Thursday, September 29, 2011


I think we all know what this one means, or to put it a little differently, we each have our own idea what we think it means. Sir Thomas More borrowed it from Greek to be the title of his book. In Greek it meant nowhere, which is kind of the thing about utopias. Maybe it's just the era that I happened to grow in--in the shadows of the utopian projects of the sixties. I think a lot of them did some good, but they all ran up sooner or later against the human fraility of their framers to one extent or another.

Nevertheless, I thought I'd just highlight this word right now, because oddly I have been hearing it in a lot of different contexts  recently. I think it's in the air right now. It's one of those words that seems to be gaining energy and life again. I think a lot of people, despite or probably because of the economic woes that many face, are beginning to think again about what the good society (as Wikipedia points out 'utopia' (nowhere) is in English a homophone with 'eutopia' good place) could possibly be.

We had an interesting guest at the Penny University this week. Gary Patton was a supervisor of Santa Cruz county for twenty-five years. He used to hold early morning weekly meetings at a local coffee shop so that he could talk to his constituents. Although he's been a familiar face in the bookstore I work in, and I've run across him in other contexts as well. But I'd never really heard his bio. He got into community work because of his interest in utopian thought and together with other Santa Cruzans worked to put their own vision of Santa Cruz's future in place. They succeed in keeping the North Coast from becoming a major development, and in other ways worked to keep the small town character of the place. As Patton said, it takes about five people working together to form a movement. Fifteen is probably better, but you can do it with five.

He has an interesting blog that I learned about that evening too. It's called Two Worlds/365, and .. you can find it here . It isn't necessarily about utopia, but I think utopia is implied.

It's  a funny coincidence that I came across this article in the Sentinel today. The short story is that after the 1989 earthquake, downtown Santa Cruz was in ruins and had to be rethought. One of the decisions was to make Pacific Avenue not only one way, but not the same one way all the way through. Now, an outside consultant has been hired by the local merchants, who apparently gives them the  flabbergasting news that the traffic pattern is keeping some of the major players from coming to town.    

"Your design is keeping stores like Apple from coming here," the consultant said.

Oh, horror. The design, by the way, didn't keep Borders from coming here and lasting 10 years or so. I have a sneaking suspicion that it wasn't the Santa Cruz traffic pattern that finally brought them down.

Having Apple on Pacific Avenue is probably on the checklist for some people's utopia. It wouldn't be on mine. But that's the thing about utopias. It's not as easy to construct one that fits all sizes as one might think.  

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Getting back to my more usual subject matter here, I've found that ignorance has once again given me an easy topic. I was sitting with a sales rep the other day, who was showing me some photography books he was trying to sell. Each was dedicated to a country or region. One of them was Cuba, one of them was some Arab desert region that I had never heard of, and one of them was Zanzibar. Of course I'd heard of Zanzibar. It was only later, after he'd taken the books back and left, that I realized that I had no idea where Zanzibar really is.

It is certainly a name to conjure with. I think all my associations to the word may actually come from film or perhaps there's a line in a famous poem or two. In any case it's a highly romantic word, with resonances of spices and somehow I'm thinking there's an Arabic/African trade route involved. Was there a Bob Hope/Bing Crosby "On the Road to" movie?

We shall see.


Yep, there was a movie. But the more contemporary cultural reference, and the reason some of you will know more about the place than I did, is that one of its most famous sons was Freddy Mercury, a.k.a. Farrokh Bulsara, of Queen.

Basically, my sense of Zanzibar was more or less right, which must mean that those Bob Hope movies had a hitherto unsuspected level of documentary reality...

Zanzibar is an archipelago off of Tanzania, on the east coast of Africa, and is currently a semi-autonomous region of the same. It has indeed been a kind of crossroads of not only Arab and African trade, but also that of India and Persia/Iran. There is a bit of a controversy about what the name actually means. The Persian language has it as Zangh Bar, meaning brown, Negro, or even rust coast, but the Arabs derive it from Zayn Z'al Bar, which means something along the lines of 'fair is this land'.

The spice aspect wasn't wrong either. These islands are often called the Spice Islands, which I thought might be the case, although there is an Indonesian archipelago which is a rival for that name. In fact, their main export, cloves, were originally imported from these other islands, the Moluccas. The real reason, I think, that Zanzibar is on the map for us now, though, is that the Persian traders who discovered these islands (whatever discovery means when you're talking about islands that have traces of human tools from 50,000 years ago) saw their strategic importance in trade routes between Africa, the Middle East and India. The larger island, Unguja, had, and probably still has, a defendable harbor.

After Persia, Zanzibar came under the control of the Portuguese, who retained it for 200 years. Then the Sultanate of Oman had its day there and  came to hold sway not only over a major  portion of the East African coast, but trade routes leading into the continent. Yes, spices were traded, but they were not the only goods on offer. There was also ivory, and, yes, slaves. In fact, Zanzibar was Eastern Africa's main slave port, and at the height of this trade, 50,000 slaves passed annually through its markets.

Monument to the slaves in Zanzibar

The British gradually gained control by influence of the sultanate, and took real control after a sultan they did not approve of came to power. What followed was the Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896, which military buffs may like to know is, at 38 minutes, still on record as the shortest war in history--at least according to Guinness.

Zanzibar gained independence from Britain in 1963, but it was only a month later that an African led Zanzibar Revolution ended the lives of hundreds if not thousands of Arabs and Indians living there, and in the process put an end to the Arab dominance of the coast that had gone on for a couple of centuries.

Freddy Mercury was actually very representative of multicultural Zanzibar and its destiny in many  ways. He was born to a Parsee family, but  his father worked as a civil servant for the British government. So it makes sense that Freddy was sent to an English boarding school, though the boarding school was not in England, but just outside Bombay. After school, Freddy returned to Zanzibar and it was actually the growing unrest in 1964 in Zanzibar that persuaded his family, rather wisely I'd say, to join many other British and Indian families seeking a new home in England.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Troy Anthony Davis: October 9, 1968-September 21, 2011

Troy Davis was scheduled to be executed at seven p.m. this evening, Atlanta time. In California this was four p.m. and as usually I would be starting a register shift at this hour, I asked to be let off early. The idea of being so fully in the world of commerce at that hour seemed like a big contradiction to me. I didn't know quite where I would go, but after I left, I thought I might walk the labyrinth outside the Episcopalian church as a fitting thing, but I'd forgotten that it was the open market day and it didn't really seem like a very introspective place to be. I then thought I might walk on to the Progressive Missionary Baptist Church nearby, because with it's predominently  black congregation, I thought it might have been the kind of place that Troy might have liked to worship if he'd had the chance. I've often heard some great sounds coming over the fence, but this was a Wednesday afternoon and the place was shut and empty.

I decided to walk on home, as by now I assumed Davis would be dead and I would rather walk home and think about this quietly than ride home on a bus full of students. I didn't really feel that I'd had a significant deep moment, but I thought walking in solitude might go some way towards reaching this goal. My feet aren't the best these days, but I thought it would still be better.

I reached King Street, a street I had walked on this very morning as I usually do, and saw from quite a distance that there was a gigantic crane some ways down and it was at work on a tremendous project. As I got closer, I saw that the crew was busy at work bringing down an enormous tree. People were stopping and watching and taking pictures, and it was a busy intersection with a guy standing in the middle of the street just to direct traffic. I saw a woman that I knew and she said that her daughter lived in the house that had been in its shadow and that it was being taken down because its branches kept knocking out the wires and cutting off people's electricity. We were all impressed by the efficiency of the men high up in the branches. I said, well, I suppose there's some positive side to the tree coming down for the neighbors.

My friend said, "It's a hundred year old tree. Nobody thinks its a good thing."

When I got home, I was surprised to learn that the Supreme Court had asked for an eleventh hour delay in the execution of Troy Davis. I watched events unfold on television. The delay did not result in a stay, and the executioners proved just as efficient as the tree men had. Troy Davis was pronounced dead at 11:08 tonight, still protesting his innocence.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


As I am going to have to at some point change this back from an advocacy platform to what it was intended to be, I thought a good transitory word would be 'vigil'. I will note here that it was announced this morning that Troy Davis was not granted clemency, and is scheduled to be executed at 7 PM Wednesday evening, Atlanta time. I feel that the time of advocacy is over and the time of vigil has begun. But what exactly is a vigil?

I was not surprised by the sense of watchfulness and wakefulness it has. It comes to us from the Latin, of course, and took on the meaning of 'the eve of a religious festival' in the thirteenth century. The meaning of a watch kept on a festival eve comes later, toward the end of the fourteenth century, and our more contemporary sense of 'an occasion of keeping awake for some purpose' isn't recorded till 1711.

For some reason this started me thinking about vigilantes, which originally comes from the Spanish language, but somehow ended up in the American West--probably, I'm guessing, through the Spanish speakers who also lived in the region. It's interesting that the original sense of watchmen has all but disappeared from our mythology of vigilante justice with its disregard for due process.

I'll write a less cursory post about something probably completely unrelated in a few days.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

"A Life in the Balance--Examining the Troy Davis Case"

Although it may seem like I'm belaboring the case for Troy Davis here a little, I have been watching this film by Terry Benedict put out by Amnesty International in four parts on YouTube and thought I'd run the first part here. It's a thoughtful piece and I think one of things it underscores is that even if you are pro-death penalty, as some of Troy's advocates are, there is too much doubt as to what really happened that evening to sentence Davis to death. Amnesty has never taken a position on Troy Davis's innocence, only on the fairness of the proceedings against him. It's a good, thought-provoking documentary, and as both the filmmaker and Davis have said, it isn't for Davis alone that we do well to educate ourselves on these matters.

You can still sign a petition to stop the execution HERE .

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

clemency (on Troy Davis)

Yes, I know what it means. For anyone who is wondering, it means lenience or mercy. It means gentleness. In law it means the power granted to an official to in some way lower the harshness of a sentence imposed upon a prisoner.

As things stand, on September 21, Troy Davis will be executed for the shooting of a police officer in Atlanta, Georgia. There are many reasons to think that he wasn't the shooter, and certainly enough doubt to incline a reasonable judicial system to at the very least, not kill him.

Clemency, is not actually what Troy Davis has ever wanted, as clemency won't clear his name, and in fact takes for granted his guilt. Troy has always wanted a new trial, but clemency is now the only thing still open to him.

I've signed the petitions of course and written emails, but really I've had a hard time imagining what would sway the Georgia Board of Prisons and Paroles to act any differently than they have in the past. Rather than simply be discouraged, though, I've decided to repost an old post from a different blog I did a couple of years ago on Troy's limbolike situation. If you'd rather just cut to the chase and help Troy, though, you can find out more HERE.      

I Am Troy Davis

There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. The Talmud tells us that by saving a single human being, man can save the world. We may be powerless to open all the jails and free all the prisoners, but by declaring our solidarity with one prisoner, we indict all jailers.--Elie Wiesel, Nobel Lecture, 1986

I must admit that, initially, I failed to understand the reasoning behind the Amnesty International T-Shirt that bears the words that head this post until I read this quote from the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech by Elie Wiesel the other day. I had previously thought it presumptuous to express an identity between myself and a man who has spent decades in prison, under the shadow of death, most probably for a crime he did not commit.I am not Troy Davis, I thought. I have never had to live through what he has and it is naive to think I could simply 'empathize' my way into his situation.

All true, of course. But what the shirt is really saying, at least if I understand Wiesel correctly, is that in expressing solidarity with another human being, we are showing ourselves willing to share an identity with them, and even to stand in for that human being in situations where he or she can not themselves stand.

I have posted here about Troy Davis's case before. It is not my general intent to make this blog a soapbox for issues of the day. But the plight of this one particular human being moves me deeply, and his fate hangs heavily on me. As Wiesel says, there may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time we fail to protest. In Troy Davis's case, there are a great many people in the world who have protested a great many times, and after such a long drawn out issue, where one is handed defeat time and again, the spirit languishes and there is a temptation to step back and not raise your own tiresome voice yet one more time. But by Wiesel's lights, this is exactly the time when you must lift it, and shout loudly.

Martha Silano has a thoughtful meditation on her blog about a poem by Emily Dickinson and Abu Ghraib here. It seems appropriate in this context as well.

Apparently with no surprise
To any happy flower,
The frost beheads it at its play
In accidental power.

The blond assassin passes on,
The sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another day
For an approving God.

Troy Davis may be innocent. He deserves a new trial in the aftermath of witness recantations. All channels of justice may now have been closed to him. But that fact in itself doesn't make him any less deserving of it.

If you would like to check out the Amnesty International position on Troy Davis, and see what you can do, please go here.

(Other posts I have written about Troy are included here.)

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Comedy of Errors
Shakespeare Santa Cruz, 2011
To be perfectly honest, I thought this was going to be a kind of easy post.  I saw "The Comedy of Errors"  at Shakespeare Santa Cruz the weekend before this one, and got from the program notes that "error" had something to do with wandering. I thought that was pretty cool, given the wandering, questing nature of the play and thought I'd  be able to report and comment on that.

But closer inspection shows that the program notes only say that the play may well be a pun on the Latin word errare, to wander. Which leaves me as much in the dark as ever. If error doesn't come from errare, where does it come from?


I'm a bit stuck on this one. 'Error' does apparently come from the Old French error, which meant mistake, flaw, defect and, interestingly, heresy. It derived from the Latin erro 'to wander, stray or rove'. The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that most Indoeuropean languages take their word for error from the sense of wandering or straying, but that the Irish word for error is dearmad, which comes  from dermat, "a forgetting". An interesting difference.

Another interesting thing is that the Germanic languages seem to have taken that original PIE base *ers- and turned it into words like ierre (Old English) and ire (Old Frisian) and irre (Old High German), all of which have at least one meaning of "angry". The Online Etymological Dictionary has it that this comes from the Germanic notion of anger as "straying" from normal composure. Hmm.

Now none of this is too confusing, but when you think, as I did, that the word 'errant' must come from the same sense, you get your comeuppance fast. Here I was thinking of all those lovely knights errant, wandering around on what I supposed were their knightly errands. But it seems that errant in English comes from the fusion of two words in old French, both stemming from different forms of errer, one having to do with wandering and the other with, well, erring. In English, most of the wandering meaning stuck with 'errant' and much of the second meaning went with the word 'arrant'.

I didn't even think I knew the word 'arrant' until I stepped away from this post for a bit and realized that I did of course know the phrase 'arrant knave'. What's fascinating is that although an arrant knave and a knight errant sound very different to our ears now, in fact, since knight originally comes from Old English cniht "boy, youth, servant", and knave originally comes from Old English cnafa, "boy, servant", you have quite a doubling over and entwining of wandering, mistaken identities.

In fact,what you have is The Comedy of Errors.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Happy Labor Day round up

It's somewhat ironic to work on Labor Day, but that's retail for you. For some reason I was very busy with the blogs yesterday, though, and so I thought I'd post a few links. There's a review of Tove Jansson's very wonderful The Summer Book, a cool video of how microlending looks on a map, and the links to two very different hunting stories.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Online Etymology Dictionary

Regular readers of this blog may realize how often I resort to the Online Etymology Dictionary to resolve my bafflement over a good many things. Like many reference works, I had used this free resource, usually checking it against other sources, without thinking too much about it. It seemed to have sprung into being whole, and I assumed there was a team of zealous scribes somewhere, busily looking into the sources of all our English words. I say all, which is not entirely true, but when you can find a word like, say, 'furbelow' there, you know it's extensive.

One evening recently, I happened to see an abbreviation for a language there that I wasn't sure about, so with uncharacteristic industry, I searched out a list of abbreviations. I didn't actually discover the meaning of the abbreviation--and have since forgotten what it was--but I did find a whole list of supplemental material that I'd never thought to look for before. And it was here that I discovered that the online dictionary is actually the work of one man. Douglas Harper, upon discovering that there really was no comprehensive free online dictionary of etymology, decided to compile his own. Drawing on a whole host of basic sources and a raft of supplemental ones (so in that sense, there really is a team of scholars behind this) he has singled-handedly brought them together for the likes of you and me to access easily.

Easy enough, you say. The  man is probably some pinched old hermit, holed away in an attic. In fact, he is the father of young children whom he shares the care for, has a full time night job at a newspaper, and has written several historical titles about Chester, Pennysylvania, mostly relating to the Civil War. The one I like most, perhaps, is West Chester to 1865: That Elegant and Notorious Place.

The online etymology dictionary is his gift to the world. (Although if you want to show the guy some thanks, you can sponsor a word for ten bucks for six months.) I really liked and was moved by his dedications at the end of his introduction page. He talks about one of the chief sources for his work, Ernest Klein's A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. Klein, he tells us, was  Rabbi of Nové Zámky in Czechoslovakia from 1931-44, and 'was deported to Dachau and returned home after liberation to find "that my father, my wife, my only child Joseph, and two of my three sisters had suffered martyrdom in Auschwitz." He moved to Canada, and out of his sorrow and urged on by his surviving sister he set down his lifelong love of etymology into a book, and in its introduction he wrote:
May this dictionary, which plastically shows the affinity and interrelationship of the nations of the world in the way in which their languages developed, contribute to bringing them nearer to one another in the sincere pursuit of peace on earth -- which was one of my cardinal aims in writing this dictionary.'
Ernest Klein

Thank you, Douglas Harper, for sharing your work and this history with us all.