Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Autism: X-Men Superhero Mutations!

I'm autistic. (BUT I AM NOT A SPOKESPERSON FOR AUTISTICS! I just assume they don't want me as such. I'm just a leeeetle bit much much much too zany and annoying for spokesperson-type positions.) I'm just curious about how many people have given much thought to the possibility that autism is not a horrible disease, and that difficulties faced by autistics and those around can be addressed by each side understanding the other better. Joyce wrote Finnegan's Wake. Wittgenstein wrote the tractatus logico-philosophicus. Einstein made huge advances in physics. Disease? I don't want to sound arrogant, but all that sounds more like X-Men mutant superpowers to me. (Yes, I assumed for the sake of argument that Joyce, Wittgenstein and Einstein were all autistic.) Temple Grandin completely revolutionized the design of slaughterhouses, there's not much doubt that she's autistic, and she says she was able to conceive of those new designs BECAUSE she was autistic.

We're like the mutants in the X-Men stories in the way that many of us strongly oppose the idea that we need to be "cured."

I can't yet bend metal or lift nuclear submarines with my mind, but I am an excellent driver!

I don't feel diseased. I feel that I'm different in a very significant way from 99% of the general population, and very similar to the other 1% in that same specific way.

I know that very many very intelligent people who have devoted a lot of time and study to this subject disagree with me and are sure that autism is a disorder. And I don't dismiss that, I consider it, I weigh it. I hope people will weigh what autistics are saying when they're saying what I'm saying now. (Saying it often in a much more dignified, less zany, more spokesperson-like way than I am capable of doing.)

All the "thank you verr much pleez, yr verr nice person" stuff -- that's autism too. (Was Gertrude Stain autistic?) I knew an autistic woman who, when she was in a good mood, liked to say things like "Lay down lay down lay down" and "Very well-paved" and "Kiss my Play-Do head!" and then she would bow her head so you could kiss her on the top of her head if you were so inclined. It was very sweet. At the moment I don't really know how to explain why some of us sometimes do things like that, and spinning and rocking wringing our hands and so forth and so on. Yes, it's all called "self-stimming" and you can look up the standard descriptions and explanations of it. But do those explanations explain anything? I don't really know. I can't point to objective benefits of this sort of thing, whether you choose to call it self-stimming or not, comparable to those of Einstein's and Grandin's work. But on the other hand it certainly does no one any harm, and if it comes along with extraordinary abilities, why should we hide it? (Thinking of the mutants from the X-Men stories again, sometimes hiding things like blue skin and hair, and sometimes refusing to hide.) The point I'm struggling here to express is something along the lines of: do we even need to explain unusual behavior which stems from our autism, if it makes sense to us and if it's harmless?

Consider this: lots and lots of things which the neurologically-typical majority of people do on an everyday basis, without thinking of it as bizarre, seems bizarre to us, and generally speaking, we just accept it. We don't bother you about it or shun you for it.

Over and over in this blog I have pled for people to consider that just possibly there's not a thing wrong with us. So please, please consider that possibility. Thank yu verr much pleez, yr verr nice person!

Monday, April 27, 2015

Catalogs of Latin Manuscripts

It can be a bit frustrating, looking for manuscripts. In this instance I'm not talking about undiscovered manuscripts, but manuscripts in libraries which are considered to belong to the public, which are available for examination by scholars, which increasingly are digitalized, with high-resolution photographs of them freely available on the Internet.

But how do you find them? Ugh. There surely must be better ways than what I've been going through. I started off today looking for some list of all known manuscripts of Livy. Professor Michael Reeve very helpfully counted up 154 manuscripts of the Third Decade. Then there's that manuscript of books 41-45, that palimpsest of a passage from book 91, and that scrap of papyrus found with several dozen words from book 11. Great. Now, besides those 157 MSS, where's a list of the MSS of the First Decade and the Fourth Decade? I don't know. Maybe there's some really simple way to find such a list, but I don't know that simple way either. If it exists. Editions of Livy list all of the manuscripts used by the editors, but that's only a few dozen MSS all together, and presumably there are hundreds more MSS of which I am unaware. Presumably. I'm presuming. Because I don't know.

Seems to me that a list of all known manuscripts of Livy would be a very handy thing, which a lot of Classical scholars would like to have on hand. And maybe a lot of them do. I need to ask some of them about such things.

I know that some MSS of Vergil and Terrence and Plautus are in the Vatican Palatine collection. I know this because editors of those authors listed those MSS. "Vaticanus Palatinus latine," or "Vat. Pal. lat.," lets me know that those manuscripts are in that particular collection.

How did those editors know? I don't know how they knew.

Here's volume 1 of a catalog of the Palatine collection, listing MSS 1 through 921. The entire Latin section of the Palatine collection goes into the thousands. How many thousands? Search me. MSS 872 through 880 in this volume are MSS of Livy. You know how I know that? Because just now, paging through the online Google book I've linked for you there, I just plain stumbled upon MSS 872 through 880. Does the Palatine collection contain more MSS of Livy besides just those 9? I sure wish I knew. Do the other manuscript collections in the Vatican Library contain more MSS of Livy? I'm almost completely certain they do. How many more? I don't have any faint idea. I don't even know how many more collections of Latin manuscripts there are in the Vatican Library besides the Palatine collection.

All I know is that this is no damn way to run a railroad! You call this a martini?! Get off my lawn! You're darn tootin I'm climbing the walls over this! BARKBARKBARKBARKBARK!!! (That was the sound of me going stark barking mad.)

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Chess Log, 5-0 Blitz: 1. e4 c5 2. f4 d5 3. e5 e6 4. ♘f3 ♘c6 5. d4 c4 6. ♘c3 a6 7. a3 h6 8. h3 b5 9. ♗e3 b4 10. axb4 ♗xb4 11. ♕d2 ♘ge7 12. O-O-O ♕a5 13. ♔b1 ♖b8 14. ♕c1 ♗xc3 15. b3 ♕a1 0-1 {White checkmated}

I played Black. I'd played a number of 5-0 blitz games against this opponent, and gotten the impression that he over-relied on his Knights, so through my 7th move I was concerned with blocking them. I played 8. [...] b5. 9. [...] b4 and 10. [...] ♗xb4 because it was the best way I could see to get my King's Bishop into play and leave room for my King's Knight. I don't know what White was thinking with 11. ♕d2?, and 12. O-O-O?? just made a bad situation much worse for him. And then 14. ♕c1??? shortened the game at least a little.

By White's 3rd move we were already out of the MCO-13.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Adult Atheists Converting To Theism

I don't know how widespread such conversions are. Because of my literary interests, I happen to know about one small group of conversions, those of prominent Weimar-era authors writing in German, who were atheists and ethnically Jewish, who converted to Catholicism. Karl Kraus, Alfred Doeblin, Joseph Roth and Franz Werfel. I don't approve of their conversions. I don't present these authors as role models. But all four are great writers. Doeblin is -- Doeblin, although greatly admired, is still greatly underrated, he's the greatest writer ever to have written in German, there I said it. Doeblin is the balls. And I'll repeat what I've said on other occasions: being religious is not as disastrous to artists, including writers of fiction, as it is to persons in other professions, because being an artist and being religious both involve constantly making things up.

Doeblin and Roth were Leftists who opposed religion for political reasons. Doeblin was that way for a long time. His one big commercial success as an author was his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz in 1929, he had been active in the Left wing of the SPD since 1920, fled from Germany to France in 1933, then in 1940 from France to the US, settling in the Los Angeles area, where like some other German authors he found some work writing for the movies. In 1941 he and his wife and son were baptized in a Catholic church in Hollywood. He said that he had been very moved when looking at a crucifix in the cathedral of Mende, France, and that he had had a similar experience when looking at a crucifix in a church in Krakow: both times, he said, he had become overcome with emotion when looking at what he called "the rebel executed on a cross." Whatever happened to him when he saw those two crucifixes, it seemed to have played a big role in his conversion. It seems that after his conversion he was in the Left wing of the Church, particularly concerned with coming to the aid of the poor.

Doeblin announced his conversion in front of 200 guests on his 65th birthday in 1943. Most of his friends were Leftists and had remained atheists, and their general reaction was dismay. They felt Doeblin had joined the enemy. Bertolt Brecht had been a close colleague of Doeblin's in both political and literary projects; he wrote a bitterly sarcastic poem about Doeblin's conversion: "Peinlicher Vorfall" ("An Embarrassing Incident").

Joseph Roth's time as an atheist Leftist was briefer than Doeblin's. He was born in Galicia in 1894, when the region was still part of the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire, was a university student in Vienna, the Empire capital, and just a few years after the Empire ceased to be 1918, Roth became disillusioned with the Soviet Union, and began to say and write the most remarkably euphoric things about how the Catholic Church unified all mankind, and how the very Catholic Habsburg Empire had united the many nationalities under its rule. (Very few members of the non-German nationalities under the Habsburgs ever seemed to find the Empire particularly benevolent.)

Karl Kraus was born in 1874 in what today is the Czech Republic; three years later he family moved to Vienna, and he lived there the rest of his life, until 1936. In 1899 he withdrew from the Jewish religion; in 1911 he converted to Catholicism, and in 1923 he left the Catholic Church. Unlike Doeblin and Roth he wasn't a Leftist. But he also was never a conservative or Right-wing reactionary either. He preferred to ridicule any and all parties whenever he felt they deserved it, and he seems to have similar problems first with his family's Jewish faith and then with Catholicism.

Franz Werfel was born in 1890 in Prague, which -- let's all sing it in unison -- at that time was part of the Habsburg Empire. He settled in Vienna after WWI, converted to Catholicism in 1929, was rescued and hidden from the Nazis by the nuns at Lourdes in 1940, promised those nuns to write a novel about their cloister, and did: Das Lied von Bernadette, published in 1941.

That's only just about about all of the most prominent Jewish authors of their time writing in German. Whether this is all just a coincidence -- four people; that's a rather small sampling for statistical purposes -- or whether there were many other German-Jewish authors of the same era, less prominent, unknown to me, who also converted to Catholicism; and/or many other German Jews from other professions who converted -- I don't know. There is one prominent German-Jewish author of the same generation, Lion Feuchtwanger, who, as far as I know, never became Catholic. Feuchtwanger collaborated on a few pieces of writing with Brecht (who was not Jewish), was pals with Doeblin, joined the Los Angeles-area colony of German expat writers in 1940. No conversion on Feuchtwanger's part, but the title character of his novel Jud Suess, based on the historical figure of an 19th-century Jewish financier, does have bad dreams in which Catholic Germans and Jews are locked together in a grotesque dance which they cannot stop, in which they are thoroughly and inescapably a part of one another. So maybe there's more than a coincidence here.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Some Remarks On The Term "Pope"

When the Roman Empire became officially Christian in the late 4th century, the Emperor or Emperors were the head (or heads) of the Church. I say Emperor of Emperors because sometimes there was one Emperor, and sometimes there were two, one in the Latin West and one in the Greek East. But then the Western Empire ceased to be in AD 476 -- or so they say. It's a little more complicated than that. Some people still claimed to be the Western Emperor in the years after 476, and there can be a reasonable discussion about how serious some of those claims were. And in the 6th century, Justinian, the Eastern, Byzantine Emperor, warred quite vigorously and won back quite a bit of the Western Empire: the entire Italian peninsula and modern-day Slovenia and Croatia, and Sicily and Sardinia and Corsica and most of the northern coast of western Africa and most of the southern coast of Spain. But the Empire only held of these re-conquests for a few years. The wars which won all that territory also bankrupted the Eastern Empire, and that's why they weren't able to hold onto the territory -- after 476 the Popes moved into the power vacuum left by the disintegration of the Western Empire.

For most of the period between 476 and 800 -- when the Pope crowned Charlemagne as the Western Emperor -- the Popes were the most powerful ruler in Western Europe, they gave the region most of what political cohesion it had, and they continued to be the strongest political power for centuries after 800. There were Emperors again in the West, but they never held the sort of power which Emperors had had until 476, and which the Eastern or Byzantine Emperors retained until 1453. The Byzantine Emperors were the unquestioned heads of both church and state. The Popes were unquestioned as the rulers of the Western Church until the 16th century, and they often contested the position of highest earthly power with the Emperors.

I don't know the details of how the use of the term "Pope," to refer specifically and only to the Bishop of Rome, originated and spread. In 1073, Pope Gregory VII officially declared that it would not be applied to any other Bishop in the Catholic Church except for the Bishop of Rome. This had been the unofficial understanding of the meaning of the term for some time already -- for how long? Good question. In the 3rd century, the term "Pope," meaning "Holy Father," was occasionally applied to various Bishops. All I can say for sure is that sometime between the 3rd and 11th centuries, the Bishops of Romes became known as the Popes.

Before 476, when the Papacy began to (partially) fill the role of the Emperors, the Bishop of Rome was just one of several powerful bishops alongside those of Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople. The question of which of these bishops was the most powerful was far overshadowed by the fact that all of them were subservient to the Emperor or Emperors. When people claim that Constantine and the Pope re-wrote the Bible at Nicea in 325, not only do they not know that Bishop Sylvester of Rome -- to whom we often in retrospect, anachronistically, refer as Pope Sylvester I -- not only are they unaware that Sylvester didn't actually go to Nicea -- they also assume that he had a distinction above the Bishops of Constantinople and Alexandria and Antioch and Jerusalem, which he didn't have.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

William Of Malmesbury's 12th-Century Description Of Eilmer's 11th-Century Attempt At Flight

Near the end of book II of his Gesta regum anglorum, finished around 1125, on pp 276-77 of volume 1 of this 2-volume set --

-- William of Malmesbury writes about a monk of Malmesbury named Eilmer who in 1066, upon seeing the comet we now call Helley's Comet, foretold a chaos of nations which would be the woe of many mothers. Halley's Comet is fainter every time it approaches the Earth, every 86 years. In 1066 it must really have been something to see. And a little later in 1066 the Battle of Hastings occurred, which was the beginning of the Norman Conquest, which did indeed brief grief to many English mothers. But ancient Greeks and Romans and Medieval Europeans always thought that comets heralded disaster, and there were usually enough disasters around that those who wanted to see cause and effect could pretty easily do so. If you had never read any ancient or medieval history before this, you might think Hmm, that's an interesting coincidence with the comet and the Conquest; if you've read a lot, you might think, as I do, Oh Jeez not again with the comets and the prophecies of doom, guys!

What's interesting about William's description of Eilmer is what comes next:

Is erat litteris, quantum ad id temporis, bene imbutus, aeuo maturus, immanem audaciam prima iuuentute conatus: nam pennas manibus et pedibus haud scio qua innexuerat arte, ut Daedali more uolaret, fabulam pro uero amplexus, collectaque e summo turris aura, spatio stadii et plus uolauit; sed uenti et turbinis uiolentia, simul et temerarii facti conscientia, tremulus cecidit, perpetuo post haec debilis, et crura effractus. Ipse ferebat causam ruinae quod caudam in posteriori parte oblitus fuerit.

(He was learned, by the standards of his time, of a good old age, and when quite young, mistaking fable for fact, had attempted, with remarkable audacity, to fly like Daedalus. By some means unknown to me he fastened wings to his hands and feet, waited at the top of a tower for the wind, and flew for more than a furlong. However, made unsteady by the wind and swirling air, and simultaneously by the consciousness of his own temerity, he trembled and plunged to the ground and broke both legs. He was lame for the rest of his life. He himself said that the flight had been ruined because he'd forgotten to put a tail behind the wings.)

If that really happened, and Eilmer really did fly for a furlong, 220 yards, when the highest tower in town was less than 1/10 that tall, then Eilmer was a true badass and far ahead of his time. 220 yards from a 60-foot tower is not all that bad for someone with some experience and skill using a 21st-century hang glider.

But did it really happen? William is known for his accuracy and scrupulous attention to detail. But writing perhaps a century or more after Eilmer's flight, he was relying on hearsay of hearsay. It's easy for me to imagine the length of the flight having been exaggerated by onlookers astonished by the fact that someone was attempting such a thing at all. I'd say the flight probably happened, but that details like the length of the flight in William's description have to be, as they say, approached with caution.

If it happened, you really have to hand it to Eilmer not just for ingenuity, but for commitment. Four and a half centuries later, Leonardo da Vinci made some very nice drawings of flying machines, but he never actually built one, strapped himself into it and jumped off of a dangerously high place. I know that there are all sorts of stories about Leonardo having done exactly that, but those stories aren't true.

Monday, April 20, 2015

I Don't Understand How Twitter And Google+ Work

I'm not complaining. They work. I link a blog post in a Tweet, and boom, right away, it gets pageviews. And increasing traffic on my blog is the only reason I Tweet. (It's the only reason I get out of bed in the morning and keep breathing.) But I don't know who's looking at my blog because Twitter made them aware of it. I have X number of followers on Twitter. I link a post in a Tweet, and right away it get 2X or 3X pageviews or more. Why? I don't see my Tweets being re-tweeted. Are there that many people furiously searching Twitter every second, waiting hungrily for any Tweet with a word like "Nietzsche" or "Eusebius" in it?

Compared to Google+, though, Twitter is an open book to me. At least I know how to search Twitter. Maybe there is no way to search Google+, and all it does it affect people's Google searches? I have no idea. I think I read somewhere that Google+ was a social media thingy, but I haven't found any place on it yet to socialize.

Please comment if you know more about this stuff than I do. A frightened old man is asking for your help, trying to cope with a world he never made. I don't even know enough to put more than "twitter" and "google+" in the labels for this post.

(Twitter For Dummies didn't help. It reminded me of Homer Simpson referring to instructions for masonry.)

PS: In the last couple of days I found out that those hashtags the kids are always talking about these days have something to do with Twitter. Twitter is already helping me, although I don't understand how exactly. If I put hashtags in my Tweets, will it help me even more, and give me that last little nudge into complete world domination? How do I know what to put in the hashtags? (Is "Tweet" capitalized? Get off my lawn!)

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Atheist Shows Painting Of Adam & Eve, Circles their Bellybuttons, Sez "This Proves The Bible Is Wrong"

1) Has this atheist never met any Jews, Christians or Muslims who don't believe the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden is literally true, but are still Jews, Christians or Muslims? Really? Really? All of the atheists I've been hanging out with -- have they all recently barely escaped with their lives from believers who were about to slay them because they touched pigskin with their bare hands or ate shrimp? That would explain a few things.

2) If they really are talking to people who believe that the Genesis story of the Garden of Eden is true -- What's to keep those believers from answering, "This painting was made in the 15th century. Why would you expect a painting made then to realistically reproduce every detail of the bodies of people the painter never saw, who lived thousands of years earlier? They've got these buildings full of paintings and sculptures, they're called 'museums,' you should check one out sometime. Paintings and sculptures from all eras, when they depict people and things from earlier eras, are full of historical inaccuracies. There's even a name for such inaccuracies, they're called 'anachronisms.' Painters in the 15th century didn't have access to nearly as much information about the ancient world as we have today, so it's only natural that if they painted someone from ancient history or mythology -- and they made such paintings all the time -- the paintings would contain anachronisms which would be much more obvious to someone in the 21st century than someone in the 15th century. And why should we assume in the first place that all such anachronisms are committed by mistake -- well, we certainly shouldn't! Not only do painters of all eras make unintentional anachronisms -- painters in all eras have made intentional ones too! If the people in the pictures look like people from the viewers' own time and place, it makes it easier for the viewers to relate to them as real human beings. That's Painting Psychology 101, or 201 at most. Movies are chock full of anachronisms too, everybody knows that. Stirrups weren't invented until after the fall of the Roman Empire, but in movie after movie you see ancient Greeks and Romans climbing up onto their horses with the aid of stirrups. You know, I don't know if I've ever heard anyone say that a 15th century painter was a bad painter because there are anachronisms in his pictures. If anybody ever did say such a thing I'd have to disagree, I'd have to say they were missing the whole point of painting! How many times have you heard someone complain because people in a movie who were supposed to be ancient Romans were speaking English and not Latin? And I KNOW I've never heard anybody before this point out an anachronism in a 15th-century painting and say, 'This proves the Bible is wrong.' So thank you, Sir, for a completely new experience and a good laugh!"

Numbers Of Copies Of Books

It feels like I've always been interested in numbers of books: how many copies there are of a certain title, how many books exist in this language or that, how many copies of a book there used to be which are now missing or have been destroyed.

I can't remember not being interested in such thing, but the interest had to begin some time. Perhaps it was in junior high, when I got a Dell paperback copy of Catch-22 with "OVER 8 MILLION COPIES IN PRINT!" on the front or back cover. Not long after that I saw a copy of Catch-22 from a later printing. The cover design was mostly similar, but it was red where the cover of the earlier book had been blue; and along with a few other minor changes it now said "OVER 8 MILLION COPIES SOLD!" I took this to mean that when the earlier copy was printed, 1973 perhaps? that printing took the total to over 8 million, and that a year or two later enough of the earlier printing had been sold to honestly say "SOLD!" on the cover instead of "IN PRINT!" Did the cover designers at Dell really keep track that closely of the numbers of copies in print and sold? Am I giving Dell way too much credit for making sure the covers were accurate? I have no idea. For a while I definitely tried to keep track of Catch-22's sales, and I seem to remember seeing conflicting numbers from various sources, but in retrospect, that's explained at least as easily by journalistic sloppiness as by inaccuracy of reporting of sales figures by Dell.

I began to notice that publishers made great fanfare about sales figures, or the number of copies in a first printing, in some cases, and that in other cases they kept the information confidential.

This confidentiality was very frustrating to me -- don't ask for a rational reason why I needed to be informed about the sales figures for Gore Vidal' or Saul Bellow's books. This post doesn't necessarily have a lot to do with rationality -- so imagine how I felt when I became an undergraduate German major in the late 1980's, and discovered that many German publishers provided precise information about the numbers of copies of any particular edition, in the most convenient place imaginable -- right on the copyright page! What a country!

I'll give you 2 examples: On the copyright page of the 1979 Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag edition of Franz Kafka's Prozeß (The Trial), right above where it sez that this is an unabridged edition, stands: "1032. -- 1051. Tausend: Dezember 1989." This means: before this printing, in December 1989, there were 1,031,000 copies of this edition in print, and now there are 1,051,000. The December, 1989 printing was a run of 20,000 copies. Keep in mind, these are the figures for this 1979 paperback edition only. Who knows how many more paperback and hardcover copies of the Prozeß there are, before you even get to huge commercial considerations such as translations into other languages. If Franz Kafka had still been alive in December 1989, it would've been pretty sweet to be Franz Kafka, even if he was 106 years old.

2nd example: volume 3 of the Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag (commonly referred to as DTV) edition of Heinrich von Kleist's complete works, Dramen, Dritter Teil (Plays, Part Three. The first two lines on the copyright page are "1. Auflage März 1964" and "2. Auflage Februar 1969: 21. bis 30. Tausend." In other words, "1st printing March 1964" and "2nd printing February 1969: 20,001 to 30,000 copies."

Not every single German publisher did this, but it seemed like most of them. I was a kid in a candy store. That's right, I said "did" and "was." Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag and DTV and almost all German publishers stopped putting such information within easy public reach, within a half-dozen years of my discovering those once-wonderful German copyright pages. Now they resemble American copyright pages: sometimes they give the date of the first printing and the most recent printing of that edition, sometimes just the date of the first printing. Apparently American publishers circulated a memo to German publishers: "URGENT! Your practice of giving detailed information about the size of printings has been giving joy to an American citizen, Steven Bollinger. PLEASE CEASE AND DESIST AT ONCE." Or, in the ultra-paranoid version, "[...]giving joy to an autistic American citizen, Steven Bollinger[...]" because American publishers knew I was autistic 15 to 20 years before I found out.

In the rational and non-paranoid version, this had nothing to do with me, and I still don't know why German publishers used to put that info on the copyright pages, and why they stopped. All I know is that if someone writes a book giving an overview of the numbers of books made all over the world, from ancient times to the present -- and that someone might have to be me. I'm not sure that anyone else particularly cares -- the chapter on Germany between 1920 and 1990 will be much, much easier to write than some other chapters.

There may once have been someone with similar interests: Theodor Birt, born 1852 in Hamburg, died 1933 in Marburg, author of Das Antike Buchwesen in Seinem Verhältniss Zur Litteratur,

an investigation of how ancient Greek and Latin books were made and sold.

The numbers of manuscripts of ancient Greek and Latin texts which we have today is a different thing than the numbers of copies of those texts which were in circulation when they were new. Most of the manuscripts we have now were made in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. And their numbers don't even give us complete and precise information about the relative popularity of ancient authors in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, because chance plays a big role in those manuscripts having survived. Nevertheless, if we have hundreds of manuscripts of a particular ancient text, it's not too much of a stretch to think that that text was popular in the Middle Ages.

The thing is, as far as I can tell, the exact numbers of all such manuscripts are not neatly organized and gathered together in any one place of which I know, as you would expect them to be if a lot of Classical scholars were autistic. There is a catalog (with photos) of all known Latin literary manuscripts from before AD 800, the Codices Latini Antiquiores, 14 volumes plus an index, with 18,884 manuscripts of more than 2000 works, according to Wikipedia. [PS, 27 Mar 2018: Don't ever, ever listen to Wikipedia. And when it comes to Classical Studies, listen much, much less than you generally would. There are not 18,884 manuscripts in the Codices Latini Antiquiores, but 1884. Which means they certainly don't cover 2000 works. 200 maybe? I'm just guessing.] The thing is, there are many more manuscripts surviving today which were made after 800, than before. Many times more, I would think. How many times? I couldn't guess. And I can't find any catalog for manuscripts from all eras which is comparable to the Codices Latini Antiquiores. (Also known as the CLA.)

There are thousands of Biblical manuscripts. I wouldn't be surprised if the number of manuscripts of Vergil ran into 4 figures. I am quite surprised at how difficult it has been for me to find so much as an educated guess about how many manuscripts of Vergil there are. Here and there I run across a figure: There are over 650 manuscripts of Terence. More than 400 of Ovid's Metamorphoses. In 1989, Reeve said that Mommsen, Luchs and Dorey had listed 117 manuscripts of the third decade (that is, books 21-30) of Livy. Reeve doesn't say when they made that list, but in 1987 he added 33 more, and then 4 more in 1989, for a total of 154.

Reeve doesn't say how many manuscripts of the other books of Livy there are.

113 known manuscripts of the third decade -- sometime. Probably some time in the 19th century. Then in the late 20th century that number suddenly grew by over 30%.

I wonder whether anyone has even any rough idea of the ratio of the number of manuscripts of the Latin Classics which we have today, to the total number which were ever made. But before I even start to wonder about that, I have to wonder whether anyone even has a rough idea of the total number of manuscripts of the Latin Classics which we have.

I wonder whether I have a better idea of that number than anyone else, simply because none of the much-better-educated people even cares.

No, surely some of them care at least a little bit.

I need to make up an orderly list of such questions and start going around to Classical scholars and asking them. Who knows, the combination of my obsessions and neurological atypicality may actually yield something of interest or even of practical use to someone someday.

And wouldn't that blow everybody's minds.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Climate Information And Misinformation

"And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." -- John 8:32

It'd be nice to think so. But it's sometimes easier said than done. Many organizations and corporations have the most misleading names. You might think, for example, that an organization with a name like Independent Women's Forum would be concerned with things like women's health and women's rights, but oh noooo: it promotes climate change deniers. It is run by a woman: a woman who formerly was one of Koch Industries' top lobbyists.

Here are a couple of links which may be helpful in our daily struggle against an ocean of well-funded bullshit: first, a detailed list of sources of misinformation provided by Fight Clean Energy Smears, which is not the best-named website in the history of the Innertubes, imho, but it's good stuff. The page I've linked is full of information about organizations, including the above-mentioned Independent Women's Forum, who deny climate change, hinder the growth of renewable energy and do other wonderful things like that. Most of them seem to get funding from oil companies. Many also get funding from tobacco companies. (Maybe the oil-company funding by itself just wasn't evil enough.) Exxon, the GOP, the Koch Brothers: their nasty fingerprints are all over the place here.

The second website I'm recommending to you is the home page of the organization which made the first website, the Natural Resources Defense Council. This website is crammed with facts, facts and more facts about climate change, pollution, green energy, the dirty tricks of oil companies, things which you yes you can do about all of this -- good stuff. The Wrong Monkey approves.

Friday, April 17, 2015


Petrarch, or Francesco Petrarca (1304-74), is famous in at least 2 different worlds. He's definitely most widely famous as a poet. He's the 2nd world-famous Italian poet, chronologically and perhaps 2nd in prestige as well, after Dante.

But he's also quoted and praised effusively in a less densely populated world in which his poems are seldom mentioned. That smaller world is the world of Classical studies, of the preservation and restoration of pre-Christian Greek and Latin literature, especially of Latin authors, and what's being quoted are Petrarch's notes, and his discoveries of manuscripts are exclaimed over. Reading the prefaces and inspecting the critical apparatus of many an ancient author, over and over Petrarch seems to have done more to have preserved and restored the ancient text than any other single person.

Some of the best manuscripts of Livy which we possess today were copied out by Petrarch himself; others have copious notes by Petrarch between the lines or in the margins, comparing their readings to those of other manuscripts, suggesting alternatives when no manuscript seems to have the correct text. The latter is known today as emendation, and it didn't have a name when Petrarch was doing it. The thought of writing something today on a manuscript of a classical text would horrify scholars; nevertheless, Petrarch's single-handed improvements on the ways of re-creating, as far as possible, an ancient text as it originally was, were huge. Although Petrarch wrote between the lines and in the margins of manuscripts which were already old in his time, and we don't do that today, Petrarch didn't destroy any of the manuscripts, or impede anyone's ability to read what was on them, whether he thought that what was on them was a good version of the text, or not. And in his time it was still not uncommon for old manuscripts to be thrown away or used as fuel in ovens. Petrarch, by contrast, scoured the many libraries to which he was allowed access, mostly in monasteries and cathedrals, and built up his own highly-organized library of the Latin Classics. Sometimes he did this by rescuing manuscripts from librarians who had no idea of their worth; other times, when the librarians themselves were competent Classical scholars and cared well for their manuscripts, Petrarch would make his own copies. The Classical library which Petrarch put together was unique in his time apart from the better libraries in monasteries, cathedrals, and those owned by the more literate among princes and bishops. He left instructions for his library to be kept together and well-cared for after his death; nevertheless, it was not. Still, his example, combined with the respect and influence he had gained as an extremely popular poet, was not lost at all, and his methods and innovations were carried forward and improved upon by later Classical scholars.

Some of whom haven't cared much one way or another about his poems.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

ASAN: An Autism Advocacy Group Actually Run By Autistic People

The nice lady at the cash register asked if I wanted to contribute to Autism Speaks. I replied by saying what many nice autistic people say when nice people ask if they want to contribute to Autism Speaks: "Uhhhh... Oh... Ahhhh..." After a moment I got a grip and said, in what I hope was a nice and friendly way, that I was autistic, and that I didn't support that organization, nor did one single other autistic person whom I know personally, and that I've heard the opinions of a great many autistic people on this.

Autism Speaks has been one of the major sources of the thoroughly-discredited belief that vaccines cause autism. As late as 2009, directors of Autism Speaks resigned because the organization refused to acknowledge the overwhelming scientific consensus that there is no link between vaccination and autism.

Ironically, in view of its name, no members of the board of directors of Autism Speaks is autistic. This organization is not, as its name implies, autistic people speaking for themselves -- it's other people speaking for autistics, and getting a lot of things wrong.

Autism Speaks takes the positions that autism is a disease, and they are looking for a cure. I take the position that greater understanding will be of great benefit both to autistics and to those near to us -- greater understanding of autism on the part of the neurologically-typical, and vice-versa as well: greater understanding of the neurologically-typical on our part.

ASAN (Austistic Self Advocacy Network) is -- well, I can't improve upon the description on their webiste -- "a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization run by and for Autistic people. ASAN was created to serve as a national grassroots disability rights organization for the Autistic community, and does so by advocating for systems change and ensuring that the voices of Autistic people are heard in policy debates and the halls of power while working to educate communities and improve public perceptions of autism. ASAN’s members and supporters include Autistic adults and youth, cross-disability advocates, and non-autistic family members, professionals, educators and friends."

The next time Autism Speaks asks for your support -- and they seem to be everywhere these days -- please, look into ASAN instead.

And if you're still wondering just what exactly autism is -- again, I can't improve on ASAN. This page describes our condition very well.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Of Course I'm Voting For Hillary!

I campaigned for Obama in '08 and '12, and I soon as I knew that Barack was going to win in 2008, I assumed he was in for 2 terms, and the next logical step after that always been has been: vote for Hillary in 2016. Of course.

I also voted in the 2010 and 2014 mid-terms, and oh, if only all of you who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 had also voted in the mid-terms! The Republicans didn't suddenly get more popular in 2010 and 2014 -- they just vote much more often in mid-terms than Democrats do. That's the way it's been for a long time, but there's no reason at all that it needs to stay that way.

Would I rather see Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders be elected POTUS in 2016? Honestly: yes. Does either one of them stand a chance of being elected? Unfortunately: no. This is the thing about politics: it's about compromise. It's constantly about compromise. Without compromise, nothing ever gets done in politics. A great illustration of this is the movie Lincoln, written by Tony Kushner and directed by Steven Spielberg.

There's a great scene with Daniel Day-Lewis, playing Lincoln, talking with Tommy Lee Jones, playing Representative Thaddeus Stevens, a leader of the Radical Republicans, who were very frustrated with Lincoln for what they saw as much too much compromise on the issue of slavery. Lincoln manages to convince Stevens that the advantage of his, Lincoln's strategy, is that, although it is less direct and confrontational, it will work, and actually end slavery, very soon, while the approach of Stevens and his fellow Radical Republicans will not. Stevens is convinced, and as a result, in a speech before the House of Representatives he says some things which are extremely distasteful to him because they are derogatory to blacks, but by doing so, he helps Lincoln's 13th Amendment, ending slavery, to pass. After his speech, one of Stevens' fellow Radical Republicans approaches him, furious, says that Stevens' speech has made him sick to his stomach, and asks him if there is nothing he won't say in order to compromise with Lincoln. Stevens replies to his colleague. "I'm sorry you're nauseous, Asa. That must be unpleasant. I want the amendment to pass, so that the constitution's first and only mention of slavery is its absolute prohibition. For this amendment, for which I have worked all my life and for which countless colored men and women have fought and died and now hundreds of thousands of soldiers... No, sir, no, it seems there's very nearly nothing I won't say." And the 13th Amendment passes.

It's a very good movie.

If you can't compromise, you can often do more harm to the causes you care about than if you'd done nothing at all. In 1980, the supporters of Ted Kennedy and John Anderson favored political positions much closer to those of Jimmy Carter than to those of Ronald Reagan; but they split the vote on the Left, which ended up helping the candidate they favored least, Reagan, and Reagan was elected President. In 1992, those who voted for Perot were much closer politically to Bush than to Clinton, but they took votes away from Bush, and Clinton won.

In 2000, those voting for Nader were closer politically to Gore than to George W Bush; yet, clearly, they decided the election in favor of W. A common reply from those Nader voters, and from many supporters of Warren or Sanders today, is: "The Gores and Clintons and Bushes are all the same." Well, I'm sorry, but they're not. They may seem all the same to you in that none of them is as close to your political positions as Warren or Sanders. I'll repeat what I said above: Warren and Sanders are closer to my positions too. If I could close my eyes and wish and pick the President personally, Warren or Sanders would come before Hillary Clinton.

But of course, it doesn't work that way. And between Hillary and whomever the GOP will nominate, there is a big, clear difference in affirmative action and LGBT rights and women's rights and green energy and immigrants' rights and mullticulturalism and health insurance for everyone and raising the minimum wage and labor unions and campaign finance reform and net neutrality and a long list of other issues. I'm sure that human rights and help for the poor and the environment and stopping the extreme spiral of extreme wealth into very few hands is more important to you than getting exactly what you want. Compromise, vote for Hillary, and think of all the people you'll be helping that way, people who really need help.

Oh, and one more thing, looking forward: besides not voting only in the Presidential elections, besides turning out for the 2018 and 2022 mid-terms, keep in mind that there are many elections even between the mid-terms, for governors and mayors and city councils and so and so forth, and important ballot initiatives as well, dealing with things like taxes and schools and parks and roads and energy policies. You don't like fracking? (Hey, who does?) Find out where it's being done near you, and when the election is being held in which you can stop it, yes, you. Just one example.

I'm looking forward to a big Democratic turnout in 2016, with Hillary bringing a Democratic Congress into office with her.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Chess Log: 1. e4 c5 And Then 2. d4 Accidentally.

1. e4 c5 2. d4 ♘c6 3. d5 ♘b8 4. ♘c3 ♘f6 5. h3 g6 6. e5 ♘g8 7. ♘f3 e6 8. d6 ♘c6 9. ♘b5 ♕a5 10. ♘c3 a6 11. ♗d2 b5 12. ♘d5 ♕xd2 13. ♕xd2 exd5 14. ♕xd5 ♘b4 15. ♕xa8 ♘xc2 16. ♔d1 ♘xa1 17. ♕xc8 1-0 {Black checkmated}

I played White.

I am a creature of habit, extremely so, autistically so. I don't experiment with different openings. I always play 1. e4, and against 1. ... c5 I always play 2. ♘3. Except when I make an absent-minded mistake. This wasn't the very first time I've played 2. d4, but it's been rare, and it's always been an accident. This time it turned into a very quick win for me. I'm not even familiar enough with this opening to tell you whether Black's 2. ... ♘c6 is considered a blunder. (As Black, I always play 1. e4 c5 -- always. I'm telling you. Always -- and against 2. d4 I play 2. ... cxd4.) As a matter of fact, although I'm used to seeing opponents playing 2. d4, I couldn't even tell you for sure whether that's considered a blunder. I generally don't play against high-rated players. ***checking MCO-13*** Okay, MCO-13 doesn't refer to 2. d4 outright as a blunder, but it is quite unenthusiastic about it.

It turned out well for me this time, although I'm certainly not claiming any brilliant play on my part. I think you'd have to call black's play generally poor, and I'm not sure how he could have saved himself after I played 9. ♘b5.

Hell Yes I'm Voting For Hillary!

I campaigned for Obama in '08 and '12, and I soon as I knew, very early in 2008, that Barack was in for 2 terms, the next part of the plan has been: vote for Hillary in 2016. Of course.


Would I rather see Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders be elected POTUS in 2016? Yes. Does either one of them stand a chance of being elected? No. This is the thing about politics: it's reality, not wish-fulfillment. If you can't compromise, you're not worth a shit politically. If you're not realistic, you can be a lot worse than completely useless. You idiots who voted for Nader in 2000 got W elected. I'm not discussing this, in part because you're too stupid to do the very elementary math showing that you got W elected, and in part because I know a lot of you really believe that there was "no difference between W and Gore." This time around you're saying that there's "no difference between Bushes and Clintons." What this really means is that neither Bush 42 nor Bill nor Al nor W nor Hillary is a perfect candidate to you, and in your world, there are are your perfect candidates, and everybody else is all the same.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the best candidate is the best one who can win. Gore was the best candidate in 2000 because he was better than W. Somebody who can't see the difference between Al and W, or between Hillary and, for example, Giuliani, or Ron or Rand Paul, or whatever stooge is going to be running for the GOP in 2016, can't tell the difference between shit and Shinola. It's just about as simple as that. If you're that stupid, I can't even talk to you. All I can do is warn the others about you, because someone, someone with vastly more patience than I, is probably going to have to deal with you, and convince some of you that there really is a difference between someone who favors affirmative action and LGBT rights and women's rights and green energy and immigrants' rights and mullticulturalism and health insurance for everyone and raising the minimum wage and labor unions and campaign finance reform and net neutrality and all of the other items on the long list of things which anybody with a chance of being nominated for POTUS by the Democrats will support, and someone who is against every one of those things, as anyone with a chance of being nominated by the GOP will be. Someone will have to deal with people too damn dim to see a difference there, people who fixate on one issue where Hillary disappoints them, and throw tantrums and refuse to look at the rest of the damn world, because, although Hillary is probably a shoe-in, a massive landslide winner, we don't want to take anything for granted, and the morons may be an important voting bloc. Remember, it's not just about the POTUS, the rest of the ticket is very important as well. SEE MY REMARK ABOVE ABOUT MID-TERMS!!!! IMAGINE A WORLD WHERE THE TEA PARTY NEVER WOULD HAVE MATTERED -- AND NOW, GET IT THROUGH YOUR HEADS SOMEHOW THAT IF YOU VOTE IN THE MID-TERMS, THAT WORLD WILL BE THE REAL WOLD!!! AND NEWS FLASH, THEY EVEN HAVE LOCAL ELECTIONS AND BALLOT MEASURES BETWEEN THE MID-TERMS, AND THE MORE OF THOSE YOU VOTE IN, THE BETTER THINGS WILL GET!! THIS SHIT AIN'T COMPLEX!!!!!!!!!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Atheisting Properly

It's true, as the popular atheist meme (*ahem*) says, that being an atheist means only that you don't believe in God, and nothing else. But it's obvious that very many atheists don't really believe that. Otherwise, the very popular sarcastic expression "yr atheistin wrong" wouldn't exist. If a lot of atheists didn't have a lot of other rules for atheistin, that popular sarcastic phrase wouldn't be funny. It wouldn't mean anything at all.

I can't tell you how many times some atheist or another has immediately assumed that I believed God exists as soon as I disagreed with him or her when he or she said that ending religion would end all of humanity's problems, or that Constantine and the Pope wrote the Bible at Nicea in AD 400, or that being an atheist means one is more intelligent than a believer, or that we are all born atheists, or that religion was invented in order to control the masses (In point of fact, there were no masses when religion began: there were no towns or cities, and humans didn't live in herds, but in small bands.), or that religion poisons everything, or -- if you've hung out in atheist groups for a while, you can add to the list yourself. Yes, being an atheist means not believing in God, it means only that, but that doesn't stop some atheists from adding a whole lot of other rules. A whole lot of other things in which you'd better believe. Or else.

It may often seem as if I argue with other atheists just because I am cantankerous, because something's wrong with me -- and no doubt, there's something to that. Don't worry, I'm in therapy, I'm working on me. But there's more involved here, when I or some other atheist keeps saying to groups of atheists: No, I don't agree. (Not always 100% as politely as that. I'm working on it.) We're also speaking up for others who may be more timid. Clearly, for some people, becoming atheists did not mean ceasing to live by a long list of rules, maxims and Truths which for them are not up for discussion. Others of us, however, cast aside the revealed truths of religion, and DON'T want to replace that religious dogma with atheist dogma. We stopped letting clergypeople and holy books tell us what to believe, and we DON'T want atheist leaders and books by Dawkins, Harris, etc, to tell us what's what. We actually want to think for ourselves. (It's not for everybody. Clearly, it's not for all atheists, not by a million miles.)

And wouldn't it be a shame if some timid atheist was scared away from a group, or stayed in a group but was afraid ever to speak freely, because everyone in the group seemed to believe in a bunch of slogans and historical inaccuracies, because no-one ever spoke up against them. Yes, it would be -- no, it is a shame. There are many such groups. If I argue with somebody about whether or not babies are atheists, to a point, it's about semantics. But there's more to it than that. It's also about not just giving up and keeping quiet when others want to force me to conform and agree.

Are you seeing a lot of parallels between the pressure to conform I'm describing in atheist groups, and the squelching of discussion in conservative religious groups? You are, if you're paying attention. Notice I'm comparing these atheist tendencies, not to all religious groups, but to conservative, reactionary religious groups. That's right: in some cases, you're more likely to find an actual discussion about things among believers than among atheists.

Obviously, not all atheists are that fucked up. Obviously, I'm not the only one denouncing atheist conformity. But -- yeah, there could be more of us. More of you could be speaking up along these lines. No pressure. Only the future of humanity is at stake. (Ha, ha, kidding. Sort of.)

Ich wohne in meinem eigenen Haus,

Hab Niemandem nie nichts nachgemacht

Und - lachte noch jeden Meister aus,

Der nicht sich selber ausgelacht.
(I live in my own house, I've never copied anyone, and I've laughed at every master who never laughed at himself.) -- Nietzsche

Friday, April 10, 2015


Someone wishing to become familiar with ancient Greek tragedy has a simple task in at least one respect: there are only 31 surviving ancient Greek tragedies. Many more than these were written, but we know of them only from descriptions by other ancient writers, and here and there a small fragment, a few words, of an otherwise lost play.

It's even easier, remarkably easy, to gain an oversight of ancient Roman works written for the theatre -- works of all kinds, not just tragedies. From all eras of ancient Rome, the only plays to have survived, apart from a few fragments, are 10 tragedies by Seneca (and if you ask me you can go ahead and skip those anyway, and the rest of the surviving work of the intensely boring Seneca), and then one anonymous comedy from the 5th century AD, then six comedies by Terrence, and then 20 comedies by Plautus, plays about which 2 remarkable things may be observed: first, the great contrast they make to most ancient Roman literature which has survived down to our day, and second, how immensely popular they were in ancient Rome among writers who never even tried to write anything remotely similar to them.

It's a seeming paradox: how highly so many other ancient Roman authors praise Plautus, and how few write in a style comparable to his. For the most part Roman authors aimed for a very refined and polished style, which can make for very good reading, but which tells us very little about how ancient Latin was spoken on a daily basis. For those trying to recapture ancient spoken Latin, Plautus is always the first stop. He didn't aim for the usual polished refinement, he aimed to make audiences laugh, and he succeeded brilliantly at that, and when he died at the end of a long and fruitful career he was widely mourned -- but, as far as we can see from the evidence of surviving ancient Latin, he was very little imitated. Perhaps his remarkable popularity had to do in part with how unique he was in Roman culture -- so unique, perhaps, that his contemporaries would scarcely known how to have imitated him. It certainly doesn't seem to have occurred to many Romans to try to preserve the texts of plays in the same way that they preserved lyric poems and speeches and historical works. In Plautus' case, the effort at preservation became intense only some time after his death, collecting together copies of the plays which had been used, and often altered, by theatrical companies. It wasn't unusual in ancient Rome for written works to be falsely attributed to famous dead authors, but the extent of such confusion was unusual in Plautus' case: Varro tells us that over 120 plays were circulating under Plautus' name, and asserts that 20 of them are really from Plautus, the same 20 which are accepted as his today, plus a fragment several pages long of a 21st play accepted as genuine by Varro.

Plautus was not raised to be a scholar. This sets him apart from most of the Roman authors we know. Unlike most of them he was neither an aristocrat nor the slave of an aristocrat nor dependent upon the patronship of aristocrats. Details of his early life are very sketchy, but it seems that for a time he was a businessman, and that he lost all of his money, and then spent some time as a manual laborer in a mill before beginning his career as a playwright.

Just as aristocrats played relatively little role in Plautus making a living, so much fewer of his characters are from the ruling classes than is typically the case in Classical tales. His protagonists are merchants and laborers and slaves, and rather than being preoccupied with the destinies of nations and the will of the gods, they tend to have sex and money on the minds.

The soldier Pyrgopolynices, who is the title-character of Miles Gloriosus, is not a glorious warrier, but a vainglorious braggart, a ridiculous figure whose shield, in a pointedly disrespectful reference to Achilles' legendary shield, is a monstrously huge object which has to be dragged around by several servants at once and can obviously never actually be used in combat. Miles Gloriosus reflects a widespread weariness on the part of the Romans with war: when it first appeared, the Second Punic War had been going on for some time. Most Roman writing about that war glorifies it, a stark contrast to Plautus' satire of military pride. Instead of actually fighting, Pyrgopolynices spends most of his time bragging about battles he wasn't actually in, and trying to satisfy his lust and greed.

Plautus' play Menaechmi is the model for Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, and its characters can be neatly divided into the honestly confused and the relentlessly dishonest.

For the most part Plautus in his plays strictly avoids the sort of moralizing and attempts at deep thought with which much Classical literature is rife; a partial exception to this can be seen in Asinaria, in which it is suggested that virtually every member of humanity is victimized in one way or another: women are perpetually dependent on men for money, men are slaves to their lusts, and then of course there are the many men and women who are literally slaves.

Plautus and Terrence, two writers of comedy very popular in their own time and since, are the two most prominent ancient Roman playwrights. Some people argue that the one or the other is the best Roman playwright. I think it's rather meaningless to dispute that question. Plautus and Terrence are apples and oranges. Terrence's writing has the polish and sophistication and the aristocratic orientation common to almost all of the ancient Latin literature we know. Plautus is special not because he's necessarily more brilliant, but just because he's so fundamentally unique. Unique among the surviving authors, that is. Who knows what the lost literature may have been like. Who knows how much will be found again and how much it will alter our overall perception of ancient Roman culture -- but until such a time, Plautus stands out among writers who tend toward stiffness and artificiality. Seen among most Latin authors of his time, he's somewhat like a man who's been invited by accident to a very, very formal ball, shows up with an entire cabinet's worth of cream pies, and proceeds at once unceremoniously to hurl them at every face within range.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Stupid New Atheist Memes

1) "We're all born atheists, until someone starts to lie to us." This meme rests upon the assumption that everyone and everything who and which is not theist, is atheist. If we were to take this meme seriously and apply it consistently, not only human babies but also chewing gum, rocks and eyeglasses, for example, would have to be classed as atheists. Some misanthropic atheists claim that all non-human animals are atheists -- a variation on the Noble Savage myth. How do we know that know that non-human species aren't religious? Exactly the same as how we know a lot of other things about the minds of animals: we don't.

2) "Atheists are smart." A lot of atheists believe silly shit like 1), 3) and 4), so, no, someone isn't necessarily smart just because they're an atheist.

3) "Religion was invented in order to [fill in the blank]." Most commonly: "...in order to [control people]." But we don't know when religion began. It was longer than 30,000 years ago. Maybe much, much longer ago than that. We don't know that it was invented at all, instead of being sincerely believed at first. In short, there's just a whole lot of We don't know involved here. Ironically, if humans and hominids had always been comfortable with simply admitting that they didn't know this or that, religion might never have arisen to begin with. If instead of answering the question: "What is lightning and thunder?" with a standard ancient reply like "It is this deity doing this," the standard answer had always been a simple "I don't know," perhaps no one ever would have believed that deities exist. As far as the idea that unscrupulous political leaders invented religion in order to more easily control the gullible masses: religion seems to be much older than politics. Large-scale human organizations of a type we would call political go back perhaps 10,000 years. Religion had already been around for tens of thousand of years before politics began to develop. I'm inclined to think that people 10,000 years ago who didn't sincerely believe in the existence and power of deities were either extremely rare or entirely non-existent. But -- and I cannot emphasize this strongly enough -- I don't know.

4) "Religion poisons everything." Gross oversimplifications like that tend to be pretty poisonous. Repeating sound bites from people one regards as authorities, repeating them like mantras without questioning them, is very detrimental to one's intellectual development.

Over the course of the years I've examined many other stupid atheist memes. If you interested in what I've had to said about them you can click on blog post labels such as these: stupid atheists, bronze age goat herders, sam harris. The labels, hundreds of them, are in an alphabetical list running down the right-hand side of the screen, underneath the chronological listing of blog posts.

If you want to see a lot more stupid atheist memes you can also find them -- coined, and championed, unfortunately, not criticized -- in books like these:

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Early Christianity: How Much Do We Really Know?

There's the question of the historical Jesus, enthusiastically discussed by more and ever more laymen, and left undiscussed by Biblical scholars and Christian theologians scholars who still almost unanimously insist that the matter has been thoroughly investigated (When? Where?) and that it's certain Jesus existed, and Shut up!

Then there's the entire excitement surrounding Constantine the Great, the inaccuracies about him which are so popular: It's still so often said that he made Christianity Rome's official religion -- he did not. It's said that he (often: he and the Pope) wrote or re-wrote or edited the New Testament at the Council of Nicea. Nope: the Pope wasn't there; the Pope and Constantine had many more reasons to be enemies than to be allies; nobody altered the Bible or discussed what should or shouldn't be in it at Nicea; and there's no evidence that Constantine gave a rat's ass one way or the other about what was in it.

Here's a question which might deserve much more study than it has generally received so far: would Constantine have involved himself with Christianity at all if his mother, the empress Helena, had not been a Christian? I put it to you: which seems more plausible: that a Roman Emperor who, all who have studied his life agree, was a particularly savvy politician, that this Emperor gave some support to Christianity because, at a crucial battle in his struggle to solidify his control of the Empire, he saw a cross in the sky along with words telling him that with this sign he would conquer -- or that he gave some support to Christianity because his mother was a Christian and had a lot of influence on him?

The story of the cross and the words in the sky, and a lot of other nonsense, comes from Eusebius, who unfortunately is our most important single surviving source of the history of Christianity up until Constantine in general, and of biographical information about Constantine in particular. I say unfortunately because Eusebius' pants were on fire. I say unfortunately because the truth was not in him.

Some apologists and conservative historians will attack me for doubting the veracity of Eusebius, but that's okay. I'm in very, very good company: Edward Gibbon's multi-volume History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

has been praised as a groundbreaking work of genius, still unsurpassed in many ways two and a half centuries after its first publication -- because that's exactly what it is. It has also been vehemently condemned from the time it first appeared uo until the present day -- because Gibbon was clearly (although not quite explicitly) an atheist, and because he dared to question the accuracy of the historical accounts given by people like Eusebius.

A century after Gibbon, Jacob Burckhardt, another historian of great genius, enjoying the greater freedom of expression given to us all by courageous pioneers of freethinking like Hobbes and Spinoza and Hume and Gibbon and Voltaire, found no reason to hide his great annoyance with Eusebius, who had so thoroughly hidden and blurred the history which he, Burckhardt, was working so hard to find. Burckhardt came right out and called Eusebius a liar. and of course, the same people who disliked Gibbon also attacked Burckhardt, for the same reasons.

But lo and behold great wonders, O ye nations: as time passes, Gibbon and Burckhardt look more and more reasonable, as Eusebius, whose veracity was even attacked by other Christian historians as early as the 5th century, looks more and more like a teller of tall tales and less and less like the historian he called himself, and for which he was mostly taken from his time to Gibbon's.

And this man, Eusebius, is pretty much the founder of Christian historicism, the foundation upon which much of the history written over the course of the next millenium in Christendom, was based. Gibbon and Burckhardt and anyone else who cared about investigating history properly were quite right to be annoyed. Such a shaky foundation has produced a lot of spectacularly shaky results, and continues to do so today, although, as I said, Eusebius' falsehoods are finally beginning to be exposed and undone.

So I would say, to those who dislike Christianity and its continued omnipresence and power: don't blame Constantine above all others. If it hadn't been for his mother, he might never have given any support to Christianity. He might have continued Diocletian's persecution of it, and you and I might never have heard of Christianity. But far more, blame Eusebius, who took Constantine's support of Christianity and said that it was a conversion to Christianity, although Constantine never withdrew his support for the pagan religions. Blame Eusebius for intensifying the Christian disregard for reality and reason. Blame Eusebius for spreading the idea that Christianity had conquered Rome, decades before it actually did. Reality and reason and historical accuracy were defeated first, and then the Empire followed.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Most Documentary TV Shows On Ancient Topics (Biblical Studies And Early Christianty, Mostly) Really, Really Suck

A recent program about the fragments of the True Cross did a fairly good job of presenting the viewer with a story about the activities of the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great and a devout Christian, who according to that story pretty much invented what we now know as Christian veneration of relics. The program tells us that Helena went to Jerusalem, found a piece of wood and declared that it was the Cross on which Jesus was put to death, cut it up into little pieces and distributed these pieces to churches all across the Roman Empire. This is the traditional story about how Helena began the belief that all of those pieces of wood in churches are pieces of True Cross. There are very good reasons to doubt whether Helena ever interested herself in relics at all. If these reasons were presented during this program, I must have blinked or zoned out at the time.

The same program did a particularly bad job of presenting the information it had on some recent scientific evaluation on the authenticity of the True Cross: a piece of wood considered since the 11th century to be piece of the True Cross was carbon-14 dated, and found to have come from a tree which lived in the 11th century. Not even close to the supposed time of Jesus, not even close to Helena's discovery in the 4th century of what she called the True Cross.

The carbon-14 dating was presented to the viewer in the very last several minutes of the 1-hour show. Why not at the very beginning of the show? Why not inform the viewer right at the start that any preoccupation with the Cross or any other relics on Helena's part is not solidly demonstrated by any historical evidence?

Perhaps the show's producers were afraid that if they did that sort of thing -- made sense -- it would be hard to keep viewers' attention for the rest of the hour. Perhaps they were exactly right about that. In any case, their handling of the material was pretty typical of such shows purporting to present the latest scholarly knowledge about ancient religious things: present a mix of comments by serious scholars with obfuscating narration, as if what the producers actually want is mainly to keep the viewer confused. The scholars will discuss "the tradition," that is, what the most conservative of believers regard as history, although almost no-one else who's studied the subject matter still does. The shows do not make plain what is meant by "tradition," they don't make plain that the experts are not relating what they consider to be fact. To make things worse, often crackpots who DO regard the traditional fables as factual are interviewed along with the experts.

Is there any rational reason at all to believe that Helena would have had any means at all of determining that what she had discovered was the True Cross? (IF, for the sake of argument, she actually looked for the Cross at all?) I doubt it very much, but my point is that the question was not discussed on air. The people most well-qualified in the world to discuss such matters, and quite willing to share their expertise, were interviewed, and we got a recitation of a bunch of fairy tales and precious little evaluation of what history, if any, is contained in them.

I have to wonder just exactly how much edifying information is routinely edited out of such interviews. I wonder whether one can hold out some hope that the raw footage of the entire interviews tends to be preserved, and will someday be edited into something much better than most of what goes on the air these days.

Thank goodness, these scholars write books, books with which the producers for half-assed "Secrets Revealed" shows on the so-called "History Channels" and NatGeo and the Smithsonian Channel, etc, have nothing to do. If you watch some of these shows and are intrigued by what is said by people like Professors Ehrman, Pagels and Chilton, you might find it quite interesting to read their books and see how badly the TV shows present what they have to say.

And then you'll walk around angrily muttering to yourself all the time about how TV jerks us around, just like I do. Just like me, you'll shout, "Why don't the experts insist on better shows being made? Is it just money, simple as that? Are the experts afraid that if they rock the boat they'll kill the golden goose? Et tu, Bart?!" Yes, you'll be angry, but I'll be a little bit less alone.

Monday, April 6, 2015

"How Many Languages Do You Speak?"

This question, which is naturally frequent in the sort of international groups I like, gave me the topic for this post. The answer to the question, of course, always depends upon how well one must know a language before one is justified in listing it among the languages one "knows," and one always wonders, of course, listening to the group's responses, whether this fellow claiming fluency in 30 languages might not be padding his resumee just a bit, and whether this lady saying she knows only 2 is being entirely too modest by listing 2 languages, her native language and one more, whose native speakers assume she's a native speaker, which is extremely unusual for a non-native speaker. Think of all the people you know who've lived in your native country for decades after having grown up somewhere else, who speak your language wonderfully, with ease and grace and a huge vocabulary -- how many of them entirely lack a charming accent? A foreign actor passing for a native in a movie or TV show doesn't count, even though it's still a remarkable achievement with a script and dialogue coaches and multiple takes.

I'll claim 6: I'll stand here and tell you (I won't look you in the eye and tell you, but that's because I'm autistic, not because I'm a shifty schemer or anything like that.) that I can speak English, German, Latin, French, Spanish and Italian, in that descending order of proficiency. I read and write each of them better than I speak them. I have some rudimentary knowledge of Greek, Arabic and Hebrew. I've just started on Hungarian and Armenian.

But of course languages come in families, so my familiarity with Latin, French, Spanish and Italian means that Portugese, Romanian/Moldavian, Catalan, Provencal, Rhaeoto-Romanic and Maltese will not be total mysteries to me. Likewise, my native proficiency in English and a long and intensive study of German mean that I can understand some Yiddish, Dutch/Flemish, Afrikaans, Frisian and Luxumbourgian, all of which can not entirely unreasonably be considered German dialects; and to a lesser extent the Scandanavian Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic and Faroese. And that is not an abstract theoretical postulate; it's based on some experience with each of those languages, and having discovered that I could understand some of each of them. So should I have said that I speak 24 languages (or 29?) instead of 6? No, I shouldn't have; because, for example, that might've given someone somewhere the impression that I would be of some practical use if someone were needed to act as an interpreter between someone who speaks Provencal but no Faroese and someone else who speaks Faroese but no Provencal. Okay, I wouldn't be completely useless in such a situation, but, depending on the locale, my skills might be much better employed looking for an interpreter than in taking on the steep-uphill challenge of trying to act as one. I would understand enough to figure out, after some effort, that what we would want, ideally, would be someone fluent in both Provencal and Faroese. I would be able, with some effort, to figure out that those were the native languages of the 2 people who needed to communicate with each other.

(Naturally there's a very good chance that both of them would speak English well enough to make me fully superfluous.)

Rather than saying that I'm competent in 6 languages, I could say that I have some familiarity with the Germanic and Romance languages families, and that I have made some investigations into the history and development of those languages and their relationships to one another. This proficiency has not been acquired more or less accidentally in the course of a life of constant globe-trotting, but intentionally through a love for books. Many a la-dee-da carefree globetrotter who never had any particular ambitions as a scholar would be much more useful than I in many situations calling for a polyglot, especially if he or she had any proficiency whatsoever in Chinese or Russian or Japanese or Hungarian or Turkish or Swahili or Nahuatl, etc, etc, etc; whereas I would have much more urgent need than the average globetrotter to suppress the urge to be a pain-in-the-ass know-it-all and criticize as ahistorical the combinations of spoken and written languages and other cultural phenomena in "Game of Thrones." (The dragons could be considered ahistorical, too, Steven. Ya big goof.)

Ideally, the question "How many languages to you speak?" will not simply be answered with a number, but will be the opening to a long and fascinating conversation.

Sunday, April 5, 2015


Is it a good thing?

Before you stop reading and start shouting that I'm an evil bastard and/or a Republican for even asking such a question, let's acknowledge that "compassion," like "love," is one of those terms which we need to examine more closely, because it can mean more than one thing. If we leave such terms unexamined, we leave some confusion unaddressed.

Tracing the term back to its Latin roots, "to have compassion with" someone means "to suffer with" them. The Latin "passio" means suffering, and "com" or "cum" is a Latin word with various meanings, often used as a prefix, often mean "with" or "along with."

All decent people want to alleviate the suffering of their fellow humans whenever they can. Nietzsche was a thoroughly decent person and he wanted this as much as any decent person.

He was often misunderstood on this point -- and Machiavelli too -- both by rotten uncaring people who thought he was one of them, and by decent caring people who thought he was one of those rotten people, because he dared to examine what compassion really is. Actually, in German the situation is a bit clearer, because instead of using a form of a Latin or Greek term, Germans use a modern German compound word to refer to compassion: "Mitleiden," which means "Withsuffering," "suffering-with." In English, "compassion" can also refer to the readiness to actually do something about the suffering of others, without necessarily feeling bad because someone else feels bad.

A person has been injured and lies bleeding in the street. Bystander A comes by and weeps and wails for the suffering of the injured person, and does nothing else. Bystander B, who is in a particularly cheerful mood, comes by, immediately calls an ambulance, and until the ambulance comes does what he can to keep the wound clean and slow the bleeding. And B stays particularly cheerful the whole time.

Who's been comapssionate, A or B? Like I say, it depends how you define "compassion." If you define it to mean suffering along with those who are suffering, then A has been compassionate. If you define it to mean doing something to help others, then B is the compassionate one.

I'm afraid that we often define compassion in the sense of Bystander A: suffering with others, participating in their suffering. I find that to be actually worse than useless: it increases the amount of suffering in the world. Bystander B reduces the amount of suffering in 2 ways: by helping, and by not suffering himself.

The Christian martyrs -- the real ones, that is, and not the ones whose suffering existed only in myth --

-- were compassionate with the real or mythical sufferings of the real or mythical Christ, and eager to share in that suffering. Galileo preferred to lie his way out of torture to give himself the opportunity to continue his work in science during the house arrest in which he spent the final years of his life. The martyrs were like Bystander A: eager to suffer. Galileo was like Bystander B: full of the desire to be useful.

Good and evil are relative terms. Nietzsche wrote about that a lot and even put it in the title of one of his books. I do not have have the same opinions as everyone else about what is good. I think that Bystander B and Galileo were good, because they were good for something.

As a young monk, before he proceeded into open rebellion and started the Lutheran Reformation, Martin Luther went to Rome and was outraged by -- Michelangelo. He was outraged by churches adorning themselves in gorgeous art. Back in Germany he was outraged by the sale of indulgences. Germans were paying lots of money to have official documents from the Catholic Church certifying that their souls had been saved. Back in Rome the money paid for all that gorgeous art. Apparently not a lot of Italians or French people could be induced to pay money for such things. Did Luther denounce his fellow Germans for being such schmucks? No, he denounced the Catholic Church and ushered in centuries worth of incredibly gory religious wars. Not because people in Germany were too superstitious, as many a Lutheran apologist might have you believe, but because in Rome people were feeling too good and living too well.

Even today a lot of Protestants are bitterly angry about the very same Renaissance art in the Vatican. And a lot of atheists are bitterly angry about it too. They -- both the angry Protestants and the angry atheists -- talk about selling off all that art for the good of the poor. As if poor people can't appreciate art.

No, I don't think that art is the enemy of the poor. I think those angry Protestants and atheists -- and let's not leave out the few angry Catholics who're with them. Among 1 billion Catholic there've got to be a few who are that crazy -- are Bystander A, more interesting in increasing suffering than lessening it.

Don't go after art if you really want to help the poor (I'm not talking to the angry people I've described in the preceeding 2 paragraphs, they're not listening to me anyway, they're much too busy hating each other and me and quite possibly you too, I'm talking to those of you who are relatively sane). Go after tax breaks for billionaires. Support raising minimum wages. Helps publicize sweatshops and slave labor and shut down those who grow richer off of human misery. You can do all that and love art at the same time, in fact you can do all that and make great art at the same time -- in fact, if you're not yet very familiar with art and the lives of artists, you might be amazed at how many great artists do exactly all of that sort of thing all at the same time.

You don't have to be miserable in order to be good.