Theatre Thursday: The house is dark tonight

As of now, Los Angeles is six days into the lockdown, it has been eighteen days since I last worked box office for ComedySportz L.A., and seventeen days since I’ve done improv on stage, and I have to tell you that the last two have been the hardest part of the whole social distancing and isolation process.

Not that I’m complaining, because shutting down all of the theaters, bars, clubs, sporting events, and other large gatherings, as well as limiting restaurants to take-out only, are all good things. Yes, it does cost people jobs — I’m one of the affected myself, and dog knows I have a ton of friends who are servers or bartenders — but California has also stepped up in making unemployment and disability benefits much more readily available.

And maybe we’ll all get $1,000 from the Federal government, maybe not. The down the road side benefit of this human disaster is that it may just finally break our two-party system in the U.S. and wreak havoc with entrenched power structures elsewhere. And, remember, quite a lot of our so-called lawmakers also happen to belong to the most at-risk group: Senior citizens. So there’s that.

But what is really hurting right now is not the loss of the extra money I made working CSz box office (although if you want to hit that tip jar, feel free — blatant hint.)

Nope. The real loss is in not being able to see and hang out with my family regularly: the Main Company, College League, and Sunday Team; as well as doing improv with the Rec League every Monday night.

And with every week that passes when I don’t get to take to that stage, I feel a bit more separated from the outside world, a bit less creative, a bit less inspired.

I know that I shouldn’t, but honestly, improv in general and Rec League in particular has added so much to my life for the last two and a half years that having to do without it is tantamount to asking me to deal with having no lungs. And no heart.

185 coronaviruses walk into a bar and the bartender says, “Sorry, we’re closed.”

The coronaviruses say, “As you should be.”

And no one laughs. It’s not a time for laughter, but it is a time for support. And while I can’t do improv in real life with this wonderful funny family of mine, I can at least reach out to them all and say, “Hey. How are you doing?” I can also reach out to my loyal readers here and ask the same question.

It’s been amazing, because several of my improviser pals have started doing podcasts or the like. I can’t name names or link here, but I’ve got at least one improv friend who has been doing virtual shows in which he somehow manages to broadcast phone-to-phone routines through what must be a third phone.

Another friend of mine has been reading various scripts, screenplays, or fan fiction live online while also getting twisted on various intoxicating substances, and it’s been hilarious. Then again, he’s hilarious, and although he’s fairly new to the company, he quickly became one of my favorite players.

Okay, so the upside is that I’m now free Friday through Monday evenings again. Yay?

Maybe. The downside? I still don’t know who, out of all my friends and loved ones, is going to die. And that includes me.

But when you have fiscal conservatives like Mitt Romney suddenly advocating for what is pretty much the Universal Basic Income idea supported by (but not created by) Andrew Yang, you can easily come to realize that what we are going through right now, in real time, is an enormous paradigm shift.

More vernacularly, that’s what’s known as a game-changer.

The current crisis has the clear potential to change the way society does things. It may accelerate the race that had already been happening to make all of our shopping virtual, as well delivering everything with autonomous vehicles or drones. In the brick and mortar places that do remain, you may be seeing a lot fewer actual cashiers and a lot more automated kiosks.

This is particularly true in fast food places. McDonald’s alone has been on a push to add kiosks to 1,000 stores per quarter since mid-2018. Compare that to Wendy’s, which the year before set a goal of putting the machines in only 1,000 stores total.

They’re even developing the technology to let AI make recommendations based on various factors, like the weather, or how busy the location is.

But as these jobs go away, ideas like Universal Basic Income and cranking up the minimum wage become much more important — especially because people in these minimum wage jobs are, in fact, not the mythical high schooler making extra cash. Quite a lot of them are adults, many of them with children and families to support.

We are also already seeing immediate and positive effects on the environment due to massive shutdowns of transportation and industry. Scientists had already shown how airline travel contributes to global warming because the shutdown of flights for three days after September 11 gave them a unique living lab to study it in.

And remember: That was pretty much a limit on foreign flights coming into the U.S. What’s happening now is on a very global scale. We’re suddenly dumping fewer pollutants into the atmosphere, using less fossil fuel, and generating lower levels of greenhouse gases — and it already has been for longer than three days, and is going to be for a lot longer than that.

One of the must sublime effects, though, has been in one of the hardest-hit countries. In Italy, the waters in the canals of Venice are running clear for the first time in anyone’s memory, although this didn’t bring the dolphins to them nor make the swans return to Burano. The dolphins were in the port at Sardinia and the swans are regulars.

While a lot of the specific environmental recoveries are true, a lot of them are not. Even NBC was taken in by the hoax that National Geographic debunked.

There’s something poetic in the irony that, as humans have been forced to shut themselves inside, animals do have opportunity to come back into the niches we displaced them from, even if only temporarily.

It’s not always a good thing, though. In Bangkok, the lack of tourists — an abundant source of free food — led to an all-out monkey war between two different tribes.

All of this is just a reminder that all of us — human, animal, and plant alike — live on and share the same planet, and what one does affects all of the others.

The ultimate example of that, of course, is a pandemic. It now seems likely it all began with patient zero, a 55 year-old man from Hubei in Wuhan province, who was the first confirmed case, back on November 17, 2019. But the most likely reservoir from which the virus jumped to humans was probably the pangolin — just more proof that it’s the cute ones you always have to beware of.

It may seem strange to start on the topic of theatre and veer hard into science via politics, but like everything else on the planet, it’s all interconnected. Art, politics, and science are opposite faces of an icosahedral die that never stops being thrown by the hand of fate.

Or by completely random forces. Or it’s a conspiracy. Or it’s all predictable if you have enough data.

Stay safe out there by staying in, wherever you are. See you on the other side but I hope to keep seeing you through it on a daily basis. I’m not going anywhere, dammit.

Image Source: Fairmont Theater, (CC BY-ND 2.0) 2009 Jon Dawson. Used unchanged.

Talky Tuesday: Punctuation

One of the side-effects of people texting and posting online — particularly if they do the latter with their phones — is that punctuation and, often, capitalization go by the wayside. I can understand this if you are using a phone, because the keyboard can be tiny, even on our modern oversized smart phones.

Generally, messages and posts done this way are short enough that missing punctuation, as well as regular paragraphing to indicate changes in thought, can’t hinder the meaning from getting through, at least not that much. Everyone is going to know what you mean in a short text, right?

But the longer you go and the more you write, the more you really do need to punctuation and paragraph your text. For example:

one of the side effects of people texting and posting online particularly if they do the latter with their phones is that punctuation and often capitalization go by the wayside i can understand this if you are using a phone because the keyboard can be tiny even on our modern oversized smart phones generally messages and posts done this way are short enough that missing punctuation as well as regular paragraphing to indicate changes in thought cant hinder the meaning from getting through at least not that much everyone is going to know what you mean in a short text right

How much harder was that paragraph to read than the two that opened the article? Same text exactly, just without any punctuation marks, so no road map. Which one would you rather be handed to read out loud with no preparation?

That’s pretty much the raison d’être of punctuation in any language — to clarify meaning, and especially to facilitate reading the words, whether out loud or in one’s head. But did you ever wonder where those punctuation marks came from?

Today, I’m going to focus on English, so we won’t be dealing with things like cedilla, which you see in the word façade, or the tilde, which is common in Spanish words like mañana. I’ll even pass on the French punctuation seen above in the italicized expression which just means “purpose” — literally, reason for being.

Depending upon the source, there are either fourteen or fifteen, but I’ll be focusing on fewer. I don’t agree with the latter list’s fifteen, which is a bullet point. I consider it more of a formatting tool than a punctuation mark. In a numbered list, while the numbers may or may not have period after them, nobody thinks of the numbers as punctuation, right?

I’ll also be skipping brackets and curly braces because they really aren’t in common use. And, finally, lists of more than five items tend to get cumbersome, so I’m going to stick with the most common ones and take a look at where they came from.

By the way, missing from both of the above lists: our friend the ampersand (&) which I definitely consider a punctuation mark, but which actually used to be the 27th letter of the alphabet. In fact, under its original name, you can’t spell alphabet without it, but those two letters eventually morphed into the pretzel or, as I see it, Panda sitting down to eat bamboo, that we all know and love today. And yes, you’ll never un-see that one.

Here are the origin stories of five heroic punctuation marks.

http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150902-the-mysterious-origins-of-punctuation

  1. Period: While the period, known in British as the “full stop,” is probably the most common punctuation mark in European languages, it came from the same forge as all of the other “dot” punctuations, including the comma, colon, semicolon, and ellipsis. The concept of the period was originally created by a Greek playwright, Aristophanes, who had grown tired of the published works of the time having no breaks between words, making the scrolls very hard to read.

Originally, his system involved placing dots either low, in the middle or high relative to the heights of the letters, and the position indicated the length of the pause, much as a period, comma, and colon indicate different lengths of pauses nowadays. However, his system did not pass directly to us. The Romans were not big fans of punctuation, and a lot of their works were copied down in so-called scriptio continua, or continuous writing.

Ironically, punctuation didn’t come back into it until Christianity began to take hold in the crumbling Roman Empire. Monks tasked with copying manuscripts by hand brought back the marks they knew from the classical Greek of Aristophanes’ era, largely to preserve the meaning of the frequently biblical texts they were copying.

And, again, if they were working to translate the Old Testament, which was largely written in Hebrew, they were going from a language that lacked punctuation, word spacing, and vowels, with the added bonus of only being written in the present tense. Yeah, that must have been a hair-puller. And, no doubt, the New Testament stuff they were working with probably had many of the same issues, since it was written in the Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic of the late 1st century.

These were the people instrumental in writing down the first official version of that bible in the early 4th century, starting with the Council of Nicea, and over the next 1,100 years, they also kind of invented emojis of a sort. What? They were bored college-aged dudes who weren’t allowed to get laid. What else could they do?

So things proceeded on the punctuation front without a lot happening until that dude Gutenberg got to printing in the 15th century. And that was when all of the existing punctuation got locked down because it had to be. That’s what standardization via mass manufacturing does, after all. Not necessarily a bad thing by any means.

  1. Question mark: This was another punctuation mark created by a person, Alcuin of York, an English poet and scholar who was invited to join the court of Charlemagne, who was first King of the Franks, then King of the Lombards, and finally Emperor of the Romans from the late 8th to early 9th centuries. If you have any western European blood in you, he is probably an ancestor.

Alcuin was a prolific author and very familiar with the old dot system of the Greeks, but he sought to improve it, so he created the punctus interrogatives, which is pretty much the Latin version of what we call it now, although his probably looked more like this: .~.

And while you may think that the question and exclamation marks are connected, with the latter just being the unsquiggled version of the former, you’d be wrong. In fact, no one is really sure where the exclamation mark came from, and it didn’t even appear on typewriter keyboards until the relatively late date of 1970.

  1. Hyphen: In the present day, hyphens pretty much exist only to join words that haven’t quite become full-on compounds But once upon a time, before computers had this wonderful ability to justify text and avoid breaking one word across two lines, hyphens did exactly that. They told you whether a word had been broken and to look for more of it on the next line. In practice, it would look something like this:

 

He contemplated the scene, not sure what he was going to find, but fully ex-

pecting it to be something dangerous; something he’d rather not have to con-

front on his own.

Yeah. Messy and awkward, isn’t it? And yet, if you read any published material from earlier than about the late 80s, this is what you get and, honestly, it’s as annoying as hell.

The hyphen itself goes back, again, to ancient Greece, where it was a sort of arc drawn below the letters of the words to be joined. It was still common enough when Gutenberg got around to creating his moveable type that it was adapted. However, since he couldn’t figure out how to include punctuation below the baselines of his letters, he moved the hyphen to the medial position we all know today.

  1. Parenthesis: These most useful of marks were a product of the 14th century, and also brought to us by the creativity of monks copying manuscripts. And, again, I’ll remind you that these geniuses happened to be a part of their era’s version of what we’re currently calling Gen Z. You know. The ones after the Millennials that you should be paying attention to.

Anyway… in their wisdom, these monks decided to draw half circles around certain parts of the text (mostly to indicate that it was connected to but not part of the main idea) in order to set it off from the rest. In a lot of ways, parentheticals became a mental aside for the reader — hear this in a different voice.

And, like tits and testicles, parentheses are intended to always travel in pairs. (Yes, I know that not everyone has two of either, but note the “intended” part. Nature tries. Sometimes, she fucks up.)

  1. Quotation marks: These are yet another thing that the Greeks created, the Romans ignored, and medieval monks brought back. Originally, Greeks in the second century B.C. used sort of arrows to indicate that a line was a quote, and they stuck them in the margins. This form of quotation mark is still visible in modern languages, for example in the Spanish «quotation marks», which are pairs of little arrows.

When we got to the sixteenth century, they became a pair of commas before a line and outside of the margins, and indeed to this day, you’ll see this in ,,German quotes,‘‘ which have two commas before and two open single quotes after. Nowadays, you can’t say he said, she said without quotation marks.

So there you go. The origins of five-ish common punctuation marks. Which one is your favorite, and why? Tell us in the comments!

 

Talky Tuesday Special: Erin go, bro!

In which I don’t so much write about language as indulge in my Irish gift of gab in the most meta way possible.

America may or may not be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day today, depending upon what stage of pandemic we’re at — after all, New York City already cancelled theirs, and it was one of the biggest in the country, along with Chicago (postponed) and Boston (also cancelled).

But the salient point is that, like Cinco de Mayo to actual Mexicans, St. Patrick’s Day isn’t all that big a deal over in Ireland. It’s more of a religious holiday than a boozefest. They still celebrate it, just not on the same scale as… oh. Never mind. Ireland has cancelled, too.

In honor of the day, I’m bringing up my mother’s people because the Irish in America are a very good example of a group that was once an identifiable and hated minority that went on to assimilate with a vengeance.

If you trust traditional sources, that might not seem the case. According to the Census, 10.5% consider themselves of Irish descent. But, of course, that’s totally unreliable because it’s a self-reported figure. Some people may have no idea where their grandparents or great-grandparents came from. Others may not care about their Irish ancestry, or may identify more strongly with another group or country in their background.

But when you look at objective sources and include any degree of Irish heritage, the number changes dramatically. DNA tests via Ancestry show that two thirds of all people tested have at least some Irish blood in them.

In other words, in that regard, the Irish are the hidden majority in this country. Nice trick, considering that for so much of their history here, mo mhuintir (my people) were a much hated minority.

A group of refuges, fleeing what is basically an attempt at genocide back home, suddenly flood the country. Many of them speak a foreign language or speak English badly; they practice a different religion than most Americans of the time; they are perceived as a big threat to American jobs (although they only took the ones Americans didn’t want); and they are accused of being violent criminals, addicts, or rapists.

Sound familiar? Ripped from recent headlines?

Yes, but all of those attributes were applied to the Irish who came to America in the wake of the potato famine, or the Great Hunger, of the 1850s. A big part of it was religious discrimination. At the time, America was predominantly Protestant, thanks to its initial British invaders… sorry, settlers, but another big group who came over, the Germans, tended to be Lutheran. The Catholic Germans of the north stayed home.

The English never had any problem with the Germans because, surprise, by the time America was founded, the English royal family was actually… German. They ruled via four Georges, one William, and somebody known as Victoria.

After she died, the name of the house changed twice, first with her successor, and then again during World War I (then known as the Great War) because Windsor sounded so much more British than the German Hanover, and the British were fighting the Germans, after all.

That’s right. World War I wasn’t so much a war as a family squabble.

The Germans in America did just fine, though, and I have plenty of them in my background as well. My last name is German, and my great grandfather came from there. He was pretty successful as well, and as far as I know, the only elected official (mayor) who’s my direct ancestor for at least four hundred years.

My Irish ancestors, not so much. They were depicted in the press in completely stereotyped and racist ways — and yes, even though Irish is a nationality, the prejudice they faced was a type of racism because the Irish were not considered to be white by the native-born of the era.

Note that the mention of Germans also being stereotyped in that era refers to the Catholic ones, who finally came over as Germany dissolved into civil war in the mid to late 1800s. Note that this is exactly when my great-grandfather came over with his family.

It was 1883 and he was 18. The village he came from was Michelbach, in Gaggenau, just outside of Stuttgart. It’s close enough to Hamburg to assume that it was very Catholic, but I don’t have to assume.

Thanks to a genealogist who, while studying the village as a whole, found my query online, I know all about all of my ancestors from there back to the late 17th century, thanks to the Catholic Church they were preserved in. So those Bastians were probably Catholic. My dad was definitely not.

I don’t think he practiced any religion except for the Ritual of the Earliest Tee Time via its patron, St. Golf, but I suspect that it was because his mother, who was a combination of French, Welsh, Scottish, maybe Native American, and who knows what-all else, wasn’t at all religious.

But if it was one civil war that brought my German ancestors to America, it was another that really messed with my Irish ancestors. This would be the American Civil War itself, and, ironically (or not) it was a perfect example of the rich pitting one downtrodden class against another.

April 1, 1863 was the date the government in the north set for all men between 20 and 45 to register for the first ever draft, whether they were citizens or immigrants seeking citizenship. On top of this, while you’d think that everyone in the North was against slavery, you’d be wrong. In fact, not only did the business elites in New York support it because they profited off of the cheap labor, too, but so did the lower classes, because they feared the possibility of freed slaves coming to take their jobs.

Hm. That whole mishmash sounds familiar, too.

Oh… there was one other big flaw in the law, and it was this. Anyone could buy their way out of being drafted by either finding a substitute to take their place, or paying $300. Obviously, this meant that buying their way out was impossible for the poor and working class, and these people went apeshit.

This led to the draft riots, the second largest act of civil insurrection in U.S. history, ironically only beaten out by the Civil War itself. Of course, as the riots started, the disgruntled poor, largely Irish, didn’t go after the rich bastards in charge. Nope — they went after the black community instead.

Even then, America used divide and conquer. An object lesson for today. Keep in mind that before the Civil War, the Irish were shoved into the same social circles as blacks who were not slaves, and there was a lot of intermarriage and the like going on. Sadly, the above scare tactics of “they’ll take your jobs” during the Civil War worked, permanently damaging the Irish/Black relationship.

But… it planted a seed, so to speak, and there are plenty of black Americans today who happen to have Irish genes in them.

So how did the Irish manage to climb up the ladder to become respected and considered “white?” Simple… America, never one to back down on xenophobia, simply found new targets. After the whole Irish thing, there were suddenly Italians, Eastern Europeans, Chinese, and Mexicans flooding our shores.

After all that, the Irish didn’t seem all that bad.

By the time that Great War ended, the Irish were totally assimilated. And they saw their first president elected in 1960… wait, right, no. JFK was not the first Irish-American president. That would have been bloody, bloody Andrew Jackson. Too bad he didn’t also claim the title of biggest racist asshole prior to… well, you know who.

But, surprisingly, even as recently as 1960, the big worry was whether an Irish Catholic president would follow the Pope instead of the Constitution. (Hint: It was unfounded.)

So happy St. Patrick’s Day. Although it’s not really celebrated that much in Ireland, it probably is in America because, if all y’all strip down to your genes, you probably do have a little Irish in you. Erin go bragh!

Momentous Monday: Backwards and in high heels

The famous astronomer Herschel was responsible for a lot of accomplishments, including expanding and organizing the catalog of nebulae and star clusters, discovering eight comets, polishing and mounting mirrors and telescopes to optimize their light-gathering powers, and keeping meticulous notes on everything.

By being awarded a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society and being named an honorary member thereof, holding a government position and receiving a salary as a scientist, Herschel became the first woman to do so.

What? Did you I think I was talking about the other one? You know — the only one most of you had heard of previously because he discovered Uranus. Oh, and he had that whole penis thing going on.

Caroline Lucretia Herschel, who was William’s younger sister by eleven years and was born on this day 270 years ago, did not have a penis, and so was ignored by history. Despite the honors she received, one of her great works, the aforementioned expansion of the New General Catalogue (NGC), was published with her brother’s name on it.

If you’re into astronomy at all, you know that the NGC is a big deal and has been constantly updated ever since.

While she lacked William’s junk, she shared his intellectual curiosity, especially when it came to space and studying the skies. It must have been genetic — William’s son John Herschel was also an astronomer of some repute — and it was his Aunt Caroline, not Dad, who gave him a huge boost.

She arranged all of the objects then in the NGC so they were grouped by similar polar coordinates — that is, at around the same number of degrees away from the celestial poles. This enabled him to systematically resurvey them, add more data about them, and discover new objects.

Caroline was not the first woman in science to be swept under history’s rug by the men. The neverending story of the erasure of women told in Hidden Figures was ancient by the time the movie came out, never mind the time that it actually happened. Caroline was in good company.

Maria Winckelmann Kirch, for example, was also an astronomer, born 80 years before Caroline and most likely the first woman to actually discover a comet. But of course history gave that honor to her husband, Gottfried Kirch, who was thirty years her senior. However, Herr Kirch himself confirms in his own notes that she was the one who found it:

“Early in the morning (about 2:00 AM) the sky was clear and starry. Some nights before, I had observed a variable star and my wife (as I slept) wanted to find and see it for herself. In so doing, she found a comet in the sky. At which time she woke me, and I found that it was indeed a comet… I was surprised that I had not seen it the night before”. [Source]

Maria’s interest and abilities in science came from a person we might think of as unlikely nowadays: a Lutheran minister, who happened to be her father. Why did he teach her? Because he believed that his daughter deserved the same education any boy at the time did, so he home-schooled her. This ended when Maria lost both of her parents when she was 13, but a neighbor and self-taught astronomer, Christoph Arnold, took her on as an apprentice and took her in as part of the family.

Getting back to Hidden Figures, though, one of the earliest “computers,” as these women of astronomy were known, was Henrietta Leavitt. Given what was considered the boring and onerous task of studying a class of stars known as Cepheid variables, she actually discovered something very important.

The length of time it takes a Cepheid to go through its brightest to darkest sequence is directly proportional to its luminosity. This means that if know the timing of that sequence, you know how bright the star is. Once you know that, you can look at how bright it appears to be from Earth and, ta-da! Using very basic laws of optics, you can then determine how far away the star is.

It’s for this reason that Cepheids are known as a “standard candle.” They are the yardsticks of the universe that allow us to measure the unmeasurable. And her boss at the time took all the credit, so I’m not even going to mention his name.

And this is why we have The Leavitt Constant and the Leavitt Telescope today.

No, just kidding. Her (male) boss, who shall still remain nameless here because, “Shame, shame,” took all of the credit for work he didn’t do, and then some dude named Edwin Hubble took that work and used to to figure out how far away various stars actually were, and so determined that the universe was A) oh so very big,  and B) expanding. He got a constant and telescope named after him. Ms. Leavitt… not so much.

There are way too many examples of women as scientific discovers being erased, with the credit being given to men, and in every scientific field. You probably wouldn’t be on the internet reading this now if no one had ever come up with the founding concepts of computer programming, aka “how to teach machines to calculate stuff for us.”

For that, you’d have to look to a woman who was basically the daughter of the David Bowie of her era, although he wasn’t a very dutiful dad. He would be Lord Byron. She would be Ada Lovelace, who was pretty much the first coder ever — and this was back in the days when computers were strictly analog, in the form of Charles Babbage’s difference and analytical engines.

The former was pretty much just an adding machine, and literally one that could only do that. So, for example, if you gave it the problem “What is two times 27,” it would find the solution by just starting with two, and then adding two to it 26 times.

The latter analytical engine was much more like a computer, with complex programming. Based on the French Jacquard loom concept, which used punched cards to control weaving, it truly mimicked all of the common parts of a modern computer as well as programming logic.

Basically, a computer does what it does by working with data in various places. There’s the slot through which you enter the data; the spot that holds the working data; the one that will pull bits out of that info, do operations on it, and put it back in other slots with the working data; and the place where it winds up, which is the user-readable output.

The analytical engine could also do all four math operations: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

An analog version of this would be a clerk in a hotel lobby with a bunch of pigeonhole mail boxes behind, some with mail, some not. Guests come to the desk and ask (input), “Any mail for me?” The clerk goes to the boxes, finds the right one based on input (guest room number, most likely), then looks at the box (quaintly called PEEK in programming terms).

If the box is empty (IF(MAIL)=FALSE), the Clerk returns the answer “No.” But if it’s not empty (IF(MAIL)=TRUE), the clerk retrieves that data and gives it to the guest. Of course, the guest is picky, so tells the Clerk, “No junk mail and no bills.”

So, before handing it over, the Clerk goes through every piece, rejecting that above (IF(OR(“Junk”,”Bill”),FALSE,TRUE), while everything else is kept by the same formula. The rejected data is tossed in the recycle bin, while the rest is given to the guest — output..

Repeat the process for every guest who comes to ask.

Now, Babbage was great at creating the hardware and figuring out all of that stuff. But when it came to the software, he couldn’t quite get it, and this is where Ada Lovelace came in. She created the algorithms that made the magic happen — and then was forgotten.

By the way, Bruce Sterling and William Gibson have a wonderfully steampunk alternate history novel that revolves around the idea that Babbage and Lovelace basically launched the home computer revolution a couple of centuries early, and with the British computer industry basically becoming the PC to France’s Mac. It’s worth a read.

Three final quick examples: Nettie Maria Stevens discovered the concept of biological sex being passed through chromosomes long before anyone else; it was Lise Meitner, not Otto Hahn, who discovered nuclear fission; and, in the ultimate erasure, it was Rosalind Franklin, and neither Watson nor Crick, who determined the double helix structure of DNA.

This erasure is so pronounced and obvious throughout history that it even has a name: The Matilda Effect, named by the historian Margaret Rossiter for the suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage.

Finally, a note on the title of this piece. It comes from a 1982 comic strip called Frank and Ernest, and it pretty much sums up the plight of women trying to compete in any male-dominated field. They have to work harder at it and are constantly getting pushed away from advancement anyway.

So to all of the women in this article, and all women who are shattering glass ceilings, I salute you. I can’t help but think that the planet would be a better place with a matriarchy.

Sunday Nibble #8: Beware the what of when now?

Caesar’s wife Calpurnia may well have told him “Cave idibus martiis” — “Beware the Ides of March” — and history proved her to be right, whether or not her warning was made up later. In fact, the real warning may have come from a politically astute seer named Spurinna, who gave a general warning with no specifics.

There are a lot of myths around Caesar’s assassination, many of them attributable to Shakespeare taking dramatic license.

And the part that always gets left out is that Caesar was just about to declare himself dictator for life, so contrary to Shakespeare, perhaps the murderous Senators really were the heroes in this scenario.

Hm. Heroic Senators. What a concept… Except that they probably acted entirely in their own self-interest, since Caesar went more after their own corruption than after the common citizen or the slave.

But forget all that. The real question is “What exactly is an ‘ides’ that Caesar had to bewar?”

Well, for one, it’s a thing you’ve been pronouncing wrong since forever, and “ides” isn’t even the original Latin. It’s “idibus Martiis.” In this case, the endings of the words basically say that the first one belongs to the second. That’s how Latin works. No apostrophe stuff for them. They had an entire case, called the genitive, which could be read in shorthand as “thing of.”

It differs even more in English in that the owned object comes before the owner. I guess the most direct, yet cumbersome, rendering in English of idibus Martiis might be “the ides which belong to March.”

Oh yeah. Extra complication. More likely than not, the thing would have been rendered in classical Latin like this: “IDIBVSMARTIIS” or, to make it even more confusing, “IDBSMRTS.”

But what you’re probably really wondering about is that whole “ides” thing, which btw is pronounced “ee-dayce” and not “eyeds.”

First off, we need to look at the history of the Roman calendar and, like many calendars from that time and place, it was lunar, not solar. It was basically a hot mess and necessitated the addition of leap month every two or three years to keep things in synch. Q.V. the Jewish calendar, which adds a leap month every… it’s complicated.

Meanwhile, terms like the ides were basically meant to pin down the phases of the moon.

The Romans had three special words for days in their calendar, one of which gave us the name for the thing. That would be kalends, which indicated the day of the New Moon, i.e. no moon visible. The ides, then, indicated the day of the full moon, which would be two weeks after the kalends. Finally, the nones designated the 1st quarter moon.

What this meant to the Romans was that the kalends was always the first of the month, the nones could be on the 7th or 5th of the month — the former in March, May, July, and October, the latter in all others; and the ides would be on the 15th of the same months mentioned above, or the 13th of the others.

What this also tells us is that Caesar was assassinated under a full moon on the 15th of March.

When it came to time-keeping ancient cultures naturally latched onto the Moon. And, in fact, in many languages, the words for moon and month are very similar. This is pretty self-evident in English.

Judaism, the religion of Rome, and (later) Islam all came to settle on the same time-keeper, choosing the Moon over the Sun. At first glance, that might seem weird. After all, the Sun definitely creates our days and nights, so why shouldn’t it have been the primary calendar starter from the beginning?

Simple. The Sun seems to be constant. The Moon is not. In fact, Shakespeare even commented on it in Romeo & Juliet:

O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,

That monthly changes in her circled orb,

Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.

Ironically, it was the apparent inconstancy that led us to use the Moon to mark time. And why did the Moon seem the better choice? Because the Sun was the really inconstant one.

Let’s say that humans have already divided a day into 24 hours, but it can be any arbitrary number. Then they try to figure out another arbitrary measure, let’s call it an hour, based upon how long daylight lasts. “Okay,” they say. “Half of that day length will be light, and half dark.”

So they get about measuring, only to realize that it’s a moving target. If they use some physical constant to measure, like how long it takes X amount of water to drain from one bucket with a hole in it to another, then they may notice over time that while it’s daylight for sixteen buckets in June, it’s somehow only daylight for eight buckets in December.

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Well, that’s not a great way to measure things. But, on the other hand, here’s this thing up there that changes in a regular and predictable pattern, and it shouldn’t have taken too much observation to realize that the regular change took about 28 days — regardless of how long day or night were relative to each other.

So we have a winner. Start with the day the Moon disappears, mark off a point when it has fully reappeared, then put a pin in a point between invisible and totally there. That’s your regular and easy cycle, and the source of your lunar calendar.

It wasn’t until people who were keeping track of the longer phenomena — basically, how the Sun’s position and the apparent angle of the Earth’s axis also changed consistently, but over years, not months — that we also finally realized, “Crap! A lunar calendar is going to throw us off of what time it ‘really’ is.”

But… is that a valid question or concern? Does anybody really know what time it is?

How many phases of the Moon have passed since your birth? How many years on the Jewish or Muslim calendar? Is your birthdate now still in the same month it was then?

Ultimately, does it matter? We’ve come to consider the number of times the Earth circles the Sun to be the important measure, hence birthdays based on solar time. But that is totally anthropocentric, meaning to measure everything about the world based on human terms.

But… what about all the dogs I’ve known and loved who have gone from infancy to advanced senior citizen and death in about as many orbits as it took me to go from birth to driver’s license? What about the few pet rats I’ve had and loved who lasted about as long as it took me from birth to say my first words?

And what about all those turtles that look at us humans and think, “You retire at 65? Lazy-ass bitches. Grow a shell!”

In physics, time really is just what a clock reads, nothing more nor less. After all, a clock here on Earth will read a quite different time from the same clock launched into space at a large fraction of the speed of light.

Here are the salient points: While the ides of March, 44 BCE, is the date on which Julius Caesar was assassinated, all we really need to remember for practical purposes is that this day was March 15th. His wife never predicted his doom on this day, and the one seer who gave warning only said that Caesar was moving into a politically dangerous month, and he did that back in February

The real heroes in the story were kinda sorta the Senators who stabbed him to death with daggers (not swords) in an antechamber off of the Senate (not on the floor), in order to save everyone, except that they were totally acting in their own self-interest in a way that only inadvertently benefited the Plebes, Soldiers, Citizens, and Slaves.

Finally, everything got distorted to turn a dude who was probably a power-hungry and dangerous asshole into a martyr. At least his first successor, Augustus, had it a bit more together.

Getting back to calendars, though, our Roman calendar got more modern when what was originally the fifth month was renamed in honor of Caesar after his assassination, and so we got July.

Meanwhile, August was renamed for Augustus Caesar in 8 BCE. In this case, the Senate decided to make it happen, and so the sixth month took on what wasn’t even his real name, just his title. And so September, October, November, and December made sense for a while, since they meant seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth.

It wasn’t until the winter months got names again and March was no longer new year’s month that the last four months of the year lost touch with the origin of their names.

And, finally, we had a calendar that aligned more closely with the more meaningful solar year, and only needed to be adjusted by stuffing an extra day into February every four years, and omitting that same stuffing if said leap year happened to occur on a century year (one ending in 00) that was not divisible by four.

So far, it’s worked out pretty well. And, in modern America, the only real warning we need to heed on the Ides of March is that it’s one month until tax day. Otherwise, carry on!

Momentous Monday: Relativity

One hundred eighty-nine years ago, somewhere in Massachusetts, a child was born. He grew up to become a man, and he moved west. It was the era of Manifest Destiny in America, a dark time in our history.

At least we weren’t using the term “Great White Hope.” Yet. To be honest, we should have used the term “Great White Death.” But, among the death there was still hope, and that child born in Massachusetts who grew up to be a man put his ideals into action.

Along with a great wave of German immigrants to America, all of whom despised slavery, this man went west, crossed the Missouri river and landed in Kansas. For me, the movie How the West Was Won is a family documentary.

 When he arrived in Kansas, he helped found the town of Burlington, was one of two attorneys in the town (and also one of two blacksmiths, the other of whom was the other attorney), and a proud member of the Republican Party.

Yeah… quite the opposite of my politics now, or so you’d think. Except that, before the Civil War and up until FDR, the Republicans were the liberal party in America, and the Democrats were regressive.

That child who grew up to be a great man moved west in order to help bring Kansas into the union as a free (i.e., non-slave) state. And that child, who grew up to be a great man, was my great-great-grandfather, Silas Fearl.

Fast-forward to nearly two-hundred years after his birth, and the evolution of the internet, and I am in touch with people who share my ancestry with him. It makes us very distant relatives, to be sure, but it means that we have a very definite connection, some by blood and some by marriage.

And this is the reason for this post. Tonight, one of those third or fourth cousins, via Silas Fearl by blood, posted some pictures of her kids, and when I looked at them the thing that most struck me was this. “Wow. This person and I have an ancestor in common.” And, in fact, looking at these faces, I could see certain elements of my own face, of my dad’s, and of my grandpa’s, and of the great uncles I managed to meet, and of the people in a family portrait taken when my father’s father was an infant.

Even so many steps apart on the branches of humanity’s family tree, I could see some of me and my immediate family in them… and across the distance of never having met and Facebook, my first reaction was an enormous empathy. “This is a bit of me, and I want to protect it from everything bad forever.”

And, in a lot of ways, I have to suspect that this is just an illusion, an effect created by the empirical proof I have seen that means “You and I are related to each other.” That, and the evolutionary and biological forces that make us most protective of those who share our DNA.

Except that… I’ve felt this same way toward people who are absolutely not related, but I’ve still seen myself in them… and this is when I realize the harm that intellect can do to our species.

Intellect relies on so-called facts that it has been told. So, “Hey, you and this person are related” is a fact that ropes emotions into relating to the news. So… subject, object, emotion, bond.

In reality, anybody whose picture I see online is related, it’s just not as straightforward as “You and this person have the same great-great-grandfather. I can trace part of my ancestry back to King Henry II of England and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine — The Lion in Winter is, for me, another unintended family documentary.

By that connection, I’m related to most of the population of England and the eastern US. Now, go back through them to another common ancestor, Charlemagne, and I’m related to most western Europeans and Americans — if you expand the definition of “America” to include all countries, north and south.

And, if you go back far enough to the last point in humanity’s evolutionary history at which the family tree’s branches split, then you could honestly say that everybody you have ever met is related to you and shares your DNA and your blood to some degree.

You should be able to recognize your features in them no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. You should be able to see their humanity, and yours, in their faces.

And, go back far enough then we are related to all animal life on this planet. Go back a little farther, and we are related to all life not only on this planet, but in the universe. Go back far enough and follow the laws of physics, and all of us, everyone, everywhere, were once the exact same bit of incredibly condensed matter.

The universe is the mother of us all, and all divisions are illusionary.

I’m reminded of some old Beatles lyrics at the moment. “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” (And I had to look that up. It’s from I Am the Walrus and not Come Together.) Anyway, that’s a pretty good summation of my realization.

Once we put human history on a cosmic scale, our differences and squabbles become absolutely meaningless. All of us were born from the stars. All of us are in this together. Let’s act like it…

Image: The author’s great-grandparents and their four sons, including the author’s paternal grandfather.

 

Momentous Monday: Marbury vs. Madison

Two hundred and seventeen years ago today, the U.S. Supreme Court made a very important decision, one that has resonated on down through the years, and one that is more important now than ever.

Basically, a little incoming executive fuckery attempted to block an approved appointment by the outgoing administration… or did it? Because the outgoing administration wasn’t so innocent either, and to top it off, the Supreme Court Justice who ruled in the case, John Marshall, had been Secretary of State to the President who was trying to pack the courts with justices favorable

to his side in the last days before he had to turn over the reins to Thomas Jefferson.

Side note: For all of you Founders fans, read up a bit, and you’ll realize that if you’re progressive, then you’re on the side of Adams, not Jefferson.

Anyway, beyond the politics of all of the above, two things are notable. One is that Marshall actually ignored the fact that he was voting against his guy (Adams) in this case and voted for what was right. Second is that this case forever enshrined the idea that the Supreme Court could absolutely decide whether a law passed by Congress was Constitutional.

Hello, checks and balances, everyone.

But it seems to have passed out of fashion to understand this simple fact. Our Constitution set up three branches of government for one simple purpose: So that no one of them would become too powerful. That’s what checks and balances means.

The three branches are as follows:

Legislative, meaning both houses of Congress, whose job is to make laws.

Executive, meaning the President and Cabinet, and their job is to figure out how to enact the laws passed by the Legislature, or to say “Nope. We’re not passing that law.” (To which the Legislature, with a two thirds majority, can say, “Nu-uh, it’s passed. Suck it!)

Judicial, meaning the Supreme Court, and they get to decide whether a law follows the Constitution or not.

Oh yeah. All three branches are constrained by the Constitution. At least in theory. And getting back to the Legislative, there are two houses of Congress, which makes it wonky: The Senate and the House or Representatives.

These came out of what you can basically call White Privilege, i.e., “We really can only trust rich, old, white, land-owning dudes over 21 to do what’s best (for rich, old, white, land-owning dudes over 21), so the system was stacked from the top. The Reps in the house are based on the population of states, meaning that in the modern day places like California, Texas, and New York have the most Reps. However, the Senate is based on state, as in every state gets the same two Senators, so that California, with nearly 40 million people, gets the same number of Senators as Wyoming, with just over half a million people, and that is utter bullshit. Of course, this is the same nonsense that gave us the Electoral College, which really needs to be banished as well.

To keep it fair, we really need to banish the Senate, reapportion Congress based on an honest 2020 Census, and pack the Supreme Court to at least 17 Justices. Maybe even consider the concept of having two or more of those positions elected by the people instead of appointed by the President, and with the power of recall endowed, again, with the people..

Oh yeah. Because that’s the really big part that the whole “Systems of Checks and Balances” things ignores. The fourth branch of government.

Who is it? You may ask. Simple. It’s us. We the people, and our power to vote. We can’t do shit about the Supreme Court (yet, but see above), otherwise, the President and Congress are in our hands.

The Supreme Court Justice you may or may not have heard of, and who was equal parts hero and dick.