Saturday, December 27, 2008

How Careless!

The global financial meltdown has been hitting private universities hard; several small colleges have announced their forthcoming closure, while others, like Beloit College, have fired faculty and staff in response to declining enrollment and shrinking endowments. Even Ivy League schools aren't immune: Yale has announced a $6 billion decline in its endowment, while the losses at my Alma Mater, if they are "marked to market," may exceed $18 billion - a sum roughly equal to the gross domestic product of Panama or Iceland. This is the sort of news that makes me glad I work for a public school, where we're more dependent on state appropriations and federal aid than foundation pay-outs and tuition. I can't even visualize eighteen billion dollars - though this web page may help my curious readers to do so.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

A Gorey Christmas

As a follow-up to my last post, and for the entertainment of those of my readers who are Edward Gorey fans (probably most of you), I present the following links. (None of these have much to do with early American history, though they do refer to media which are at least ten years old.)

* First, here is a pastiche of the Star Trek episode "The Trouble with Tribbles," written and illustrated in Gorey's style by Shaenon Garrity. Gorey himself was a fan of the original series, but apparently missed the Tribble episode. (This story appeared on Boing Boing last year, but I suspect a fair number of people missed it.)

* Gorey also illustrated at least one classic science fiction novel: a 1960 reprint of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds. This selection of illustrations reminds us that the dividing line between s.f. and horror is often quite thin.

* And, finally, a link to a Nine Inch Nails video inspired by Gorey's illustrations. Trent Reznor and Danny Lohner wrote the underlying music and lyrics for the soundtrack to one of David Lynch's films, so it lies at a nexus of late-twentieth-century creepiness.

Happy holidays, everyone.

(Links updated 27 July 2018.)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Memento Mori

While visiting the Philadelphia College of Physicians three years ago, I saw an exhibit on medicine during the early nineteenth century - a tie-in with the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition - which included a section on common causes of death, borrowed from the records of two Philadelphia churches. Such a morbid display might seem more suitable for Halloween than for a December weblog posting, but many of the listed causes of death are sufficiently vague and strange (not surprising, given the primitive state of early-nineteenth-century medicine) as to provide a bit of macabre humor. Particularly if you happen to be a fan of Edward Gorey.

And since a little Gorey-esque humor is always fashionable, I present, herewith, the "Diseases and Casualties in Christ Church and at St. Peters, This Year (25 Dec. 1802 – 25 Dec. 1803):"

Apoplexy (1)
Asthma (1)
Bilious Fever (4)
Bilious Cholic (1)
Child Bed (1)
Consumption (2)
Cancer (0)*
Dropsy (7)
Decay (25)
Drowned (1)
Fits (17)
Flux (4)
Fever (3)
Gravel (0)*
Gout (1)
Hives (6)
Hooping Cough (1)
Killed (3)
Lunacy (3)
Mortification (2)
Measles (4)
Nervous Fever (4)
Old Age (8)
Pleurisy (5)
Palsy (2)
Purging and Vomit (5)
Suddenly (1)
Scarlet Fever (4)
Sore Throat (4)
Smallpox (1)
Teeth and Worms (7)
Yellow Fever (11)

* Apparently, this list was a form or template, as it gave two causes of death that didn't apply to 1803.

The total is 139, though the two parishes counted 143 burials that year - one hopes that either the recorders made a counting error or that the four "extra" burials were of people who died the previous year. There were also 213 baptisms, so births outnumbered deaths by a 3:2 ratio. Nonetheless, Philadelphia, like most early modern cities, was a fairly unhealthy place to live, with a five-year average death rate (for 1793-98) of 40 per 1,000 - roughly equal to present-day Nigeria. (Billy Gordon Smith, Lower Sort: Philadelphia's Laboring People, 1750-1800 [Cornell UP, 1994], p. 206)

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Obligatory Self-Promotion

My first book, Red Gentlemen & White Savages, is now in press, and should be available for sale by December 21st. Alan Taylor describes it as "an original and substantial contribution to work on the Federalists and Indians, and the best book on this subject to date," while Gregory Nobles says it is "a fresh and engaging book," written "with an appreciation of complexity, but also with great clarity." The Times Literary Supplement has not yet weighed in, but I am hoping they will say my book shows "exceptional promise." One way or another, I'm sure they'll soon be talking about it in all the cafes in Paris.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

It's the Rocks That'll Kill You

I've always assumed that the horrific casualties sustained by both armies in the American Civil War resulted from the collision between new military technology - mass-produced rifles and minie balls - and outdated, offensive-oriented tactics. However, geologists Judy Ehlen and Robert Whisonant report that geology and topography may have also played roles in generating the conflict's high body count. Battles that took place above limestone, for instance, tended to be very bloody because limestone erodes quickly, creating "flat, open terrain" and ample fields-of-fire for riflemen. Such was the case in Miller's Cornfield at the Battle of Antietam (17 Sept. 1862), where 8,000 men were killed or wounded in just a few hours, and during Pickett's Charge on the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg (3 July 1863). Conversely, battles fought on dolomite or shale, like the firefight at Burnside's Bridge across Antietam Creek, tended to have lower casualties because those substrata produced more rugged surface terrain, screening attacking soldiers from defensive rifle fire. Whisonant and Ehlen determined that 25% of the war's deadliest battles took place on terrain with a limestone base - certainly an important factor in determining casualties, if not a predominant one. (Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education, 21 Nov. 2008; see also here and here.)

Sunday, November 02, 2008

That's Just What I Was Thinking

"The George Bush era is reminiscent of the reign of the Roman Emperor Andronicus III (c. 1296-1341) in its negative jingoistic engagement with Islam and the Middle East (Iran-Iraq) and other expansionist achievements across the globe. Obama then is most likely to fall into the role of John V (c 1332-1391) - the successor of Andronicus III. He will have to deal with increasingly resurgent Islamic forces, Russia, China and other cultures and nations seeking an assertion of self-respect and dignity."

From a comment on the Open Source Radio website, in reference to a recent interview with historian Gordon Wood. Thousands of articles have been written, and millions of weblog entries and online comments posted, about the 2008 presidential election, but this may be the only one that has compared one of the candidates to a late-Byzantine emperor. We live in a wondrous age.

P.S.: If George W. Bush is Andronicus III, then doesn't that make Dick Cheney, the eminence grise of the Bush administration, John Kantakouzenos (and thus Obama's regent and successor)? A chilling thought.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Voyagers to the East, Part XXI

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

In an earlier essay in this series, I described the employment of Brazilian Indians in a 1547 joyeuse entree - a ceremony of royal entry and submission - staged by the French city of Rouen for King Henri II. Rouen may have been the first, but it was not the only French city to incorporate Indians into its joyeuses entrees: in March 1564 the city fathers of Troyes organized for Charles IX a procession which featured a Native American chief mounted on a horse that was costumed "like a unicorn." A year later (April 1565), when Charles formally entered Bordeaux, its pageant included a procession of captives, among them an unspecified number of Brazilian and North American captives, who joined the citizens in submitting to the king. (Olive Dickason, The Myth of the Savage: and the Beginnings of French Colonialism in the Americas [Edmonton, Alberta, 1984], 213.)

Indians, in fact, appear to have been a "prestige good" in 16th-century France; association with them lent a certain exoticism to one's portfolio (so to speak). During his reign, King Henri II received several Brazilian Indian boys captured by the Tupinamba, whom he subsequently gave to prominent French nobles as gifts - or, more precisely, for their retinues. Several decades later, in 1602, Francois Grave du Pont gave several North American Indian boys to King Henri IV, first monarch of the Bourbon dynasty. Henri, in turn, gave at least one to the Dauphin as a companion, though the Indian boy died at Chateau St. Germain a year later. (Dickason, 212.) To the French, the prestige value of an Indian captive clearly outweighed his or her labor value. And I wonder: did the association of Indian servants with prominent French nobles play any role in shaping the French idea of the "noble savage"?

For the next entry in this series, click here.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Methane Plumes of Doom

Another reason I'm trying not to worry about the global financial crisis: there's a much more serious global meltdown underway at the moment that appears to be accelerating, and whose long-term consequences will be much more destructive than the collapse of the international credit markets. I refer, of course, to global warming, and to a new scientific survey that suggests it may be about to speed up dramatically. From The Independent (UK) of 23 September 2008:

"Scientists aboard a research ship that has sailed the entire length of Russia's northern coast* have discovered intense concentrations of methane – sometimes at up to 100 times background levels – over several areas covering thousands of square miles of the Siberian continental shelf.

"In the past few days, the researchers have seen areas of sea foaming with gas bubbling up through 'methane chimneys' rising from the sea floor. They believe that the sub-sea layer of permafrost, which has acted like a 'lid' to prevent the gas from escaping, has melted away to allow methane to rise from underground deposits formed before the last ice age...

"Methane is about 20 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and many scientists fear that its release could accelerate global warming in a giant positive feedback [loop]...The amount of methane stored beneath the Arctic is calculated to be greater than the total amount of carbon locked up in global coal reserves so there is intense interest in the stability of these deposits as the region warms at a faster rate than other places on earth."

The complete story can be found here. We've known for several years of the release of methane deposits situated below melting permafrost and Arctic lakes (see this story about Siberian lake-thaw ebullition**, for example), but I believe this is the first time I've read of similar discharges from the floor of the Arctic Ocean, which is apparently one of the largest methane sinks in the world. Elevated local levels of methane, according to the Independent story, are most likely responsible for the accelerated rate of warming in the Arctic (as compared to the rest of the world), but it's unlikely that all of that gas will remain confined to the Arctic for very long.

As a wise satirist recently said, "it's just a natural part of the End of Days."

* Which, incidentally, would have been impossible ten years ago.
** My fifty-cent word of the week.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Good to Be a Banksta

I've not planned to discuss the current world credit crisis in this weblog, because I don't really understand its causes or have any idea of how we can resolve it without starting another Great Depression. However, Tatsuya Ishida does a good job interpreting the recent financial bailout vote in Congress, and guessing how long it will be before the surviving major banks and investment houses ask for another $700,000,000,000.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Demographic Collapse in the Southeast: An Illustrative Example

In my forthcoming book on early U.S. Indian relations, I observe that in 1793, southern Indian warriors seeking to drive American settlers out of the Tennessee Valley were able, with the use of multitribal meetings and the promise of Spanish supplies, to assemble a large force of gunmen for an assault on Knoxville. This Native American army comprised nearly 2,000 men from the Creek, Cherokee, and Shawnee nations, and was one of the largest Native military forces to operate in a single campaign in the eighteenth-century southeast.

Apparently, though, this was only a large force for its day, and would not have been considered so two centuries earlier. In his detailed and archaeologically-informed history of the De Soto expedition of 1539-43, Charles Hudson gives this description of the Spanish adventurers' first encounter with Indian travelers on the Mississippi River:

"Some Indians in dugout canoes approached and pulled up to the landing. Four principal men got out and approached De Soto...They informed De Soto that they were vassals of a great chief, Aquijo, who was dominant over many towns on the opposite side of the river. They said Chief Aquijo would come the next day to talk with De Soto. The next day the chief arrived with a fleet of two hundred very large dugout canoes, full of Indians armed with bows and arrows. The Spaniards counted as many as seven thousand Indians, painted with red ocher and wearing feathers of many colors. Some of them held shields of cane so tightly and strongly woven that a crossbow bolt could hardly penetrate them." (Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun [University of Georgia Press, 1997], 284-5.)

That was just the warrior population of one chiefdom in Arkansas.

I know of no more vivid way to illustrate the decline of Indian population in the southeast between 1540 and 1790. Moreover, white settlers and the U.S. government had considerable difficulty defeating and expelling the remnant Indian nations they encountered in the southeast in the eighteenth century. If they had instead encountered Indian chiefdoms the size of Aquijo's, I suspect it would have taken Americans the better part of a century to conquer them. (And if those chiefdoms' warriors had been armed with muskets and cannons, I suspect we would never have heard of "Manifest Destiny.")

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Camera Hound of the Future

Courtesy of my friend and Alert Reader Elena O'Malley, a link to an Atlantic Monthly essay by Vannevar Bush, predicting - and suggesting plausible technical paths to - the computer, the digital camera, the Personal Data Assistant*, Internet-based research, and direct brain-computer interfaces. Published in 1945.

* Well, sort of. Bush did predict that it would be the size of a desk. Moore's Law was still 20+ years away.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Bad Professor! No Dry Sherry!

Any teacher or professor worrying about how students might react to his or her behavior in the classroom should remember that they would have to work pretty hard to top the eccentricities and unprofessionalism of some of our predecessors. For example, according to a column by "Ms. Mentor" (Emily Toth) in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Sept. 5, 2008), Thorsten Veblen, when he was teaching at Stanford University, "graded arbitrarily, switching A's and C's at random...posted whimsical office hours ('Monday 10 a.m. to 10:05 a.m.'), and...urged 'girl students' to spend weekends with him in a converted chicken coop in the woods." According to the longer article cited by Toth, Veblen eventually became so unpopular with students that he was lucky to get three people to sign up for one of his classes. Stanford, which had hired Veblen in 1906, finally threw him out in 1909, whereupon he wrote a new book, The Higher Learning in America, trashing the people he'd previously vexed. It's not an exemplary story, though I'm tempted to use Veblen's line about his grading policy - "My grades are like lightning; they strike anywhere!" - the next time I'm returning exams.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Northwest Passages

Alert reader Chantal Hachem noted that my account of the eccentricities of the nineteenth-century Royal Navy reminded her of a British Arctic explorer whose crewmen went mad eating rations from lead-lined food cans. That explorer, Sir John Franklin, was lost sometime between 1845 and 1848 during his search for the Northwest Passage, the all-water route from Europe to Asia by way of northern Canada which eluded so many European explorers. Franklin's story, recounted in Fergus Fleming's Barrow's Boys (Grove Press, 2001), is a harrowing and tragic one - tragic because the Northwest Passage turned out to be wishful thinking, as the permanent Arctic ice pack blocked the waterways through the northern Canadian islands. The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, first European to traverse the Passage (1903-5), took more than two years to do so, as his ship became locked in the ice for two consecutive winters. Until recently the only large vessels capable of "sailing" all the way through the Northwest Passage in one season were nuclear submarines, which could travel under the ice.

But times change. One of the most important consequences of global warming is the shrinking of the permanent Arctic ice pack, which, among other effects, has opened the Northwest Passage to surface ships for at least part of the year. Last fall, a civilian passenger ship arrived in Barrow - the northernmost town in the United States, and previously a synonym for "remote Arctic wasteland" - and discharged 400 German tourists who, I am sure, completely flummoxed the Inupiat inhabitants of the community. In consequence, the US Coast Guard began patrols into the Beaufort Sea, and this summer it opened temporary bases in two Arctic Ocean villages, including Barrow. Meanwhile, the governments of the United States, Canada, and Russia have begun discussions - heated arguments, actually - about ownership of the Northwest Passage (and its Russian equivalent, the Northeast Passage) and of the large oil and gas deposits believed to lie beneath the Arctic Ocean. I don't know whether Franklin would be pleased or astonished.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Jacko's Navy

I've always assumed that the British Navy of the nineteenth century - the century in which Britain built, and maintained through sea power, the largest empire in history - was one of the greatest military machines of all time. Apparently, I was misinformed. In a chapter on the 19th-century British Navy in his book Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War (New York, 1991, pp. 373-400), Robert Massie effectively dispelled my impression of the Royal Navy as a sleek, well-disciplined, technologically advanced fighting force. Instead, Massie describes the pre-1900 British Navy as complacent, besotted with Nelsonian dogma, and comically obsessed with cleanliness and polish; its ship captains as an assortment of dandies, megalomaniacs, and eccentrics; and its ships' crews as a pack of half-starved boys and drunks. Massie does this to great comic effect, which I can best capture in glossary form, as follows:

Boiler: What one ship's engineer thought he had turned into, thanks to delirium tremens. The man spent all day on his back, "puffing vigorously" to avoid bursting. (p. 377)

Candle wax: Used by midshipmen to afix pieces of yarn to the backs of cockroaches. The boys would then light the yarn and set the insects to racing each other.

Cleanliness: The highest virtue in the Royal Navy. See Gunnery Practice; HMS Forte; Nightcaps; Watertight Doors

Elephant: Ship's pet on HMS Galatea (1870); brought aboard by Lieutenant Lord Charles Beresford; learned to help raise the mainsail with his trunk; apparently very happy aboard ship once he got over his seasickness.

Fanny Adams: 1) English girl who supposedly disappeared near a British cannery. 2) What British sailors called canned meat.

Gunnery practice: Avoided by most officers and crew, as firing the guns tended to dirty the ships' decks. Also discouraged by the Admiralty, which believed that fighting should occur at close range and that aimed fire was therefore unnecessary.

HMS Forte: One of the cleanest ships in Her Majesty's Navy (ca. 1870), it featured gilt and satin wood facings, "French-polished" gun carriages, and cannonballs "painted blue with a gold band around them and a yellow top." The captain wore numerous finger rings, spent hours grooming himself, and frequently took his midshipmen ashore to play cricket. (pp. 398-99)

Jacko: Name of pet baboon belonging to Captain Marryat of HMS Larne. Frequently pulled buttons off crewmembers' uniforms.

Maggot derbies: Another amusement of midshipmen. Pretty much what the name implies.

Nightcaps: Small flannel nightcaps were placed on ships' ring bolts to prevent them from becoming dirty or tarnished.

Shot-to-hit ratio: During the bombardment of Alexandria, Egypt (1881), British warships achieved a ratio of 1 hit for every 300 shots. See also Gunnery practice.

Watertight doors: Thanks to RN officers' obsession with cleanliness and "brightwork," these were usually filed and polished so intensely that they ceased to be watertight.

This is a far cry from the "Wooden Ships and Iron Men" of Nelson's age; it is, instead, the sort of navy that Gilbert and Sullivan or Monty Python would have imagined (and did imagine). It was also not the kind of navy that could survive serious competition from another industrial power. After Germany and Britain began their naval arms race in the early 20th century, the R.N., under the command of Admiral John Arbuthnot "Jacky" Fisher, began a series of modernizing reforms. These included a greater emphasis on modern weapons (especially torpedoes and long-range guns), more gunnery training for crewmen, and the systematic cashiering of inefficient or incompetent officers. Jacky's navy was certainly more disciplined than Jacko's navy, but also much less colorful.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Some Weblogs Are More Equal Than Others

It's apparently never too late to start a weblog. George Orwell, for instance, has just begun his own blog, even though he died nearly sixty years ago. Chances are, though, that he won't be linking back to mine.

(The Orwell Diaries weblog, sponsored by the Orwell Prize, will consist of entries from Orwell's daily diaries of 1938-42, encompassing his sojourn in Morocco and the early years of World War Two. Each entry will be posted exactly 70 years after Orwell wrote it.)

Monday, July 28, 2008

Your Monthly Apocalypse: Peak Oil

The Peak Oil hypothesis, first formulated in the 1950s by M. King Hubbert, has acquired a steady following on the Internet during the past five years. The theory derives from a well-established feature of oil fields: all of them reach a "peak" of productivity at some point in their operational lifespans, and then begin to decline in output. There are ways to increase an older field's productivity (by pumping in pressurized water, for instance), but all of them increase the expense of extracting the petroleum. Eventually, the cost of pumping oil from the field exceeds its profitability, and the operators shut down the wells. This happens to all oilfields: Texas fields peaked in 1970, the Prudhoe Bay field in Alaska in 1988, the North Sea fields in 1999. The principal oilfields in Saudi Arabia may have peaked in 2006, but since the Saudi oil ministry doesn't share its survey data with outsiders, it's hard to tell.

Peak Oil is the theory that worldwide oil production has or soon will pass its peak, and that as a consequence the price of oil is going to be rising rapidly from now on - especially as growing demand from China and India intersects with an increasingly scarce supply. Some oil-industry analysts say that $200-300/barrel oil is only a few months or years away. The consequences of such a dramatic price increase are obvious to everyone: more expensive oil means more expensive food (because of rising fertilizer and diesel-fuel costs), consumer goods, gasoline, and heating oil for virtually everyone on the planet. Peak Oil enthusiasts think that these price increases will bring us more than mere hardship: many believe that $200-300 oil will cause a collapse of industrial civilization, ushering in a post-crash era that will either resemble The Road Warrior or Little House on the Prairie, depending on one's level of optimism. Some of the pessimists have begun stockpiling food and ammunition, to protect themselves both against the impending collapse of American agriculture and against the rampaging hordes of less-prudent survivors who hunger for the survivalists' canned peas. Others simply explore their fears by sampling the small but growing body of fiction devoted to post-Peak-Oil collapse scenarios.

Rising oil prices are certainly causing hardship for many people in the United States, where even the Amish are complaining about fuel costs, and the rising food prices associated with them are bringing even greater hardship to people in the developing world. I am cautiously optimistic, however, that world oil prices will level off and decline well before they cause the collapse of industrial civilization. First of all, while there is a limited supply of cheap, easily-accessible oil in the world, there is rather a lot of expensive oil - probably at least a century's supply - locked up in the form of superheavy crude, or oil sand, or in shale. This oil is currently expensive to extract, but as the price of oil rises, it will become profitable for companies to process and extract it. There is historic precedent for this prediction. In the 1960s, when oil exploration began on the Alaskan North Slope and in the North Sea, oil company executives argued that the price of oil would never rise high enough ("high enough," in this case, being $5/barrel) to make exploitation of any fields there profitable. They had a point: the North Sea has some of the ghastliest weather in the world, and Prudhoe Bay, Alaska is 800 miles from the nearest warm-water port. In the 1970s, however, the industrial world suffered two oil "shocks," and the price of oil rose from about $2/barrel in 1970 to $34/barrel by 1980. The seventeenfold increase in oil prices made oil companies (and governments) comfortable with multi-billion-dollar investments in North Sea drilling platforms and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, and both developments ultimately contributed to an increase in overall supply. (Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power [New York, 1991], 569-574, 625-626, 665-670, 685.)

More recently, as oil prices have risen from about $40 (at the turn of the century) to nearly $150, oil companies have begun processing and selling oil that would have been considered nearly worthless 20 years ago, like Venezuelan superheavy (roughly the same consistency as Play-Doh) and Albertan oil-sand extract (which requires considerable heat to separate the oil from the sand). If oil rises into the $200-300 range, the extraction of oil from Rocky Mountain shale will probably become profitable, and Canada, which has ten times as much oil as Saudi Arabia locked into the Athabascan tar-sands basin, will become the next petroleum superpower. Eventually, these new producers will relieve some of the current pressure on world oil supplies.

Moreover, rising oil and oil-derivative prices generally lead to curtailment of demand, as consumers, inventors, and governments find ways to make more effective use of declining supply. This happened in the 1970s, when the U.S. government, for the first time, mandated corporate fuel-efficiency standards for all American automakers. The Big Three auto companies screamed bloody murder, but, under pressure from both Washington and from Japanese and European competitors, they complied with the new law. By the 1980s the average fuel-economy of the American automobile had risen from about 10 mpg into the high 20s. (Yergin, The Prize, 660-662.) These new fuel-efficiency standards, combined with power companies' abandonment of oil-fired power plants in favor of coal and natural gas, actually caused global oil consumption to drop in the 1980s. With the return of $10/barrel oil in the 1990s, American fuel economy standards dropped, but there's no particular reason why they couldn't rise again just as dramatically as they did in the 1970s and '80s. Several foreign car companies are leading the way to improved fuel efficiency: a German company has just developed a non-hybrid car, the Loremo, which (thanks to a diesel engine and radical streamlining) gets 120 mpg. Meanwhile, Japanese and German automakers are developing plug-in hybrids, available in 3-5 years, that should get 150-200 mpg. And, if higher automotive fuel efficiency doesn't bring prices down, one can stretch out the gasoline and diesel supply with biodiesel and ethanol brewed from algae.

I'm never quite comfortable dismissing a good disaster scenario, but I'm not particularly pessimistic about the world's long-term oil and energy outlook. Our current energy crisis will produce short-term hardship and a lot of stupid legislation, but ultimately we can work our way out of it through technological innovation and sheer greed - sorry, profit-seeking.

If I'm wrong, though, it's probably not a bad idea to keep those Laura Ingalls Wilder novels handy.

(The above photo, showing an oil refinery in Hampshire, England, is courtesy of

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Aztec Death Whistle

Sometimes, dear readers, a weblog post is mainly an excuse for a striking title.

Anyway, the title of today's blog entry refers to a story which appeared on MSNBC late last month: a feature on the whistles and noisemakers which the Aztecs, Mayans, and other pre-Columbian peoples of Mexico used in funerary rites and to accompany human sacrifices. Julie Watson, the author of the MSNBC/Associated Press story, notes that the Aztecs also played conch shells, ocarinas, and flutes, using these musical instruments in religious ceremonies, as animal lures, or (possibly) to induce medically-useful trance states. They also probably played music at diplomatic occasions, like the Inuit dancer and timbrel-player I mentioned in an earlier post.

As I recall, conch shells were also employed on ritual occasions by some of the Indian peoples of southeastern United States, including the Creek (or Muskogee) Indians of present-day Alabama and Georgia. A grad-school professor of mine observed that after their removal to Oklahoma the Creeks found conch shells difficult to come by, and gradually the old shells they had carried with them were lost or broken. In the mid-20th-century, however, an adventurous Muskogee man discovered that one could generate the same sound by blowing through the axle of a 1934 Chevy pickup truck - which Creek communities subsequently decided was an acceptable alternative, at least when they weren't trying to impress white tourists.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Tunguska Centennial

Today is the 100th anniversary of the Tunguska Event, a massive explosion in the Siberian wilderness whose cause remained a mystery for most of the twentieth century. The explosion flattened eighty million trees over an 800-square-mile area, but left no discernible impact crater. The remoteness of the site impeded research into the origins of the explosion, and Soviet scientific findings diffused only gradually into the West. Consequently, astrophysicists, earth scientists, science fiction writers, and random crackpots developed a variety of hypotheses about the explosion - that it was caused by a comet, a chunk of interstellar antimatter, a quantum black hole (a popular hypothesis among sci fi writers), or a malfunctioning alien spacecraft. In the 1950s and '60s, however, Soviet researchers discovered microscopic glass nodules in soil samples from the site; the nodules contained high levels of nickel and iridium, both telltale markers of an asteroid. It seems likely, therefore, that the explosion was produced by a meteor - a small (20-30 meters) asteroid or a fragment of one - exploding in the air above the Tunguska River basin.

I don't usually direct readers to Wikipedia, but the entry on the Tunguska event appears judicious; it includes several firsthand accounts of the explosion from observers, a careful weighing of causal hypotheses, and the observation that these sorts of midair meteor explosions are actually rather common - but they generally occur over the ocean, where (until the advent of earth-observation satellites) there haven't been many witnesses.

While we're on the subject of asteroids intercepting the earth, we may note that Greg Easterbrook isn't the only person worried about the consequences of a large meteor impact in the near future. The U.S. House of Representatives just passed a bill (HR 6063) which, among other provisions, directs NASA to plan an unmanned monitoring expedition to the Apophis asteroid (which will pass uncomfortably near the Earth in 2029) and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop an asteroid-deflection strategy. The bill didn't estimate the cost of the program, but I can't imagine it will cost more than, say, a week or two of the Iraq War. No mention of any role for Bruce Willis, either, but he's still got 21 years to wait for the phone to ring.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Premier's Little Green Book

Some pleasant, if peculiar news from the latest issue of Time Magazine (June 30, 2008): last November the prime minister of the People's Republic of China, Wen Jinbao, identified the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius as one of his favorite books, claiming "to have read [it] nearly 100 times." Since then, the Meditations have become a bestseller in China, rising to fifth place in the China Book International bestseller list. This was welcome news, since I've long found Aurelius's work to be a source of reassurance, ever since I bought my first copy of it (the green-covered Loeb Classical Library edition) during my first week in college. It's nice to know that millions more people are discovering it for the first time. Yet I can also see why the book would resonate with the leadership of an authoritarian state which is trying, not always successfully, to promote social harmony in the midst of the largest economic revolution in history. Marcus Aurelius tells his readers that human relationships are naturally harmonious and beneficial, and human misconduct both involuntary and transitory. "With what art thou discontented? The wickedness of men? Take this conclusion to heart, that rational creatures have been made for one another, that forbearance is part of justice, that wrongdoing is involuntary, and think how many ere now, after passing their lives in implacable enmity, suspicion, hatred...have been laid out and burnt to ashes - think of this, I say, and stay thy fretting." (IV.3, trans. by C.R. Haines)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Cultural Exchange

Here's a brief anecdote from the first voyage of John Davis, the 16th-century English explorer to whom I referred in my post of May 31st: when Davis first landed on the coast of Greenland in late July 1585, he encountered a large party of Inuit, who approached Davis's ship in ten canoes. Rather than attacking or kidnapping the Greenlanders (that would occur on his second voyage), Davis instead urged his crewmen to use their "best policy to gain their friendship." That policy included music: as the canoemen approached, Davis and his officers "caused our musicians to play, ourselves dancing and making many signs of friendship." For the rest of the day, the two groups of strangers pantomimed one another's gestures, shook hands, and exchanged gifts of clothing. The next day (30 July 1585), one of the Inuit returned Davis's initial favor: he climbed a rock, displayed "a thing like a timbrel, which he did beat upon with a stick, making a noise like a small drum," and danced. (Albert Markham, ed., Voyages and Works of John Davis, Navigator [London, 1880], 7-8.) Regrettably, we have no record of any subsequent attempts to create an Elizabethan/Eskimo fusion musical style.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Your Monthly Apocalypse

Many of us think of large meteor strikes, like the one which formed Quebec's Manicouagan Reservoir (pictured left, as seen from low earth orbit), as events that occur in geological time - that is, many tens of thousands of years, if not many millions of years ago. The possibility of such an event occurring in our lifetimes, outside of a movie theater at least, seems remote. In a new article in The Atlantic, however, Greg Easterbrook suggests that the danger of a large (1+ kilometers) asteroid hitting the earth in the near future is actually fairly high. He observes that in the last 25 years astronomers have found several thousand more near-earth asteroids than they expected, and that several geologists, notably Dallas Abbott of Columbia, have found evidence of many more terrestrial meteor strikes than they expected - mainly by looking for craters in the ocean floor and elevated iridium levels in the soil. (Iridium is an element commonly found in asteroids but relatively scarce on earth.) Some of these strikes are quite recent: a 300-meter asteroid apparently impacted in the Gulf of Carpentaria off northern Australia in 536 AD, leading to cold temperatures and crop failures for the next couple of years. Another asteroid hit the western Indian Ocean around 2800 BC, producing tsunamis and severe flooding and perhaps contributing to the Mesopotamian and Biblical flood myths. And several researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory believe, based on elevated soot and iridium levels in the soil, that 1 or 2 large meteors exploded in the air over North America about 12,900 years ago, causing climatic stress that may have contributed to the decline of the Clovis Paleo-Indian culture and the extinction of the wooly mammoth, along with most other large mammals in North America. These are all quite recent findings, and there are sure to be more.

Easterbrook believes that the odds of another large asteroid strike in the next century are probably 1 in 10, and that the results will be predictably catastrophic. An ocean impact will produce tsunamis and destroy coastal cities; a land impact will generate huge dust clouds and intense acid rain; both will lead to hard winters and possibly a mini-ice-age. He also believes that it is well within the capability of human beings to prevent such a disaster from happening: assuming astronomers can detect an incoming asteroid (a big assumption, but feasible), the United States or another spacefaring country could simply launch a "gravitational tractor," a large probe which would match the asteroid's velocity and use its own tiny natural gravitational force to deflect the asteroid from its earth-intercepting trajectory. The probe would not have to be manned, but I suppose it could be - it would be nice to give Bruce Willis something to do in his dotage. At any rate, NASA is reluctant to devote any of its scarce resources to asteroid defense, which is considers too science-fictional, and prefers to concentrate instead on practical and down-to-earth projects, like a Moonbase.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Voyagers to the East, Part XX

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

The Inuit (once commonly referred to as Eskimos) were among the last Native Americans to settle in North America, and among the first to encounter Europeans. Arctic hunters of the Dorset and Thule cultures arrived in Alaska by 1000 BC, and migrated thence into northern Canada, reaching Greenland by 1100 AD. There the Inuit encountered the first European settlers in the New World: Norse colonists from Iceland, who had begun colonizing Greenland in 986 AD. The subsequent relationship between Norse and Inuit was not a friendly one. The two peoples did trade with one another - Norse artifacts have been found at Inuit sites off Ellesmere Island - but also fought with one another and competed for resources. The Norse eventually lost this contest: the Little Ice Age cut them off from Iceland and Europe, and as the climate cooled the Inuit proved better able to exploit the island's animal resources. Sometime before 1480, the last Norsemen in Greenland died out. (Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1800 [Cambridge, 1986], 45-54; Eric Wahlgren, The Vikings and America [London, 1986], 16-27).

European contact with the Inuit resumed about 50 years later, but Euro-Inuit relations didn't grow any friendlier. This may have had something to do with Europeans' desire to bring Eskimo captives back to Europe as trophies. In 1536, Englishmen tried to kidnap a party of Native American - probably Inuit - hunters off the Labrador coast. In 1567, French mariners brought an Inuit woman and her daughter to the Netherlands, while Martin Frobisher took another four Inuit captives to England in 1576-77. In 1586 English explorer John Davis captured two Inuit and Inuk men in Greenland, but they probably died before Davis returned to Europe.

Early in the next century, King Christian IV of Denmark commissioned an exploratory voyage to Greenland to determine the fate of the Norse settlements there and revive the Norse-Danish claim to the island. In 1605 three Danish ships under the command of Scottish mariner John Cunningham sailed for Greenland. The vessels successfully crossed the Atlantic, and one, the Loven, traded with the Inuit on Greenland's southwest coast before seizing two men and their kayaks. The Inuit captives violently resisted their imprisonment at first but eventually accepted their fate; perhaps they hoped to make a later escape. In Copenhagen the prisoners were paraded before the King and Queen and participated in a kayak race against a 16-oared Danish vessel. (The race ended in a tie.) Their subsequent fate is unknown.

Cunningham's other two vessels, the Trost and Katten, proceeded up the Greenland coast, skirmished with 30 Eskimos, and captured 3, whom the mariners also displayed in Denmark (after the Inuit prisoners made a failed escape attempt). These captives also participated in kayaking displays - the Spanish ambassador to the Danish court gave them a large cash award for their virtuosity - and purchased much "fashionable clothing" for themselves, including swords and plumed hats. (Some Danish observers referred to the re-costumed Inuit as the "Greenland grandees.") A subsequent Danish expedition tried to take all three captives back to Greenland, but at least two died en route.

The Danes believed that Cunningham's Inuit captives were descendants of the lost Norse colony on Greenland, and they continued their efforts to bring Eskimos - their own purported ethnic relatives - to Europe. There were six Danish and Dutch voyages to Greenland between 1607 and 1654, which brought thirty more Inuit back to Denmark and the Netherlands. Some of the travelers may have been children brought to Denmark for education, as authorized by Christian IV in the 1636 charter of the Danish Greenland Company. The most famous of these captives were an Inuit man, two women, and a girl whom David Daniel captured near Godthaab in 1654. Daniel brought the Greenlanders to Bergen, where they were painted by Salomon van Haven, becoming the first Inuit so represented. (Wendell Oswalt, Eskimos and Explorers [2nd. edition, Lincoln, 1999], 41-43.) The painting can be viewed below:

(The caption on the sign reads "In their small leather ships the Greenlanders sail hither and thither on the ocean; from animals and birds they get their clothes. The cold land of Midnight. Bergen, September 28th, 1654." [Oswalt, 75-76.] Original image from

For the next entry in this series, click here.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

So What?

When asked what makes the study of history a "discipline," academic historians usually respond (after finishing their drinks) that their books and articles don't just describe a particular event or time period - they also attempt to determine the enduring significance of that event or period. Bernard Bailyn, who dominated the Harvard History Department for nearly forty years, had a more succinct way of making this point: in his graduate seminars, he would frequently begin his criticism of a paper or article by asking "So what?"

Recently, a student asked Professor Timothy Burke (of Swarthmore) if historians have a stock answer to that question. The short answer to the student's question is "No," which generates much consternation in graduate seminars and considerable angst in late-career professionals. Burke very usefully sat down and thought up a longer answer to the question, a list of answers in fact, which he recently posted here.

Some of these items appear unhelpful on first glance; for instance, number 2 ("the past is not prologue") and number 10 ("the past is unknowable") suggest that history has nothing to teach the present. Actually, though, one of the most important historical monographs of the twentieth century, C. Vann Woodward's Strange Career of Jim Crow, falls squarely into category 2. By demonstrating that racial segregation was not an old practice in America, but the product of (then) fairly recent laws, Woodward could argue that American racial attitudes were not deeply rooted but were created by political and legal decisions that could be reversed. Woodward's argument was debatable, but it proved highly persuasive: the NAACP entered an early version of the book as evidence in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), and Martin Luther King, Jr. called the book "the historical bible" of the civil rights movement." Would that we could all write something as useful.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Professor Enron

Here's an update to a story I posted nearly two years ago: the University of Missouri has finally filled its Kenneth L. Lay chair in economics. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education (May 2, 2008, p. A25), the university awarded the professorship to Joseph Haslag, "a specialist in monetary policy who has taught at Missouri since 2000." The dean of arts and sciences at Missouri says that the delay in filling the chair was occasioned not by the poor reputation of its endower, but by one of the vicissitudes of the academic labor market: four other professors who were offered the position used the offer to "leverage...raises at their home institutions," and then turned down the Missouri job. The article also noted that there are two other Kenneth Lay endowed chairs in economics at the University of Houston, one currently filled and the other soon to be. One can only hope that the professors who hold these chairs aren't hired as specialists in energy policy or corporate ethics.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Your Apocalypse Updated

Alert reader Elena O'Malley writes that Sean Malloy has taken down the Robert Capp photos I discussed in my post of May 10. Apparently, at least a couple of the photos were not of Hiroshima after all; instead, they display the aftermath of the Kanto Earthquake of 1923. One of the most devastating natural disasters of the twentieth century, the Great Kanto Earthquake leveled the cities of Tokyo and Yokohama and killed somewhere between 105,000 and 140,000 people (depending on how one counts the nearly 40,000 people reported as "missing").

I regret that Prof. Malloy and I (among others) were taken in by false evidence, though Malloy deserves credit for correcting the error so quickly. Meanwhile, we might observe that the Kanto Earthquake produced greater property damage, and possibly more human casualties, than the American nuclear attack on Hiroshima 22 years later - proof, if proof were needed, that Nature is still an effective competitor with humanity in the fields of death, destruction, and disaster.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Visualize Your Apocalypse

Earlier this month the Hoover Institution Archives released ten previously obscure photographs of the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing of 6 August 1945. Most of the publicly available images of post-blast Hiroshima are either antiseptic pictures of the ruins or photos of the burns suffered by survivors, which, while impressive (or gruesome), don't convey the full extent of the carnage. The new photos, which were found in a cave outside the city by American GI Robert Capp, remedy this omission - to say the least. The pictures are very graphic and not for the easily depressed or faint of heart, but if (like me) you have a morbid fascination with nuclear war they can be seen here.

If you prefer a more esthetically pleasing nuclear holocaust, these photos of the French Licorne H-bomb test of 3 July 1970 might appeal. This was one of the largest French atmospheric nuclear tests, and an observer commented at the time that it was "stupendously beautiful." Which is, I guess, what the French look for in a hydrogen bomb.

And if you prefer to look on the lighter side of nuclear war, you could do worse than check out the (slightly dated) Flash animation The End of the World. You'll need a Flash player for the video, and a tolerance for four-letter words. (Though, if you don't mind the idea of nuclear annihilation, a little profanity probably won't bother you too much either.)

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Happy New Year

Today is May Day, and (as all fans of the movie Airplane! know) it is also the Russian New Year. In honor of the occasion, I've posted a photograph of the Siberian city of Tobol'sk, taken in 1912 by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. This is not a tinted black-and-white print, but an actual color photograph, though it was created through a cumbersome process. Prokudin-Gorskii used a special camera which took three photos of the same image - one through a red filter, one through a blue filter, and one through a green filter. He then loaded his glass-plate negatives into a projector which superimposed the three images on one another to create a final color picture. The photo above can be found, along with many other color photographs of late Imperial Russia, in the collection "The Empire that Was Russia" on the Library of Congress website. The site also includes a short essay on Prokudin-Gorskii and on the digital process whereby the Library re-assembled his photos.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Seven Annoying Things about the John Adams Miniseries

Last Sunday I watched all seven episodes of HBO's John Adams series, and was pleasantly surprised by the show's quality. I found the program well-produced, attentive to historical detail, and graced by some very fine performances (notably Paul Giamatti's and Tom Wilkinson's). In all, it was a good evening's entertainment. However, as a historian of early America, I am honor-bound to point out some the series' factual and interpretive flaws, not so much to warn viewers away from it as to explain why I probably won't use John Adams much in my classes, and as part of a cautionary tale warning my readers not to undertake graduate education, lest they lose their ability to enjoy well-made television programs.

Herewith, then, are the things I most disliked about the miniseries:

1) In Episodes 1 and 2, colonial resistance leaders repeatedly say that they object to the policies of "the Crown." Actually, until 1776 the American rebels considered themselves loyal subjects of the King, and insisted that they merely opposed the wicked policies of the British Parliament – forgetting that, by the 18th century, the King was subordinate to the Parliament.

2) At the beginning of Episode 2, a rider tells Adams that "the British" have attacked Concord. Since most white American colonists still considered themselves British in 1775, this would have confused Adams. Paul Revere and other rebel messengers instead called their military adversaries "regulars," "redcoats," and related epithets (e.g. "bloody backs") – that is, they referred to them by their profession, not their nationality.

3) The series portrays George Washington as a genial, even-tempered man, concerned about the well-being of his soldiers during the war, and unable to resist Alexander Hamilton's personality during his presidency. In reality, Washington was cold and aloof in social settings, famous for his volcanic temper, and reckless in battle. Moreover, while Washington frequently took Hamilton's advice during his two terms as president, his final policy decisions were usually his own.

4) Two minor quibbles about the 1790s: Hamilton didn't propose that the federal government create a national debt in 1790, because that debt (to the tune of $54 million) already existed. He instead proposed that the government make the national debt permanent and interest-bearing. Also, Adams didn't cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of Jay's Treaty. No vice president can, or ever will, do this, because treaties require approval of two-thirds of the Senate.

5) The series ascribed President Adams's electoral loss in 1800 to his unpopular decision to negotiate a new peace treaty with France, which supposedly split the Federalist Party. Actually, Adams lost because the Republicans made political hay out of the Alien and Sedition Acts and the new taxes the Federalists levied to finance their projected war with France. President Adams approved of and signed all of these measures.

6) Episode 7 implies that the post-retirement correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson didn't begin until after Abigail's death in 1818. Actually, Abigail Adams was the person who arranged for the two men to resume their correspondence, which would have been difficult if she were dead. Adams and Jefferson subsequently exchanged dozens of detailed, erudite letters over a fourteen-year period.

7) Finally, everyone's accent is crap. Paul Giamatti manages a good eastern New England accent, but practically every other actor or actress either pretends he/she is on Masterpiece Theater, or doesn't bother. It's a jarring omission in an otherwise well-directed and detail-oriented series.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

We Come in Peace, with Snack Chips for All

The domain of human commerce is about to grow dramatically. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that a group of British astronomers plans to transmit a Doritos (TM) commercial - yes, you read that correctly - to the star system 47 Ursae Majoris. The broadcast, according to the article, will "mark the first interplanetary solicitation of the hitherto untapped alien food market." (Aisha Labi, "The Universal Snack," Chronicle of Higher Ed. [March 28, 2008], p. A6.)

47 Ursae Majoris is a G0-1 class star in the constellation Ursa Major, about 46 light-years from Earth. It has at least two Jupiter-sized planets. Researchers at U.T. Arlington believe the star could potentially have one or more rocky planets within its habitable zone (the range of orbits within which liquid water can exist, assuming the theoretical water-bearing planet also has some kind of atmosphere). There's a good article on the star and its known planets here. If there are potential customers in the UMa 47 system, we might expect their earliest snack orders in 2100 AD.

This Interstellar Doritos Initiative reminds me of an economics paper presented at an Ig Nobel Prize ceremony in the 1990s. The paper's author observed that the total value of our planet's imports exceeded the total value of its exports, and argued that this was decisive proof that humans were involved in interstellar trade. "Space aliens," he concluded, "are stealing American jobs."

(The photo above is of a radar dish at the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association station in Norway, which will transmit the UMa 47 Doritos solicitation on June 12th.)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

From Yenisei to Arizona

The March 4th issue of the Anchorage Daily News reported on a fascinating paper by linguist Edward Vajda, who, after ten years of research, has found a solid link between an obscure Siberian language and the large Athabascan (or Na'Dene) language group of western North America. After interviewing many of the surviving speakers of Ket, the language of a native Siberian nation from the Yenisei River valley, Vajda found "several dozen cognates" in the vocabularies of Ket and the Athabaskan languages, and identified consistent morphological rules governing the transformation of Ket words into Athabascan. His findings help to reinforce the Beringian hypothesis of Native American origins - the theory that the ancestors of Native Americans migrated from eastern Siberia during the Pleistocene epoch. If he is correct - and his peers in the field seem to think he is - Vajda has also discovered one of the most widespread human language groups. Pre-historic Ket and Athabascan speakers can be found in Siberia, in the Alaskan panhandle, in western Canada, in California, and in present-day Arizona and New Mexico, where the Athabaskan-speaking Navajos settled around 1400 AD. And they accomplished this expansion without draft animals, wheels, or sailing ships.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Voyagers to the East, Part XIX

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

Native American travel to Europe, voluntary or otherwise, was relatively light during the second half of the sixteenth century, and it remained so into the early 1600s. Most of the Indians who journeyed across the Atlantic during the first two decades of the seventeenth century were brought by Europeans as curiosities, translators, diplomats, or some combination thereof. Most, therefore, traveled singly or in small groups - much smaller than the groups of caciques and slaves brought home by Spanish and Portuguese adventurers in the previous century.

The Indians who traveled to England during the first five years of the new century were cases in point. There were only two documented groups of Native American visitors to England during this period, and each consisted of fewer than half a dozen people - and each traveled involuntarily. In 1603, Walter Raleigh sent a ship to Virginia to determine the fate of the Roanoke colony, which had disappeared (actually, relocated to the Chesapeake Bay) in 1590. The mariners, led by Captain Samuel Mace, did not find the colony, but they did kidnap two Rappahannock men on the Virginia coast, whom the Englishmen brought back to London. The two abductees probably lodged with Sir Robert Cecil at his home on the Strand, and were apparently asked by Sir Walter Cope to put on a public display of canoeing in the Thames (Sept. 1603), which drew a large crowd. Their sojourn probably did not end happily, however, for London was stricken with the Plague that year, and there is no record of these Indians having survived it. (Alden Vaughan, "Sir Walter Ralegh's Indian Interpreters," William and Mary Quarterly 59 [April 2002], 357-358.)

The fate of the other party of Indians brought to England during the opening years of the Stuart era was slightly happier, but their experiences were more harrowing. In 1605, two of Raleigh's business associates sent another expedition to the coast of Maine to search for likely sites for a trading post or colony. The expeditionaries, headed by Captain George Weymouth, landed at Pemaquid that summer and captured five Abenaki men, including a local chief. Weymouth sent these captives - Maniddo, Assacomoit, Skicowaros, Amoret, and Tahanedo (or Dehaneda) - back to England as trophies, along with two canoes and several bows and arrows. The captives received fair treatment from Sir John Popham and Sir Ferdinando Gorges, the two gentlemen who had organized the expedition, and provided them with information on the rivers and Indian communities of Maine, along with a short glossary of the Abenaki language. After spending a year in England, Tahanedo returned to Maine with Popham and Gorges, and helped them establish a short-lived settlement on the Sagadahock River.

Maniddo and Assacomoit also sailed for home in 1606, but their ship, the Richard, was intercepted by a Spanish fleet off the coast of Florida. The two Indians and the English crew were taken back to Spain, where Spanish officials jailed all of them. Gorges eventually ransomed Assacomoit and brought him back to England; in 1614 Assacomoit and two other Indians, probably Skicowaros and Amoret, finally returned to Maine. Maniddo's fate, however, remains unknown; there's a good chance he died in prison in Seville. (Harold Prins, "To the Land of the Mistigoches," American Indian Culture and Research Journal 17 [1993]: 185-186; Alden Vaughan, Transatlantic Encounters: American Indians in Britain, 1500-1776 [Cambridge, 2006], 57-58, 60-63.)

For the next entry in this series, click here.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Of Cellphones and Coffeehouses

The "creative destruction of capitalism," as Joseph Schumpeter famously described the effects of this flawed but powerful economic system, has noteworthy corollaries. One of these concerns a nation's technological development: the ongoing obsolescence of old machinery and the rapid emergence of newer, cheaper replacement technologies means that poor countries often find it easier to go high-tech than to adopt older devices and techniques. In sub-Saharan Africa, this corollary is demonstrated by the widespread demand for cellular telephones in nations which never had more than rudimentary land-lines, and by the ability of telecom companies to meet that demand. Since Africans are finding it easier and cheaper to erect cellphone towers than to string telephone wires, in the field of telecommunications they are jumping directly from the nineteenth to the 21st centuries.

Sub-Saharan Africa is still poor, however, and most cellphone customers there buy prepaid minutes rather than long-term contracts. The downside of this is that phone companies are unwilling to provide African customers with cheap or free cellphones, which they reserve as incentives for contract customers. Thus, there is a large market in Africa for used cellphones, and in today's global economy, people meet that demand in ingenious ways. Consider the following excerpt from a recent article by Jon Mooallem (citing Chinese scholar Jack Qin):

"In Kowloon, Hong Kong, Pakistanis and other immigrants...import phones from Europe by the shipping container. In the past, Nigerians and other African exporters swept in to buy tens of thousands of phones at a time, particularly so-called '14-day phones,' those that have been returned under warranty and used little. But recently...the markets for these phones have become saturated in African cities. So the Nigerians, needing to take their business to poorer African villages, have been leaving Hong Kong for Chinese cities like Guangzhou, where they can purchase cheaper, more heavily used phones...Many Nigerians have learned Mandarin in order to do business in Guangzhou...and the city now has an African-style coffee-shop." (Mooallem, "The Afterlife of Cellphones," New York Times Magazine, 13 January 2008, p. 41.)

So exporters are shipping European cellphones to southern China, where Pakistani immigrants purvey them to Mandarin-speaking African entrepreneurs for eventual resale in rural Nigeria. And there's an African coffeehouse in Guangzhou. Every day, our world is becoming more and more like a Neal Stephenson novel.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Voyagers to the East, Part XVIII

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

My next sixteenth-century digression takes us to Nova Scotia, where, in the 1560s or '70s, French sailors met a Micmac chief named Messamoet, and agreed to take him back to France. The chief spent an unspecified period, perhaps as long as several years, with Msr. de Grandmont, Governor of the City of Bayonne, and learned the French language and some of their customs. Upon his return to Canada Messamoet used his experience and training to become a fur trader and an interpreter for French explorers. He helped Samuel de Champlain map the coast of Maine in 1604, and helped Jean de Biencourt establish Port Royal, the first French settlement in Acadia, two years later.

Harold Prins believes Messamoet may have commanded a crew of Micmacs who acquired a Basque fishing vessel early in the seventeenth century, and who used it to fish and trade up and down the coast from Newfoundland to Maine. English mariners encountered this vessel in 1602 and said that its captain wore a serge waistcoat, European-style breeches, shoes, stockings, and a banded hat, and knew a fair amount of "Christian words."

However successful he might have become as a trader and translator, Messamoet's close contact with Europeans ultimately undid him. In 1610 he accepted baptism from Jesuit missionaries, and shortly thereafter died of an unspecified European illness, which he probably caught from those same missionaries or other Frenchmen at Port Royal. It's surprising, though, that Messamoet still lacked immunity to Old World diseases following several months' or years' residence in France. Perhaps simple age was also to blame: assuming Messamoet was in his twenties when he first traveled to France, and that he did so no later than 1580, he would have been in his late fifties or sixties by the time he died. (Harold Prins, "To the Land of the Mistigoches," 188; see also Samuel Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas His Pilgrimes [1625; reprint, Glasgow, 1906], 18:265)

For the next entry in this series, click here.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Voyagers to the East, Part XVII

For the previous entry in this series, click here.

The last few posts in this series were an extended digression on Brazilian visitors to Europe, voluntary and otherwise, between 1503 and 1616. I would like to make two more digressions into the sixteenth century, describing three different groups of Native American travelers to Europe, before resuming my chronological narrative where I left it, at the turn of the seventeenth century.

The first digression takes place seven years after the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan fell to Spanish adventurers under Hernan Cortes. In 1528, Cortes made a triumphant visit to Spain, where he was presented to Emperor Charles V at his court in Toledo. Accompanying Cortes were many trophies of his conquest: tropical birds and animals, samples of amber and oil, and at least twelve Mexican Indians, most of whom appear to have come to Toledo voluntarily. The delegation included five Indian acrobats who, according to Bernal Diaz, "seem[ed] to fly in the air while dancing;" four Indian jugglers who could juggle sticks with their feet; three hunchbacked dwarves; two or three caciques, or local Aztec chiefs; and one of the sons of Montezuma, the slain Aztec monarch. The scholar Harold Prins believes that Montezuma's son and the caciques, all of whom probably came to Toledo to increase their domestic political prestige, may well have been able to return home from Spain. The jugglers and other entertainers, however, went to Italy to entertain Pope Clement VII, who apparently persuaded them to remain as permanent members of his court. (Harold Prins, "To the Land of the Mistigoches: American Indians Traveling to Europe in the Age of Exploration," American Indian Culture and Research Journal 17 [1993]:175-195, esp. 189; see also Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America [1984; reprint, New York: HarperCollins, 1997], 129-130.)

In the same year of 1528, another delegation of Indians arrived in Toledo, led by another would-be conquistador, Francisco Pizarro. The three visitors were native Peruvians from the coastal community of Tumbez, whom Pizarro had met while exploring the region the previous year, and whom he brought to Spain for training as translators. We rarely learn of the fate of Indian translators in Europe, but not so in this case. One of the Tumbez travelers, a boy who received the Spanish name Felipillo, later returned with Pizarro to Peru, where he helped poison relations between the conquistador and the Inca monarch Atahualpa by maliciously mis-translating the emperor's speeches. (William Prescott, The Conquest of Peru, Vol. 1, pp. 292-3, 301-314.)

In some ways, then, these two groups of Indian travelers to Spain in 1528 are mirror images of one another: one party symbolized the successful conquest of a Native American empire, while the other played a critical role in starting the conquest of another.

For the next entry in this series, click here.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Joke(s) of the Day

Time Magazine's 2007 Person of the Year issue may have dismayed advocates of a democratic Russia, but its profile of Vladimir Putin was well balanced - and it demonstrated that whatever changes have occurred in the past eight years, Russians retain their taste for political black humor. Here is a joke about Putin and one of his predecessors from Time's December 31st cover story:

"Stalin's ghost appears to Putin in a dream, and Putin asks for his help running the country. Stalin says, 'Round up and shoot all the democrats, and then paint the inside of the Kremlin blue.' 'Why blue?' Putin asks. 'Ha!' says Stalin. 'I knew you wouldn't ask me about the first part.'" (p. 50)

And here is another joke about Putin and his presumed successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, whom most Russians assume will serve as Putin's lackey after his predecessor becomes prime minister:

"Putin goes to a restaurant with Medvedev and orders steak. The waiter asks, 'And what about the vegetable?' Putin answers, 'The vegetable will have steak too.'" (p. 55)