Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Flashback: The Return to Soviet Era Life for Russian Gays

LGBT rights marchers in St. Petersburg, Russia, on May 1, 2013. (Photo courtesy of Coming Out)
Source: 76 Crimes
 During the recent Sochi 2014 Olympics, a lot of the focus was on the countries' anti-gay laws.
The Russian law outlaws pro-gay "propaganda" that could be accessible to minors. Critics say it is so restrictive and vague that it deters almost any public expression of support for gay rights.What was missing from the reports was the historical preceedence for this decision. The attitudes and legislation in Russia against Gay and Lesbians is unfortunately not new.

I found an article from the Calgary Herald dated June 1993, "Russia: Anti-gay law wiped from books". In 1993 Russian legislators had formally lifted the Soviet era law declaring male homosexuality a crime. The law, Article 121, was a holdover from the criminal code and made Russia one of the few countries in Europe that considered male homosexuality a crime punishable up to five years in prison. Ten men had been sentenced in 1992 for the crime, and 1989 some 500 men were sent to jail for being homosexual.

One of the fall-outs from criminalizing gay people is the increase in AIDS and lack of treatment in Russia. Many gay men "were very scared they would be thrown in jail if they went to the doctor for a STD", said Dima Lychev, eidotr of the gay newspaper One In Ten. Such restrictions had cast doubt on official stats on AIDS in Russia at the time, saying 650-700. Activists have said the actual number is at least 10 times higher.

Around 1.4 million people in Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia were living with HIV at the end of 2011, representing an HIV prevalence of 1 percent. Around 140,000 became infected in 2011 and 92,000 died from AIDS related illnesses; there was a 21 percent increase in AIDS-related deaths between 2005 and 2011.


It is estimated that over two-thirds of the area’s infected people live in Russia, and combined with Ukraine, these two countries account for almost 90 percent of the region's newly reported HIV diagnoses. Both countries also have the highest number of people living with HIV relative to the general population; adult HIV prevalence is 0.8 percent in Ukraine and between 0.8 and 1.4 percent in Russia. (See avert's report) What will the stats look like after the new anti-gay laws wreak their havoc is not too hard to guess.
Around 1.4 million people in Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia were living with HIV at the end of 2011, representing an HIV prevalence of 1 percent.1 Around 140,000 became infected in 2011 and 92,000 died from AIDS-related illnesses; there was a 21 percent increase in AIDS-related deaths between 2005 and 2011.2
- See more at: http://www.avert.org/hiv-aids-russia-eastern-europe-central-asia.htm#sthash.2jxArsmV.dpuf
Around 1.4 million people in Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia were living with HIV at the end of 2011, representing an HIV prevalence of 1 percent.1 Around 140,000 became infected in 2011 and 92,000 died from AIDS-related illnesses; there was a 21 percent increase in AIDS-related deaths between 2005 and 2011.2
- See more at: http://www.avert.org/hiv-aids-russia-eastern-europe-central-asia.htm#sthash.2jxArsmV.dpuf
Around 1.4 million people in Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia were living with HIV at the end of 2011, representing an HIV prevalence of 1 percent.1 Around 140,000 became infected in 2011 and 92,000 died from AIDS-related illnesses; there was a 21 percent increase in AIDS-related deaths between 2005 and 2011.2
- See more at: http://www.avert.org/hiv-aids-russia-eastern-europe-central-asia.htm#sthash.2jxArsmV.dpuf

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Geek it Out, Grandpa! The History of Fan Conventions

Forrest J Ackerman, Robert A. Madle
Forrest J Ackerman attended the first Worlds in 1939 dressed in futuristic garb. Nice boots!
Note: Parts of this blog entry were previously published for examiner.com but no one read it so here it is!

The Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo is quickly becoming one of the largest fan conventions in North America.In it's 9th year, the Expo has been able to secure huge named guests for 2014, from the cast of Aliens, to Matt Smith (Dr. Who) and Bruce Campbell (my personal fave!) But the expo like other fan conventions, owes its very existence to those small first cons.

Since the first convention over 70 years ago, fan conventions have grown into all facets of popular culture conventions becoming a world-wide event. Fan conventions (shortened often to just con) are usually informal, not professionally organized, gathering of fans of a set of genres and media arts. As well, most conventions have panels or workshops with experts and professionals in their fields, and provide fans with informal forums to discuss stories, ideas and approaches to speculative fiction, entertainment and media.

The first fan conventions were organized in the 1930s by fans and writers of Science Fiction, which was blossoming as a genre during the 1930s and 1940s, as part of the golden age of science fiction writing. Small events were organized by fans in North America and United Kingdom during this time. The first major con was the World Science Fiction Convention, Nycon I (which is now called WorldCon) in New York in 1939 in conjunction with the World's Fair. Such notable writers as L. Spague de Camp and Issac Asimov attended. Eastercon, the oldest and well-known science fiction convention in Europe, celebrated its 63rd birthday in 2012 with having George RR Martin, writer of the Games of Thrones, as its guest of honour.

If your grandad liked killing off major characters, he'd be Mr. Martin.

Specialization of cons increased over the next 50 years, as media such film and TV where science fiction and fantasy movies and programs. Due to the increase media growth, more people all over the world were being introduced to science fiction and fantasy stories, and wanted to join with other fans. One of the first media conventions was the comic and cartoon fan convention (manga and anime) was MEG-CON held in Japan in 1962. The first Star Trek convention was held in New York in 1972, where the TV show’s fans who combined their money, and rented a hotel ballroom to bring like-minded fans together.

While conventions are mainly attended by the fans, a strong element of professional attendance and award ceremonies has grown along with it. Since 1953, WorldCon has presented the Hugo Awards, celebrating the best in speculative fiction writing. It's named for Hugo Gernsback, inventor and founder of the first Sci-Fi magazine Amazing Stories.  In Canada, the Aurora Awards are given out for in various fields such as speculative poetry and fiction, and is named after those pretty lights in our frozen sky. They have been given out for many years at conventions, with the Auroras this year being held at VCon 39.

Hugo Gernsback by Bachrach.jpg
Hugo Gernsback - so cool he also invented TV Glasses

However, genre specific conventions are now becoming rare and more multi-genre events. Dragon-Con founded in Atlanta, Georgia in 1987, is one of the largest gaming and cross genre conventions in the world, and draws attendance of 46,000 people. Originally a gaming (role playing and board game) convention, programming for fans now includes science fiction, fantasy, comic books, and other elements of fan culture. This is why Expo in Calgary has been so successful as it appears to a large demographic of multi-media fan.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Wednesday's History Question:
The Continued Exploitation of Climbing Everest

Wow - that's a lot of - rock.
A friend at the Golden Age Club (yes I have friends over 20) asked me what I thought about the thirteen Sherpas confirmed dead with three more missing after an avalanche on Mount Everest, April 18. He could not believe that the media has been really quiet over it, and asked me about the lack of coverage. He then wondered something: is it because sherpas are just "paid labourers in a lot of people's minds?" I pointed to the great Tenzing Norgay, who with Edmund Hillary, were the first people confirmed to have made the peak.

Until now, I have seen very little discussed in the media about the whole business of climbing the highest peak in the world and the impact on the sherpas who undertake it. Why do they undertake it? Are they forced to? Is this some sort of latent or not so hidden post-colonialism going on?

First - the definition of that lovely word post-colonialism. I see it as part of the world-system theory, where its the economic exploitation of people who were subjected at any time to colonialism - people from somewhere else taking their land, controlling them etc. - or who were placed on the periphery. It doesn't mean that there was political or military domination, but the people were placed in a position of subordination. For more, go read Stanford University's definition. An example is First Nations people in Canada, and the continent of Africa as a whole.

Do the sherpa's fit this definition? Their country - Nepal - was subject to various attempts by the British in the 1800s to be subjugated, with very little success as they played them against the Chinese for years.

What about just old-fashioned exploitation? The Guardian skirts around the issue with their coverage, and just states that the price maybe too high to pay.

This question of exploitation and colonial attitude to climbing Everest are rooted in the mountain's history. Before the first Western attempts, the sherpa people did not climb the mountains but lived among them. Things changed as the British launched expeditions. One bid in 1922 was a disaster. Detailed in Wade Davis' book, Into the Silence, the expedition was a geographic survey of the area. But the leaders decided to launch three attempts to the top. On the third and last one that year, the group was hit with an avalanche, and seven of the porters were killed. There is no mention of any sort of compensation to the dead men's families.

The 1922 expedition to Everest. 

The lack of death compensation and support for the sherpas had rankled Edmund Hillary, who set up the  Himalayan Trust in 1960 to support the economic, health and education of sherpa peoples. The Nepalese government was and still is a fractured, politically unstable country as well, so real assistance or control over the Everest climbs has been minimal. 

For every one climber, typically a client who has paid up to $50,000 to attempt Everest, there are at least two Sherpas carrying loads, according to National Geographic. These men and some women are paid about $125 US per load, or over $3000 a climb. In a country where $700 US a year is a good one, you can understand why they would risk their lives. Many enjoy it. Many do it because they can provide for themselves and families with it. For example, the great female climber/guide Pemba Doma Sherpa died on her way down in 2007, probably for the sake of letting her clients go first. She owned her own business and fundraiser for children's charities. I wonder what she would have said about being economically exploited at least.

Smushed between China and India, you'd think things would be better...oh. Right.
But Nepal is among the poorest and least developed countries in the world, with about one-quarter of its population living below the poverty line. Agriculture is the mainstay of the economy, providing a livelihood for three-fourths of the population and accounting for a little over one-third of GDP. 

In his interview with the Guardian, Jamling Tenzing Norgay – the 48-year-old son of Sherpa mountain climber Tenzing Norgay - points out some truths to this economically dependent on Everest life:

"Sherpas don’t climb for recreation. They climb because it’s a job for them, a way of living. Climbing Mount Everest, they make around $3,000 to $4,000 per climb. If they were working in the villages, farming or anything else, it would take them a couple years to make that much. It’s lucrative work, but the risk is always there. It is their choice to go up on this mountain. They are not forced — they love climbing, they like to help clients, they like to see clients get to the top, to see others achieve their goals. But they are doing all the work on the mountain."

If the post-colonial attitude is still there, Times of economic exploitation may be ending: many sherpas have walked out on the current climbers going to Everest, in a mark of protest and solidarity with their dead friends. Because sometimes people can only be pushed so far.

For more films on the history of Everest and the Sherpa people:

Actual footage shot during 1924 Everest Expedition

A decent documentary on the 1924 expedition 

Hillary/Norgay Expedition of 1954

Sherpa People

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Pasg hapus - Happy Easter or go dance and get whipped day

I have two dads!
Many of us at Easter stick to going to church, and/or celebrate with a big dinner. We also like to eat chocolate bunnies and eggs, which most people know are leftover pagan symbols of spring and fertility. For this Easter history post, I've instead chosen some of the more interesting Easter traditions to focus that have ancient origins.

Maypole festivals – United Kingdom

These date back to when the British people were pagans (That's before Christ came to the party)  and worshiped the gods that ruled over nature. Easter was celebrated back then but under a different guise – the start of spring. This marked the return of life as plants grew and flowered, and Maypole dancing was performed to show the cycle that life took through the seasons. The dance consists of a large pole with ribbons and streamers draped off the top. People then wind the streamers around the pole in a series of overlapping waltz-like moves until the entire pole is wrapped up. 

Penance Processions - Spain

These - very bizzare -  marches take place throughout Spanish towns and cities to mark Holy Week - the last week of Lent, attracting tourists from around the world. The 'penance processions' through the streets are performed by Catholic religious brotherhoods who wear different coloured robes to tell themselves apart. They also don conical hoods for the haunting processions as they carry life-size effigies of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary accompanied by dramatic drum beats and mournful music. Traditionally these hoods maintained their anonymity. It is still an annual event throughout Spain and many who take part walk barefoot while others have shackled feet as penance. Others carry ceremonial candles or wooden crosses.

Halloween and Easter Meet - Finland
Too cute to be evil.

Children in this Scandinavian country go begging in the streets with sooty faces and scarves around their heads, carrying broomsticks, coffeepots and bunches of willow twigs. In some parts of Western Finland, people burn bonfires on Easter Sunday, a Nordic tradition stemming from the belief that the flames ward off witches who fly around on brooms between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. But these days they show up as young girls who go door to door with pots of coffee and try to ward of evil spirits.
Morris dancing – United Kingdom

Morris dancing is largely similar to Maypole festivals but a lot more commonplace. Morris dancing is done to demonstrate the return of spring and life starting over again after winter. The first mention of the dance is the 1500s but most believe it's actually an ancient pagan tradition. There are still active communities that view the celebrations as a way of life rather than just attractions for tourists. They are mainly concentrated around the Cornish peninsula, but can be found all over the UK. Wow, not my culture but kind of cool all the same. I can hear the Safety Dance in my head...

Getting Whipped and Wet - Slovakia

Nope - not questionable behavior at all.
You wouldn't want to be a woman over the Easter weekend in Slovakia, or Hungary, or other slavic places that....whip women with willow branches and doused in water, but it's all good fun and actually performed with the aim of making women more beautiful and healthy. The folk custom, once believed to purify the soul and body, predates Christianity, which arrived in Slovakia in the ninth century but became intertwined with Easter traditions.

Check out other ones here at the top ten Unique Easter Traditions blog. Happy Feasting!

Monday, 14 April 2014

History Mondays - You say brunch and I say where?

One of my favourite treats is brunch: the decision where to go however is less so. After many texts and facebook notes, my friends and I settled on one place at 10. Then we waited an hour for a table, starving. But it was worth it. My salmon eggs Benedict with duck fat taters was delicious and made my earlier annoyance of being sequestered in their 'waiting room' almost worth while. I love brunch so I put up with it. 

Sigh - the love...

I've only started making my journey to eggy happiness mid morning in the last fifteen years. Before this, my city had limited brunch locations. We just went for a late breakfast/early lunch and enjoyed the luxury of having bacon, eggs and toast. To my surprise, the tradition of brunch is much older, and is shrouded in mysterious but delicious origins.

There are a few theories about the origins of brunch. Some believe it was due to Catholics, who fasted before receiving the Eucharist at mass would come home to their mix of breakfast/lunch. In the 1800s, English elite like to dine on meats, eggs, fresh fruit and sweets on Sunday mornings, either after a hunt or because they woke late. There was also a meal called Second Breakfasts, where in Europe it still goes on at about 10 am and is usually taken at work or school. However, this was a daily activity at work and not with friends and family as modern brunch is. 

The element of partying then getting up late might have had something to do with it. In Jane Austen's Persuasion, the characters often have their breakfast very late after a night at a ball.

"Look buddy, eventually she's going to have brunch with me, not you"
The actual term brunch first appears in 1890s. The online Etymology Dictionary cites 1895 in Hunter's Weekly article by British writer Guy Beringer as the first time this portmateau word was used.  In "Brunch: A Plea", he states that:

"Brunch is cheerful, sociable and inciting. It is talk-compelling. It puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week."

It is further reference in 1896 in the magazine Punch, as a slang term used by students for a late morning meal. The movement of yummy-ness crossed the big pond to North America by the 1920s. In the book American Food, author Evan Jones cites the famous Pump Room in Chicago serving brunch in 1933. Jones believed that it was due to many movie stars stopping off in Chicago on their way to either coast. In the 1940s, the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City was known to offer a Sunday Stroller's Brunch of sauerkraut juice, clam cocktails, calf liver and hash browns, fish balls, and bacon.

I don't know if I want this first thing in the morning - looking at me.
The practice continued to grow in Europe and North America, becoming a bigger event. A huge surge in specific brunch places has surged in recent years as a When Mother's Day was created, the restaurants tried to jump into the food dish:

What could be more fun than...morning brunch for the whole family on Mother's Day? Brunch is a sort of glamourous, leisurely, combination of breakfast and lunch that is more hearty than an ordinary breakfast. In fact, it often includes a dessert too. Start the menu with grapefruit shells filed with icy cold grapefruit sections and with fresh or frozen strawberries. A fluffy omelette with a tomato and ripe olive filling is quite delicious with crisp bacon curls and broiled canned cling peaches..."
---"Menus and Recipes," Philadelphia Tribune, May 8, 1948 (p. 8)t

But where's the booze for mom? 

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Wednesday's Strange History - There's no team in Dictator but there is a dick

This week's question comes from RMa from twitter. They asked, "Who was the dictator in the 20th century who killed the most people?"

Thanks for that extra dark edge to the middle of the week RMa!

And let the sunshine in!
When I received this question, three things went through my brain. One: why would anyone, including a historian, want to know about this? Two: did these dictators just command then end of other people's lives or did they actually get their own hands dirty?

Let's first define what a dictator is.

In the Roman republic, a dictator was a temporary magistrate with extraordinary powers. Nominated in times of crisis by a consul, recommended by the Senate, and confirmed by the Comitia Curiata, the dictator's term was six months or the duration of the crisis, and he had authority over all other magistrates. For example, Julius Caesar 9100-44 BCE) were a new form with almost unlimited powers. Caesar became dictator for life just before his assassination; but afterward the office was abolished.

The modern definition from Memrriam-Webster is: a person who rules a country with total authority. Unlike Rome, we often equate dictators with cruel or brutal regimes. But, it is a matter of personal and historical opinion as well. One site claims that Emperor Hirohito was a dictator, as he was responsible for the Nanking Massacre as many other crimes. If you read Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan you'll get a better idea of the controversy.

Now the main question: how many people died under their rule? It's hard to know actually because dictatorships are good at hiding their tracks, and the bodies. Whatever number we have is still debated and really could be an estimate. Another issue: There's just too many of these guys making a muck of the 20th century, so I will narrow it down to the top four which jump to most people's mind, and the estimate given by the majority of historians with their worst offences:

Adolph Hitler  - Holocaust  from 1941 to 1945 - 4 to 17 million. Ex-solider in WWI so did kill people before he took power, was not known for executing people himself.

Mao Zedong - Great Chinese Famine from 1943 to 1976 - 45 million people, 80 during his time in power. Fought the Japanese and Nationalist, so killed then. No accounts of actually killing anyone himself while in power.

Joseph Stalin -  Holodomor and Soviet Famine in the Ukraine from 1932 to 1933 - 8 million then, 40 million during time in power. Killed many before his rise to power, and accounts of poisoning many afterwards.

Pol Pot - Cambodian Killing Fields from 1975 - 1979 - 1.5 to 2 million, 7 million total. Personally got his hands dirty and probably killed over 2000 people.

If we go by pure numbers then, Mao and Stalin are in the lead. Wow. There you go, RMa, a tie. But for a DYI dictator, Pol Pot gets the prize as the biggest dick ever. 

There's lots of other dictators of the 20th and into the 21st century. Time Magazine has a very good round up of them that covers some horrible excuses of humanity like Saddam Hussein and Benito Mussolini. 

Nicknamed the "Duce of Fascism" but it should have been the "Dunce of Fashion"

Why would we want to know? 

I think it's very key that we never forget what these men (and yes they are all men) were able to do. All jokes aside. Would Hitler have been able to exterminate Jews, Roma, Gays, mentally challenged...basically anyone if he was given permission and sometimes encouraged by others? No. So don't forget for every number up there that was a person, a human who breathed in and out and deserved to live. To forget or ignore it happening is wrong, and enables it to continue.

I think often of an old friend, who fled Cambodia to live in Toronto at the age of 12, after Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge killed her entire family. Now she has her own family but still has the picture of her parents, two brothers, and grandfather on her altar. She can't forget. So why should we? 

"He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it." Martin Luther King Jr.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Friday's Monday Post - Lost History of Computer Icons

I was busy Friday with returning to work after getting my gallbladder out...eeeek! But I did manage to find some interesting forgotten history. Much thanks to Priceonomics for giving me something cool to read.

Computers are now like other appliances: we use them in our daily lives, almost everyone in North America has one or access to one, and we take it for granted that it will be easy to use. Part of why it's so easy is the interface, including the icons we've come to know and mostly love. (I still can't stand that Microsoft magnifying glass that would talk to you)

Who designs these icons? Why do we never mention them in reference to the history of computing?

Susan Kare is one of the few who have received some recognition in geek circles, but not enough in the wider world for my taste.

As a fine artist with a PhD, Kare was hoping to get commissions for high end art works, when an old friend called up and asked if she'd work on some graphics for a new computer company he was working for. That was Apple in 1980. She admits that she had no computer graphic experience but learned on the job while at Apple, and then following Steven Jobs to his next venture at NExt.  She designed the first proportionally spaced digital font family, and icons. The garbage can, the paint brush, the little scissors, the OS icons...that was all Kare. All in little pixelated dots. It was an art form now, with character and whimsy. So much of what we see today on a Mac is because of her initial icon work.
One of Kare's early sketches
Kare continues to work in the field. She has designed the icons for Logitech, Paypal, IBM and Facebook - including the gifts we use to send to each other like mad. About her current work, she said -

“My philosophy has not really changed -- I really try to develop symbols that are meaningful and memorable. I started designing monochrome icons using a 32 x 32 pixel icon editor that Andy Hertzfeld created. Subsequently I've been able to take advantage of more robust tools and higher screen resolution, and also design vector images in Illustrator. But design problems are solved by thinking about context and metaphor -- not by tools.”

I strongly urge you to go check out Kare's website and look at all the amazing graphics she has created and continues to produce. You will recognize many from your daily internet life!

Articles on Kare:

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Wednesday's Strange History - Humanzee!

It's going to get weird, isn't it?
My question this week comes from Mark in Red Deer, Alberta. Mark asks about an experiment he heard about in his 20th Century Russian history class. "There was a project where a human was grafted onto a chimp, or bred with one or something like that. It was some crazed Russian experiment sometime in the early 1900s to make a super army of apes. Any non-google info on it?"

Heck yes, Mark. This weird Island of Dr Moreau tale is true, but not quite the way you recall.The primary researcher was Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov (1870-1932), a Soviet biologist who was a pioneer in artificial insemination for domestic animals. He set up the world's first centre for artificially knocking up horses in 1901. This guy is important because so many of our current livestock is created and eaten because of Ivanov's innovations.
If you want me to thank the guy for bypassing my sex life, forget it.
But things got mad scientist crazy after 1910. Ivanov was already thinking about the possibility of human and chimp hybrids as he knew they were genetically close to each other, thanks to German scientist Hans Friedenthal's work, and confirmed later on with DNA research. (Personally I though my family were related to gorillas). He took matters into his own...hands...and applied for research funding for the project. Because he was a respected scientist, and the USSR formed in 1922 was beginning a hyper-love phase of scientific enquiry, Ivanov received the money and use of Institut Pasteur’s facility in French Guinea in Western Africa. He began his artificial insemination experiments in March, 1926 with no results. Nothing he did worked, and reports filtered back to the homeland that he had tried to inseminate African women with the chimp sperm. Other reports state he did also try with Russian women, with no results.

Super racist and sexist colonialism, right little buddy?
 This report may have been true or fabricated, because Ivanov was now on the wrong side of the political-science battle. He and the other geneticists hoped that Ivanov’s research could lead to a better understanding of what qualities to choose for in the emerging ideal of eugenics. Stalin and his minion scientists rejected genetic research as bourgeois and pushed for the study of inheritance of acquired characteristics. Ivanov lost big time, he was shipped off to Kazakhstan where he died in 1932.

Contrary to some misguided reporting (looking at you, creationist), there is no evidence at all that Ivanov or Stalin ever tried to create ape-man super-warriors.This strange report came about when creationists tried to link communism with evolutionary theory, thereby disproving it in their minds.

For more reading on Soviet Science, may I recommend Stalin and the Soviet Science Wars by Ethan Pollock, this great article from Scientific America,

Hope that helps you sleep at nigh, Mark from Red Deer!