Archive for the ‘stuff’ Category


In 1987 this became her last top-ten hit on the US R&B chart. The first minute sounds like the late 1980s, but then it sounds like Donna Summer. It was written by Brenda Russell, best known for “Piano in the Dark” (1988).

See also:


I want to have dinner with Gershwin
I want to watch Rembrandt sketch
I want to talk theory with Curie
Impossible I guess

I want to talk moods with Picasso
On a rendezvous
I want to fly double with Earhart
I want to get next to you
Next to you

So close
Just as close as I can get
The rain of your worry
Can’t effect
What I feel is what I feel
One touch
Of your greatness
Is what I need
My circle of fantasy
Would be complete

I want to sing hymns with Mahalia
When the day is through
I want to tell you about it
I want to get next to you
Next to you

So close
Just as close as I can get
The rain of your worry
Can’t effect
What I feel is what I feel
One touch
Of your greatness
Is what I need
My circle of fantasy
Would be complete

So close
Just as close as I can get
The rain of your worries
Can’t effect
What I feel is what I feel
One touch
Of your greatness
Is what I need
My circle of fantasy
Would be complete

I want to have dinner with Gershwin
I want to watch Rembrandt sketch
I want to talk theory with Curie
Impossible I guess…

Source: AZ Lyrics.

Read Full Post »

Colin Powell

Colin Powell (1937-2021), a soldier, a statesman, and a four-star general in the US Army, was the first Black person to become:

  • Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US military (1989-93) and
  • US Secretary of State (2001-05).

On October 18th 2021 he died at age 84 of complications of covid-19 despite having been vaccinated.

With that out of the way:

On February 5th 2003 (pictured above), before the United Nations and the world, he put his good name to CIA lies about Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, leading to the senseless deaths of hundreds of thousands and a trillion dollars (and counting) misspent in the Iraq War. He was, *gush*, such an honest person that he later termed this a “blot”.

The company you keep: He did in fact seem like an honest man of common sense. He was a Never Trumper, and left the Republican Party in the wake of their failed coup on January 6th 2021. Such high moral standards! He was even capable of independent thought. Not a joke! But he also put his trust and loyalty into figures like President Bush (pick one) and the CIA!!! And even his Powell Doctrine of limited warfare was imperialistic – and, in any case, soon discarded once enough historical amnesia had set in:

The Powell Doctrine was laid out to gain support for the Gulf War (1990-91) from a public that could still clearly remember the Vietnam War (1965-73). Powell, who had himself fought in Vietnam as a young soldier, said war should:

  • be a last resort,
  • be winnable,
  • have broad support at home and abroad – and
  • have an exit strategy.

In short, the US should not fight open-ended, unpopular forever wars. Like the Iraq War – which Powell himself was pushing just a decade later!!!

As luck would have it, just nine days before Powell appeared before the UN, the US part in the Vietnam War had become Ancient History:

The Teflon Theory of US History says that anything that took place over 30 years ago is Ancient History. It has Absolutely No Effect on the present. Or not much. Unless it was something good like the light bulb or the Declaration of Independence. Therefore those who make a big deal of the bad stuff in the past, like slavery, are Living in the Past and need to Get Over It.

I wish I was joking. By 2003, half the people who clearly remembered the Vietnam War were dead, replaced by an even larger number of people (population growth, you know) who only knew the lies their teachers told them (if that).

Disclaimer: Right here I am supposed to insert the disclaimer that Powell was “complex” and “human” and “not perfect”, that sort of thing. That is because he is widely admired by morally-blind US Americans, so as a courtesy to them his moral failings are to be glossed over.

By all accounts Powell was a nice man. His wife loved him. He inspired young people.

But if he was not a cynical operator like so many in the capital, then he had a sadly naive faith in the goodness of US military power and its leaders.

– Abagond, 2021.

See also:


Read Full Post »

Ptolemaic Egypt

Ptolemaic Egypt, circa -270. Its northern realm outside of Egypt shifted through time.

Ptolemaic Egypt (-305 to -30) was Egypt under rule of the Ptolemies, by one of Alexander the Great’s generals and his descendants. It is the Egypt of Cleopatra, the Rosetta Stone, the Septuagint, and the Library of Alexandria.

  • When: the years -305 to -30.
  • Where: Egypt, Cyrenaica (eastern Libya), sometimes Cyprus, Rhodes, Palestine, even a bit of Syria, Crete or Anatolia. One of the three main parts that Alexander’s empire broke into.
  • Population: maybe 3 million.
  • Major cities: Alexandria (capital), Memphis.
  • Languages: Koine Greek (upper and middle class), Demotic (middle and working class). Demotic is a later stage of Ancient Egyptian and an early stage of Coptic.
  • Religions: pagan – Egyptian and Greek, which start to mix, creating stuff like the cult of Serapis and Isis, which in turn spread beyond Egypt.
  • Currency: Alexandrian silver tetradrachm (about 13g of silver). Ptolemaic coins looked like Greek coins but smaller. Coins were rare in Egypt before Ptolemaic times.
  • Economy: exports wheat, linen, papyrus; becomes the middleman between India, Africa, and the Mediterranean by way of the ports of Alexandria on the Mediterranean and Berenice on the Red Sea. In the -200s, Hippalus discovers the pattern of monsoons, making trade with India faster, safer, cheaper.
  • Military: strong navy.
  • Famous sons and daughters: Cleopatra, Berenice, Manetho, Euclid, Eratosthenes, but not the astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, who came later, in Roman times, and was probably not a relative of either the Ptolemies or the Roman emperor Claudius.

The Hollywood version: Roxana and Alexander.

Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in -332, founded Alexandria, and, oh, was declared the son of Amun, an Egyptian god. Alexander went on to greater glory, dying just nine years later in Babylon in -323. His son by Roxana of Bactria (Rosario Dawson in the Hollywood version) was yet unborn. His generals fought over his empire. No one general could defeat the others, so it broke into three parts ruled by three dynasties:

  • Ptolemaic (-305 to -30), based in Egypt (Africa)
  • Seleucid (-312 to -63), based in Mesopotamia (Asia)
  • Antigonid (-306 to -168), based in Macedonia (Europe)

The three main pieces of Alexander’s empire by -270.

The borders shifted back and forth between them till Rome swallowed them up one by one. Cleopatra, a Ptolemy, was the last to hold out. Rome would go on to reduce the much of Egypt to serfdom.

Ptolemaic rule did benefit Greeks over Egyptians – they got the top positions and had a better chance to become landowners. And the laws became more sexist.

Alexandria was like Hong Kong or New York: a port city and international go-between for a vast hinterland. It was where Greek and Egyptian science, medicine, religion, art, and culture met and enriched each other. Alexandria became the largest city in Egypt and in the Greek-speaking world, the main seat of Greek learning. Alexandria was cosmopolitan, open, a world city – what Alexander would have wanted. That would not always be true – like now in 2021 or in the 415 that brought Hypatia and much else to an end.

The Library of Alexandria had some 490,000 scrolls (estimates vary), easily the largest library of its time. Of its books, 99% are lost. But if it were not for the Library, we would not have even that 1%, through copying and recopying, stuff like Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Thucydides and Herodotus.

– Abagond, 2021.

See also:


Read Full Post »

Mario: Whip It Baby


I loved this song! I remember when they played it on The Box in about 1991. But for years I was unable to find it on YouTube – when I searched for it I kept getting songs by Devo and the Dazz Band (which it heavily samples). But now that I have found it, I can see it has not held up so well 😦

Some songs are just as wonderful as the first day I heard them, like En Vogue’s “Hold On” (which is from the same year, 1990), others not so much, like Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance” (1988).

– Abagond 2021.

See also:

Read Full Post »

Atticists (fl. -100 to +600) tried to write like the great writers of Athens of the -400s and -300s. They were reacting against the long-winded, flowery “Asiatic” style of the -200s and -100s. And also against the everyman’s mishmash that street Greek had become in their own time – the Koine Greek that you see in the New Testament.

As Toynbee put it in “A Study of History” (1946):

“Yet, in spite of this wide diversity of origin [in time and place], the neo-Atticists display an extraordinary uniformity of vocabulary, syntax and style; for these are, one and all, frank, shameless and servile imitators of the Attic of ‘the best period’.”

Examples: Atticists wrote mainly in Attic Greek, of course, but they affected writers in other languages too:

  • Greek: Lucian, Herodian, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Phrynichus Arabius, Josephus, Procopius, Plutarch, Marcus Aurelius, Aelian, Julian, Dio Chrysostom, John Chrysostom. (Some of these were more hardcore than others.)
  • Latin: Calvus, Catullus, early Virgil, Horace.
  • English: Matthew Arnold?, Joseph Addison.

My notes on how to write like an Atticist:

  1. Learn Attic Greek, the Greek of Athens in the -400s and -300s. If you are only going to write in English, you could skip this, but in general the more steps you follow the better.
  2. Read the great Attic orators, preferably in the original Greek, but even in translation. Shamelessly model your writing on them, especially Demosthenes. WWDD. In alphabetical order, the greats are:
    • Aeschines
    • Andocides
    • Antiphon
    • Demosthenes
    • Dinarchus
    • Hypereides
    • Isaeus
    • Isocrates
    • Lycurgus
    • Lysias
  3. Read other Attic writers: Plato, Thucydides, Xenophon, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes – in fact, pretty much any Greek writer from the -400s and -300s that has come down to us. The main exceptions are Herodotus and Aristotle – they were not native speakers of Attic Greek. For Plato in English, the Bloom translation is best.
  4. Read other Atticists – see above under “Examples”.
  5. In English:
    • Hot: Hemingway, Orwell, Jane Austen, C.S. Lewis, Audubon Field Guides.
    • Not: Shakespeare, King James Bible, Coleridge, most English-language authors since 1600 – English is in an Asiatic phase.
  6. Keep it clear and simple – without sacrificing truth.
  7. Less is more – suggest, make the reader think. English writing tends to be overblown and long-winded.
  8. Truth is beauty – no need to paint it, exaggerate or adorn it.
  9. Prefer fact over feeling.
  10. Prefer old, plain words over newer, glitzier ones. Stick to the vocabulary of the -300s. But:
  11. Avoid archaic words, ones that have fallen out of use. You want to be understandable both to the time of Demosthenes (-384 to -322) and to your own time. The Atticists were so good at this that Plato could have read something written a thousand years later.
  12. Be direct: say who did what. In written, educated English the who and the what tend to get clouded over by the passive voice and abstractions linked together with weak verbs. For example: “A suspect is in critical condition after an officer-involved shooting involving the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Thursday, May 27.” The police shot someone, whose life is now hanging by a thread, dramatic stuff, but the only verbs are “is” and “involving”!

– Abagond, 2021.

See also:


Read Full Post »

Ptolemy’s Geography

Ptolemy’s world map, circa 150 AD. Click to enlarge.

“Geography” (c. 150), or Γεωγραφικὴ Ὑφήγησις (Guide to Geography), by Claudius Ptolemy had everything you needed to make a world map, both instructions and data – and even the why of the instructions. It probably did not have an actual map – the text never refers to one. That was left as an exercise for the reader.

The “Geography” is why Westerners think of north as “up” and see the world as a grid of latitudes and longitudes.

And why Columbus thought he could sail west and reach Asia without running out of food and water: Ptolemy thought the Earth was round but much smaller than it is – and Asia wider (there was no good way to measure longitude till the 1700s). Columbus fudged the numbers even further in his favour – so that when he got to Cuba he was asking for directions to China!

Earth’s circumference: Ptolemy put it at 180,000 stades, 29% smaller than Erastosthenes’s 252,000. In Egypt, where they both lived, a stade was about 157.5 metres. That puts Ptolemy at 28,400 km, Erastothenes at 39,700 km. The correct value is 40,008 km.

Ptolemy was not original. Like his book on astronomy,  the “Almagest” (147), for the most part he was summarizing almost 2,000 years of Greek, Babylonian and Egyptian thought and research, putting it all together into one handy book. The idea of latitude and longitude, for example, came from Hipparchus in the -100s.

Ptolemy became the starting point for geography for:

  • the Muslim world in the 800s, and
  • the Western world in the 1400s.

In the West his book did not appear till 1397, in Florence from Constantinople, as part of the Renaissance, the rebirth of Greek and Roman learning. It was not translated into Latin till 1410. We can tell from the Latin translations that it took a while for Westerners to fully understand the book. In 1507, Martin Waldseemuller and Matthias Ringmann updated it as “Universalis Cosmographica” to include the geographical findings of Marco Polo, Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci and others – giving America its name along the way.

The “Geography” is mainly a list of over 8,000 places with their latitudes and longitudes. He even has Axum. His geography goes

  • from the Fortunate Isles (Canary Islands) to Cattigara (Vietnam) 177 degrees to the east, and
  • from Thule (an island north of Britain) at 63 degrees north, to Agisymba (Chad), 16 degrees south of the equator.

Londinium (London) he puts at 20 degrees east of the Fortunate Isles and 54 degrees north of the equator. The correct values are 18 east and 51.5 north. His numbers were approximate, some of his places mythical, but the mathematical foundation was solid.

Some strange geographical features:

  • Taprobana (Sri Lanka) and the Golden Chersonese (Malaysia) are freakishly huge, especially compared to India.
  • The Indian Ocean is landlocked.
  • The Nile flows from the Mountains of the Moon (still on Western maps as late as 1851).
  • The Caspian and Aral Seas are one.

Ptolemy knew about China but not Japan or the Pacific Ocean.

He knew what he did not know: that his map only covered about a fourth of the world – that the Western Hemisphere was missing and most of the Southern Hemisphere, that there were probably lands unknown.

– Abagond,  2021.

Sources: mainly “A History of the World in Twelve Maps” (2012) by Jerry Brotton.

See also:


Read Full Post »


Waldseemuller’s world map of 1507. The Wikipedia has a more detailed 20 Mb version.

Martin Waldseemuller (c. 1470-1520), a German mapmaker, made the first map to use the name “America”. It was also the first to show the Pacific Ocean (six years before Balboa) and was the first printed wall map. The map was in “Universalis Cosmographica” (1507), an update to Ptolemy’s “Geography” (c. 150) that he did with humanist scholar Matthias Ringmann.

The name “America” makes its debut in 1507. The map above shows part of Soutrh America.

Why the name “America”, from the “Cosmographica” itself:

“Because it is well known that Europe and Asia were named after women, I can see no reason why anyone would have good reason to object to calling this fourth part Amerige, the land of Amerigo, or America, after the man of great ability who discovered it.”

“America” was the female form of Amerigo Vespucci’s first name in Latin, Americus. Vespucci’s books outsold Columbus three to one. A year later Waldseemuller found out that Columbus had in fact been to “America” first. Oops.

In later maps, Waldseemuller called the new lands Terra Incognita (land unknown), Prisilia (Brazil?), and Terra Papagalli (land of parrots), but never again America. It is possible that “America” was Ringmann’s idea and that Waldseemuller simply dropped it after his death in 1511. But in any case:

It was too late: the name had caught on, especially among German and Dutch matchmakers, who preferred it to political names like “New Spain” and religious ones like “Land of the Holy Cross”. By century’s end it is was the main name Westerners used – except in Spain, where it did not catch on till the 1700s.

The east coast of Parias (North America). In the middle is Florida, with the Gulf of Mexico just to the left.

North America was not called North till Mercator made his world map in 1538. On Waldseemuller’s map, South America is called America, but North America is called Parias, which is what Vespucci said the people there (in Honduras?) called it.

Not yet a continent: Although the “Cosmographica” calls Africa, Asia and Europe “continents”, America is called an “island”. The line between continent and island, then as now, was not clear-cut.

Antarctica is Walseemuller’s name for the opposite of the Arctic, but its continent was unknown in the West till the 1800s.

Why America looks strange on his map: It is mainly because Waldseemuller is using a Ptolemaic map projection – which was not so bad if you only have to map less than a fourth of the globe, as Ptolemy did in the year 150. At the top of Waldseemuller’s map is a picture of the Western Hemisphere where America is much less distorted:

Mercator and others would later come up with map projections of their own. But Ptolemy’s system of mapping the whole world on a grid of latitudes and longitudes remains. And so does his practice of putting north at the top of the map (also favoured by compass users).

The “Cosmographica” extended Ptolemy’s system to the findings not just of Vespucci, but also Marco Polo, Columbus, and the Portuguese navigators who sailed round Africa in the 1400s.

Globe: The “Cosmographica” also had a map that you could cut out and make into a globe:

South Africans, the only people pictured on the 1507 world map.

– Abagond, 2021.

Sources: mainly “A History of the World in Twelve Maps” (2012) by Jerry Brotton; “Amerigo” (2007) by Felipe Fernández-Armesto; University of Minnesota.

See also:



Read Full Post »

Paul Robeson: Go Down Moses


Thanks to Paul Robeson in the middle 1900s, this is probably the best-known spiritual that Black slaves in the US had sung in the early 1800s. It is based on Exodus 5:1 in the Bible:

“And afterward Moses and Aaron went in, and told Pharaoh, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Let my people go, that they may hold a feast unto me in the wilderness.”

Like many spirituals, this song had a double meaning – so much so that some  slave owners banned it.

As maybe you can imagine, Al Jolson sang this song in blackface.

See also:


When Israel was in Egypt land,
Let my people go!
Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
Let my people go!

Go down, Moses,
‘Way down in Egypt land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go!

Thus saith the Lord,
Bold Moses said,
Let my people go!
If not, I’ll smite your first born dead
Let my people go!

Go down, Moses,
‘Way down in Egypt land,
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go!

Read Full Post »

The Romance-speaking world, circa 2020.

Romance languages are those that grew out of Latin – Spanish, French, Portuguese and so on. Costas Melas on YouTube has a wonderful video showing their history year by year in the form of a changing map. Here are some screen shots from that and a related video, one map every 500 years, with my own running commentary added:

1000 BC:

This map shows all the Indo-European languages of 1000 BC. Latin is not yet a language. But its ancestor, Proto-Italic (shown in red), is. It has broken away from Proto-Celtic (pink) and is spreading throughout Italy. Celtic languages will spread throughout France, Spain, Portugal, Britain and Ireland, where it will be easier for people to learn the closely related language of Latin. English will grow out of Proto-Germanic (blue). English is a distant cousin of Latin, but half its words will come from it, either directly or by way of French and other Romance languages.

500 BC:

Proto-Italic has become the languages of Latin, Faliscan, Umbrian, Oscan, Sicel and Venetic. Greek is spoken in southern Italy, Etruscan in the north-west. Latin is the language of Rome, not yet that of Italy.

1 AD:

The Roman Empire is nearing its height. Western Europe is becoming Romanized, most of its Celtic and Italic languages dying out. The solid colours show where Latin is the majority language, the stripes where it is commonly known, mainly as a second language, but not by the majority. Classical Latin is the Latin of the upper class. It is the kind you learn at school and see in books – both then and now. Vulgar Latin is what ordinary people speak. It will become French and Spanish and so on. In fact, the graffiti of Pompeii in 79 AD already shows Latin starting to turn into Italian.

500 AD:

Rome falls. Latin is still an administrative language in the eastern part of the empire. Latin never took firm root in Britain, already being invaded by Anglo-Saxons.

1000 AD:

Latin is the language of learning in western Europe. It is what all the books are written in. But it is no longer understood by the masses, whose Vulgar Latin has now become Romance languages, like Old French and Old Spanish. Muslim and Slavic invasions have all but wiped out Romance languages in Africa, the Balkans and most of Iberia. Proto-Romanian is now cut off from the rest of the Latin world.

1500 AD:

Latin reaches its height as a learned language. The Spanish Reconquista takes back Iberia. The map makes it look like a patchwork of Romance languages, but it is more of a continuum. If you walked from Madrid to Rome, you would barely notice any difference at all from one town to the next, yet when you got to Rome 2,000 km later, Spanish would have become Italian.

2000 AD:

The printing press, nationalism and education turn the Romance languages into a few separate, distinct, uniform languages. They spread overseas – as a first language in the Americas, as a second language in much of Africa. Only half of the Romance world is White, only a third live in Europe. About half speak Spanish, one-fourth speak Portuguese.

– Abagond, 2021.

Source: Costas Melas on YouTube (8 minutes, 2019).

See also:


Read Full Post »


Carolus Linnæus (1707-1778), aka Carl von Linné, was a Swedish naturalist, the father of modern taxonomy, and a pioneer of scientific racism. He came up with binomial nomenclature, those two-part Latin names for every known species on Earth. He dubbed man Homo sapiens – “man, the wise”. The name stuck and so did his classification system, laid out in “Systema Naturae” (1735).

Linnaeus is also the first to use the symbols for Mars () and Venus () to mean male and female.

“Systema Naturae” (1735) – system of nature – was not the only one. Cuvier, Blumenbach, and others had their own, but the Linnean system is the one that caught on among biologists (but not geologists – they do not use his system for classifying rocks). It gave a standard Latin name for every species of plant and animal. And it arranged them all into a vast family tree, one for plants, another for animals. Species were grouped into genera (plural of genus), genera into orders, orders into classes, classes into kingdoms.

By 1758, it went like this for humans:

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Primates
  • Genus: Homo
  • Species: sapiens

The last two make up the scientific name: Homo sapiens.

Primates was made up of the genera:

  • Homo (humans),
  • Simia (monkeys and apes),
  • Lemur (lemurs and colugos) and
  • Vespertilio (bats).

Homo in turn had two species:

  • sapiens (humans) and
  • troglodytes (orangutans, chimpanzees?).

Homo sapiens had six “varieties” (he did not use the word “race”), four based on continent and skin colour:

  • ferus,
  • americanus,
  • europæus,
  • asiaticus,
  • afer,
  • monstrosus.

In 1758 he started adding Racist Uncle descriptions to his book. By 1767, in his last edition, it went like this (as translated from Latin by the Wikipedia but with corrections):

  • The Americanus: red, choleric, upright; black, straight, thick hair; stubborn, zealous, free; painting himself with red lines, and regulated by customs.
  • The Europeanus: white, sanguine, brawny; with abundant, long hair; blue eyes; gentle, acute, inventive; covered with close vestments; and governed by laws.
  • The Asiaticus: yellow, melancholic, stiff; black hair, dark eyes; severe, haughty, greedy; covered with loose clothing; and ruled by opinions.
  • The Afer or Africanus: black, phlegmatic, relaxed [posture]; black, frizzled hair; silky skin, flat nose, swollen lips; females [with] elongated labia; mammary glands give milk abundantly; sly, lazy, careless; anoints himself with grease; and governed by caprice.

Monstrosus now included Ferus (feral children) in addition to dwarves, the Patagonian giant, the single-testicled Khoikhoi (Hottentot) of Africa, and others.

Right before our eyes Linnaeus turns racist stereotypes into fact, into “objective”, scientific truth – and makes the stereotypes inborn and biologically determined! Thus the dawn of scientific racism in the late 1700s. Linnaeus did not rank the varieties. That will come in 1795 with Blumenbach.

Linnaeus did not believe in evolution. Species were fixed and unchanging, created in the beginning by the Christian god. Varieties were a thing of change, chance and circumstance, but could not lead to new, separate species. The family tree of life was merely a way to make it easier to look up stuff. But others saw in it the story of life. Thus Darwin in the 1800s.

– Abagond, 2021.

Sources: Google Images; “Race in North America” (2012) by Audrey and Brian D. Smedley; I used the Wikipedia translation (2021), which is one of the more complete and less sanitized ones; Systema Naturae (1758).

See also:


Read Full Post »

White American racism: the 1700s

In the course of the 1700s, White Americans read their social order into the natural order. After all, it was not they who made Black people into slaves, into a degraded race – Blacks were just born that way. They were not capable of much more! Thus the rise of scientific racism in the late 1700s.

By 1700, White American thought leaders were stereotyping Blacks as:

  • different looking in skin colour, hair and lips,
  • disagreeable in smell,
  • being like monkeys,
  • unintelligent,
  • uncivilized, alien, foreign,
  • immoral, dangerous, given to crime,
  • lazy,
  • oversexed,
  • ungrateful, rebellious,
  • having disorganized families.

These were mostly warmed-over stereotypes about the Irish, which were applied to Blacks once Whites became dependent on their labour. The colonies of Virginia and Georgia would have failed but for Black slave labour. Presumably the other southern colonies would have failed too.

By 1723, the law (made by and for the rich) had firmly divided the poor into free Whites and Black slaves. Being born to a slave meant you yourself were born a slave, even if you had a parent who was White or free. Slavery was hereditary and lifelong. That will shape the sort of arguments required to defend slavery.

In 1748, Montesquieu noted:

“It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christians.”

The late 1700s saw the rise of abolitionism, the movement to abolish and get rid of slavery, led by the embarrassingly few Christians with a functioning conscience, mostly Quakers and people with unfashionable religious enthusiasms, like William Wilberforce. That made it necessary to come up with, gasp, actual arguments to defend slavery and the racism it was built on. Science and religion dutifully did their part to defend the inhumanity of the rich and powerful. Their two most notable arguments:

  • The Curse of Ham – Blacks were cursed by the Old Testament god to be servants for ever. It is God’s will. The Bible says so in Genesis 9:20-27! At least if you misinterpret it correctly.
  • Racial inferiority – Blacks belonged to a separate “race” of man. Whites were “a little lower than the angels”, while Black women mated with – orangutans. It was their place in the Great Chain of Being, as later proved by science!

By 1758, Linnaeus was saying stuff like this in his best academic Latin:

Homo sapiens afer: Black [skin], phlegmatic, lazy. Dark hair, with many twisting braids; silky skin; flat nose; swollen lips; Women [with] elongated labia; breasts lactating profusely. Sly, sluggish, neglectful. Anoints himself with fat. Governed by choice [caprice].

From 1735 to 1756 he merely noted the skin colour and place of origin of Homo sapiens afer. Now he was adding inborn behaviours, like laziness, and giving it the stamp of sober science.

By 1776, Thomas Jefferson, slave owner, a Founding Father of the US, and the thinking man’s racist, would take it further and push the idea that Blacks were born with a lack of intelligence. “A suspicion only,” he said in 1787, one that required further scientific investigation. Enter scientific racism, which would reach its full flower in the 1800s and early 1900s.

– Abagond, 2021.

Sources: Google Images, linnean.org; “Race in North America” (2012) by Audrey and Brian D. Smedley; “The White Racial Frame” (2010) by Joe R. Feagin.

See also:


Read Full Post »

Nobel Prize winners for 2021

The Nobel Prizes are given every October in Sweden and Norway to those who have most benefited mankind in one of six fields: peace, literature, medicine, physics, chemistry, and economics. For each prize, 10 million Swedish kronas (equal to US $1,145,429.00 or 53,000 crowns or 62 talents of silver) is split among the winners. The Nobel committees generally favour White men from Europe and North America – as were 69% of this year’s winners.

The winners for 2021

Medicine or Physiology: 

David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian for working out how the sense of touch works, how heat, cold and being poked are turned into electrical signals sent to the brain. It all started with Prof. Julius looking at why people think hot chilli peppers are hot. It could lead to new treatments for pain.


Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann and Giorgio Parisi win for creating models that can predict climate change. Manabe was doing it way back in the 1960s. He showed that carbon dioxide can lead to global warming.


Benjamin List and David MacMillan for asymmetric organocatalysis, which can make molecules not only with the right atoms, but with the right orientation. Lemons and oranges, for example, have the same scent molecule, limonene, but one is the mirror image of the other. Such a difference led to the thalidomide scandal of the 1960s.


Abdulrazak Gurnah “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.” An intercontinental refugee himself (Zanzibar to the UK), he made his name with “Paradise” (1994), about growing up in East Africa in the early 1900s under British rule. It won a Booker Prize. He writes in English and is the first Black African author to win the Literature prize in a generation – the last was Wole Soyinka in 1986, a day I still remember.


Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace” in their native Philippines and Russia, respectively. Ressa founded Rappler, fighting against President Duterte’s fake Facebook accounts that were distorting reality. She was arrested several times for her pains. Muratov founded Novaja Gazeta and has long been a champion of freedom of speech in Russia – while still breathing. Breathing is one of the Nobel Prize committee’s requirements.


David Card, Joshua Angrist and Guido Imbens for their use of “natural experiments” in economics. For example, economists believe that raising the minimum wage lowers employment. Card could not raise the minimum wage to see if that was true – but New Jersey unwittingly did it for him. It turned out to be untrue.

Winners listed by country of birth:

  • Canada: Card
  • Germany: Hasselmann, List
  • Italy: Parisi
  • Japan: Manabe
  • Lebanon: Patapoutian
  • Netherlands: Imbens
  • Philippines: Ressa
  • Russia: Muratov
  • Tanzania: Gurnah
  • UK: MacMillan
  • US: Angrist
    • NYC: Julius

by county of immigration:

  • UK: Gurnah
  • US: Patapoutian, Manabe, MacMillan, Card, Imbens

by gender:

  • male: 12
  • female: 1

– Abagond, 2021.

See also:


Read Full Post »

Mary Fahl: Going Home


This was the song that played  during the opening credits of “Gods and Generals” (2002), showing the battle flags that men (and some were just boys) died under during the American Civil War. Far from home.

See also:


They say there’s a place
where dreams have all gone
They never said where
but I think I know
It’s miles through the night
just over the dawn
on the road that will take me home

I know in my bones
I’ve been here before
The ground feels the same
though the land’s been torn
I’ve a long way to go
The stars tell me so
on this road that will take me home

Love waits for me ’round the bend
Leads me endlessly on
Surely sorrows shall find their end
and all our troubles will be gone
And I’ll know what I’ve lost
and all that I’ve won
when the road finally takes me home

And when I pass by
don’t lead me astray
Don’t try to stop me
Don’t stand in my way
I’m bound for the hills
where cool waters flow
on this road that will take me home

Love waits for me ’round the bend
Leads me endlessly on
Surely sorrows shall find their end
and all our troubles will be gone
And we’ll know what we’ve lost
and all that we’ve won
when the road finally takes me home

I’m going home
I’m going home
I’m going home

Source: Battle of Franklin.


Read Full Post »

Thomas Jefferson, the third US president and a Founding Father of his nation, wrote stuff like this in the Declaration of Independence (1776):

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

– while owning 175 Black slaves. Wink, wink.

Excuses: Some call this a “paradox”. Or say that he was “a highly compartmentalized man”. Or “complicated”. Or “human”. Or that he “agonized” over the contradiction, one that haunts White America still.

The Virginia Gazette, Williamsburg, Virginia, September 14th 1769. (Virginia Historical Society / Library of Congress, via Slate).

Actions speak louder than words: If you judge him by his actions, he was perfectly fine with owning slaves, as many as 267 at a time. He only freed eight slaves, four of them his own children. Which. He. Kept. As. Slaves. Till. His. Death.

The same goes for most White Americans. Most ~ though “not all” ~ seem to be perfectly fine with living in a racist society that goes against their supposed democratic beliefs. And Jefferson is part of why. Because he made it crystal clear that his fine words, if they are to be taken seriously at all, certainly do not apply to Black people. That it is all right to be racist so long as you mouth the right words. He set the example. “Man is an imitative animal,” he once noted.

Founding Father: Jefferson was not just a US president and a hero of the White American Revolution – he was a Founding Father, one of those Mythically Wise Beings who founded the US.

But it gets worse:

“It was the times” – It is hard to write off Jefferson as a Mere Product of His Times: he was well in advance of his times and a shaper of them. Not just in pushing revolution, democracy, human rights, and science, but in his racist ideas too.

In his “Notes on the State of Virginia” (1787) he said of “the blacks”:

“in memory they are equal to the whites;

in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid;

and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous.

I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.… This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.”

Notice how he hedges – “a suspicion only”, “perhaps”. What he is saying is not yet conventional wisdom. But his words, as a Founding Father, helped to make them so.

Low Black intelligence is an idea he had been pushing even before he wrote the Declaration of Independence, leading the way to scientific racism – polygenism, Morton’s skulls, Broca’s brains, IQ tests, “The Bell Curve” (1994), and all the rest.

Jefferson gave redneck racism intellectual depth and respectability. By 1829, when David Walker wrote his “Appeal”, Jefferson’s ideas had become the main ones for anti-racists to knock down.

– Abagond, 2021.

See also:


Read Full Post »

Gerard of Cremona

From a copy made in 1200 of Gerard’s translation of Ptolemy’s “Almagest”. Via State Library Victoria.

Gerard of Cremona (1114-1187), aka Gerardus Cremonensis, translated the books of the Moors into Latin. He and other translators in Toledo, Spain in the 1100s helped to bring to the West stuff like Aristotle’s philosophy, Euclid’s geometry, Ptolemy’s astronomy, Galen’s anatomy, algebra, and the number zero.

The West back then was limited to the Christian part of western Europe. Latin was the language of higher education.

After the fall of Rome in 476:

  • Boethius tried to translate the essential books of Greek learning into Latin – but was executed. His Euclid had only the first 4 of 13 books – with hardly any proofs or diagrams! He merely summarized Ptolemy’s masterpiece on astronomy, the “Almagest”. He translated only part of Aristotle.
  • Cassiodorus saved books needed for a classical education from the smoking ruins of Roman libraries, but he saw education as the handmaiden of Christianity.

In 633, Isidore of Seville condensed a Roman education into just one book, “Etymologies”. Condensing Greek and Roman learning was all the rage – because condensed books were shorter, cheaper and more likely to be copied.

By 1100 there was still no complete copy of Euclid or Ptolemy in Latin. The largest library in the West was at the Abbey of Cluny. It had only a few hundred books. Meanwhile the royal library in Cordoba in the heart of Moorish Spain had 400,000.

Gerard of Cremona took matters into his own hands. He wanted a complete copy of Ptolemy’s “Almagest” in Latin. No one in his native Italy had one. So he travelled to Toledo. It stood in the middle of Spain, at the edge of both the Muslim and Christian world. It was a Moorish city that had fallen to the Spanish Reconquista in 1085. Most Moors had fled, but enough remained with enough books that his students would later say of Gerard:

“seeing the abundance of books in Arabic on every subject, and regretting the poverty of the Latins in these things, he learned the Arabic language in order to be able to translate.”

One of the books was Ptolemy’s “Almagest” – written in Classical Arabic.

Translations: Gerard translated at least 71 books into Latin, books on logic, mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, chemistry, medicine, etc. Here are some of them, listed by the century they came from:

  • -300s:
    • Aristotle: Posterior Analytics (logic), Physics, On the Heavens, Meteorology, On Generation and Corruption, Nicomachean Ethics
    • Euclid: Elements of Geometry
  • -200s:
    • Archimedes: On the Measurement of the Circle
  • -100s:
  • -000s:
  • 000s:
  • 100s:
    • Ptolemy: Almagest
    • Galen: Tegni, Microtegni
  • 200s:
  • 300s:
  • 400s:
  • 500s:
  • 600s:
  • 700s:
  • 800s:
    • al-Khwarizmi: On Algebra, The Book of Addition and Subtraction According to the Hindu Calculation
    • al-Farghani: On Elements of Astronomy on the Celestial Motions
    • Al-Kindi: On Optics
  • 900s:
    • al-Farabi: On the Sciences
    • al-Razi: books on chemistry and medicine
  • 1000s:
    • Avicenna: Complete Works (mainly on medicine and Aristotle)
    • al-Zarqali: Canons, Toledan Tables (astronomical)
  • 1100s:
    • Jabir ibn Aflah: Elementa astronomica

“The Hindu Calculation” means using zero.

Latin was not yet the language of science. But Gerard helped to make it so by trying to give each Arabic word a word in Latin. This is where English words like diaphragm, pupil (of an eye), and sine come from.

– Abagond, 2021.

Source: mainly “The Map of Knowledge” (2019) by Violet Moller.

See also:


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: