Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Go to sleep, you weary hobo....

Utah "Bruce" Phillips has passed away. He was a singer/songwriter, a hobo in the grand classic style, but also an historian, both archival and oral. Oh, and an unparalleled storyteller. I never saw him perform, but my spouse did, and says that he spent so much time telling stories that he only got through about four songs! His breakthrough recording, in fact, was a story, Moose Turd Pie:
The worst job I ever had was working for the Pacific Railroad, doing a thing called "gandy-dancing." Now most of you know the railroad was built partially by Irish labor. Well, back then the workers would use this long handled shovel, made by the Gandy Shovel Company of Great Neck New York. Well, they'd shove one end of the shovel under a railroad tie, and then run out to the other end of the shovel, when they could find it, and do a little jig on it, and they called it "gandy-dancin'". This would lift the tie up so they could shove gravel under it, which would level the roadbed, so when the train came along, it wouldn't tip over, which would be a real drag for everyone.

Well, nowadays, they run three cars out on the rail: a bunk car, an equipment car, and a mess car. The only thing they don't give you is a cook. The bosses figure you'll find out who the best cook is, and use him. Well, they were wrong. Y'see, they just find out who complains the loudest about the cooking, and he gets to be the cook. Well, that was me, see. Ol' aligator mouth. That was the worst food I'd ever had, and I complained about it. Things like "dog bottom pie" and "pheasant sweat." I thought it was garbage. So I complained. And everyone said, "alright, you think you can do better? You're the cook." Well, that made me mad, see? But I knew, that anyone who complained about my cooking, they were gonna have to cook.

Armed with that knowledge, I sallied forth, over the muddy river. I was walking along, and I saw just this hell of a big moose turd, I mean it was a real steamer! So I said to myself, "self, we're going to make us some moose turd pie." So I tipped that prairie pastry on its side, got my sh*t together, so to speak, and started rolling it down towards the cook car: flolump, flolump, flolump. I went in and made a big pie shell, and then I tipped that meadow muffin into it, laid strips of dough across it, and put a sprig of parsley on top. It was beautiful, poetry on a plate, and I served it up for dessert.

Well, this big guy come into the mess car, I mean, he's about 5 foot forty, and he sets himself down like a fool on a stool, picked up a fork and took a big bite of that moose turd pie. Well he threw down his fork and he let out a bellow, "My God, that's moose turd pie!"

"It's good though."

Phillips wrote any number of songs that sound like they've been around forever. My favorite, though, isn't a hobo song, but a simple romantic statement of faith:
"The Hymn Song"
(Bruce Phillips)

You know I think if lady luck was blind
That old sun would never shine
And I believe if death really held a knife
We'd all be beggars of life
I believe if I lived my life again
I'd still be here with you
I believe if I lived my life again
I'd still be here with you
Sometimes I wish that I could close my eyes
To some things I don't want to see
But I believe if you lived your life again
You'd still be here with me
I'll never see the ending of my mind
Everything will have a time
Why should I ask for things that I don't need
Or pretty lies to hide my greed

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Quotations from Tosh #5: National History

"We teach and write the kind of history which is appropriate to our organization, congenial to the intellectual climate of our part of the world. We can scarcely help it if this kind of history is at the same time the one most adapted to the preservation of the existing regime." -- H. Butterfield, The Englishman and his History (1944), cited in Tosh, ed. Historians on History, p. 64.

"New interpretations always come with crudeness and violence at first as we shall see. They erupt upon the world as propaganda; they must make their way as fighting creeds. They can become wise and urbane, perhaps even harmless, all of them, but only after they have submitted to the chastening effect of controversy, discipline and tradition." -- H. Butterfield, The Englishman and his History (1944), cited in Tosh, ed. Historians on History, p. 65-66.

"From the 17th century our greatest innovators have tried to show that they were not innovators at all but restorers of ancient ways. And so it is that even when we have a revolution we look to the past and try to carry it out in accordance with ancient precedents." -- H. Butterfield, The Englishman and his History (1944), cited in Tosh, ed. Historians on History, p. 66.

"The American must go outside his country and hear the voice of America to realize that his is one of the most spectacularly lopsided cultures in all history. The marvelous success and vitality of our institutions is equaled by the amazing poverty and inarticulateness of our theorizing about politics. No nation has ever believed more firmly that its political life was based on a perfect theory. And yet no nation has ever been less interested in political philosophy or produced less in the way of theory." -- Daniel Boorstin, The Genius of American Politics (1953), cited in Tosh, ed. Historians on History, p. 70.

"Who would think of using the word 'un-Italian' or 'un-French' as we use the word 'un-American'?"-- Daniel Boorstin, The Genius of American Politics (1953), cited in Tosh, ed. Historians on History, p. 73.

"By the decolonization of African history I mean four main things: the use of other sources besides the documentary; the approach to research into African history from the African and not European perspective, the interpretation of data against the African and not the European background, and finally the application of the same terminologies by historians the world over." -- A. Adu Boahen, Clio and Nation-Building in Africa (1975), cited in Tosh, ed. Historians on History, p. 78.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Quotations from Tosh #4: Progress

"The aim of history I believe, is to understand men both as individuals and in their social relationships in time. Social embraces all of man's activities -- economic, religious, political, artistic, legal, military, scientific -- everything, indeed, that affects the life of mankind. And this, of course, is not a static study but a study of movement and change. It is not only necessary to discover, as accurately as the most sophisticated use of evidence will allow, things as they actually were, but also why they were so, and why they changed; for no human societies, not one, have ever stood still. Although we carry within ourselves and within our societies innumerable relics of the past, we have discarded, outgrown, neglected and lost far more." -- J.H. Plumb, The Death of the Past (1969), cited in Tosh, ed. Historians on History, p. 50.

"But blind optimism has rarely been the fault of the perceptive historian; Voltaire and Gibbon, the greatest historians of the Enlightenment, were conscious enough of the follies, the iniquities, the stupidities of mankind. But they were sufficiently detached to qualify their pessimism and to use a balanced judgment. To them the gains made by mankind were obvious and remarkable. They still are. Any historian who is not blindly prejudiced cannot but admit that the ordinary man and woman, unless they should be caught up in a murderous field of war, are capable of securing a richer life than their ancestors. There is more food in the world, more opportunity of advancement, greater areas of liberty in ideas and in living than the world has ever known: art, music, literature can be enjoyed by tens of millions, not tens of thousands. This has been achieved not by clinging to conservative tradition or by relying on instinct or emotion, but by the application of human ingenuity, no matter what the underlying motive might be. The great extension of rationalism has been a cause and a consequence of this development. In field after field, rationalism has proved its worth. It still has vast areas left to conquer in politics and social organization which may prove beyond its capacity, owing to the aggressive instincts built so deeply into man's nature. Nevertheless, the historian must stress the success, as well as point out the failure. Here is a message of the past which is as clear, but far more true, than the message wrung from it by our ancestors. The past can be used to sanctify not authority nor morality but those qualities of the human mind which have raised us from the forest and swamp to the city, to build a qualified confidence in man's capacity to order his life and to stress the virtues of intellect, of rational behaviour. And this past is neither pagan nor Christian, it belongs to no nation and no class, it is universal; it is human in the widest sense of that term. But this past must not be too simple. Just as the Christian past stressed the complexity of the battle between good and evil, so should the historian's past dwell on the difficulties which have faced those who have fought for intellectual and moral enlightenment. Nor need we gloss their motives. The historian's duty is to reveal the complexities of human behaviour and the strangeness of events. The past which mankind needs is no longer a simple one." -- J.H. Plumb, The Death of the Past (1969), cited in Tosh, ed. Historians on History, p. 53.

"And it is the duty of the historian to teach this, to proclaim it, to demonstrate it in order to give humanity some confidence in a task that will be cruel and long -- the resolution of the tensions and antipathies that exist within the human species. ... We need to teach people to think historically about social change, to alert them to the cunning of history which, as Lenin emphasized, always contains a quality of surprise." -- J.H. Plumb, The Death of the Past (1969), cited in Tosh, ed. Historians on History, p. 54.

"Progress does not and cannot mean equal and simultaneous progress for all. It is significant that almost all our latter-day prophets of decline, our sceptics who see no meaning in history and assume that progress is dead, belong to that sector of the world and to that class of society which have triumphantly played a leading and predominant part in the advance of civilization for several generations. It is no consolation to them to be told that the role which their group has played in the past will now pass to others. Clearly a history which has played so scurvy a trick on them cannot be a meaningful or rational process. But, if we are to retain the hypothesis of progress, we must, I think, accept the condition of the broken line." -- E. H. Carr, What is History? (1964) cited in Tosh, ed. Historians on History, p. 58.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Ahistoricality Alert: Unspeakably Banal

I've not been terribly vocal about the Democratic campaign -- neither Clinton nor Obama were my first choice, both have fairly similar policies (neither of which will be enacted in anything like their present form), both have a thin but adequate resume, both have substantial talents and drawbacks as potential chief executives and both are way better than McCain. I was shut out of our state caucuses, due to time-bound obligations, so I didn't have to chose. Also, I'm on hiatus, and find most of the strong pro/anti arguments pretty vacuous, also well-balanced.

But sometimes someone says something so ... well, I'll just quote her:
"They came for the steel companies and nobody said anything. They came for the auto companies and nobody said anything. They came for the office companies, people who did white-collar service jobs, and no one said anything. And they came for the professional jobs that could be outsourced, and nobody said anything."

(The original reportage, with a bit more context, is here)
This is, obviously, a riff on Niemoller's famous formulation. As other Jews have pointed out, this comes just in time for Holocaust Remembrance Day.

I have two reactions to this, both negative.

The first, and more obvious one, is that it is tactless, inappropriate, banal and absurd to compare global trade shifts to the Holocaust. I'm not going to say "it's offensive" because there is no objective measure of offensiveness. I will say, however, that I am offended. It is a gross dimunition of the Holocaust -- an atrocity that slaughtered Jews, Romany, political dissidents, Slavic peoples, religious minorities, and the disabled -- to use this in a speech on unemployment.

Second, and perhaps less obvious, is the historical absurdity of the statement. Niemoller's poetic formula works because it was pretty close to truth: there was very little resistance or protest in Germany as the Nazi programs were rolled out and Volk, Lebensraum, Judenrein became official policy. Trade, on the other hand, especially global competition and relocation, has been a constant political and economic topic of discussion, protest, legislation and speculation for the last thirty years or more. It may be true that classes who felt "above" globalization didn't take it seriously until the effects became obvious, but it's not at all true that there's been no cross-class unity, and "leadership" from unions, think tanks, legislators, presidents, affected businesses, the WTO, and assorted commentators.

I don't know if Hilary Clinton thought it was just a rhetorically clever move, or if she really thinks that outsourcing is some sort of economic Holocaust which justifies the equation she's made. I don't care: as an historian and as a Jew (also partially Polish, leftist and former union member, all of which would have gotten me rounded up at some point), I am offended.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Blog Against Disabilism Day: Chess

It's been two years since I did BADD, so I thought I'd update folks on what's new: CHESS. My spouse has learned how to play chess. It all started with Lewis Caroll. After reading Through the Looking Glass to the Little Anachronism, my spouse (hereafter abreviated M.S.) got interested.

The Hadley School for the Blind Correspondence Courses (beginner and strategy) are the first step. Not that I couldn't teach the basic moves, and I did to some extent, but I've never studied chess formally, taught anyone to play and had no ideas whatsoever about how to adapt the game. M.S. has always had a bit of nervousness about spatial/strategic games, but figured it was worth trying. Hadley School adaptive chess board
The Hadley course comes with an adaptive chessboard:
  • black and white squares are vertically offset (black is higher on this set, but not all), so the grid can be felt easily
  • there are braille markings for coordinates (especially useful since a lot of non-sighted chess is played by email)
  • the pieces have pegs on the bottom so they don't shift when you examine them tactilely
  • a metal peg at the top of the piece tells you that the color is black (see the closeup on the left; there are many variations on this, including sanded-down tops, bumps or other texture, and it's maker's choice which color gets the special indicator)
  • You can buy the set here, by the way.

Hadley School adaptive chess board closeup
Once M.S. got past the basic course, we started playing, and it quickly became part of our Saturday night routine. At first, I was serving very much as a tutor: making suggestions, warning of potential problems, allowing lots of take-backs. But while that was going on, M.S. was working through the strategy and principles course, reading through famous games, learning ways to understand what's going on that are well beyond my ken. I've never, as I said, studied chess (I studied Go and Shogi a bit, but it really doesn't help), and I haven't played regularly since high school. (Yeah, I was one of the geeks playing chess in the lunchroom and the library -- not a club, but regulars. We invented variations, like teleporting pieces to random places [the eight-sided D&D dice {I said I was a geek} came in handy] once a game instead of moving them.) As time has passed, I've been giving M.S. less and less advice and fewer take-backs. Two weeks ago we had our first game in which I basically gave no advice at all and M.S. never had to retract a move; in fact, the one truly dumb move of the game was my attempt to be aggressive and clever with a bishop, forgetting to note the plethora of pawns with which said bishop could be removed from its forward position; I still won, but it was a tight game most of the way.

In between our Saturday nights (and we don't make it every week, either), M.S. has been playing e-mail games with other members of the United States Braille Chess Association, and getting lots of great feedback and advice from some of their better players. Then there's the talking computer chess game, which M.S. uses to practice particular strategies and focus on error-free play. I don't think I'm going to win too many more before I start losing, and I actually expect to start losing big. M.S. is more careful than I am, more likely to take time to think things through, more devoted to practice and rapidly getting a really good feel for the board and the flow of the game.

It's been fun for all of us. Little Anachronism likes to play the talking computer chess on the lowest setting and M.S. follows along on the board to provide advice and practice position reading. We've added a new dimension to our relationship, and M.S. feels like the mental exercise is really worthwhile. Disabled or not: chess is a great game!

Now, go read the rest of the Blogging Against Disabilism Day posts and have a great May Day!