What Alma is Reading 9/17

Reading weather has arrived in the High Plains: cool, grey, raining enough to dissuade me from going out and strolling in the cool, grey weather. Yes, I’m writing, but this is the sort of day—week—to settle down in a good chair with your hot beverage of choice and one or more good books. Continue reading

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Common Knowledge?

What is common knowledge? What touchstones, or objects, can a speaker or lyricist refer to that a large majority of her listeners will understand and possibly relate to? I am starting to wonder, because a few weeks ago the senior minister at the church where I sing picked a Charles Wesley* hymn. OK, the tune was familiar (Richmond) and the lyrics were typical late 1700s Christian terms. But the minister had to explain the meaning of “It varies with the wind” referred to the spring in a clock, and that winding the mechanism more tightly affected how fast or slowly the clock ran. The text specifically is about what we’d call a grandfather clock, because it also mentions the chain that holds the weights. I thought everyone knew how clocks worked. Oops. Continue reading

Just Price: An Old Question

Howdy, Instapunderati! Thanks for stopping by.

What is the “just price” for a good or service? That question has perplexed people ranging from poor farmers to Doctors of the Church, has led to riots and protests, and rose again with the rising prices of goods needed or desired in Texas and Florida. What is fair to charge for a necessity? And what is a necessity?

The last chapter of Of Merchant and Magic revisited the question. It has come up before, in the second chapter, when there was a dispute over the price of bread. What is bread for living (leb-bread) as compared to luxury breads (fruit and spice stuffed loaves)? “Bread’s bread,” the farmer complained, but as it turned out, the market separated plain bread-for-living from fancy treats. That scene, and the one in the last chapter, are based on actual debates from Hanseatic and English history, and other places as well. Continue reading

Turning the Yellow River Yellow

One of the assumptions, or perhaps tropes is a better word, of certain parts of the environmental movement is that only Western countries, or only capitalist economic systems, cause environmental degradation. Or they might stretch it to argue that only countries that have experienced the Industrial Revolution destroy their physical and biological environments, because it takes steel and machines to really ruin the landscape. This idea comes in part from where the modern environmental movement originated, in part because of lingering fumes of the “noble savage” idea, and in part because English, French, German, and Spanish-language sources are a lot more common and easier to work with for most researchers. However, in the past 15 years or so, people have been looking outside the European sphere-of-influence, and digging into archaeological and geographic information to show that no, humans have been “degrading” their environment for a very long time. Continue reading

And Then some Gods Snuck In

The book about Tycho the trader was supposed to be straight fantasy, very simple magical system. Nothing deep, no scientific underpinnings, just some basic rules that everyone understands and we go from there.

My Muse struck again. Some gods showed up. And they are demanding a bigger part. I should have known I couldn’t get away without religion. Continue reading

Long Ago, in a theater not so far away…

my parents sat me down in a seat. The curtains parted. Trumpets sounded, a bunch of words moved past almost too fast for me to sound them out, and then and the biggest…thing…I’d ever seen slowly appeared on screen. Everyone in the theater gasped as a starship filled the screen, and kept coming, and coming… I was pretty young, but even I knew that the dude in the black cape was Bad News. I was hooked, hard, and never looked back.

That amazing film opened 40 years ago this past Thursday, May 25th. Continue reading

Book Review: The River, the Plain, and the State

Zhang, Ling. The River, the Plain, and the State: An Environmental Drama in Northern Song China, 1048-1128 (Cambridge University Press, 2016) Print edition.

Chinese imperial management of water has been one of the critical keys to following the history of imperial after the Zhou Dynasty. Some of the bedrock work in US environmental history took as its starting point Karl Wittfogel’s “Hydraulic empire” thesis, looking at state control of water and society and how that relates to the development of both the US government and the American West. Because Chinese records are so copious, a lot of work can and has been done looking at how the Chinese lived with and coped with their major rivers and the hydraulic “systems” that developed over thousands of years. This book focuses on a small space in time and shows how the complicated interactions of state, environment, and society caused, then reacted to, and were shaped by, the Yellow River changing course between 1048 and 1128. Continue reading