So, it is 2020. It has been an odd year in an odd decade. And while I am tempted to just note who was king and the most exciting thing that happened in the heavens, I want to finish this section of my chronicle. The conjunction of Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter in May was exciting but there are other things to write.Continue reading
Fuzzy Nation (by John Scalzi: Tor, 2011) is a fun quick read of a novel, and I hope it inspires more people to read H. Beam Piper. The author has the good taste to blog and to focus on what he loves about old science fiction not on proclaiming that he is morally and intellectually superior. But I found one difference between the original from 1962 and this book from 2011 revealing about cultural change in the past 50 years.
The Terro-Human Future History is a world where the United States ceases to exist early in the First Century Atomic Era, and human civilization is rebuilt in Latin America, South Africa, and Australasia. In the 7th century Atomic Era people think of the United States about as often as we think of the Timurids or Srivijaya, and the racial prejudices of the First Century Pre-Atomic have been dissolved by the result of seven centuries of intermarriage amongst the survivors. Piper had a romantic sympathy for the Confederate States of America, but he loved giving characters names like Themistocles M’Zangwe. Fuzzy Nation is set in a world where people go to Oxford and Duke, come from North Carolina, and allude to Andrew Jackson and Star Wars.
Both writers create imaginary cultures which have a few of their own culture’s quirks (Piper’s cocktail hours and tobacco smoking, Scalzi’s environmental impact statements and universal surveillance). But one writer assumed that not just the United States but the whole European great power system would vanish just like other mega-states and power systems have in the past, and the other made sure that the reader knows that in the far future Duke is still a place to go to law school and Oxford is a very prestigious university. I find that, as Mr. Spock would put it, fascinating. One novel tells readers that the customs of their tribe are not the laws of nature, and another promises that there’ll always be Chicago.
This fall, I have been thinking about why some communities did not feel right for me. I enjoy learning from different types of experts, from craft workers to retired thugs to academics, but the kind of journalists who write opinion pieces and columns always gave me a bad feeling. I have trouble talking about feelings, but I think I can articulate two reasons why I feel this way.Continue reading
Today is Remembrance Day. I am not as mobile as I would be in an ordinary November, and neither of the ways people often talk about Remembrance Day feels right to me. Some people turn it into a festival of peace and forget the third verse of John McCrae’s poem, others (mostly in other countries) a festival of aggressive nationalism. But I am in Canada, and today I will remember something.
Once about 35 years ago, a boy was born in Canada to Canadian citizens. As a child, he was brought across the sea to a hard place to stay with some of his parents’ friends who were not very nice people. And then fire fell and killed his parents and their friends and faceless soldiers came and a grenade blasted. He was fifteen.
Those soldiers took him to a place beyond the law and kept him there for questioning. And while they did not have any basis for this and a wounded child did not have much to tell them, his parents and their friends were dead or escaped, and they wanted someone to punish. So they paid witnesses their thirty pieces of silver, and invented a new charge that had never before existed in law, and announced that he was some kind of enemy combatant or terrorist who had laid mines and thrown a grenade. Sometimes, people are just in the wrong place at the wrong time and get used as props in a political stage play.
And to their shame, four Canadian prime ministers from two different parties went along with this, just as they sent Canadians to fight and kill and die alongside those faceless soldiers. For many years he was in that place beyond the law in front of a kangaroo court, although he was a Canadian citizen born in Canada and an alleged child soldier. And so as people before kangaroo courts do, he eventually confessed and was sent to Canada, and Canada is not beyond the law so a little while later he was free. And one of those Canadian governments kept fighting him in court, until the government’s lawyers went into a conference room with their bosses and shut the doors and the bosses walked out sweating and announced a ten million dollar settlement. The last I heard he was studying nursing.
Some people with different passports were even unluckier: the same people who ran the kangaroo courts and the hiring of witnesses and place beyond the law had an organized program to murder or kidnap and torture people who got in their way. As I write this, some of those tape-shredders and book-burners are in offices with title and pension and the power of life and death. On the 21st of January 2021, some of them will be carrying their effects out the door in a cardboard box. And that is not justice, but it is a start.
I do not know how many people remember Omar Khadr. But I remember.
Some kinds of academics like to talk about “identities.” Literally, that means the things which you point to and say “I am.” But many academics use it to mean other groups that people get sorted in to. In chapter 2 of a book I recently reviewed, Guy Halsall calls class, gender, age, nationality (“ethnic identity”), and free or servile status “identities”. My friend James Baillie (who is absolutely not responsible for this essay) uses the term in the same way to describe different kinds of people in the UK today. The blogger and medical doctor Geeky Humanist wrote the following paragraph on “gender identity”
What do I mean by woman? Short(ish) answer: Any adult whose gender identity is female. For purposes of anti-misogyny endeavours such as International Women’s Day, I would also include a) girls (children whose gender identity is female), and b) anyone who is affected by misogyny as a result of having been determined on the basis of genital configuration to be female, even if their actual gender identity isn’t female. … Transgenderism (and cisgenderism, for that matter) isn’t about ‘choosing’ to identify as a particular gender. It’s about the inescapable fact that nearly all of us do identify as particular genders – not because we choose to, but because it’s a key part of us – and that sometimes a person’s gender identity doesn’t match the gender of their body.
Geeky Humanist has some ideas which are strange to me and which I don’t understand as well as I would like to. I don’t think she is saying that a man is anyone who says he is a man, and she definitely does not think it is any person of the male sex, she seems to understand “gender identity” as something more like sexual orientation. I think that calling gender and class and nationality “identities” and just identities confuses people about how power and societies work.
From Birger Johansson: Ed Brayton, humanist and scienceblogs.com founder, is dying in hospice in the United States after a long struggle with various health problems. His last post is at https://www.patheos.com/blogs/dispatches/2020/08/10/saying-goodbye-for-the-last-time/
I am with T. Greer: when a Snorri Stirluson comes to tell the tale of the death of the open Internet, they will spend a few moments to sing the rise and fall of scienceblogs and its diaspora into the distant ages. And people in the United States have been dealing with some pretty heavy stuff this decade, its OK if they turn inwards and leave the nerding out to us in other countries.
Anton Powell, Welsh ancient historian and publisher, died on 11 June 2020. As a researcher, organizer of conferences and editor of books and serieses, he helped launch a transformation in understandings of early Sparta away from the moralistic gossip from Roman writers like Plutarch and hoary fables about Lycurgus to focus on what contemporary texts, art, and archaeology revealed. The Council of University Classical Departments, UK has more information.
So this is the week when everything is happening at once: an armed breakin at Rideau Hall, a new set of accusations that some authors are serial creeps, a job interview at a university in Germany. One of those things is that a large newspaper south of the border is threatening to publish the true name of the blogger known as Scott Alexander of SlateStarCodex because of a bureaucratic policy against pseudonymous sources. He has reasons to believe that this would threaten his life and his offline career as a psychiatrist, so he has taken down his site.
In the last ten years, a disturbing new vision for the Internet has emerged: a vision where we pick up a machine which we ‘own’ but the manufacturer controls, install the software that one group of companies allow us to install, log in to sites and platforms that a similar group of companies own, and write and share the things which those companies allow us to share, until mobs petition them to change the rules and erase us or a new CEO decides its time to pivot. Right now, that vision is winning, even amongst people who I thought were much too smart to fall for those tired old swindles. Anonymous public writing has been a tool of self-government since the Romans were scratching graffiti on walls and tossing notes into Brutus’ windows, and it is a proud tradition south of the border too: the Federalist Papers are anonymous. I think that SlateStar is part of that tradition, and citizens of the Internet respect each other’s handles and keep online and offline separate.
There is a petition at https://www.dontdoxscottalexander.com/ ; if you subscribe to that paper, an email to them would help.
Geeky communities attract people who milk them for money, sex, and throngs of adoring flatterers. In the Anglo world I can trace this from New York science-fiction fandom in the 1940s through some of the groups I knew face-to-face in Canada to the Southern California tech world (and the closely related SoCal kink and porn worlds) in the 2010s. There are theories why this happens such as Michael Suileabhain-Wilson’s “Geek Social Fallacies” (2003). But today I would like you to read an essay on how to build a community of plumbers working side by side not rock stars and groupies, a community that the parasites bounce off like a mosquito landing on a buckskin jacket.
In February, I started to think seriously about swords after sketching the swords from Ghalekuti (which I will blog about one day). I am the “armour” sort of historical fencing person not the “swords” sort (thanks Steve Muhlberger) and I don’t have access to many originals in good condition. A group of European and American bladesmiths and engineers have been thinking about how to describe swords and how they want to move. The names I know best are Michael Tinker Pearce, Vincent le Chevalier, and Peter Johnsson; other people would mention Angus Trim and George Turner.
Swords are simple objects, but designing a specific sword requires trading off all kinds of goods against one another. The longer sword is more of a nuisance to wear and slower to draw, the stiffer sword may not be as effective in cutting, the more complex hilt limits how the weapon can be held. These seemingly simple objects hide a lot of engineering that you can slowly train your eye to see and your arm to feel.
This is a topic where not much has been formally published, but two great web resources are “Understanding Blade Properties” by Patrick Kelly and Peter Johnsson’s talk “Paradoxes of Sword Design” from Arctic Fire 2012 (warning: YouTube). Peter Johnsson is probably the most charismatic speaker discussing these ideas today and he has his own theory of how the medieval cruciform sword was designed. Because his talk is 80 minutes long and on a scary Google website I want to call out two things which I noticed.