Monthly Archives: December 2011

Clever Scientists Discover “Memory Conformity”; Or, What Historians Often Call Collective Memory

Because articles concerning collective memory and — the more incriminating term — memory conformity make any holiday season brighter, a usual colleague (or suspect) forwarded Jonah Lehrer’s “How Friends Ruin Memory: The Social Conformity Effect” my way, this piece published in the October 18, 2011 issue of Within this article link is a sub-link to the more interesting piece by Micah Edelson, et al., “Following the Crowd: Brain Substrates of Long-Term Memory Conformity” Science 333, 108 (2011). Without getting too far into either piece, the language used in the titles of both articles demonstrate a type of “ah-ha!” response that often comes from — ahem — really clever scientists when they confront neuroscience, which in turn is a fancy way to say how us humans continuously and incessantly attempt to compartmentalize and chart the infinite mysteries that are the even more infinite causes and effects of the bio-chemical processes inherent to the human brain.

Essentially the two articles do what is necessary in any discipline, and that is create an argument using that old Aristotilean device of rhetoric. This device of rhetoric, in turn, is necessary to advance ideas into the forum for discussion and debate. Perhaps the most annoying two items of rhetoric in the article comes in the form of 1) scientific assertions as being irrefutable; and 2) some individual bringing the idea that human memory alters how it remembers events over time to readers as an “ah-ha!” This latter item strongly suggests that if someone changes their mind about something over time, they are a bullshitter, a topic that Harry Frankfurt said was one of the most salient features of our culture. Without hypothesizing too far (which usually is a phrase that suggests “too late!”), I wondered if the younger Lehrer didn’t appropriate this idea and language from the elder Frankfurt, who is professor emeritus at Princeton. Is Lehrer conforming to Frankfurt? I’m uncertain.

Anyhow, note how the first item — that science is irrefutable — provides a foundation for the second item to rest upon — if people change their minds, they are bullshitters. Yet also note how the article lacks an intelligent and protracted discussion on how the inaccuracies of our brain are largely contingent on how new evidence and better ways of explaining historical events continuously surface over time. And also note how since society is an organism, it evolves just as much as its interpretation of events evolves — thus, if society’s interpretation of events do not evolve, that society is indeed as stagnant as its memory. A conversation about how new evidence and better ways of explaining scientific events are also lacking from the articles, but it is unnecessary to hammer away too much at the clever Lehrer on this point. His article really speaks for itself.

Also note the idea of language appropriation, or how the lot of us don’t really know how to articulate an event until authors, poets and laureates help us out with it. It is even better if a great author, great poet, or great laureate is on the scene. Since authors, poets and laureates use the technology of language, they can advance human understanding with that more precise vocabulary (since they were trained with languages and vocabularies as well). Calling it bullshit may get a dialog going, and it may also be calling out purveyors of platitudes and clichés, but it may also be one of the most ineffective, condescending and barbarous ways to get a conversation started. Which is another conversation in itself.

Thoughts On Kinship Bonds

Kinship bonds run wide and deep in numerous cultures. In a global context, some maternal kinship bonds ensured that any child born was taken into the fold of the culture. East Asia also has its fair share of strong kinship bonds that have geneological attachments to the landscape (this is why Chinese would send the corpses of the deceased back to be buried in the village of origin).

Maintaining these kinship bonds is important if a particular ethnic or cultural group is surrounded by aggressors who want revenge for previous injustices. This is one of the origins of blood feuds, whereby Individual A finds out that Individual B’s great-great-great grandfather peed on Individual A’s great-great-great grandfather’s yard way back in the day. The blood feud results from Individual A taking up arms against Individual B — that A or B could not control or understood the momentary or long-term historical context(s) as to why their founding fathers commenced peeing on the other’s yard in the first place is largely irrelevant in a blood feud. Or, if it is relevant, the historical interpretation agrees with the actions of the individual in the present.

One way blood feuds have been resolved is through Danegeld, but even this is a form of bribery and extortion — it wasn’t as though the Vikings, after receiving Danegeld, would use the wealth they took to build local infrastructure and public works projects. Rudyard Kipling had some lucid thoughts on this.

Kinship bonds are also important if an ethnic or cultural group is surrounded by a dominant culture that inadvertently or discretely or legally or militarily or politically (or all of the above) seeks to wipe it out, as in the case with many Native American cultures. All of this rattled through my brain in one way or another after reading a December 20, 2011 piece in the New York Times by David Treuer entitled, “How Do You Prove You’re an Indian?” (For the record, Richard Rothaus — his blog found here — forwarded this article to me.)

Without rehashing what Treuer said, here, perhaps, is the understandable thrust of his argument. In his article, Treuer says:

…Things were different once. All tribes had their own ways of figuring out who was a member — usually based on language, residence and culture. In the case of the Ojibwe, it was a matter of choosing a side. Especially when we were at war in the early 19th century, with the Dakota — our neighbors (many of whom were our blood relatives) — who you were was largely a matter of whom you killed.

Treuer reflects the adage that we do not know who we are until we find out who we are not. He also suggestively seeks to undermine the perpetual silliness of Race and Racism, this a byproduct of bad science and chest-puffing ideas of natal origins expressed through uncontested and irrefutable ideology. Yet if we wipe this silliness away, cultures can survive and thrive, and they do so through a cultivation of the mind rather than passed on through “blood,” the latter of which runs as deep as we want to think it does. Nice article, Treuer.

Making Sense of Modern Chinese Historiography

From late August to early December 2011, I partook in a graduate readings course led by Dr. Tracy Barrett entitled, “Problems in Modern Chinese Historiography.” The course parameters were fairly straight-forward in that graduate students would read approximately 4-to-6 articles or book chapters every week, and with this engage a question posed at the outset of the discussion.

Considering that not one of us graduate students had specialized training in the Chinese language, a reasonable thought and question that came up periodically during our weekly discussions was how we graduate students could benefit from such a course? Another question that came up was how we graduate students could potentially benefit others from such a course? A third question (in part rhetorical) that came up was when the North Dakota legislature would adequately fund the teaching of the Chinese language throughout the North Dakota University System? For some reason there was always laughter after mention of this final statement.

Implicit in graduate studies is the idea that the graduate student will be charged with leading future discussions and provoking others to think about history and the philosophy inherent to history. It is up to the graduate student in training to not only think about a topic, but also to think about how to deliver a topic in a sensible way.

Anyhow, without getting too far astray from Modern Chinese historiography, below is the final essay submitted to Dr. Barrett at the course end in December 2011. This was 1 of 5 essays each student was required to prepare for the class.

The below summative essay frames and addresses the question(s) posed at the outset of this blog entry. It includes APA references and a map, as well as personal photos from a January 2010 trip I took to Beijing.

Any insights within the essay results from the protracted dialog between Dr. Barrett, the graduate students, and myself. Any mistakes and inadvertent platitudes are from my own doing.

And now, the essay:

“Regionalism and an Imagined Geopolitic in Chinese Historiography”

Prepared for Tracy Barrett, PhD

Prepared by Aaron L. Barth, PhD Student of History

December 8, 2011

The reality of nineteenth-century China is an imagined geopolitics, a border that reflects an idea of what the state wanted to project to its nation and the world. Historiography continuously demonstrates this as numerous groups in East Asia gained varying degrees power, and geographic placement contributed to the development or dissolution of the groups. The cultural elite in the urban power centers also conceived of how they wanted their nation to operate, adding more irregularities to any “standard” that reflected national unity. The difficulty remained in how peripheral groups within that boundary thought of themselves, especially when their ideas differed with the empire or nation of China.

This is the geopolitical boundaries of China. The following map was taken from the public domain at this website:

Groups in the countryside understood the power structures of localized kinship networks. Since they were largely illiterate, though, it is impossible to know if they did or did not think of themselves as a unified Chinese whole. Thus, when the problems of modern Chinese historiography are approached, we are left with scholarship that reflects a nation with intense regionalisms. Instead of a unified nation-state, China is replete with regional groups that execute localized administrative, economic, cultural and political control.

When it comes to understanding the modernizing tensions that played out in China in the twentieth century, it is necessary to understand how nineteenth-century domestic and non- domestic developments unfolded. The appearance of China on a map differed greatly from on- the-ground realities. Non-Chinese nation-states often conceived of Southeast Asia in broad, imperial terms. Domestic power centers in China, on the other hand, often acted independent of one another and emphasized short-term goals, and this regionalism undermined collective national unity. Taken as a whole, the historiography focusing on this period intentionally or inadvertently notes the variety of regional power-centers throughout China in the nineteenth century.

Industrial and religious interests contributed to the irregular development of nineteenth- century China, and disparate Chinese groups acted in their own regional interests. For example, Yuan Bingling’s study of the Kongsis of West Borneo (1776-1884) notes how Chinese miners left the mainland during this period to profit from natural resources on a Pacific island. This group brought its own “superior mining-technology,” and it also emphasized its own religious institutions. This gold mining group was unified by common labor and through cults imported from the motherland, and they reflected one component of mainland regionalism projected onto the Borneo Island. These miners, in turn, arrived to a place that “had witnessed over many centuries a succession of highly structured political organizations.” (Bingling, 2000:1-2) The domestic hardships in China contributed to the gold miners emigration and settlement in the Borneo goldfields, and they eventually “considered these places their new home-land.” (Bingling, 2000:1-2) While the immigrants were connected with mainland China through diasporas, they also created new private and public institutions in Borneo.

The Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) represented another example of regional or irregular development in mid-nineteenth-century China. Franz Michael wrote at length about this rebellion, and it essentially concerned the importation of a hybrid version of Christianity that increased the power of a local cult leader. (Michael, 1966) This rebellion grew large enough and it began challenging the existing authority of the standing Chinese Emperor. Ultimately it forced the emperor to act. Members of this Sino-Christian cult could psychologically side step the hierarchy intrinsic to Confucianism, and Michaels said this cult, The God Worshippers, was highly fanatical. They “gained new confidence in joining with their kindred fellow-sufferers in a larger family group that took its solace from the idea of a divine Father to whom they could turn in prayer.” (Michael, 1966:189) Through this they not only ignored imperial demands and requests, but they directly challenged imperial authority. If groups of Chinese were not leaving the mainland to mine gold in Borneo, then regional warlords and local gentry attempted to preserve and extend their own power-bases, the Taiping Rebellion included. (Duara, 1988:15)

By no means exhaustive, these two events reflected how problematic it was in the nineteenth century for China to manage itself, all while contending with a variety of modernizing nation-states that sought to exploit its resources. By 1895, Benedict Anderson says the writings of “such Chinese reformers as K’ang Yu-wei and Liang Ch’i-ch’ao, and nationalists like Sun Yatsen, began seeping across” Indochina. (Anderson, 2006:125)  Much in the way that Western powers sought to exploit an Ottoman Empire in decline, these Western powers pushed into China to do the same. France swooped in from the south, the British tightened their hold on coastal ports, and Russia appeared to impose on China from the north. As well, Japan appropriated Western technology as quickly as possible, building railroads and increasing their industrial output. Imperial armies required this standardization as a means to project power. Large armies could only become large through fluid power structures that required intense discipline. Japan represented a variety of this intensity, modernizing itself enough so that just after the turn of the century they were able to contest, fight, and defeat Russia.

Three decades later, China would be next. Overlapping Western imperial interests competed with local Chinese regionalisms, and by the May Fourth Movement of 1919 the intellectual seeds of national discontent would be planted. As Vera Schwarcz says, “the event of 1919 marked the first of a series of incomplete efforts to uproot feudalism while pursuing the cause of a nationalist revolution.” (Schwarcz, 1985:7) Frederic Wakeman, Jr., pursued this nationalizing angle in Policing Shanghai, 1927-1937, a period in the first half of the twentieth century that marked the start and the finish of the second major attempt at national revolution and reform throughout China.

One of the only surviving January 2010 photos of Barth in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. When considering this as a 1980s and 1990s site of revolution, it is also necessary to put this in the context of how Imperial, Nationalist and Communist China dealt with revolutions throughout the nineteenth- and twentieth- centuries.

In this urban center of Shanghai, Chiang Kai-shek in 1927 brought the nationalist party to power. Shanghai figured important in the history of China and East Asia, especially considering it was China’s “only real metropolis” between 1925-1950. (Wakeman, Jr., 1995:xv) Various imperial interests — Great Britain and France — held authoritative positions in Shanghai during this period, and they exercised extraterritorial jurisprudence. In the case of Shanghai, this meant a non-Chinese nation-state could administer their authority throughout the nation of China. In Shanghai, these non-Chinese interests complicated the situation for Chiang Kai-shek. Yet even if he could bring the Chinese police force and the metropolis under standardized law and order, the police had to also contend with “comprador capitalism” and “the Communist labor movement.” (Wakeman, Jr., 1995:xv)

The historiography that focuses on the 1930s and the Second World War reflects at least three points. The first was the growing imperial juggernaut of the modern nation-state of Japan; the second was the increasing influence of Chinese communists; and the third was how domestic Chinese gentry and warlords attempted to maintain some type of local control. This, as Prasenjit Duara calls it, is the “cultural nexus formulation [that] enables us to understand the imperial state, the gentry, and other social classes in late imperial China within a common frame of reference.” (Duara, 1988:15) While groups in China were interlocked in a cultural nexus, the national unification of China came when the Japanese Imperial Army initiated its invasion in 1937.

Individuals operating within the Chinese cultural nexus had degrees of agency, as did regional groups, but they were not unified under a central cause. Thus, the Chinese communists could not gain overwhelming support until the Japanese invaded and began their systematic extermination of approximately 15 million Chinese peasants. The Chinese communists armed the illiterate peasants with weapons and the technology of vocabulary, and this allowed them to articulate a standardized set of grievances. Chalmers Johnson studied the vocabulary of the Chinese peasantry, and noted how by 1945 one-fifth of the Chinese population lived in communist guerilla bases. (Johnson,1962:1) If in the communist bases, the peasants were therefore under the standardized communist power structure. That the communists could articulate a standardized set of grievances for the peasants meant that the communists could also help the peasants imagine a standardized Chinese nation, complete with defined geopolitical borders.

Imagining China as a modern nation-state is a central problem inherent to Chinese historiography. It is all the more problematized when historians do not define modernity; or whether modernity is a perpetual process; or if there are different roads of modernity; or if modernity can be achieved and supplanted by post-modernity. These interpretations often cause historians to tweak existing theories, or it causes scholars to revise entirely or become entrenched and defend decades of professional work — egos are often at stake as well. Yet even though historiography can at the outset appear complex, a reader is still able or allowed to construct some sense from it.

In the case of Chinese historiography, the works of Yuan Bingling and Franz Michael provide a nineteenth-century foundation for understanding how intense regionalisms undermined imperial Chinese rule — in the case of the Taiping Rebellion, it was this regionalism that forced the emperor to execute his rule. Prasenjit Duara, Vera Schwarcz, Frederic Wakeman, Jr., and Chalmers Johnson bring the historiography up through the first half of the twentieth-century by demonstrating how different Chinese groups and non-Chinese nations asserted power, Confucian kinship networks, Max Weberian (a hybrid of Darwinian-Industrialist) capitalism, and proletariat revolutions throughout the nation and regions of China.

Barth refers to this photo as "Mao and Me" even though there are two additional Chinese guards within the shot. Photo taken in Beijing, China, January 2010.

Paradoxically, the national unification of China did not happen until a non-domestic Japanese Imperial Army brought China together through systematic and protracted atrocities between 1937 and 1945. After the retreat and surrender of Japan in 1945, the United States, Allied Europe, and the USSR focused on the reconstruction of the Axis nations and power-struggles inherent to a Cold War. Any power vacuum that remained in China was uncontested and seized by the communist party, and Mao realized this at the national level by 1949.

Today the Chinese government continues efforts to industrialize, standardize, and modernize its nation-state. That it has not achieved complete industrialization within the imagined borders of its nation means that many parts of China remain pre-Industrial. In this way the nation-state continues down its own perpetual road of modernity. The political power-center continues contending with the tensions produced between existing regionalisms (for example, struggles around Tibet, and in western China, where Islam has increasingly concentrated influence) all while attempting to hold on to some semblance of culture that manifests itself in a Confucian-Communist hybrid revolving around a deified Mao. All of this is supposed to hold the nation together while China technologically pushes itself and its citizenry forward. The flurry of European and American industrialists within today’s nation-state of China appears analogous with much of the imperialism it endured in the last century and a half. That the Chinese government allows industrialists and capitalists into its country also raises questions as to whether the authorities in power are content with projecting a communist image of a unified community, or an imagined nation-state with undertones of intense regionalisms. It is unlikely that historians are going to resolve these problems any time soon, especially considering how new archival material continuously problematizes the traditional and contemporary historiography of modern East Asia.

Photo of downtown Beijing taken in January 2010.

Works cited:

Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London & New York: Verso, 1983, 1991 & 2006).

Bingling, Yuan, Chinese Democracies: A Study of the Kongsis of West Borneo, 1776-1884 (University of Leiden, the Netherlands: Research School of Asian, African, and Amerindian Studies, 2000).

Duara, Prasenjit, Culture, Power, and the State: Rural North China, 1900-1942 (Stanford University Press, 1988).

Johnson, Chalmers, Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1937-1945 (Stanford University Press, 1962).

Michael, Franz, The Taiping Rebellion: History and Documents (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1966).

Schwarcz, Vera, The Chinese Enlightenment: Intellectuals and the Legacy of the May Fourth Movement of 1919 (University of California Press, 1985).

Wakeman, Jr., Frederic, Policing Shanghai, 1927-1937 (University of California Press, 1995).


Training Historians for Tomorrow

On December 13, 2011, Dr. Tom Isern (North Dakota State University) held his annual senior seminar presentations for his students (seminarians) at the Kringen Lodge in downtown Fargo, North Dakota. This is a chance for seminarians to get on-the-job training in a formal setting where they fold about four months of theoretical ideas and practice into a research paper to be delivered before an audience of their peers, colleagues, family and friends.

North entrance to the Sons of Norway Kringen Lodge #25 in downtown Fargo, North Dakota.

Because historians are extremely interested in how societal perceptions and values change over time, Isern directs his seminarians to focus on otherwise forgotten monuments on the northern Plains. The seminarians, in turn, select a monument and start assembling the historical processes that contributed to its construction. The seminarians scrape below the surface of it all, and through oral history and archival research they begin tracking how the monument’s memory group either 1) held on to notions of the monument’s original intent; 2) shifted the way in which they perceived the monument; or 3) became atomized or fractured over time, and through this dispersion lost a segment of group consciousness all together.

This latter case is perhaps one of the most important, since it means a segment of historical culture was lost (perhaps to be recovered). Culture might be thought of in the form of its root word cult, which came from the Latin word cultus, this originally meaning “adoration” or “to care.” (this is also connected to the word agriculture). The research project also allows the historian to provide the connective tissue that links the bits and pieces of memory about a particular monument together. The story by which a monument came about can then be revived, and this story can be received and accepted, critiqued or refuted by the public. This is why the methodologies used to craft the histories are scrutinized throughout the research and writing processes. Much in the way that an artisan requires training to learn how to shape a blunt sword between hammer and anvil (and grind and sharpen its edge with whetstone and leather), a historian and a history does not become sharp unless it receives intellectual scrutiny and critique.

Dr. Tom Isern and his seminarians deliver and critique research papers at the Kringen Lodge in Fargo, North Dakota.

This also means the processes of research need transparency, since the historian’s business is to demystify the past. Epistemology is another name within the larger game. Through this demystification the past is made accessible, or at least brought out of the archives and democratized for a broader public.

Theoretical models about monuments and memory have near universal points of departure. The directions collective memory takes, however, remains unique, and this is where the Center for Heritage Renewal‘s public history archive allows for increased dissemination throughout the digital world. Click here to be directed to the database of completed projects within Isern’s senior seminar.

Digital History Localized: Heavy Water Radio and Bismarck’s June 2008 Ribfest

If one is a geek, the phrase Digital History is indeed familiar. It sounds even a bit sexy, the combination of a semi-conductor Silicon Valley word with a traditional discipline (historians like to use the word “traditional” and “contemporary”). To see how I could put together a short memory from the summer of 2008, I decided to use Google’s algorithm, or what we commonly refer to as the Google Search Engine (here is a heck-of-a discussion on the algorithms that power Google). By typing in the name of a band I used to drum for — Heavy Water Radio (HWR) — and the name of the city most-associated with this band (Bismarck, North Dakota), Google returned several results.

One of the results consulted was the “Ribfest 2008 Schedule” put out by Nightlife Music, and this listed all the bands for the the 3-day line-up. HWR played toward the tail-end of it all, on a Saturday evening (June 21, 2008) from 6:00-to-7:30PM, the stage set up just south of the Civic Center in downtown Bismarck. This is one example of what the south side of the stage looked like, the Bismarck Civic Center to the north behind the stage.

This is a Google Earth map of the Bismarck Civic Center and surrounding area, asphalt parking lot included.

The Bismarck Ribfest came about through broader historical forces (as all events do), ultimately fusing the blues and slow-cooked ribs, the origins of which either realistically or mythically came from the geographic area that is the American South (a Romanian friend once insisted that bbq originated in Romania — whatever). Today this fusion is appropriated by organizers and projected across the world, the northern Great Plains notwithstanding. The blues and heavy blues (which was the business of HWR) often articulate feelings of melancholy and subtle distress, even oppression, yet the output is lively and celebratory — “I got the blues!” is often said as a kind of boast, sticking it to the real or imagined Man, letting them know they cannot keep one’s spirit down.

Anyhow, to show how this story benefits from the vehicles of Digital History calls for a bit of reflection. First of all, Digital History allows an individual to share individual experiences and contextualize them with broader events through various platforms of Social Media: so long as a person has an internet connection and a computer, they are outfitted to become active participants rather than passive recipients of history. Things do not, after all, happen in a vacuum, and the interconnectivity provided by the mobile web is increasingly realized (globally, the influence of the mobile web has been demonstrated in Libya and Egypt, throughout various occupy movements, and as of December 2011 in Moscow).

As for HWR’s performance on June 21, 2008 in downtown Bismarck, I remember the evening as being all the warmer due to the event being held in an asphalt parking lot. A chain-link fence surrounded the parking lot as well, and its purpose was to keep out individuals who did not pay. It inadvertently had the effect of also making the drummer for HWR (that’s me) feel as though he was readying to play in some kind of penitentiary courtyard on a hot summer evening.

Members of Heavy Water Radio eat ribs from styrofoam containers in an asphalt parking lot that felt like a penitentiary courtyard. The HWR drummer is at left and the bass player at right (June 2008).

After scrolling through some of my own digital photos, it also became clear that at some point after the event, HWR received some ribs — always negotiate a complimentary food/drink tab with the organizers (don’t be afraid to politely assert yourself: we all need to front our dignity every now and then). Do this especially if you are a thirsty blues band like HWR.

And because live music requires gear, and a place to store and practice with that gear, the personal photos also revealed a snapshot of what it is like just before a band leaves the studio (aka, your friends sweet basement playing room) for the gig, gear packed into a pickup, this equipment ready to receive amplification and — if the band pulls it off with enough success — accolades.

A segment of gear that your local musicians have to purchase and haul and set up before and then play and then tear down after each gig. Because we're tearing down gear after a gig is often why we cannot join you for celebratory drinks immediately after said gig.

With numerous events getting digitized the world over, and with super algorithms that provide researchers with near-instant digital data and results, it is important to remember that analysis (and analysis of that analysis) are fundamentals to all history: a singular event can be and is viewed and understood in numerous contexts. So if you think a history you are a part of is missing something, then it is okay to say so and offer your perspective. At the very least this gives historians and publishers job security, since a new edition will need to be published to account for the new data and information. Also, because societies evolve and change over time ultimately means that history evolves and changes over time. What was once un-important and left out may at some point become important and significant to this or that person or group.

These little snippets of mine are but one amongst many, as everyone who attended invariably had a take on their own experience. This little essay seemed like a good enough reason to briefly talk about digital history, and upload a couple personal photos to the collective web.

Installing RAM In a MacBook Pro

At some point in November 2011, while working on a graduate paper in a seminar course entitled, “Problems in Modern Chinese Historiography,” the MacBook Pro in front of me started slowing down. The annoying pinwheel whirred at the user, and this created all sorts of technical problems in writing papers on the problems of historiography and China (there are more problems than one would at the outset think).

After contacting Josh (honestly, I don’t always just contact him when I need something), he said let’s have a look at the laptop. After a few key strokes he quickly diagnosed the problem: not enough RAM, or random access memory (Josh and I discussed this while eating sandwiches). Initial groans reflected the stereotype I had toward RAM upgrades, yet these groans gave way to enlightenment, especially after realizing how easy Steve Jobs and Company made it to upgrade the stuff. Better yet, Chinese manufacturing must be cranking RAM out left and right because it is incredibly affordable.

Installing the RAM in a MacBook Pro.

The first step is to find RAM. There are several companies that deal in it. After hearing back from Crucial that MacBook Pro RAM was on backorder, I went through another company, Kingston, found through Kingston shipped the RAM from where-ever they ship RAM, and it arrived within a couple days.

A MacBook Pro screw next to a pistachio for scale.

I also used this as an excuse to purchase a set of small phillips head screwdrivers, since the MacBook Pro’s aluminum frame is held together with tiny screws. A pistachio next to the screw gives a person a sense of scale.

So, to replace RAM in a MacBook Pro, turn off your computer (I inadvertently left mine on during the process). Flip the computer over, and with a tiny screwdriver start unscrewing (righty-tighty, lefty-loosey). Keep the little screws on the table next to where you removed them, because they go right back in once this minor computer surgery is complete. Next pull off the lid and locate the RAM. There are two little clips that need to be pulled back for the existing RAM in the computer to be released. So do this. One chunk of RAM sits on top of another, so remove that too. Then put the new RAM in, gently pushing it into its slot and pressing down on it to seat it. Once it is seated, put your aluminum cover back on, secure it with the screws, and push the button to turn on your MacBook Pro. Your are done with the RAM install. You can keep reading if you’d like.

Since humans decided to write stuff down (rather than us just blathering on uncontrollably), numerous technologies have preserved our thoughts — on tortoise shell, papyrus, in book technology form, then in increased numbers with the Gutenberg Press, then the typewriter, and now semiconductor-driven computers. The technology of language first had to be created (processes in and of themselves). I found that in order for someone to put the technology of language into Microsoft Word eventually requires an individual to understand the technology of computers as well. Also, humanity first produced history in the area we know of today as China, and China today cranks out RAM so that I can update my computer and continue writing about the problems inherent to modern Chinese historiography. At least that was my take-away.

Fargo and a Wood Chipper Outside of Putnam Hall

Wood chipper outside of the south side of Putnam Hall, North Dakota State University, Fargo, on December 7, 2011.

I suppose it is only fitting that necessary tree trimming and — more important to Fargo — full-throttle wood chipping goes on just outside of where speaker phone conferences and meetings are taking place. Yes, a large yellow wood chipper (center photo) is approximately 5-to-7 meters south of the second floor windows, this glass providing the buffer between the necessary forestry work and our nice little conference. Thanks for making that afternoon funny (both funny “ha-ha” and funny “peculiar”), Coen Brothers. This is what the original Fargo wood chipper looks like. The one at left in the photo is a more intense model.

Google Returns Religious Perspectives on Aliens

Recently NASA came across Keppler-22b, a planet with an ecosystem much like our own. The planet is approximately 600 light-years away. This means that if someone could travel at the speed of light — 186,282 miles per second for you imperial weights and measurements readers — it would take 600 years to reach Keppler-22b. Because I am curious about various perceptions, a question that surfaced when first reading this article was, “I wonder how different religions would regard the discovery of Keppler-22b?”

No doubt, practitioners of the religion of science and technology are ecstatic about such a discovery, as religion requires an institutionalized system of attitudes, beliefs and practices (this, for example, is why the Roman military was both an institution and a religion, replete with gods and demigod leaders, Julius Caesar notwithstanding). The word religious, in turn, is defined as anything “relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity,” and “scrupulously and conscientiously faithful.” So if you’re protractedly wound up pretty good about something, that is effectively your religion. In the most general terms. At least in this context.

Without traveling too far down the theoretical road of objectivity and subjectivity, and how objectivity can never be achieved but how we must constantly pursue it, the discovery of Keppler-22b is going to produce conversations from different religious quarters. I did a quick google search to pinpoint the major religious quarters and how they perceive such discoveries, and following are the results.

The results are listed in chronological order from when the major religion formed. The methodology for finding the articles stemmed from how I punched in (using Google) the first inquiry, which read, “Pope on life in universe.” To keep it standardized, “Pope” is replaced with “Hinduism,” “Buddhism,” “Judiasm,” “Pope” (for Christianity), and “Islam.”  A cursory sampling of the first 15 articles (with the exception of wikipedia links — until I amend this as well) google produces will be consulted and referenced.

This list represents the major religions, and a major religion is defined as one that has the largest following. The below list relies on whatever computational algorithm google was using as of December 6, 2011.

Hinduism: The phrase “Hinduism on life in universe” yielded the normal wikipedia links, and it also brought up this prophetic or teleological piece on Hinduism and world cycles. The conclusion said,

“There is no scientific support for the Hindu theory of world cycles. Further, current scientific theory contradicts Hindu theory in many respects. It is best to begin by acknowledging this truth, as such an acknowledgement can form the basis for interesting discussions of the different ways of knowing that underly the more specific differences. Such, however, must be the substance of another paper.”

Fair enough. Hinduism relies on cycles (predictive modeling is a scientific phrase analogous to “cycles”), and there are some projections from this wikipedia sublink (the methodology was slightly revised for Hinduism). Nonetheless, Hinduism seems to allow for an analysis of analysis (which is described above as forming “the basis for interesting discussions of the different ways of knowing that underly the more specific differences.”).

Buddhism: when “Buddhism on life in the universe” was entered, google returned this article on “The Ten Worlds” of Buddhism at the top. An article that keeps the methodology in mind while being pertinent to the question on religious perceptions of life in the universe came in the form of this 2008 piece by Walter Jayawardhana entitled, “Scientist says Buddhism showed there’s life in space.” Chandra Wickramasinghe (a Cardiff University Mathematician and Astronomer) said (or is quoted in the article as saying), “Buddhism talks about a multitude of planetary systems and an infinity of ‘inhabited worlds’.” Okay, so that squares up the (or one of the) Buddhist perceptions.

Judaism: when “Judaism on life in the universe” was entered, the google algorithm listed this piece number 13 in order (again, in an attempt to bring substance to this blog posting, the methodology was tweaked a bit). The site says the Torah provides some metaphors for life on other planets, and the website’s interpretation of it gives the reader quite a bit of confidence about one’s place in the cosmos:

…man is endowed with a divine soul that towers over even the highest angels. [and] One of the first to discuss the question of extraterrestrial life in general was Rabbi Chasdai Crescas (Or Hashem 4:2). After a lengthy discussion, he comes to the conclusion that there is nothing in Jewish theology to preclude the existence of life on other worlds. As possible evidence for extraterrestrial life, he quotes the Talmudic teaching (Avoda Zara 3b) that “God flies through 18,000 worlds.” Since they require His providence, we may assume that they are inhabited.

Okay and got it. Judaism, at least in this interpretation, is okay with aliens.

Christianity: by typing in the phrase, “Pope on life in universe,” google produced this article, listed in 5th place. Published May 15, 2008 the article is entitled, “Pope’s astronomer insists alien life ‘would be part of God’s creation'”. Up until this point, I did not know that the pope had an astronomer (but I suppose it makes sense). As of 2008, the Pope’s astronomer was listed as José Gabriel Funes, unsurprisingly a Jesuit (the Jesuits are the undisputed intellectual shock-troops of the Catholic Church — historically they have occasionally gotten too smart for the Vatican, and have here and there had to physically be put down). Anyhow, Funes says “one cannot put limits on the creative freedom of God… They [the aliens] would be part of creation.”

Islam: by typing in the phrase, “Islam on life in universe,” google listed this following site as 3rd. It was produced by Al Islam: The Official Website of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and this website interprets the Quran as predicting that “man shall one day make contact with extraterrestrial life.”

Sounds good to me.

Seems like exploring that final frontier has some kind of unifying thread or thematic continuity that runs through all the major religions. I’ll end it here (since months ago I made promises to explore the final frontiers of dead-line driven reports that are due in the coming weeks).

Free Pens: The Context, Left In Situ, Interpretive Provenance, and Origin

A month or so ago Jay Krabbenhoft of Gate City Bank sent items to distribute at random around North Dakota State University’s department of History, Philosophy and Religious Studies. I inscribed a short phrase at the top of a box, “FREE PENS,” all in caps — presumably to draw more attention — and below that a “HELP YOURSELF” with an arrow pointing to said pens. Only after Dr. Dennis Cooley walked by, saw the sign, and said, “Who is ‘Pens’?” did we begin a short discussion on the need for context, provenance, origin, and leaving items in situ. To Cooley (a philosopher of ethics), the sign immediately conjured up in his mind an idea of someone mistakenly or unjustly incarcerated. “‘FREE PENS’ sounds like someone’s last name who is locked up,” said Cooley, more or less. In reality, though, the sign asked visitors to take a pen (since there is a relatively low frequency of office visitors, I have since mandated that visitors leave with no-less than three pens per visit).

This in turn got me thinking about how some years ago Dr. Melinda Leach assigned her methods and theory in archaeology and anthropology class to read several American Antiquity essays, specifically those by the late Lewis Binford and the still-chugging Ian Hodder. Both perceived that they have (or had) a completely different way in which they viewed the archaeological record (Binford asserted “Processualism” and Hodder “Post-Processualism”), but the general idea is that artifacts, or material culture, are 1) left within the context in which they are found because this effectively allows the researcher to glean information from the artifacts; and 2) anyone who approaches evidence brings a certain degree of known or unknown cultural baggage and value-judgements to bear on said evidence (David Hume rambled on about this important subject at length in the 18th-century).

These two points are demonstrated when individuals engage and interact with any piece of evidence, and it is something archaeologists and historians incessantly talk about and try to communicate to collectors who hold up their collection of material culture and invariably ask, “What do you suppose this is worth?” Archaeologists and historians only know what it is worth in terms of knowledge (aka, Indiana Jones, “This belongs in a museum!”), while collectors tend to put it in bottom-line, Wall Street terms: MONEY (I am not sure, but this either is a reflection of American culture where money is fortunately and unfortunately king; or it is a universal reflection of the human condition, because unless we philosophically check ourselves we invariably gravitate toward perceptions of money which is analogous to power which is analogous to control and perceptions of prestige, fame, and so on and so forth — John Acton is attributed with the phrase, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”).

This latter theme also deals with context and perception, and it is thrown into relief when looked at more broadly: if something is perceived as valuable, then it is valuable. If a lot of people perceive it as valuable, then that something is going to be more valuable (historically, this was famously represented by tulips in Western Europe). Anyhow, oftentimes branding pens as free induces two responses: an individual either thinks they are not worth much; or philosophers of ethics think you are on some kind of moral ACLU-inspired crusade. Thus the perpetual need for continued dialog that provides context, provenance, and interpretations of origin by leaving items in situ (at least until we can get there, document it, and eventually say, “Pull it!”).