New eBook: Festae

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I’m pleased to report that Festae, a book of poetry with hymns to deities from the Greco-Roman pagan calendar, is now available on Cover.jpg

Festae includes four odes called the “Seasonal Greetings”, dedicated to Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. It also contains forty-three additional odes in a traditional three-stanza form, dedicated to:

  • Poseidon, god of the wild sea
  • Neptune and Salacia in their roles as providers of salt for food preservation
  • Hecate as a goddess of magic and artistry
  • Hephaestus and the Nymphs, the teachers of technology and craft
  • Pallas Athena
  • Artemis of the Moon, and of Music
  • Apollo
  • The Nine Muses
  • Vesta three festivals of June
  • All the Heras
  • The year-end celebrations of the Roman sacred year in February
  • and numerous others…

This collection joins four other of my poetry on Amazon, including The Sun’s Paces: hymns for the Decans of the Zodiacand the Poems for the Behenian Starsand Hymns for the Mansions of the Moon.  You can also find The Tai Chi PoemIn all, these five collections now present one very long poem about tai chi, and nearly 130 other poems on subjects related to astronomy, ancient history, the better angels of our nature, and our relationship to the sky and each other.

It’s been my great pleasure to write and share these poems with you, and I hope you enjoy them.  These materials are also listed on my publications page.


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There’s something beautiful about a stack of books bound with Coptic stitch. Particularly when you know that the contents of each book are your own. These are copies of my Book of Splendor, a collection of poetry exploring the relationships between nature and the divine in a particular corner of New England.

These are part of a limited edition of 100 copies: numbered, and hand bound, and the hand signed by the author, that is me. I interested in buying one? Let me know.

Bookbinding projects

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The sewing machine is busted. I am waiting for a part to come in. Singer sewing machines in the early 1960s began to transition from metal parts to hybrids that were partly metal and partly plastic. One of these plastic parts has become so worn from rubbing against metal constantly, that it has become un-usable.

Accordingly I have shifted over to bookbinding for the moment while waiting for the part to come in. Two of these books got bound this weekend — an orange copy of The Book of Splendor, intended for a friend. And a gray copy of The Mansions of the Moon. And finally, this morning, a black copy of The Behenian Stars

I’m least happy with the Behenian Stars binding. The other two books are substantial enough for a Coptic stitch binding. But The Behenian Stars is not. It’s only two quires or signatures, and it doesn’t really hang together properly. The Mansions of the Moon, likewise, is a little flimsy but it may improve with weighting and pressing it a bit. We’ll see.

I have eight more copies of the Book of Splendor to bind. This one isn’t ready for purchase yet, though it will be expensive: hand-made covers, hand-bound by the author? The Behenian Stars is available on both Etsy and Amazon as a digital PDF, but to sell a physical copy of it, I think I’ll need to thicken the book up a bit. Maybe if I combine it with the Mansions book, both together will be dense enough to bind easily.

Review: White Trash

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White Trash: The 400-year Untold Story of Class in America
By Nancy Isenberg
Viking: Penguin Random House, 2016
ISBN-13: 978-0670785971
(Amazon | Powell’s)


White Trash begins by looking at our founding mythologies, of Jamestown and of the Pilgrims.  During the three years that I taught American history (side note: don’t ask a fifteen-year veteran of the ancient history classroom to teach any sort of form of triumphal American history… our opinions of America’s longevity and exceptionalism are tepid, at best), I found these two colonization-point of American history some of the most difficult to teach, without having clarity about why I found them so uncomfortable.

Nancy Isenberg helped make that clear to me.  She reminded me, in clean prose and deliberately, fact-based writing, that both Jamestown and Plymouth were founded as colonial ventures — that is, as profit-making machines intended to bring additional wealth to an English, aristocratic, wealthy, well-connected minority… back in England.   The reports of cannibalism, of 80% casualty rates among the settlers, worried the aristocrats not at all. Rather, they reveled in it.

But why? The truth lay in the concept of transportation — England was full of a class of people called the wandering poor… the Vagrants.  The American colonies were a perfect place to send the vagrants, as far as the aristocrats were concerned: rounding up those who refused to work, and sending them off to the Americas, made those who remained all the more willing to be hard-working and loyal.  If they worked in America, the vagrants could rise to be wealthy landowners themselves; if they didn’t, and died instead, so much the better.

Isenberg’s book explores the foundations of American classism: the export of what the British called ‘waste people’ to the Americas, the establishment of a class of poor, landless white families on waste lands in southern Virginia and North Carolina (the “Dismal Swamp”), and their gradual removal to the rough lands of the piedmont and Appalachia.  American writers and politicians of diverse opinions, from Cotton Mather to James Oglethorpe to Ben Franklin to Thomas Jefferson to Theodore Roosevelt, weighed in on the problems of the white ‘non-working poor’, whose origins were often in the indentured servitude that often resembled slavery; who rarely worked hard without supervision; whose goal was often to obtain strong drink and the bare minimum of comfort; and who resented the harsh treatment that had brought them to the Americas in the first place.

The story of James Oglethorpe of Georgia was particularly instructive.  Setting out to make a colony of free whites about 1720 to serve as a buffer state against the French in Louisiana and the Spanish in Florida, Oglethorpe organized Georgia as a land of free and armed white men; slaves were prohibited, and rather than indenturing servants who came, they were given land by the colony’s proprietors, up to fifty acres. Richer settlers could buy up to five hundred acres, but they had to work and settle the land themselves: no absentee landlords in Georgia, said Oglethorpe.

But the great landholders of South Carolina, looking north to North Carolina and southern Virginia, saw the poverty of the Dismal Swamp and the ruinously bad habits of the inhabitants, wasteful of time and money and sneering at the idea of being ruled by aristocratic planters.  So, they bribed Georgia’s proprietors in England with money, and bribed the white settlers weary of farming in Georgia. Several people tried to kill Oglethorpe over his obstinacy about slaves and indentured servants — paid assassins or angry loners, it’s hard to tell.  Eventually, Oglethorpe gave up and went back to England.  Inside a year, one Georgia planter had assembled 12,000 acres and four hundred slaves… and slavery gradually transformed working white farmers into languid overseers cracking the whip over other men’s slaves.    It beat working…

After all, if you’re working in the field, you’re probably forced to it.  The white and landless underclass had no one to lord their superiority over except the slaves from the Caribbean and Africa — thus, to work meant one was no better than a slave.

All through the book, though, Isenberg explores the central problem: In America, the poor are thought of as undeserving of help.  Hard work is expected to result in success; laziness is equated with ruin, either personal or familial.  Thus, any effort to help the poor, either through education or through retraining or through military service or through welfare, invites the inevitable backlash from the middle class and the wealthy — those people didn’t do anything to deserve the help, and why should I give up what’s mine, so that they can have something?

Isenberg’s point is salient to the present time, of course.  This past election was as much about class as about any other issue.  Her book urges that we address the problem in some real way, and not just with empty symbolism.  Yet the fact that we’ve been continually struggling with class issues, all the while pretending they don’t exist in our nominally-classless society, suggests that her warnings and her urgency will go unheeded. Again.

Review: Aurora

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This is a new web series on this website — every week, on Monday, I hope to post a short review to a book that I’ve read in the previous few weeks.  Some of them are older books, or read on paper; some are newer works that I’ve read digitally.  Some are political or economic tracts; some are fiction, some are related to my work in design and teaching design.  Previous entries are here and here and here.

by Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbis Books/Hachette, published 2016
ISBN 978-0-316-37874-1 Orbit. Kindle Edition.


One of the tropes of science fiction is the generation ship — stuff a few hundred humans into a spacecraft, send them off in the direction of another star at as large a fraction of the speed of light that you can muster, and then let them breed and renew their numbers over several generations until they reach their destination.  The gleaming ships become pitted and lightly damaged over the centuries of travel through interstellar space — but they arrive.  The humans emerge from their trans-abyssal womb onto the surface of a new world, and begin the colonization. The migration accomplished, the Great Deep crossed, and the process that occurred on Earth begins again, on another world, say a planet or a moon in orbit around Tau Ceti.

This is Kim Stanley Robinson’s world, though, and the master of the modern ‘hard science’ does a deep dive into all the challenges and opportunities that this kind of centuries-long voyage might take.  As the book opens, the end of the journey from our solar system to Tau Ceti nears.  But there are things that are going wrong, things that the original mission planners have not taken into consideration.  The ship has no official chief engineer, either — just a woman whose penchant and skill at fixing things, and assembling teams to fix things, is better than most other people.   Nor is there a captain, exactly; nor is the information coming out of the communications stream from Earth coherent or useful — the homeworld still sends information, but no-one is listening back home to the questions from the population aboard the Ship.  They are on their own.

Children are exposed to the idea that they are on board a ship in various ways. Some always grow up knowing they live in giant habitats strapped to the sides of a space ship.  Others are brought up in ignorance, kept away from the edges of their biomes, or from windows in the ship’s spine; then put in a spacesuit with a blackened visor, brought outside onto the hull at an appropriate age, and exposed to the wonders of the cosmos blinking by at 0.2 of c.  Some handle the dislocation well; others… not so much.  The generations have undermined the standard ideas of the hierarchy of command, and different rules apply.  And it’s less and less clear if anyone is in charge.

A variety of things are wrong.   The bacteria on board evolve faster than the plants, who evolve faster than the mammals. Each successive generation is somewhat dumber than the one before.  Learning disabilities are appearing among the population on board, and strange allergies emerge.  People are shorter than in their great-grandparents’ day.

Freya, a girl, belongs to the latest generation aboard Ship. Her mother is Devi — not the ship’s chief engineer, but the person everyone calls when something important breaks.  Her father Badim is a fun-loving guy, but Devi is angry all the time. And why wouldn’t she be? The intellectual and physical resources necessary to solve the problems of Ship are always in short supply: when the 3D printers break, that make all the replacement parts, how does one repair them?

It would be easy to write this as a science-fiction story about physics, and the story would be dull.  Yet the human problem, and the human experience, is never far from Robinson’s thoughts or writing.  How do people react to this kind of situation, where someone must farm, and someone must manage the cattle and sheep, and someone must weave… and someone must keep the spaceship going??  How are children raised, how are political decisions made, how do people find their place abroad Ship, how does Ship tell its own story?  What does history look like, sociology, anthropology?  What are the human stories?

Robinson, as usual, tells the human stories very well.  I was riveted, and stayed up until three in the morning to finish reading one night.  In the morning, well-satisfied with Robinson’s vision that he shared with us, I went outside, and kissed the frozen ground.

Review: The Drawing Lesson


This is part of an ongoing book review series that publishes on Mondays: earlier book reviews are here and here.  My goal with this series is to provide access to a range of resources that I either found useful in MakerSpace teaching or that I think include philosophies and ideals that teachers should be aware of and can draw upon from time to time; or even fiction that I enjoyed.  You are welcome to recommend books to me in the comments; there’s no guarantee I’ll read any of it.  Reviews are starred on a scale of 1-7 stars, with no half-stars given (because I can’t draw in half-filled stars here).  In generally, everything I review here will be 5, 6, or 7 stars, because reasons.

The Drawing Lesson: The graphic novel that teaches you how to draw
by Mark Crilley
published by Watson-Guptill, 2016 (
ISBN-13: 978-0385346337


I’m a great believer in the importance of the traditional 3R’s of school — readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic, as the saying goes. But if I could add one to that, it would be Drawing.  3R+D doesn’t really have the same euphonious folksiness that 3Rs does.  But I’ve spoken here before about the Semigram, and treating drawing as a third way of understanding the world. Visual note-taking is one of those tools which we ought to do a better job of transmitting to students; but it does sometimes seems like the Ars Notaria (the art of taking notes, the art of the scribe) is really the Ars Notoria (the notorious arts, black magic, necromancy).  And yet, through technical drawings, through electronics diagrams, through images, through flow diagrams and pictures, we all use images to tell stories — sometimes well, sometimes poorly.

And that brings me to this book. Mark Crilley has written and drawn a graphic novel about getting drawing lessons.  It’s a brilliant take on a complicated issue — if you want to be an artist, it requires every bit as much practice as it does to be a good writer; or a good mathematician. The skills of drawing require as much attention as the skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic.

The story opens with a young boy, David, encountering a much older woman named Becky in the park near his house.  David wants to draw better than another kid in his class who draws the best Lamborghinis ever; Becky just wants to be left in peace to draw.  The kid’s enthusiasm overwhelms her, though, again and again.  She winds up giving nine lessons on drawing to David: in proportioning his drawings, in learning to see, in understanding negative space, in simplifying, and in creating compositions.  At every step of the way, she reminds him of earlier lessons — and foreshadows the later ones.

The book is elegantly expressed (I read the Kindle edition), in that both David’s drawings and the encounters with Becky start off at the same quality. David is past the stick-figure stage that I learned from @davegray and his teachings on mark-making; but he’s not yet a master artist by any means.  Yet, as the book unwinds toward its conclusions, David’s drawing become better and better; and the encounters with Becky remain the same.  There’s an unmistakable awareness here that Scott McCloud captured in his book, Understanding Comics (William Morrow, 1994), that sometimes the art in a comic book serves the story, and sometimes the art IS the story.  Crilley has captured that balance here, by showing David’s gradual improvement as an artist against a relatively standard backdrop of his relationship with his teacher Becky.  

This isn’t a textbook, but each chapter does end with homework. There’s a clearly defined lesson, and an expectation of follow-through on learning drawing skills.  The ‘homework’ isn’t unusually difficult or terrible, but it has to be done in order to get better at drawing. It’s really nice to see David’s work improve; but it’s also nice to realize that our work could improve in the same way.

From Dictatorship to Democracy


This is a Book Review.  It’s part of a new series on this website, and I hope you find it useful.  

From Dictatorship To Democracy
by Gene Sharp
fourth U.S. edition, the Albert Einstein Institution, May 2010
ISBN 978-1-880813-34-8 • Kindle edition

✦ ✦ ✦ ✦ ✦ ✦ ✧

Sometimes books are enormous and exhaustive and exhausting to read.  Sometimes they are sturdy scaffolding.  Gene Sharp’s magnum opus is a short volume outlining how societies move from being totalitarian states to being thriving democracies.  It’s not an easy process, by any means.  There are pitfalls and dangers outlined along the way.

The book is divided into ten chapters, with three appendices — the three appendix sections provide a list of the methods of nonviolent action, a brief history of the four editions of the text, and the guidelines for reprinting the text in languages other than English (translation).  Yet the meat of the book is in its ten short chapters:

  1. Facing Dictators Realistically
  2. The Dangers of Negotiation
  3. Whence The Power Comes?
  4. Dictatorships Have Weaknesses
  5. Exercising Power
  6. The Need for Strategic Planning
  7. Planning Strategy
  8. Applying Political Defiance
  9. Disintegrating the Dictatorship
  10. Groundwork for Durable Democracy

At the core of Sharp’s work is a recognition that the work of dismantling a dictatorship is inherently dangerous.  It’s easy to ask why dictatorships last for decades at a time, for example, from outside the dictatorship; but the lived experience of the citizens is that they are often wholly captive to the lived realities of surveillance, midnight knocks at the door by security forces, and radical damage to the institutions and social norms of government. Many totalitarian states are run under the surface of institutional and constitutional realities that create the illusion of normalcy, while the general state of affairs is in fact quite dangerous.

Moreover, negotiation with a dictator creates the illusion of legitimacy — for an opposition movement to negotiate with an authoritarian leader and his supporters, there is usually an intention to negotiate in good faith; but dictators want their authority to be recognized as legitimate, and will change the negotiations’ objectives or cut off the negotiations once their legitimacy is recognized.  Negotiation carries the risk of giving the dictatorship greater legitimacy.  At the same time, refusal to negotiate can result in the opposition being labeled a terrorist movement, forced into imprisonment, exile or worse.

Defiance thus comes in many forms, and some are more effective than others.  Yet Sharp argues for an overall, defining strategy — the establishment of both principles and goals, and the defining of limitations and boundaries for negotiation with and submission to the totalitarian state’s official apparatus.  He argues (effectively, I think) that the opposition must be transparent about what these goals and principles are.  On the one hand, these goals and principles are then subject to attack by the forces of the dictatorship; on the other hand, the opposition is then giving notice to the wider society of what their aims are, and providing opportunities for the citizenry to recognize where their own political, economic and social interest lies.  It also means that the opposition movement is capable of defining its means, and recognizing acceptable solutions when they appear — as well as identifying agents provacateur when they appear, since they will appear.

One of the key elements of the book is the recognition that every dictatorship has weaknesses.  Some will have the absolute loyalty of the security services.  Some will have the loyalty of the spy network, the intelligence systems.  Others will have the loyalty of the military, or a political party.  Yet few dictators command the loyalty of all the branches of their nation’s government; and fewer still command the loyalty of the entire citizenry.  The exercise of power within a dictatorship requires negotiation and compromise, and Gene Sharp identifies seventeen different points of weakness within a dictatorial command structure which can be identified and exploited by an opposition, not least of which is that the value of the nation’s traditional symbolism may be separated from the dictatorship’s use of those symbols; and that sectors of the military and paramilitary agencies of the government often have objectives that can be at odds with the dictatorship’s particular focuses and blind spots.

At the same time, Sharp notes that any opposition movement must have clarity about the nature of its opposition. A palace coup, which replaces one dictatorial dynasty or command structure with another, such as the replacement of a civilian ruler with a military one, or the replacement of one tribe or social group with another, is not a democracy.  Nor is it a democracy when all the leaders of the opposition simply establish themselves in the same positions occupied by the dictator’s henchmen.  Irresponsible success is not the same thing as responsible success; and a successful opposition has to be careful not to fall into the same mindset as the dictatorship it replaces.

Overall, Gene Sharp’s book is the best thing I’ve ever read on the subject of regime change.  I’m able to see a number of elements from the ‘color revolutions’ and the ‘Arab spring’ of the last dozen years, as various societies have tried to make the transition from dictatorship to democracy.  I can also see the failures of such efforts, and the pitfalls that were not avoided as Gene recommended.  But Sharp, who wrote this book at the request of a prominent Burmese exile for the resistance movement in Burma, notes again and again that this is by no means an easy row to hoe — overall, though, he emphasizes the importance of local and transparent decision-making, the recognition of a dictatorship’s weaknesses and strengths, and the points of transformation.  Reading it has helped me understand international news and history more effectively, and I look forward to reading other books and pamphlets by this author.


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