Tuesday, June 28, 2016


Georgian houses, Dublin

River Liffey, Dublin

The Hill of Tara

Cork City

Conor Pass, Dingle peninsula, County Kerry

Great Blasket Island

Dingle Town

Ruins of Sligo Abbey, Sligo Town

Parke's Castle, by Lough Gill, County Sligo

Knocknarea, County Sligo

Clew Bay

Tower house, Achill Island

Achill Island


View from Diamond Hill, Connemara National Park

Lough Inagh

Galway City

Graves on Inishmore, Aran Islands

The Cliffs of Insanity! Moher

The Cliffs of Moher

Market Square statue, Ennis

King John's Castle, Limerick City

Monday, June 27, 2016

Book Review: Paper

Paper: Paging Through History.
Mark Kurlansky
History, technology

I liked this book. I wanted to like it more than I did, though. The central idea is wonderful, but Paper is marred by too much sweeping pronouncement and too little sober fact.

For one thing, there are a good many assertions that are ill-phrased, dubious, or just plain wrong. Here are a few.

  • In the tenth century, "Most European languages only had words for 'one,' 'two,' and 'many.'" I call bullshit. Most European languages are Indo-European, and the cardinal numbers all derive from Proto-Indo-European roots.
  • Kurlansky quotes a ditty allegedly from a paper manufacturer: "John Clark & Company, which opened in 1807 in Black River, Wisconsin." In 1807, Wisconsin was the wilderness. In 1820, the year of its first U.S. census, its non-native population was 1,444. There was no railroad, not even an Erie Canal (1825), to connect it with population centers. It didn't get its first newspaper until 1833, and it didn't become a territory until 1836. This looks like, at the very least, absurdly lackadaisical fact-checking.
  • At the time of the American Civil War, "The only soldiers who could stay still long enough to be photographs were dead"--a pronouncement that will be startling to anyone who's ever seen a Ken Burns documentary. (Evidently these guys, for example, were all dead. Who knew?)

Etc., etc.

And then there's the big one, the assertion that Kurlansky trots out in his introduction and drives home at every opportunity. He dignifies it by the term "the technological fallacy": 
... the idea that technology changes society. It is exactly the reverse. Society develops technology to address the changes that are taking place within it.
This isn't as revolutionary an idea as Kurlansky seems to think. When it's time for light bulbs, as someone once remarked, you get light bulbs. More importantly, it's easily falsifiable. To take one relatively recent example, it's not true that Africa failed to develop land-line telecom networks because African society "had no need of the telephone"; the subsequent wildfire-like spread of cell phones proves as much. (If you want to go back further and wider, look up the effects of the padded horse collar on post-Roman Europe.)

So the generalization, like all generalizations, is false (see what I did there?). The truth is that both things happen. Societies develop technologies--sometimes! not always!--to cope with new demands; and technologies--sometimes! not always!--mutate societies. Sometimes it's the same technology doing both: the cotton gin (for instance) made processing cotton easier, which was clearly a response to demand, but it also shifted the American South away from tobacco growing (which wears out the soil), engendered a new generation of cotton aristocrats, crowded out the development of industry,  made slavery vastly more profitable than ever before, and thereby helped make the American Civil War inevitable.

So much for my gripes. As noted, I still liked the book, though. Some of the things I liked: fluid and graceful writing; a tremendous narrative sense; excellent illustrations. The level of detail is just right, which is no small trick. The subject is fascinating in its own right, and the various associated technologies--printing, lithography, photography, newspapers, and so forth--each get an appropriate share of the limelight. The book is nicely and illuminatingly cross-cultural, too.

If you like the now-classic single-word-title biography-of-a-thing book, you'll like this. Go ahead, read Paper. Just don't take it for gospel.

An extraordinarily fine book, and one that both (a) involves paper, and (b) neatly rebuts Kurlansky's central premise, is Copies in Seconds by David Owens. This is the story of the birth of the photocopier--a machine that nobody wanted, because existing copying technology was adequate to all existing needs. Until, that is, it was invented, after which nobody could live without it.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

My Hard Fun

For some time now, my old pal who goes by the secret identity "B. S. Donovan" has been posting his ongoing progress in Japanese calligraphy--"hard fun" is his excellent phrase. As he's one of my oldest and dearest friends, my reaction is (of course) bitter jealousy and an urge towards one-upsmanship. Unfortunately, I don't have his courage. He's willing to display his baby steps; I hate to confess to anything until it's ready for prime time.

However, his continued success has goaded me beyond endurance. Here's some hard fun of my own. This is a well-known Irish session tune, "The Kesh Jig."
(This is DADGAD tuning. Note to purists: yes, I've transposed from G to D. It sounds better on this guitar.)

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Spirit of '16

[WARNING: politics (Irish, though)]

2016 is the 100-year anniversary of the Easter Rising. If that doesn't ring many bells with you, the short version is that it's roughly the Irish equivalent of Lexington and Concord plus July 4, 1776. Not surprisingly, Ireland is in all-out commemorative mode.

I've just come back from there. I didn't discuss Irish politics, much less sing Irish political songs. It's not my business to visit another country and tell them how to run it, or how to understand its past. Now that I'm back, though, I have some thoughts.

There's a standard narrative of the 1916 Rising. The rebels are heroic visionaries, and their actions--however destructive in the short term--are ultimately justified by History. The corollary is that there was no better way to achieve this righteous outcome.

It's always comforting to believe this sort of thing. We Americans have a similar standard narrative. Here's one difference, though: the American Revolution was a revolution of ideas*. We didn't invoke a mystical moral right of nationhood based on territory or ethnicity or identity. We invoked, rather, an idea--the idea that monarchy is wrong in principle. We didn't just reject what Britain was doing; we rejected the philosophical basis for doing it.

Reading the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, I see an assertion of an ethnic identity. I see a rejection of all things English/British. I see a lot of (justified) anger at centuries of British misrule and colonialism and exploitation**.
We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people. In every generation the Irish people have asserted their right to national freedom and sovereignty; six times during the past three hundred years they have asserted it in arms. 
What I don't see is any assertion of principle. And that bothers me. In the century since 1916, we have seen too much cruelty based on metaphysical ethnic nationalism. Isn't this at least veering towards the principle of Volksgeminschaft? Irish = Not-British = Good, which in turn means that British = Evil, which in turn justifies anything.

That wasn't the majority position at the time, either. From what I've read, the most popular Irish political parties in 1916 weren't separatists at all; they were advocates for Home Rule (now known as devolution). In other words, there plenty of people were willing to believe that they could be both British and Irish.

They may have been wrong. The government response to the Easter Rising convinced many of them that they were. 
Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin

Still, as an American, I'm comfortable with the notion of a hyphenated identity. And as a reader of history, I don't buy the dictum that "war is the continuation of politics by other means." Political violence is failure. That's true in 1776, 1916, 1861, 1914, 1939 ... Sometimes, perhaps, the failure is inevitable; but inevitable failure is failure nonetheless.

*Yes, I am vastly oversimplifying here. I don't mean to imply that every Minuteman was a political philosopher, or that the public at large was motivated entirely by an abstract desire for a more just society. In every war, individuals fight for a wide variety of reasons. There is also a collective purpose at work, though, and it makes a difference.
**British practice and policy in Ireland were infinitely more destructive than anything that happened in the American colonies. Religious persecution, prejudice, social stratification, administrative incompetence, broken treaties ... you could cogently argue that Britain had already forfeited any moral right to exercise authority over Ireland. By contrast, Americans in 1775 were already the free-est, least-taxed people on earth.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

I Shall Return

My many loyal readers (Sean and Bill) will have noted that blogging has been sparse here of late. Fear not! Regular blogging will resume within the next few days, assuming there's anyone still stopping by.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Book Review: You Could Look it Up

You Could Look it Up: The Reference Shelf From Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia
Jack Lynch

This is a fun book for anyone who's interested in facts and the acquisition thereof. (And if you're not one of those people ... why are you here?) You Could Look it Up is itself a bit more than simply a collection of facts--it's not itself a reference book. Jack Lynch has the ambition of structuring his work around a question: what is it, through written history, that people have felt that they needed to know but couldn't keep in memory? It's no real knock that he doesn't fully succeed; it's a big topic.

This book will appeal to fans of Simon Winchester, for obvious reasons. It also reminded me of this, although You Could Look it Up is better.