Happy 25th, Fall of the Berlin Wall!

Twenty-five years since that wall came down. I was a teenager, watching on teevee as citizens pulled it apart, climbed up on it and celebrated, uniting Germany. I remember being astonished that it was happening in my lifetime, and feeling giddy as I watched people reach out and grasp freedom with both hands. It was awesome.

The Scorpions captured the mood of the late 80s and early 90s well, as people in Eastern Bloc countries wrested political control from their masters, and embraced democracy. Winds of change definitely were blowing. [Read more…]

Bodacious Botany: Not Mace, I Said A Mace

You’ll understand the reason for the title in a moment, although if you’re a Doctor Who fan, you’re already sniggering.

Right, so, here we are. Due to my mad photo organizing skillz and an inordinate amount of British detective shows, I’ve now got a folder full o’ botany. I figure I might as well get some use out of the stuff, seeing as how so much of it covers my beloved geology round here. Sigh. [Read more…]

People Have Always Had a Hammer Ready for Uppity Women

Since getting the Kindle Fire, I’ve been teaching myself the history I never learned. School wasn’t big on freethinkers (although they were big on paens of praise for the Founding Fathers – the real secularist ones, not the weird rabid Christian ones that only exist in right wingers’ heads). My education glossed the suffragettes. It somehow left me thinking that women kicked up a brief fuss and got voting rights justlikethat, and that Susan B. Anthony had something to do with the American Revolution. Well, she was a revolutionary fighting a war of sorts, but I had her badly misplaced. Elizabeth Cady Stanton might have come up at some point – her name seemed familiar when I rediscovered her as a Freethinker – but if so, she wasn’t exactly expounded upon.

The impression I took away was that a woman’s right to vote was a natural evolution in American history, practically inevitable, and that bloomers were a big deal. I got the sense these women were rather freaks in their time. They were, but I don’t think the public school system meant me to think they were quite weird and somewhat undesirable.

But that’s exactly what anti-woman suffrage frothers wanted folks to think. Note the conservative hysteria in this series of political postcards. It should be depressingly familiar to anyone who’s followed the sexism and misogyny outbreaks in our community and the world at large recently. [Read more…]

Thomas Paine: “A Calamitous Necessity of Going On”

I’ve been reading the works of 18th and 19th century heretics. I feel cheated. My education elided freethinking. If mention of a freethinker was necessary, textbooks and teachers focused on something else they’d done, not the actual freethinking bit. This allowed Christians to slumber happily in the delusion that in days gone by, not a word was said against their religion except by icky people who got their asses kicked, or did nothing important at all, or didn’t matter in the least. And it left me with the impression that atheists had sprung up brand-new this (well, last, now) century. I thought everybody who ever meant anything had been religious of some sort, and of course our Founding Fathers were faithful.

And this, mind you, was in a school system that actually taught evolution, at least a little bit, and did a reasonable job inculcating secular values.

[Read more…]

Hypatia Day

Hypatia of Alexandria

So I gets this message from Facebook, y’see – my Pharyngulite friend Cameron Cole inviting me to an event called Hypatia Day.  Brilliant!  A day for remembering one of the most remarkable women in history.  We need more of those.  And it’s worth punking off the Dojo till tomorrow for this.

This post is for those who just went, “Hypatia who?”  And for those who just went, “Hypatia – woo-hoo!”

I first got to know Hypatia whilst reading a book called Greek Society.  I’d been quite used to history being full of men, men, and more men.  Oh, and did I mention the men?  Sometimes it really did seem like history was his-story, with just the occasional smattering of, “Oh, and there was this cool female poet once – and did we mention these totally awesome men?”  The only ancient women I really knew were ladies like Cleopatra, and the history I’d learned concentrated more on their looks and their effect on men than on their brains.

Then came Greek Society, and this section of four pages talking about a philosopher, Hypatia of Alexandria.  Four pages, you say.  Big fucking deal.  But in a 223 page book spanning Greek history from Mycenaean civilization to the rise of Rome, four pages dedicated to one woman kinda is.

I’d never heard of her, but by the end of four pages, I was in love with her.  And Mr. Frost didn’t even talk about her that much – he spent a lot of his words setting her in context.  But he described her as having an “extravagant intelligence.”  There she was – mathematician, philosopher, astronomer – blazing like a supernova from those pages.  A woman pursuing the intellect and rationality in a very male world that at the time was beginning its slide into the Dark Ages.

Students came from all over the Hellenistic world to follow her.  Her father, Theon, a mathematician and last director of the magnificent Museion in Alexandria, admitted she overshadowed him.  Together, they wrote commentaries on such works as Ptolomey’s Almagest and Euclid’s Elements, works that went on to set the European intellectual world back on fire when they were rediscovered a thousand years later.  Enjoy rational thinking?  Tip a glass to Hypatia:

How important was the survival of Euclid’s Elements to the course of human history?  The Elements was the most influential textbook in history (Boyer, 1991, p.119).  As reformulated by Theon and Hypatia, the Elements became more than just a textbook on geometry.  It became the definitive guide on how to think clearly and reason logically.  The scientists Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton were all influenced by the Elements.  Newton’s interest in mathematics was awakened when he bought and read a copy of this book (Boyer, 1991, p. 391).  He used the style of the Elements, with formal propositions and rigorous proofs, in his Principia, the book which forms the foundation of modern physics.  All of modern mathematics employs the logical, deductive method that was introduced by the Elements.  In short, modern science and technology rests on the firm foundation laid down by Euclid’s Elements.

Yeah.  She’s all that.

All of her rationality and independence and intellect, not to mention her religious affiliation (i.e., not Christian), led a mob of Christians to murder.  Apparently, she was in the way of their brave new world.  So they stripped her naked, dragged her through the streets, and slashed her to death with pottery shards.  And the darkness got that much darker.  Politics and religion killed one of the most brilliant women in history.  Then they killed the city of Alexandria, its great library, and the intellectual genius of the ancient world.  Okay, so barbarians also had a little something to do with all that chaos and destruction, but still: vast majority of it was down to politics and religion.  Science almost didn’t survive, at least in the West.

But embers still burned, and got fanned to flame during the Renaissance.  Hypatia was so influential that Raphael wanted to put her front and center in his magnificent School of Athens.  Christianity shat on her again, refusing to allow a smart pagan woman murdered by Christians to have a part in a fresco created for the Pope’s personal library.  Raphael sneaked her in there anyway.  And there she is.  Do you see her?  She’s that elegant woman in white down towards the left who seems to stand apart from the tumult, for all she’s smack in the middle of it:

School of Athens

Someday, I really need to read up on her life.  I know so little about her.  But I know she was extraordinary, an incredible woman who took her place beside the leading intellectual lights of her day, and lead many others in her turn.  We owe it to her to tell her story.

I’m glad someone thought to give her this day.

Celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Click the link for his “The Other America” Speech.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Don’t go silent.  

On this day, we remember the power of dreams.  We remember the power of a great many good people all coming together for a just cause.  And we remember that the right words, symbolic actions, and a refusal to back down from demands for justice can remake the world.

Thank you, Dr. King. 

Pansophic Kitteh Sez: Read This Book

My cat may be homicidal, but she’s also a discerning reader. Here she is, drawing your attention to a particularly interesting passage in Guns, Germs and Steel:


I’m not sure which passage it was, alas. Too busy photographing the cat. It looks to be the Epilogue, but I can tell you that the entire book is an excellent read. You’ll never see the world in quite the same way again. And it answers that pesky question: why were Europeans the ones who pretty much took over the world?

Bad news for those who wish to believe in the inherent superiority of a subset of humanity, I’m afraid.

For those who haven’t read it, but like me spent years intending to, let this be your meaningful nudge: it’s a really fucking excellent book. And my cat says you should read it. When a homicidal feline places a meaningful paw on a book and recommends you peruse it, it’s probably safest just to do what she says.

The Cons Are So Very Fucked: A History

Devilstower has a fascinating take on America’s political history, and comes to some conclusions that don’t bode well for the Cons’ attempt at a comeback:

What the shift of 1992 represents isn’t just a dissatisfaction with Democrats, but the full integration of the southern base and the Christian right into the Republican Party. 1992 was the first year in which the Christian Coalition distributed voters guides through churches. With their traditional base across the country, the Christian Right, and the Solid South, Republicans had a position that made them nationally competitive with Democrats for the first time in half a century. Not only that, it gave them a party with enthusiasm at a time when most people were disgusted by politics as usual.

And that’s the real problem for the GOP.

Davis and Snowe are absolutely right to think that the move to twist the Republican Party around a social conservative base is costing them votes among moderates. It’s also the likely cause of the continued decline of Republican ID, which is now at levels that actually pass the worst of the Watergate era. The trouble is, it takes both the social conservaties and the fiscal conservatives for the Republicans to form a winning coalition. That’s why the first business of that Congress in 1994 was to pass laws rewarding the Christian Right that had returned them to power after so long in the wilderness.

Casting out the social conservatives now won’t lead to a winning position, because there are not enough fiscal conservatives to keep the GOP from being more than an afterthought. Sticking with the social conservatives, whose demands for action on their issues are both insatiable and whose positions are unpopular with the general public, is another route to failure. In forcing a merger between these two factions, Republicans gained temporary victory, at the cost of endless confusion and long term disaster.

It’s too early to pronounce the Republican party dead, but the prognosis sure doesn’t look good.

The Things I Learn Watching Teevee: Unusual Navigation Methods Edition

There’s this show called Warriors on the History Channel. This Green Beret guy named Terry Schappert runs around getting all misty-eyed with manly men all over the globe. His credulity grates sometimes. But what makes the show worth watching are tidbits like this, from the “Islands of Blood” episode:

Terry: To navigate these vessels, Hawaiian chiefs used the stars, as well as other surprising ways to judge ocean currents.

Hawaiian Boat Guy: “They have a set pattern. And the really experienced guys can feel them sitting on the deck by their testicles rolling around in their scrotum.”

I knew pre-compass navigation sometimes took balls, but I’d thought that was supposed to be metaphorical, not actual, balls.

It’s a weird world, innit?