Lesson #419: The Oldest Palimpsest

I was reading an article this week about the only known palimpsest that effaced the Bible to create a copy of the Koran. Which got me wondering about the oldest known palimpsest.

A quick note for those of you who don’t read a lot about religious history: a palimpsest is any document in which the original text has been scraped off and replaced with a later text and in which the original text may be read — in the days before technology, this often had to be done by eye, but now technology allows for the original text to be read more easily and without damaging the current text. Palimpsests are often religious in nature — the largest collection (around 130 texts) is at Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt — particularly on the surface text, but don’t necessarily have to be. Palimpsests are usually written on parchment, though some have appeared on paper or papyrus. The reason parchment is the most frequent source of palimpsests is a combination of both its durability and its cost. Because parchments were expensive and in short supply and because they were durable, the original writing could be stripped from the medium (using oat bran and milk) and a new document could be written over top.

As for the oldest known palimpsest, this is a bit tricky. Of the known palimpsests, many — including the Archimedes Palimpsest — originated in the 4th – 6th and 9th and 10th centuries BCE. From what I can find, the oldest is a second century BCE Greek grammar text produced for the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, which is housed in Vienna.

You can read more here, here, and here.

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Lesson #418: The Korean Languages

For some reason, the first thing I thought of when I saw the photos of the leaders of the two Koreas meeting today was about how the languages differ. Given what I know of the evolution of English in the last twenty years and North Korea’s isolation from the world, the languages have to be very different by now. My assumption was that North Korean Korean is a lot like Canadian French in its rejection of English loanwords in favour of Korean — though this is probably less rejection of loanwords and more a lack of exposure to them at all — but that their isolation may also mean they’re missing cultural touchstone words entirely.

There are times when living in the age of information is wonderful. There aren’t a lot of solid academic sources to clarify this, but there are plenty of common sources that discuss it from an experiential standpoint.

This article is probably the best side-by-side comparison of the anglicized South Korean and Korean North Korean words for the same thing, the outdated use of some language in North Korea, and the cultural touchstone words that are missing from North Korean Korean as a result of its isolation. For me, the most interesting part of this is which words take the English in Korean compared with which do in Continental French. Self-service makes sense as a loanword. Skin lotion does not.

This is an article on the linguistic struggle North Korean defectors face in a globalized South Korean culture. There’s an app for that. Because of course there’s an app for that.

This article addresses the discrimination defectors can face, especially as a result of their accents. This is a point that’s reflected in a lot of other cultures. But I find especially interesting in the face of knowing what it’s like to try to soften your accent in a place where you speak the language.*

*There are lingering effects of that. It’s an affectation in how I speak that I know is there, but I got so practiced at it that parts of it are still there. I’ve noticed one of the hangers-on starting to slip out of use recently, so it’s an evolution.

Lesson #417: Cockroaches Can Swim

This is a lesson I learned when I watched a cockroach jump into a pool and walk on the gutter cover. Which is under a half inch of water.

How we got here: I teach and coach swimming in the evenings. I also tend to be the person who cleans the scum line in the pool every week because it’s easier to clean in the water than on the deck, and I’m the person who spends the most time in the water. As I was cleaning between my swim and my lessons today, I came across a cockroach. So I commented to the head lifeguard about it, and when I turned back to shoo it off to whatever dark corner it crawled out of, it jumped into the pool. At this point, our curiosity won, and we watched it. It seemed to be doing okay for a bit. And then it sank down to the gutter cover. At which point, I felt kind of bad and sent the lifeguard to get the skimmer. And then it started walking. Underwater.*

It turns out cockroaches can hold their breath underwater for up to 40 minutes. Which…explains a lot, but also WHY?!? I hate cockroaches. This is nightmare fodder.

*This story ends badly for the cockroach, which got itself too close to the filter suction and ended up getting sucked down before the lifeguard could get the skimmer. Plus side, it reminded me of the time The Swede ended up standing on the bed in our hotel in Berlin until I disposed of a(n admittedly fairly large, but not *that* large) spider.

Lesson #416: The Ethiopian Regiment

I’ve read roughly four and a half chapters of the book I’m currently reading. It’s ostensibly about a particular subject, but thusfar that subject has not been discussed even peripherally. But…what I have learned is that the British were shady AF in their dealings with black loyalists after the Revolutionary War.* Also, there was a Loyalist regiment known as the Ethiopian Regiment.

The Ethiopian Regiment had exactly nothing to do with Ethiopia or Ethiopians. At all. The Ethiopian Regiment was a regiment made up of escaped slaves who fought for the British side during the Revolutionary War. But it was called the Ethiopian Regiment for (probably totally racist) reasons.

The regiment was formed by Lord Dunmore, the last royal Governor of Virginia, in November of 1775. The Earl of Dunmore made a declaration that any slave who joined the regiment would be freed. Of course, volunteers first had to survive a war. And also smallpox, which had all but wiped out the regiment by June of 1776. There’s not a lot of information about troop movement, but the Ethiopian Regiment participated in battles in and around Virginia, including a victory at Kemp’s Landing and a humiliating defeat at Great Bridge.

In a fun little bit of dissidence, the Ethiopian Regiment’s uniforms were embroidered with the slogan “Liberty to Slaves”.

Those who survived the war were granted freedom in Nova Scotia, which is how I got here. There’s a very interesting history of blacks in Nova Scotia that reads exactly how you’d expect. Former members of the regiment were given significantly less land than they were promised, white Loyalists (and Nova Scotians who didn’t care one way or the other about who won the war, I guess) were not super thrilled with black people living nearby, and the white people solution to having to see black people was literally to be like, “oh, you don’t love it here? It’s cold? And we gave you the shittiest land we could? You could always go back to Africa. Here! We bought you passage on a ship to Sierra Leone! Go! Be among your people (who may or may not actually be your people, but where we don’t have to see you)!”

For more, see here, here, and here.

*That’s an enormous subject to unpack, and I am not the person to do it.

Lesson #415: The Conch Republic

I’ve lived (nearly) 36 of my (nearly) 38 years under the impression that Key West has always been part of Florida and, consequently, the United States. I have been wrong.

In 1982, members of the Key West government were in a snit and seceded from the US. This is amazing!

The short version of the story is that in an effort to curb the tide of illegal Cuban immigrants and refugees and the influx of drugs (cocaine) from South America, Border Patrol (now CPD) up a checkpoint on the only road off the island and subjected vehicles to searches and their occupants to ID checks. Displeased by this, the mayor of Key West, Dennis Wardlow, called around and got no answers, so reached out to Border Patrol, who were like “none of your business”. This was not the answer Wardlow wanted to hear, and after a Miami judge refused to issue an injunction, Key West seceded on 23 April.

Now, their secession was rather cheeky. Government officials were assigned new job titles (Minister of Underwater Affairs is my favourite), but they were also serious. The Federal government sent monitors in to make sure things didn’t escalate, the US flag was swapped out for that of the Conch Republic, and (now-) Prime Minister Wardlow declared war on the US by breaking stale Cuban bread over the head of a man in a Naval uniform? Because I guess that makes as much sense as anything else in a declaration of war. One minute later, Wardlow surrendered to a US Navy officer and demanded $1 billion in foreign aid, as well as restitution from the US government.

The money was never paid out, but the publicity the stunt attracted effectively forced the government to remove the checkpoint out of Key West.

On the heels of this, Key West began to capitalize on the notoriety. The town has always been reliant on tourism, but after secession, it began issuing passports — including diplomatic passports — and other kitschy things to commemorate their independence, and the town still celebrates independence day every year.

In 1995, there was an “invasion” by a US Army battalion on maneuvers — which was somehow received both with a tongue firmly planted in cheek, but also with some seriousness that prevented the Army from reaching their training ground until they apologized. The Conch Republic’s website lists refers to this episode as “The Great Invasion of ’95”.**

I think the most mind-blowing part of this whole story is the fact that some people somehow used their Conch Republic passports to travel internationally as if they were legitimate documents. But I’m old enough and made frequent enough border crossings to remember how lax pre-9/11 travel was. I could get into and out of Canada with just my green card or my driver’s licence for identification. I could get on an international flight with just my ID. And I remember when that changed in because I was told by the border agent in Texas that after the new year (2006), I’d need to travel with my passport. These days, I often travel with both.*

More here, here, and on the Republic’s own website, here.

*Depending on where I’m going, it’s often easier — though coming back into the US as a citizen with stamps in a non-US passport made my return from Bosnia more snarky than it should have been when I had an American customs officer at the airport in Toronto who took umbrage with the fact that I had an American passport at all if I was going to travel on my Canadian one. He felt I didn’t deserve an American passport and expressed that. In those words. What I wanted to respond was, “well, no one asked you”. But because I wasn’t looking to spend a night at the Toronto airport — though I wouldn’t have…I’d have called my people for a spare bed or couch — what I said was, “well, sir, with all due respect, the Federal government disagrees.”

**All I can think of when I read this is the time the Swiss Army accidentally invaded Liechtenstein after they got lost in bad weather on night maneuvers in 2007, which remains, a decade later, one of my favourite news stories.

Failed Research #1: Pasta Salad

I am having a moment where I am legitimately angry with the idea of pasta salad. Bear with me, here; this is going somewhere.

I’ve been generally passively apathetic about pasta salad in the past. But I was talking to a friend about it today and commented that pasta salad is fine if it doesn’t have tomatoes or onions in it (the former ends up with a consistency I can’t handle and the latter I just don’t like). And then it snowballed. Pasta salad is fine if it doesn’t have tomatoes or onions in it. Or anything else that loses its texture. Or if it has a sweet dressing. Or if it’s too dry. Or if it’s too wet. And then it was just this realization that pasta salad is just sucky cold pasta. The noodles are never cooked right, there are like a million ways to prepare it and somehow none of those is especially good, there’s always something in it that is texturally jarring, it’s always too something, and it’s never anything more exciting than “bland”. So now I’m feeling aggrieved by the years of picnic pasta salads and demanding answers as to who (the Midwesterners, I am absolutely certain) is responsible! My Google search went, “who is responsible for pasta salad” like I have been personally attacked (which, incidentally, made Google think that I’m trying to organize a neighbourhood BBQ and have lost track of the fact that Jan is responsible for the pasta salad and/or need a dozen recipes for pasta salad with tomatoes).

Here’s the kicker: I can’t seem to find a good answer. The best information I could find was that pasta salads have been appearing in American cookbooks since at least the mid-1910s, but didn’t gain popularity until the 1980s. A 1916 pasta salad uses a vinegar base and is “folded into whipped cream“, which sounds…hideous. Also, there’s apparently a designation between macaroni salad (mayo based) and pasta salad (vinegar based), which…WHAT? WHY?!?

Whatever we’re calling it, there are no academic sources to be found on this pasta dish that definitely came from somewhere in the Midwest, which makes me as much of an expert on this as anyone. I’m just going to say it came out of the Midwest — because, be honest, where else would it have come out of?* — and be done with it.

*Are you familiar with Cincinnati chili?

I know I’m behind. I’ve been crazy busy and have about a half dozen half-written posts. I’ll get back to them when I get my life back next month.

Lesson #414: Medieval Testicle Removal

A coworker brought me to this lesson when she told me that people in medieval times believed that the left testicle was responsible for female children and, consequently, had a gonadectomy of the left testicle to help ensure a male child.

I know what you’re thinking. That is patently absurd! Sources or GTFO!

Sources for this are…awful. At best, this is a gobbet passed around the interwebs with some uncited small basis in historical fact. More likely, this is the same complete bullshit as the idea floating about the internet that the boiling point of saliva is three times that of regular water.

The best information I can find on this is a single sentence reference to it in a larger response on a page of The Tech Museum of Innovation’s site. But if we look at this logically, it doesn’t make any sense. Even if a bunch of men in medieval Europe — this is an assumption based on the fact that the medieval period in the Eastern world is far more advanced than Europe is — had their left testicles removed, statistically speaking, they still stood a 50% chance of coming out with a female child at the end of gestation. Surely people with some brains would have gotten together and said, “so…that didn’t work” and stopped with the lopping off of testes.

Obviously, I don’t have access to any primary source materials. But lots of places with lots of scholars do. And if there were primary source materials that said, “for a while there, we thought we’d get all boys if we castrated ourselves”, that information would be all over the place. Because the west loves to talk about balls. So let’s just go ahead and take this for what it is — a story that seems good for a light chuckle on the surface while it simultaneously disparages medieval culture for being seemingly lacking in common sense and enforces the patriarchal and historical notion that female children are worth less than male children.

So we’re in agreement then? We’re going to settle on the fact that men in medieval Europe didn’t go about removing a testicle so they could have male children. Cool? Cool.