Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year, everyone. Happy New Decade as well, even though technically it's another year until the end of the decade.

I hope that the coming year and decade are better than the preceding one, rather than worse, both in my country and everywhere in the world.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Rambling about personal stuff, science, and politics

********* WARNING - this post contains stream-of-consciousness rambling and depressed feeling-sorry-for-myself stuff, so if you hate this kind of thing you might want to skip it.***********

I had a good, quiet Christmas with my brother and father, just as I hoped. I baked more and ate a little less than I have during past Christmas seasons, which is a positive development, apart from the fact that I have to push more of my cookies and fudge and marble squares on family and friends.

On a completely different note, I've noticed that my free-time reading lately has been shifting somewhat from history toward science-related subjects. This isn't actually surprising - even before I loved reading about history, I loved reading about various types of science, especially anything having to do with astronomy and biology. In the end, I never became a scientist or a historian of any type for a variety of reasons - lack of focus and self-discipline, a fear of failing that is so strong that I generally don't try at all when I believe that I might fail, the distracting effects of obsessive compulsive disorder which ensures that I am often spending at least half of my time and mental energy worrying about things that are mainly irrelevant to the "real world". Or, if I am in a more harshly self-critical mode, I suspect that it's just because I'm lazy and not very bright. In any case, when it comes to some fields of history and science, I'm one of those people who, as my father used to say (not about me in particular), "knows just enough to be dangerous". Actually, I don't think I'm very dangerous, because I know that I actually don't know very much - it's the people who know a little but think that they know a lot that cause the most trouble. Occasionally, being relentlessly self-deprecating is a good thing, if it keeps a person from getting a swollen ego. If only it didn't go too far in the other direction, and leave me sometimes thinking that I am the most useless person around (or at least in the most useless 3-5%).*

Speaking of self-confidence and ego versus self-doubt, my political beliefs used to be somewhat of an exception. That, though, will require another post at another time, because it's after 1:00 AM here and I need to get some sleep.

*To give you an idea of how pathetic this can get with me, I often focus on blog entries where people express frustration with the cluelessness, viciousness, or incompetence of others, while I avoid reading entries in which people talk about major accomplishments by themselves or others. This is because I vastly prefer reading about people acting even more stupid or insensitive than I think that I do, while reading about people doing things that I can not or will not do just gives me a treasure trove of new reasons to hate myself. The good news is that I don't always think this way - the bad news is that I do pretty often.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Holiday season, etc.

This may sound bizarre to some people, but being with my immediate family has generally been my favorite part of the Christmas holidays. I could easily leave all of the hype and stress and marketing associated with the holiday. When I was a kid, receiving lots of presents was important, but in more recent years I could totally skip that too and not miss it much at all. Going through Christmas without seeing anyone in my immediate family, though, really would take all of the personal meaning out of Christmas for me.

Why am a sounding like a sickly-sweet Hallmark card? The weird thing is, those cliches about Christmas being a time that brings families together and full of warmth and love and all of that stuff that makes many people feel sick - they have been pretty much true for me. Of course things aren't perfect, and there is sometimes stress and sadness, and there have been some Christmases that are much less happy than others, but overall the Christmas season is still strongly associated in my mind with fairly happy times together with family.

A couple of things help. For one thing, my brothers, parents, and I have generally gotten along fairly well for most of our lives. There have been times of anger and tension, but these have actually been very few and far between. Once me and my brothers were all adults, the sibling rivalry and adolescent-parent strife mostly faded into history. We really enjoy each others' company most of the time, so once we were all adults family gatherings took on some of the same atmosphere as gatherings of very good, old friends, with an extra dimension. The second thing that helps, I think, is that we all have a pretty casual attitude about the holidays. Nobody expects elaborate or expensive gifts. We don't worry about putting out lots of decorations. The main elements of our family Christmas are time spent together, lots of unhealthy but tasty food, a little simple decorating, and a mix of serious conversation with plenty of joking and good-natured insults.

The holidays inevitably remind all of us how much we miss Mom, though. This will be the fourth Christmas since she died, and there is a huge empty space in the family that will never be filled. My father and brothers and I still enjoy the holidays, though. The last thing that Mom would have wanted was for us to stop enjoying being together as a family, and we have not stopped.

Last Christmas was very distinctive because I went over to Germany with my father and youngest brother, and we celebrated Christmas with my middle brother, niece, sister-in-law and her family, who are from Magdeburg, a city to the west of Berlin. The year before we were in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where my brother and sister-in-law were living at the time. In fact, this is the first Christmas that I will have spent in Massachusetts in 5 years. Staying near home for Christmas actually feels a little "exotic" this year.

I have taken this week off from work and am spending it with my father and one brother at the "old family home" where I lived the majority of my childhood and part of my adulthood as well. My middle brother is staying in Germany with his family, but my other brother (unmarried like myself) flew in today from Colorado. We are also joined by a friend's dog who I am taking care of over the holidays.

Rio, our temporary family member for
the holidays - friendly, intelligent,
and generally furry and adorable.

The weather here has been seasonally appropriate. We got about 10 inches of snow from late Saturday night through Sunday afternoon, in a storm that was unusual in that it pounded places further south and along the coast with much heavier snow than the inland towns here got. There is enough to cause some problems, but not very serious, and it looks right for Christmas.

Canadian Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) in Dad's front yard.
At about 15 feet tall, it has outgrown any possibility of being
used as an indoor Christmas tree in the house.

On a less scenic note, it is really cold - partly because of the actual temperature, which has been between about 12 and 30 degrees Fahrenheit (about -11 to -1 Celsius) over the last few days - but also because of the wind. The "old family home" is near the top of a hill, and it has an open field behind it to the west. This means maximum exposure to cold winds.

View behind the house, with an area cleared out for Rio's use.

I was saying to my brother that with the cold, dry, windy air and blowing snow, coming to central Massachusetts now from Colorado Springs might not seem like much of a change. One key difference is that instead of seeing the Rockies just to the west, the best we can do is some Massachusetts hills. Well, what can ya do?

Not quite the Colorado Rockies, I'm afraid.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Only tolerates narrow temperature range

I've hated hot weather since I was a kid, but until I was 30 or so cold weather didn't bother me much unless it was really cold, like under 10 degrees Fahrenheit (under -12 Celsius). Over the last few years, though, I've noticed that I dislike the cold more and more as well.

Extrapolating from current trends, I predict that by the time I am 50 I will be extremely uncomfortable, and possibly even dead, anywhere outside the temperature range of 65 - 72 degrees Fahrenheit (18.3 - 22.2 degrees Celsius).

In terms of climate tolerance, I will have become like one of those rare and delicate plants that can only survive under an incredibly narrow range of conditions and quickly wilt and die if anything changes too much. The main difference is that the plants are probably a lot prettier than I am.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Let it snow

View out my bedroom window this morning

Since the start of work was delayed until after noon today due to snow, I just wrote about 6 paragraphs about how I grew up loving snow, but later came to think of it as a pain in the butt, but still appreciate how beautiful it can be. Then, when I was attempting to move the location of the picture, I somehow accidentally deleted everything that I had written - why doesn't blogger have a simple "Undo" icon?! I am not going to write all of it again, so I will sum up briefly -

- I loved snow as a child and missed it during a period where I lived in Louisiana.

- As I got older, snow became more of a burden and a lot less fun

- Unfortunately, it's not socially acceptable for a 34-year old man without kids to build snowforts or snowmen or throw snowballs around, so the stuff that I most enjoyed with snow as a kid is ruled out.

- Here in Massachusetts, snow often comes along with its siblings, sleet and freezing rain, which make life even more difficult than snow but with none of the side benefits.

- If only there were a way to keep the beauty of snow without all of the inconvenient part.

- Snow can be beautiful, but for my money it's not as beautiful as a good spring day.

A good spring day, by my reckoning

Thursday, December 3, 2009

After the first Thanksgiving - English worldview

In 1621, Massasoit, the chief sachem of the Wampanoag nation or tribe, decided that the prudent course of action was to make an alliance with band of English religious refugees, later to be known as the Pilgrims, who had formed a small settlement which they called "New Plymouth" or "Plymouth Plantation". His people had already suffered a hideously high death rate (possibly 50% or more) from European diseases over the previous several years, and rival nations were threatening to subdue his people. The newcomers might make valuable allies. In the fall of 1621, the now-allied Wampanoags and English celebrated a feast together, which has gone down in U.S. history as the "First Thanksgiving".

In 1676, Metacom or King Philip, the middle-aged son of the long-dead Massasoit and his heir as sachem of the Wampanoag, was shot and killed in the last stages of a vicious war between the Wampanoag and several other native nations, on the one hand, and the united forces of three English colonies plus native allies, on the other. Metacom was in fact killed by a native serving as an ally of the English. Metacom/Philip's body was cut into several pieces, and his head was severed and impaled on a pike in the town of Plymouth, not far from the spot where his father and the earliest English settlers had celebrated their alliance some 55 years earlier. At least 1000 natives on the losing side, including Metacom's son, were packed onto ships to be sold as slaves in the West Indies. Thousands of other natives had either died or fled southern New England. Even those that had allied with the English got little reward other than being allowed to remain free and keep at least some of their land. It was the end of both political and cultural autonomy for the native nations in the southern part of what had now become New England.

How did something that started with at least a tentative alliance end up with the descendants of one allied group almost wiping out the descendants of their former allies as a distinct people?

European aggression and subjugation of native peoples in various non-European lands is something that happened so many times between the fifteenth century and the twentieth century that it seems inevitable that any encounter between Europeans and non-Europeans, no matter how well it started, would inevitably end in war, which would in turn usually end with the Europeans crushing their enemies. In reality, it's not quite that simple. In some cases, Europeans and natives were able to coexist relatively peacefully for a long time, and in some cases, the natives were able to beat the newcomers. Not every European was immediately inclined to look upon every non-European as an inferior. Some early encounters were genuinely friendly, although they were rarely completely free of tension. Still, it seems to me that almost all Europeans carried some important "mental baggage" that made it extremely difficult for them to treat non-Europeans as true equals for any extended length of time, and the English Pilgrim and Puritan settlers in Plymouth and later Boston and other places were no exception.

This is almost certainly a gross oversimplification, but I think that there were two assumptions shared by almost all the English settlers in what they called "New England" that made it very difficult to deal with the natives as equals. The first assumption was that Christians had a unique insight into the true purpose of life, and the true nature of both people and the entire universe, that non-Christians lacked. More specifically, the English Calvinists assumed that their particular type of Christian belief had this kind of special insight, which other versions of Christianity either lacked or had distorted, making them essentially the only true Christians. This was a pretty typical view in almost every variety of Christianity in Europe after the Reformation in the 16th century. Since religion was so central to the lives of many English settlers in New England, this set of beliefs had an even stronger effect on the way that they viewed the world than it did with many other, less intensely religious groups of Europeans who were encountering natives elsewhere.

The second assumption was that the way that their society was set up, all the rules, customs, expected behaviors, taboos, and material culture that surrounded their whole existence, was simply and objectively the best way. This is a characteristic that they shared not just with other Europeans but with just about every human culture on the face of the earth. It's probably a bad idea to say that anything is a universal trait of human cultures, because there always seem to be a few exceptions, but most cultures seem to assume that the way that they do things is the right way, the natural way, the most sensible way. What set the Europeans apart from the all the other ethnocentric cultures by the seventeenth century was simply the scope and aggressiveness of the spread of European culture. Only the Europeans were travelling around much of the known world and establishing outposts of European culture all over the place, from trading outposts to extensive settlements to full-fledged imperial territories complete with a subjugated native population (although only Spain had yet succeeded in setting up a really extensive empire, as opposed to a series of scattered outposts, by 1620).

Unlike some other European powers, the English could encounter another culture that was very different from their own without even having to leave Europe. In the early 17th century, the culture and way of life of the people in many parts of Ireland was almost as alien to most English as the culture and way of life of the natives of New England was. There were vast differences between the Irish and the Wampanoag or Massachusett, but from the point of view of the English, there were a few key points in common that made both groups "savage" and lacking in what the English considered proper, civilized living. Both native Irish and native Wampanoag lived in a society in which oral tradition, oral codes of law, and extended family and clan ties played a dominant role, while for the English written texts were becoming more authoritative than any spoken word, and extended family played a minor role in most peoples' lives compared to their immediate, nuclear family, and non-family relationships like church communities or master-servant relations. Native Irish and Native Wampanoag both cultivated some crops, but also lived a semi-migratory lifestyle, in which they would often live in different locations depending on the season. For the Irish, this moving around was primarily to find pasture for herds of domesticated animals, while for the native Americans, it was to hunt and gather different animals and plants at different times of year. The English, by contrast, practiced a more intensive form of cultivation and livestock rearing while living in the same location year-round, in sturdier and more permanent houses. Both Irish and Wampanoag had a society that emphasized bravery and skill in combat as among the most admirable traits in men. The English considered bravery admirable, but increasingly other characteristics such as self-restraint, "polite" conduct, and steady, disciplined work habits, were replacing sheer physical bravery and prowess as the marks of an ideal man.

Given that the English saw many similarities between the Irish and Native Americans, the situation in Ireland by 1620 did not bode very well for the future of Native Americans. Ireland had long been a separate kingdom that was ruled by the same individual who was King or Queen of England, but otherwise it had largely been left to its own devices. Beginning in the sixteenth century, though, the English monarchs and their tried to force Ireland to conform more closely to English political, religious, legal, and cultural norms. By the late sixteenth century, armies raised in England were battling Irish leaders who refused to submit to these impositions, and these wars were often fought mercilessly on both sides. By the early seventeenth century, both England and Scotland, now ruled by the same king, were encouraging Protestants to emigrate to Ireland and settle on lands that had been occupied by defeated Irish rebels. Some of the English settlers in Massachusetts had friends and relatives among these settlers, and in their minds they were probably undertaking a similar mission of establishing a devout and civilized community in a land that had until recently been dominated by "savage" people who knew little or nothing about true religion.

While violent conflict was not inevitable, it would have taken an exceptional amount of understanding and restraint on the part of the English in New England to overcome all of the cultural forces pushed toward a conflict with the natives sooner or later. There were some English who were inclined toward peaceful coexistence, but in the end, those with a more aggressive approach would prove more popular, and would push the course of events