Sunday, June 26, 2016

A review of Ken Burns' “The West”

"Nevada Territory is fabulously rich in gold, silver, lead, coal, iron, quicksilver... thieves, murderers, desperadoes ... lawyers, Christians, Indians, [Chinese], Spaniards, gamblers, sharpers, coyotes, poets, preachers and jackass rabbits."

- Samuel Clemens, who would later become known as "Mark Twain"

I have had a strong love-hate relationship with Ken Burns' "The West" ever since I first saw it, perhaps having more mixed feelings about it than any other documentary I've ever seen. There is so much good in it, and there is so much bad in it. I sometimes remember parts of it fondly when coming into contact with the history that it covers, but I also remember an overall negative impression that I received from much of the series. This is one of those series where political correctness is taken to levels that are a bit on the extreme side, which is strong enough to detract from the quality of some parts of it. Some parts of it are also quite good, which makes it hard for me to reject it outright; but my overall impression of this series has been generally negative since first watching it. It has much of value in it, but my memory of this series has tended to be negative.

Hernán Cortés

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

How the Constitution was almost not ratified

"The ratification of the conventions of nine states, shall be sufficient for the establishment of this constitution between the states so ratifying the same."

- Article 7 of the United States Constitution

The Constitutional Convention

Our national debate over the Constitution is as old as the Constitution itself, with origins to be found in the events of the Constitutional Convention (where its particulars were first debated by the men present at the convention). The framers of the Constitution disagreed with each other vehemently on exactly what the document should say and do (and how it should say and do it); and a number of the men present at the convention refused to even sign the document after the debates at the convention. As many of them well knew, though, the national debate over what they had written was just beginning; since with the strict secrecy of the convention's proceedings at the time it was still going on, the nation didn't know what was in the document until after the finished product of the convention was presented to the nation; and many of them weren't all that happy over the things they found in it (to put it mildly).

A replica of Independence Hall, which is not surrounded by
high-rise buildings (that don't belong in the period) the way the real one is today

Why did so many people suspect the Constitution was "dangerous"?

Part of this may have been that they got all their surprises about the document at virtually the same time; since they had not been witness to the deals and compromises that had taken place so gradually during the events of the convention; and a gradual revelation of the document's contents was simply not possible after the nation's curiosity had been whetted by the "secrecy rule." (Which is not a criticism of the "secrecy rule," I should make clear; but it was natural for the people to wonder about it; and many of them assumed that the convention had something to hide in this regard, after the secret proceedings had been continuing for some four months without news.) The supporters of the Constitution all knew that they faced an uphill battle when they presented the final document to the people, and this uphill battle is today known as the debates over ratification (or the ratification debates) - arguably the most important debates in the nation's history, because of the sheer number of issues that it affected (then and now). If I might point this out, it affected the very democratic process by which all future political issues would be debated in America - and by extension, in a number of other places as well.

Newspaper advertisement for the Federalist Papers, 1787 (a part of the ratification debates)

Monday, June 20, 2016

Reflections on learning about history of the Ancient Near East

"The term 'Near East' is not widely used today. It has survived in a scholarship rooted in the nineteenth century when it was used to identify the remains of the Ottoman empire on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Today we say Middle East to designate this geographical area, but the two terms do not exactly overlap, and ancient historians and archaeologists of the Middle East continue to speak of the Near East, as I will do in this book."

- Marc van de Mieroop's "A History of the Ancient Near East (ca. 3000 - 323 BC)", 2nd edition (2007), page 1

So I recently finished reading a book called "A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000 BC - 323 BC" (2nd edition). This book is by Marc van de Mieroop, and it is one of the few books to cover this time period that is available on Amazon.

So why did I study this particular time period, you might be wondering? What exactly is the "Ancient Near East," anyway; and why would anyone read about it?

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Reflections on learning about Spanish linguistics

So I recently finished reading "El español a través de la lingüística: Preguntas y respuestas" ("Spanish Linguistics: Questions & Answers"), edited by Jennifer D. Ewald and Anne Edstrom. You might guess from the Gringo names that this book is written by Gringos for Gringos. If so, you'd be mostly right - this book is written largely by American scholars of Spanish, for American students of Spanish linguistics, at American universities.

This book is written largely by Gringos for Gringos

This book actually has about 30 different authors, only about one-third of whom have anything resembling a Spanish name - for either their first or last names. These chapters are written almost entirely in Spanish, and are thus geared towards students of Spanish beyond the beginning levels, who are already familiar with the basics of Spanish grammar. Nonetheless, these essays are, by and large, written by Gringos for Gringos - explaining difficult Spanish words with the equivalent English words in parentheses, and answering the kinds of questions that are most likely to come from Gringos learning Spanish as a second language - rather than from native speakers of Spanish, for whom the grammatical features discussed are familiar and taken for granted, and not something that would be looked upon as strange (as might be the case for an English speaker). Why, then, did I place such value on learning it? Put differently, if the Spanish of native speakers is the most instructive for second-language learners (and it usually is), then why would I read something written largely by people who aren't that way at all?

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