Thursday, September 26, 2013

Masters of an Arcane Art

This from The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England.  After describing the theories of medicine built around the bodily humours, the author attempts to explain why these abstruse and mostly worthless medical principles were popular for two thousand years:

All very straightforward, you might think, even if somewhat misconceived.  However, "straightforward" it certainly is not.  One of the reasons humoral theory continues to hold such sway is because it is so involved and complex.  Its numerical harmony (the four elements, the four humours, etc.) allows for endless refinement and invented complexity.
I would add to that the power of certification.  Whether it's young men attending academies to learn principles that set them apart from the public, or the divine who cultivates a privileged understanding of spiritual verities, there's a benefit to being accorded a position where your opinions cannot be challenged.

I see the same mixture of nonsense complexity and appeal to authority in the economists of today.  They are the high priests propagating the special, liquidity-based healing that they say our economy needs.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Take That George Lucas!

"He's a three P-O," they say, meaning that such a person surrounded himself with cheap copies made from declasse substances.

So says Frank Herbert in Heretics of Dune, and the reference is obvious:

So is the insult.  When Star Wars came out in 1977, the similarities were abundant and generated some commentary.  Interestingly, Herbert wrote another Dune book, God Emperor of Dune, after Star Wars came out and made no mention of the Lucas' successful doppleganger, only inserting this jab after 1983's Return of the Jedi.  Apparently Jabba the Hutt was too on-the-nose an imitation of the God Emperor Leto.  From Justine Shaw:

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Freude Schoner Gotterfunken x 10,000

Rather than me quote all of Schiller's masterpiece, you can listen to it here, as sung by 10,000 Japanese.  Apparently an annual New Year's Eve community event in Osaka, something like this has been done every year for quite a long time.  They make everyone in the audience a part of the production.  Here's the scene from New Year's 2012 (gotten from this source):
The soloists are professionals, clear and very sharp, as are the orchestra and conductor.  Speaking of the conductor, at the end of the performance he looks like he's been through the war, and no wonder - any chorus of 10,000 will be hard to manage, even if comprised of professionals.  And these folks are amateurs, some old and some very young.  The chorus is a big, lurching, heaving beast, reliably a note behind the orchestra.  Such a dispersed group could hardly expect to stay together, and it hardly matters.  There's something deeply impressive about a performance where there is no audience.  And for this song, in particular.  No one is passive, all are singing about the universal effects of joy and amity.  There are no listeners, or rather everyone is a listener, and the small sing right along with the great and all are contented.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Watching the Watchers

This charming image is from a National Geographic photoblog:

Kids still like watching airplanes today, but the gawkers furthest down the sidewalk don't appear to have any with them.  Those lumbering beasts were novel enough to inspire fascination, and air travel still had a mystique.

Very different today, where air travel is uncomfortable, tedious, and fraught with frightening police state theater.

I also like that they felt free to pull over to the right lane of an expressway to relax and watch.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Wrong Kind of Socialism

In the 1960's, LDS Apostle Bruce R. McConkie attempted to write an unofficial dictionary of Latter-day Saint doctrine.  Not meant to be authoritative, the results were somewhat uneven though the effort was sincere.

One blind spot was regarding politics.  Here, in the "Signs of the Times" article, McConkie described the famines, depressions and economic turmoil supposed to precede the Second Coming of the Savior Jesus Christ:

Because of iniquity and greed in the hearts of men, there will be depressions, famines, and a frantic search for temporal security--a security sought without turning to the Lord or obeying his precepts.

So far, so good.  But things take an odd turn here:

We my expect to see the insatiable desire to get something for nothing result in further class legislation and more socialistic experiments by governments.

As if "socialistic experiments" were any problem at all right now.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

How Re-Enacting Started

Wow this got to me.  From Confederates in the Attic:

Veterans bivouacked at actual battlegrounds, donned their old uniforms, and occasionally performed mock versions of the heroic deeds of their youth.  In 1913, hundreds of geriatric rebels rushed as best they could across the field they'd crossed during Pickett's Charge, toting canes instead of muskets and greeting their erstwhile foes with handshakes rather than bayonets.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

War is the Enemy of Art

Enemy of real art, not propaganda disguised as such.  Hermann Hesse, in an essay just after the start of the Great War:

Among our writers and men of letters there are, I believe, few if any whose present utterances, spoken or written in the anger of the moment, will be counted as their best work.  Nor is there any serious writer at heart who prefers Korner's patriotic songs to the poems of Goethe who held so conspicuously aloof from the War of Liberation.
Hesse remarks further that the "super-patriots" really do hold Goethe quite out of favor in their militaristic atmosphere, which is very much the point.  War ruins art and the warlike mentality degrades our ability to appreciate it.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Security in the White House

He saw the men ahead.  There was no way to avoid them.  The guards could not seem to keep them out, and many of them slept in the White House hall.  The word had passed that he was coming, and so they were on their feet and smiling.  Each of these wanted a favor...In four years of living in the White House, Mr. Lincoln had become accustomed to the morning vultures.  He could do little to be rid of them...
There was no way around them...Some men, desperate or arrogant, grabbed the crook of his arm and held him until the President pulled himself loose and said: "I am sorry.  I cannot be of help to you."  Some spoke quietly and swiftly, their heads swinging to follow him as he kept walking.  Some wept.  A few muttered threats and departed.
That's on the first page of Jim Bishop's bestseller The Day Lincoln Was Shot.  Quite foreboding the lack of security, too, for the title tells us what happened to President just a few hours later.  This atmosphere at the White House registered quite a surprise - it's a tremendous contrast to the armored fortress that the White House has become since.

Until that day, the 14th of April 1865, no US president had been assassinated.  Security is usually reactive, and people don't often assess threats realistically until the threats have been proven.  But the nation was just finishing a calamitous civil war, and lots of people had animosity for its author, and the Administration knew it, "talked about it...worried about it and...counterplotted against it."  Steps were taken, but (then and now) it is difficult to protect the life of a public figure from the truly determined.
Mr. Lincoln's philosophy was that he could be killed at any time by anyone who was willing to give his own life in return.  Now and then, the President discussed a violent death, and, in this, his attitude was one of sadness and resignation rather than fright.
That must wear on a person.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Jobs for Ex-Servicemen

From Jonathan Shay's thought-provoking book Odysseus In America.  Excerpted in the New York Times:
For which civilian careers does prolonged combat prepare a person? Let's look at the strengths, skills, and capacities acquired during prolonged combat:
• Control of fear.
• Cunning, the arts of deception, the arts of the "mind-[expletive]."
• Control of violence against members of their own group.
• The capacity to respond skillfully and instantly with violent, lethal force.
• Vigilance, perpetual mobilization for danger.
• Regarding fixed rules as possible threats to their own and their comrades' survival.
• Regarding fixed "rules of war" as possible advantages to be gained over the enemy.
• Suppression of compassion, horror, guilt, tenderness, grief, disgust.
• The capacity to lie fluently and convincingly.
• Physical strength, quickness, endurance, stealth.
• Skill at locating and grabbing needed supplies, whether officially provided or not.
• Skill in the use of a variety of lethal weapons.
• Skill in adapting to harsh physical conditions.
Shay answers his question later in the chapter.  It's a rather obvious conclusion:
A career that war exactly prepares veterans for upon return to civilian life is a criminal career...
This problem has been around for a long time.  In other times and seasons whole societies were affected by soldiers trained to violence and then abandoned by their employers.  From Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century:
Outside Paris the breakdown of Paris was reaching catastrophe.  Its catalyst was the brigandige of military companies spawned by the warfare of the last fifteen years.  These were the Free Companies who "write sorrow on the bosom of the earth" and were to become the torment of the age.  Composed of English, Welsh, and Gascons released after Poitiers by the Black Prince, as soldiers customarily were to avoid further payment, they had acquired in the Prince's campaigns a taste for the ease and riches of plunder...They imposed ransoms on prosperous villages and burned the poor ones, robbed abbeys and monasteries of their stores and valuables, pillaged peasants' barns, killed and tortured those who hid their goods or resisted ransom, not sparing the clergy or the aged, violated virgins, nuns, and mothers, abducted women as enforced camp-followers and men as servants.  As the addiction took hold, they wantonly burned harvests and farm equipment and cut down trees and vines, destroying what they lived by, in actions which seem inexplicable except as a fever of the time or an exaggeration of the chroniclers.
Fever and exaggeration surely there were, but Tuchman also provides inadvertent hints at other explanations: these freebooters were looking for patrons, people to pay them to fight in actual battles, or not to fight at all.  By that measure, the bigger effect they had on commerce and production the more motivated wealthy lords might be to buy them off.

It's a long-held theory that more than one of the Great Crusades was motivated, at least in part, to get these brigands to practice their brigandage somewhere else and hopefully have their population thinned by attrition as well.

The 20th Century surely has had more soldiers than any other, perhaps all the others combined, and almost all of them did not continue in military work after the big wars ended.  In the US, the G. I. Bill was intended to provide privileges and opportunities for returning soldiers to find something to do with their lives other than the killing and madness of great military operations.  Their new jobs were a tremendous contrast to their old ones.  This photo taken in 1951 (found on a National Geographic website) are a group of former soldiers learning how to decorate cakes:

Tuesday, March 26, 2013


From Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop:
The Episcopal residence was an old adobe house, much out of repair, but with possibilities of comfort...The thick clay walls had been finished on the inside by the deft palms of Indian women, and had that irregular and intimate quality of things made entirely by the human hand.
That's what I like about handmade things.  Every one is different and reflects the skill, thoughts, and even moods of their creator.  Creativity, actual creativity, doesn't require materials, it requires thought and time.

By such a measure, our most productive places are also the least creative.  Factories are cold, full of motion but absent of life and vitality - machines building machines designed by machines. No creativity there.  If any human should find themselves on the factory floor, it is to play a part that humans can still play more cheaply than the best designed robot.  They are judged by how well they perform as machines.

And what about our homes?  Our clothing?  Our furniture?

Our art?  Machines have understood language, image and composition for decades; when will they take over the production of art?  If art becomes a constricted matter of process and form, they probably could no problem.

That was a crucial part of the nightmares in Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984 - the only purpose of art was to prop up the powerful or distract the populace.  A machine could easily generate such art.  Here's 1984:
There was a whole chain of separate departments [in the Ministry of Truth] dealing with proletarian literature,  music, drama and entertainment generally.  Here were produced rubbishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime, and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs that were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator. 
And Julia describing the books they produce in "Pornosec":
Oh ghastly rubbish.  They're boring really.  They only have six plots, but they swap them round a bit.  Of course I was only on the kaleidoscopes...
Could people tolerate such things?  I think we already do, whether they are machine creations or not.

Let me have handmade words.

Saturday, March 16, 2013


All writers are part of an historical milieu, including writers of what we now recognize as scripture.  Thus they were inclined to use symbols and ideas from their surrounding culture to get their point across.

I read this in the Iliad yesterday.  Speaking is Phoinix, older foster brother to pouting Achilles, trying to convince him to come back to the fight.  From Rouse's translation:
Do not despise the feet of those who bring good tidings.
This is very much a part with the famous verse from Isaiah:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!
Rouse is cheating a little bit; his version of the line seems to be consciously drawing a parallel to the Biblical verse.  Other translators like Fagles and Pope do not talk about feet at all.

However, the original does.  Consulting an interlinear source we see that Homer is referring to the feet, in particular, of those who bring the tidings.  Stringing together the sense of the Greek words, you more or less get: "not you, at least, my spoken words nor my foot put to shame".

News didn't travel so fast back then, and honor was eagerly given to those who cared enough to travel the distances to bring it.  It wasn't enough to have a voice - feet got you close enough to communicate.  In Greece, again, the fellow whose grand, sacrificial effort brought news of the victory at Marathon twenty-six miles to the people of Athens is still honored today as we call our races marathons and set racers to run that peculiar distance.

The idea translates rather easily to a gospel setting.  The news of faith, love and salvation in the home of God has been passed on with great labor and enthusiasm, and has been received in the hearts of many with joy and gratitude.  As for my church, the idea was picked up by Book of Mormon writers as well, and became a sort of leitmotif for the passing on of the Good News.

Friday, March 15, 2013


This is from John 21:
And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen.
I find it charming that he sums up the record using the name of his friend, instead of one of Jesus' many titles in His role as Savior of the world.

We get John's point - there's lots that the Savior did and said during his life that wasn't recorded, or was recorded and then lost.  This raises an interesting question - if further works or teachings of Jesus Christ came to light, should they not be studied and pondered and applied to our lives?

I should think so, enthusiastically.  Though there's the challenge of identifying what might have come from the Savior.

In 1945 a work called The Gospel of Thomas was discovered in Egypt.  It purported to contain many statements made by the Savior during his lifetime.  The claim is substantively true, for many of the 114 sayings match Biblical sayings very closely.

There are many that aren't in the Bible, however.  This parable, teaching 97, is fascinating:

Gospel of Thomas Coptic Text

Jesus said: The kingdom of the [Father] is like a woman carrying a jar full of meal. While she was walking [on a] distant road, the handle of the jar broke (and) the meal poured out behind her on the road. She was unaware, she had not noticed the misfortune. When she came to her house, she put the jar down (and) found it empty.
Blatz's translation.  Original and translation found here.

I haven't done enough to know whether this is true or not, but I like it a lot.  It feels like something the Savior would have said.  I don't know that I can make a stronger statement than that about it.  Very close in style to the parables we are familiar with in the New Testament.  The wide range of applications is significant, too - a people carrying along a heritage, or the results an individual expects from their labors.  Awareness of surroundings, attention to important details, the consequence of slow and steady losses, and a key irony that turns productive labor into useless toil.  It also has conflicts and details that promote further thought - for example, how could the lady not know her jar was empty?

My LDS religious tradition has encouraged open-minded study of non-canonical teachings, the Apocrypha in particular.  Doctrine and Covenants 131:
Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you concerning the Apocrypha—There are many things contained therein that are true, and it is mostly translated correctly;
Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth;
And whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom;

While I believe the LDS people to be more studious than the average, not many Latter-day Saints avail themselves of this particular opportunity, myself included.  Missed opportunities.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Becoming Evil to Better Fight Evil

Some fine themes in the Lord of the Rings books were neglected or even reversed in the well-known film based on the story.  During a parley before their last big battle, and emissary of Sauron, a splendid character who styled himself "the Mouth of Sauron" came out to the heroes to bluster and intimidate.  In the book it went like this:
...he mocked, turning to Aragorn with scorn.  "It needs more to make a king than a piece of elvish glass, or a rabble such as this.  Why, any brigand of the hills can show as good a following!" 
Aragorn said naught in answer, but he took the other's eye and held it and for a moment they strove thus; but soon, though Aragorn did not stir nor move hand to weapon, the other quailed and gave back as if menaced with a blow.  "I am a herald and ambassador, and may not be assailed!" he cried. 
"Where such laws hold," said Gandalf, "it is also the custom for ambassadors to use less insolence.  But no one has threatened you.  You have naught to fear from us, until your errand is done.  But unless your master has come to new wisdom, then with all his servants you will be in great peril."
The ambassador is later allowed to retire from the field, humiliated but unharmed.

Here's how it goes in the movie.  The opposite outcome - unprovoked violence against an unarmed noncombatant, followed by a joke.  Thus the "good guys" become more like the wicked enemy they are seeking to master.  If the bad guys weren't so ugly, you wouldn't be able to tell the sides apart.

Objectivity Is a Difficult Objective

Wendell Berry, in People Land Community:
Let us acknowledge that the objective or disinterested researcher is always on the side that pays best. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Prophetic Pound

"An Object" by Ezra Pound, published 1912:
This thing, that hath a code and not a core,
Hath set acquaintance where might be affections,
And nothing now
Disturbeth his reflections. 
He manages to describe computers (and people who turn themselves into them) many decades before their introduction.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Priests and Their Duties

Excerpt out of The Visitation of a Collegiate Church by Archbishop Odo of Rigaud, in November 1266.  From The Portable Medieval Reader:

Also, we found Lord Gilbert called Barrabas, priest and rector of the parish of St. Stephen, ill-famed many times; for he said that for many years he kept and still keeps his own niece and had begotten children by her. He did not have the letters of his ordination; he could not tell by whom or through whom he had been ordained; he was also ill-famed of trading; he celebrated [mass] insufficiently, was too solitary, being known to few.

Odo was doing the rounds around his diocese to check up on how things were going, and was pretty disappointed at what he saw in Rouen, St. Stephen in particular.  I find the account about Lord Gilbert interesting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is how he lists Gilbert's infractions in order of descending importance.  I find that the opposite is more logical, and better storytelling, too, building up to what seems to me the biggest - turning his niece into a concubine "for many years".

It's like if you were to list the legal consequences for some crime or other:  "Penalties for jaywalking include death by firing squad, sale of children into slavery, and an eleven dollar fine."  Seems graceless, right?  You hit the climax early and the rest of the sentence is rather small beer.  Odo apparently wasn't trying to tell a compelling account - he was more worried about keeping priests like Gilbert in line.

The other thing.  The last item, whatever its importance, highlights the role of the parish priest as the most visible representative of the universal church in the lives of millions in western Europe.  It was essentially a social occupation, and Odo's concern about Gilbert's teaching and getting to know the people of the parish shows that he cared about how the church was fulfilling a purpose in peoples' lives.

For the most part parish priests were a humble and unprepossessing bunch, and (Gilbert notwithstanding) many of them were holy souls, devoted to the instruction and well-being of their flocks.  Chaucer, skeptical about other roles in medieval society, nonetheless made a humble parson one of the good guys in The Canterbury Tales:
His parishioners devoutly would he teach.
Benign he was, and [wonderfully] diligent,
And in adversity [fully] patient,
And such he was proved often [truly].
Wide was his parish, and houses far asunder,
But he never [neglected] [any], for rain nor thunder,
In sickness nor in mischief to visit
The farthest in his parish, [rich] and [poor],
Upon his feet, and in his hand a staff.
This noble example to his sheep he gave,
That first he wrought, and afterward he taught.
(I have updated the spelling and changed some of the more antique words.)

"The Function of Knighthood"

Sometime in the 1100's John of Salisbury wrote a treatise entitled Policraticus.  Here is an excerpt, from J. Dickinson's translation, included in the anthology The Portable Medieval Reader:

For soldiers...are the more loyal to their prince in proportion as they more zealously keep the faith of God...
A cynical view of culture is that it exists to justify the position of the powerful.  At different times in history even the religious principles of the socially disruptive Christian faith have been turned to that end.

Friday, March 01, 2013

We Care More About Others' Sins Than Our Own

Some persons who are going down to perdition: Whiskey-men, saloon-keepers, whoremongers, prostitutes, seducers of innocent virtue, wilful liars, theatre-goers, horse-racers, (and their kind,) tricksters in politics and business, and bad people of all grades are on the road to perdition.
No mention of murderers in this list, which is significant since the author thereof is Charles Guiteau, who assassinated President James A. Garfield.

This is from his book The Truth, and the Removal.  The work compasses two subjects - the first 2/5 a treatise on Christian religion and virtue, and the rest a justification for his crime.  Interestingly enough, the word "murder" appears only once in the first portion, in reference to the politics of the Caesars in the Roman Empire.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Secret Lives of Slaves

Homer was a very shrewd observer of human life and personality.  This is from Fagles' translation of Book XIX, where Achilles and the Greeks all mourn the death of Achilles' friend Patroclus:

And so Briseis returned, like golden Aphrodite,
but when she saw Patroclus lying torn by the bronze
she flung herself on his body, gave a piercing cry 
 and with both hands clawing deep at her breasts, 
her soft throat and lovely face, she sobbed, 
a woman like a goddess in her grief,
"So now I mourn your death—I will never stop— 
you were always kind." 
                                        Her voice, rang out in tears 
and the women wailed in answer, grief for Patroclus  
calling forth each woman's private sorrows.
Whoever he was, Homer understood the secret lives of slaves, society's losers without control over their lives or even their own bodies.  City taken, men killed, the surviving women were distributed among the victorious warriors: to launder their clothes, prepare their food, and warm their beds - sometimes for the rest of their lives.  They had no easy outlet for their sorrows, until a great man mourned.  Then they were called on to mourn likewise.

Brises, though a slave of the Greeks, had her reasons for being grateful to Patroclus and lamented his loss.  The other slave women had no such feelings to draw upon, though they had no trouble finding things to lament.  See how easy and quickly the wails came forth - in immediate echo to Brises'.

The powerful often exert a powerful control over those around them, but they can never possess the hearts of the humble.  The great and mighty can never be sure what thoughts hide behind a crying or smiling face.

Psalms 137:1-4 is also very relevant:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Death Scene

Old Lodge Skins doesn't actually die here, but he's ready for the change.  As portrayed by the actor Chief Dan George, in the film Little Big Man.  (Link):
Come out and fight!  It is a good day to die!  Thank you for making me a human being.  Thank you for helping me to become a warrior.  Thank you for my victories and for my defeats.  Thank you for my vision, and the blindness in which I saw further.  You make all things and direct them in their ways, o grandfathers.  And now, you have decided the human beings will soon walk a road that leads nowhere.  I am going to die now, unless death wants to fight.  And I ask you for the last time, to grant me my old power to make things happen.  Take care of my son here.  See that he doesn't go crazy.
(lays down and closes eyes for a time)

Am I still in this world?  I was afraid of that.  Well, sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn't.

Thursday, February 21, 2013


Here's an interesting contrast within a parallel.

First from Rouse's translation of The Iliad.  When Hector challenges the Greeks to send forth a champion to fight him singly, he offers these conditions:
...if Apollo grant me success, and I strike him down, I will strip off his armor and take it into sacred Troy...but the body I will give back, that his friends may carry it to their camp, to give him funeral and build him a barrow beside the broad Hellespont.  Then men will say in far distant generations to come, as they sail along the shore, 'Yonder is the barrow of a man dead long ago, a champion whom famous Hector slew.'  So my fame will never be forgotten.
What a pistol.  It's a different story at the end of Beowulf when, fatally wounded by a dragon, Beowulf says:
Command the battle-warriors, after the funeral fire,
to build a fine barrow overlooking the sea;
let it tower high on Whaleness
as a reminder to my people.
And let it be known as Beowulf's Barrow
to all seafarers, to men who steer their ships
from far over the swell and the saltspray.
Funny that such a grand ambition could appear humble and unassuming compared to the hubris of Hector.  Beowulf saw his end and wanted geography to remember him.  Hector, though, his pride had not been blunted.  The gods had not inspired him to know that, though never forgotten, his fame would be as the champion whom famous Achilles slew.


From Rouse's translation of the Iliad.  After Apollo and Athena encourage Hector to challenge the Greek host to send someone forward to fight him singly:

Apollo and Athena in the form of two vultures perched upon the tall oak tree, and looked on with great enjoyment.
Vultures, how very fitting.  In the poem the whole Trojan war was started over rivalry between gods, and the conflict was a proxy one - men dying at the behest of the powerful and immortal.  Their vanity consuming the lives and flesh of lowly men.  Very vulture-like, and much like some generals I can think of.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What a Great Plague Year

Samuel Pepys' diary, the last entry of 1665.  His opinions on events of the year seem to suffer somewhat from distorted emphasis:

The great evil of this year, and the only one endeed, is the fall of my Lord of Sandwich, whose mistake about the prizes hath undone him, I believe...
A dreadful thing, I suppose - his father's cousin Sandwich packed off to Spain by his enemies at court.  Oh ho what a downfall.  Apparently not, in Mr. Pepys' estimation, any comparison to the Great Plague of London, an epidemic disaster in his hometown that carried away one out of every five Londoners, including some of his relatives:
My whole family hath been well all this while, and all my friends I know of, saving my Aunt Bell, who is dad, and some childrn of my Cosen Sarah's, of the plague. But many of such as I know very well, dead. Yet to our great joy, the town fills apace, and shops begin to open again. Pray God continue the plague's decrease - for that keeps the Court away from the place of business, and so all goes to wrack as to public matters, they at this distance not thinking of it.
Can it be that a wealthy man like Samuel found he and his so little affected by this plague - the shops?  He describes it almost as an economic disaster, not a human one.

Perhaps I am being unfair.  Seeing signs that life was returning to normal must have been encouraging for many people.  London as a ghost town for that dreadful summer of 1665 must have put many people out of sorts.  From the same entry:
It is true we have gone through great melancholy because of the great plague, and I put to great charges by it, by keeping my family long at Woolwich, and myself and another part of my family, my clerks, at my charge at Greenwich, and a maid at London. But I hope the King will give us some satisfaction for that. But now the plague is abated almost to nothing, and I entending to get to London as fast as I can, my family, that is, my wife and maids, having been there these two or three weeks.
Or maybe I am not being unfair:
I have never lived so merrily (besides that I never got so much) as I have done this plague-time...and great store of dancings we have had at my cost (which I was willing to indulge myself and my wife) at my lodgings.
People respond to crises in different ways - and sometimes the same ways.  People do tend to seek forgetfulness in dreadful times.  Indeed, long before Pepys dancing and death were coupled together most alarmingly:

Danse Macabre

This is really on the nose, as is this.

I'm also reading Daniel DeFoe's dramatized account of the plague year, and it reads very differently that Pepys'.  It should; it is about the plague and nothing else, and tried to draw the dimensions of the last great bubonic disaster of the Anglo Saxon world.  Pepys was content to concern himself with the plague only about as much as the plague concerned itself with him, which as we see was not very much.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Learning to Fight

How armies turn kids into soldiers.  From Gwynne Dyer's book War (excerpted here):

The way armies produce this sense of brotherhood in a peacetime environment is basic training: a feat of psychological manipulation on the grand scale which has been so consistently successful and so universal that we fail to notice it as remarkable.
The training, when it starts, seems impossibly demanding physically for most of the recruits - and then it gets harder week by week. There is a constant barrage of abuse and insults aimed at the recruits, with the deliberate purpose of breaking down their pride and so destroying their ability to resist the transformation of values and attitudes that the Corps intends them to undergo...The aim is to keep the training arduous but just within most of the recruits' capability to withstand. One of the most striking achievements of the drill instructors is to create and maintain the illusion that basic training is an extraordinary challenge, one that will set those who graduate apart from others, when in fact almost everyone can succeed.

...Nothing is quite so effective in building up a group's morale and solidarity, though, as a steady diet of small triumphs. Quite early in basic training, the recruits begin to do things that seem, at first sight, quite dangerous: descend by ropes from fifty-foot towers, cross yawning gaps hand-over-hand on high wires (known as the Slide for Life, of course), and the like. The common denominator is that these activities are daunting but not really, dangerous: the ropes will prevent anyone from falling to his death off the rappelling tower, and there is a pond of just the right depth - deep enough to cushion a falling man, but not deep enough that he is likely to drown - under the Slide for Life. The goal is not to kill recruits, but to build up their confidence as individuals and as a group by allowing them to overcome apparently frightening obstacles.

...But there is nothing in all this (except the weapons drill) that would not be found in the training camp of a professional football team.
I remember reading once about the relaxed training fitness standards for female military recruits, and being upset at how progressive social engineers were ruining the US military as a fighting force.  I'm sure many in the military felt the same way, but we all of us were buying into the mythology described above.  What matters for recruits is that the challenges are superable, not that they turn out a person of a certain physical caliber.  For how many active military train and condition so fanatically once their basic training is done?  Surely not so many?  It's the tone of their brains, not necessarily their muscles, that makes them capable soldiers.

Even more true nowadays, where war is fought more and more by joystick and remote than sticking knives in people.  The only question for female soldiers is whether they are willing to do as they are told and kill whom they are told.  

Friday, February 08, 2013

War, Peace, Fire, Water

Lord Philip Nowell Baker:

Well, the militarists say, 'If you want peace, prepare for war.'  An ancient Roman adage - it's nonsense.  The whole of history has proved it's wrong.  If you want peace, prepare for peace.

Interviewed in War: A Commentary by Gwynne Dyer.  His whole statement is very striking.  I encourage you to listen to it.

I like his saying much better than the old Roman adage, but the Roman version is (no surprise) much more popular in our world.  Do a Google search for each, in quotes and you see that one version appears on the internet 3.7 million times, while the other a paltry 23 thousand and change.

There is also a considerable disparity between "fight fire with fire" and "fight fire with water", though not so great in amplitude.

Polite Terminology

From Robert Graves' Good-bye to All That, describing a relative's mansion that he explored as a child:

In one corner was a dark hole closed by a gate: a secret passage from the house to a ruined monastery, a mile away--so we were told.  My uncles had once been down some distance, but the air got bad and they came back; the gate had been put up to prevent others from trying it and losing their senses.  Come to think of it, they were probably teasing us, and the hole led to the bottom of the garde-robe--which is a polite name for a medieval earth closet.

...and "earth closet" is a polite name for a latrine, which is a polite french name derived from lavare, "to wash".

I'm sure Graves was clever enough to have written that on purpose.

I am also never more jealous than when I read of privileged children having old castles to tumble around and explore.  I want that childhood.  Makes me want to tunnel out some secret passages in my back yard for my boys to discover some day.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Anybody's Son Will Do

Gwynne Dyer's wonderful documentary about war shows US Marine recruits at Parris Island waking up for their first morning of training.  Among other things, they are made to chant:

"...highly motivated, truly dedicated, rompin' stompin' blood-thirsty kill-crazy United States Marine Corps recruits, sir!"

Wow.  Volunteer military, so I guess they knew what they were getting into.  I wonder if they could get conscripts to scream that kind of thing.  I think I'd rather risk embarrassment and discomfort than say such a dreadful thing.  But I'm 38.  Maybe twenty years ago I would have.  Would have been poison in my mouth, or would there have been an animal thrill?

Dyer also wrote a book with similar themes, and one chapter describes boot camp in detail, about how strategic the chants, trials and humiliations are: they want to make young human beings capable of dreadful things.  The chapter is available here.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

French and English Weren't Always the Same Thing

From Seamus Heaney's popular translation of Beowulf, starting line 2401:

The lord of the Geats took eleven comrades
and went in a rage to reconnoitre.

Well, the sense of reconnoitre is a military survey or field intelligence-gathering exercise.  Usually patience and caution are the watchwords; you aren't looking for a fight.  And in this case the lord of the Geats was not.  The idea of conducting one in a blood-lusty berserker rage is farcical, but never mind - in my opinion that is the least of this sentence's transgressions.

I'm sure Heaney's Anglo Saxon is better than mine, but I would not have ended the sentence thus.  "Reconnoitre" is jarringly out of place, as a neologism borrowed from French maybe a thousand years after the story took place.  (Heaney even went with the French spelling over the anglicized "reconnoiter" - zut alors!)

I know I am being unfair - Heaney's version is in Modern English, of which language "reconnoiter" is a perfectly acceptable member, along with many other words that the original poet would never have recognized, but still get stuffed in his mouth by Heaney and every other scholar who has attempted a translation.

And according to my Anglo Saxon dictionary, the word may have an original Anglo Saxon root; the same that led us to the word "reckon".  But tone has to matter for something.  Whether the word accurately describes the action or not, I can't imagine someone like Beowulf performing "reconnaissance" - it's too modern, and far too French.  I would have expected a poet and man of letter such as Heaney to be more careful.

I'm also pretty sure Beowulf didn't have any "élan", either.

(Edit: I note that many online academic courses and quizzes about Beowulf utilize Heaney's translation and include "reconnoitre" as one of the vocabulary words, so it's good to know that this Anglo Saxon masterpiece is encouraging people to learn their modern French cognates.)

Friday, February 01, 2013

Legal Warning

From a description of in-room spa service at the Las Vegas Wynn:

For a truly relaxing experience, enjoy a massage in the comfort of your room or suite.  Please note, our therapists adhere to all Nevada state and local laws.

Oh bra-VO, anonymous scribe, for saying the thing without saying it.  Las Vegas is a marvelous place, the kind of place where competent hospitality professionals have to be pre-announced as "not prostitutes".

Emergency Aparthied

The fire safety guide in the Guest Instruction Manual I found in my room at the Las Vegas Wynn Hotel this week:
If your exit is blocked
If the stairwell is filled with smoke, try the other exits at the end of the hallway.
If both exit stairwells are filled with smoke, return to your room.  It is the safest place for you.

Discouraging that the best option is to go back to your room to await deep-frying, but the advice is sensible enough.

Also incomplete.  "Both exit stairwells" refer to the stairways at either end of the hallway on my floor, the 25th.  However, my hallway only took up half the 25th floor - the other half was a hallway of fancier suite rooms, access blocked by a room key reader to keep the peasants out.  Only suite guests could get through.

I don't suppose there was any reason for my going over into the other hallway uninvited, but there was no reason NOT to.  Not like I could do anything once I got there.  I think the division is to maintain a certain exclusivity for the more expensive rooms.

There are two other stairways over there, too.  Supposing there was a fire where my stairways were smoke-ridden, but theirs were not?  Escape would be a simple thing, except for the security door dividing us. (Though in fairness, I am not certain whether folks on the other side have their access restricted as well.)

Funny to imagine a hotel with one set of emergency exits for the economy-room peons and another for the fancier suite stayers, but that's exactly what they've got at the Wynn.

Preventors of Information Flow

..."tokens" [are] a virtual currency that you can redeem for eBook downloads. It will say 2/2, or some other configuration, which means you have 2 tokens for this week, and you have 2 tokens remaining.
Different books cost different token amounts. The token amount required for a book is labeled clearly on the book display. Unused tokens roll over to the following week. Every 4 weeks, unused tokens expire.
That's from the "Freading" page of the Salt Lake City Public Library, describing the restrictions on access to eBooks that are available to library patrons.

Used to be that books had a built-in limitation - as a physical item they could only be read by one person at a time, and copying was arduous and expensive.  Providing content for free, public libraries have traditionally posed a threat to the profits of booksellers.  For decades the threat was muted by the difficulty of passing the physical object from person to person with any sort of dispatch - getting to keep the object for almost a month meant only 12-20 people could consume any single book in a year.

The digital age has made information easily and readily available, and libraries could now provide unlimited virtual versions of books to patrons at little or no cost to anyone.  Those restrictions have continued, only now they are artificial.  Libraries, once enthusiastic purveyors of knowledge, are now cast in the odd role of guardians and gatekeepers, making sure you don't consume more knowledge in a week than you deserve to.