Looking Backward Into the Present

Using the Popular Culture of the Past to Help Answer Perplexing Questions in the Present

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What Does it Mean to Be Objective?

So I have wanted to update my blog for awhile now but I’ve been, as they say, “busier than a one-armed paper hanger.”  That hasn’t changed.  However, when I was writing this review essay for class I thought it was particularly relevant to current issues Americans are facing in media circles, with the rise of partisan cable channels/blogs and also history circles, with the Texas history textbook controversy.  What does it mean to be objective?  Whose history is the correct history? If there is any “take-away” thought from this, it seems that many people confuse “objectivity” with “authority”.  Although it is a fine distinction between the concepts, my intellectual gut tells me that the two are different. 

Here’s the review:

Could Looking Backward be the Key to Reframing the Future of Post-Objective Thought in Historical Scholarship?

The title of my essay admittedly sounds parodoxical.   Yet, when I was reading Peter Novick’s 1999 edition of  That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession, I was struck by this passage: “Graduate or professional training [in History] worthy of the name hardly existed in the United States until the [nineteenth] century was well advanced” (Novick, 22).  This seemed to imply that Americans weren’t concerned with the integrity of the American historical record until the 1890s. As I read on, I was struck by another passage similar in tone:  “But the most important influence leading to the abandonment of the [Teutonic Germ] theory was Frederick Jackson Turner’s alternative explanation of the expanding frontier and the availability of free land as the foundation of American democratic institutions” (Novick, 88).  This led to a nagging question of my own which was never really answered in the book: “What about Americanist historical thought before Turner?”

It seems natural to assume that Americans in the antebellum years were concerned about the historical record in ways that would go beyond antiquarianism.  In the case of journalism during the antebellum period, which was seen in many circles as the definitive historical record, the goal was not “objectivity” but the best version of the truth arrived through vigorous public debate.  When the integrity of the debate was violated, it was referred to a system of public arbitration known as the code of honor, which sometimes led to dueling.  How history was perceived and interpreted played a critical role in this arbitration. 

To be clear, I am not advocating “history to the death”.   However, when Novick writes about “objectivity enthroned” in American historical thought, there seems to be the fewest voices participating in the debate.  Not surprisingly, in “objectivity besieged” when “the assault on objectivist epistemology…opened up a long-overdue consideration of what historical scholarship could and should do; what it couldn’t , and shouldn’t do” (Novick, 277) it seemed to destabilize the profession when more voices were added to the debate. 

What seems to be needed is a framework of arbitration that focuses not on convergence, or one historical theory supplanting the other, but whose endgame is vigorous debate.  

Modern history, although not perfect, in the end seems stronger with more voices and perspectives added to the discussion.  Although Novick in his conclusion suggests history as a profession has strayed farther than ever before from “the objective question.”  It would seem that we are closer than ever before to his definition of historical objectivity, which is not a single idea, “but rather a sprawling collection of assumptions, attitudes, aspirations, and antipathies” (Novick, 1).  With objectivity often getting confused with authority, perhaps historical truth is better served through vigorous debate.

Origin of the Term “Sniper.”

The historical piece that I’ve been working on recently takes place in the 1850s. As I was writing dialogue, I wanted use the term, “sniper.” But then it occurred to me that “sniper” might be a twentieth-century term and therefore would be incorrect to use in this instance.   I decided to do some research on when the term was introduced into the English lexicon. What I discovered was a little surprising.

According to most sources, the origin of the term sniper was associated with one’s ability to shoot a “snipe.”  What is a snipe you say?  Glad you asked.   According to Shorebirds by Arthur Morris :

Snipes are bulky shorebirds with relatively short legs, long bills, boldy striped heads, and rusty reddish tails.  The upperparts are blackish-brown variously streaked and barred buff.  Broad buff strips run above the scapulars.  All three plumages are virtually identical.

Poor snipe, he never saw it coming

Poor snipe, he never saw it coming

So how did this seemingly innocuous bird come to represent one of the most highly trained soldiers in any army?  According to Out of Nowhere  by Martin Pegler, the term was popularized as a military term in the early twentieth century:

By the late 18th century the word ‘sniper’ was being used in letters sent home by English officers serving in India, some of whom took to referring to a day’s rough shooting as ‘going out sniping’.  The snipe is a small, fast-flying game bird with mottled black and brown plumage and a particularly erratic, twisting flight that make it difficult to see and even more difficult to hit.  It took a skilled sportsman with a flintlock gun to bring down a snipe in flight.  Such an accomplished shot was regarded as above average and inevitably during the 18th century the term ‘snipe shooting’ was simplified to ‘sniping.’  However in a military context, soldiers who were particularly able shots were referred to as sharpshooters or marksmen, but never snipers, and its use appears to come from the press during the early months of the First World War. 

Having discovered this evidence, I decided not to go with the term sniper for my historical project.  I also debated using the term “skirmisher”, which was a popular term for military marksmen during the Civil War, but decided in the end to go with marksman.

Where does the term limelight come from?

I have been working on a stage play recently and ran across the term “limelight” several times.  We all know that to be in the limelight, one has been seeking the spotlight of the stage or public attention.  But then it occurred to me, why “limelight”?  Why not lemonlight?  Better yet, if you are a Sprite fan why not lymon light?

Contrary to Sprite propaganda, there is no such thing as lymonlight.

Contrary to Sprite propaganda, there is no such thing as lymonlight.

It turns out that limelight refers to the chemical reaction created when an oxyhydrogen flame is directed at a cylinder of calcium oxide, commonly referred to as lime. 

According to The Hydrogen Age, a book by Geoffrey Holland and James J. Provenzano, the limelight effect was developed in 1826 by English chemist Goldsworthy Gurney (how’s that for a name!) and developed into a working light by Thomas Drummond. 

“The result was a brilliant bright incandescence that Drumond soon adapted for use in lighthouses because it remained visible fifty or more miles distant.  Within a few decades limelight was also lighting stage performers in theaters and music halls across Europe and America.”

According to the Wikipedia entry on limelight,

“Limelight was first used in the Covent Garden Theatre in London in 1837 and enjoyed widespread use in theatres around the world in the 1860s and 1870s.  Limelights were employed to highlight solo performers in the same manner as modern followspots. To this day, theatre followspots are often referred to as limes.  Limelight was replaced by electric arc light in the late 19th century.”

Let it be said then, that there are still limes in the theater, but no lime left in the limelight.

A Brief History of the Triangle as Solo Musical Instrument

I was chatting with my musician friend in a great café called Le Petite Triangle (said with a haughty French accent) when the subject turned to the triangle as a musical instrument. Since retiring from the saxophone in twelfth grade, I had been trying to find that secret shortcut to musical stardom. Could I be a solo trianglist?


My friend, who is a classically trained violinist, quickly dismissed the validity of the triangle exclaiming, “It’s part of the percussion section.” Of course, he meant that if I ever wanted to classically master the triangle as an instrument, I would have to become a percussionist. However, almost in the same breath he suggested that the triangle did have a type of tonal complexity that should not be taken lightly and could be quite demanding to master.


All jokes aside, that did get me thinking about the viability of the triangle as a solo instrument. Could it be more than a novelty? More than an Ed Grimley punchline? Were there musicians out there who took on the musical discipline of the triangle as seriously as Yo Yo Ma with the cello? If so, were the parts even available for them to play in an orchestral setting?


Could the triangle be more than a one-note instrument?

Could the triangle be more than a one-note instrument?

According to James Blades, author of Percussion Instruments and their History, the triangle in its ancient form had rings strung to the lower bar.


Yet the first mention we find of a triangle in tenth-century manuscript, is of an instrument without rings. A triangle without rings is depicted in the King Wenceslaus IV Bible (late fourteenth century) and again on a mid-fifteenth-century window in the Beauchamp Chapel, St Mary’s, Warwick. This latter triangle with its open corner has a curiously modern appearance, except that at the top angle the steel bar is twisted into a loop through which the thumb of the performer (an angel) passes.


Blades continued:


Like its ancestor the sistrum, the triangle was clearly used for religious ceremonies, quite widely in mediaeval churches judging from the frequency and virulence of the denunciations launched against them, and the necessity every few years to issue another edict prohibiting them. The triangle occurs more often than any other instrument except the cymbals in paintings of Bacchic processions and similar occasions, and angels will often be seen singing and playing a triangle at the same time.


So the triangle has a long and prestigious musical history. However, what of the triangle in its modern form, consisting of a rod of steel, open and slightly curved at one corner and meant to be struck with a steel stick or wooden handle? This was the instrument associated with the masters such as Mozart or Beethoven


According to the book, Modern Music and Musicians, “Beethoven, Mozart and many of classical as well as modern composers, have made use of this little instrument in some of their works. [The composer] Weber has used it prominently Gypsy music, as, for example, in his ‘Preciosa.’”


But in most classical musical pieces, the triangle was relegated to the background. I wanted to know if there was a composer that might utilize the triangle as a solo instrument. Could it be possible?


In my research, I discovered that Franz Lizt composed a piece, Piano Concerto No. 1, which featured the triangle as a solo instrument in the third movement. At last, I had found it, proof that the triangle should be taken seriously. It’s nickname, in fact, is called “the triangle concerto.”


So, armed with this information, I took my discovery to my musician friend. I exclaimed, “Liszt! Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 features the triangle on solo!” He looked at me unimpressed and replied, “Oh yeah, I’ve played that.”


Still no respect, the journey continues.


A Word about SPAM…

With much of President Obama’s early history connected to Hawaii, it has brought to light the state’s unique association with a certain food item: SPAM. 


Yes that is correct, I am not referring to the White House’s new Internet agenda but rather the precooked meat product manufactured by Hormel Foods.  According to SPAM’s official Web site, www.spam.com, over 7 billion cans of the processed meat have been sold worldwide since the food’s introduction in 1937.  Furthermore, most statistics generally agree that Hawaii has the highest SPAM consumption rate per capita in the world. In an online article for Via, a AAA’s traveler’s companion, Constance Hale wrote, “Fiftieth staters consume nearly 6 million cans a year, or almost six cans for every man, woman, and child.  Some call the gelatinous pink pork ‘Hawaii’s soul food.’”


But what is SPAM and why is it so popular in Hawaii?  According to Rachel Laudan in The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage, the Hormel Company set out to design a canned meat that was neither tough nor bland. 


To beat the toughness, they ground pork up finely; to give it savor, they spiced it up with salt, sugar, and a variety of other flavorings.  They held a competition for a catchy name: in 1937, a certain Keith Daugneau submitted the winning entry—SPAM (spiced ham)—and walked off with the $100 prize. SPAM  joined and then overtook sardines, luncheon meat, corned beef, and Vienna sausages as a favorite.  All keep well, are quick and easy to prepare, can be stretched with vegetables, and taste good with rice.  In World War II, when offshore fishing was prohibited, SPAM helped fill the gap. 


In fact, because it is vacuum sealed and thus requires no refrigeration, SPAM became very popular with the troops stationed in Hawaii during WWII.  They in turn, introduced it to the island population and it stuck.  Hormel refers to the product on their Web site as, “meat, with a pause button.” 


It is such a signature food for Hawaii that a yearly event in Waikiki, called “SPAM JAM”, attracted approximately 20,000 people in 2008.  In fact, the canned meat is so popular that McDonald’s restaurants in Hawaii carry SPAM products.


One of the favorite ways of eating SPAM is in a sushi-like form called Musubi.  Time magazine reported that when President Obama was golfing in Oahu during the holidays, he stopped for two hot dogs, two sodas and two SPAM musubis.  Peter K. Yamashita, the general manager of the golf course, was quoted in the magazine saying, “You know he’s a local boy if he’s eating Spam Musubi.” 


Incidentally, the runner-ups for SPAM consumption per capita were the territories of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.   




Musubi: SPAM Chic

Musubi: SPAM Chic

Origin of Doctoral Study

Recently, I submitted my application for doctoral study in history at a major university.  That got me thinking, where did the Ph.D. degree in liberal arts come from and what are its origins? 

A Ph.D., or doctorate, is simply defined as “the highest degree awarded by a graduate school, usually to a person who has completed at least three years of graduate study and a dissertation approved by a board of professors.”


Contrary to popular belief, "The Genius" Lanny Poffo did not have his doctorate.

Contrary to popular belief, "The Genius" Lanny Poffo did not have his doctorate.

So in essence, a doctorate can be seen as a license to teach.  So to get at the heart of why doctoral programs matter, one must delve into the origins of the scholastic movement.


According to George Makdisi, author of The Rise of Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian West: with Special Reference to Scholasticism, the origins of the doctorate can be traced back to the study of Islamic law and the creation of law schools in the early 9th century.  The doctorate was a qualifying license to practice law.


However, it is widely regarded that the origins of the modern university has its roots in 12th century Paris, which received recognition from both secular and non-secular authorities. According to Geoffrey Godbey, author of The Evolution of Leisure:


Its [Paris] was for a ‘Universitas Societas Magistrorum et Scholarium,’ a universal society of masters and scholars.  The meaning of ‘universities,’ as also of ‘collegium,’ was really a corporation or guild.  Guild is perhaps the closest parallel, and universities grew and prospered much as did other guilds throughout this and later periods, and as did unions in the modern period.  The best definition of the university, even today, is that it is a community of masters and scholars. 


So in essence, a doctorate from a particular university “guild” gives this person license to teach undergraduate “apprentices.”


Godbey also suggested that universities and colleges are essentially organized in much the same way today as they were in Paris then.  In fact, universities continue to be an important link to the ideals of early Greek philosophers. As Godbey pointed out: “Recall . . . that in the [Greek] phrase liberal arts, the word liberal refers to liberation from ignorance and from the errors for which we may have a penchant but from which we may learn.


And that, as they say, is history . . . or the history of the study of history. 




What is the Shelf Life of Dried Pasta?

My wife and I were waiting to be seated in one of our favorite Little Italy restaurants, when we noticed jars of dried pasta in glass containers on the shelves (for decoration) that looked like they had been there for years.  We wondered out loud to each other if that pasta would still be good.  She said yes…I said no. 


Many experts agree that the normal shelf-life of dried pasta is two years, presuming it is stored in an airtight container.  One of the biggest problems with long-term storage of pasta is that it will become a breeding ground for bacteria or small bugs. 


However, if the pasta on the shelf was perfectly stored could it still be eaten? According to www.shelfreliance.com, spaghetti could be edible for 10 years in a desperate situation.  However, there’s no telling if the nutritional value would still be maintained.  According to www.containerandpackaging.com, “Pasta will store longer than flour if kept dry. Hermetically sealed in the absence of oxygen, plan on a storage life of 10-15 years at a stable temperature of 70°F. Pasta should keep proportionately longer if stored at cooler temperatures.”


However, that is under perfect conditions.  So as much as it hurts me to be right, I would probably say that the pasta on the shelf in that restaurant would probably not be good to eat.

Incidentally, according to the National Pasta Association (www.ilovepasta.org), the American pasta industry was founded in 1848 by Antoine Zerega, a flour miller from Lyon, France. 

Is the Coconut really a nut?

We were standing in the middle of an Indian restaurant, post-gastronomy, when a member of our dining party asked casually, “Is coconut a fruit?”  Naturally, we answered that it was nut.  But there was still doubt in the air.  Could it be a fruit? Is it really a nut?  Could it “technically” be a vegetable?


Obviously, the fate of the free world depended on knowing the correct answer.  It turns out that a coconut (Cocos nucifera) is botanically classified in the fruit family of drupes.  Drupes are defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as, “a one-seeded indehiscent fruit having a hard bony endocarp, a fleshy mesocarp, and a thin exocarp that is flexible (as in the cherry) or dry and almost leather (as in the almond).”




"There is sweet water inside a tender coconut. Who poured the water inside the coconut? Was it the work of any man? No. Only the Divine can do such a thing.” -- Sri Sathya Sai Baba (Indian Spiritual leader, b.1926)

"There is sweet water inside a tender coconut. Who poured the water inside the coconut? Was it the work of any man? No. Only the Divine can do such a thing.” -- Sri Sathya Sai Baba (Indian Spiritual leader, b.1926)


The book Plant Form: An Illustrated Guide to Flowering Plant Morphology by Adrian D. Bell and Alan Bryan explains further.  According to the author, “[The] outer surface of a coconut (Cocos nucifera) or peach (Prunus persica) is the epicarp, the coconut fibre or peach flesh is the mesocarp, and the hard shell or stone is the endocarp.  Both are technically termed drupes.” 


So there you have it, the coconut is actually a fruit.  According to the online coconut museum, the Hindi word for coconut is Khopra.  However, I call coconut in my shrimp curry, “delicious.”

When Was Killing a Journalist Not Considered Murder? Click on Image for More Information About My Book About the Connection Between Dueling and the Origin of American Journalism

When Was Killing a Journalist Not Considered Murder? Click on Image for More Information About My Book About the Connection Between Dueling and the Origin of American Journalism