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Neandertals are all the rage these days. People can get their DNA analyzed and learn about their genetic background, including whether or not they have Neandertals – we’ll stay with that spelling – lurking in the family tree. Even if you haven’t checked your DNA, you may be interested in Beebe Bahrami’s Café Neandertal.
This is a dense romantic, fact-filled, roaming account of a dig on a Neandertal site in France. Beebe Bahrami, is probably best known as a travel writer, but she’s also a cultural anthropologist with a deep affection for Neandertals and a love for the land and the people of the Dordogne. She has a unique perspective on the Neandertals and a unique way of telling the story of the dig. I’ve not read a book which was simultaneously so fascinating and annoying as this one. It’s a kind of memoir about Neandertals, about the places they lived in France, about the people who live there nowadays, about wine and good food and paleoanthropologists. It leaps back thousands of years and also confusingly shuffles time in the past decade. No matter, this is a book worth reading.
Easter, which for Christians marks the resurrection of Jesus, also resurrected theatrical drama. The fall and fragmentation of the Roman empire brought Roman stage plays, and their Greek predecessors, to an end. Theatrical production ceased, fell out of memory, and there were no stage dramas as Europe entered the Middle Ages. There was pageantry, yes, but not theatrical dramas and plays as we know them today. Much of the Medieval Christian Mass was — in addition to its sacred ritual — an occasion of pageantry, and the church knew the uses of such displays.
Sometime in the 10th century, certain Easter services began to incorporate a bit of drama.The plot was simple:On the third day after the crucifixion of Jesus, the three Marys go to the tomb in search of the body of Jesus and find there an angel who asks who they are looking for. (You can see them in the Medieval illustration at the top of this post.) They say they’re looking for Jesus Christ who was crucified. The angel replies that Jesus has risen, as he had foretold he would. Go an announce that he has risen from the grave.
Here in Latin and English are the alternating questions and answers by the angel and the three Marys. The angel speaks first, asking the Marys who they are looking for:
- Quem quaeritis in sepulchro, o Christicolae? Whom do you seek in the grave, o followers of Christ?
- Jesum Nazarenum crucifixum, o caelicolae.
- Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, o heavenly one.
- Non est hic; surrexit, sicut praedixerat. Ite, nuntiate quia surrexit de sepulchro. He is not here. He has risen, as he foretold. Go out and announce that he has risen from the grave.
No one can say whether it began by having a single speaker, a priest or cantor, ask the question “Who do you seek?” and other speaker, or singer, replying, or whether it was a whole chorus. In any case, the little exchange became more elaborate and other crucial turns in the life of Jesus were dramatized. Soon these little plays, or skits, were performed outside the church and eventually scenes from the old testament were added. The dramas were originally intended as lessons from the Bible, but they soon became enjoyable plays that were mounted on wheeled platforms — carts that could be taken from town to town and arranged in a circle so the spectators could move easily from one skit to another. Eventually, the playhouse was born, drama as we know it today was born. It all began at Easter.
Maybe you know about Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, a very bright young mathematician who worked with the older scientist, Charles Babbage, when he was developing the first programmable computing machine — a precursor of the contemporary computer. If you know a bit more, you know that the machine, which was never actually built, was to be programmed by punched cards, similar to the punched cards that were used a hundred and more years later in the early computers of the 20th century. And if you’re like most people who know about Ada, that’s about all you know of her.
Ada’s life has the elements of a good gossipy story, and that’s the way it’s treated in James Essinger’s biography, Ada’s Algorithm. Or, as the book’s subtitle says, How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched The Digital Age. Ada’s father was as notorious for his bad-boy behavior as he was famous for his poetry, and Ada wasn’t able to escape the celebrity of his name. Probably the most decisive effect of having Byron for a father was that Ada’s mother constructed an educational program for Ada that was designed to stamp out any fanciful or imaginative tendencies the girl might have inherited from dreadful dad. Lady Byron gave birth to Ada on December 10, 1815, and thirty-five days later she folded back the covers from her side of the bed, slipped from her sleeping husband’s side, then bundled herself and her daughter in warm clothes and, with a maidservant, left their London house.
Ada never saw her father after that. George Gordon, Lord Byron, was a great poet but he wasn’t cut out to be a husband or father.
James Essinger’s light and chatty biography provides brief sketches of Ada’s parents and grandparents and, what’s more to the point, it gives the reader a good sense of how mother and daughter behaved in regard to each other. Lady Byron’s plan to protect Ada from whatever imaginative tendencies she might have inherited from her father included a good dose of mathematics. As it happened, Ada did very well in mathematics. Indeed, she excelled in that field and eventually directed her own studies and became a fine mathematician — not an easy feat for a woman in the early 19th century. She had a lively interest in science and technology, too. In 1833 Ada turned 18 and, following the custom of her class, she was formally introduced to society as a marriageable young woman. Young women of high social status were often presented at court and so it was with Ada who, wearing white satin and tulle, and accompanied by her mother, curtsied to the king and queen, and hobnobbed with the dignitaries there on that day in May. (more…)
While our fellow humans are drowning themselves in each other’s blood, it’s consoling to remember Steven Pinker’s great book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. The author’s preface begins with these words:
“This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not – and I know that most people do not — violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence. The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is an unmistakable development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.”
Pinker’s book, including notes and index, is 802 pages long. It’s overwhelmingly convincing. You may not want to choose a work of such length for summer reading, or for reading in any season, but even a random walk through these pages will be a corrective to the view that history is on a long downhill trajectory. Some readers may dispute his statistical methodologies, but by and large the trends he focuses on are beyond question.
There are passages describing what humans no longer do to each other, and those pages may be hard to take. The record of violence and cruelty increases as we read further and further back in history, and we’ve forgotten or averted our eyes from the bloody chronicle because we can no longer stomach thinking about what we have done to each other. If you lived in medieval times your chances of being murdered would be thirty times greater than today.
In Steven Pinker’s words “The centuries for which people are nostalgic were times in which the wife of an adulterer could have her note cut off, children as young as eight could be hanged for property crimes, a prisoner’s family could be charged for easement of irons, a witch could be sawn in half, and a sailor could be flogged to a pulp. The moral commonplaces of our age, such as that slavery, war, and torture are wrong, would have been seen as saccharine sentimentality, and our notion of universal human right almost incoherent. Genocide ad war crimes were absent from the historical record only because no one at the time thought they were a big deal.”
The Better Angels of Our Nature is an important book not only because it adds to our understanding of human history, not only because it is a corrective to fanciful notions of a more just and peaceful past, but also because – and this is crucial – it encourages us to persist in our struggle to overcome what Steven Pinker calls “the tragedy of the inherent appeal of aggression.” Our progress has been straight or smooth, and it is certainly uneven today, but clearly we are moving in the right direction. Because we know we can live better, we should keep pressing forward.
We were unable to reach the web the past few days, so we arrive here at Easter out of breath and unprepared. We do have those eggs we’ve colored over the years (well, actually, the children did most of the work) and we’ve taken them from the little egg boxes that we keep beside the cartons filled with Christmas decorations. We haven’t anything new to say about Easter eggs, so we’re reposting our sentiments from last year. The photos are fresh. You’ll notice they’re the same decorated eggs, but rearranged — we couldn’t get the same arrangement even if we tried.Society finds it easier to give up religious belief, than to abandon the traditions and symbols of religion. Eggs have symbolized fertility, birth and rebirth, for a long, long time. And, as you probably know, you can find eggs used symbolically that way in a number of religious traditions. Here and now we’re celebrating Easter and what we have here are Easter eggs. Much of Christian lay society makes a greater celebration and display at Christmas, Christ’s birthday, but clearly in the sacred drama of Jesus’ life his rising from the dead on Easter morning is far, far more significant than his birth.
If you wish, the egg represents the stone that was rolled against the entrance to the tomb to seal it and was found rolled aside on the third day after his death. Or, if you wish, the egg being empty — and all those painted eggs are first punctured and drained — symbolizes the empty tomb of Christ on Easter day. But for many people, contemporary Easter eggs, as bright and colorful as flowers, simply call to mind springtime, fertility and that awakening we feel when we have come through another dark winter and are looking forward to more light and warmth.
Republicans are beating up on President Obama, telling him to do something to stop Putin from interfering in Ukraine.
Senator Bob Corker, Ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is good example of Republican thinking on the subject of Russia and Ukraine. “The Russian government has felt free to intervene militarily in Ukraine because the United States,” Corker said, “along with Europe, has failed to make clear there would be serious, potentially irreparable consequences to such action.”
Exactly what “serious, potentially irreparable consequences” does Senator Corker have in mind? “The United States and our European allies should immediately bring to bear all elements of our collective economic strength to stop Russian advances in Ukraine,” he said. Oh, our economic strength — maybe that means boycotts or trade sanctions or limiting the G8 to G7, something like that. Or, better yet, maybe we can withdraw our ambassador from Moscow before they withdraw theirs from Washington, that’s been suggested, too.
The unpleasant fact is that in this game of geopolitical poker, Putin is holding the strong cards.
The US is currently trying to disentangle itself from its longest war; our voters are broke, the Republicans want to shrink government and cut taxes, the Democrats want to raise the minimum wage and the middle class, and everybody is tired of wonderful foreign adventures to bring democracy wherever. Furthermore, the US wants cooperation from Putin in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear facilities, and in Syria and in regard to North Korea.
Ukraine had been part of Russia for about 300 years. Russia gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 when Russia and Ukraine were part of the Soviet Union – or Evil Empire, as President Regan correctly called it. And Crimea is sufficiently distinct from the rest of Ukraine that it’s a semi-autonomous republic with its own parliament. Ukraine has been an independent nation since 1991 when the Soviet Union fell apart – that’s 23 years, during which time it’s had a largely corrupt pro-Russian government, the underlying reason it lost the support of its people.
What’s going on in Ukraine is terribly important for the Ukrainians. As for Russia and the West, in terms of strategic geopolitics, it’s far more important to Putin and the future of Russia than it is to the United States or the nations of Western Europe. We can jawbone the Russians and we can put together NATO meetings, committees and envoys and negotiators. But the principal actor in this dangerous game isn’t a politician in the United States or Europe, he’s an autocrat in the Kremlin.
Valentines and hearts are romantically linked. For long-ago centuries the human heart was thought to be the place where emotion resided. After all, our heart will beat faster and harder when we feel a great emotions (think terror or erotic excitement) even though we may be bodily at rest. What more proof do you need that emotion dwells in the heart?
So when we send a valentine, a message declaring love, the little note often carries the image of a heart, a human heart. Well, not exactly an image, but a symbol, a red thing that stands for a heart. That design, nowadays called a heart-shape, was around for a long time and was thought of as a leaf or a dart. It was taken over and used to represent a heart only later.
And in the photo below, there it is on the cheek of the young woman kissing the young man. Indeed, the young woman is wearing sunglasses, and the beach-like sprawl in the background suggest that this is not February 14th, that it’s not Valentine’s Day and that the heart is the sign of human affection any day of the year.
The first image we have of a man giving a woman his heart occurs in a Medieval manuscript and the heart is shaped like a pine cone, because classical authority, namely the philosopher-doctor Galen, said it was shaped like a pine cone. Gallen was a brilliant man and his influence lasted from the 3rd century through the 16th, but he did his disections on monkeys, not humans. Furthermore, there are many shapes to pine cones, and we don’t know what Galen had in mind when he said the heart was shaped that way. But we’re getting lost in a digression here.
Let’s take a look at that Medieval depiction of a lover giving his “heart” to his beloved. The scene comes from Li romanz de la poire — let’s call it The Romance of the Pear and please don’t get fussy over the etymology and meaning of romanz in medieval French. Here’s the scene.
You’re right, she doesn’t look happily impressed. In fact, she looks likes she’s going to swat the poor man. Yet she does have a certain passion. In fact, the story is called The Romance of the Pear because the Lady peels a pear with her teeth and shares it with her lover. There’s a certain intimacy in that. No? Well, the story was pretty hot in the 13th century.
All of this is quite far from our freezing Valentine’s Day of 2014. Today we have ice and snow from Georgia to Maine. So we’ll insert our favorite image from our previous Valentine’s Day posts.
As we said before on an earlier Valentine’s Day, we admire the young gentleman helping the young lady across the street in a snowstorm, and we admire the young lady who wears a short dress and those high-heel shoes in a blizzard. If you’d like to see the posts on a couple of earlier Valentine’s Days, just type Valentine’s Day into our little search box on the upper right, over the right-hand column.
Taking down the Christmas tree is one of the saddest domestic chores. For a week or longer this evergreen has been standing in the room with us, filling the air with the scent of balsam or other pines, glittering with lights and sparkling ornaments. And those ornaments are so important, so beautiful, no matter that they’re inexpensive baubles or, say, ordinary pine cones tinted with gold-like paint, or paper and glitter glued together by one of the children a dozen years ago. Each ornament has it’s family history — the history of which grandparents had it on their tree a generation ago, or who brought it as a gift, or made it just this year.
There’s no joy of recognition when taking these ornaments from the tree. That delight happened two weeks ago when, after an absence of a year, we carefully lifted this delicate trinket from it’s wrapping and — oh, yes! — we remember that one, the Santa with the paint chipping off, the glass sphere with Mother and Child inside, or those tiny gold balls we got forty years ago for our first Christmas. And if you turn off all the lamps in the room and leave only the strings of tiny tree lights — how magically beautiful it is!
Now we’re simply returning the faded old ornaments to their little egg-crate boxes, if we can find the right boxes that fit, and stacking them one upon the other in a corner of the attic, or in a closet behind the bag of swim suits and beach clothes. Then, after struggling to unfasten the tree from the stand, and after spilling water on the floor, we finally grapple with the brittle tree amid a shower of dried pine needles, drag it out the door and toss it on the snowbank down by the road. And there it will lie until the town truck comes to take it away, bits of glittering tinsel still fluttering here and there.
Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren were friends and classmates at Harvard Law School. They graduated in 1877 —
Warren was second in that class, second to Brandeis who not only was first, but also had the highest grade average in the history of the school, a record that lasted for 80 years. In 1879 the two young lawyers founded the Boston law firm of Nutter McClennen & Fish. At the end of 1890 they published their famous law review article “The Right to Privacy.” It has remained a landmark in American legal history. What follows is a brief excerpt from that famous article:
The common law secures to each individual the right of determining, ordinarily, to what extent his thoughts, sentiments, and emotions shall be communicated to others. Under our system of government, he can never be compelled to express them (except when upon the witness stand); and even if he has chosen to give them expression, he generally retains the power to fix the limits of the publicity which shall be given them. The existence of this right does not depend upon the particular method of expression adopted. It is immaterial whether it be by word or by signs, in painting, by sculpture, or in music. Neither does the existence of the right depend upon the nature or value of the thought or emotion, nor upon the excellence of the means of expression. The same protection is accorded to a casual letter or an entry in a diary and to the most valuable poem or essay, to a botch or daub and to a masterpiece. In every such case the individual is entitled to decide whether that which is his shall be given to the public.
In 1916, Louis Brandeis — by that time a well known advocate of progressive causes — was confirmed by the Senate and became an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. His nomination by President Woodrow Wilson was controversial; there was opposition from some because of his “radical” views and from others because he would be the first Jew on the Supreme Court. The vote was 47 to 22. Forty four Democratic Senators and three Republicans voted in favor, 21 Republican Senators and one Democrat voted against.
Maybe you’ve heard the old song, “Ain’t We Got Fun?” (This is really a post about economics and we want to talk about the lyrics to “Ain’t We Got Fun?” We promise to play the song at the end of this post, if that’s what you’re here for. So stay with us, please.)
The lyrics were written by Raymond Egan and Gus Kahn back in 1921. The words tell us about the newly married couple in the cottage next door who are pursued by bill collectors from the grocer, the butcher and the landlord. Despite their poverty, the couple sings these lines:
Ev’ry morning, ev’ry evening,
Ain’t we got fun?
Not much money, Oh, but honey,
Ain’t we got fun?
As the song goes on we hear its most famous lines:
There’s nothing surer,
The rich get rich
And the poor get children.
In the meantime, in between time,
Ain’t we got fun?
Or, as it says further along:
There’s nothing surer,
The rich get rich
And the poor get laid off.
Of course, “There’s nothing surer,” leads us to the rhyming word “poorer,” for which the lyrics substitute “children” or “laid off.” But what’s unsung is what we already know: The rich get rich while the poor get poorer. That’s capitalism in a nutshell. You probably know that, too.
Foreign Affairs magazine recently published a lead article called “Capitalism and Inequality” by Jerry Muller. Muller believes that “Inequality is an inevitable product of capitalist activity, and expanding equality of opportunity only increases it — because some individuals and communities are simply better able than others to exploit the opportunities for development and advancement that capitalism affords.”
You might pause here to reread and relish Jerry Muller’s use of polysyllables — half a dozen five-syllable words in a single sentence. Anyone can say that capitalism produces inequality, but not many can say it like that. And saying it that way almost makes you forget what it means.
Maybe you’ve seen the 1987 movie Wall Street. (No, we’re not going to play you the movie.) It starred Michael Douglas in an Oscar-winning performance as Gordon Gekko, a corrupt Wall Street insider whose most famous line is “greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” What might be overlooked is Gekko’s declaring, at another point in the movie, that the upper one percent own 50 percent of the country’s wealth. That was back in 1987. But the rich keep getting richer and today the upper one percent own 80 percent of the country’s wealth. That’s what Jerry Muller’s polysyllables mean.
The subtitle of Muller’s Foreign Affairs article is “What the Right and the Left Get Wrong.” In his view, those on the right who want to weaken Social Security and other safety-net programs, need to know that “major government social welfare spending is a proper response to some inherently problematic features of capitalism.” And, of course, those on the left should learn that “to redistribute income from the top of the economy to the bottom” has serious drawbacks, that “preferential treatment to under performers, may be worse than the disease,” and “even continued innovation and revived economic growth will not eliminate or even significantly reduce socioeconomic inequality and insecurity.” All of which makes a fine 21-page defense of the status quo.
There’s great sense of even-handedness in the article. After all, the author points out that both left and right get it wrong when they try to change the way things are arranged just now. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and there’s nothing to be done about that except to keep a safety net out there to catch the poorer acrobats – about 40 percent of the population today – as they come crashing down. And nothing can be done about it because capitalism is a fact of nature, like the furnace of the sun or the rotation of galaxies. But capitalism isn’t part of the natural order of things.
Capitalism is a creation of humankind and it can be changed for the better. That may be obvious to you, but it’s not clear to most of the people in Congress. One of the inevitable features of capitalism is the emergence of monopolies. At least is used to be. Nowadays, we have laws against monopolistic behavior, and when a company is judged to be a monopoly it can be told to break itself up and sell away parts of itself. Anti-monopoly laws don’t injure capitalism, they improve it by helping to create competition and spur innovation.
There’s a legend that Henry Ford — a very rich auto maker, not a bomb-throwing radical — improved his worker’s wages so that they could afford to buy a Ford motor car. Of course, no one is compelled to follow Henry Ford’s apocryphal example. Indeed, it’s still possible to allow a capitalist economy to go freely on it’s inevitable path — the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, the richest of the rich ascend to unimaginable wealth, the middle class descends to abject poverty and the entire society collapses along with the economy. Ain’t we got fun? No, not when that happens.
OK, we promised you a song, and you’ve been patient, so here it is. Click the arrowhead in the middle and enjoy the old song: