasn’t quite such a great family man, either; that Camelot was an expensive sham.

Kennedy and his people lived in the tuxedoed world of High Society that was soon to be swept away by the real world of Soul on Ice and Revolver.  We might have hated that big Texas bully who followed Kennedy, but it was Kennedy not Johnson who pushed the US into South Vietnam, and it was Johnson not Kennedy who brought forward the Civil Rights Acts. Looking back, we can now see that both Kennedy and Johnson were equal participants in the cabaret that is America the Superpower. Unfortunately for the truth, Kennedy will always have the smile, the beautiful wife, the cute John-John and Caroline, while Johnson will always be pulling the ears off those damn beagles.


Memoir 1989: A Day of Infinite Possibilities

November 9, 2019

Thirty years ago today: It was 9th November 1989 and I was watching TV, watching the news from Berlin.  And soon a dozen people are hacking at the Wall from both sides and the party has begun and CNN’s cameras bring this extraordinary and historic wish-fulfillment into the living rooms of the world, and my living room in particular that November night.

And within moments, it seemed, there were thousands singing and candles blazing. And even though I was in Vancouver at the time, my heart was with them because at heart I was and remain a Londoner. And Berlin is VERY close to home to Londoners, especially to those who had spent decades watching people die as they tried to go over and under and around the Wall. And I wept openly and for days when the Wall came down.

It was a day of ultimate possibilities because here was an impossibility happening in front of our tear-misty TV-mediated eyes.


Babylonian Northern Lights

October 27, 2019

 

There are many wonderful sights to see in northern Canada, and one of the great joys are the Northern Lights.  But as new research reveals, these majestic celestial shows have been fascinating people for thousands of years — and thousands of kilometres from the Yukon.

The earliest records of the aurora have now been identified as coming from the middle of the 7th century BC — almost 3,000 years ago — and from the royal archives of Nineveh in the Assyrian Empire.  Three separate observers — known by cuneiform specialists for their regular and accurate astronomical observations — report “red glow”, “red cloud”, and “red sky” in reports to their royal masters. Exact dates are elusive, but they appear to be from about 660 BC.

We may wonder how the “Northern” lights could be seen in the Middle East.  The researchers explain:

“the Middle East was closer to the north geomagnetic pole in the Assyrian epoch. While the north geomagnetic pole is situated near the region of North America today, it was situated in the region of Eurasia in the mid- to early 7th century BCE due to the secular variation of the geomagnetic field.”

When we are lucky enough to witness these sky dances, we are sharing the pleasures and excitements of hundreds of generations of those who have gone before.


1066 And All That

October 14, 2019

Nine hundred and fifty three years ago today, one of the most important events in English and European history took place.  Harold Godwinson, King of England, met William the Bastard Duke of Normandy in battle near Hastings on the south coast of England.  Harold lost and died, and the Normans became masters of England. William was crowned king on Christmas Day, 1066.

The consequences were enormous.

  • Most of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy had been killed in the various campaigns Harold fought against invaders that year. They were replaced by William’s followers;
  • The victorious William expropriated virtually all lands in the country by virtue of conquest.  The feudal system, which was in its infancy in England during the late Anglo-Saxon period, was firmly established when William granted lands to his followers in exchange for fealty and military service;
  • All important government and religious offices were taken over by Normans;
  • Anglo-Norman, a dialect of Old French, became the language of the elite and of government service; many Romance-based words came into common use in England;
  • The foundation of towns and urbanism generally was accelerated by the building of Norman castles.

Although Middle English would eventually establish itself as the national language, it and the society in which it grew was enormously influenced by the Norman conquest and its aftermath.  Moreover, the roots of English interference in continental European politics and all that followed from that involvement can certainly be traced to 1066.

England would never be the same again.


Deep History

October 6, 2019

A quick review of  David W. Anthony’s extraordinarily fine 2007 volume:  The Horse, the Wheel and Language“.

It has a sub-title that I am sure came from the publisher’s marketing department rather than from the author — “How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World.”  However, this is not a text that is aimed at the popular market. It is a thoroughly documented 500-page academic essay on the development of culture and the birth of various language families within the period from about 9,000 years ago to roughly 4,000 years ago in the area stretching from south-east Europe through the central Asian steppes.

That probably doesn’t sound particularly exciting to most people. But for the minority of us who try to keep up with research on the period between the last glaciation (say, 20,000 years ago) and the birth of “modern” society (5,000 to 8,000 years ago), who are fascinated by the origin and development of languages, and who are interested in the beginnings of certain cultural forms (hierarchy, for example) and technologies, this is a work of seminal importance.

Anthony brings together his own archaeological work and the previously unavailable texts of the most recent generation of Russian and East European scholars and creates a highly refined synthesis that argues, convincingly to me, at least, that horses were first domesticated in the grasslands of the central Eurasian steppes, and that horse-riding played a significant role in the expansion of what would become the Indo-European languages (including, much later, the dominant English language).  Along the way, he examines the beginnings of Indo-European myths, the establishment of the guest-host relationship, leadership functions, funeral practices, the purpose of feasting, the origin of wagons and chariots, and a wide range of other topics that, in their modern manifestation, dominate our lives today.

Anthony writes very well but it cannot be denied that, for the general reader without some background in these subjects, there are some difficult sections.  They are well worth the effort, though, for the understanding that this research brings with it.  I cannot recommend this too highly to anyone interested in this stuff.


A History of Typography

October 6, 2019

This is a wonderful 5-minute animated history by Ben Barrett-Forrest that I was directed to on Twitter.


History of the World in Twelve Maps

October 5, 2019

I read Jerry Brotton’s “History of the World in Twelve Maps“.  It is an incredibly well-researched and beautifully written homage to the power of image to influence one’s view of the world.

He covers Ptolemy, Al-Idrisi, the Hereford Mappamundi, the Kangnido Map, Martin Waldseemuller’s World Map (the one that names America), Diogo Ribeiro, Mercator, Joan Blaeu, the Cassini Family, Halford Mackinder, Arno Peters, and Google Earth.  Each chapter is a detailed history of the zeitgeist of the time period, and examines the philosophical, intellectual and political uses and abuses to which contemporary maps were put.

From the introduction:

Throughout most recorded history, the overwhelming majority of maps put the culture that produced them at their centre, as many of the world maps discussed in this book show.  Even today;s online mapping is partly driven by the user’s desire to first locate him- or herself on the digital map … But if such a perspective literally centres individuals, it also elevates them like gods, inviting them to take flight and look down upon the earth from a divine viewpoint, surveying the whole world in one look, calmly detached, gazing upon what can only be imagined by earthbound mortals.  The map’s dissimulating brilliance is to make the viewer believe, just for a  moment, that such a perspective is real, that they are not still tethered to the earth, looking at a map.”

An excellent and stimulating study that I thoroughly recommend.

Earliest known world map: Iraq 700-500 BC

Earliest known world map: Iraq 700-500 BC


Unscrambling Eggs

September 22, 2019

I do a lot of cooking and I am often caused to wonder how certain culinary matters were invented or developed.  Who first mashed potatoes, for example?  Or who, indeed, first thought those ugly brown tubers were of any value at all?

A while ago, I was making a meringue topping for a cake I was experimenting with.  As I was whisking the egg whites my mind automatically wondered who on earth could ever have thought to do that first?  After all, without a  mechanical whisk, beating egg whites to a stiff peak takes an age of hard work; it isn’t something you would stumble across accidentally.  It turns out, of course, that the discovery of meringue is disputed but it apparently took place sometime between 1604 and 1692.

Fair enough. But taking one further step back, who’s idea was it to separate egg whites and egg yolks in the first place?  Once again it is a less than obvious notion, and I have no answer yet.  Does anyone know how this came about?


An Extraordinary History: Prussian Blue

September 20, 2019

For anyone who paints today, it is hard to believe there was ever a time when the beautiful, versatile, and stable Prussian Blue pigment did not exist. But the fact is it is just a few hundred years old.

It was discovered, by accident, in the first decade of the 1700s in Berlin by a colour-maker called Diesbach.  Prior to that time, blue pigments had been sourced from “indigo, smalt, azurite and ultramarine, derived from lapis lazuli, which was expensive.”  The new process was cheap and easily manufactured. Its first verifiable use in an artwork was in “The Entombment of Christ” by Pieter vander Werff in 1709.

entombment

I didn’t know any of this until I read a fascinating article called “Prussian Blue and Its Partner In Crime” by Philip McCouat in Journal of Art In Society.  The article goes on to describe the pigment’s use in European art and, notably, in the creation of an entire genre of Japanese painting.

The second part of McCouat’s article (“…Partner in Crime”) takes the story into even more interesting ground once a Swedish chemist discovered that by mixing Prussian Blue with diluted sulphuric acid he could create the deadly poison hydrogen cyanide, a favourite of poisoners ever since.  This section of the essay details the first murderer caught by telegraph, and the use of cyanide and its derivatives both by US gas chambers and by Nazi mass executioners.

Who knew that such a beautiful colour could have such a blotchy history? Mix up your favourite beverage, settle back, and enjoy this fascinating long read.

 


Diaries As History

September 19, 2019

Dr. Irving Finkel is one of my favourite scientists. He is an Assyriologist and a senior curator at the British Museum. His daily work involves the translation of 5,000 year-old cuneiform tablets from ancient Iraq. He is an elegant, impassioned, and amusing speaker, helping to popularize what might otherwise be a rather mysterious period of history. He is perhaps most famous for having found and translated a Sumerian text detailing the Flood story written thousands of years before the same story was adopted in the Bible.

Following another of his interests, in 2007, Dr. Finkel founded the Great Diary Project which collects, preserves, and publicizes diaries of all kinds.

“Diaries are among our most precious items of heritage. People in all walks of life have confided and often still confide their thoughts and experiences to the written page, and the result is a unique record of what happens to an individual over months, or even years, as seen through their eyes. No other kind of document offers such a wealth of information about daily life and the ups and downs of human existence. The Project’s idea is to collect as many diaries as possible from now on for long-term preservation. In the future these diaries will be a precious indication of what life, in our own time, was really like.”

Dr. Finkel can explain the importance of diaries to the historian better than I can:

 

As a social and cultural historian, I would be ecstatic to find the diaries of one or more of the characters who have enlivened Commercial Drive over the last 120 years.  In some ways, the Highland Echo which thrived on the minutiae of local activity acted as the diary of our neighbourhood. But to read the actual diaries of the local players would be so much more valuable in understanding, for example, motivations and prejudices.  I live in hope that some may eventually emerge.


Adrian Mole: Sociology In The Raw

September 17, 2019

I have just finished reading the entire Adrian Mole series by Sue Townsend. These eight hugely funny books purport to be Adrian’s diaries and correspondence beginning when he is a 13 3/4 year old schoolboy and ending as he reaches forty, a disappointed failure.

This is neither high art nor great literature but is a work of sustained comic genius, following the life of a wannabe literary intellectual against a period of British history that encompasses both Thatcher’s Falkland’s War in the early 1980s, the emergence of Blair’s New Labour in the 1990s, and the involvement of British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s.  While Mole’s thoughts often involve these larger issues, his actual life is lived within the bitter constraints of Tory (and Labour) austerity and the growing inequalities that those policies generated.

He fails at all sorts of jobs (celebrity chef, author, environmental welfare officer, bookseller), grossly fails at consumerism, and invariably gets the wrong girls pregnant.  Moreover, his family is the oddest collection of characters since the Gormenghast dynasty, even though their reality is drawn so well that many of us will recognize individuals of the types involved.

I suspect that future historians may use the Mole series to better understand the sociology of England in these decades.  In fact, the humour is so interwoven with the intimacies of daily life in the Midlands I wonder whether anyone outside of England (not even, perhaps, the other parts of Britain) will fully grasp the subtleties of the comedy.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to read the entire series, I would recommend either Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years or Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction.

 

 


The Cholera Map in 3D

August 11, 2019

I am fairly sure I have mentioned before my great interest in the way that data can be graphically visualized to create new awareness, or simply to explain something more accurately.  I have even tried to create some myself when I thought they would add value.

One of the most famous early examples of a data visualization leading to political action was Dr. John Snow’s investigation into a cholera outbreak in London in 1854.  By tracking the deaths in one area of Soho, he traced the infection back to a single well that had been polluted.  The map he created to illustrate the specific spread of the disease was instrumental in launching the new science of epidemiology.

Snow’s map was, of course, a two-dimensional display, with all the limits imposed by that technology.  However, the famous map has now been digitized and turned into a 3D object that can be viewed from any angle using the tools on the right of the screen.

This very simple display shows off the potential of 3D mapping very well.

Thanks to the Spatial Awareness newsletter for the tip.