Someone Was Wrong On The Internet

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Thursday 11 August 2016

No, this blog isn't dead yet...but...

No, I'm not abandoning my blog; however, there's lots going on so I thought I'd drop an update here. First, I did very little last year at this site since I spent my spare time writing a rather involved research paper for the Tudor Society, including lots of paleography and Latin translation. That paper got me something I've been working toward for a long time now: a request from a real world publisher for me to write a real book. So now I'm working on writing a biography of Henry Parker, Lord Morley, who is probably the most important early-Tudor man of letters you've never heard of... No, seriously, the problem with Tudor history is that everyone fixates on the soap opera of Henry the VIII and his too-many wives, two of whom he executed. Such a nice guy!

Lord Morley's wife was Henry VIII's second cousin, and he was Henry VIII's third cousin once removed by marriage, and Henry VIII's actual eleventh cousin four times removed (or something like that...but I'm too lazy this morning to recount it to be sure). He was the Baron of Morley, Marshal and Rhie, which made him one of the most senior barons in the kingdom and a descendant of the Norman conquerors of England. He grew up in the household of Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, who was the mother of Henry VII. His mother was a cousin of the infamous Viscount Lovell, Lord Chamberlain to Richard III and his father was one of Richard III's privy counselors and one of his banner bearers at the Battle of Bosworth.

Henry Parker was the first translator of both Plutarch and Petrarch into English. That's why he's important to the world of English literature. He's also one of the two most quoted primary sources on the life of Margaret Beaufort.

The reason Henry Parker is interesting is because he lived and observed first-hand the courts of six different sovereigns of England, making him the proverbial fly-on-the-wall for most of the important events of pre-Tudor and early-Tudor times. His letters and literary works capture a unique viewpoint of Tudor history. He played an extremely minor role politically but he present for almost everything major that happened with Henry VIII. And last, and actually in my book, least: he was the father of the infamous Lady Rochford, one of the best known, most reviled and falsely maligned "traitors" of Henry VIIi's reign.

Unlike several of his peers and colleagues from the Tudor court, Henry Parker, Lord Morley managed to die peacefully in his own bed. Given his very close ties to both the Boleyns and the Howards, factional families who were "lightened" of both influence and a few heads, that' an accomplishment. In that respect at least, he resembles Claudius, the great survivor of the early Roman Empire.

I'm thinking of titling the book as "Father of a Traitor" only because it is an attention-getter, with the subtitle of "the most important early Tudor man of letters you've never heard of." A good title and a good cover are everything in the book business. Anyway, that's what's up while I'm neglecting my various blogs (this isn't my only one) so hang in there for a few more months. I hope to be done writing by December 2016.

Sunday 26 July 2015

Did George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford's Action Figure Do Drugs?

I'm sure all of your are keenly interested in George Neville, 1st Duke or Bedford, and the drug problem his action figure might have, except that ol' George there is dead, he wasn't really the first Duke of Bedford, and the allegations regarding his action figure are greatly exaggerated by someone who was wrong on the internet. But before we go down this road, we first need to discuss aggregators on the internet, what they are and how they work because today's subject is about the foibles - one might even say evils - of internet aggregators with the usual cautionary admonitions not to believe everything you read. So before we can get to the all important topic of the Duke of Bedford's action figure, let's start with the first internet aggregators to become popular, the news aggregators. A news aggregator is:

"client software or a web application which aggregates syndicated web content such as online newspapers, blogs, podcasts, and video blogs (vlogs) in one location for easy viewing." (1)

That's it in a sound bite: news aggregators crawl other internet content and assemble what they find in one place for the convenience of visitors to aggregator websites. A good example is one of the first well-known internet aggregators: Google News. Like any means of delivering information to people, not all aggregators are created equal. Certainly Google News is on the upper end of content quality in the land of internet aggregators; and I think anyone can think of at least one news aggregator that's an internet equivalent of the National Enquirer.

I'm sure that a lot of folks have had their time wasted by opportunistic aggregators that attempt to be an end-all source of information on one specific subject by aggregating all mentions of that subject and repackaging it. An example of this phenomenon is dexknows.com, which is a business information aggregator. If you are looking for a particular type of business in a town, chances are that any internet search engine will return a top level result from dexknows.com. This dexknows.com result will present you with info about business in that town that its software has aggregated from other sites on the internet. Where dexknows.com fails is for businesses in small towns. The aggregation software tries too hard to deliver a result - any result - as opposed to telling the user it has no information. The aggregator has the same problem as a know-it-all who just can't admit that he or she doesn't know something.

Here's a good example of aggregator absurdity using dexknows.com. Let's use the small town of McIntosh, South Dakota, population 176, which is pleasant small town three miles south from the state border with North Dakota, some 40 miles west of the Missouri River. The land is prairie of rolling low rolling hills, where the most visible industry is ranching. I own some farmland there, land that my great grandfather homesteaded in the 1880s. It's a nice place where solid, salt-of-the-earth, honest and hardworking people live. The little reservoir there is a great fishing spot and when it comes to hunting, you can't beat that part of the Dakotas for the quality of its pheasant hunting

So here's what happens if your do an internet search for restaurants in McIntosh: dexknows.com will tell you that there are two restaurant results for McIntosh - Maverick Steakhouse & Cocktails and Bully's Chop House, both of which just happen to have addresses in Aberdeen, South Dakota. If you know nothing about South Dakota, let me be the first to inform you that Aberdeen is about 150 miles to the east of McIntosh. To my best knowledge of having been there, I believe there is only one restaurant in town, the Main Street Bar and Cafe - but it burnt down last year and I don't know if it's been rebuilt or moved to another building.

Aggregators on the internet are only as good as the intelligence of their software, which brings us to hot topic of George Neville's action figure's drug addiction - and yes, you're right: that funny odor you've noticed coming from this blog is the sweet smell of sarcasm!

There's an aggregator I just noticed today called vipfaq.com. I found this wonderful little gossip aggregation site while doing a search on trying to ascertain the cause of death in 1483 of George Neville, formerly the Duke of Bedford and heir presumptive to the throne of England. He had not a great life. His father was John Neville, Marquess of Montagu, the brother of Richard Neville, Earl or Warwick, the famous Kingmaker of England's Wars of the Roses. George's father and uncle died at the Battle of Barnet in 1471, which their side lost. Needless to say, George lost his title and most of his Neville lands after the victorious Edward IV had his father and uncle labeled by Parliament as traitors. George ended up with greatly diminished prospects under the guardianship of his second cousin, the future Richard III, then Duke of Gloucester. George Neville died unmarried at the age of 22 at the Castle of Sheriff Hutton, just north of the city of York (2). I still haven't found anything on his cause of death - but I'm not done searching yet. I got distracted from my search by vipfaq.com's website popping up in the midst of my web searches on George Neville's cause of death.

First off, I was really surprised to find that vipfaq.com is a bit confused about when George Neville died. Here's what vipfaq had to say about George Neville's death (3):

Is George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford still alive? Are there any death rumors?....... Unfortunately no, George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford is not alive anymore. The death rumors are true.

This is right next to this tidbit:

How old was George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford when he/she died?........ George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford was 532 years old when he/she died.

Plus there's this:

When did George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford die? How long ago was that?........ George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford died on the 4th of May 1483, which was a Friday. The tragic death occurred 532 years ago.

Well, George's death was indeed tragic, at least for him...but what's with the date of death confusion? Did he die at the age of 532, which would have been his age in 1993 - he was born in 1461 - or did he die in 1483, 532 years ago? I think someone needs to check their SQL or PHP code and fix that math mistake in the software.

The information from vipfaq.com is just fascinating for the details it reveals about George Neville, especially for me since I have been having such problems finding good information about his life and death. For example, about that action figure...

Are there any books, DVDs or other memorabilia of George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford? Is there a George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford action figure?........ We would think so. You can find a collection of items related to George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford right here.

The words "right here" at the end of that quote are hyperlinked text which when clicked on will take the user to:

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss? url=search-alias%3Daps & field-keywords=George%20Neville%201st%20Duke%20of%20Bedford & tag=fairymeadows-20.

This lands the user on Amazon's website, bring up the results of a search through Amazon's online products in all categories on their website for items related to George Neville, 1st Duke of Bedford. Now look carefullly at the end of the URL address: I have no idea what "fairymedows-20" is for at the end of the web address for a search on amazon.com, and I'm not sure I really want to know.

Now when I followed this link myself, here's a partial list in order of what Amazon presented to me as items that might satisfy the criteria of being memorabilia of ol' George Neville and perhaps even his action figure:

  • A New Benchmark In Marriage Guide - 267 Success Secrets, Paperback, by Dorothy Simpson. A book full of information and trivia about marriage.
  • The White Queen, Philippa Gregory's racy bodice-ripper romance disguised as historical fiction, which was made into a racy and just-as-inaccurate mini-series on TV. I'm still trying to figure out why every suit of armour in the mini-series was missing its right pauldron.
  • An autograph of Neville Duke, the famous British WWII ace.
  • A CD of selections of movie music from famous British films.
  • Several more books, both biography and historical fiction about prominent War of the Roses and Tudor women.
  • A 1975 reprint of the first DC Comics Flash for $15. What a rip-off! It's not worth that because it's not the real first edition - it's just a reprint.

Now, did you see any action figure there? I didn't either. Right now I'm feeling very disappointed. After all, you can get action figures of Richard Wagner, Funko-Pop Mister Rogers and Joseph Stalin (4). So why shouldn't there be a George Neville action figure, perhaps of him at age nine attending his betrothal ceremony with Elizabeth of York, future queen of Henry VII?

Given that vipfaq.com is a celebrity gossip aggregator, some of the more colorful sorts of information are collected by this site. For example, the following:

Many people enjoy sharing rumors about the sexuality and sexual orientation of celebrities. We don't know for a fact whether George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford was gay, bisexual or straight. However, feel free to tell us what you think! Vote by clicking below.

What followed here was a poll where you could vote for gay, straight or bi sexual preference for George Neville, former Duke of Bedford. The poll was followed by poll results to date:

100% of all voters think that George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford was gay (homosexual), 0% voted for straight (heterosexual), and 0% like to think that George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford was actually bisexual.

There was also financial information on George Neville, which surprised me since it was dead wrong. George Neville had an income of 400 pounds a year at the time he died, which for the year 1483 was a lot of money. Here's vipfaq.com on the subject:

What is George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford's net worth in 2015? How much does George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford earn?........ According to various sources, George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford's net worth has grown significantly in 2015. However, the numbers vary depending on the source.

Of course, there was some discussion of recreational drug abuse:

Did George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford do drugs? Did George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford smoke cigarettes or weed? It is no secret that many celebrities have been caught with illegal drugs in the past. Some even openly admit their drug usuage. Do you think that George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford did smoke cigarettes, weed or marijuhana? Or did George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford do steroids, coke or even stronger drugs such as heroin? Tell us your opinion below.

The results of this website poll were:

0% of the voters think that George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford did do drugs regularly, 0% assume that George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford did take drugs recreationally and 0% are convinced that George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford has never tried drugs before.

Not exactly helpful, was it? How will parents know if George Neville as a public figure is a good role model for their children if people don't make their opinions known?

Last, vipfaq.com brings up a vital subject that needs to be out in the open about every important public figure, living or deceased:

Are there any photos of George Neville 1st Duke of Bedford's hairstyle or shirtless?........There might be. But unfortunately we currently cannot access them from our system. We are working hard to fill that gap though, check back in tomorrow!

Needless to say, I will be checking their gossip aggregator daily now to get news on this vital question. Oh, yeah! George Neville, tragic romance figure beef cake and victim of those terrible Plantagenets! I MUST score a pic of the dude shirtless, gels! I'll pin him up next to my pic of Charlton Heston from the mud pit scene in The Ten Commandments.

shirtless.png

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/News_aggregator (accessed 26 Jul 15)
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Neville,_1st_Duke_of_Bedford (accessed 26 Jul 15)
  3. http://www.vipfaq.com/George%20Neville%201st%20Duke%20of%20Bedford.html (accessed 26 Jul 15)
  4. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Accoutrements-11444-WAGNER-ACTION-FIGURE/dp/B000BY29B8, http://neighborhoodarchive.com/articles/20140210_custompop/index.html, http://www.amazon.com/KING-JOSEPH-STALIN-ACTION-FIGURE/dp/images/B006MZKG6K (all accessed 26 Jul 15)

Sunday 4 May 2014

Humor, Memes, and the Historical Roots of Inequality

Be warned that today, I'm going to ramble all over the place.

The News and Internet Memes

There are some items reported in various news media that seem to live lives far longer than what their inital value may warrant. This idiocy of mountainous coverage of mole hill news often appears to be the product of the dreaded "slow news day." Some of it is merely the churn of 24/7 news-on-demand where Andy Warhol's apocryphal 15 minutes of fame means that reporters and editors are obliged to create a metaphorical 24 hrs/0.25 hrs = 96 new news items per day. In a world with such a demand for the latest and greatest news items, it's no stretch to see that some of those 96 daily items of "news" will end up being mostly trivial coverage of mole hills to the detriment of reportage of mountains.

One can certainly find trivial news and its mockery aplenty. Small town newspapers abound with such items as:

"12:47 p.m.-- A resident of High Street reported that someone came into house while she was gone, shaved her dog and took her cell phone charger" (1)

Items like this often live far longer than is justified simply because they are humorous to just about anyone other then the soul who made the original report and now live long lives on the internet, passed in unnumbered Facebook and Twitter "shares." I have to wonder if the persistence of this particular item lives on because it evokes that episode of the cartoon Courage the Cowardly Dog where the Fred, the deranged barber pursued just about everyone but Muriel to give them a buzz cut (2).

Humor

The reduction of trivial though funny happenstance into memes on the internet has become as cliche as "all your base are belong to us" (3). The celebration and perpetration of the humorously trivial in the news by such venues like fark.com no doubt will be the subject of many anthropology and sociology dissertations for years to come. Sometimes it's not even the churn of news that sends such unimportant items into perpetual orbit on the internet. Back in 1994, back when web pages were really in their infancy, Compuserve still existed, USENET newsgroups were the rage and one could buy "Internet in a Box," someone passed a mimeographed page of church bulletin bloopers around in choir practice at my church in St. Louis. This venerable collection has since found its way onto the internet where one can find its several permutations on many church related blogs and websites (4, 5) where can one discover such gems like:

"Tuesday at 4:00 p.m. there will be an ice cream social. All ladies giving milk will please come early."

and

"The sermon this morning: Jesus Walks on the Water. The sermon tonight: Searching for Jesus."

Spreading harmless humor on the internet might arguably be one of the best uses. It is tempting to say that the proliferation of needless and trivial news might one of the worst, but it is not in comparison to the truly criminal uses of the net such as fraud, con jobs, sexual stalking of minors, and the like. In a world where every amateur blogger can pursue delusions of being a real journalist, items like

"Miss Charlene Mason sang ‘I will not pass this way again,’ giving obvious pleasure to the congregation"

don't seem so bad.

Mountains from Mole Hills due to Politics

There are some items pursued in the news media that while newsworthy, do garner attention far beyond their worth. The Keystone XL Pipeline is one such item. Given the reality that there are hundreds of pipelines transporting both raw and refined fossil fuel products, the stink over the Dept of State Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed pipeline is unbalanced. Why this one pipeline and not others? Frankly, all pipelines present some risk of leakage, and while dilbit crude from tar sands is a bit nastier than light crude, any given natural gas pipeline is vastly more dangerous. A simple internet search on natural gas pipeline accidents vs. liquid fossil fuel pipeline accidents will bear this out.

I believe the persistence of this item in the news is likely that the Keystone project has become an example, a scapegoat target of environmental activists who object to not just one pipeline, but all pipelines and all activities related to products derived from tar sands. By deriding one project, they believe they are able to cast aspersions on all similar projects. While there are few unbiased websites detailing the Keystone XL Pipeline project; a half-way decent chronology of the project and opposition is up on Wikipedia and a relatively neutral examination of pros, cons and claims can be found at the reputable FactCheck.org (6).

Frankly, given a choice between scaremongering about Keystone like

"this pipeline could devastate ecosystems, pollute water sources and jeopardize public health" (7)

and a recirculated church bulletin blooper like

"At the evening service tonight, the sermon topic will be ‘What Is Hell?’ Come early and listen to our choir practice"

it's easy to see why many people eschew political dead horse beating on the news for laughs over the inanity of monorail cats (8)

Leonhardt's New York Times Article of 4 May 2014

Well, sooner or later, I am obliged by my own self-imposed rules for this blog to discuss someone being wrong on the internet, regardless of the appeal of church bulletin bloopers like

"The ladies of the church have cast off clothing of every kind. They can be seen in the church basement Saturday."

Today's subject is an article in the New York Times Magazine on a subject that really should have died weeks ago, namely the publication of Professor Thomas Piketty's book Capital In The Twenty-First Century. The article is by New York Times journalist David Leonhart with the title of "Inequality Has Been Going On Forever...but That Doesn’t Mean It’s Inevitable" (9)

New York Times Magazine articles are often pages and pages long, though there's often something in every one that's good. For example, I remember first reading about the murders, forgeries, and prosecution of the now infamous Mark Hoffman, in the pages of the New York Times Magazine. In contrast to the usual land and in-depth articles that usually grace the Sunday New York Times Magazine, Leonhardt's piece was really short, less than a page. The gist of it is that Leonhardt didn't grok all of Piketty's math on inequality trends so he called Piketty and asked him to explain. Piketty obliged.

Leonhardt then sums up some of Piketty's main points, namely that wealth inequality is growing, and has been getting worse with time and with the introduction of the tools and technology of modern productivity. According to Leonhardt's take on Piketty, wealth inequality was not as bad back in the pre-industrial days of agriculture because the basis of wealth, i. e. land, was static. With the introduction of modern tools and technology, that is not longer the case: the means of creating wealth, i.e. tools and technology, has been increasing since the industrial revolution and this results in both the creation of more wealth and more wealth inequality.

Granted, as I said in an earlier blog post, I have not read Piketty's book and probably will not do so until I can score an inexpensive copy. So I don't know what Piketty really said vs. what Leohardt thinks he said - though given that he actually bothered to call Piketty, I'm willing to give him more credence than a lot of other articles I've seen on Piketty's book. So on top of everything, you have to rely on my understanding of what Leonhardt said Piketty said, which may or may not be accurate - but Leonhardt's article is short so if you're interested, go read it for yourself.

What's important here is Leonhardt's statement based on Piketty's book that the wealth inequality gap is increasing and has been been doing so since the transition from agrarian to modern industrial societies. He goes on to say that such a trend is not inevitable and that Piketty's now infamous solution is to redistribute some of that wealth through a universal excess wealth tax. Given how much I don't like economics, church bulletin humor looks better by the second in comparison.

More Reactions to Piketty's Capital In The Twenty-First Century

Maybe I shouldn't be running on at the keyboard here over a book I haven't even read yet, but the ridiculous obsessing over Piketty's book for the last month is really getting to be a bit much. Granted, a lot of the reaction to the book has to do with conservatives having a cow over the obvious Marxist leanings which are explicit in the book. After all, words like communist, Marx and wealth redistribution are enough to give any American Cold War vet the heeby geebies. McCarthy must be rolling in his grave!

The Economist has published a rather nice little commentary on the reaction to Piketty's book and its longevity thus far in the press because, frankly, it's just a book on economic theory (10). One could make a case that Piketty's book is really just a mole hill that's gotten mountain-status coverage in certain media venues because it contains buzz words and economic proposals that are contrary to American cultural norms of red bashing. American supply-side and monetarist economists, political conservatives, and their political supporters, many of whom probably can't even discuss Marx vs. Lenin vs. Stalin vs. Trotsky vs. Adam Smith, are apt to react to such words that have more to do with political camp than with true economic evaluation. Okay, I concede that I might not be entirely fair in my estimation of the general knowledge of American conservative rank and file.

For a book on ecomonic theory which is full of the kind of economic arm-waving math that I personally have little patience for, I find the reaction way out of whack. Piketty's book in his native French was published in France a year ago and hardly made any waves in Europe. An academic French economist wrote a review for a left-leaning publication in France that criticized the work for not being, well, more to the left (11)! As I noted in my first blog post on Piketty's Capital, the current reaction over the English language publication of this book has more to do with one's politics than with the actual book itself (12).

Just like the treatment of some of the trivial news items on slow news days, the coverage in the English-language press to Piketty's Capital is a mountain in reaction to a mole hill of a book.

Have you ever read the anti-federalist responses to the Federalist Papers? When we read the Federalist Papers or read about them in American History classes, the 85 different articles making up that work look like a coherent collection of essays in favor of the U.S Constitution. What we don't learn, or learn and then forget, is that the Federalist Papers were not a coherent, planned and crafted seamless set. Each of those "articles" was really an editorial in a late 18th century newspaper, published in various cities by different authors over a period of two years (1786-1787). As these articles were printed, rebuttal editorials by anti-federalist opponents were also being published in the early American post-Colonial press (13). The give and take was hardly give and take; the exchange between the two groups was heated and often polite to the point of nastiness. Even accusations of wanting to reestablish some kind of monarchy or tyranny were leveled against the Federalists as well as predictions of robbing the individual states of their sovereign power through the economic evil of one unified monetary supply for all the States. Some of the other anti-federal accusations were just as off the wall.

Some of the exchanges in the modern press in this country remind me at times of the spats in the newspapers of post-Colonial early America between the Federalists and their anti-federal opponents. Tea Party true-believers and "the government is the problem" "starve the beast" Reaganoid conservatives sound a bit like those old anti-federalists to me at times.

Someone Was Wrong on the Internet?

Now that I've rambled from French left-leaning newspapers, the U.S. Constitution, shaving dogs and church bulletin bloopers, I should probably explain what it is about Leonhardt's article that makes it a worthy target of this blog.

First, Leonhardt's title for his article does not actually match the content of his article. His title conveys that wealth inequality itself is not inevitable. The body of the article states that the trend of ever-increasing wealth inequality is not inevitable, and that this is one of the main arguments of Piketty's book and also the basis for Piketty's wealth tax proposal as a means to reverse that very trend.

So what so wrong with that?

To begin, the title is misleading and also, it's wrong. Wealth inequality is an intrinsic feature of civilization. Hierarchy and social stratification are a feature of the Civitas. You don't have one without the other because agriculture, the defining act of any so-called "civilized" state, requires organization and specialization. Where you have organization and specialization, you will have social stratification and hierarchy creation, which lead to the unequal allocation of wealth across social classes.

The transition between primitive societies and the creation of the Civitas - or "civilization" occurs at the hunter-gatherer to agrarian transition. To support these very broad statements, I will now appeal to the work of one of the most prolific and respected encyclopedic historians ever, Will Durant.

Based on studies of Amerindians, Eskimoes, Samoans, Borneans, Amazoneans, Cittagong Indians and tribal cultures where land was not something anyone owned, where crop gathering was supplemental to hunting and organized agriculture did not yet exist, Durant pointed out that the means for survival were shared and differences in personal wealth were trivial. He labeled such societies as being truly communistic both in regard to food and to land. He also considered the members of these societies to be egalitarian though primitive, uncultured, and somewhat lazy. Yes, he really did said lazy, which makes sense for something written in the 1930s, which is when he wrote the passages I'm currently looking at (14). He had no knowledge of Sackett's famous (infamous?) study that settled the hunter-gatherer vs. agricultural work debate that raged for almost 50 years, showing that people do less work and have more leisure time in hunter-gatherer societies compared to agrarian societies (15).

When I was reading Leonhardt's article, I noted Leonhardt's paraphrase of Piketty's idea that the static nature of pre-industrial society meant wealth inequality was more or less stable, namely:

"He suggested imagining a hypothetical village from centuries ago in which neither the population nor the economy was growing. Every year, the village produced the same amount of goods for the same number of people to divide — a reality that was typical before the Enlightenment, when material living standards and human longevity barely rose. (The peasants of the 15th century were not better off than peasants in ancient Rome.)"

Reading this, I thought to myself that Piketty might be a brilliant economist, but he is no historian. In particular, I remembered a passage in Will Durant's first volume in his acclaimed History of Civilization series, a work which - like Gibbon's - is more than just a history. It was a passage that contradicted this view that the economic inequality of pre-modern agrarian societies was static and stable. It took me a little while to find it. You can read it for yourself and see why I contrasted it with Piketty vis a vis Leonhardt:

Perhaps one reason why communism tends to appear chiefly at the beginning of civilizations is that it flourishes most readily in times of dearth, when the common danger of starvation fuses the individual into the group. When abundance comes, and the danger subsides, social cohesion is lessened, and individualism increases; communism ends where luxury begins. As the life of a society becomes more complex, and the division of labor differentiates men into diverse occupations and trades, it becomes more and more unlikely that all these services will be equally valuable to the group; inevitably those whose greater ability enables them to perform the more vital functions will take more than their equal share of the rising wealth of the group. Every growing civilization is a scene of multiplying inequalities; the natural differences of human endowment unite with differences of opportunity to produce artificial differences of wealth and power; and where no laws or despots suppress these artificial inequalities they reach at last a bursting point where the poor have nothing to lose by violence, and the chaos of revolution levels men again into a community of destitution. Hence the dream of communism lurks in every modern society as a racial memory of a simpler and more equal life; and where inequality or insecurity rises beyond sufferance, men welcome a return to a condition which they idealize by recalling its equality and forgetting its poverty. Periodically the land gets itself redistributed, legally or not, whether by the Gracchi in Rome, the Jacobins in France, or the Communists in Russia; periodically wealth is redistributed, whether by the violent confiscation of property, or by confiscatory taxation of incomes and bequests. Then the race for wealth, goods and power begins again, and the pyramid of ability takes form once more; under whatever laws may be enacted the abler man manages somehow to get the richer soil, the better place, the lion’s share; soon he is strong enough to dominate the state and rewrite or interpret the laws; and in time the inequality is as great as before. In this aspect all economic history is the slow heart-beat of the social-organism, a vast systole and diastole of naturally concentrating wealth and naturally explosive revolution.

As I acquired more volumes of Durant's History of Civilization, initially from my father who had several first editions, and then later filling in the gaps from purchases at used book stores, I read them all. It is a theme, subtle but explicit throughout Durant's opus that the inequalities of wealth in pre-modern societies were anything but static and stable. Durant clearly saw a pattern of where the cruelty and/or greed of some elites in certain societies led to inequalities of wealth and privilege so unjustifiable that those with nothing to lose would rebel, sometimes to fail and sometimes to topple their rulers, redistributing wealth and not always equitably. He noted the pattern in the Spartan Helots revolts; the patrician-plebeian class war of the early Roman republic; the Gracchi, Jacobins and Russian Communists mentioned above; as well as the Jacqueries of 14th century France.

Durant saw cycles in history of recurring struggle between the haves and the have-nots. While his initial statements in this area of historical interpretation was limited to economics and did not account for the effects of religion and propaganda in co-opting and coercing the lower classes in their servitude, like in Ancient Egypt to build the Pyramids, his point was made about the patterns of wealth distribution and class warfare. One only needs to look at the historical records to know that wealth inequality was anything but stable and static in the pre-modern pre-industrial agrarian world. Piketty is right in the statement that wealth inequality has been growing since the industrial revolution and Durant agrees with that (16), but Piketty is wrong in considering the wealth inequality of pre-modern societies as a constant. The European peasants of 15th century were likely serfs and probably were much worse off than the free citizen peasant farmers of the Roman Republic of Antiquity, but probably better off than the chain-gang latifundia slaves of the late Roman Republic and Empire. The Devil is in the details.

Wealth Inequality in Perspective

The internet can trivialize even the most profound of great thinkers. There may be a lot more to Piketty than one can extract from too many politically-biased editorials commentaries; for now, however, just a small sampling of Durant's encyclopedic vision across the vast landscape of history is enough for all that internet drivel to seem rather flimsy and much ado about nothing. Frankly, given the bankrupt profundity of politically-motivated biased journalism on the internet, I think I much prefer my church bulletin gaffs:

"This being Easter Sunday, we will ask Mrs. Lewis to come forward and lay an egg on the altar."

References, on the casual side

  1. http://failblog.cheezburger.com/fails/tag/slow-news-day, accessed 4 May 2014
  2. http://courage.wikia.com/wiki/Freaky_Fred_(episode), accessed 4 May 2014
  3. http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/all-your-base-are-belong-to-us, accessed 4 May 2014
  4. http://www.ncregister.com/blog/matthew-archbold/hilarious-church-bulletin-bloopers, accessed 4 May 2014
  5. http://www.freemaninstitute.com/churchBloopers.htm, accessed 4 May 2014
  6. http://www.factcheck.org/2014/03/pipeline-primer/, accessed 4 May 2014
  7. http://www.foe.org/projects/climate-and-energy/tar-sands/keystone-xl-pipeline, accessed 4 May 2014
  8. http://www.lolcats.com/popular/23.html, accessed 4 May 2014
  9. Leonhardt, D. (4 May 2014), "Inequality Has Been Going On Forever...but That Doesn’t Mean It’s Inevitable," New York Times Magazine, p. MM23, also http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/04/magazine/inequality-has-been-going-on-forever-but-that-doesnt-mean-its-inevitable.html, accessed 4 May 2014.
  10. http://www.economist.com/news/finance-and-economics/21601567-wonky-book-inequality-becomes-blockbuster-bigger-marx, accessed 3 May 2014
  11. De La Gasnerie, G. (18 Oct 2013), "Le manifeste inégalitaire de Thomas Piketty," Liberation, http://www.liberation.fr/economie/2013/10/17/le-manifeste-inegalitaire-de-thomas-piketty_940345, accessed 3 May 2014: e.g. " il n’est jamais question de domination sociale et culturelle, de violence, de relégation, d’exploitation, d’aliénation au travail, de classes, de luttes, etc." To be completely honest here, I found out about this review from reading the Economist, namely in an commentary piece at http://www.economist.com/blogs/charlemagne/2014/04/thomas-piketty, accessed 3 May 2014
  12. http://blog.someonewaswrongontheinternet.com/post/2014/04/26/Biased-Journalism-and-Capital-in-the-Twenty-First-Century, accessed 4 May 2014
  13. I had a collection of the Anti-Federalist Papers when I was in high school competing in the American Legion annual oratory competition on the Constitution. I got a lot of good material for my speeches from that book, though alas, I came in second in my state the last time I competed and never got to go to the National level of competition. But that collection of anti-federalist material really expanded my knowledge of the formation of the this country beyond anything I learned at school. You can find a decent selection of the sorts of anti-constitution editorials that were being printed in early US newspapers at http://www.thisnation.com/library/antifederalist/ (accessed 4 May 2014) if you'd like to see what sort of acrimony was in the air just before the Constitution was written and ratified.
  14. Durant, W. (1935, 2014), Our Oriental Heritage, Simon & Schuster, NY: Chapter 2 Ther Economic Elements of Civilizations, part 3 Economic Organization.
  15. Sackett, R. (1996), Time, energy, and the indolent savage. A quantitative cross-cultural test of the primitive affluence hypothesis: Ph.D. dissertation, UCLA.
  16. Durant, Will (1935, 2014). The Complete Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage, Life of Greece, Caesar and Christ, Age of Faith, Renaissance, Age of Reason Begins, Age of Louis ... and Revolution, Age of Napoleon, Reformation (Kindle Locations 621-636). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
  17. Ibid, Kindle Locations 637-639

Thursday 26 December 2013

The Last Imperial Russian Ball - 1903 or 1913?

I came across a Facebook post by a friend with a link to a lavish blog from Russia that was pure drooling eye candy, being a layout of photos of the costumes for a costume ball held by the court of the last Tsar of Russia in 1903. It really is worth a look-see. You can find it at: http://viola.bz/1903-the-last-ball-of-imperial-russia/ (accessed 24 Dec 2013). My only complaint is the title, which is: The Last Ball of Imperial Russia.

When I first saw the title, I was somewhat confused. Here's why: the second- and third-to-last scenes in the 2002 film The Russian Ark are touted in the literature on that amazing film as a complete reenactment of the last ball of Imperial Russia, held in 1913 in the Winter Palace of St. Petersburg.

Suffering from the disease of leaving no discongruent fact unresearched, I had to solve this conundrum, lest I spend a fretful night unable to sleep due to terminal curiousity. Here's what I turned up:

There was a ball in 1913 at the Winter Palace, so I rembered that correctly. The ball was held in honor of the Tercentenary of the Romanov Dynasty. I found a pinterest webpage of memorabilia of the Romanov Tercentenary at https://www.pinterest.com/pin/575616396094765302/ (accessed 23 Dec 2013). Translating the invitation on the pinterest page into English, I did not fail to notice that the invitation was issued on the authority of “The Grand Marshal and the Marshals of the Nobility of the Province of St. Petersburg.” In other words, the impression is that the nobility of St. Petersberg are the folks holding the ball, regardless of the venue being the official residence of the Tsar, though in reality his family didn't really live there. They much preferred to reside at a palace in the countryside less than 20 miles to the south called Tsarskoe Selo, though they did occupy the Winter Palace on those occasions when the business of the realm and court demanded they do so. The relationship between the Winter Palace and Tsarskoe Selo is somewhat analogous to Buckingham Palace and Winsor Palace today.

The 1913 Tercentenary Ball was the last imperial ball of the Romanovs, though to be absolutely fair, the claim on the Viola blog for 1903 ball and my assertion on the 1913 ball can both be considered not incorrect, depending on how you split hairs. The ball in 1903 was the last formal ball where there was an involved codified protocol manged by the court, with invitations from the Tsar which were essentially royal commands to show-up (ref: The Court of the Last Tsar,: Pomp, Power and Pageantry in the Reign of Nicholas II, by Greg King, 2008, John Wiley & Sons Inc.). After 1903, there appear to be no balls at the Winter Palace whatsoever until 1913, as far as I can tell from a day or so of searching through reliable reference materials available in English.

One could claim, on splitting hair grounds, that the 1913 ball at the Winter Palace not really an official imperial ball because it was not held by the Romanovs per se - it was held by "the nobility" in honor of the Romanovs on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Romanov dynasty, as part of a half-a-year's worth of celebrations starting in St. Petersburg and then extending across Russia. A careful reading of the text on the invitation makes it clear that the ball was not held by the Romanovs but for the Romanovs. It certainly did not follow the old codified schedule and set-up of the old formal imperial balls; however, the wording of the invitation shouldn't be taken at face value. The celebrations and ceremonies of the Romanov Tercentenary were a Romanov state production, and the subset Winter Palace ball was held in the official residence of the reigning Romanovs, a function planned by the Romanov court along with a complicit Romanov Tsar. An official painting commemorating the event was completed by the artist Dmitry Karnovsky in 1915 and hangs in the Hermitage Museum on the grounds of the Winter Palace complex today (a good online image is available from the Hermitage at http://www.hermitagemuseum.org/fcgi-bin/db2www/fullSize.mac/fullSize?selLang=English&dlViewId=ZYBN4%2B40IQM5IEZ5KW&size=big&selCateg=picture&dlCategId=WLQC42KJC6PL6%2B2302&comeFrom=quick (accessed 26 Dec 2013). A brief account of the event can be found in Baroness Sophie Buxhoveden's 1928 biobraphy of the Tsarina, The Life and Tragedy of Alexandra Feodorovna, which you can read online at http://www.alexanderpalace.org/2006alix/chapter_XVIII.html (accessed 23 Dec 2013). The aforementioned book on the court of Nicholas II by Greg King contains a sad, poignant and detailed account of how the Romanovs totally blew their last good opportunity presented by the Tercentenary to generate some positive PR for their failing reign, well worth the reading if you have access to this fine and deeply-researched book.

So, the 1903 was the last official formal imperial ball held by the Romanovs at the Winter Palace. The 1913 ball was the last imperial ball at the Winter Palace, held in honor of the Romanovs at their Tercentenary celebration. The distinction is a hair-splitting one since the 1913 ball certainly could not have been held without the approval, input, planning and cooperation of the Tsar and his family; and the Tsar, Tsarina and the two oldest grand duchesses attended it.

Post script

If you haven't heard of or seen the 2002 film Russian Ark, consider seeing this gem. It's the only feature length film ever shot in one continuous take, on site at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. It's a near-surreal journey through different scenes from Russian history that occurred in the Winter Palace filmed in the very rooms where they happened, narrated by an unnamed narrator and the early 19th century French diplomat Marquis de Custine. The dialog is available only as English subtitles to folks like us but it's a visual and historical feast nonetheless. The first Catherine the Great scene is funny and the second is touching and kinda sad. The Tercentenary Ball scenes will blow your mind – they look just like the Karnovsky painting and the orchestra plays the music that was played at the affair in 1913. (My source for this is off the film notes flyer that came in the DVD box of my copy of this film, plus the extra feature on the DVD on the making of the film).

Wednesday 20 February 2013

The Invention of Electricity!

Today's gem is bite-sized and probably an accident of not paying attention to grammar. It is from a web article on the weather website wunderground.com. The article's title is "Ten Worst U.S. Tornadoes" by Greg Forbes, published today, February 20, 2013. You can read it yourself at http://www.wunderground.com/news/tornadoes-ten-worst-20130219?pageno=3 (accessed 2/20/2013).

The mistake is in the discussion of the tornado that devastated Natchez, Mississippi on May 7, 1840. This tornado is the second deadliest US tornado for which we have statistics. Here's where the good Dr. Forbes got it wrong:

First consider what wasn't in place in 1840. Electricity wouldn't be invented for another 39 years.

Wow. I'm sure this would be news to Ben Franklin, inventor of the lightning rod and the lightning-powered electric bells. It would be news too for the 17th century von Guericke, inventor of the Elektrisiermaschine, arguably the first electrostatic generator. Von Guericke named the product of his generator "electric virtue," though this is not the first use of "electric" in the early study of electricity. That claim for fame likely belongs to the 16th century William Gilbert, physician to Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. Granted, the use of the term electric predates Gilbert since the term was used for substances which resembled amber in some way during the Middle Ages.

The word amber is electron in Ancient Greek. Amber has many interesting properties besides the ability to acquire and maintain an electrostatic surface charge. Most amber will float. All amber will burn. If heated gently, amber will liquify to make the Medieval medicinal oil of amber, a viscous mix of resin compounds which will not solidify upon cooling. As a fragrant resin compound like myrrh and frankincense, it has been used historically as incense. In the Middle Ages, one could call both coal (combustible rock) and pumice (buoyant in water) electric since they share properties with amber. Gilbert's use of electric apparently marks the advent of using this term exclusively for electrical phenomenon and predates the claim by some (e.g., Wikipedia) that it was Thomas Browne who first used it in this sense, in his 1646 treatise Pseudodoxia epidemica.

The attraction between amber rubbed-with-wool and other materials like wool or straw or hair was known in Antiquity. Theophrastus is the best known source to remark on this property of amber. Pliny the Elder also discussed amber and rightly argued that it was very old tree resin which had solidified as hard as rocks. Gilbert's contribution was threefold: he cataloged materials which were subject to electrostatic attraction, he showed that electrostatic attraction was not related to a material's weight or density in contradiction to theories prevalent in his day, and he showed that electrostatic attraction was unrelated to the magnetic attraction between lodestone and ferrous metals. This may not sound like a big deal to someone living today, but for his time these were major contributions in the advancement of science. Gilbert's electrostatic studies were systematic and used an experimental set-up that was calibrated and replicable. He made a simple device that used a pivoting needle and with it he tested all sorts of things for their ability to make the needle swing toward them through electrostatic attraction. When he published his work, he called the materials that were subject to electrostatic attraction electric, and the ones that were not he called non-electric.


******************************

At this point, you may be wondering at this point about what happened in 1879, 40 years after the Natchez tornado. It's obvious that the good Dr. Forbes was thinking of some significant event in the history of electricity when he made is comment. Upon inquiry, it looks like that event was the creation of Thomas Edison's light bulb, which I have to note in passing was not the first electric light nor the first light bulb. The first electric light was the arc lamp, invented in 1802 by Sir Humphry Davy. The first true incandescent evacuated-tube filament light-bulb was first demonstrated by Sir Joseph Swan in 1878 at a lecture he gave in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne; however, Edison beat Swan in getting the first patent rights by 10 months.

Today's non sequitur: Elektrisiermaschine would make a great name for a rock band!

References

MAGLAB website by the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory; http://www.magnet.fsu.edu/education/tutorials/pioneers/gilbert.htmlhttp://www.magnet.fsu.edu/education/tutorials/pioneers/gilbert.html (accessed 2/20/2013).

Niels H. de V. Heathcote (December 1967). "The early meaning of electricity: Some Pseudodoxia Epidemica - I". Annals of Science 23 (4): 261.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Volume 9 (Books 33-35), trans. By H. Rackham,1958, Loeb Classical Library/Harvard University Press, 430 pp., ISBN 0-674-99433-7.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Volume 10 (Books 36-37), trans. By D. E. Eichholz,1962, Loeb Classical Library/Harvard University Press, 344 pp., ISBN 0-674-99461-2.

Schiffer, Michael Brian (2003). Bringing the Lightning Down: Benjamin Franklin and Electrical Technology in the Age of Enlightenment. Univ. of California Press. ISBN 0-520-24829-5. [[This is an EXCELLENT book, by the...]]

Theophrastus. On Stones. Trans. Earle R. Caley and John F. C. Richards. Graduate School Monographs: Contributions in Physical Science 1: Ohio State University, 1956 .