Sunday, 30 December 2012

Herr Doctor Obama

A question just popped into my mind for which I have no answer at the moment. We address adult men, in formal occasions, as "Mister," unless they hold a doctorate, in which case we call them "Doctor." Americans like to address their President as "Mister President." However, what if he held a doctorate? Would he be "Doctor President"? Has there ever been an occasion where a choice between these forms of address had to be made?

Update: Well, Bill Clinton has a doctorate in Law. I guess "Doctor President" isn't going to happen. Unless an M.D. were elected President, perhaps?

Saturday, 29 December 2012

Star Trek Economics

Star Trek: A Child of its Times

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, was a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist. The reasons for short-term pessimism were clear. When it first aired in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson had been given the power to declare war in Vietnam "if necessary," the American air force had been intensively bombing North Vietnam for a year, and the first U.S. troops had been in South Vietnam for about as long. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1964, which had brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation, was a recent memory. Two popular movies with essentially the same plot of universal atomic destruction were both released in 1964, Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe, showing that knowledge of the world's precarious state was widely spread.

Given the time it was created, it is no surprise that nuclear standoffs and proxy wars feature in a number of Star Trek episodes; these include Balance of Terror and A Private Little War. Other episodes illustrate a subtle balance of good and evil in the human soul and the potential for one to become the other. These include Mirror Mirror and The Enemy Within. These encouraged Americans to question their righteous self-image.

In contrast, 1965 was the time of Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" plans to eliminate poverty and racial inequality. Linus Pauling had won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962 for his work to end the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. Subsequently, the "Ban the Bomb" movement spread throughout the United States as well as in other countries. The Civil Rights Movement was reaching its peak. Martin Luther King had led the March on Washington in 1963 and given his "I Have a Dream" speech. He had received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

Hopeful alternatives to a threatened world were as much in the air as fears of nuclear war. Star Trek had elements of both the hope and the fear.


However, the future history that Roddenberry plotted for Star Trek shows things becoming much worse before they get better. Accordingly, we learn in different Star Trek episodes that Earth survives the Cold War only to fight the Eugenics Wars of 1993 to 1996, which cause 30 million casualties. Later Star Trek series distinguish the Eugenics Wars from World War III, which lasts from 2026 to 2053. After this war, with its 600 million deaths, radiation poisoning, and nuclear winters, members of the Vulcan race make contact with humans in Brozeman, Montana (though Vulcan, Alberta, also celebrates the meeting).

The Vulcans are evidently what humans need: a race that had abandoned war in the fourth century and would provide the Earth with massive technological and humanitarian support. They help to bring it into recovery by the early 22nd century, though earlier in some parts than others.

As well as poverty and disease, war is conquered. A United Earth comes into being in 2150, followed by the United Federation of Planets in 2161. This is the historical and political background to the famous "five-year voyage" of the U.S.S. Enterprise that is the subject of the first Star Trek series. The voyage begins in 2265, so the Federation is a well-established fact at that time. Still, no-one knows its potential, but everyone senses that it is great.

Star Trek had to answer a question, though, or at least assume that an answer exists: if mankind had conquered war, want, and disease, what kind of economy would it have?

The Industrial Base in Star Trek

I don't believe that Roddenberry had any specific economic theory to push in Star Trek, but he did have the goal of presenting an economic system of universal affluence. His fictional universe included technologies that could enable this, though they would not guarantee it:
  • The replicator allows almost any object, from a machine to a meal, to be created from a template or pattern that is stored in a computer. A family with access to a replicator would have food and clothing, both basic and luxurious, at any time.
  • Matter and antimatter collisions would provide cheap energy that, eventually, might prove "too cheap to meter."
  • Although living space would remain a scarce good, competition for it would be lessened by the opening of colony worlds.
  • Holographic recreations of places and activities would decrease demand for access to unique locations and activities, since they could be experienced in perfect simulations. The potential for this technology in improving educational opportunities is, of course, immense.
Despite these technologies, skilled labour is still required for many specialized jobs, such as building or refitting spacecraft. The labour and the technologies, together, might allow a life with necessities as well as many luxuries being "too cheap to meter."

Star Trek and Money

If most goods are too cheap to charge for, though, why would we have money? In fact, Roddenberry was adamant that we would not. As a Star Trek writer and producer, Ronald D. Moore, said in an AOL chat in 1997,
By the time I joined TNG [Star Trek: The Next Generation], Gene had decreed that money most emphatically did NOT exist in the Federation, nor did 'credits' and that was that. Personally, I've always felt this was a bunch of hooey, but it was one of the rules and that's that.

So, the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (released in 1986) has this exchange:
Dr. Gillian Taylor: Don't tell me you don't use money in the 23rd Century.
Kirk: Well, we don't. 
Captain Picard (in Star Trek: First Contact) could be quite self-righteous on the lack of money.
The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn't exist in the 24th century... The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of Humanity.
Nevertheless, other species continued to use money of one form or another, and this difference could cause difficulties in exchanges between the parties, as this conversation between the human Jake Sisko and the Ferengi Nog makes clear.
Jake: "I'm Human, I don't have any money."
Nog: "It's not my fault that your species decided to abandon currency-based economics in favor of some philosophy of self-enhancement."
Jake: "Hey, watch it. There's nothing wrong with our philosophy. We work to better ourselves and the rest of Humanity."
Nog: "What does that mean exactly?"
Jake: "It means... it means we don't need money!"
Nog :"Well if you don't need money then you certainly don't need mine."
To alleviate the problem of exchanges with species who do use money, Federation citizens have some access to Federation-backed "credit" on places like Vulcan and to gold-pressed latinum everywhere that the Ferengi trade in order to make exchanges happen. (I should mention that gold-pressed latinum cannot be created by replicators, nor can the dilithium crystals used in starship engines, so both remain scarce resources).

A few references exist of humans using "credits" with each other, especially where some scarce resource is being rationed. For example, Captain Sisko, Jake's father, tells us that he used up a month's supply of "transporter credits" because he was homesick after he entered the Starfleet Academy.

For those who want more detail on money in the Star Trek universe, this site has an exhaustive collection of quotations.

The two "facts" we know about Star Trek's fictional economy--there is universal abundance but  no money--have attracted a great deal of attention and criticism. Many state that such an economy is contrary to human nature; many others, that it is contrary to economic science. A few add that, even if it could be achieved, it would only be a new form of some well-known and widely-despised economic system. Let us look at these criticisms in order.

Human Nature vs. Star Trek

There are two versions of the idea that Star Trek economics is contrary to human nature.
  1. The first objection is that people are naturally lazy so, if everyone were guaranteed a comfortable life, no matter what, then no-one would work. "A universe of unlimited resources would be packed with lazy slobs -- not intrepid explorers," says one site.

    The argument can be extended to include the idea that, even if people do work without financial incentives, they do not work hard. They certainly would not work to better themselves. In other words, "When a doctor and a garbage man are given the same paycheck, what could possibly motivate someone to go to college, get their masters, then their MD?"

    I find it interesting that money is considered the only motivator in the posts I've linked to. I cannot see, from my own life and motivations, that the posters are right. For example, I am working quite hard on this post, but expect no financial reward. I love my wife and son without reasonable expectation of financial profit. I'd happily spend much of my life back in university, if I could afford it, without hoping that the expense could be recouped. That last example shows, in fact, that the need for money kills dreams (since I can't afford to go back to university) just as it can inspire them.
  2. The second objection is that people are naturally greedy or, as William Blake puts it, the human heart is "a hungry gorge." This implies that, even in the presence of abundance, the desire to acquire objects and wealth in excess of one's neighbours' would remain. In fact, "There's no real bottom to human greed for more."

    It's true enough that we are a competitive species, but that competition is not always expressed in terms of wealth or possessions. When two young men compete for a young woman's affections, it takes a warped mind to think of her as a "possession." People compete for respect. People compete to leave a greater legacy. I compete to write a more convincing blog post than others have left on the same topic.

Response to the "Human Nature" Arguments, or Abraham Maslow to the Rescue!

The answer to the "human nature" arguments against a Star Trek-style economy lies, I think, in Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs."

The psychologist Abraham Maslow postulated that needs (and therefore motivation) comes in levels. The most basic needs are physiological, meaning food, shelter, and so on. If these are not met, an individual would die. Over these are the psychological needs for esteem, friendship, and love. If these are not met, the individual will feel anxious and tense. If all these lower levels of need are met, the individual will find motivation to achieve "self-actualization," which means to accomplish some latent potential for its own sake: to "be all that you can be." Here, from the Wikipedia page on the Hierarchy of Needs, is a representation of his theory.
The argument that "a universe with infinite resources would be packed with lazy slobs" implies that only the first two levels supply motivation to work. The argument that, without differential access to money, no one would work harder than necessary implies that all the levels up to esteem are at work. (A doctor would see his higher esteem in society reflected by a higher paycheque). However, the need for esteem may be met by means other than money, such as rank, honours, the confidence of others, and self-confidence.

Once the need for esteem has been met, the need for self-actualization, meaning self-development or self-improvement, kicks in as a motivation. We see it beginning in the young James T. Kirk in this clip from the 2009 Star Trek film.

The needs for esteem and self-actualization may not be as well-publicized as money, but they may be enough to power an economy.

Economics vs. Star Trek

If human nature allows a Star Trek style of economy, does the discipline of Economics also allow it? Perhaps not.

Economics is typically defined as "The science of how people make choices for the allocation of scarce resources to satisfy their unlimited desires," so there are those whose suspension of disbelief stalls before the idea that goods may not be scarce. When the cost of an article is zero, standard Economics has a literal or figurative "divide by zero" problem that prevents any analysis of production and distribution. As John Waring states (quoted here)
Economics in any and all forms rests on the assumption of conditions of natural or artificially enforced scarcity, far less than enough to supply everyone. The study of economics and its everyday business control and transactions tells you how each variation of the Price System makes an ideology of how to divide up that scarcity. You will find economics defined in terms of scarcity in every textbook on the subject, usually in the opening chapter. Without scarcity, some of them candidly admit, there would be no need for economics.
And yet there are portions of the economy, and important ones, that approximate a post-scarcity economics. One example is the Free Software Movement, which has produced the operating system on my computer, the web browser which I am using to type this, and much of the programming infrastructure of the Internet, all at no cost to the user. This is achieved through gratis labour. Some of it is genuinely altruistic labour from individuals, and some is enlightened self-interest of corporations.

 The discipline of Economics must simply expand to include post-scarcity economies. The only alternative is to hobble an increasing number of non-scarce goods with artificial scarcity and the "deadweight" loss to the economy this would imply.

What sort of Crazy Economic System is This? 

There have been a few suggestions that Star Trek exemplifies some type of economy that we have already experienced. Each explanation has its reasons, and each has its problems.
  • Communism--This is the most popular candidate. This is despite the fact that private property exists, such as the Picard family farm and the restaurant run by Captain Sisko's father.
  • Fascism--This is a less common argument, but it exists. The arguments are that only the state (in some versions, only the military) allocates resources and can direct their use. This is an assumption that the lack of money necessarily implies a command economy. It may not. 

Another View. It's Social Credit.

I am not an economist, and I have no idea if the economic theories of C.H. Douglas could achieve the goals he intended. It is quite clear, though, that the goals of his theory, called Social Credit, are consistent with those of Star Trek economics.
[Social Credit's] policies are designed ... to disperse economic and political power to individuals. Douglas once wrote, "Systems were made for men, and not men for systems, and the interest of man which is self-development, is above all systems, whether theological, political or economic." Douglas said that Social Crediters want to build a new civilization based upon "absolute economic security" for the individual, where "they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid." In his words, "what we really demand of existence is not that we shall be put into somebody else's Utopia, but we shall be put in a position to construct a Utopia of our own."
Social Credit Theory approaches those goals through a comprehensive theory of economic production. It includes the traditional elements--capital and labour--and adds the collective experience, wisdom, and knowledge which comprise our culture. For example, we see Walt Disney combine capital and labour to create the first full-length animated film, Snow White, which was released in 1937. Of course he is economically rewarded for his investment of capital and labour, but he did not create the story. He took it from a book by the brothers Grimm, published in 1812. Of course they were economically rewarded for their investment of capital and labour, but they did not create the story, either. They collected it as a folk tale from people who had heard it from their parents and grandparents and told it to their children. The story on which the Disney empire was founded is a collective possession of the culture. Douglas says, in effect, why don't we all, as collective possessors of this culture, get paid for it. Let's say, a cheque every month, a guaranteed basic income, with which we can order ("buy") whatever we want.

Social Credit does not, therefore, renounce money, though it redefines it. Instead of thinking of money as a commodity, a thing valuable in itself, that is used as a "medium of exchange," Social Credit thinks of it as a "ticketing system" with which consumers place orders for products. If more consumers can order more products, it says, then the entire economy would benefit.

If we add pervasive computing to a Social Credit economy, though, it is possible that money would become less meaningful. The consumer would have access to purchasing power, as would everyone else. The producer would receive orders for a good and receive, behind the scenes, without his intervention, purchasing power for all the resources he needs to create the product. Eventually, as a rule, neither the consumer who orders a good nor the producer who supplies it would have to handle, or even think about, money. It would "wither away."


Star Trek provided an image of a society that is more egalitarian and more humanitarian than our own. C.H. Douglas provided an economic theory that was designed to achieve the same goals. I am not saying, in any way, that Star Trek is based on the theories of Social Credit, but I am saying that it could have been.

Social Credit, by the way, is not a discredited theory. A theory that has never been tested cannot be discredited. I was interested to discover, though, that the United States came close to trying out something very similar, a "Guaranteed Annual Income" (GAI) proposed by Richard Nixon but never passed into law.

Update: An article on ("The Utopian Economics of Star Trek" by Andrew Leonard" begins:
There are many clever moments in the thoroughly satisfying new “Star Trek” movie, but the one that has economists chattering is more than just smart: It strikes right to the core of what the Star Trek future is all about.

The scene comes early, when a pre-pubescent Spock is undergoing the formidable educational process inflicted on all Vulcan children. We see and hear him say the words “nonrival” and “nonexcludable” (and we can imagine his computer tutor nodding encouragingly).

And then we move on, without explanation. To my children, and, I imagine, to most Trekkies, the moment was just one more jargonistic outburst in a franchise that has always delighted in excessive indulgence in meaningless techno-gibberish. But the economists in the audience all started high-fiving each other: Whoa, who could have expected a shout-out to economist Paul Romer’s breakthrough paper, “Endogenous Technological Change,” in a “Star Trek” movie? Awesome!
A "nonrivalous" good "can be shared without losing anything. An apple, say, is a rival good: If one person eats it, the other person can’t." Knowledge is nonrivalous, as Thomas Jefferson illustrates in a letter:
If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.
On the other hand, Leonard says, "Excludability refers to whether you can prevent someone from sharing, as with, for example, copy protection or a jail sentence."

Leonard has another article, an interview with David Warsh, author of "Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations," that says that Romer's mathematics has been greatly influential in the field of economics. That's something to look into. To start, here's a Paul Rohmer TED talk on his concept of "Charter Cities." Here's an article in The Atlantic on his views: "The Politically Incorrect Guide to Ending Poverty" by Sebastian Mallaby.

James Merrill Sonnet. Who Says the Sonnet is Dead?

Here's one of the best poems I've read in recent years. I stumbled on it here by accident. I want to spread knowledge of it more broadly.
My father, who had flown in World War I,
Might have continued to invest his life
In cloud banks well above Wall Street and wife.
But the race was run below, and the point was to win.
Too late now, I make out in his blue gaze
(Through the smoked glass of being thirty-six)
The soul eclipsed by twin black pupils, sex
And business; time was money in those days.
Each thirteenth year he married. When he died
There were already several chilled wives
In sable orbit --- rings, cars, permanent waves.
We'd felt him warming up for a green bride.
He could afford it. He was "in his prime"
At three score ten. But money was not time.
The phrase "in sable orbit" is a wonderful pun, with the reference to a "stable orbit" adding to the meaning. "Invest his life/In cloud banks...," equally lovely. The poem as a whole is both clear-eyed and bitter. Its perfection of expression is set off by its perfection of form.

Friday, 28 December 2012

The Adventures of Alfredo

The most fun computer I've ever owned was an Apple IIe. I didn't say the most powerful, I said the most fun. There are many things that I knew how to do on that machine, thanks to its built-in BASIC language, that I don't know how to do on modern machines. At the amazing processor speed of 1 MHz, it kept up with my fastest typing, and what more could I want than that?

In addition, I obtained programs in a variety of ways that the Internet has made obsolete. I could buy a copy of Compute! or Nibble magazines and type in the programs that filled their pages. I could also spring for a copy of Softdisk, a monthly "Magazine on Disk." When I later exchanged my IIe for the more advanced Apple IIgs, I also started collecting Softdisk GS. Some of the games and utilities and even lightweight productivity programs were worth the money, but the process of discovering what was on the disk was worth even more. Anyone who enjoys unwrapping gifts at Christmas will understand what I mean.

A recurring feature of the original Softdisks were "The Adventures of Alfredo." These were completely non-interactive stories in which a stick figure, "Alfredo," undergoes surreal misadventures. The style was the ultimate in minimalism.

Here, without, further ado, is one of the Adventures of Alfredo.

A few others are also available on Youtube. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Music and Movies: A Few Favourites

Combining the power of movies with the power of music can create some of the most memorable moments in film. One example should make my point. In the very sweet and critically underrated movie Princess Caraboo (1994), the princess, played by Phoebe Cates, is treated to her first experience of classical music, specifically a chamber performance of of the second movement of the Trio, Opus 99, by Franz Schubert. She is overwhelmed by the music. She rises from her seat, walks among the musicians, then cries. The concerned hostess tries to stop the music, but Caraboo will not allow it. Equally moved, the director of the orchestra rises to say that he is honoured to have such an appreciative listener.

Now dry your eyes and let's move on.

One way the music can be used is to unify a mosaic of scenes, giving them a common mood and meaning. A wonderful example is from The Lord of the Rings. In this scene, Lord Denethor has knowingly ordered a hopeless attack, weakening his city to guarantee the death of his son and the end of his own line. The visuals shift from Denethor to the attacking forces to the defending forces to Pippin, a hobbit, who sings a song from the perspective of eternity, that everything must "fade" and end.

The ultimate montage to music, though, is the second scene in the film The Watchmen (2009). It contains a sequence of images from May 1939 to some time in the 1980's, when the story itself is set. They show a world that is subtly altered from our own. For example, the plane that bombs Hiroshima is called the "Miss. Jupiter" instead of the Enola Gay; for example, the famous photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse on VJ Day has a superhero(ine) replacing the sailor; for example, the Zapruder film of John Kennedy's assassination now shows the identity of the assassin. The music that ties this together, reflecting the changes from our timeline, is, of course, Bob Dylan's "The Times They are A-Changin'."

I'd embed a clip of this, but these clips are being aggressively taken down from Youtube. Here is a link to it on Vimeo instead.

Another way to use the music is to match the mood of a wordless scene, as in the excellent movie Truly, Madly Deeply (1990). The story is of a woman whose husband has died, and she is not coping at all well. Her grief is intense and unrelenting, to the point that her husband returns to her from the dead as she plays a piece of music that they must have often played together, Bach's Sonata No. 3 for Cello (Viol de Gamba) & Piano.


When she's had time to adjust to his return, the two celebrate with wordplay, music, and remarkably eccentric dance.

The romantic comedy LA Story (1991) also has two musical highlights, both performed by Enya. The first is when the two main characters realize that they have fallen in love.

The next is when she is about to leave, and all the elements rise up to prevent her flight.

My last video in this post is from a fairly obscure movie called Iceman (1984), in which a neanderthal is brought back to life. The scientist and his subject have no language in common, of course. Any communication has to be emotional. For example, through Neil Young's music.

I could go on. These film clips are a selection of moments in film where music rolls up its sleeves and reveals its strength. If there are other moments that come to mind, let me know in the comments.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

My "Author's Spotlight Page"

I just set up a "Spotlight Page" on You can order my Poetry Guide and Workbook from there now, but I hope to have other books for sale there soon. Come visit me!

I have put up part of my chapter on Alliterative verse on my other blog. Have a look at that if Beowulf or other Old English verse interests you.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

LCARS, Tablet Computers, and the Undying Spirit of Star Trek

This is a time when tablet computers are beginning to bite into the sales of both desktop and laptop computers. It is also a time when CBS Enterprises is forgoing some easy income and surefire advertising by not licensing a tablet interface that was first seen in 1987 on the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation. This interface is called LCARS, which stands for "Library Computer Access/Retrieval System." It uses bold, curving lines, sometimes holding buttons, to separate the screen into functional areas. It was sometimes shown on large screens, similar to computer monitors, like this:

(Thank you Wikipedia). It was, at other times, on 7" tablet computers called PADDs (Personal Access Display Device).

Let us put the year in a little perspective. The year 1989 is about 11 years before Microsoft tried selling tablet computers. It is 21 years before Apple introduced the iPad in 2010. Nevertheless, these Star Trek PADDs are not the first appearance of tablet computers either in real life or fiction. The Acorn Newspad of 1997 has that honour in real life, but it was inspired by the tablets on the spacecraft Discovery in the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

This scene, in fact, was used in court to contest Apple's design patents for the iPad.

Unlike the tablets in 2001, the Star Trek PADDs have a unique, easily-distinguished user interface that is unlike anything being offered by tablet manufacturers. Accordingly, all of the large manufacturers--Apple, Google, even RIM and Microsoft--would have no interest in making an LCARS tablet; they have invested too much in convincing us that theirs is the better way. However, would Asus or some other, smaller manufacturer of Android-powered fondleslabs be interested in releasing one? They would receive, in return, a galaxy of free publicity, possible tie-ins to the upcoming Star Trek movies, and the undying love of geeks and nerds.

The tablet would almost market itself. PADD would be the best name for it, of course but, if that were not possible, it could be the "Data," named after the genial mechanical man in the Star Trek series.

Majel Barrett, the voice of the Star Trek computers, unfortunately died in 2008, but the tablet could speak in the voice of Brent Spiner, who played Data. It could have an option to only respond to voice commands and queries if you say, in a Scottish accent, "Computer!" or "Hello, Computer."

There would be something very appropriate to this product because many other flights of fancy, especially from Star Trek, have inspired real-world products. (cell phones, anyone? but most particularly this one; the Space Shuttle Enterprise?) and emerging technologies (cloaking device, tractor beam, warp drive, shields, tricorder, transporter).

But it will not happen unless CBS says yes. Then, once that is out, the LCARS interface can begin to make the 24th-century computing experience available even now in the 21st century. Yes, even put LCARS in cars.

I think that Lieutenant-Commander Jadzia Dax speaks for many of us when she says, "I love classic 23rd century design!"

Incidental fact: the team that created the on-line Star Trek movie Of Gods and Men, including many who were involved in the Star Trek tv shows, have recently completed a Kickstarter effort to raise money for a new Star Trek show. They will produce a pilot episode called Star Trek: Renegades. If CBS does not want to purchase the show, the team will release the pilot on a non-profit basis and carry on making shows through donations. They say, "we have a five year story arc planned."

Of Gods and Men is an interesting movie, of interest to anyone who enjoyed any of the various Star Trek series over the years, but especially those who watched the original series (1966-1969).

Monday, 10 December 2012

A Rich Jewel in an Ethiop's Ear

The obligatory Wikipedia visit tells me that Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet about 1597 when he was still quite a young man, about 33  years old. The most beautiful lines in that play, to me, are
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear-
The image of a bright diamond or ruby against black skin is gorgeous. However, my search for a painting or photograph to illustrate the image came up with little. Here's the closest so far:

Coincidentally,  I came up empty-handed in a search for a painting or photograph to illustrate these equally lovely lines from Kubla Khan by Coleridge:
A damsel with a dulcimer in a vision once I saw,
It was an Abyssinian maid, and on the dulcimer she played
Singing of Mount Abora...
Since there aren't that many positive portrayals of blacks in older English drama or verse, I would have thought that many painters would have been inspired by the ones that exist.

Some sites on the web state (with disturbing confidence) that Shakespeare's image is far from a positive portrayal. For example, this page states,
In this speech, Ethiope is an allusion for Ethiopia. Shakespeare alludes [sic] the Ethiopian slaves who often dwelt in Moorish harems, decking themselves with expensive jewelry in their ears to impress upon all who saw them the wealth of their masters.
Or Shakespeare may simply have found the contrast of light and dark beautiful, much as Hieronymus Bosch did in The Garden of Earthly Delights, dating from about 1500.

We certainly cannot assume that Shakespeare immediately associated black skin with slavery. He knew of blacks who were not slaves. In fact, he wrote a play about one, Othello, a self-made man with heroic qualities, albeit one brought down by racism and jealousy

Other sites wonder if Shakespeare's words were entirely original. The Folger Shakespeare Library website has a page pointing to a 1639 work called The Academy of Complements by John Gough. It contains these words:
It seems she hangs upon the cheeks of night
As a rich Jewel in the Ethiop's ear
Did Gough copy Shakespeare, or both copy some previous source? Shakespeare wouldn't be above a bit of swiping, any more than Gough was. Does that make him a talentless plagiarist? Oh, I don't think so. There's the small matter of all the other lines in the play to argue against that.

The meme of the bright jewel in a dark woman's (or man's) ear eventually took hold in the mind of a Canadian songwriter, Joni Mitchell. In "That Song About the Midway," she wrote,
I met you on a midway at a fair last year
And you stood out like a ruby in a black man's ear
Was she thinking of Shakespeare at the time? Oh, yes. Does that lessen her work? Oh, no. In fact, a little jerk of joy passed through me when I caught the allusion. As I've written before, the word "allusion" comes from the Latin word meaning "to play." Allusions are creative play.

Sunday, 2 December 2012


I've written before about the importance of the public domain, the massive assemblage of all works for which ownership has expired. It includes the works of Shakespeare, of course, and the musical scores of Bach and Brahms and, in Canada, music recordings from fifty years ago and before. Governments sometimes carve out odd exceptions to the rules that govern the public domain. So, in Britain, Peter Pan is still the property of Great Ormond Street Hospital, and the King James translation of the Bible is controlled by the Crown even now, 401 years after its first publication.

I've also mentioned a number of good web sites to find public domain books in e-book formats. These are Project Gutenberg and its spinoffs, such as the Australian and Canadian projects, and the Internet Archive.

However, the point of this post is to recommend a site called Feedbooks. It is a purveyor of commercial e-books, but the main page gives equal prominence to public domain and self-published books. There are many fewer books under the public domain heading than at Project Gutenberg (about a tenth as many), but the books are more attractive. They come with cover pictures, which are often the covers of the first print edition of the book; they lack the long legal text at the beginning of a Project Gutenberg book, and in its place is a biography of the author. Finally, the chapter headings are differentiated from the text in a more professional-looking way. See for yourself: the Gutenberg e-book is on the left, the Feedbooks, on the right.