Monthly Archives: January 2014

Tom Paine on guarding your enemy from oppression

225px-Thomas_Paine_rev1“An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty. It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws. He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

— Thomas Paine, Dissertations on First Principles of Government (1795)

Have you noticed that there are some lessons that we seem to have special difficulty learning? Paine articulated this idea more than two hundred years ago, and I suppose most people alive today, especially in the West, would give it at least grudging assent. But we no sooner feel wronged or threatened than we fall back on older, harsher ways of thinking. Continue reading

A History of Our World in 18 Minutes

…And he doesn’t even talk especially fast.

One of the helpful things about history is the way it gives us perspective on our own lives. Issues that we think are new or unique to our day have usually appeared before in some form or other. History helps us see the large trends rather than getting lost in the day-to-day details of current events.

“Big History” takes this even further. As David Christian’s talk demonstrates, the idea of Big History is to step way back and look at the broad scope of events in terms of various time scales… including the largest time scale of all. Not only is it a great way to induce awe, but it will also change and deepen the way you look at not only current events, but history itself. Continue reading

When a favorite writer has been BS-ing you

Have you ever learned that a writer you admired has been lying to you? Let me tell you a little about one of my former favorites, and why I think otherwise good writers can fall into deception.

young MowatI read a lot of books about Arctic adventure when I was a kid, and it all started with Farley Mowat. A lot of people could write that sentence.

Years later many of his claims about wolf behavior in Never Cry Wolf have been refuted, his tantalizing Norse scholarship in West-Viking has been largely debunked, and journalist John Goddard’s 1996 exposé in the (now-defunct) Canadian magazine Saturday Night documented how Mowat exaggerated and falsified factual material in several of his best-loved books. (Summarized here.) Unable to refute the charges, Mowat excused himself by saying that writes “subjective nonfiction.”

Unlike several high-profile American fabulists, Mowat has remained one of Canada’s best-loved writers, and has continued to publish new books. People in the Canadian Arctic long ago nicknamed him “Hardly Know It,” but others consider him a national treasure whose artistic license serves a higher purpose of raising environmental awareness and lampooning human arrogance.

In “Farley Mowat: Liar or Saint?” (Up Here, September 2009), Tim Querengesser writes: Continue reading

Are you a conjurer?

Wouldn’t you like to be a conjurer or enchanter? You would be a mysterious figure, feared and respected. People would come to you for help, ask your advice, be in awe of your power.

What is a conjurer anyway? It comes from a Latin word meaning “to swear together.” The original meaning of the English word was (according to Merriam-Webster) “to charge or entreat earnestly or solemnly,” but eventually it came to mean “to summon by invocation or incantation” and to “affect or effect as if by magic,” or even “to summon a devil or evil spirit by invocation or incantation.” Today, when we use the word “conjure” at all, we generally use it metaphorically.

It turns out that a belief in the magical power of words is embedded deeply in the English language, which originated during a time when nearly everyone still believed in magic. Invoke/invocation came from a Latin word meaning “to call.” It meant to petition for help or support, particularly an authority, and it came to imply incantation, which comes from a Latin word meaning “to enchant.” An incantation was a “use of spells or verbal charms spoken or sung as part of a ritual of magic; also, a written or recited formula of words designed to produce a particular effect.” Continue reading

“Mt. Head”: 10 minutes of darkly hilarious Japanese weirdness

Atama Yama stillAtama Yama (Mt. Head) is a highly strange but thoroughly engrossing short film (10 minutes) from 2002. I’m not able to embed it, but you can watch it here.

Directed by Japanese animator Kōji Yamamura, it is a modern interpretation of a traditional story from a type of comic storytelling called rakugo.  Yamamura’s surreal animation mixes hand drawn images with CGI. The story is narrated by Takeharu Kunimoto, a musician and storyteller who speaks and sings the narration while accompanying himself on the shamisen, a traditional three-stringed instrument. The effect, at least for this American viewer reading the English subtitles, is to heighten the strangeness and wonder of the tale. I can’t understand a word Takharu is saying, but I can hear the humor and exaggerated theatrics in his voice. Continue reading