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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Mayflower Mayhem: Laughter vs. Land Claims

Cartoons about Indians and Pilgrims constitute a genre of their own, and the conflict they depict tends to follow a pattern: they turn large cultural conflicts into a comedy of manners.

I thought about this recently when I saw one of these cartoons, by David Sipress, in The New Yorker.  It is an example of what Henri Bergson would have called "the reciprocal interference of independent series."

Although Bergson wrote "Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic" (in 1900), you can tell from his writing style that he did not invent the term "ROFL."

Bergson was describing stage comedies when he coined that phrase, but it is a principle that applies to many cartoons, especially those in The New Yorker.  (Look in the magazine's online Cartoon Bank under the heading of "Thanksgiving.")  He is describing comical dramatic situations that exist among different sets of characters. When those different sets meet, the audience realizes that "the actions and words that belong to one might just as well belong to the other."  (This is evident in several of Shakespeare's plays, for example, when the plot of the upper-class characters is mirrored in the plot of the lower-class characters.) But for cartoons, the common dynamic is that a statement (the caption) totally appropriate in one situation is placed in a situation that, at first, seems inappropriate -- until the reader realizes it is uncannily appropriate.

He also describes an example that could be applied to this particular category of cartoons, Indians & Pilgrims. Bergson writes that comedy can ensue when we witness the combination of "one series of events belonging to the past and another belonging to the present."

Another New Yorker example of humor arising from this juxtaposition is a recent Thanksgiving cover that illustrates the common analogy between current debates about "illegal immigrants" and Pilgrims.

At the heart of this comedy (and of much comedy) is incongruity. The audience realizes these things do not belong together, which produces an element of surprise, but the audience also realizes there are some startling similarities, which produces another element of surprise.

In Sipress's cartoon, we have an event that might be experienced today, when a stretch of beach is reserved for the use by residents of that community. Then there is the awkward encounter when someone must tell the unwelcome visitors that they must leave.  
Today is juxtaposed with the past when this moment of summer beach "trespassing" is made analogous to the arrival of Europeans in New England. However, the awkwardness comically alluded to here is epic rather than quotidian. The trespassing tourists in this case, we know from our history books, stay and eventually take possession of the beach.  (Smallpox Beach Towels for Everyone!)

Sipress's image interested me not simply because it touches on a common trope in modern cartoons but because it made me think about the truths it is built upon, truths that, depending upon your perspective, it acknowledges or avoids.

While Bergson tries to understand what makes some things funny, Avner Zev tries to understand what makes some funny things useful. In "Humor as a Social Corrective," Zev ponders a couple of possibilities for the social function of laughter.  One idea is that laughter is a way to punish people who transgress social mores. This idea understands laughter as mostly mockery.  Since few people enjoy receiving that kind of laughter, Zev writes, avoiding it will encourage people to conform to society's expectations.

A second idea, which Zev finds more attractive, is that laughter relieves social pressure. This release of pressure is especially important for people living in undesirable circumstances: In every repressive regime there is this kind of underground humor, and it fulfills an important function: Laughter shared by the oppressed as the expense of the oppressor reduces fear and helps people to go on living under the regime with more ease.

We do not need to discuss repression to discuss the pressure-release theory of laughter. Many forms of laughter acknowledge a real social problem while at the same time allowing the audience to laugh about the situation; indeed, the laughter may allow the acknowledgement to take place, since without it the discomfort of the problem would create the incentive to avoid the topic. And there are times when a group of oppressed people make serious critiques of their oppressors in the form of jokes. They are allowed to make a forbidden comment ("You suck"), but pass it off as a joke; the oppressor may not realize the jokers were not joking. If the comment had not been disguised as a joke, it could never have been made -- the Trojan Horse becomes a kind of Trojan Rubber Chicken.

But one problem with applying Zev's idea to this cartoon is that it appears in The New Yorker, not Indian Country Today. What social pressure is being relieved when cartoons like this appear in a magazine the is closely associated with elite members of the dominant culture?

Zev says humor can allow an oppressed group of people "go on living under the regime with more ease," but, on the flipside, humor can allow a dominant group of people go on living despite the injustice of a system or event from which it benefits. The joke acknowledges a sense of guilt without changing anything.

Cartoons such as Sipress's acknowledge the problem with land claims made by the dominant culture -- in this case, the United States of America, which considers itself descended from those Pilgrims depicted in the cartoons who landed at Plymouth in 1620 (never mind the Englishmen who had been in Virginia since 1607). The beach is for residents only, the Indian man tells them, which mirrors current regional laws that limit such beach use to local residents.  But we know from history that these interlopers do not go away, despite the legitimacy of the Indian's claims; hence, their claim to own the beach today is dubious.

Cartoons make this tacit confession, and yet the news frequently contains examples of the United States denying the legitimacy of land claims by American Indians, even those land claims that have moved successfully through the legal system created by the United States.

The irony of Sipress's cartoon came to mind because I had just seen two articles about American Indian land claims.

I saw an article about Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut renewing his opposition to changes in the process by which American Indian tribes are granted federal recognition. He gained his fame as the state's attorney general and for his role in reversing federal recognition of two tribes in Connecticut (those reversals were unprecedented). If those tribes had gained federal recognition, they could have expanded their land bases, which would have meant a loss of land for those currently occupying it.

I also saw an article about the Agua Caliente tribe in Palm Springs, Calif., taking action against the water district there. The Agua Caliente are asserting the legality of their claim to those water rights and claiming the water district is abusing and contaminating the water supply. While this case is just getting started, I will not hold my breath for the court system to rule in favor of the Agua Caliente.

Don't get me wrong: I love cartoons. That is one reason I subscribe to The New Yorker, and the door to my campus office is covered in them. And I love to laugh, even at very serious topics. But I do think it is useful to keep in mind the issues raised (and buried) by our laughter.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Adblock Plus - Block all annoying ads on the web

Adblock Plus blocks all annoying ads on the web by default: video ads on YouTube, Facebook ads, flashy banners, pop-ups, pop-unders and much more.
Simply install Adblock Plus to your browser (it is available for Firefox, Chrome and Opera) or your Android smartphone or tablet and all intrusive ads are automatically removed from any website you visit.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Top 10 Most Popular Torrent Sites of 2013

Below is the list of the 10 most-visited torrent sites at the start of this year. Only public and English language sites are included.

  1. The Pirate Bay
  2. Kick Ass Torrents
  3. Torrent
  4. IsoHunt
  5. ExtraTorrent
  6. 1337x 
  7. EZTV
  8. Bitsnoop
  9. TorrentReactor 
  10. H33t

Host webpages on Google Drive

Drive is a great place to store HTML, JavaScript and CSS files so they are safe, available from anywhere, and easy to work on with others. And now you can host and share this content too.

How it works:
  1. Create a new folder in Drive and share it as "Public on the web ."
  2. Upload your HTML, JS & CSS files to this folder.
  3. Open the HTML file & you will see "Preview" button in the toolbar.
  4. Share the URL that looks like www.googledrive.com/host/... from the preview window and anyone can view your web page.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

A very underrated invention

Perhaps the most underrated invention in history is the humble hourglass.  Invented in Europe during the late 13th or early 14th century, the sand glass complemented a nearly simultaneous invention, the mechanical clock.  The mechanical clock with its bell was a centralized way of broadcasting the hours day and night; the sand glass was a portable way of measuring shorter periods of time.  These clocks were made using very different and independent techniques, but their complementarity function led to their emergence at the same time and place in history, late medieval Europe.

The sandglass was more portable than a water clock. Since its rate of flow is independent of the depth of the upper reservoir, it was also more accurate.  And, important in northern Europe, it didn't freeze in winter.
An advancing technology in 13th century western Europe very different from mechanics was glass-blowing. The origin of the sandglass is quite obscure, but its accuracy relies on a precise ratio between the neck width and the grain diameter. It thus required extensive trial and error for glass-blowers to arrive at hour glasses for sand, ground marble, eggshell, and other sized grains, and techniques for mass producing these precisely sized works of glass, besides a ready of market of users, which Europe turned out to be.

There are no demonstrated cases of sandglasses before the 14th century. Manufacture and use of the sand-glass was widespread in western Europe by the middle of the 14th century. In 1339 Ambrosio Lorenzetti painted a fresco in Siena, one of the commercial cities of northern Italy, which shows a sandglass as an allegory for temperance (self-control). Mariners in the Mediterranean were likely using sandglasses to measure time and velocity by 1313. By 1394 French housewives were using recipes to make, along with food, glue, ink, and so on, marble grains for an hour-glass:
"Take the grease which comes from the sawdust of marble when those great tombs of black marble be sawn, then boil it well in wine like a piece of meat and skim it, and then set it out to dry in the sun; and boil, skim and dry nine times; and thus it will be good."
Such a recipe presumably creates grains of a size in a precise ratio to a standard hour-glass neck size, thus producing an accurate time.

The sandglass, not the mechanical clock, became between the 13th and 16th centuries the main European timekeeper in activities as diverse as public meetings, sermons, and academic lectures. It was also the main navigational and scientific clock during that period. [*]
From the point of view of later engineers, the mechanical clock was the more important invention -- they were on the cutting edge of technology from the time of their invention until the industrial revolution.  However,
For contemporaries....the sandglass was equally or more important.   Until the widespread use of small table-top mechanical clocks, the sandglass was the primary means of fair timekeeping.    The sand glass was visible to all in a room, and it could only be dramatically and obviously “reset”, it couldn’t be fudged like a mechanical clock.   [*]
As I detail here,  the sand glass also played an essential role in the technique of dead reckoning for ocean navigation, also developed in late medieval Europe.  A strict regimen of turning the glasses was kept non-stop throughout a voyage:
During the voyage of Ferdinand Magellan around the globe, his vessels kept 18 hourglasses per ship. It was the job of a ship's page to turn the hourglasses and thus provide the times for the ship's log. Noon was the reference time for navigation, which did not depend on the glass, as the sun would be at its zenith.[8] More than one hourglass was sometimes fixed in a frame, each with a different running time, for example 1 hour, 45 minutes, 30 minutes, and 15 minutes. [*]
Arab and Chinese navigators lacked this crucial piece, and thus by the time of the exploration explosion had not developed navigation techniques that could rival those of Western Europe.

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Lone Ranger's Black Veil

[Update: The story has been published in the Spring 2014 issue of The Yellow Medicine Review.]

The following is a short-short story I wrote awhile back but which has not found a publishing home.  But with the release of The Lone Ranger, I thought I would go ahead and give it a home here.  Honestly, it was written before I had heard Johnny Depp was working on the movie.  It was inspired after re-reading Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "The Minister's Black Veil."  I have not posted anything recently on Depp's portrayal of Tonto because others have posted plenty, and I already made some comments on the issue after pictures from the set were first leaked: "Tonto Shops at J. Crow."  An interesting difference between my story and the film is Tonto's tribal affiliation.  The film has made Tonto a Comanche, but in the radio and TV series, Tonto was either Apache or Kiowa (sources differ on that).  The Apache and the Comanche were bitter enemies through much of the history of the Southwest, and my story hinges upon that.

The Lone Ranger’s Black Veil

LR is serious about the mask.  No one can touch it.  No one can ask about it.  I am the only other person who knows its story.  My name is Tonto – that’s not my real name, not my Apache name, just some stupid name he made up because he thought it sounded more heroic.  He is such a drama queen. 

And now he is lying on his deathbed – shot in the back – and still wearing his mask.  He has his gun out, keeping the doctor away because the doc wanted to remove the mask.  He’d rather die than be revealed.  Geesh.

His mask is not what everyone imagines, the one that makes him look like some stupid raccoon.  Don’t you think you could recognize someone if he was wearing that mask?  No one looks at a raccoon and wonders, “What is that?  Is that a dog?”

No, his mask is a piece of black gauze hanging over his face.  He can see through it, but you can’t clearly see his face beneath it.  And he never takes it off in front of anyone.  Not even me.  But I know its story.

The Texas Rangers were created to kill Indians, and they were good at it.  They were ordered West, to fight Comanches, and that is when I came looking for them.  But first they ran to East Texas and killed a bunch of Cherokees and the like who were farming, minding their own business, living in wood houses, wearing shirts and pants and dresses, going to church, not causing anyone any trouble.  Other than being Indian. 

When he saw the innocent people he had killed, he came to his senses and went crazy at the same time.  LR put on the black mask and killed the men in his unit.  That story of him being the only survivor of his unit after an ambush?  Just part of the myth.  That mask was a sign of his sinful nature.

“We all see the world through a veil of our own sins,” he told me many times.  He had the habit of sounding like a preacher.  “And I am here to remind people that we cannot escape that fact.  Nor can we escape the Lord’s justice.  That is why I have dedicated myself to hunting down bad men, bad men like myself.  For who knows their ways better than I?” 

“That’s great,” I told him just as often.  “There are plenty of bad men out in West Texas.  They’re called Comanches.”

But the only bad men who caught his eye looked like him.

On his deathbed now, with a gang of white folks trying to talk their way past his pistol and into his room, he keeps muttering, “Expiation.” 

I spent a lifetime wasting my energy, trying to get that old fool to do what he was originally so good at.  But I could never cajole, coax, or coyote him to West Texas.  What did I care about his redemption?  I wanted my revenge.  They killed my brother.  They kidnapped my young cousin.  Probably married her off to one of their own or sold her to some Mexicans.  They even took my dog.   They probably ate it.  I wanted him to come out West and kill some goddamned Comanches. 

Stupid white men.  You can’t count on them for nothing.