Sunlit Water

January 30, 2008


Filed under: Culture,Personal — by teofilo @ 1:32 pm

I just had an interesting conversation with a guy in Australia who called up asking for one of the lawyers here who apparently met him years ago when she was down there. She’s out of the office for an extended period, so I couldn’t have him talk to her, and I’m not sure she would actually want to talk to him even if she were in, but he kept talking to me so I kept talking to him. He described himself as “First Nation” (he didn’t like the term “Aboriginal”) and talked about his people and how they are similar to First Nations here and elsewhere. Also how Christopher Columbus was like Hitler, and Captain Cook was almost as bad.

January 27, 2008


Filed under: Dating,Personal — by teofilo @ 8:45 pm

So I had a date planned for this afternoon with this girl, but the day after I talked to her I realized that I had already told my mom I would go to something with her at the same time, so I called the girl to try to reschedule but I couldn’t get through to her and ended up just leaving several messages explaining the situation and proposing an alternate time.  I went to the place at the new time and waited for a while, but she didn’t show up.  I was very concerned that I had somehow screwed the whole thing up, since the scheduling snafu was entirely my fault, and this evening I called her again and left yet another message apologizing for the mess and asking her to call me back if she could.

She called back a few minutes ago and explained that there had been a big blowup between her and her mom yesterday that continued into today, so she hadn’t been in any state to see me.  She was very apologetic and we rescheduled the date for next Sunday.  She apparently did get my messages, so it’s not entirely clear to me why she didn’t at least call me back to explain what was going on, but at least it all seems to have worked out in the end.  I’m very relieved.

Actually, Many Things Could Be Finer

Filed under: Culture,Politics — by teofilo @ 12:08 am

To expand on my cryptic comment here, South Carolina really is by far the weirdest state in the nation and always has been.  It was founded in 1670 by wealthy sugar planters from Barbados, but it’s too far north to grow sugar, so for the first few decades of the colony’s existence plantation agriculture was not really feasible on a large scale.  Instead, the colonists took advantage of their more southerly location to compete with New England in supplying food and lumber to the British West Indies (which imported almost all of their necessities, since sugar cultivation was so lucrative that sugar plantations covered every inch of fertile land).  This was fairly profitable, especially since the Carolinians could use their slaves to tend cattle and cut wood.  It was not, however, profitable enough to support the colony entirely.  The real money was in the slave trade.

Not, however, the slave trade we are most familiar with these days.  These slaves weren’t coming into Charleston from Africa, they were leaving it for the West Indies, along with all that lumber and beef.  And they weren’t even African at all, but Indian.

When the Carolinians arrived in 1670, the land they occupied was quite distant from existing European settlements, lying between the tobacco plantations of Virginia to the north and the small Spanish missions and fortresses in Florida to the south.  The local Indians, therefore, had difficulty obtaining guns, which were becoming increasingly necessary for both hunting and war, and some were enthusiastic at the prospect of having a European colony of their own to serve as a steady source of weaponry.  Realizing their advantage, the colonists were quite willing to provide guns, but in exchange they wanted commodities that could fetch them a quick profit.  To some extent deerskins, which were much in demand by the English leather industry, served as a decent commodity to accept, since the Indians hunted and dressed them themselves and all the Carolinians had to do was load them onto ships.  Slaves, however, were much more lucrative both for the Indians, who needed only to capture them in war and hand them over to get their guns, and for the colonists, who could either use them themselves in their own endeavors or (more commonly) ship them to the Caribbean for a quick profit.

Because the Carolinians could make so much money off of Indian slaves, they were constantly turning one native group against another and fomenting wars to produce more and more lucrative captives.  This resulted in the near extinction of several of the nearby tribes, even those that had at first helped the colonists by enslaving other Indians but had later become victims of the slave raids when the English found other, more powerful tribes to trade with.

While slave trading was lucrative, it was also an unstable and dangerous business, so the colonists also kept up their other economic ventures and tried to find a lucrative cash crop that they could grow under plantation conditions with slave labor, the same way they had grown sugar in Barbados.  Around the turn of the eighteenth century, they found it in rice, which grew quite well in the swampy coastal lowlands and which their slaves knew how to grow since they had grown it in Africa.  Rice production soon made South Carolina into a wealthy but extremely inequitable society, with a small planter elite presiding fearfully over an enormous mass (eventually a majority) of black slaves, necessary because growing rice is very labor-intensive.

The profitable slave raids continued, however, until the Yamasee war in 1717 when Carolina’s Indian allies suddenly rose in rebellion against the abusive treatment they had received from the colony’s grasping and manipulative traders.  Though the Carolinians eventually won the war, the destruction it caused led to an effective end to the trade in Indian slaves and the economic reorganization of the colony around the (by now very lucrative) cultivation of rice.  It was only then that the South Carolina we know so well from the nineteenth century, with its decadent, indolent and overwhelmingly powerful planter elite and its insane politics based on the preservation of slavery and the threat of secession, began to form.

January 25, 2008


Filed under: Politics — by teofilo @ 11:55 am

Like John McCain, I don’t know much about economics, but the argument Daniel Davies makes here about the fundamental importance of foreign debt in international development seems so clearly and obviously true that I’m surprised that it doesn’t seem to be widely accepted in the economic literature.  Is this really the case, or is Davies being less controversial in this post than he implies?

January 24, 2008


Filed under: Culture — by teofilo @ 10:16 pm

Megan wonders why people in blighted and deteriorating cities like Detroit don’t switch to subsistence farming. I’m not sure how close we are to a situation where things are bad enough that a major lifestyle shift like that looks attractive, but it’s certainly something that could happen, and there are actually a lot of precedents for that kind of change.

There’s a common conception of history as a monotonic, teleological process leading from stone age hunter-gatherers through primitive agriculturalists and ancient urban civilizations, culminating in modern European-style urbanization with an extremely fine-grained division of labor. This conception, which owes much to the racist and Eurocentric ideologies of nineteenth-century historians, archaeologists and anthropologists, has been more or less completely discarded by contemporary scholars in those disciplines, but it persists among the lay public, if often only on the level of background assumptions. When other cultures are viewed through this prism, they are implicitly being assigned a place on a continuum from “savagery” to “civilization,” and those that differ significantly from modern European society are thought of as relics from a previous stage of history, preserving their “primitive” traditions and material culture virtually unchanged since the time when they were developed. Thus, the natives of the Americas were (and are) widely thought to have lived for millennia in an unchanging state of “tribalism” in small groups of hunter-gatherers, leaving little impact on the land (an idea which Charles Mann calls “Holmberg’s Mistake” after a prominent anthropologist). Similarly, in looking at ancient history there’s a strong tendency to take the reports of settled, urbanized people like the Greeks and Mesopotamians about their nomadic or otherwise “barbarian” neighbors at face value and see the nomads as crude, primitive people bent on destruction. It’s not all negative, of course, and the very same “primitive” peoples, both ancient and modern, are also extolled for their simple ways and closeness to nature as Noble Savages.

The truth, of course, is much more complex. History is not a simple progression from hunting to farming to cities to us. And when faced with severe ecological or political disaster, one of the common ways people cope is by shifting to a different mode of subsistence, even one that is “lower” on the supposed hierarchy of cultural development.

Take the ancient nomads, for example. Recent research on the ancient near east (the website for this upcoming conference looks like a good summary) has shown that it’s not really possible to make a clear dichotomy between “settled” and “nomadic” peoples, and that in many time periods the two lived in states of symbiosis, with the nomads and the farmers trading and interacting as different segments of a single society. At other times, especially in Mesopotamia where ecological disasters have been a recurring problem for thousands of years, farmers abandoned their villages and took up nomadic pastoralism instead. This is a quite reasonable response to either declining agricultural productivity or increased political instability, since nomadism both is less dependent on the fertility of land and makes it easier to move out of the way of clashing armies. In more stable times, nomads would often shift back to agriculture as the rewards from that lifestyle began to look better.

Another example is the Indians of what is now the southeastern US. In precolumbian times, they almost all belonged to what is called the Mississippian Culture, which featured (relatively) dense urban settlements focused on giant earthen mounds and a strongly hierarchical social structure headed by powerful priest-kings. This mode of society was widespread throughout the southeast and midwest, and even when a particularly powerful chiefdom (like Cahokia, the biggest of them all) collapsed politically, its people seem to have usually reconstituted themselves into smaller chiefdoms with the same basic organization rather than switching lifestyles.

All that changed, however, when the Europeans first showed up. In the southeast the first major contact was the expedition of Hernando de Soto in the 1530s and 1540s, which rampaged from Florida to the Mississippi in search of riches to conquer before giving up and returning to Mexico. While the de Soto expedition caused a great deal of destruction in the immediate areas visited by the Spaniards, its long-term effects were more indirect. In a process that was repeated throughout the New World upon contact with Europeans, natives began to die in droves from diseases inadvertantly introduced by the explorers. The losses in the Mississippian chiefdoms were immense, and many of them collapsed entirely. The survivors, facing an unprecendented demographic disaster, often changed their lifestyles completely to focus on hunting and small-scale agriculture in small villages loosely organized into fairly egalitarian political confederacies. When the next Europeans, French explorers in the seventeenth century, came through the southeast, they found it sparsely occupied by small groups, in sharp contrast to the reports from the de Soto expedition of a densely populated land of large villages and intensive agriculture. When the English founded the colony of Carolina in 1670, they encountered these tribes, among whom were the famous Cherokee, Creek and Choctaw, and assumed (of course) that they had been living a “savage” lifestyle based on hunting since the dawn of time, when that mode of society was actually a quite recent innovation. The Mississippian type of society survived only in the lower Mississippi valley (the modern state of Louisiana), where the French encountered tribes such as the Natchez, Tunica and Taensa living in hierarchical societies in villages with mounds and temples. These villages were of course much smaller than the precolumbian ones had been.

The point of these examples (and there are many more in the archaeological and ethnographic record) is that there’s nothing special about our current way of life. History hasn’t been a steady progression toward the ability to live like we do, and there’s no guarantee that this lifestyle will go on forever. A switch from dense urbanism to low-level subsistence farming is hardly the most radical thing that could happen, and it may indeed be one of the likelier (and easier) outcomes if things start to get really, really bad.

January 23, 2008

Constant Flux

Filed under: Language — by teofilo @ 10:55 pm

I came home from work today to find taped to my door a piece of paper containing the following message:



“Maintenance” as a verb is an innovative usage that I’d never seen before, but it actually makes a great deal of sense. The intended meaning is standardly expressed with the phrase “perform maintenance on,” but that’s a mouthful and wouldn’t fit on this sign without decreasing the font size (which would be suboptimal for a notification like this). The closest existing verb is “maintain,” but it has connotations of continuing action that make its use infelicitous in a context like this describing a single, discrete action. However, since English nouns can be made into verbs without changing their form at all, a process called “zero-derivation,” taking the noun “maintenance” from the phrase and using it as a verb is a simple, elegant and unambiguous solution.

This kind of zero-derivation of verbs from nouns is popularly associated with “management-speak” and other purported attempts to confuse and complicate language by using unnecessarily elaborate vocabulary to express simple concepts, and it is thus one of the types of language change that people complain about the most. It is, however, a longstanding means of developing new forms of expression to deal with communicative challenges, and this situation is a good example. Personally I don’t particularly mind language change in general, but many people do, so it’s worthwhile to point out from time to time that such changes are often perfectly reasonable responses to problems in communication.

January 22, 2008

Land Grants

Filed under: Culture,Land — by teofilo @ 9:42 pm

It seems that the State Library of Florida has scanned and put online all of the records of Spanish land grants that were used to establish claims to land when Florida was annexed by the US in 1821.  Like the Connecticut colonial records that I linked to a little while ago, this is an example of the growing availability of interesting and potentially useful primary sources online.

January 21, 2008

Doing Stuff

Filed under: Culture,Personal — by teofilo @ 1:05 pm

I’m not sure that this comes down to “trusting the world,” exactly. Certainly that’s a part of it, and people that are inclined to get out and do things tend to have a more trusting, less suspicious attitude in general, but I think there’s a more fundamental personality divide at work. Speaking as a person who is generally disinclined to do things, I think a lot of the reason is just that I don’t value activity very much as such. Not that I dislike doing things with people, but what I like about it is being with the people, not doing the activity, and I rarely do similar things by myself. That is, it’s the people, not the activities, and I would often prefer to just hang around with the same people rather than go out and do stuff with them. By the same token, doing stuff with people I don’t care for is much worse than being alone.

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that people like Megan (Californians, apparently) like doing stuff for its own sake, so when the opportunity arises they are initially inclined to go for it. My reaction is generally more like “well, we could go do that, or we could just hang out here, seeing as how we’re here already.” Not that doing things isn’t fun, of course.

January 18, 2008

When God Closes A Door

Filed under: Dating,Personal — by teofilo @ 11:18 pm

My mom and I have been going to Friday night services for a few months now to say Kaddish for my dad.  For a variety of reasons, including my trip to DC, we hadn’t gone in about a month before tonight, so we figured we should probably go.

We got there a few minutes early, when people were still milling about in the lobby before going into the chapel.  When the rabbi saw us he greeted my mom then turned to me with an excited expression on his face and asked me, “are you interested in a girl?”  “I am generally interested in girls, yes,” I replied, and he proceeded to tell me about this girl that he wants to fix me up with.  Apparently he had been waiting for me to show up to services for weeks so he could tell me about her.  Since he doesn’t write on Shabbat, he said to e-mail him my number and he would send me hers.  I figure it’s worth a shot; his description didn’t give me a real sense of what she’s like, but it’s not like I have anything to lose.

There are actually several other things about this girl and her situation that are even more hilarious than the rabbi setting me up with her, but I think I should wait and see how things go before I say anything more.

More Desire

Filed under: Dating,Personal — by teofilo @ 5:49 pm

What I was trying to say in the previous post (which may not have come across clearly) is that while it’s quite possible that the waitress is just a little ambivalent about dating me and may eventually decide she wants to, the very fact that I gave her my number and she didn’t call makes me a little less interested in her, because one of the main things I want in a girl is that she be excited about the prospect of dating me.  I want to ask a girl out and have the response be an enthusiastic yes.  This has never really happened; on the few occasions that I’ve asked girls out, the usual response has been a noncommittal “yeah, okay” or a maybe.  Responses like these may well come from a reluctance to express too much emotion for fear of making oneself too vulnerable too early (though I doubt that’s what’s usually going on), but I feel like the asking out is a pretty serious expression of emotional vulnerability on my part and if someone is really, truly interested the least she could do is say so.  (None of this really applies in an online dating context, where the process works quite differently.)

Now, obviously not every girl I like is going to enthusiastically like me back, so it’s not like a lukewarm response is a deal-killer for me.  I’ll probably test the waters with the waitress again in a little while.  And once the process of dating starts, of course, things change a lot and it’s hard to say how things are going to end up emotionally.

What I would like, though, is to someday find someone who likes me as much as I like her and is willing to tell me so.  It would make me so happy.

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