Archive for the ‘History’ category

Eclipses Make People Crazy, Daniel Defoe Edition

August 6, 2017

So:  some folks choked on Annie Dillard’s perhaps overly magniloquent response to her eclipse, so here’s something quite different for the more Augustan among us.

For reasons not relevant to this post, I am this morning nosing around Daniel Defoe’s writing from the late 1710s, and just a few minutes ago I stumbled upon this hoot of a passage from the second volume of The Family Instructor:

It happen’d once, that a Discourse began between the Father and Mother about the Eclipse of the Sun, which fell out in April 22. 1715.

The Eclipse of the Sun was the Subject of all Con|versation at that time, having been, as is well known, so Total, and the Darkness so great, as that the like had not been known in that Age, or some hundreds of Years before.

The Wife had enquired of her Husband, what the Nature of the Thing was, and he was describing it to her and the Children in a familiar way; and, as I said, that a kind of Reflection upon one another was the usual Issue of their common Discourse, so it was there; the Husband tells her, that the Moon was like a cross Wife, that when she was out of Humour, could Thwart and Eclipse her Husband whenever she pleased; and that if an ill Wife stood in the Way, the brightest Husband could not shine.

She flew in a Passion at this, and being of a sharp Wit, you do well, says she, to carry your Emblem to a suitable height; I warrant, you think a Wife, like the Moon, has no Light but what she borrows from her Husband, and that we can only shine by Reflecti|on; it is necessary then you should know, she can Eclipse him when she pleases.

Ay, ay, says the Husband, but you see when she does, she darkens the whole House, she can give no Light without him.

Ʋpon this she came closer to him.
Wife.

I suppose you think you have been Eclips’d lately, we don’t see the House is the darker for it.

Husband.

That’s because of your own Darkness; I think the House has been much the darker.

Wife:

None of the Family are made sensible of it, we don’t miss your Light.

Husb.

It’s strange if they don’t, for I see no Light you give in the room of it.

Wife.

We are but as dark as we were before; for we were none of us the better for all your Hypocri|tical Shining.

Husb.

Well, I have done shining, you see; the Darkness be at your Door.

It’s evident that both meant here, his having left off Family-Worship; and it is apparent, both were come to a dreadful Extremity in their Quarrel.
Wife.

At my Door! am I the Master of the Fami|ly! don’t lay your Sins to my Charge.

Husb.

No, no; but your own I may; It is the Retrograde Motion of the Moon that causes an E|clipse.

Wife.

Where all was dark before, there can be no Eclipse.

Husb.

Your Sin is, that my Light is your Darkness.

Wife.

That won’t excuse you, if you think it a Sin; can you not do what you please without me?

My advice to the husband? Don’t throw shade when your own wit is so poorly lit.

Image: Edmund Halley, A Description of the Passage of the Shadow of the Moon over England In the Total Eclipse of the SUN on the Day of April 1715 in the morning.

John Locke, A Thermometer, A Bullet, And What Gets Lost When Feral Children Break Things

May 7, 2017

I’ve got a piece in today’s Boston Globe that takes a kind of odd look at why Trump’s dalliance with destroying NATO was so pernicious.

Basically, I look at what goes into making an alliance or any complex collaboration function.  Spoiler alert: it’s not the armchair strategist focus on troop numbers or budget levels.  It is, rather, the infrastructure, in its material and especially social forms that determine whether joint action can succeed.

To get there I leap from the story of something as basic as agreeing on one common cartridge to be used across the alliance to an anecdote from the early days of the scientific revolution, when John Locke (yup, that Locke) left his borrowed rooms in a house in Essex to check the readings from the little weather station he’d set up at the suggestion of Robert Hooke.

A sample:

While this first step toward the standardization of the tools of science was a milestone, it took the development of a common process — shared habits, ways of working — to truly transform the eager curiosity of the 17th and 18th centuries into a revolutionary new approach to knowledge, the one we now call science. In 1705, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society published an article by the philosopher John Locke. It was a modest work, just a weather diary: a series of daily observations of temperature, barometric pressure, precipitation, cloud cover. He was a careful observer, working with the best available instruments, a set built by Tompion himself. On Sunday, Dec. 13, 1691, for example, Locke left his rooms just before 9 a.m. The temperature was 3.4 on Tompion’s scale — a little chilly, but not a hard frost. Atmospheric pressure had dropped slightly compared to the day before, 30 inches of mercury compared to 30.04. There was a mild east wind, 1 on Locke’s improvised scale, enough to “just move the leaves.” The cloud cover was thick and unbroken — which is to say it was an entirely unsurprising December day in the east of England: dull, damp, and raw.

The reasoning does, I think, more or less come together — and you might enjoy reading such a convoluted bit of historical argument.

In any event, posting this here lets me thank Adam Silverman, who talked through some of the ideas with me and gave me other valuable help. Any errors you might find within the piece are all mine.

Image: Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Nagamaya Yaichi Ducking Bullets1878.

What’s All That Wet Stuff In My Eyes?

February 13, 2017

I just watched this, and I can’t quite explain why my vision went all damp and blurry for a moment there:

This one rings across so many of the changes being played right now.  I won’t rabbit on about them; I think the film speaks for itself far better than any commentary could.

But I will say that it made me feel moved, sad, redeemed, and reminded of what’s worth fighting for in the here and now.

And with that…over to y’all.

A Shuttered Past

November 21, 2015

I think we need some antidote to the depths of derp we’ve seen (and on this blog picked over with all the horror that follows a good look at last night’s supper this morning) coming from the Syrians Are Coming brigade of bed-wetters.

So, instead, let’s take a look at someone who used their media smarts for good — and, in doing so, helped forge the chain that led to the fact (glory be) that we have the president we do right now, serving as a bulwark against the stupid that would have toppled a lesser person.

That would be this man:

Frederick_Douglass_c1860s

That’s Frederick Douglass, of course, in a shot taken in the 1860s.

Here he is as a younger man:

Unidentified_Artist_-_Frederick_Douglass_-_Google_Art_Project-restore

And in old age:

Frederick_Douglass_LOC_collodion_c1865-80

Those are three of the 160 surviving photographs taken of Douglass — a figure that currently ranks as the most confirmed separate portraits taken of any American in the 19th century.*  Scholars John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd and Celeste Marie-Bernier have a new book out, Picturing Frederick Douglass,  In it they use a sequence of images to drive a new biography of Douglass, and in doing so allow us to see technological change as it was lived — and used — by a brilliant observer of his own life and times.  As the authors write in the introduction, Douglass loved photography, and saw it as an exceptionally potent tool for making the world a different and better place. Douglass loved the fact that

What was the special and exclusive of the rich and great is now the privilege of all. The humblest servant girl may now possess a picture of herself such as the wealth of kings could not purchase 50 years ago.

In that context Stauffer, Trodd and Marie-Bernier make the case that Douglass saw photography as  tool to alter social reality:

Poets, prophets and reformers are all picture-makers–and this ability is the secret of their power and of their achievements. They see the what ought to be by the reflection of what is, and endeavor to remove the contradiction.

Such reasoning (and more besides) led Douglass to the photographer’s studio over and over again, actively seeking out the camera as a tool that could help him create the reality of African-American humanity, presence, significance.

Photography allowed him to be seen.  In that determined, asserted presence,  you have (it seems to me) an early herald of of the circumstances in which Barack Obama could become president.  Alas, in the fact of the racist and vicious forces with which Douglass had to contend, we can be similarly reminded that in our times the sight of a black man commanding our gaze drives too many among us into spasms of demented, terribly dangerous rage.

But put that aside for a second, and look at some fabulous images of an extraordinary — and extraordinary-looking — man.  (A few more examples.)

And if you feel the need for some open thread, well take that too.

*The runners up are cool too:  In the research for this book, the authors found George Armstrong Custer, that avatar of puffed-up vanity taking second place, with 155 portraits.  Red Cloud came next at 128, followed by Whitman and Lincoln at 127 and 126, the poet and his captain connected again.  It seems likely, according to these writers, that when further work is done, Ulysses S. Grant may trump them all, but that doesn’t change the point of what Douglass set out to do.

Images:

1.  c. 1860s

2.  c. 1850, daguerrotype

3. before 1880, Brady-Handy collection.

For A Good Time In Cambridge (This Thursday)

October 6, 2015

Yo! Local Juicers — if you’ve reserved Thursday evening for watching paint dry, I have an alternative.

I’m going to be moderating a really excellent iteration of the MIT Communications Forum — this time co-sponsored by our city-wide celebration Hub Week.

I’ll be very lightly riding herd on Annalee Newitz and Charles C. Mann as they wonder about how (and whether) study of the past can help us prepare for the future — with the possibility of apocalypse included.

Brueghel-tower-of-babel

Both are wonderful writers and thinkers.  Annalee was the founding editor of io9, and is now Gizmodo’s Grand Poobah.  She’s written Scatter, Adapt and Remember:  How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, which was, inter alia, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. She’s at work now on a history of the city (and its possible future) — and more besides.

Charles  has been producing erudite and elegant science writing for yonks*. He’s perhaps best known for 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus which won the the National Academies of Sciences Keck award as best popular science book of the year.  He followed that up with 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Createdand is at work now on The Wizard and the Prophet, which he describes as a book about the future which makes no predictions. (Yogi would approve.)

Time:  5-7 p.m., Thursday, October 8.

Place:  MIT Building 3, room 270.  Interactive map here.

PS:  If you’re into some long distance planning, I’ve got a couple of events coming up in support of my long-teased new book, The Hunt for Vulcan: and how Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe.  The book is timed to the centennial of Einstein’s discovery of the General Theory of Relativity, which he completed in November, 1915, and it gets to that striking moment through a marvelous oddity of a story from 19th century solar-system astronomy, the repeated discovery of a planet that should have existed, but didn’t.  The appearance and then vanishing of the planet Vulcan is not just a curiosity, (or so it seems to me), as its history reveals a great deal about what it takes for science really to change under the pressure of inconvenient fact.

Anyway — the book comes out on Tuesday, November 3, and we are in the midst of planning a launch event at the MIT Museum.  That will most likely run from 6-7:30, with details to come soon.

Then, at 7 p.m. on Thursday, November 12, I’ll be doing a reading and signing at my local:  Brookline Booksmith.  Stop by if you’re in the neighborhood.

*Yonks being a unit of measure of time roughly equal to more than you thought.

Image: Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Tower of Babel, 1563

Paul Revere’s Metadata

June 10, 2013

This is a sophisticated audience, so I’ve no doubt folks here grasp how intrusive (i.e. revealing) metadata can be.  But even those fully up on network analysis and related crafts may find this from  Kieren Healy amusing — and useful in explaining why this stuff does matter to your friends and family who may be in the “if they’re not listening in, I don’t care” crowd:

Grant_Wood_The_Midnight_Ride_of_Paul_Revere_1931

London, 1772.

I have been asked by my superiors to give a brief demonstration of the surprising effectiveness of even the simplest techniques of the new-fangled Social Networke Analysis in the pursuit of those who would seek to undermine the liberty enjoyed by His Majesty’s subjects. This is in connection with the discussion of the role of “metadata” in certain recent events and the assurances of various respectable parties that the government was merely “sifting through this so-called metadata” and that the “information acquired does not include the content of any communications”. I will show how we can use this “metadata” to find key persons involved in terrorist groups operating within the Colonies at the present time. I shall also endeavour to show how these methods work in what might be called a relational manner.

The analysis in this report is based on information gathered by our field agent Mr David Hackett Fischer and published in an Appendix to his lengthy report to the government. As you may be aware, Mr Fischer is an expert and respected field Agent with a broad and deep knowledge of the colonies. I, on the other hand, have made my way from Ireland with just a little quantitative training—I placed several hundred rungs below the Senior Wrangler during my time at Cambridge—and I am presently employed as a junior analytical scribe at ye olde National Security Administration. Sorry, I mean the Royal Security Administration. And I should emphasize again that I know nothing of current affairs in the colonies. However, our current Eighteenth Century beta of PRISM has been used to collect and analyze information on more than two hundred and sixty persons (of varying degrees of suspicion) belonging variously to seven different organizations in the Boston area.

Rest assured that we only collected metadata on these people, and no actual conversations were recorded or meetings transcribed. All I know is whether someone was a member of an organization or not. Surely this is but a small encroachment on the freedom of the Crown’s subjects. I have been asked, on the basis of this poor information, to present some names for our field agents in the Colonies to work with. It seems an unlikely task.

So what did our humble toiler in the fields find?

…Mr Revere—along with Messrs Urann, Proctor, and Barber—appears towards the top or our list.

So, there you have it.  From a table of membership in different groups we have gotten a picture of a kind of social network between individuals, a sense of the degree of connection between organizations, and some strong hints of who the key players are in this world. And all this—all of it!—from the merest sliver of metadata about a single modality of relationship between people…

I admit that, in addition to the possibilities for finding something interesting, there may also be the prospect of discovering suggestive but ultimately incorrect or misleading patterns. But I feel this problem would surely be greatly ameliorated by more and better metadata. At the present time, alas, the technology required to automatically collect the required information is beyond our capacity. But I say again, if a mere scribe such as I—one who knows nearly nothing—can use the very simplest of these methods to pick the name of a traitor like Paul Revere from those of two hundred and fifty four other men, using nothing but a list of memberships and a portable calculating engine, then just think what weapons we might wield in the defense of liberty one or two centuries from now.

Much more good stuff at the link, showing the steps of a simple network analysis (and offering further links to the underlying data, if anyone wants to play with the idea a bit themselves.  Also, Healy pointed to this paper by Shin-Kap Han (PDF), which performs a similar analysis on the roles of Paul Revere and Joseph Warren in much greater depth.

Image:  Grant Wood, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, 1931

Happy Emancipation Day

January 1, 2013

One hundred and fifty years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Emancipation_proclamation

Here’s the money quote:

Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

The proclamation was limited, as the National Archives’ online exhibit on the document (linked above) makes clear:

It applied only to states that had seceded from the Union, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also expressly exempted parts of the Confederacy that had already come under Northern control. Most important, the freedom it promised depended upon Union military victory.

It was, however, critical:

Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not end slavery in the nation, it captured the hearts and imagination of millions of Americans and fundamentally transformed the character of the war. After January 1, 1863, every advance of federal troops expanded the domain of freedom. Moreover, the Proclamation announced the acceptance of black men into the Union Army and Navy, enabling the liberated to become liberators. By the end of the war, almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors had fought for the Union and freedom.

Major_Martin_Delany

Lincoln faced criticism at the time for the proclamation — from the Confederacy, of course, who threatened all kinds of terrors for any captured black soldiers and their officers, black or white — and also from some of his own supporters, for whom the cautious limitations of the document seemed weak in the face of an obvious moral imperative.  Most famously, in the autumn of 1862, Lincoln himself disavowed overt abolitionism in the most public of possible ways in a letter to Horace Greeley, the great abolitionist publisher and editor of the The New York Tribune. Historian Eugene Berwanger writes:

Between the cabinet meeting in July and the issuance of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, Lincoln sought to prepare the citizenry for its impact. Hence the letter to Horace Greeley on August 22, in which Lincoln offered ample justification of his views on slavery vis à vis the Union. “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by Page  [End Page 31] freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about salvery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help save the Union.”…

Caution, constraint, a limited view of ends — all on display there, in what seems as clear as could be an indictment of the limits of Lincoln’s moral universe.  Except, of course, that Lincoln was no Elijah, a prophet alone, with no duty but to the compulsion within.  Berwanger continues:

However, when the letter is given proper chronological context, showing that Lincoln had already formulated the Emancipation Proclamation and was merely awaiting the propitious moment for its announcement, the statement takes on a different tone. It was Lincoln’s own way of softening the blow of military emancipation for the conservative elements. In a sense, he was preparing the public for what he knew was to come. By stressing the Union as his primary concern, Lincoln hoped to make emancipation more palatable for those opposing it. And, of course, the best way to reach as wide an audience as possible was through the New York Tribune, the largest newspaper in the nation. Even as he issued the final document to the nation in 1863, Lincoln continued to stress the theme of military necessity for emancipation.

And what of the actual limits of the Proclamation, most notably the refusal to free slaves already under Union authority?  Here’s a reminder of the circumstances in which Lincoln constructed his document:

… Lincoln, ever the careful lawyer, knew that his presidential `war powers’ only ran as far as actual warfare ran, and neither the border states nor the occupied districts were at war with federal authority on January 1, 1863. Making the proclamation legally challenge-proof forced him to restrain “my oft expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free,” as well as muting any flights of eloquence about justice. Still, the Proclamation not only provided the legal title to freedom that slaves could claim once the Union armies arrived, it also opened the gates to the enlistment of black soldiers in the Union army. And once in the uniform of the Union, Lincoln could no longer keep up the pretense of denying blacks equal civil rights. “As I live,” Lincoln promised a crowd of jubilant blacks in Richmond in April, 1865, “no one shall put a shackle on your limbs, and you shall have all the rights which God has given to every other free citizen of this Republic.”

I’ll leave as a sermon unsaid the resonance Lincoln’s reticence in the face of political realities may have during the presidency of his first African-American successor.  Better, I think, simply to celebrate the day when the United States took one step — a great one, but only one — towards its ideal of a more perfect Union.

A lagniappe:  I heard on the radio today that Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society performed yesterday at the Museum of African American History in town, singing selections from their concert in 1863 celebrating the promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation.  According to the report I heard, the program included this piece.

(and yes — I know that this performance is not from H & H.  I liked some of the other associations.  Sue me.)

Images: Francis Bicknell Carpenter, First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln, 1864

Unknown artist, lithograph portrait of Major Martin R. Delaney, the highest ranking black officer in the Union Army 1865.