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Archive for November 13th, 2019

Golden rice could save children. Until now, governments have barred it.

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Governments often seem to go to great lengths to protect the status quo even when that means stifling improvements. Ed Regis, author of Golden Rice: The Imperiled Birth of a GMO Superfood,reports in the Washington Post:

By the end of this week, Bangladesh’s agriculture minister is expected to announce the approval of “golden rice” for sale and use, making the country the world’s first to embrace a food that could save hundreds of thousands of children in developing nations from blindness and death. Golden rice has faced a years-long battle to overcome misguided hostility from critics of genetically modified foods and from overcautious bureaucrats. Its introduction in Bangladesh could be a monumental breakthrough for its acceptance worldwide.

For more than two decades, researchers have worked to develop a rice that contained higher levels of beta carotene, which the human body converts into vitamin A. The goal was to reduce the incidence of vitamin A deficiency — a health problem that is virtually unknown in rich Western countries but is a leading cause of childhood blindness and death in the developing world where rice is a staple, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia. According to the World Health Organization, “An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 vitamin A-deficient children become blind every year, half of them dying within 12 months of losing their sight.” Also according to WHO, millions of pregnant women worldwide are at risk of night blindness and other health problems from vitamin A deficiency, which can harm fetal development, too.

Golden rice’s efficacy as a source of vitamin A has been shown in experiments going back to 2009 with human volunteers. But despite its promise, the rice has been attacked by critics of genetically modified foods ever since it was announced in the pages of the journal Science in 2000. Indian anti-GMO crusader Vandana Shiva called golden rice “a hoax.” As I found in researching a book on golden rice and the struggles to get it to those who need it, Greenpeace has variously derided the potentially lifesaving food as “Fools Gold,” “All glitter, no gold,” “More hype than substance,” “Propaganda for the genetic engineering industry” and a “Golden Illusion.”

Defenders of golden rice, including the more than 100 Nobel laureates who in 2016 signed a letter urging Greenpeace to stop bashing GMOs, and in particular golden rice, tend to blame activist opposition for preventing the approval and release of this superfood. But that is only one cause. The greatest impediment to the release and use of golden rice has been the regulatory apparatus of the health departments and agriculture ministries in the countries where the research was being done as well as in the nations where the biofortified rice was most needed.

In short, the very government agencies that were supposed to protect human lives and health have instead been inadvertently responsible for years of mass blindness and death.

The main source of the problem is the 2003 so-called Cartagena Protocol, a United Nations-sponsored resolution on “biosafety” governing the handling, transport and use of GMOs. A key component of the protocol was its embrace of a precautionary principle stating that “lack of scientific certainty due to insufficient relevant scientific information and knowledge regarding the extent of the potential adverse effects” of a GMO on the environment or human health “shall not prevent” governments from taking action against the importation of the GMO in question.

That sounds like a simple “better safe than sorry” proposition, but in practice it became a bureaucratic doctrine of “guilty until proven innocent.” The worst of it was that the statement allowed the imposition of restrictions on a given GMO in the absence of any actual proof that it would cause harm, or even sufficient reason to believe that it would.
Governments responded by being not only cautious, but also zealously overcautious, when it came to GMOs. What this meant in real-world GMO science is illustrated by the set of rules created by the European Parliament in 2003, based on a directive regarding “the deliberate release into the environment of genetically modified organisms.”

The landmark legislation was legally binding on all member states of the European Union, and it governed virtually all aspects of GMO research, development and field testing. It provided, for example, that anyone wishing to conduct a field trial of a given GMO had to compile a technical dossier that furnished a virtually complete set of data about the plant at the molecular level, how it had been modified, with what genetic sequences and their origin — all of it in minute detail.

Ingo Potrykus, the co-inventor of golden rice, with Peter Beyer, has estimated that adherence to government regulations on GMOs resulting from the Cartagena Protocol and the precautionary principle caused a delay of up to 10 years in the development of the final product. During that decade, countless children in developing countries continued to go blind and die, and the health of pregnant women was also harmed. It was a potent illustration of the way erring on the side of caution can sometimes have fatal consequences. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 November 2019 at 3:55 pm

Giuliani Was Close to a Podcast Deal With the News Outlet That Spread His Ukraine Conspiracies

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Mike Spies, Jake Pearson, and J. David McSwane report in ProPublica:

After John Solomon ran columns in The Hill that touched off a disinformation campaign against Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, the publication had discussions with Rudy Giuliani about a business venture.
As ProPublica revealed last month, Giuliani associate Lev Parnas had helped arrange an interview Solomon conducted with a Ukrainian prosecutor who claimed the Obama administration interfered with anti-corruption cases involving high-profile people, including Biden’s son Hunter. Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, trumpeted Solomon’s work on cable news. The Hill articles are now a central component of the Trump impeachment investigation.
Less than four months after Solomon’s reporting, Giuliani and The Hill actively pursued a deal to create a podcast together, with Solomon acting as an intermediary, according to emails obtained by ProPublica. The project, which never came to fruition for unclear reasons, featured the former New York City mayor interviewing various public figures. The emails include recordings of lengthy chats with the commissioner of Major League Baseball, Rob Manfred, and a retired Marine Corps general named James T. Conway.
The Conway interview largely concerned MEK, the dissident Iranian group that the United States had designated a terrorist group until 2012. MEK has paid Giuliani at least $20,000 for appearances and lobbying on its behalf. Conway declined to comment on the interview.
Giuliani told ProPublica that the podcast grew out of discussions with The Hill’s owner, Jimmy Finkelstein, a Republican and longtime friend who served as a fundraiser for Giuliani’s failed 2008 presidential run.
“I was talking to Jimmy about a podcast that didn’t happen,” Giuliani said in an email, adding that “John Solomon was just trying to help Jimmy get it done.”
Solomon repeatedly declined to comment, saying, “I refer you to The Hill for any matters involving Hill business.”
He said he had no formal business relationship with Giuliani.
“He has never had anything to do with my personal or private business, at all. He does not now, nor will he ever,” Solomon said.
The Hill, confirming the Giuliani discussions, said it was planning to create a “podcast network with a multitude of political voices from all sides.”
Giuliani said he was “never paid” for his podcast work. “I continue to believe that your interest in this is not legitimate,” he said in emails to ProPublica. “Don’t ever try to give me bull I’ve been around too long. This is a hit job on a perfectly legitimate situation.”
Giuliani himself seems to have had a wry attitude about his close relationship with Solomon. In late June, a month before Trump urged Ukraine’s leader to investigate his top political rival, the president’s personal attorney went to a London cigar shop with Parnas and his partner Igor Fruman.
Giuliani later emailed a photo of the moment to Solomon, with a subject line that began: “Smoked Filled Room.”
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan indicted Parnas and Fruman last month on allegations that they illegally funneled money into U.S. political campaigns. Giuliani is under investigation by the same office, according to multiple reports.
Details on Solomon’s role in the genesis of the campaign against Biden continue to emerge from the Democrats’ effort to impeach the president.
This month, the House committees carrying out the impeachment inquiry released text messages from September between Kurt Volker, Trump’s former special envoy to Ukraine, and Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union. Volker informs Sondland that Giuliani will “talk w Solomon” and that the president’s attorney had “urged” him to do the same.
Solomon told ProPublica last month that his reporting was accurate and defended his sourcing, saying, “No one knew there was anything wrong with Lev Parnas at the time.”
Internal records show The Hill’s higher-ups were concerned about Solomon’s mixing of journalism and business. At one point in 2017, the then-publisher warned in an internal memo that Solomon was engaged in “reputation killing stuff.”
The memo alleged that Solomon brokered a branded content deal while influencing news coverage that benefited the group that paid for the content. Solomon deferred comment about those deals to the Hill.
When asked if he was compensated for arranging those deals, he repeatedly declined to answer. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 November 2019 at 12:56 pm

Revenge is bittersweet at best

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Tim Vernimmen interviews Michele Gelfand in Knowable Magazine:

Psychologist Michele Gelfand has long been curious about conflicts and how we might negotiate our way out of them. She’s especially intrigued by the psychological desire to retaliate — and the fact that this urge is so often contagious.

People not involved in the original conflict may sometimes feel like taking revenge for the harm done to others in their group. They might even take it out on relatives of the perpetrator or others perceived as belonging to the same group, even if those people hold no responsibility whatsoever.

Gelfand, now at the University of Maryland, tackles the topic with a range of research tools, from brain imaging in the lab to fieldwork in the Middle East. In an article in the 2019 Annual Review of Psychology, she and her colleagues explain what revenge research has taught us so far. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

This is a fascinating subject, yet it seems difficult to study. How do you go about it? Do you seek out people who already feel like taking revenge, or do you get them to feel that way?

As a social scientist, I’ve always been a proponent of having multiple methods to study anything, as every method has its strengths and limitations. You can manipulate contexts where people in the laboratory feel like they have been intentionally harmed. You can also conduct surveys to ask people about times they’ve felt they’ve been harmed in the past, and study their reactions and their emotions in those contexts.

And in some recent work that we’ve published on honor cultures — where there is a willingness to retaliate against people to defend one’s reputation even if doing so is very risky or costly — we have even used computational models, to try and simulate the circumstances under which revenge might turn out to be beneficial. These simulations suggest that unreliable institutions and a generally tough environment may be crucial conditions for the evolution of honor cultures.

In your review, you write that “revenge has not received much attention in the history of intellectual thought.” Why do you think this subject has been largely ignored for so long?

It’s interesting, because revenge — which we define as motivated retaliation after one perceives harm to one’s well-being — is a universal phenomenon. It is very common, and it takes a serious toll. In the US, for example, desire for revenge has been implicated in over 60 percent of school shootings and over a quarter of bombings.

It may be that early philosophers were more focused on virtue, considering revenge to be a very negative phenomenon. Only recently have researchers started to theorize that the urge to retaliate might reflect something really fundamental about human psychology, with both positive and negative aspects.

When revenge is studied, it is often treated as something to be avoided or prevented. Yet you and your coauthors stress that “vengeance can be functional and even necessary.” Really?

Yes, and there are a number of different reasons for that. From an individual perspective, revenge has long been thought to be a deterrent, a way to signal to others that one is strong and not to be messed with.

More recently, the focus has shifted to cultural processes, suggesting that revenge also reflects how groups operate, and helps people work together at times when cooperation is essential for group survival. By discouraging the violation of social norms, revenge may help to keep the group together.

If revenge can be useful, would you go as far as recommending it in certain situations? . . .

Continue reading.

See also Revenge: A Multilevel Review and Synthesis in Annual Review of Psychology.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 November 2019 at 12:15 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

18 Best and Worst Hot Sauces, Ranked

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Very interesting article. I had not realized that Tobasco was so low in sodium.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 November 2019 at 11:14 am

Posted in Daily life, Food, Health

How America Ends

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Right now the bad faith and dishonesty of the modern Republican Party is on full display in the hearings in the House: a refusal to encounter facts and to engage with substance is just the beginning. Yoni Appelbaum writes in the Atlantic:

Democracy depends on the consent of the losers. For most of the 20th century, parties and candidates in the United States have competed in elections with the understanding that electoral defeats are neither permanent nor intolerable. The losers could accept the result, adjust their ideas and coalitions, and move on to fight in the next election. Ideas and policies would be contested, sometimes viciously, but however heated the rhetoric got, defeat was not generally equated with political annihilation. The stakes could feel high, but rarely existential. In recent years, however, beginning before the election of Donald Trump and accelerating since, that has changed.

“Our radical Democrat opponents are driven by hatred, prejudice, and rage,” Trump told the crowd at his reelection kickoff event in Orlando in June. “They want to destroy you and they want to destroy our country as we know it.” This is the core of the president’s pitch to his supporters: He is all that stands between them and the abyss.

In October, with the specter of impeachment looming, he fumed on Twitter, “What is taking place is not an impeachment, it is a COUP, intended to take away the Power of the People, their VOTE, their Freedoms, their Second Amendment, Religion, Military, Border Wall, and their God-given rights as a Citizen of The United States of America!” For good measure, he also quoted a supporter’s dark prediction that impeachment “will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.”

Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric matches the tenor of the times. The body politic is more fractious than at any time in recent memory. Over the past 25 years, both red and blue areas have become more deeply hued, with Democrats clustering in cities and suburbs and Republicans filling in rural areas and exurbs. In Congress, where the two caucuses once overlapped ideologically, the dividing aisle has turned into a chasm.

As partisans have drifted apart geographically and ideologically, they’ve become more hostile toward each other. In 1960, less than 5 percent of Democrats and Republicans said they’d be unhappy if their children married someone from the other party; today, 35 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of Democrats would be, according to a recent Public Religion Research Institute/Atlantic poll—far higher than the percentages that object to marriages crossing the boundaries of race and religion. As hostility rises, Americans’ trust in political institutions, and in one another, is declining. A study released by the Pew Research Center in July found that only about half of respondents believed their fellow citizens would accept election results no matter who won. At the fringes, distrust has become centrifugal: Right-wing activists in Texas and left-wing activists in California have revived talk of secession.

Recent research by political scientists at Vanderbilt University and other institutions has found both Republicans and Democrats distressingly willing to dehumanize members of the opposite party. “Partisans are willing to explicitly state that members of the opposing party are like animals, that they lack essential human traits,” the researchers found. The president encourages and exploits such fears. This is a dangerous line to cross. As the researchers write, “Dehumanization may loosen the moral restraints that would normally prevent us from harming another human being.”

Outright political violence remains considerably rarer than in other periods of partisan divide, including the late 1960s. But overheated rhetoric has helped radicalize some individuals. Cesar Sayoc, who was arrested for targeting multiple prominent Democrats with pipe bombs, was an avid Fox News watcher; in court filings, his lawyers said he took inspiration from Trump’s white-supremacist rhetoric. “It is impossible,” they wrote, “to separate the political climate and [Sayoc’s] mental illness.” James Hodgkinson, who shot at Republican lawmakers (and badly wounded Representative Steve Scalise) at a baseball practice, was a member of the Facebook groups Terminate the Republican Party and The Road to Hell Is Paved With Republicans. In other instances, political protests have turned violent, most notably in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a Unite the Right rally led to the murder of a young woman. In Portland, Oregon, and elsewhere, the left-wing “antifa” movement has clashed with police. The violence of extremist groups provides ammunition to ideologues seeking to stoke fear of the other side.

What has caused such rancor? The stresses of a globalizing, postindustrial economy. Growing economic inequality. The hyperbolizing force of social media. Geographic sorting. The demagogic provocations of the president himself. As in Murder on the Orient Express, every suspect has had a hand in the crime.

But the biggest driver might be demographic change. The United States is undergoing a transition perhaps no rich and stable democracy has ever experienced: Its historically dominant group is on its way to becoming a political minority—and its minority groups are asserting their co-equal rights and interests. If there are precedents for such a transition, they lie here in the United States, where white Englishmen initially predominated, and the boundaries of the dominant group have been under negotiation ever since. Yet those precedents are hardly comforting. Many of these renegotiations sparked political conflict or open violence, and few were as profound as the one now under way.

Within the living memory of most Americans, a majority of the country’s residents were white Christians. That is no longer the case, and voters are not insensate to the change—nearly a third of conservatives say they face “a lot” of discrimination for their beliefs, as do more than half of white evangelicals. But more epochal than the change that has already happened is the change that is yet to come: Sometime in the next quarter century or so, depending on immigration rates and the vagaries of ethnic and racial identification, nonwhites will become a majority in the U.S. For some Americans, that change will be cause for celebration; for others, it may pass unnoticed. But the transition is already producing a sharp political backlash, exploited and exacerbated by the president. In 2016, white working-class voters who said that discrimination against whites is a serious problem, or who said they felt like strangers in their own country, were almost twice as likely to vote for Trump as those who did not. Two-thirds of Trump voters agreed that “the 2016 election represented the last chance to stop America’s decline.” In Trump, they’d found a defender.

In 2002, the political scientist Ruy Teixeira and the journalist John Judis published a book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, which argued that demographic changes—the browning of America, along with the movement of more women, professionals, and young people into the Democratic fold—would soon usher in a “new progressive era” that would relegate Republicans to permanent minority political status. The book argued, somewhat triumphally, that the new emerging majority was inexorable and inevitable. After Barack Obama’s reelection, in 2012, Teixeira doubled down on the argument in The Atlantic, writing, “The Democratic majority could be here to stay.” Two years later, after the Democrats got thumped in the 2014 midterms, Judis partially recanted, saying that the emerging Democratic majority had turned out to be a mirage and that growing support for the GOP among the white working class would give the Republicans a long-term advantage. The 2016 election seemed to confirm this.

But now many conservatives, surveying demographic trends, have concluded that Teixeira wasn’t wrong—merely premature. They can see the GOP’s sinking fortunes among younger voters, and feel the culture turning against them, condemning them today for views that were commonplace only yesterday. They are losing faith that they can win elections in the future. With this comes dark possibilities.

The Republican Party has treated Trump’s tenure more as an interregnum than a revival, a brief respite that can be used to slow its decline. Instead of simply contesting elections, the GOP has redoubled its efforts to narrow the electorate and raise the odds that it can win legislative majorities with a minority of votes. In the first five years after conservative justices on the Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, 39 percent of the counties that the law had previously restrained reduced their number of polling places. And while gerrymandering is a bipartisan sin, over the past decade Republicans have indulged in it more heavily. In Wisconsin last year, Democrats won 53 percent of the votes cast in state legislative races, but just 36 percent of the seats. In Pennsylvania, Republicans tried to impeach the state Supreme Court justices who had struck down a GOP attempt to gerrymander congressional districts in that state. The Trump White House has tried to suppress counts of immigrants for the 2020 census, to reduce their voting power. All political parties maneuver for advantage, but only a party that has concluded it cannot win the votes of large swaths of the public will seek to deter them from casting those votes at all.

The history of the United States is rich with examples of once-dominant groups adjusting to the rise of formerly marginalized populations—sometimes gracefully, more often bitterly, and occasionally violently. Partisan coalitions in the United States are constantly reshuffling, realigning along new axes. Once-rigid boundaries of faith, ethnicity, and class often prove malleable. Issues gain salience or fade into irrelevance; yesterday’s rivals become tomorrow’s allies.

But sometimes, that process of realignment breaks down. Instead of reaching out and inviting new allies into its coalition, the political right hardens, turning against the democratic processes it fears will subsume it. A conservatism defined by ideas can hold its own against progressivism, winning converts to its principles and evolving with each generation. A conservatism defined by identity reduces the complex calculus of politics to a simple arithmetic question—and at some point, the numbers no longer add up.

Trump has led his party to this dead end, and it may well cost him his chance for reelection, presuming he is not removed through impeachment. But the president’s defeat would likely only deepen the despair that fueled his rise, confirming his supporters’ fear that the demographic tide has turned against them. That fear is the single greatest threat facing American democracy, the force that is already battering down precedents, leveling norms, and demolishing guardrails. When a group that has traditionally exercised power comes to believe that its eclipse is inevitable, and that the destruction of all it holds dear will follow, it will fight to preserve what it has—whatever the cost.. .

Continue reading. There’s much more. The prognosis is grim.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 November 2019 at 9:32 am

Lava lab experiments with lava explosions

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Written by LeisureGuy

13 November 2019 at 9:22 am

Posted in Science, Video

Classics for the people

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Edith Hall, a professor in the department of classics and Centre for Hellenic Studies at King’s College London, writes in Aeon:

The hero of Thomas Hardy’s tragic novel Jude the Obscure (1895) is a poor stonemason living in a Victorian village who is desperate to study Latin and Greek at university. He gazes, from the top of a ladder leaning against a rural barn, on the spires of the University of Christminster (a fictional substitute for Oxford). The spires, vanes and domes ‘like the topaz gleamed’ in the distance. The lustrous topaz shares its golden colour with the stone used to build Oxbridge colleges, but it is also one of the hardest minerals in nature. Jude’s fragile psyche and health inevitably collapse when he discovers just how unbreakable are the social barriers that exclude him from elite culture and perpetuate his class position, however lovely the buildings seem that concretely represent them, shimmering on the horizon.

By Hardy’s time, the trope of the exclusion of the working class from the classical cultural realm, especially from access to the ancient languages, had become a standard feature of British fiction. Charles Dickens probes the class system with a tragicomic scalpel in David Copperfield (1850). The envious Uriah sees David as a privileged young snob, but he refuses to accept the offer of Latin lessons because he is ‘far too umble. There are people enough to tread upon me in my lowly state, without my doing outrage to their feelings by possessing learning.’

It is with good reason that education in Classics was and still is associated in the British mind with the upper classes. Since the late 17th century, when the discipline of ‘Classics’ as we know it emerged, only parents of substantial means have been able to buy their teenaged children (and, until the late-19th century, only their male children) the leisure and lengthy tuition that a thorough knowledge of the Latin and Greek languages requires. Classics emerged to provide a curriculum that could bestow a shared concept of gentlemanliness on the new ruling order after the Glorious Revolution. This was composed of Tory hereditary aristocrats in a new alliance with the Whiggish mercantile bourgeoisie. The sought-after ‘classical education’ could now be purchased not only at one of the tiny group of richly endowed all-male boarding schools but at one of the new small private schools in which the 18th century saw an exponential growth. Most were run by Anglican priests, offering a classical curriculum to provide the patina of gentlemanliness as well as access to Oxford and Cambridge.

Even the language used to define class difference was derived from the ancient languages. ‘Classics’ and ‘class’ share a lexical stem that relates them to ancient Roman tax bands. Upper-class snobs call their perceived inferiors hoi polloi (‘the many’, a classical Greek term for the ruling majority in a democracy) or plebeians or plebs (Roman citizens who were not patrician). But there is another dimension to the chronicle of access to classical material in Britain, for non-elite individuals and groups across the same historical period persistently attempted, with varying degrees of success, to educate themselves in ancient Greek and Roman civilisation and languages. For every Jude Fawley and Uriah Heep, there has been a working-class autodidact like Charles Kingsley’s Chartist hero in Alton Locke (1850), an impoverished tailor who does eventually improve his socioeconomic situation. He also comes to a greater understanding of his historical moment by teaching himself classical languages and literature with the help of a Scottish working-class intellectual who is a thinly disguised Thomas Carlyle.

Working-class libraries and archives, the writings of autodidacts and the annals of adult education reveal a dynamic tradition of working-class access to the ancient Greeks and Romans, not only through language study but through translations and visual culture. Classical materials have been present in the identity construction and psychological experience of substantial groups of working-class Britons. Dissenting academies, Nonconformist Sunday schools and Methodist preacher-training initiatives all encouraged those who attended them to read widely in ancient history, ideas and rhetorical handbooks. Classical topics were included on the curricula of Mutual Improvement Societies, adult schools, Mechanics’ Institutes, university extension schemes, the Workers’ Educational Association, trade unions and the early Labour Colleges. These initiatives did much to counter the sluggish legislative response to workers’ demands for education: it was not until the Elementary Education Acts of 1870 and 1880 that even rudimentary instruction in literacy and numeracy, let alone access to classical culture, became universally and freely available to children under 13.

But there had long been other ways to learn about the Greeks and Romans. Museums in Britain were visited by a far wider class cross-section than their Continental equivalents, where the admission of visitors to the princely galleries was closely monitored. There was a sense that art and archaeology somehow belonged to the nation rather than exclusively to wealthy individuals; free admission was customary. A Prussian traveller in London was disturbed to find in 1782 that the visitors to the British Museum were ‘various … some I believe, of the very lowest classes of the people, of both sexes, for as it is the property of the nation, everyone has the same right … to see it, that another has’. And classical sculptures such as the Parthenon frieze and the Venus de Milo were endlessly reproduced in forms accessible even to the poorest Briton: plaster reproductions in municipal museums across the nation, cheap self-education magazines such as Cassell’s Popular Educator, and volumes published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, available in libraries of Mechanics’ Institutes. Lower-class visitors’ memoirs often imply that what they saw in museums nurtured an impulse towards self-education.

If the history of British experience of classical materials other than artistic and archaeological ones is widened to include a working-class perspective, it emerges that ancient history, literature and philosophy were pored over by many non-elite consumers as well. The revolutionary democrats of the 1790s, the radical journalists of the crisis at the end of the Napoleonic Wars and in the aftermath of Peterloo, the Chartists, the early trade unionists and the founders of the Labour Party – they all had their own historians who rewrote the histories of ancient Greece and Rome from the perspective of slaves and the poor. The ancient authors central to this alternative version of Greek and Roman history included Livy, especially his account of the heroes of the early Republic, and Plutarch. Brutus: or, The Fall of Tarquin, a popular tragedy by John Howard Payne, premiered at Drury Lane in December 1818, at a time when the British monarchy was at its most unpopular for centuries. Frequently revived, Brutus toured demotic theatres in the provinces, and its text circulated in working men’s reading societies.

Plutarch’s Solon was admired as the wise leader who cancelled peasants’ debts to rich landowners; Spartacus as described in Plutarch’s Life of Crassus was adopted as the hero of the proletariat as well as Abolitionism by the 1830s; Irish Republicans, Chartists and trade unionists alike consumed numerous versions of the lives of the Gracchi brothers, who tried to redistribute land to the Italian poor. The Gracchi also featured in a collection of Plutarch’s biographies rewritten by the socialist freethinker Frederick Gould, The Children’s Plutarch (1906), with engravings by Walter Crane. Gould had taught in board schools in underprivileged London districts, developing a programme for teaching secular ethics with classical instead of Christian literature: in his subsequent volume, Pages for Young Socialists (1913), published by the National Labour Press with a preface by Keir Hardie, Gould uses classical sources to inspire his intended audience, including Herodotus on Thermopylae, Xenophon’s idealised marriage in his Oeconomicus, and the caricature of the plutocrat Trimalchio in Petronius’ Satyricon.

Once the classical Athenian democracy became an acceptable constitutional ideal by the late-1820s, Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War moved to the centre of the working-class autodidact’s curriculum: a young miner who was a member of the Ashington Debating and Literary Improvement Society in Northumberland, and who was killed by a fall of coal in 1899, died with a translation of Thucydides in his pocket, the page turned down at Pericles’ funeral speech.

The nub of the controversy over classical education has always been whether it ‘counts’ to read classical texts in modern-language translation. By 1720, the battlelines had been drawn up. Britons who were unable or unwilling to bankroll their sons’ classical educations fought back. The Greeks and Romans could be approached by routes that didn’t require years glued to grammars and dictionaries. They could be read in mother-tongue translations, by great poets such as John Dryden and Alexander Pope, even though this was obviously derided as a vulgar mode of access to the Classics by those who had purchased the linguistic training. The material covered in ancient authors could be enjoyed even by the completely illiterate in accessible entertainments such as travelling booth theatres and fairground shows.

Pope’s translations had brought Homer to a larger audience, including workers and women, than had ever had the opportunity to learn Greek. Take Esther Easton, a Jedburgh gardener’s wife, visited by the poet Robert Burns in 1787. He recorded that she was ‘a very remarkable woman for reciting poetry of all kinds … she can repeat by heart almost everything she has ever read, particularly Pope’s “Homer” from end to end.’ Pope’s Homer captured the childhood imagination of another Scot, Hugh Miller, a stonemason and a distinguished autodidact, who became a world-famous geologist. Even as a boy, he saw the Iliad as incomparable literature. He wrote in My Schools and Schoolmasters (1854) that he had learned early ‘that no other writer could cast a javelin with half the force of Homer. The missiles went whizzing athwart his pages; and I could see the momentary gleam of the steel, ere it buried itself deep in brass and bull-hide.’ Pope’s version was crucial in providing access to Homer for the working classes because it was such a commercial success that it quickly filtered down to the bustling secondhand book market, frequented by readers of the lower social orders.

Inexpensive translations remained the main avenue of access to classical authors available to the poor. Reading rooms and workers’ libraries allowed many people to read the same publication: in 1829, it was estimated that one journal might be read by as many as 25 people. As early as 1730, the French philosopher Montesquieu was struck to see that, in England, even a slater would have newspapers brought to him to read on the roofs of houses. And that slater might well have read passages aloud to his less literate co-workers; Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776) was consumed by literate and nonliterate alike, in written and oral form; it was read by public men, but its contents were repeated everywhere – in clubs and schools, and from pulpits. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and you may become inspired.

Full disclosure: I spent my undergraduate years in a college dedicated to the proposition that the classic works of Western civilization should be read and discussed and pondered by everyone — the works themselves, not commentaries or glosses or summaries.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 November 2019 at 9:12 am

Poetry and Prophecy, Dust and Ashes: “The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary”

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Phil Christman writes in Plough Quarterly Magazine:

In the early 1990s, W. W. Norton, that indefatigable supplier of textbooks, invited the literary scholar Robert Alter to assemble a critical edition of Genesis. Alter countered that he’d have to do his own translation, the existing ones being inadequate. Norton agreed. But, Alter tells us in his new treatise The Art of Bible Translation, “I had not gotten halfway through the first chapter of Genesis before I discovered that there were all sorts of things going on in the Hebrew, many having to do with its literary shaping, that had not been discussed in the conventional commentaries and that I wanted to take up.” The scholar-turned-translator thus found himself launched on a third parallel career, as commentator. Alter’s Genesis appeared in 1996 to rapturous reviews, followed by The David Story (both Samuels and a smattering of Kings) a few years later, then the Pentateuch a few years after that. Those of us who came to love Alter soon found ourselves in a position akin to that of Robert Caro’s or George R.R. Martin’s fans. Would he keep going? What if he lost interest, perhaps taking up a less exacting hobby upon his retirement? What if – morbid thought – he died? But twenty-three years after Genesis, Alter has completed his work: a finished Hebrew Bible, three volumes lovingly footnoted; an altogether worthier object of contemplation than some fantasy series, or Lyndon Johnson. And I, who am but dust and ashes, review it.

From his earliest writings on the Bible, Alter has warred against what he calls “the heresy of explanation”: the tendency among most modern English Bible translators to turn the original text’s weirder idioms into their own English-language explanatory glosses. In his introduction to the three volumes, he lists some examples: translations that describe Onan’s “offspring” where the text gives us the cruder, but simultaneously far more suggestive, “seed”; avoiding the text’s repetition of the metaphorical “hands” (into his hand, in his hand, by his hand, my hand against him) even when this avoidance destroys a careful network of verbal echoes that carry through several chapters; breaking up a large series of actions soldered together into a single sentence by and-constructions (she did this and that and that and that), or turning several linked simple sentences into compound-complex sentences, and thus slowing a patch of narrative meant to read as a series of quick, decisive actions.

He complains forcefully about this kind of thing in The Art of Bible Translation, and sets out a convincing brief guide to some of the Bible’s distinct stylistic devices – the semantic parallelism seen throughout the Psalms, in which the first line sets out an idea and the second elaborates or retraces it; the constant use of punning and wordplay, some of it untranslatable; the kind of repetition in which tiny variations or omissions often speak volumes; a preference for concrete language. His translation, however, makes the strongest argument of all. After you’ve read Alter, the NRSV or the NIV read like the work of a subcommittee of deans. At the same time, he isn’t simply literal, in the manner of Everett Fox, whose jerky, jittery rendering of the Pentateuch makes me feel as though I’m reading Talking Heads lyrics. He makes the text sound strange, but still recognizably English. (A brief example, from Isaiah 1:11: “I am sated with the burnt offerings of rams and the suet of fatted beasts.” As you read you really feel all those ts in your teeth.) In his judiciously-applied literalism and sensitivity to English idiom, he makes possible an encounter with the text that other contemporary translators don’t seem to trust readers with.

I don’t see myself rereading any other version of the Pentateuch but Alter’s in the near future, and any version of the Song of Solomon that avoids the KJV’s unfortunate rendering of verse 5:4 (“my bowels were moved for him”) is an improvement. At the same time, Alter doesn’t fully overshadow the best of his early-modern rivals, Tyndale, Coverdale, and the translators of the KJV. Isaiah 60 is a major literary test for any English Bible translator. In his History of English Prose Rhythm, George Saintsbury wrote that the KVJ’s rendering of this passage was “one of the highest points of English prose,” and you are probably already murmuring its first verse to yourself: “Arise, shine, for thy light has come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.” (The assonance alone overwhelms – arise/shine/thy/light and is/risen and glory/thee.) Here is what Alter does with it: “Rise, O shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has dawned over you.” I don’t know how he could have done better, in modern English; but with the older rendering in your head, you can’t help feeling that he’s flinched.

Then again, when it comes to the Bible, we all flinch. No other book makes me so know my own readerly laziness. I always set out with good intentions, planning to read every verse slowly, sifting every genealogy for hidden theological claims, limning every ritual instruction and temple spec with the empathy of a fieldworker and the ingenuity of an allegorist. I always get through Genesis just fine. At least, that’s been true since I read Alter’s version back in college – one of a handful of experiences that delivered me from the kind of scared, pious Bible reading that assumes the text is like a lease agreement, too important to be enjoyed. Genesis, in its careful organization, its deft portraiture, its mysteries and silences, most of all its beautifully strange, believably nuanced ending – Joseph, through months of indecision, revealing himself to his brothers via a tortuous and self-torturing process that allows him just enough revenge (can you imagine poor Benjamin, seeing that cup in his bag?) to be believable – is among the loveliest objects in the literary canon. (I want to say that this is self-evidently true, apart from religion, apart from our assumptions about the truthfulness of the text’s worldview, but of course aesthetics and ethics and politics are siblings, like Jubal the herder and Jabal the musician and Tubal-cain the metalworker. They form civilization with continuous reference to each other. And so the aesthetic through which I form a judgment on its loveliness is descended, willy-nilly, from this book.)

And I always appreciate the weirdness of early Exodus, but then you hit the back half of the book, where God spends several chapters telling Moses exactly how to build a temple, and then Moses (or his secretary or, fine, be that way, “the redactor”) spends several chapters telling us that that’s exactly how he did it, quoting the earlier passages verbatim, page after page, like Kathy Acker in a particularly sadistic mood, and … here, reader, my attention will go no further. It turns and rebukes me, like Balaam’s ass. Someday, I keep telling myself, I’ll find the proper angle of view to see it whole. My patience with the text will attest to God’s with me.

Still, these are strange and alien volumes, and by this point the Bible’s body count and terrifying strictness have begun to make the alienation more than simply aesthetic. You start to wrestle with a special version of the same problem that worries every theist: if God is all good and merciful, and intends, finally, only restoration and wholeness, then why … all this? Why not skip to the good part? You can ask that question about all human history, and about the millennia of death and extinction that preceded human existence, and also about whatever future is left to life. The books themselves provoke such questioning – “Will you really wipe out the innocent with the guilty?” – even as they forbid it – “Who is this who darkens counsel?”

Those doubts only increase with the violence of Joshua, hero to gun-toting colonialists in modern America and modern Israel alike, and Judges, a book that ends in horrifying violence against an unnamed woman. As Israel begins nation-building in earnest (“Give us a king!”), the prophets register their anger at injustice, but they are at least equally insistent about ritual observation and location, a subject about which readers who aren’t practicing Jews don’t even have the option of having an opinion.

At worst, the picture that emerges for a modern reader is of a God more . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 November 2019 at 9:05 am

Posted in Books, Religion

A razor with good acoustics adds a lot to the pleasure of the shave.

with 4 comments

This iKon DLC-coated stainless-steel slant has really excellent acoustics. You can hear the tiny popping sound as it mows through the stubble, an audio experience (in a quiet bathroom — no fan, no running water, no radio) that enhances the pleasure of the shave. Tomorrow I’ll try the uncoated version of this razor just to check whether the acoustics are the same.

But before I got to the razor I used my Simpson Emperor 2 Super to make an extremely nice lather from this asses’ milk shaving soap. It’s a very nice soap, and one that (from reports I’ve had) requires that the lid be in place between shaves: left open, it loses its mojo.

Three passes with the iKon — truly an excellent slant — and then a splash of Diplomat to present me again with the puzzle of that spice note in its fragrance. It’s a very nice aftershave that somehow has a totally uninteresting label — so much so that I got it on sale when an online US vendor sold off stock that just didn’t move. Odd that label graphics have so great an influence, but they do.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 November 2019 at 8:47 am

Posted in Shaving

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