Author Archives: Vironevaeh

Utopias in America

Does dystopia seem more tangible than utopia? Media such as Handmaid’s Tale, Hunger Games and Mad Max depict fractured futures. Science and economics speak of the effects of climate change, the next big flu pandemic, wealth inequality, and dark campaign money.

Utopianism seems gullible and naive, while dystopianism seems world-weary and chic. But it wasn’t always this way. 19th century America was littered with utopian societies. There were the Shakers, the Rappites, the Owenites, the Associationists, the Oneidans (yes, the silverware folks), The Amanans (yes, the refrigerator folks), and others. Look it up; there were probably utopian communities in your area too. In St. Louis, the Icarians briefly settled near present-day Dogtown. A German utopian group called the Giessen Emigration Society settled near Washington, Missouri. In New Mexico, we have Blackdom, a settlement for black families; there’s also the Faithists who founded the Shalam community. Most of these communities lasted only briefly, but vestiges of many remain; Washington, Missouri remains heavily German today although the surrounding area is not.

Some utopian colonies, like Blackdom, were more pragmatic than religious or dogmatic; Blackdom was founded to leave behind the KKK and Jim Crow. Millenarians, like the Shakers, believed that the Second Coming was imminent; they had to prepare for a thousand years of heaven on Earth, as predicted in the book of Revelations in the Bible. This thinking was influential in the Second Great Awakening. Others, like Robert Owen’s Owenites, were secular and believed that the industrial revolution could be harnessed to improve life if people pooled their efforts.

So why were there so many utopias founded in the United States in the 19th century? Europeans interpreted the Biblical arc of history as traveling from east to west; they saw history as starting in the Middle East, advancing in Europe, and ending in the Americas. The American revolution still seemed truly revolutionary, but also to some, incomplete. There was a lot of cheap land available for purchase. The industrial revolution destabilized long-standing traditions. The woman who brought Shakerdom to the United States, Ann Lee, grew up in the industrial miseries of Manchester, England–the city where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also developed their social theories.

These intellectual ties to 20th century communism probably explain why we’ve forgotten these kooky and imaginative social experiments. Marx and Engels used the term “communism” because “socialism” was so tied to Robert Owen in the public imagination. The utopias of the 19th century inspired later communist theory, but they differ immensely from later authoritarian regimes. They were voluntary social experiments. The Shakers were led by a woman and preached celibacy and gender equality. Many advocated gender equality, universal education, sexual liberty (or at least relaxation), and later, abolitionism.

The utopian thinking of the 19th century, though largely forgotten, was influential. Robert Owen spoke to congress twice and President John Q. Adams displayed a diagram of Owen’s utopian “parallelogram” in the White House. Many of the famous transcendentalists of New England, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, participated in the Utopian colony of Brook Farm. The famous editor, Horace Greeley, advocated Associationism. Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, was brought up in the vegetarian Fruitlands Utopian Colony. (Not strictly relevant but hilarious: In the book Paradise Now, the author describes a few Fruitlands residents; “the community included… a man who refused to eat tubers because any vegetable that grows downward displays questionable ambitions;” another man “advocated spiritually cleansing obscenity. ‘Good morning, damn you,’ was his preferred salutation.”)

I think today’s dystopianism and 19th century utopianism are two sides of the American coin–we think expansively. Things are either the worst or we’re going to create heaven on earth in western Indiana. Both utopianism and dystopianism emerge from the observation of fault in today’s society. Both today’s dystopianism and 19th century Millenarianism utopianism are obsessed with the end of the world. Current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has raised eyebrows with his talk of the rapture. Either way, we like to think that, when it all goes down, we’ll be at the center of it.

Some good resources on American Utopianism

Apple Watch: Water Polo and Swimming

I am a verified stat head. I keep a spreadsheet of my swimming yardage. I love to swim on intervals and work against the clock. I always missed that feedback playing water polo.

I recently got an Apple Watch. I intended it mostly for swimming, but I wore it for a few water polo scrimmages, out of curiosity. I’d never had any statistical insight into those workouts.

Below are examples of heart rates for a swim set and a water polo scrimmage.

The swim set is so orderly. The first plateau is my 500 yard warm-up. I go really hard to see how I’m feeling that day. Then a gap, then kicking. Then I take a break before the main swimming set. While I’m swimming, the trace is pretty constant (sometimes even more than this one), and when I take breaks, the trace drops. The fluctuations at the end are 6 x 50s, alternating between sprint and recovery.

The water polo trace is so noisy. They all look this way. You can see my warm-up and some inactivity before the play starts, but after that it gets fuzzy. The whole last 3/4 looks like the sprint/recovery set from swimming. The average BPM are nearly the same.

I love water polo and swimming, but these traces lent insight into why some people like one and not the other. I hadn’t realized just how different they were as workouts.

Soviet Anti-Alcohol Propaganda

After visiting the Museum of Communism in Prague, I have been fascinated with propaganda posters. They share attractive design and typographical movements from their brethren in advertising, but they are grounded in darkness. Advertisements appeal to desire, ambition, family, and goodness (to a laughable extent, seriously is there anything more candy-coated than a McDonald’s or a Coca Cola ad?) ; propaganda posters appeal to fear, resentment, social-approbation, and shame. Advertisements recede into history, but they retain their emotional glow—we still enjoy old neon hotel signs and Coca Cola ads on the side of brick buildings. Propaganda maintains its darker emotions too—some of the kinder ones, like Rosie the Riveter, have crossed into pop culture, but war bonds posters from WWI and racist posters from WWII have understandably vanished.

Propaganda posters from other cultures fascinate me because they contain grim honesty. What people were meant to fear and how that fear was instilled is telling. It seems to me that propaganda varies between nations more than advertising because differences are often the source of fear.

The publishing company FUEL has a series of interesting books about Russian and Soviet culture. Their book Alcohol collects dozens of Soviet anti-drinking posters. Some of their are stylish. Some are tacky. They depict every manner of disordered drinking–children drinking, drinking during pregnancy, factory workers drinking, drivers drinking, people drinking poisonous moonshine. These are distressing ideas; they must have occurred often enough to cause anxiety.

I’ve mentioned this book to several people, and they are always surprised to hear that Russia ever suggested drinking less. They find drinking and Russia to be synonymous. Most of these posters are from the 1980s, as part of an initiative under Gorbachev. If American perception is any measure, the propaganda seems to have been ineffective.

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Tea for December: Week 3

It’s been a challenging week, but tea has been my companion. At the beginning of the month, I wondered if I would be able to stay interested for 31 days. The more I learn, the more curious I am. This little challenge will stick with me for a long time.

Little tea factoid of the week

Tea is like wine: there are many different cultivars (cultivated varieties) and teas taste different when grown in different soils and in different weather. Like wine, teas that grow in challenging environments gain interesting flavors; many famous growing regions in China, India, and Taiwan are over a mile in elevation.

Unlike wine, tea can be picked multiple times per year. Darjeeling autumn crescendo is the fourth and final picking of the year. For various teas, there are spring pickings, summer pickings, monsoon pickings, and winter pickings. Some teas are made only from specific leaves; Pai Mu Tan white tea is made with the bud and the first two leaves. Some premium teas are even more selective.

With all these variables, there are many ways to make a tea. 31 days starts to seem like not so many days to fill.

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Tea for December: Week 2

The tea consumption continues! This weekend I went to the shop and got adventurous. It’s going to be a flavorful December! Some days I revisit an old stand-by, some days I try something brand new. Every day I learn something new about tea. This week, I tried straight Assam tea for the first time, and had my first Taiwanese and Thai teas.

Little tea factoid of the week

Tea all comes from the camellia sinensis plant. There are two subspecies: var. sinensis and var. assamica. Sinensis is the Chinese version that has been cultivated in China for many centuries. Assamica was first globally known in 1823, found in eastern India.

Before the discovery of Assam tea, China supplied Britain with tea. Britain really wanted tea, but China only wanted silver bullion in return. Britain began introducing opium to China to create demand for a product more easy to produce than bullion. Between 1821 and 1837, British delivery of opium increased fivefold. During this time, Britain also began extensive tea plantations in India. Britain got their tea fix and China went on to suffer the Opium Wars.

Today, Assam tea is still grown in the Assam region of India. It’s maltier in flavor, and if you’ve had English Breakfast tea, you’ve probably had a blend with some Assam tea. I don’t drink my tea with milk, but Assam tea is supposed to be especially good with it.

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Tea for December: Week 1

It’s been an exciting week of teas. Someone said my project sounded like an advent calendar, so I decided I could make that work. I’ll continue to fill it out as the month proceeds. I’ve been posting my drink every day on Twitter; you can find my feed on the right side of my home page.

Little Tea factoid of the week

Do you know what oolong tea is? Oolong tea is partially-oxidized tea. When you leave an apple on a table and it turns brown, that’s oxidation. Green tea is unoxidized, and black tea is fully oxidized. (The oxidation process is fancier than letting it sit out, but that’s the basic chemistry.) Oolong is the tea in between. There are green oolongs (less oxidized) and black oolongs (more oxidized). Above all else, oolongs are delicious.

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Tea for December

I love tea. Even in elementary school I began the day with tea; when I was little I drank herbal and eventually I transitioned to true-blue camellia sinensis. Today I drink about 3 liters of tea every day. It starts and ends and fills my day with joy. When my stomach was upset, when I was on a restricted medical diet—tea was there. On my desk right now I have a Darjeeling 2nd Flush black tea and a sweet Genmaicha green tea (green tea with roasted rice in it). I am drinking English breakfast tea with rose that I brought from home.

Only recently did I seek to learn more about tea. I knew I liked black teas and smoky green teas and, with that constraint, I’d go to the tea shop, sniff around (literally), and pick out some winners. I realized that, other than the flavor, I didn’t know anything about the teas I was drinking. What made them different? Could I find more teas that I would love if I could understand my tastes better? I bought a copy of Tea: History, Terroirs, Varieties, from which I learned about where tea is grown, what kinds of tea each country grows, and how they differ.

As with everything, I get into habits with my tea drinking. Lately, I drink English breakfast tea (EBT!) with rose most mornings. For a strong treat, I drink New Vithanakande Ceylon black tea. For a fancy treat, I drink Yunnan Golden Buds black tea. For a mellow treat, I drink Tie Guan Yin Oolang tea. My local tea shop, New Mexico Tea Company, is wonderful.

So this December I plan to drink a different tea every day. December is a wonderful time to drink warm drinks. Tea is a calorie-free treat in a season filled with pies and cookies and roasts. And tea is delicious and it’s a good way to try new things.

Suggestions (especially of fancy blacks) and fellow tea drinkers are welcome! Happy drinking!

What Hath God Wrought: Some First Reactions

I recently finished Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. This 850 page tome describes Antebellum religious thought, the communication and transportation revolution, political transition, sectionalism, international policy, and more. It also includes brief descriptions of dozens of interesting Americans through this time period. This macroscopic and microscopic approach painted a vivid picture of life at that time. Good books take time to digest. I still imagine myself in that era; I still extract bits of our current era that evolved from then or remind me of then.

Let me highlight some macroscopic and microscopic points that resonated with me.

Big Picture: The Second Great Awakening

Spurred by advances in communication and transportation, the US experienced a transformation in religion. I drowned in terminology; there’s the congregationalists, the unitarians and the trinitarians, the post- and pre-millennials, the high and low Episcopalians, and the anti-mission Methodists.  There were the Utopian societies such as the Owenites, the Associationists, the Amanans (a refrigerator brand!),  and the Perfectionists (creators of Oneida silverware!). (My favorite podcast BackStory has a great episode about the history of utopias that covers several of these.)

I’d heard of the Second Great Awakening but wasn’t very interested. We have our evangelical movement today; I assumed it was similar, but they are so different. The Second Great Awakening spurred Abolitionism, literacy and education movements, and the first glimmers of the suffrage movement. Its ideal was self-improvement. Great Awakening thought led to the invention of the penitentiary, where criminals would improve themselves through penitence. Likewise, asylums were a creation of thoughts from the Second Great Awakening; although they seem brutal and cruel now, sending troubled people to (hopefully) peaceful shelters, asylums, was far kinder than locking them away. These ideas were so revolutionary that visiting them once was a form of tourism (see the first segment of this BackStory episode on vacations).

Big Picture: Slavery and White Supremacy

The more history I read, the more I see the centrality of white supremacy in our country. Slavery warped everything about the south, and consequently, many aspects of the country. It led to censorship of the mail. It led to the Congressional gag rule, which forbade discussion of petitions about slavery. (See the detail below of how John Quincy Adams got rid of the gag rule.)  It led the south to oppose infrastructure investments for fear that such programs would give the federal government too much power. The resultant lack of economic diversification made it impossible for the south to ever consider compromise.

Slavery held an iron-lock on the Democratic party, the party that won every election from 1828 through 1856 but two (the two elected Whig presidents both died in office and are the shortest and third shortest presidencies). To win the party nomination, a candidate needed 2/3 approval, which gave southern states a veto.

I found the passage pictured below most resonant of all. The passage suggests that, had Henry Clay won the election of 1844, the Civil War might have been avoided. Clay was the famous architect of 1820’s Missouri Compromise and 1850’s Kansas-Nebraska Act. After White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (in 2017) suggested that the Civil War occurred due to a lack of compromise, the passage struck me even more. Howe suggests that the war could have been averted–if the south had compromised. In this case, compromise would have been to accept federal support for infrastructure and gradual compensated emancipation. The book is riddled with the various compromises that the north acceded to. Eventually it was the north’s growth in population (due to the industrial revolution that they embraced and the south didn’t) that led them to be able to override the southern lock. Because the south had never compromised in the 35 years of the cotton market boom, they couldn’t accept the change in national power.

Yes, this is vastly simplified. Such “what ifs” fascinate me; how can I not see science fiction?

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Detail: John Quincy Adams single-handedly destroyed the Gag Rule through sheer force of personality

In January 1842, former president and now Whig congressman John Quincy Adams was censured for presenting a petition opposing slavery. For a weeks, he grandstanded in his own defense, embarrassing his prosecutors. (And “ruining” the career of chief prosecutor Thomas Marshall.) Rather than risk another week, the motion to censure was dropped. Adams then laid forth an additional 200 anti-slavery petitions. Shortly thereafter, the Gag Rule was officially rescinded. The Gag Rule forbade discussion of petitions against slavery from 1836-1844.

Detail: Margaret Fuller–feminist, editor, bad-ass

The little town of Concord, Massachusetts produced a lot of famous names in the 1830s– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thorough, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott, to name a few. But the Transcendentalist that captured my imagination was Margaret Fuller. She wrote that women should live for themselves rather than for the sake of men (a new idea at the time, and one that we sometimes still seem to have trouble embracing). She wrote that women needed more avenues of opportunity to develop their talents, writing “let them be sea-captains, if they will.” She became an editor and writer at Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. During the revolutions of 1848 in Europe, she  went to Italy and became one of the first foreign correspondents. In Italy she secretly married an Italian nobleman (her family disapproved) and had a child. Tragically, the three drowned just off Long Island in a storm on the voyage back to New York in 1850.

Detail: Dorothea Dix–the asylum’s advocate

In 1841, schoolteacher Dorothea Dix taught a Sunday school class at a prison in Massachusetts. She was disturbed to see “lunatics” locked up in unheated cells. She petitioned the state legislature for improvement. As she became dedicated to the cause, she learned that conditions in other states were often even worse. Dix travelled all over Canada and the US championing the cause of an asylum, where the indigent insane would receive treatment and care rather than incarceration. Although we have since seen the evils that can arise in asylums, their creation was motivated by compassion. Many of the social reforms of the Antebellum period were driven by women, as this was an acceptable form of social participation at the time.

Detail: Denmark Vesey–Leader of a doomed slave insurrection

Denmark Vesey was born a slave on St. Thomas. Living in Charleston in 1799, he was able to buy his freedom after winning the lottery. (What Hath God Wrought describes how slavery as an institution varied in urban and rural environments, and in the old south and new south.) He was successful as a carpenter, but nursed a grudge against white society. He planned an insurrection for the summer of 1822, planning to attack the city arsenal, take the masters’ horses, and kill all the whites in Charleston. The plan was detected, and the conspirators were arrests before any rebellion took place. 135 persons were arrested and 35 executed, including Vesey. Much of the conspiracy took place at the Charleston African Methodist Episcopalian (AME) Church. If that name sounds familiar, it’s where Dylan Roof murdered 9 people in the summer of 2015. 200 years later, the congregation still reveres Denmark Vesey as a hero.

 

Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

Part of life in Albuquerque is the annual balloon fiesta. For up to 9 days (weather allowing), 550 balloons launch at dawn and fill the skies; their adoring viewers fill the town. The fiesta adds a surreal whimsy to the week. More than once, I’ve walked outside to find a balloon 20 feet overhead, people waving as I stand sleepy with my morning tea. Sometimes the balloons have to land creatively, trying to avoid highways and power lines. Last year, I scheduled a doctor’s appointment on a morning during fiesta week. It was beautiful to drive into a field of glowing orbs but it didn’t bestow the greatest confidence in my fellow drivers.

When the conditions are just right, the wind forms a pattern called the “Albuquerque Box”. When The Box is in effect, ground level winds sink down the Rio Grande Valley, flowing south and higher winds flow north. By adjusting altitude (basically the only control for a balloonist), the balloon can circle back to the launching position. The Box was running both days I went this year, and we watched the pilots compete in navigation competitions.

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Playing with patterns

In materials science class, we examined wallpaper patterns for symmetries. Atoms and molecules can pack according to a variety of crystal structures. Mathematics obviously loves patterns too. There are fractal tilings and tessellations. Who doesn’t love Escher? There are probably practical applications to tiling, but more importantly they are great fun that tickles the brain. Recently I took my first stab at pattern making depicting (what else?) water polo.