" /> I write: January 2007
Curmudgeonalia
I see I taste I write Links What?
January 27, 2007

Will in the World

How Shakespeare became Shakespeare
Stephen Greenblatt – ISBN – 97803932737X

This book, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, is an engrossing read. Acclaimed as “a magnificent achievement” by the Wall Street Journal, and “the most complexly intelligent and sophisticated . . . study of the life and work [of Shakespeare] I have ever read,” by the reviewer at The New Yorker.

Having never read a bio—or indeed much of anything--about the man, I have no opinion about the relative value or comprehensive nature of the work. I know only that I enjoyed it immensely. It is rich in detail, and admirably achieves the suggestion in the subtitle: to explain just how Shakespeare became the man who wrote all of those things which have made him one of the most prolific and revered writers of all time . . . in any language.

Greenblatt, a Humanities professor and authority on Shakespeare, explains English culture of the times, its impact upon his subject, and fills in a lot of blanks for me. While he never addresses the age old question of whether or not Shakespeare was Shakespeare—or a pseudonym for someone else--he amply refutes any alternative interpretation. He details many events of the period and explains how these events created the narratives of his plays and the characters therein. And it is fascinating!

Palace intrigue, the vicious conflict between Protestants and Catholics, and other relevant history, eerie legends of witches and other dark events, societal norms regarding marriage, etc. are all discussed. He discloses Shakespeare’s origins: a mother distantly related to royalty, a father who was an impressive entrepreneur and a locally distinguished man, though he ruined it all with alcohol (the operative presumption) which created the insecurity which stimulated William to be prudent in all his endeavors and investments . . . dying a quite wealthy man.

His marriage to an older woman of means, orphaned and uniquely situated as a woman in control of her own life—unusual for Elizabethan women plays heavily on his life. Greenblatt addresses the fact that William visited home frequently, but lived, frugally, in London for most of his productive years.

This was a crucial period in English history: the development of the English language, the translation of the “King James” version of the Bible, and the cataloguing of words . . . without which “it is difficult to imagine William Shakespeare.”

Often, line by line, he explores Shakespeare’s dialogues, reviewing relevant historical issues which seem rather clearly related to the thought concept/plot. He explains events which provided Shakespeare the raw material which permitted him to explain the psychology and theology of why people behave the way they do. Much of the instability of rule in the era was authored by the Guy Fawkes event.

Another ‘fer instance: King Lear at its core is the great fear which haunted the playwright’s class . . . the fear of humiliation and abandonment . . . loss of identity in the wake of retirement . . . Lear’s madness and rage were a response to his daughter’s vicious ingratitude and the horror of his being turned into an ordinary man begging for charity from his children. Yet, in Shakespeare’s case he left virtually his entire estate to the most intensely appealing woman in his life . . . his daughter Susannah.

And there is a lot more. Overall a very interesting read.

Posted by respeto at 3:04 PM

January 19, 2007

More on "Global Warming"

For those of you who really believe in man-made global warming, please copy and paste this link into your search engine and carefully read this brief article . . . with an open mind . . . from a serious weatherman . . .

http://epw.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=PressRoom.Blogs&ContentRecord_id=3a9bc8a4-802a-23ad-4065-7dc37ec39adf

Posted by respeto at 1:13 PM

January 17, 2007

Salt

A World History
Mark Kurlansky – ISBN – 9780142001615

One would hardly believe that an entire volume could be written about the history of salt. After reading this, one reflects upon how hard it must have been to edit to avoid a 1,000 page tome. While true anywhere in the world:

• “Studying a road map of almost anywhere in North America, noting the whimsical non-geometric pattern of the [roads, one] could reasonably assume that the towns were placed and interconnected haphazardly without any scheme or design. [Not true] because the roads are simply widened footpaths and trails, and these trails were originally cut by animals looking for salt.”

• “The history of the Americas is one of constant warfare over salt. Whoever controlled salt was in power. This was true before Europeans arrived and it continued to be the reality until after the American Civil War.”

Throughout history salt has been a basis of considerable tax revenue since it is a commodity required by all. Empires have been built upon it, wars fought over it, and trade routes controlled to secure its supply. “He who controlled salt controlled regions. Jericho, the oldest city in the world was always a center of salt trade--for 10,000 years!

Venice flourished because of its dominance in salt distribution (50% of Venetian import tonnage was salt.) Venetians used the profits from salt to subsidize shipping of other commodities, thus undercutting competitors. In the Caribbean, shipped tonnage in salt exceeded that of sugar, molasses and rum. Indeed, the first patent in the new world was a ten year monopoly to the recipient “to employ his ideas on salt production.”

One of the most devastating losses from the American Revolution was, both during and after the war, the loss of the nation’s salt supply . . . it had depended on England, and was deprived. In the civil war, the south, having forgotten, experienced the same deprivation. Before the war salt was 0.25 cents per pound; near its end salt was over 3 cents . . . when you could get it.

While not the only issue, salt was the poster issue for the French revolution, and for India’s demand for independence. It was the primary reason that the Erie Canal was developed.

Salt concentrations are often near oil concentrations. Indeed oil was found in Texas when drilling for salt . . . while the Goderich Petroleum Company became the Goderich Salt Company when--drilling for oil--they found an enormous deposit of pure salt.

For much of history salt was a precious commodity, most commonly derived form the reduction of brine solutions with heat provided by the sun or fuel. The salt makers of Cheshire England deforested their entire area for fuel, blackened the skies with clouds of smoke, rendered pastureland barren from salt scale residue, while the earth was collapsing (from removal of the salt deposits) beneath the cities.

“The quest for salt turned unexpected corners and created dozens of industries” . . . including, importantly, better sources of salt, which made the product incredibly cheap. Once scarce, it is now one of the most widely available necessities on the planet. As it has been replaced as a preservative its use has been sought in other areas; over 50% of the salt used in the U.S. is for highway safety in winter; only eight percent is used for food production

Throughout the book Kurlansky cleverly, and interestingly, segues into regional peculiarities in cheese manufacture, offers recipes—ancient and modern—and discusses the importance of salt in western civilization. “Salt made it possible to get the rich bounty of northern seas to the poor people of Europe.” Salt cod and herring authored the doubling of protein intake for poor Europeans between the 16th and 18th centuries. The original British “katchup” was a salty anchovy sauce.

He also discusses the many kinds of salt and the various uses thereof, e.g., saltpeter in the manufacture of gun powder. Zillions of dollars and thousands of years have been spent improving the quality, purity and available of salts of all kinds.

Ironically, he notes: “after thousands of years of struggle to make salt white and even grained, affluent people now pay [a premium] for salts that are odd shapes and colors.”

Who says people don’t have too much money?


Posted by respeto at 4:10 PM

A 5 minute rant on “alternative fuels.”

The Gaia hypothesis is an ecological theory that proposes that the living matter of planet Earth functions like a single organism. It was first scientifically formulated in the 1960s by the independent research scientist James Lovelock, as a consequence of his work for NASA on methods of detecting life on Mars.

There is a new book by Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia, which I shall be reviewing one of these days. But . . . critical to the arguments about global warming, one of its foremost proponents takes on the Al Gores of the world. (I love it!) A caveat is necessary however. I do not believe in "man made global warming."

The author believes that Nuclear power as the only answer to the problem . . . inasmuch as we can (he acknowledges) contribute only partially to the amelioration of an otherwise natural occurrence.

I shall paraphrase one extended passages:

An outstanding advantage of nuclear over fossil fuel energy is how easy it is to deal with the waste it produces. Fossil fuels produce enough carbon dioxide that, if solidified, would create a mountain a mile high with a circumference of 12 miles. The same amount of energy produced by nuclear fission would generate a sixteen-meter cube. (In more understandable parlance, the nuclear waste could be hauled away in about 25 moving vans . . . the carbon would take about 625,000 moving vans. The math is mine, and approximate.)

Continuing . . . to supply England’s present electricity would require 276,000 windmills—three per square mile if parks, suburban and industrial areas were excluded—and would function only 25% of the time, meaning that 75% of the power would still have to be made by fossil fuel burning. Even when the windmills were working the power plants would have to be on standby, idling.

As for bio fuels he notes that if they were used only for fuel for land vehicles, ships and aircraft, it would require two to three gigatons of carbon. Our current yearly food consumption is about a fourth to a sixth of that amount (half a gigaton), and requires more than half of the productive land on the planet. That is, we’d need the land area of several earths just to grow the bio fuel. “How can we expect Gaia to manage the Earth if we try to take the rest of the land for fuel production?”

Nuclear fuel is far less dangerous than any of the alternatives, and it is about time we decided to do what is necessary. Even the author allows that this is part of Earth’s natural cycle, and that our output simply aggravates the problem. If we are to be serious about the situation, it is time for serious people to discuss rational alternatives, avoiding the kooks like Gore.

Posted by respeto at 2:29 PM

January 12, 2007

Great American Scandals

Tantalizing, true tales of historic misbehavior by the Founding Fathers and others.
Michael Farquhar – ISBN – 9780142001929

This book has been a resident on my shelves since the store was opened, but only recently did I read it. It is pleasuresome, informative, often risqué, and sometimes downright awful in its revelations . . .and entertaining from page one to the end.

Farquhar chronicles the misadventures of a important people, malignant political campaigns, “sexocapades,” dueling, murder and mayhem, the “not so civil war,” alcoholism, notorious traitors, Dred Scott, Joe McCarthy, and assassins, as he reviews the Salem Witch Trials, Teapot Dome, the “adventures” of Meriwether Lewis and J. Edgar Hoover “in drag,” along with a hose of others.

Did you know that Lincoln was disinterred 12 times before his final resting place? Or that John Paul Jones was pickled in alcohol and disappeared beneath the streets of Paris for over a century before being rediscovered, entombed and deservedly honored at the Naval Academy at Annapolis—where the midshipman promptly identified him as the only one there who didn’t work? Or that Thomas Paine died in obscurity, was disinterred, sold in pieces, boiled to the bones . . . said bones having then disappeared without a trace? Buried nowhere. Neither did I.

Which Presidents were assassinated? Kennedy . . . and Lincoln . . . and, a . . . and, a . . . I forget! Remember ? . . . oh, yea . . . Garfield and McKinley. Who participated in the floor fights and canings in the House of Representatives? Who shot whom in duels?

You young whippersnappers won’t remember . . . and have almost certainly have not read about Althea Hall, Fannie Fox, the “Tidal Basin Bombshell” (and Wilbur Mills), or Elizabeth Ray (and Wayne Hays).

His end notes are interesting, as well. He lists all the Presidents from Washington to Bush 43, identifying birth date and place, death, election, terms served, and “distinctions.”
• Lincoln was the tallest and Madison the smallest, as well as being the longest surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence.
• Martin VanBuren was the first president born an American.
• William Howard Taft was the first to open baseball season by tossing the first pitch. As well he was the fattest.
• Hoover was the first to have a phone on his desk, the first to appear on T.V., and longest lived after his term ended.
• Truman was the first to travel in a submarine.
• Kennedy was the only Catholic president, the youngest ever elected, first to be born in the 20th century, and the only one survived by both parents.
• Reagan the first divorced president, the oldest elected to his first term, and the oldest at death (until Ford, last week.)

And, finally he reviews seminal, and some trivial events, year by year (skipping quite a few early years), from the landing of Leif Eriksson in 1000 A.D. to the Senate investigations of Billy Carter in 1980.

It’s a decent sourcebook for designing your own version of Trivial Pursuit

And he notes that in 1859, following a Washington scandal, Harpers Weekly asserted that “no capital in the world is more rotten than ours.” Sigh . . . The more things change, the more they stay the same!

Posted by respeto at 1:06 PM

January 7, 2007

1491

New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Charles C. Mann – ISBN – 9781400032051

This “sweeping portrait” of human life long before Columbus found (?) the New World catalogues and explores a wealth of information in one volume. For two or three decades I have been reading such materials, and most of that information is included in this volume. Twenty years ago some of these data were not accepted by archaeologists. Even now some of it is not, along with several (in my opinion) glaring omissions.

In 1491 the Incas ruled an empire far more vast than Ming China, Ivan’s Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and the Aztec empire which was itself larger than any European state: “a thriving, stunningly diverse place, a tumult of languages, trade and culture.” All ended with Columbus, most without any contact with the old world invaders.

Over a thousand years ago there were cities in the Americas which dwarfed the population centers of Europe, and probably Asia. Very sophisticated cultures existed which often depended upon sciences and farming techniques which have yet to be explored, explained or understood. For instance, hundreds of thousands, and perhaps several million people lived in South America’s tropical rain forests, sustained by sophisticated agriculture in an area that now can barely support groups of 50 "aboriginals." These folk are obviously descended from them, but have no idea of prior cultures or their technologies. Neither do we!

It is estimated that at least 9 of 10 people in the Americas died within little more than a century of discovery . . . the vast majority from European diseases. Indeed, DeSoto described the Mississippi region as teeming with cities. A century later, with the first re-exploration by whites, they were met by . . . nothing! Only wilderness with a few scattered troops of natives.

I recommend this read because of its inclusion of volumes of information, well written and organized. However, I have several issues with the author.

• One is his fawning interpretation of the freedoms “learned” by the colonists, accustomed to the "overarching tyranny” of European elites—he alleges—which colonists were able to “get away” from their masters, having observed how liberated were the Amerinds. He appears to be one of those who honestly believe that American society was founded upon the principles of the Iroquois nation, overlooking English history from well before the Magna Carta, and totally eliminating the Celts from consideration.

• Another is his knee-jerk acceptance of the about to be overturned notion that the Amerinds all arrived via the Bering Strait, failing as it does to account for primitive remains in California, and even southern South America which predate the land route between the glaciers by 20,000 to as much as 100,000 years.

• As well, he avoids the suggestion that at least one ancient dig off the California coast is felt by some to exceed 500,000 years . . . and may even represent the site of origin of Homo Sapiens, rather than Africa. I find the latter issue particularly interesting, inasmuch as the so called "Clovis Points" found in New Mexico are not only identical to those found amongst the Cro-Magnons in Spain but predate them by over 25,000 years!! Cro-Magnon is considered to be the first modern homosapien to appear on the continent after the ice age, and no one knows where he came from!

I wonder . . . do you?

Posted by respeto at 1:01 PM

January 5, 2007

A War Like No Other

How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War
Victor Davis Hanson – 9780812969702

In classical literature/history this is the most studied war of all time . . . not least because it is the oldest and most famous in the ancient Western world. Thucydides and others amongst the ancients, and Strauss and others amongst the current, have reported in detail on the war and/or individual battles therein, but in this narrative Dr. Hanson undertakes the discussion in an altogether new fashion, integrating the war as fought on sea and land, city and countryside noting, chronologically, the relevance (or lack there of) of various battles within the war and their impact upon Greek civilization of the era.

He describes the civilization of the time, the logic behind and the manner in which battles were fought, the changing alliances within the adversarial camps. As well, he integrates the impact of various concomitant occurrences such as the plague epidemic early in the war, why it happened, and the carnage it wrought. A Gestaltist approach, you might say.

Pericles died of the plague, which certainly affected the war’s outcome. Most of the noble families of Athens were devastated by the war, a majority of them perishing in combat or of the plague, leaving Athens without a ruling coterie, and which resulted in the ultimate destruction of Athens while setting the stage for conquest of all of Greece by Alexander.

Adjusting for population at the time, he observes that a similar ration of deaths would require that 40 million Americans perish in WWII, including the majority of its leaders and prominent citizens. In this vein he comments how different war is now than at the time, conceptually and destructively. He contemporizes that war with current war making.

This is a monumental and unique work which lends itself to a more comprehensive understanding of the West’s first battle of all against all, and well worth a read. Whatever you have read about this conflict . . . is different.

Posted by respeto at 3:24 PM