Friday, July 31, 2015

HJR Murray's History Of Chess Is Humongously Splendiferous

It was published in 1913 and is still widely regarded as the standard work on the subject.

Well -- okay, let's get more specific about what "the subject" is: some people looking for a history of chess want something going from the beginnings of the modern game in the 15th century, when the rules first resembled the rules chess is played by today, and going until the present. A book published in 1913 obviously has a 102-year handicap on that last part, and of its 900 pages, the part dealing with the modern game goes from page 776 to page 890. 891 to 900 is the index, and a lot of the index, obviously, covers the parts of the book before page 776.

What's in those 775 pages? Well, it's the history of chess in India, beginning in the 6th century; in the Malay lands, Further India, China, Corea, Japan, Persia, the Eastern Empire, in Muslim lands, in Central and Northern Asia and Russia, and in Medieval Europe. That's how Murray, writing in England in 1913, referred to those regions. what he called the Malay lands, we refer to as Malaysia and Indonesia; instead of Further India we say Myanmar and Southeast Asia; he spelled Corea with a c and we spell korea with a k; his Persia is our Iran; and what he called the Eastern Empire, some people still call the Eastern Empire or Eastern Roman Empire, and others call Byzantium.

If you don't like footnotes, you won't like this. Murray wrote A Short History of Chess of chess for people like you. I'm not recommending the shorter version for you, I don't understand people like you, I don't know if you'd like it or not.

Us people who love lots and lots of footnotes and lengthy appendices, with lots of lengthy quotations from Latin texts in both once we get to Medieval Europe on page 392 -- Murray wrote his book for us. He was one of us. He studied Arabic specifically to prepare for his research into Muslim chess, which he calls Shatranj, and which occupies pages 186 through 365.

Throughout the book, Murray presents us with absolutely meticulous consideration of both primary texts and secondary works. He not only tells us why he thinks this or that early text does or does not refer to chess, and why he agrees or disagrees with this and that secondary work of scholarship on this and that point -- he tells us why he thinks as he does, and he does so convincingly. He's one of us.

There are diagrams showing board positions in the Indian, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and other games. There are a very great number of problems shown in both Shatranj and Medieval chess. And just a few modern chess problems, but I don't care because modern chess problems are easy to get, and where except this book do you get Shatranj or Medieval chess problems? The fact that the book was published in 1913 doesn't bother me all that much, for the same reason: it's pretty easy to find historical accounts of chess from Pillsbury, the last player mentioned by Murray, up to the present.

Murray is thorough, thorough, thorough, tracing and explaining the changes in the game from region to region and over time, going exhaustively into regional variations and lore and literature. Latin is quoted more than any other non-English language, but there's also a fair amount of Medieval English and French and Spanish and German and Icelandic.

If you're into chess but not so much into history or comparative literature, but will put up the latter two for the sake of your curiosity about chess, this book is for you. If you're into history but not so much into chess or comparative literaure, or comparative literature but not so much into chess or history, you might still like this book a lot.

If you're a nice sensible scholarly type like me who's interested in chess and history and comparative literature, especially Latin but you've got nothing against those other European languages, than for you this book will be Christmas every day. About the only thing which could've made it even better would have been more untranslated passages from texts in Greek and non-European languages -- but don't get me wrong, there's a little bit of that, too, just a little bit, although those texts are mostly just cited in translation.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Why Wouldn't A New Atheist Assume That Anyone Critical Of Any New Atheist Is A Conservative Christian?

I'm looking at Amazon's bestsellers in Books > Religion & Spirituality > Atheism. It seems the great majority of them are either books by New Atheists, or by theists trying to warn everyone about how atheism will lead to chaos, Destruction and Doom. Former atheists seems to be a big hit in the 2nd category, with Hitch's formerly atheist, now conservatively Christian brother leading the way.

Dawkins' God Delusion is #1 (Kindle Edition), #2 (Audible Audio Edition) and #3 (Paperback) on this list, 11 years after its first publication, ka-CHINGGG. Hardcover's #9.

The first book on this list which is neither New Atheist nor apologist and anti-atheist is Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays at #22. I don't know whether Penn Jillette is a New Atheist or not, but he's an atheist and his newest smash hit is at #25, Freud's Future of an Illusion is #27. There's a Buddhist atheist at #30, a couple of Christian atheist dingbats in the #30's, but for the most part the top 100 continues to be New Atheists and theists warning of the horrible dangers of atheism.

My point is, maybe it's not so unreasonable that New Atheists tend to automatically assume -- wait. let me rephrase that: it's not so unreasonable when anybody assumes any time anybody criticizes any New Atheist about anything, that they are dealing with a theist. Usually a conservative Christian. Assuming that most people don't actually create their own opinions about anything, but adopt them from those seen as intellectually authoritative. Which sadly seems to be a very safe assumption.

Not so unreasonable, because when someone here in the Western world criticizes a New Atheist, about anything, far more often than not it is a conservative Christian. Atheists tend to assume that the most prominent atheists are sensible people, conservative Christians tend to assume that atheism is a disaster, and very few others tend to give much of a crap about such things one way or another. And without a doubt, the most prominent atheists currently are New Atheists. They are CRUSHING us Steven Bollinger Can Haz Nobel Atheists in the bestseller lists.

Yeah, that sounds like the world I live in. Talking points rule, actual deep thinking is misunderstood, because it is unfamiliar. Well, we're just going to have to keep doing it until people get used to it, and start doing it themselves. God, I'm exhausted.

My Apologies To Michael Ruse

I thought I had savagely attacked a piece by Ruse entitled Why I Think the New Atheists are a Bloody Disaster in this blog. Apparently not. I attacked it years ago, but not in this blog, but in readers' comments elsewhere on the Internet.

I don't apologize every time I savagely attack a piece of writing. But in this case I was attacking a piece of writing I had barely skimmed, and which was much different than I thought it was. Ruse published "Why I Think The New Atheists are a Bloody Disaster" 6 years ago, and during those 6 years I myself have come to think that the New Atheists are a bloody disaster, and I've also learned that Ruse is an atheist, like me. An atheist who, like me, hates the New Atheists, among other reasons, for the damage they do to the once-good name of atheism.

I've been meaning to really read Ruse's piece, not just skim it, and now that I've finally gotten around to it I see that I attacked something with which I now emphatically agree -- now that I've gotten to know the New Atheists a bit, and so know what n the Heck Ruse was talking about. I don't agree with every single thing Ruse writes -- for example, as is the case with some other contemporary non-New-Atheist atheists, he exasperates me by not clearly stating that he is an atheist, which has the effect of helping the New Atheists in their attempt to monopolize the public image of atheism -- but he and I share some points of opposition with the New Atheists. Here are 3 quotes from Ruse's piece with which I entirely, wholeheartedly agree:

"I do not think that all believers are evil or stupid."

"If we criticized gene theory with as little knowledge as Dawkins has of religion and philosophy, he would be rightly indignant."

"I have written elsewhere that The God Delusion makes me ashamed to be an atheist. Let me say that again. Let me say also that I am proud to be the focus of the invective of the new atheists. They are a bloody disaster and I want to be on the front line of those who say so."

I too want to be on that front line. For the sake of atheism. for the sake of the legacy of Hume and Nietzsche and Russell and Sartre.

The fact that I've complained in this blog about people commenting on posts of mine which they've barely read makes my earlier abuse of Ruse doubly embarrassing, and makes this post doubly necessary. I reacted in amazement (until it happened often enough that I got used to it) when people reacted to my abuse of Michael Paulkovich by assuming not only that I was an historicist but also that I was a Christian. And here I had done pretty much exactly the same thing to Ruse.


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Chess Log: A Horrendous Mess

Your eyes do not deceive you, readers: it's the 2nd Wrong Monkey Chess Log post of the day. I don't know if I've ever posted 2 of these on the same day before. As in the previous one, an opponent rated significantly lower stunned me with a quick checkmate. 5-0 blitz, I played Black.

1. e4 c5 2. ♘f3 d6 3. ♗c4 a6 4. O-O e6 5. d4 b5 6. ♗d3 c4 7. ♗e2 h6 8. ♘c3 ♗b7 9. d5 e5 10. ♖e1 ♘f6 11. ♗f1 ♗e7 12. ♘h4 ♘fd7 13. ♘f5 ♗f6? 14. ♘xd6! ♔e7 15. ♘xb7 ♕c7?? 16. d6!! ♕xd6 17. ♕xd6 ♔e8 18. ♘d5 h5 19. ♘c7 1-0 {Black checkmated}

What a horrendous mess. And up until the 10th move or so, it seemed like an easy win for me. Where did it all go wrong? At 13. ... ♗f6? at the latest. 13. ... O-O would have been better, definitely. It was pretty much all over by 16. d6!!.

Chess Log: 1. d4 d5 2. ♗f4 h6 3. e3 g5 4. ♗e5 f6??

I'm a creature of habit, to put it mildly. If I depart from my standard openings, I'm not experimenting: I've either examined my previous standard opening, found it wanting and now have a new one; or I absented-mindedly departed from my standard course. In this game I did the latter, and got pounded by an opponent ranked significantly lower. 5-0 blitz, I played Black.

1. d4 d5 2. ♗f4 h6 3. e3 g5 4. ♗e5 f6?? 5. ♕h5! ♔d7 6. ♗g3 ♕e8 7. ♕g4 ♔c6 8. ♕f3 ♘d7 9. a4 a5 10. ♗b5 ♔b6 11. ♕xd5 c6 12. ♕b3 cxb5 13. ♕xb5 ♔a7 14. ♕xa5 1-0 {Black checkmated}

My standard response to 1. d4 d5 2. ♗f4 (and also to 1. d4 d5 2. e3) is 2. ... e6. My game move of 2. ... h6 is not necessarily terrible, but 5. ... f6 certainly is, giving White's Queen a nice big clear lane to Black's King. In retrospect, at that point 5. ... ♘6 seems better, but still not great.

Instead of the game move 6. ... ♕e8, perhaps 6. ... ♔c6 would've given me a chance to build up a defense.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Barry Bonds

My favorite baseball player of all time (think: 3rd all-time highest career offensive WAR, 4th OBS, 6th on-base, 5th slugging, more than twice as many intentional BB's as #2 Hank Aaron, 1st overall BB's, 1st runs created, 3rd runs scored, 4th total bases, 2nd extra-base hits, 5th RBI's, 33rd SB's, 1st HR's, .984 fielding % over 22 seasons, 7 Gold Gloves, 12 Silver Sluggers, highest single-season HR's and 7 MVP awards) was once again not inducted into the Hall of Fame yesterday.

However, back in April his last remaining steroids-related Federal conviction was overturned. So there's that.

We'll get 'em next year.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Similarities Between Cats, Dogs And Humans


We and cats and dogs share the majority of our DNA. We all yawn and stretch. We all sneeze. We all do this --

-- when we're confused and/or intrigued. We all occasionally want to can haz cheezburgr. We all like to snuggle:

We all scratch ourselves when we itch, and we all get wide-eyed when we're startled.

It's not just we who can learn from other species. To give just one example of them learning from us: every single one of those totally-adorable "unusual animal buddies" stories, in which animals from 2 or more different species form a close relationship --

-- and by the way, can we agree that there's actually nothing unusual about it any more? -- every one of those sweet friendships between a cat and a duck or a seal and a penguin or a dog and a deer or what have you -- every one of those relationships has happened when all of the animals involved were under the care and protection of humans. [PS, 22. February 2016: That's not true. Since posting this I have learned of animals "in the wild," as it's sometimes called, who have adopted abandoned infants of other species. Including a lioness raising an orphaned baby antelope, protecting it form other lions and giving it milk.]

When I'm urging people to appreciate animals more deeply, I am most definitely including humans among those animals. Not every single interaction between humans and other animal species harms the others, that's every bit as obviously untrue as saying that other species don't have emotions or memories. The belief in the supposed wonderful quality of things "untouched by man" is just the irrational flip side of the more traditional irrational belief that humans are the "pinnacle of creation." Both rest upon an assumption that there is a fundamental difference between humans and other species, that the others are "natural" while we humans are "artificial." Nonsense. We're a part of nature. I urge you to ponder that the next time you look into the eyes of a dog or cat or some other friendly non-human creature which has eyes.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

From The Foreword To Nietzsche's Jenseits von Gut und Böse (Beyond Good and Evil)

Es scheint, dass alle grossen Dinge, um der Menschheit sich mit ewigen Forderungen in das Herz einzuschreiben, erst als ungeheure und furchteinflössende Fratzen über die Erde hinwandeln müssen: eine solche Fratze war die dogmatische Philosophie, zum Beispiel die Vedanta-Lehre in Asien, der Platonismus in Europa. Seien wir nicht undankbar gegen sie, so gewiss es auch zugestanden werden muss, dass der schlimmste, langwierigste und gefährlichste aller Irrthümer bisher ein Dogmatiker-Irrthum gewesen ist, nämlich Plato's Erfindung vom reinen Geiste und vom Guten an sich. Aber nunmehr, wo er überwunden ist, wo Europa von diesem Alpdrucke aufathmet und zum Mindesten eines gesunderen - Schlafs geniessen darf, sind wir, deren Aufgabe das Wachsein selbst ist, die Erben von all der Kraft, welche der Kampf gegen diesen Irrthum grossgezüchtet hat. Es hiess allerdings die Wahrheit auf den Kopf stellen und das Perspektivische, die Grundbedingung alles Lebens, selber verleugnen, so vom Geiste und vom Guten zu reden, wie Plato gethan hat; ja man darf, als Arzt, fragen: "woher eine solche Krankheit am schönsten Gewächse des Alterthums, an Plato? hat ihn doch der böse Sokrates verdorben? wäre Sokrates doch der Verderber der Jugend gewesen? und hätte seinen Schlierling verdient?" - Aber der Kampf gegen Plato, oder, um es verständlicher und für's "Volk" zu sagen, der Kampf gegen den christlich-kirchlichen Druck von Jahrtausenden - denn Christenthum ist Platonismus für's "Volk" - hat in Europa eine prachtvolle Spannung des Geistes geschaffen, wie sie auf Erden noch nicht da war: mit einem so gespannten Bogen kann man nunmehr nach den fernsten Zielen schiessen.

(It seems that all great things, in order to inscribe themselves upon our hearts, must first wander the Earth as monstrous and terrifying masks: dogmatic philosophy was such a mask, for example Vedantic philosophy in Asia, and Platonism in Europe. Let us not be ungrateful to them, as surely as it must be admitted that the worst, the longest-lasting and most dangerous of all errors so far has been an error of dogmatism: namely, Plato's invention of the pure spirit and of goodness as an eternal being. But now that it has been overcome, now that Europe has awoken from this nightmare and may enjoy at least -- a healthier sleep; now we, whose task is wakefulness itself, have inherited all of the strength which grew big and strong in the struggle against the error. True, to speak of the spirit and goodness as Plato did would be to stand truth upon its head and to deny perspective, the basic condition of all life. As a physician, one may ask, "Why did this illness occur in the most beautiful creature of antiquity, in Plato? Did the evil Socrates in fact corrupt him? Was Socrates in fact the corrupter of youth, who deserved his hemlock?" -- But the struggle against Plato, or, to express it in terms easier for the "masses" to understand, the struggle against thousands of years' worth of Christian-ecclesiastical pressure -- for Christianity is Platonic philosophy for the "masses" -- has created, in Europe, a magnificent strength of the mind, never seen before on Earth: with a bow strung so tightly, one can now shoot at the farthest targets.)

So -- Christianity was a sort of sparring partner, and now -- or then, around 1885, when Nietzsche wrote that -- the previously-Christian European mind had grown so strong, just by surviving Christianity, that it could do great things.

A few minds have awoken from the Platonic nightmare -- his own mind certainly did -- and some are still sound asleep. Some have become atheists without shaking off one bit of the underlying Platonic sleep.

Shooting at the farthest targets. I think that clearly out-Nostradamuses Nostradamus in predicting space travel.

What would Nietzsche make of us, 130 years later? A woman's about to become President of the United States, Nietzsche wouldn't care for that at all. Germany has a female head of state. Britain's most butch head of state by far was a woman. Maybe certain realities would wake Nietzsche up from his deep sexist nightmare.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

I've Spent 54 Years On This Planet, It's Time I Admit It --

-- "I think, therefore I am" ("cogito ergo sum") has never made any sense to me. It has never occurred to me for an instant to wonder whether or not I exist. I can't imagine not being sure whether or not I exist. Ergo, I don't see the use of "cogito ergo sum." Let alone why it is perhaps the most often-repeated phrase ever written by any philosopher. I don't unnerstand. And I'm not asking for you to try to explain it to me. You would only fail and exhaust us both.

And E=Mc squared. I have no idea what it means to square a velocity. Zzzoomm! Right over my munkee head.

Whew. I feel better!

Founders Of National Literatures

In some cases it's very easy to spot the first great figure in the literature of a nation -- "great" not in the sense that they were bettter writers than others, that's a subjective call, but in the sense that they formed a reference point for the literature that followed, great in the sense that the writers and readers of that nation looked at each of them as a kind of founder of their culture.

In some cases that figure is very easy to spot: in Greece it's Homer, in post-Roman Italy it's Dante, in Spain it's Cervantes, in England it's Shakespeare, in Russia it's Pushkin.

In ancient Rome, some would say, it's Vergil. Others would say it's Cicero. I, and perhaps a few others, would say that Horace and Sallust and Ovid write rings around those two. (Then again, by my own criteria, that's not the point.)

The situation is quite murky in Amurrka, because after the mediocrity of Irving and the so-so melodramatic novels of Cooper came Melville, the most accomplished writer in our nation's history, but dishonored in his own time, and always an outsider. He even founded an Amurrkin tradition of outsider-writers: Emerson, Faulkner, Gaddis, the Beats. The fucked-upness of our literature is world-famous.

Who's the first great German writer? Luther, Grimmelshausen, and Goethe, the top 3 choices, are about as different from one another as 3 writers can be. Is that bad for Germany, or nice for Germany?

(Or is this all incredibly meaningless and beautiful?)

France just simply doesn't have one. Maybe because the field is more crowded with geniuses that the literature of any other nation.

And when I think that there must be similar sitchy-ashuns in the literature of Portugal and Lithuania and Mexico and hundreds of other nations, discussions including thousands of writers whose names I have never heard, my mind reels at how much bigger the world is than my mind.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Yes, Reading Schiller's Historical Works Was Idiotic

But don't worry, I stopped after a few dozen pages' worth of Geschichte des Abfalls der vereinigten Niederlande von der spanischen Regierung. So awful! Let me ask you, when you think of Lutheranism and Calvinism, is the first thing which comes to your mind -- freedom?

Yeah, me neither. But to Schiller it seemed much too plain to need any discussion that they equaled freedom, and that Catholicism equaled pure wretched evil, human misery and slavery. Except when it didn't, like when he talked about the brilliant Templars, or other brilliant Catholic orders.

When Schiller thought of Protestant freedom in the 16th century, did he think of peasants' revolts? No. To him, that sort of thing was "Rebellion," which was an even worse horror than Catholicism itself -- the horrible kind of Catholicism, not the brilliant knights in shining armor on white horses.

No, freedom was exemplified by Dutch businessmen. Catholicism was the religion of artists (if Schiller was saying here that he wasn't an artist, then finally we agree on something, except that I'm afraid he's not nearly that consistent), and Protestantism was the religion of commerce. And freedom.

I don't know. Maybe Schiller had some money invested in businesses and was a libertarian, and when he said "freedom" he meant laissez-faire, and when he said "tyranny" he meant taxes, just like a 21st-century libertarian bozo, and there was nothing more complicated about him than that.

Whatever. Earlier today I gave up on Schiller, and I started looking for the passage in Nietzsche where Nietzsche says that it is a measure of Beethoven's genius that he could take something as pedestrian as Schiller's "Ode to Joy," put it in his 9th symphony and turn it into something great, thus giving a great gift to an entire nation which until then had been suffering under endless non-musical recitations of Schiller's extremely-popular poem.

I couldn't find that passage. I googled nietzsche beethoven schiller, and looked and looked and looked, and man oh man has there been a lot of nonsense written about Nietzsche and Beethoven and Schiller. But it's okay, I just got back into my volumes of Nietzsche. I prefer the editions from Insel-Verlag. So everything turned out okay. (Standard disclaimer: everything Nietzsche writes about women and war in his philosophical works is nonsense, the rest is incomparably brilliant.)

Albert Schweitzer, Mythicist

Rudolf Augstein, who died a few years ago, was best known as the publisher and editor in chief of Der Spiegel, Germany's most influential news magazine. Augstein also wrote a huge bestseller, Jesus Menschensohn (Jesus Son of Man), first published in the 1970's, in which he both points out how the work of Biblical scholars has made room for doubts about whether Jesus existed at all, and accuses those scholars of saying different things to the public than what they say privately, or in academic writings which are so full of jargon that the general public can't understand them. Anyway, either Augstein misquotes Albert Schweitzer in this book, or Schweitzer was a mythicist (in the sense that Schweitzer was not entirely convinced that Jesus existed, which is how the term seems to be used by Bart Ehrman and John Dominic Crossan); according to Augstein, Schweitzer, in his book Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung, wrote:

"Das moderne Christentum muss von vornherein und immer mit der Möglichkeit einer eventuellen Preisgabe der Geschichtlichkeit Jesu rechnen." ("Modern Christianity, right from the beginning and always, must reckon with the possibility that the belief in the historicity of Jesus might eventually have to be abandoned.")

Crossan and Ehrman can't be unfamiliar with Schweitzer's book, can they? It's only just the most famous and standard work ever published in their field.

Ah, but they'll say that Bultmann settled it all, sometime after Schweitzer's magnum opus was published. Ask them where and when and how exactly Bultmann settled it all, and they'll get angry. And you won't get a sensible answer. You'll be told that it happened around the 1930's and to buzz off. You might well also be told that the sentence Augstein quoted from Schweitzer does not mean what it appears to mean.

Not that Crossan and Ehrman are any worse in this regard than most New Testament scholars. Maybe it's somewhat less cuckoo in some parts of Europe, because of popular books like Augstein's, and also because there might be more academic mythicists (defining mythicists as all the people who aren't entirely sure that Jesus existed, and say so right out loud in public) in Europe than in the US, although they're a minority over there as well. Apparently a poll of German adults in the 1990's found that 9% of them weren't sure that Jesus existed. Was that more or less than in the US?

Ah but of course there's always the confusion of the theological with the historical every time this topic is raised in public. Did those 9% mean that there never was a Jesus of Nazareth, that someone made him up, or just that Jesus wasn't the miracle-working, resurrected Son of God? In the debate I'm trying to have with people like Crossan and Ehrman -- trying, but they don't want to discuss it, they'd rather compare me to a conspiracy theorist or Holocaust denier -- approximately 100% of those on both side, both those who are sure that Jesus existed and those who aren't, believe that Jesus wasn't the miracle-working, resurrected Son of God. The stuff about God and the miracles, etc, all of that is a theological question. I'm talking about an historical one. If your answer is, "Sure, there was a dude named Jesus, but he wasn't the miracle-working, resurrected Son of God," then you're on Crossan's and Ehrman's side, and Schweitzer and Augstein and I are on the opposing side. Because we're not sure that there was a dude named Jesus who formed the basis of the New Testament stories even though he was completely non-magical. (I keep explaining the distinction between the theological and historical discussions over and over in this blog, because it seems that a very great many people see this historical discussion going on all over the place these days, and think it's the theological discussion. I have nothing against people having that theological discussion. It's just a different discussion than this one.)

It's cuckoo in part because it's the very same Biblical scholars such as Crossan and Ehrman, with their researches showing us how we have less and less reason to believe that the historical Jesus resembles the Jesus of the New Testament, who have led people to pose the perfectly reasonable question about whether Jesus existed at all. They've led us to that question, and now they're angry at us for asking it.

And in denial, apparently, about how Schweitzer asked the question 100 years ago. And about how David Friedrich Strauss practically came right out and asked it 180 years ago in his book Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet (and was immediately asked to take a long, long vacation from his university post), even though Strauss' work has become much, much more popular and uncontroversial among Biblical scholars over the course of the past 180 years.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Pacifism Versus Tragedy

Wouldn't it be great if reality were actually so simple that we could live peacefully with each other all of the time. 2500 years ago, some Greeks were writing and performing plays showing how, often, life is nowhere nearly as great as that, and that often a person has nothing but bad choices, and, if he or she wants to live virtuously, has to try to choose the least bad one, the one which result in the least mayhem and suffering. There's a reason people are still reading and performing Greek tragedies. It's because they're profound.

I grew up in a church which is just as strictly pacifist as the Quakers, or maybe even more. At some point after I was full-grown it occurred to me that although members of that church don't serve on police forces, because police carry guns, they do occasionally call 911.

I favor much stricter gun control in the US. Guns don't kill people -- they just enable people to kill other people in much greater numbers, much more easily and quickly. There's no doubt at all that the lower murder rate in the UK has a lot to do with the scarcity of guns. There's no doubt in my mind that that UK's policy is wiser than than US policy. All the same, the police in England do sometimes carry guns, and when they don't they often are expected to physically overpower people. They do arrest people over there. Force is necessary from time to time. For thousands of years people have have debating over when and where it is necessary and how much to use. Pacifists wash their hands of the discussion, they pretend it doesn't exist, and look down their noses at the one who get their hands dirty, and reap the same benefits that others. I know they do -- I repeat, I grew up a pacifist.

I know that pacifist conscientious objectors have put themselves in harm's way in wars, working in places like military hospitals. Some of those people were my ancestors, going back at least as far as the US Civil War. I have no wish to insult those people or question their courage. (I am capable of admiring a person's actions which are based on beliefs with which I disagree. I'm perfectly capable of it, I do it every day, and so do a lot of other people who see more grey than black-and-white in the moral landscapes surrounding them.) I'm just saying that they refused to confront some realities of human life which many other people, maybe actually most people, do confront, and grapple with, in the greatest seriousness.

I also don't wish to insult the people who fought in the Civil War or World War II. I don't want to insult the Germans who lost their lives trying to kill Hitler, because they knew that the war in Europe would end as soon as Hitler dead. And although members of my family's church had conscientious-objector status as long ago as the Civil War, many of them violated the pacifist policy of their church and became Union soldiers in the Civil War, and again during World War II, many of them violated the church's pacifist policy and joined the US military.

They grasped the tragic nature of the times in which they lived. Many of them may have realized that the world was not nearly as simple, and that morality was not nearly as black-and-white, as they had thought their whole lives long.

I have great respect for Gandhi and Martin Luther King. They were both extraordinary people, they both achieved great things, astonishingly great and noble things. But both of them -- tragically -- were killed before reaching the point where they could have assumed political positions of power in which they would command, if not entire armies and navies, at least police departments. Positions which confront the officeholders with tragic decisions. We don't know what they would have done in such offices. It's hard to imagine that a Prime Minister Gandhi or a President King would have entirely done away with the armed forces of India or the US. We don't know whether they would have accepted such offices.

Oxyrhynchus Papyri


SPIEGEL (the German news magazine), yr Datasierung or whatever you call it, the way you make the content of yr back issues available for Internet searches -- it sux!!

I was searching and searching for Ernst Jandl's reaction to winning a literary prize. I think it was the Buechner-Preis, just about the most prestigious and hoity-toity of all German literary prizes. Jandl won that prize about 20 years ago, and since then public opinion has caught up with him a bit. And he's died, which of course is the single best thing any artist can do for the commercial success and critical esteem of his work, but 20 years ago some people were upset that this guy who wrote poems like


manche meinen
lechts und rinks
kann man nicht velwechsern
werch ein illtum!

which, take my word for it, is really funny and also a brilliant poem -- people were upset that this weirdo Jewish guy had gotten the Buechner-Preis. (Although they didn't complain publicly a whole lot about the part about him being a Jew.)

And I was searching for that damn SPIEGEL-story announcing Jandl winning some prize, I think it was the Buechner-Preis, wherin it said that his first words upon hearing that he'd won were something like "Ich bin ganz bestuerzt." ("I'm shocked.") or "Ich bin entsetzt." ("I'm apalled.") Whatever is was, it, too, was brilliant, the most brilliant reaction I've heard yet to a person's winning a prestigious award.

And the reason I bring that up is that I would be both shocked and appalled if anyone considered me to be a reliable source of information. Specifically, I worry that I may have given some misinformation about the Oxyrhynchus papyri on this blog.

I corrected one such mistake today: I had written that over 100 volumes of the Oxyrhynchus papyri have been published so far. In fact, volume LXXX was published last year. I think there may be other errors which I didn't find, because years ago I often did a really terrible job of labeling my blog posts. For example, I'm pretty sure I've told people that over 10,000 Oxyrhynchus papyri have been published. In fact, volume LXXX brings the grand total to 5257. Out of about 1,000,000 papyri found at Oxyrhynchus. Some good news is that the publishers have radically reduced the prices of many of those 80 volumes. By how much? By this much: the most recent volumes are selling on Amazon for $170 a pop, but volumes as recent as Volume LXXII, from 2008, are going for $20, brand-ass new.

There are better sources of information about papyri than I. There are the aforementioned 80 volumes containing the texts of the papyri, translations, commentary and photos. Iss a Ding!

GW Schwendner of Wichita State University publishes a stupendous blog called What's New in Papyrology. The blog contains so much information about the current haps in the field, and it's updated so often, that the main problem is just wading through the enormous amount of information. A good problem to have.

The University of Heidelberg has a very impressive papyrology website.

Oxford University is the one that owns the great majority of those 1,000,000 Oxyrhynchus papyri and the one which has published the aforementioned very fine 80 volumes of 5257 papyri since 1898. And don't worry, they've found some ways to speed up the process of editing and publishing those papyri, so that, although much yet remains to be done and publishing everything will take quite a while, it isn't expected to take 15,229 years. They're doing lots of good work on these papyri and are to be highly commended.

They are not to be commended on their Oxyrhynchus papyrii website. It contains a lot of information, including, for example, images of many, perhaps all (the website sucks so hard that it's difficult to be sure) of the 5257 papyri which have been published so far. But that wealth of information is presented very poorly, and the site seems to be updated only every 5 years or so, by a moron. (It needed to be said.)

And to return to my shortcomings: I have a very bad feeling that "papyri" may be misspelled many, many times on this blog, with 2 i's on the end instead of 1: "papyrii" instead of "papyri." I am appalled.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Is It Idiotic Of Me To Be Reading Schiller's Historical Works?

Nietzsche warned me: in Goetzen-Daemmerung, Schiller is the 3rd-listed of his "Unmoeglichen," his "impossible people." Nietzsche calls him the "Moral-Trompeter von Saeckingen."

Der Trompeter von Saeckingen (The trumpeter of Saeckingen) is an epic poem published in 1853 by Joseph Viktor von Scheffel which was an immediate and huge popular success. Viktor Nessler made it into a popular opera which debuted in Leipzig in 1884, just a few years before the extremely avid opera-goer Nietzsche published Goetzen-Daemmerung. If I had read Scheffel's poem or or seen or heard Nessler's opera, perhaps Nietzsche's one-liner about Schiller would've made me laugh.

Even as it is I schmunzelte. I get how Schiller tends to trumpet morality. I find it very tiresome how in the midst of an historical work he gets carried away and begins to shout at the reader about the Genius of This People and the Crushing of That Despot and The Laws of History and The Way that The Age of Heroes is Past and that We Today Can Only Look Upon Them like an Old Man Who Has lost His Nerve contemplating The Manly Caprices of His Youth, before settling down again and returning to the facts and figures and quotes and other things for which I came there -- there being Schillers historical writings. That last bit, about The Age of Heroes being Past, was especially troubling to me, because I had thought that we here in Western Civilization had left behind such ideas about past Golden Ages. I thought we had done that some time before Schiller. Maybe most of us had.

And anyhow, how much of this stuff, how much of works by Schiller such as Geschichte des Abfalls der vereinigten Niederlande von der spanischen Regierung (History of the Dutch Revolution) and Geschichte des Dreissigjährigen Krieges (History of the Thirty Years; War), is actually any sort of worthwhile historical writing at all?

What I don't know, what I've started to ask myself, is, Who reads Schiller's historical works, besides me? No one ever recommended to me that I read them, and quite a few people have recommended his poems and plays quite heartily, and a few are even enthused about such theoretical works of his as the one about naive and sentimental poetry. But I've never read or heard a thumbs-up about these historical works.

Perhaps if I'd never gotten that volume in Fraktur, vol 2 of a 2-vol collection of Schiller's works published in 1869 by the J G Cotta'sche Buchhandlung. That volume which begins with the works on the Dutch Revolution and the Thirty Years' War. I've had that thing for decades, and I finally came to grips with the fact that the Fraktur was keeping me from reading more than a paragraph or 2 at a sitting, and so, with not inconsiderable difficulty, I got this volume of the historical works in Antiqua, which is what Germans call the regular typeface the rest of the world uses and they have too for the most part for the last century or so. (Schiller's plays and poems are so easy to get, maybe the difficulty in obtaining his historical works should have warned that no sensible person wants them.)

Maybe if decades ago I'd gotten a volume of Schiller's historical works in a typeface more like this one, which I could read with less difficulty (How much difficulty? I'm not even completely sure that "J G Cotta'sche Buchhandlung" is a correct transcription, that's how much.), I would've been done with Schiller even before I became a fan of Nietzsche.

And yet, and yet, with a stupid serious look on my face -- very much, in fact, like the one Schiller himself seemed to be wearing whenever a painting or sculptor was nearby -- and against the sneers of the Nietzsches (I'm usually totally a Nietzsche!), I shall soldier on and see if maybe there is in fact a pony in here somewhere.

But, but -- I already mentioned, apart from my general disgust at the frequent melodramtic solos of the moral trumpeter about No Two Other Peoples were Ever So Dissimilar and It must Enliven The Heart of Every Friend of Freedom and so forth, the bit about the Forever Lost Golden Age really gave me pause. Another thing which made me throw the volume down and stomp around the room yelling "What?! What?!" was Schiller's assertion that printing was invented in Haarlem in 1482.

I mean, that's sure what it looks like to me he's saying: "Im Jahre 1482 wurde die Buchdruckerkunst in Haarlem erfunden," and one thing which really makes me wonder whether anybody at all is reading this stuff for the sake of historical edification, is that I can't find anybody anywhere saying that Schiller was off by at least 50 years and 1 country about the invention of printing. Even allowing for 230 years' worth of progress in process of writing history, this is the sort of thing which makes me wonder just how much Schiller was carried away with the moral--trumpeting, and whether the trumpeting left much actual worthwhile historical writing at all in its wake.

Hold everything: in the volume in Fraktur from 1869 it sez: "Im Jahre 1432 wurde die Buchdruckerkunst in Haarlem erfunden." This is why it's good to have more than 1 edition of the same book. Maybe 1482 is a misprint. Then Schiller would only be off by 1 country and not by 50 years. Or maybe not even by a country: there is a certain Laurens Janszoon Coster who, according to some Dutch patriots, invented printing before Gutenberg.

I'm not going to get into the middle of that fight.

CV Wedgewood doesn't mention Schiller in her history of the Thirty Years' War. Not in the bibliography, nowhere. In his biography of Wallenstein, Golo Mann, like his father a great fan of Schiller's poems and plays, quotes a line here and there from Schiller's Wallenstein-trilogy of plays, and otherwise mentions him twice entirely in passing, with absolutely no hint of a positive or negative opinion of him as an historian.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Warum War Fraktur?

Kan jemand mir erklaeren, wieso die Deutschen sich eine zeitlang so


Oder ist es wirklich nur nicht-Deutschen ein Plag? Ist der Fraktur-Font oben Euch allen wirklich ganz so lesbar wir so etwa dieser:


Waere mir kaum zu glauben.

Wer steckte dahiunter? Karl der 5., der grosse Kurfuerst, der alte Fritz, Bismarck, Hitler, Kohl -- entschiden sie hinter geschlossenen Tueren, weit weg von der Oeffentlichkeit, wie es mit den Fonts vor sich gehen wurde?

Liest man noch heute ganze Baender in Fraktur? Und wenn schon -- tut man es gern?

Bitte, Deutsche, Schweizer, Oesterreicher, LuxembuergerInnen -- oeffnet Ihr mir Eure Herzen! Was meint Ihr zum Fraktur? War es ein Segen oder ein Fluch oder weder noch und was rege ich mich auf?

The Historical Jesus And The Absence Of Contemporary Writing About Him

This is to a certain extent a re-hashing of things I've already written in this blog: in this post, for example, which is just a summary of the Cambridge Ancient History, 1st ed, vol X: The Augustan Empire, 44BC -- AD70 4th, corrected printing, 19666, pp 866-876. Perhaps I've done a poor job of explaining this. (Perhaps I've done a magnificent job, and no-one has paid any attention. Yeah. That sounds more like it.) Oh well, once more into the breech:

THERE IS NOTHING STRANGE ABOUT OUR HAVING NO CONTEMPORARY WRITING ABOUT JESUS, BECAUSE WE HAVE ALMOST NO WRITING AT ALL FROM THAT TIME AND PLACE. SORRY ABOUT SHOUTING LIKE THIS, BUT IT'S REALLY CRUCIAL FOR ME TO GET THIS POINT ACROSS.. Contemporary observers may have written a great deal about Jesus, if he existed. It seems to me that if he existed, whatever else he may have been, he probably was pretty interesting.

But that's not the point, because however much was written about him by eyewitnesses, that's exactly how much has gone missing in the meantime. If 5 eyewitness accounts were written about Jesus, then that's how many eyewitness accounts of him have gone missing: 5. If 4,386 eyewitness accounts were written about him, then exactly 4,386 such accounts are now unknown to us.

And there's nothing suspicious about all of those accounts having gone missing, because almost everything written in Galilee and Judea during Jesus' lifetime has gone missing. Almost everything written by anyone about anyone or anything. The only exception I know is the Pilate Stone. Here's the entire text carved into that stone which has not eroded away over 19 centuries:


And there's nothing at all suspicious about so little written material having survived from that time and place, when you look at how little writing has survived from the entire Roman Empire (see linked blog post above).

Let's take the example of Livy, hands-down the most highly-regarded historian among the ancient Romans. In scarcely any other time and place on Earth has an a historian been so universally well-respected as Livy was by his contemporaries. He wrote a long history of Rome, 4 times longer than the Bible, including both the Old and New Testaments. It covered Rome from the legends of its beginnings up until 9 BC. About 1/4 of that work is now known to us. I and a few other wild-eyed crackpots dream of finding the other 3/4. You know how much of it has been dug up in the past 200 years? This much:

[------ .e(m) [----- ing]ens [ei era]nt ha[u]t pro[cul G]abiis [u]rbe. cu[m] [Ga]uios nouos exer[cit]us indictus [e]sset ibique centuriati milites essent, cum duob(us)milib(us) pe[ {.} ]ditum profect[u]s in agru(m) suom cons[ul?] and g[-------] ar[------] se[d] reaps[a nega]tam eo [[e]]dicto f[acturum] quoa[d inuissu suo in pr[ovi(n)-] cia maneat, et [si] pergat dicto non parar[e], \[s]e/ [i]n praese(n)tem habiturum imper[i]um. Fabius, [acc]eptus mandatis-----]

You're welcome. (The parts in parentheses are guesses where the text -- on parchment in this case -- is hard to read or gone altogether.)

How many of the authors of the Roman Empire wrote things which we now don't have? The answer to that is easy: all of them. Every single one. Julius Caesar, Vergil, Ovid, Tacitus, Horace, Plautus -- all of them. In many cases, we have lost everything except their names, mentioned by other authors, but even that much is sometimes very important to our understanding of the history of the Roman Empire, because that's how little we have to work with. (See linked blog post above again.)

That's the state of the remains of the writings of the authors the Romans cared about most. Authors who lived in or close to the city of Rome. They didn't care much about Galilee and Judea, which makes it less suspicious that anything written there during Jesus' lifetime has survived (except the Pilate Stone).

Another thing which makes it much less suspicious still is that the Romans crushed a rebellion in Jerusalem in AD 70 and destroyed the Temple, the center of life for many people in the city, and the center of writing. There probably was quite a bit of interesting written material in Jerusalem in AD 69 which was already gone forever by AD 71.

People talk about the written records of the trial of Jesus. I don't know how many official written records of trials the ancient Romans kept. I do know how many such records we have today -- none. Not just none of Jesus' trial, not just none of any trials in Jerusalem -- none of any ancient Roman trials, period. And that's why it's not suspicious that we don't have any official written records of Jesus' trial. Okay? So can we please finally just move on about that one? (Yeah, I'm acting like people have read this post all the way to the end. I'm a cra-zeee dreamer!) (I must mention again that I used to be one of those people who prattled on about "detailed official Roman records," before I got a clue. I'm sincerely sorry about that. Even back then, some people assumed that I knew what I was talking about.)


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Don't Split The Left

Well la-dee-freakin-da!

You know what? I just called for guaranteed housing, health care and living expenses for everyone on the planet. Unfortunately, calling for something and accomplishing it are 2 different things. Bernie can call for whatever he wants to call for, it doesn't matter, because he's never going to be POTUS, any more than I am. The difference seems to be that I realize it.

One thing Bernie could accomplish is to run 3rd-party, split the Left and give us a Republican President. Ralph Nader could tell Bernie exactly how that's done. Maybe Elizabeth Warren can explain something else to Bernie: how if they campaign for Hillary and then use their positions of power in Congress to pull her to the Left, they'll actually be accomplishing something.

Calling for something / accomplishing something. Dream / reality. Good for something / worse than nothing. Say Amen, somebody!

If you can tell the difference between Hillary and a Republican, and if you have figured out that the next President is going to be either Hillary or a Republican -- good, you're not a complete moron. Please help save us from those morons that can't figure out such remedial-kindergarten-level stuff, that's right I said REMEDIAL-KINDERGARTEN-LEVEL. There's one thing I can see right now that looks like it might have a slight chance of preventing Hillary from becoming the next POTUS. That one thing is Bernie.

The Historical Jesus -- And Caesar, Alexander, Socrates -- And Achilles

Historicists -- people who say there's no doubt Jesus existed (without necessarily making any supernatural claims about him) -- say that the number and the early date of the written witnesses to Jesus' existence are extremely impressive, and they're right. They go on to say that this makes Jesus' existence as certain as that of Socrates or Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar -- and they're wrong.

We have no contemporary written accounts of Jesus' life. Historicists promptly point out that we have no contemporary written sources for the life of Alexander either, and they're right. They point out further that the oldest surviving written account of Alexander comes nearly 300 years after his death, while Paul began to write the letters which became part of the New Testament with twenty years or so Jesus' death, and they're right again, assuming Jesus existed. However, the oldest surviving written accounts of Alexander which we have can be traced back clearly to accounts written by specifically-identified contemporaries. New Testament scholars are still looking for Q.

Unlike either Alexander or Jesus, several contemporary written accounts of both Socrates and Caesar exist, including books Caesar himself wrote. But it's not the number or date or even authorship of the written accounts of Jesus which separate him most decisively from Socrates, Alexander and Caesar. It's the quality of those writings. The preponderance of the supernatural. For the other three we have sources which concentrate on things they said and non-natural things they did like waging battles. Every early source of Jesus' life concentrates on the supernatural: miracles and resurrections and such.

We know what Socrates, Alexander and Caesar looked like, because we have sculptures which portray three identifiable people: an ugly, pot-bellied, balding, bearded guy; a handsome young man with a thick mane of curly hair and big spooky eyes (we know what Alexander's Dad looked like too); and a bald guy with a long skinny neck and thin lips, neither particularly handsome nor ugly.

Further evidence of Alexander's existence is several centuries' worth of Hellenistic culture from northwestern India to Egypt; of Caesar's, the Roman Empire. In their two cases the amount of history which would have to be un-written and then re-written to account for their non-existence is vast. In the case of both Socrates and Jesus, their impacts upon the world came entirely from the words of a small number of people who greatly admired them. Including, in Socrates' case, at least 2 specifically-indentifiable writers who knew him personally. Plus a 3rd contemporary writer who made fun of him. 0 contemporary writers in Jesus' case. And the earliest writer about Jesus saw him -- in a vision. Whatever that means.

We have no idea what Jesus looked like. Or Achilles. As in Jesus' case, no written account of Achilles' life is not so full of the supernatural that to describe his life with no supernatural elements doesn't require a complete re-write.

I think it's quite possible that there was an historical Achilles, a mighty Greek warrior who fought at Troy around the time that there might have been an historical Moses (about whose physical appearance we have no clue, the stories about whom are filled with the supernatural). I'm far from able to prove Achilles' historical existence. And yet an entire great culture, Socrates' culture, Alexander's culture, assumed that Achilles existed, and depended to a degree upon assumption like that. Alexander took a copy of the Iliad with him as he went conquering nations. He is supposed to have read and re-read it more than any other book. Even Caesar's culture, to a lesser degree, thought of Achilles as having been very real, and gave him a big role in their version of the history of the world.

I think that theories of an historical Achilles, of an historical Moses and an historical Jesus have much in common. Each of their stories is very important in the religious life of various civilizations. Each one of them might really have existed. Their stories had to begin somehow. Throw the story of King Arthur in there too, all of the above applies equally to him.

But leave Socrates and Alexander and Caesar out of this, because we know they existed.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


The Historical Jesus And Global Warming

I believe this video was made in 2012, shortly after the publication of Bart Ehrman's book Did Jesus Exist?

In the video, Ehrman incorrectly states that no-one teaching at an accredited university in one of the "relevant fields" -- ancient history, Biblical Studies, etc -- doubted that Jesus existed, and compared this to the overwhelming consensus among meteorologists that global warming exists and is man-made.

Ehrman was incorrect when he said that none of the academics in ancient history or Biblical Studies or related field had doubts about Jesus' existence -- but he was close enough to correct. If we're going to stick with Ehrman's analogy of global warming, then as far as I can tell, the percentage of the academics who doubt Jesus' existence is lower than the percentage who doubt that global warming exists and is cause by humans.

But the question is: how similar is Biblical Studies to meteorology? One figure I've heard is that 3 percent of meteorologists do not agree that global warming is happening and is man-made. The thing is, there are extremely wealthy interests who fund a lot of these 3 percent -- oil and gas and coal companies. And shocking as this is, they seem to fund most, or all, of the 3 percent, and none of the 97 percent who agree with all of the rest of us who have been conscious for the past few decades and noticing the weather.

There are extremely wealthy interests who fund Biblical Studies too: religious institutions. In my opinion, it's a lot harder to tell whether a Biblical scholar is insincere about Jesus than whether a meteorologist is being insincere about global warming. Global warming and its causes are so obvious. It's so hard, if not actually impossible, to find someone who is both a highly-qualified meteorologist and a global-warming skeptic who has never taken money from oil companies either directly, or indirectly, through lobbyists and think tanks run by oil companies.

You know something that's not hard to find? Religious believers and theologians among the ranks of Biblical scholars. It's no longer unusual to find atheists and agnostics among them, but the atheists and agnostics often do seem very reluctant to come right out and say that that's what they are. Ehrman is unusually open about his agnosticism for a Biblical scholar.

Meteorologists are the academic successors of Galileo. Biblical scholars are the successors of the people who threatened to torture Galileo unless he recanted what he'd said about what he'd seen in the sky. That doesn't mean that Biblical scholars today tend to be would-be Inquisitors. But I think it's perfectly legitimate to ask how open they have been, since Galileo's time, to views which have challenged traditional Christian views. Did they lead the way in questioning the existence of Adam & Eve, and then the existence of Abraham, and then Moses, and then (pre-Tel-Dan-Stele) David, and now Jesus, or have they tended to stand in the way of open inquiry?

It's legitimate to ask how much huge financial interests may have nudged scholars in one direction or another, whether it's oil companies nudging meteorologists in the direction of expressing climate change skepticism or religious institutions nudging Biblical scholars in the direction of saying they're certain that Jesus existed. It's also legitimate to ask how much a climate of belief and theology has hindered Biblical scholars' objectivity and good common sense.

One thing is certain: once we go from academia to the general public, Ehrman's analogy between climate-change skeptics and mythicists (people who are less than certain that Jesus existed) falls apart altogether. In the general public the two groups are almost entirely mutually exclusive. I can't recall ever meeting someone who had doubts both about climate change and about Jesus' existence. Climate-change skeptics tend to be religious believers and to have a skeptical attitude toward science in general. Mythicists tend to be highly literate scientifically. Often they are professional scientists. And they tend to have a skeptical attitude toward Biblical scholarship.

Which is a real shame, as I have emphasized over and over in this blog, because the Biblical scholars are the experts in their field. I'm not accusing the Biblical scholars of ineptitude nor of dishonesty. And furthermore, when Ehrman accuses the mythicists of cluelessness, he's right about most of them. (Most of us, I should say.)

I'm accusing Ehrman and his fellow Biblical scholars (with a few exceptions) of not considering the question of Jesus' existence. I'm accusing them of claiming that the issue has been settled, when in fact the experts have barely begun to examine the issue.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Imperial by William T Vollmann

37 years ago, I read in Jack Beatty's review of James Michener's Chesapeake in my father's copy of Newsweek: "My best advice is don't read it; my second best is don't drop it on your foot." Perfect. I didn't read any further in the review. I didn't need to. I don't know much about Beatty. I gather he's gone on to big things at The Atlantic and National Public Radio and as a book author. Won some major literary awards. Good for him. I don't care. I just care about the sentence I quoted, one of my favorite reactions to one of my least favorite writers.

But I'm not here to talk about Beatty, or Michener. I'm here to talk about one of my favorite writers, William T Vollmann, and his marvelous book Imperial. By all means, do read this book, and don't drop it on your foot. I'm serious. It's huge even by Michener standards. 1200 pages in the trade paperback edition, even more in the original hardcover.

But there the similarities with Michener end -- wait, no, of course they don't: Michener's schtick was to focus in each one of his novels on one geographical area -- the Chesapeake Bay area, for example -- and to describe events in that area over time, from the prehistoric to the present. And that's exactly what Vollmann did in Imperial with Imperial County, Callifornia, and the area of Mexico across the border from it.

But there all similarities cease. Vollmann, in stark contrast to Michener, writes very well. His books' sales, unfortunately, do not compare to Michener's. Some of Vollmann's books are novels, but Imperial is non-fiction. The events in Michener's books are mostly in chronological order, while Vollmann constantly jumps back and forth in chronology. And, completely unlike Michener, Vollmann constantly has his thumb in the eye and his foot on the toe of those among the authorities in this world who have thrived by treating poor people cruelly. Unlike Michener, Vollmann spends a lot of time with poor people, in this case including many poor Mexicans who cross the US-Mexico border illegally, in some cases people who have crossed it many times. Unlike Michener, Vollmann describes prostitutes and drug addicts as if they were actually human beings.

Vollmann writes with exhilarating righteous anger. Well -- anger and love, each person among the very, very many living and historical figures receiving what Vollmann thinks he or she deserves.

Imperial has a lot of information about water in California. So hey, it's topical suddenly! Hopefully Vollmann will be propelled onto the bestseller lists where he belongs. Right now none of the editions of Imperial seem to be near Amazon's top 100,000 sellers in books. I'm telling ya, people, you're missing the boat here. The book has a lot of info about how the US screws Mexico over, and has been for hundreds of years, putting a different spin on events than what we often get in accounts of US-Mexican relations, and backing it up with copious reference to primary sources. Water is one of the big ways the screwing over is done. The All-American Canal basically empties out the Colorado River before it crosses from the US into Mexico, and sends all that water into the farms of Imperial County. Yes, a large region of Mexico was turned into uninhabitable desert by this diversion or water. The name of the county provides a very handy metaphor for the treatment of Mexico by the US which Vollmann describes. Not to mention the name of that canal.

Vollmann is not a reserved writer. His writing is not disciplined in any way, shape or form, and it's a very good thing. His example is a strong argument that no one should write in a reserved manner, ever, about anything.

I've read the acknowledgments in very many books; those in Imperial are the only ones I know which, besides thanking people, also single out and name people who were remarkable for their unhelpfulness in the writing of the book. Just two unhelpful people, two California bureaucrats, amid effusive praise of many helpful people. Well, three altogether, but Vollmann also describes the third bureaucrat as overworked, which does mitigate the criticism somewhat.

So read Vollmann's books, okay? This is the good stuff.

We Can Cut Down On Petrochemical Consumption Right Now

Did I hear that correctly on Chris Hayes' show last week -- you can get solar panels installed on your house for free and pay for them later out of the money you make selling surplus electricity back to the grid? Maybe I didn't hear that correctly, or maybe I did, and it was a bit of solar-energy-industry hype which doesn't apply to every potential home-solar customer. Much of Hayes' segment on solar consisted of businessmen saying this and that and Chris reacting: Really? Wow! without seeming to have done a lot of fact checking before putting it all on the air.

However, it does seem that if it's not true for every house right now, it will be pretty soon.

Hayes pointed out that utilities don't like this. One more reason for utilities to be publicly-owned and like what's good for the public. I did hear someone say -- again, this didn't seem to have been fact-checked -- that utilities had brought brought something like 40 lawsuits against people who dared to try to free themselves from them, and had won in only 2 cases. 2 cases in Oklahoma, where people with solar panels on their houses must pay a tax. (Environmentalists in Oklahoma, stay strong! It MEANS something to be an environmentalist there! Alaska too!)

[PS, 30. May 2016: I heard correctly. And the information is accurate in most of the 50 states. In some states the legislatures and utilities have combined to screw you out of such possibilities -- for the present time. For the love of Clarence Darrow, educate yourself about what's going on around you and vote in state and local elections!]

Alfred Doeblin's novel Berlin Alexanderplatz was published in 1929. Had I remembered correctly, were the passenger trains electric in Berlin in 1929? I had: on the 1st page of the 1st chapter, it reads: "Er ließ Elektrische auf Elektrische vorbeifahren[...]" ("He let electric after electric go by[...]") They called them "electrics," maybe because electric trains were still a novelty in 1929? Maybe not: London's Tube had electric trains in 1890, the Paris Métro had them in 1900, Cleveland and Denver in the 1880's. So why are some trains in the US, not just in the Punjab and Mexico, but also in the "Home of the Brave," still burning diesel oil in the year Two Thousand And For Crying Out Loud?

Actually, I think most of those trains are mostly diesel-electric hybrids by now. Big new ships are hybrids too.

You may've heard about that solar-powered plane circling the Earth recently. Did you know that there's still no passenger train service to or from Columbus or Phoenix? In Europe the trains stop at just about single little town -- and they're not hybrids, they're all-electric. And there are well-tended bicycle paths all over the place, riding a bike doesn't equal dodging cars and trucks.

I'm trying to make you angry. Angry at oil companies. BP. Exxon. Gazprom, which is basically just another name for Boris Putin. Angry at the politicians, mostly Republicans in the US, who keep the companies alive and their owners rich from continuing to endanger human life. Vote the bums out! Let's get those solar panels up. Help me and Chris Hayes shine more light on things like those Oklahoma utilities taxing people for daring to put solar panels on the roofs of their homes. Ask who killed the electric car in the 1990's and who's slowing it down today, and why you can't ride a train cross-country to Columbus or Phoenix, and why Amtrak isn't all-electric with all of its electricity coming from wind or solar, and why in most places in the US you can't walk or ride a bike separately from the motorized traffic, and other questions like that, and keep on asking and asking until you get something resembling intelligent answers. What do you say, how about if we attempt to stand up for ourselves and keep some anti-social billionaire creeps from wiping out the human species?

Sunday, July 12, 2015


The poor and/or the more well-off among the ruled have had it with the rulers and they explode:

In the 2nd century BC in Rome, Tiberius Gracchus, a Senator, thought that the state favored the wealthy too much to stay stable, and attempted to shift things in favor of a broader power base. His popularity with small farmers was tremendous, and appalling to the upper class. His fellow Senators had him killed in 133 BC. The following century is called the Roman Revolution, but it's not the kind of revolution I have in mind here. It was the opposite of a struggle on behalf of the ruled: it was the attempt by one tyrant after another to consolidate all authority in the state into his own hands. Eventually, the man we know as Augustus succeeded in this. The ill-fated attempt at reform by Tiberius Gracchus -- that I would call a revolution.

Spartacus led a revolution of slaves which occupied a large chunk of Italy from 73 to 71 BC. This revolution was crushed, but it was impressive. Later revolutionary movements have named themselves after Spartacus.

To what extent were the Cathar movement and the Hussites and other Medieval uprisings political revolutions, and to what extent were they religious movements? Good question. I don't know.

Martin Luther's rebellion against the Roman Catholic Church was mistaken by many peasants in Germany as a rebellion against all political authority, and they rose up in large numbers, thinking they had Luther's support. On the contrary, Luther was appalled by this disorder and urged the aristocrats to crush the uprising and punish the leaders severely, which they did.

Nevertheless, many people continued to associate Protestantism with revolution. Luther was dead in the 1560's when the mostly-Protestant United Netherlands began to revolt against the very, very Catholic Spain, so we don't know what he would have made of the Dutch Revolution. By 1609 at the latest, the Netherlands were for a practical purposes an independent country. A revolution which succeeded for once! In 1648 Spain finally recognized the Netherlands' independence. After many other nations had.

Between 1640 and 1688, the English deposed and executed King Charles I and secured some civil rights from King William III and his co-ruler Queen Mary II. The term "English Revolution" means different things during this era to different people.

The American Revolution, 1775 to 1783, or 1764 to 1787, or pick pout your own dates, was led by people who thought of themselves as Englishmen who merely insisted upon the constitutional rights which had been granted to Englishmen by William and Mary in 1688.

The French Revolution, 1789 to -- when? -- was led by people who thought they were emulating the American Revolution, but who went much further in overturning the old order, far enough to horrify many American leaders. When did the Revolution end? Was Napolean revolutionary, or did his rule represent reaction and the end of the true revolution? People argue about such things.

The leaders of the Russian revolution (1917-1991) generally admired the French revolution, had various views of the American revolution, and greatly admired Abraham Lincoln.

In 1918, just months after the Russian Revolution began, the German government collapsed, the Kaiser fled, and various local governments were in charge of different parts of Germany. The most powerful single political party was the SPD, the German Social Democratic Party, which had been Karl Marx's party. The SPD did not remain a single party for very long. Some of its members wanted to join the international Revolution -- usually known as the "Russian Revolution." They ended up breaking away from the SPD and renaming themselves, first the Sparticists, and then the KPD, the German Communist Party. The remaining SPD produced many of the leaders of the Weimar republic and the Bundesrepublik, is still around, and has been at times much less Leftist than what Marx had in mind.

I don't know much about the Chinese Revolution. Sorry.

The Vietnamese revolutionaries (mid-19th century to the present) fought occupation first by the French, then by the Japanese, then the French again, then the US until the occupation ended in the 1970's. I'm sure this experience has colored Vietnamese attitudes toward the American and French revolutions.

Fidel Castro, revolutionary leader of Cuba since 1959, greatly admired the US. After overthrowing Batista in 1959 with overwhelming popular support, he tried to ally his government with the US. The US rebuffed Castro, not the other way around, and then and only then did Cuba became the ally of the Soviet Union, and anybody who tries to tell you any different is -- wrong. (I felt like writing something much ruder than "wrong" there.)

Ditto for the Sandanistas, who ruled Nicaragua from 1978 to 1990 and have remained one of several parties in the country since then. Almost ditto: Nicaragua and the US actually were cool from 1979 until Reagan took over from Carter in January 1981 and started the whole Iran-Contra-Cocaine boondoggle.

And there have been many more revolutions! Who's next?

Friday, July 10, 2015

Dialogue With An Unhelpful Person

NEW ATHEIST: I'm an atheist.

ME: Me too! High-five!

NEW ATHEIST: I don't believe God exists.

ME: It's an absurd idea. May not have been so absurd 5000 years, but we keep learning. In the light of new information, it's absurd.

NEW ATHEST: Muslims support terrorism.

ME: What?! No! Studies show that Muslims feel just about the same way about terrorism as people in general do: it's extremely unpopular among them. And they keep saying so, but the Western media tend not to --

NEW ATHEIST: Islam is the greatest danger in the world today.

ME: Islam isn't even one unified entity. I know: Muslims are always talking about how the aim of their religion is to unify all of mankind -- one God, one religion, one humanity -- but in reality, that's sort of like Christians saying that their religion is about turning the other cheek: that is too say, it's not the reality. The reality is that Muslims are not unified.

NEW ATHEIST: Muslims are lying when they say that Islam is a religion of peace.

ME: No -- you ignore peaceful Muslims, and when someone finally manages to force you to take notice of them for a moment, you shrug them off with a "those aren't real Muslims" and go straight back to your fearmongering. There is no more striking example of No True Scotsman than your descriptions of Muslims: according to you, if it's bad, it's authentically Muslim; if it's good, it has dick-all to do with Islam. And --

NEW ATHEIST: You don't see a lot of Buddhist suicide bombers --

ME: Dude! THEY WERE CALLED KAMIKAZES! Thousands of them died in suicide bombing runs in WWII! You don't see what you refuse to see!

Islam Doesn't Do Anything

Because Islam is not a unified entity. You don't have to be paying very close attention at all to have noticed that Shia Muslims always seem to be in conflict with Sunni Muslims. It doesn't take excruciatingly long and difficult research to discover that the Shia-Sunni split goes back to within a few decades of Muhammed's death. Muslims haven't all agreed about anything since the 7th century. If you've gone from a horrified rejection of any examination of Islam to a casual interest in it, you can also see that even though one individual is a Shiite and another is a Sunni, they often will get along just fine. The way there's nothing at all strange about a Catholic and a Protestant being friends.

The same way that there's nothing at all strange about a Catholic and a Protestant and an Orthodox Christian and a Copt and a Shiite and a Sunni and a Hindu and a Sikh and a Buddhist and a Druze and a Bahá'í and an atheist all being good friends with each other and getting along just fine, although many of those individuals, perhaps even every single one of such a circle of friends, might unfortunately know people who share his or her religion or lack of it and think that it's not fine at all to be mingling with those others. But most people in each one of those groups don't want to kill over the differences between the groups.

I'd like to think that the great majority of people belonging to each one of those religious or non-religious groups feels a stronger identification with the entire group of humans than with their own individual group, and thinks of the people in the other groups as people like them, who get happy and sad and hungry and sleepy and have friends and families and quirks and senses of humor and hopes about putting ethnic and religious hatreds behind us once and for all, the sooner the better!

Let's compare the tensions over religion which are obsessing some people so much these days with ethnic tensions. There have been some terrible atrocities committed against non-white people by white people, horrible deeds committed in the name of white people. Nevertheless, white people are not a hate group. Why? Because the people who have done those horrible things, although they claimed to be acting on behalf of all white people, did not have the approval or backing of all white people. In the case of the Nazis in WWII, many of the people, probably most of the people, who fought against them and finally defeated them were white people. You didn't have to be non-white to vehemently hate everything the Nazis stood for.

In just the same way, most of the people fighting against ISIS today are Muslims. That's no secret, there hasn't been any official media black-out of that information in the West as far as I can see, and yet, many people act as if it would be news to them. As if Islam were one unified group which was coming to get us. The same way that some Muslims -- ISIS, for example -- talk about the West as if the West were one unified group which was coming to get them.

Imagine if in the midst of the Thirty Years' War, some Muslims in Egypt or Persia talked about how the Christians thought of nothing day and night except how they were going to crush Islam. Some Christian idiots were pre- occupied with such thoughts then, just as some Christian and New Atheist idiots think of little else today. Others were much too busy with the mostly Catholic-against-Protestant conflict in Europe to give much thought to Muslims.

Then as now, the biggest problem facing humanity was not one religious or ethnic group against another, but many different groups of idiots, large groups and smaller ones, each group against pretty much the entire rest of the world.