Novel: Bright Air Black

Bright Air Black is a much more detailed imagining of Medea’s inner life than we get from the ancients (the element that she killed her own children was likely tacked on by Euripides; in previous sources she kills only her younger adult female rival with poison (and then the king/father of the victim dies accidentally from contact with the poison) and then her children are killed by an angry mob).

The male-named author (David Vann) is careful to offer his feminist bona fides before purporting to mansplain:

I first read Medea when I was an undergraduate at Stanford, in a year-long Great Works of Western Literature course (the final year it was offered). The instructor, Leslie Cahoon, was a classicist and feminist who shaped nearly all my future interests. Because of her I took a feminist thought workshop with Adrienne Rich, learned Latin and am currently translating Ovid, studied all of Chaucer’s works in graduate school, learned Old English and translated Beowulf, became interested in depictions of hell from Bede to Dante to Blake to McCarthy, and of course became influenced by the Greeks. My novels are all Greek tragedies, I’m a neoclassical writer, and it was a particular pleasure to try to bring Medea more fully to life after twenty-five years of thinking about her. So I want to thank Leslie for her enormous and lasting influence.

Medea is dirty. She has sex with Jason in public and surrounded by the bloody corpse of her brother. While sailing away with her father in pursuit:

I let him have me, she yells to her father over the water. Here on deck, in front of his sailors. The daughter of a king. Or what used to be a king.

Medea takes a piece of her brother, a thigh, heavy and tough, muscled, and licks blood from it, dark and thick. She spits, licks and spits again and again, three times to atone. Mouth filled with the taste of her family’s blood, and she throws this piece of Helios into the waves.

Greeks put themselves at the center of the world, but Vann reminds us that they were pathetic when compared to Egypt:

What she realizes is that they haven’t built the Argo. This is an Egyptian ship, somehow captured or given or bought. The Argo not something these people could have built. She looks again carefully at the wood worn smooth at the locks, walks back to the mast to see how the deck has chewed into its sides, walks back farther to see the rudder posts worn and infirm, loose. An old ship, not new. The bow and stern platforms gone, the heavy rope that runs the length of the deck, held up by forks, gone. Crude short benches added along the sides for the oarsmen to sit. But otherwise this is the same as Egyptian ships that have come to Colchis. She has given up everything to live with scavengers.

Vann writes a strong scene of Pelias and circle laughing at the tales of the Argonauts. It takes a long time before she can finally prevail over this foe, with the help of his daughters. I don’t think these details are in the ancient tales:

Your father can be made young. We can rejuvenate him. That’s the gift that will set you free. Asteropeia’s eyes open. You can do that? Bring another of your sisters, and bring an old ram. Tomorrow night. We must hurry, before the moon changes. I will make this ram young, and then we’ll do the same for your father.

What makes him old is in his balls, Medea says [to Pelias’s daughters]. Old ram same as your father. His children have taken his life. But if you break each one in your teeth and then spit into the cauldron, all that constrains him will be broken. This is how he will be made young again. Death will lose its hold. Peisidike looks at the dark meat in her hands, wet hide, testicles unsheathed and wrapped in vein or worse. But she raises this horror to her mouth, bites into a testicle, breaks it, and vomits onto the floor.

Medea with a long thin paddle made of wood stirs the great vat, pushes the pieces of the ram under, chants to Hekate in her barbarian tongue, song unintelligible to the sisters. Hekate, she calls. Tonight I kill a king. My sons will not be slaves. I will not be a slave. My husband will not be a slave. Tonight I kill a king and feed his balls to his daughter. Hacked into pieces with no burial, no funeral rites, fed to his family. Son of Poseidon cooked in a stew. The only great waves to form will be from whatever I stir. I will rule Iolcus, and all will be my slaves, and my sons will walk on streets of flesh. Torches, Medea says to Asteropeia and Peisidike in their ugly tongue. Light torches in the fire and go outside to pray to the moon, to Hekate, for this old ram to be made young. We must pray to Hekate until a young lamb emerges from the cauldron. That body is forming now, but we must help it along, help Hekate and Nute give birth in night.

There is a sexual relationship between Medea and a daughter of Pelias that the ancient Greeks probably wouldn’t have recognized.

The competition is introduced:

Jason held close between Kreon and his daughter, Glauce, who stretches her neck and tilts and coos and studies his arms and eyes and mouth. Young, very young, hardly more than a girl, and never made a slave or mother. Her only concern is ornament. Glancing at her own wrists, at gold bracelets, how they fall, folds of thin Egyptian cloth over her breasts. If her breasts were cauldrons, she would fall in, drawn by her limitless desire for herself, and Jason would fall with her. He speaks with Kreon and never sees him, sees only young flesh.

Their children will inherit Korinth and have a claim, also, to Iolcus, surrounding Athens. Kreon’s dreams, but Jason will want only that ripe young body and release from a wife who has been difficult from the first. Night without end. Rise and fall of breath, her sons’ hearts beating beneath her hands, feel of their ribs. Her own body engorging, filling with hate and hollowed, void under pressure increasing in her head and chest, unfairness so enormous nothing can be done. Jason does not return. Sounds dying away, no more music, no more shouts, quiet of night, and still no husband but gone to another bed. Medea’s breath fast, in panic, though she only lies here holding her sons. Glauce in some royal bed very close, only a few arm’s lengths away, lit in torchlight, baring herself for Jason, spreading her legs, untorn by children.

Jason is not a hero in this book:

I know who you are, bitter woman, butcher, barbarian. I’ve brought you to this civilized place. I’ll marry Kreon’s daughter, and our sons will have royal brothers. You should thank me.

Be grateful, Jason says. A woman is never grateful but always wants more.

Definitely recommended if you’re interested to see how an old story can be told in the modern style.

More: Read Bright Air Black.

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Washington, D.C. chosen as national capital so that founding fathers could profit

As we send in your checks today to keep the wise planners in D.C. funded, let’s consider why D.C. is where it is.

In our government-funded K-12 system, I learned that the location between Maryland and Virginia was a political compromise and that the interests competing were those of multiple states.

From America’s Founding Fathers, a lecture series by Allen Guelzo, a professor at Gettysburg College, I have learned that actually the interests competing were those of individuals.

The original idea was a capital near Philadelphia on the Susquehanna River. Why relocate to a swamp along the Potomac River? Professor Guelzo says that this was a much better location for shareholders of the Potomac Company, which was building canals to facilitate shipping up and down the river.

Who were the shareholders and principals of the company? George Washington was one of the biggest! And his Mt. Vernon estate happened to be quite close to the eventual site of the national capital. Many additional “founding cronies” helped themselves to what they expected to be massive personal profits by moving the site of the capital to the river whose navigation they were improving.

Maybe the next Mueller investigation can look at whether Donald Trump has been scheming to move the capital to Palm Beach?

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Zero progress in American politics since 1776

I’ve been listening to America’s Founding Fathers, a lecture series by Allen Guelzo, a professor at Gettysburg College.

It turns out that all of the things that Americans fight and fret about today were issues around the time of the country’s creation (i.e., the traitorous and illegal secession from Great Britain).

People questioned whether a republican form of government made sense. From the notes:

… there had been only a few examples of successful republics in human history—particularly, Rome and Athens—and they offered only a handful of useful rules for guidance:

First, a republic must be harmonious. It cannot be divided in purpose; it must be guided by a common vision of the public good.

Second, it must be homogeneous—composed of citizens who are ethnically, economically, and socially more or less equal in wealth and status.

Third, a republic must be small, if only because harmony and homogeneity break down whenever the boundaries of a republic are drawn to include too many different kinds of people or so much territory that people cannot keep vigil over their fellow citizens.

Fourth, every citizen of a republic must be independent and self-sufficient enough to be able to occupy a public office.

Our Founding Fathers, including George Washington, questioned whether Americans were sufficiently virtuous to govern themselves. With the average person being primarily concerned with making money and quite a few folks “corrupt, selfish, and indolent,” how could the resulting conglomeration of these folks ever be sustainable? Washington, 1783:

the want of energy in the Federal government, the pulling of one state and party of states against another and the commotion amongst the Eastern people have sunk our national character much below par [and] brought our politics and credit to the brink of a precipice.

(i.e., we’ve been on the brink of a precipice for more than 230 years!)

During the Confederation period, Americans attacked political opponents, e.g., Robert Morris, the rebellious colonies’ first “superintendent of finance,” by alleging that people with high-level executive jobs were enriching themselves via corruption.

Politicians were not necessarily examples of traditional virtue in private matters:

[President of Congress Thomas] Mifflin retired from his congressional presidency and spent most of the remaining 16 years of his life in Pennsylvania politics and in what one critic described as “a state of adultery with many women.” Several towns and structures were named for him, but he also burned through most of his family’s fortune and ended up hiding from bill collectors.

The course is replete with examples of “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” (Samuel Johnson). Patrick Henry:

In 1774, when he called on the House to begin arming Virginians for resistance to the Crown, Henry spoke his most famous words: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me … give me liberty, or give me death!”

Paying 1-2 percent of income in total tax (see this article Foreign Policy on what American colonists paid) was an intolerable state of “slavery” and equivalent to being in “chains,” for Henry, “a slaveholder throughout his adult life” (Wikipedia).

Early Americans complained about concentrations of wealth and considered themselves fortunate that the disparities were not as large as in Europe.

States maintained a degree of independence and sovereignty to a degree that would be unimaginable today. They would use this to issue their own paper currency, help their citizens escape paying debts to Britons or citizens of other states, and weasel out of their own financial commitments to the Continental Congress.

The bad news is that we’re not making any progress, but maybe the good news is that the disputes that described as “crises” every day in the New York Times were with us in the 1780s.

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Slide Rule by Nevil Shute

A reader was kind enough to give me a hardcopy(!) version of Slide Rule by Nevil Shute. It turns out that the popular novelist was an aeronautical engineer during the golden age of aviation. One of the luxuries of getting in on the early days was working with two of the greats: Geoffrey de Havilland and Barnes Wallis, of Dambusters fame.

Shute says that “the halcyon period … died with the second world war when aeroplanes had grown too costly and too complicated for individuals to build or even to operate.” Those are fighting words at Oshkosh and I think that Game Composites refutes this gloomy perspective to some extent (albeit one of the “individuals” had to be a Walmart heir!).

Shute was an airship designer at a time when a government-run operation was building the R101 (crashed and burned due to incompetence, according to Shute) in competition with the R100, a private effort. I still can’t figure out how airships ever worked. The R100 made it to Canada and back, but got kicked up 4,000 fpm in a light thunderstorm. The British airship industry was doomed by the crash of the R101 and improvements in heavier-than-air planes, but I don’t know why anyone thought that it would ever be practical given the power of Nature and the inability of an airship to outrun a storm.

Social norms were different between the Wars. Shute describes a “married woman living apart from her husband, who established herself in the village while her divorce matured.” Her sexual relationship with one of his bachelor test pilots results in an uprising by the “Wives Trades Union of Yorkshire,” upset that they might have to encounter “that woman.” (see Real World Divorce for how things have changed for the better, from a plaintiff’s perspective, in England!) Shute says that he prefers a married-with-children test pilot who will bring back a prototype at the first sign of trouble.

Airship aviation is an indoor/outdoor experience. Crew members are able to walk on top of the ship, move around outside to make repairs while the airship is flying, go to sleep in a cabin, etc. The weather has to be crazy bad before there is anything that could be called “turbulence” to disturb passengers.

The book covers topics that would be familiar today to anyone involved in startups: raising money and growing a business despite a shortage of capital. Shute co-founded an airplane manufacturer called Airspeed Ltd. in 1931 (i.e., during the Great Depression). Despite an industry that grew as fast as hoped, a war that resulted in huge demand from governments around the world, and thousands of airplanes produced and flown away by customers, the company never thrived financially and was eventually absorbed into de Havilland. A cautionary tale for those who today would try to make money on self-driving cars, electric cars, solar power, or any other obviously booming technology. Shute’s Airspeed simply couldn’t make a significant profit in the face of competition from higher-volume manufacturers that kept reducing their unit costs. The Royal Family bought an Airspeed Envoy, but that still wasn’t enough to stave off the competition.

Shute is eventually pushed out (1938), which he says in retrospect was a smart decision: “I would divide the senior executives of the engineering world into two categories, the starters and the runners, the men with a creative instinct who can start a new venture and the men who can run it to make it show a profit. They are very seldom combined in the same person. … I was a starter and useless as a runner…”

So… to Wes: thanks! to everyone else: read Slide Rule if you’re interested in aviation, engineering, or entrepreneurship.

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Socrates was not tried for being annoying…

According to The Great Trials of World History and the Lessons They Teach Us, by Douglas Linder, a professor at the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law.

My dim memory of Classical history was that Socrates was put on trial for asking annoying questions and making people uncomfortable.

Linder’s view, however, is that Socrates was primarily prosecuted for his hostility to democracy and support for Alcibiades and the Thirty Tyrants. Supporters of the tyrants couldn’t be prosecuted for their support per se due to an amnesty, so Athenians went after Socrates on other charges. From the course notes:

Athenians considered the teachings of Socrates—especially his disdain for the established constitution—partially responsible for the death and suffering during those two awful periods. Thugs with daggers and whips roamed the streets, murdering opponents. Many of Athens’s leading citizens went into exile, where they organized a resistance movement. It is no coincidence that Anytus, the likely instigator of the prosecution of Socrates, was among the exiles.

Socrates, unbowed by the revolts and their aftermaths, resumed his teachings. Once again, it appears, he began attracting a band of youthful followers. The final straw may well have been another antidemocratic uprising—this one unsuccessful—in 401. Athenians finally had had enough of their know-it-all busybody. It was time to send a message that the city would do whatever it took to defend its precious democracy.

Anytus, on the other hand, was a well-known politician, highly influential, and the driving force behind the prosecution. Anytus had a number of reasons to be upset with Socrates, including Socrates’s (likely sexual) relationship with Anytus’s son and the philosopher’s antidemocratic political message.

The professor also points out that the Salem Witch Trials conveniently often pitted low-wealth accusers against high-wealth defendants, whose property often ended up in the hands of the accusers after the inevitable hanging. Also, something I hadn’t heard before: accusers and defendants were generally those who’d been on opposite sides of a schism in the local church.

The lecture on the Trials of Oscar Wilde was also interesting.

An 1885 law criminalized acts of “gross indecency,” which had been interpreted to apply to any form of sexual activity between members of the same sex. Interestingly, the 1885 law was widely seen at the time of its passage as progressive legislation. Prior to 1885, sexual assaults on boys over the age of 13 that fell short of rape were not crimes at all. The law was passed to protect boys from preying adults, not to punish consenting adults.

Prior to Wilde’s trials, prosecutions for consensual homosexuality in England were about as rare as they were in the United States at the end of the 20th century. What offended Victorian society about Wilde’s conduct was not so much that it involved sex with other males, but that Wilde had sex with a large number of young male prostitutes. Wilde was not prosecuted because he was the lover of a social equal who happened to be male; he was prosecuted for his participation in a somewhat indiscreet prostitution ring

This guy is a great lecturer. If you’re looking for inspiration to go to law school (at the University of Missouri at least), look no further!

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Veterans Day with a B-29 crew member

We went to the New England Air Museum today, home of a beautifully restored B-29, and met two former B-29 crew members. One is 92 and one is 94. Both were navigators, which meant a lot of radar work (identifying islands and cities both for navigating and bombing through clouds). Every B-29 crew member endured missions 12-15 hours in length and horrific weather encounters (see “Plowing through the weather in a B-29”).

It is a great museum in general, but it was wonderful to be there on Veterans Day and have a Huey crew chief from Vietnam show us around the Huey, two B-29 crew members show us the B-29, etc.

Sad to think that the World War II veterans will be gone soon.

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Arabia Felix: The Middle East in 1761-1767

Arabia Felix: The Danish Expedition of 1761-1767 moves at a slow (18th century?) pace, but provides some interesting looks at how people were living back then. The expedition from Egypt through to present-day Yemen was motivated by an interest in Biblical times:

Michaelis fancied that the investigators could also study the Arabs’ daily habits and customs, and their architecture. His idea here was that as there were only a few places left on earth where so conservative a people as the Arabs could still be found, there was a good chance of finding in Arabia cultural forms similar to those of ancient Israel—better even than in Palestine itself, which in the intervening centuries had been exposed to numerous foreign influences.

Academia was the place for anyone who wanted to work at a slow pace:

In Rome, too, innumerable difficulties seemed to have conspired against him. On an earlier occasion, Professor Michaelis had emphasised the pointlessness of going to the Italian capital for instruction in Arabic, since nobody there knew the dialect spoken in Arabia Felix. Instead, von Haven’s instructions supposed that he was “to gain practice in the reading and copying of Oriental manuscripts.” Naturally, this could be done only in the Vatican library. But three months after his arrival in Rome he wrote to Bernstorff that he was receiving instruction in Arabic from a Syrian priest every morning and afternoon. Not until four months later did he report that he had been given a letter of recommendation to the Vatican library; and not until five months after that, thanks to the French Ambassador, had this letter of recommendation become a ticket of admission. Six months after arriving in Rome and eighteen months after leaving Denmark, the scholar was more or less able to begin his studies. Then once again fate took a hand. He wrote on 22nd March to Bernstorff that the Vatican library was unfortunately open only from nine until noon. “But,” von Haven continued, “in matters of discussion and learning I prefer the living to the dead; and as I can meet my Syrian priest only in the mornings, I am afraid there is nothing I can do but let others copy the manuscripts at the library.”

They got 43 paragraphs of instructions from the Danish king. Samples:

You will traverse the interior of Arabia as well as journey along the coast. As you are accompanied by a physician, it is expected that this will allow you an opportunity of visiting a number of places where deadly diseases are prevalent without exposing your lives to danger.

The members of the expedition will behave very circumspectly towards the Mohammedans, will respect their religion, and will not behave towards their women with European freedom.

Moreover, you will pay particular attention to the ebb and flow of the Red Sea, to the relations between the living and the dead, to the influence of polygamy on the increase or decline of the people, to the relationship between the sexes, and to the number of women in the towns and in the country.

These folks would not have complained about a Ryanair seat:

The wind freshened once more, and on 26th January the Greenland skimmed north through the Kattegat before a fresh south-westerly breeze. They had passed Skagen and were in hopes of reaching the open sea when the wind veered west and increased to near-hurricane force. In his diary Carsten Niebuhr endeavoured to keep his composure: “All day on 2nd February it was so stormy that we could not even light a fire on board. However, we did not worry too much on that account, for when one is at sea one must learn to disregard such inconveniences. We suffered the loss of only one sailor, who fell from the yard-arm into the sea during the gale and could not be rescued because of the darkness and the tremendous seas.”

It took about six months to reach modern-day Turkey, from which the expedition officially launched.

By 8th September, 1761 all the preparations for the journey were complete. Now the real adventure began. Dressed in their new Oriental clothes, the learned gentlemen took leave of their host von Gähler and went aboard the boat which was to take them to Alexandria. On this ship, a little Turkish vessel from the Adriatic port of Dulcigno, the expedition encountered quite another world from the one they had been accustomed to on the Greenland. The purpose of the ship’s journey was quite simply to take a cargo of young slave girls to the Egyptian markets. It is apparent right from the start how this curious cargo captured the interest of our travellers. Peter Forsskål forgot his jelly-fish and marine plants for a while and noted in his diary: “We find ourselves in the company of a merchant who is going to Cairo with a cargo that would be highly unusual in European ports, namely women. He has taken all the safeguards of jealousy: a special cabin, which lies above our own, has been reserved for the young women, and he alone takes them their food. In addition, he has fastened a blanket inside the door so that the women cannot be seen when he lets himself in and out.” It would appear from this description that Forsskål had lost nothing of his power of exact scholarly observation; and Niebuhr too seems to have made a conscientious study. The young women, he says in his diary,“are generally very well treated, because when they are to be sold in Egypt it is very important for their owners that they should arrive at the market healthy and cheerful.”

There were worse things than Internet/Facebook mobs:

During their stay in Alexandria the members of the expedition lived in the house of the French Consul; and when one late afternoon they went up to the flat roof to enjoy the cool of the evening as the sun sank over the roofs and minarets of the town, they suddenly witnessed a distressing scene in the street below them. A number of Bedouin robbers who had made their way into the town from the desert were discovered by the populace, and those of them who did not succeed in escaping were surrounded in front of the consul’s house and beaten to death by the angry crowd.

Trade was extensive, if not globalized:

Other evenings he visited the caravan that came up from Sennar, deep in the Sudan, which was called the djellabe and was led by coal-black men with yellow, violet or scarlet shawls over their shoulders under their short curly hair. They halted their animals in front of ogelet-ed-djellabe, the inn of the djellabe, and came to fetch coral and amber for jewellery, beads and mirrors, sabres and guns. With them from Africa they brought slaves and slave girls; young boys of about eight who cost only 25 mahbub; young men from twenty to thirty who could be got for between 35 and 40 mahbub; eunuchs that cost up to 110 mahbub; young women costing up to 40 mahbub for virgins, for those who were not virgins up to 30 mahbub, and for those who knew how to prepare food up to 60 mahbub.

Life before photography was slow and sometimes awkward…

Niebuhr came very close in these months to answering the complex questions which the German professor had put concerning the practice of circumcision among the Arabs. This he did partly by talking to Arab scholars, but also by experiences of a more direct nature. One visit to a distinguished Arab which Niebuhr paid together with Forsskål and Baurenfeind became a memorable experience. We may allow Niebuhr himself to report: “Whilst we were one day visiting a rather distinguished Arab of Cairo at his country estate, six or seven miles outside the town, Herr Forsskål and Herr Baurenfeind expressed the wish to see and to draw a young girl who had been circumcised. Our host immediately gave orders that a young peasant girl of eighteen years old should be brought in, and he allowed them to see everything that they wanted to see. In the presence of various Turkish servants, our artists drew the whole thing from nature, but with a trembling hand because he feared unpleasant repercussions from the Mohammedans. But as the master of the house was our friend, none of them dared make any objection.”

There was a tremendous amount of petty theft, grifting by vendors, and official corruption at every stop from Egypt through Yemen. Extra cash was turned into extra wives:

“In that corner of the Faran valley [Suez] there were eight tents full of wives and children. Only the very poorest Arabs had only one wife. The wealthier sheiks had two or three. Two of our guides had two wives each, and the third only one. But they all wanted more money, or at least enough to buy several wives.

Income inequality was an issue back then…

Only four days after the return of von Haven and Niebuhr from the Sinai peninsula the great caravan arrived at Suez with pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Like a swarm of outsize grasshoppers they settled on the little harbour town and overnight made it more densely populated than Cairo itself. Men, women and children were there in confusion; the poor with their bundles and beggars’ crutches, the rich with their servants and heavily armed mercenaries to protect them during the journey; and great numbers of traders, neither rich nor poor, who had learned to use this chance of getting themselves and their goods in safety to Mecca while doing a little business en route. Wherever rich and poor meet you will soon find a trader, so that the rich may become richer and the poor poorer.

The trip to Jeddah was slow:

In the middle of this hectic bustle Forsskål had had to step in. In time he had become well-known among the people in the harbour quarter, and he managed to reserve the topmost cabin in the biggest of the four ships now preparing to sail with all this turmoil to Djidda.

The best cabins were occupied by rich Turks on their way to Mecca with their entire harem; the women were accommodated immediately under the expedition’s cabin,

Finally, each of the four ships had up to three or four smaller vessels in tow. In most of these were horses, goats and sheep; when the animals were to be fed, a sack of straw was thrown overboard and allowed to drift astern to the boat in tow, where the herdsman fished it up with a boathook. With one of the other boats in tow there was a lively traffic of a different kind. It was filled with prostitutes, the so-called Hadsjs of Mecca, who worked hard during their pilgrimage to the Holy City to earn their keep.

While this floating caravan was making its way south, Forsskål and Niebuhr checked their course; and both of them remark in their diaries, with a shake of the head, how because of his fear of losing landmarks the captain always followed the line of the coast among the dangerous coral islands and skerries, where a European skipper would have made for the open sea as quickly as possible. Every evening at sunset they had to heave to, because the captain dared not continue this hazardous coastal journey in the dark. One afternoon Niebuhr found a partial explanation of this when, shaken to the core, he asked permission to remove two enormous lumps of iron which the helmsman had placed under the ship’s compass in the belief that its presence would strengthen the magnetic needle.

They are at the mercy of the winds:

and their stay there eventually lasted over six weeks, rather longer than they had anticipated. The reason was the constant northerly wind; the coffee ships, which were to take them the last stretch southwards along the coast, had been delayed by head-winds on their

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Why did Romans persecute Christians?

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome:

But to a remarkable and in some ways unexpected degree, the Jews managed to operate within Roman culture. For the Romans, Christianity was far worse. First, it had no ancestral home. In their ordered religious geography, Romans expected deities to be from somewhere: Isis from Egypt, Mithras from Persia, the Jewish god from Judaea. The Christian god was rootless, claimed to be universal and sought more adherents. All kinds of mystical moments of enlightenment might attract new worshippers to (say) the religion of Isis. But Christianity was defined entirely by a process of spiritual conversion that was utterly new. What is more, some Christians were preaching values that threatened to overturn some of the most fundamental Greco-Roman assumptions about the nature of the world and of the people within it: that poverty, for example, was good; or that the body was to be tamed or rejected rather than cared for. All these factors help to explain the worries, confusion and hostility of Pliny and others like him. At the same time, the success of Christianity was rooted in the Roman Empire, in its territorial extent, in the mobility that it promoted, in its towns and its cultural mix. From Pliny’s Bithynia to Perpetua’s Carthage, Christianity spread from its small-scale origins in Judaea largely because of the channels of communication across the Mediterranean world that the Roman Empire had opened up and because of the movement through those channels of people, goods, books and ideas. The irony is that the only religion that the Romans ever attempted to eradicate was the one whose success their empire made possible and which grew up entirely within the Roman world.

More: read SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

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Great book on the history of the horse

The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion by Wendy Williams is one of my favorite recent reads. The book is a fascinating mixture of geology, biology, and history. A great gift for anyone who rides, certainly.

Here are some excerpts to inspire you:

Horses are the stars of Ice Age art. Indeed, horses are the most frequently represented animal in the twenty-thousand-year period that preceded the advent of farming and what we call civilization.

contrary to popular belief, science has discovered that they are not “herd” animals. Instead of seeking safety in large numbers, horses live year-round in small groups called bands. Membership in these bands, which may consist of as few as three horses or as many as ten or so, is just as fluid as are the individual bonds, but there’s usually a central core of closely allied mares and their young offspring.

(Because of the stress of constant fighting with other males, stallions often live much shorter lives than mares.)

When I started researching free-roaming horses, I was astonished at their numbers—in the millions. I was also surprised by the variety of ecosystems where the horses not only live, but thrive. There may be more than a million free-ranging horses in the Australian outback alone

All over the American West, free-ranging horses roam in small bands. They even seem to do well in areas around Death Valley, one of the hottest and driest places on Earth. You would think that a species that can live in Death Valley would have trouble living in swamps and wetlands, but it turns out that they don’t. A little south of the Namibian desert, another population of horses lives in the Bot River delta of South Africa.

The book gives multiple examples of evolution in action:

consider the case of the sea-island horses who live on Canada’s Sable Island, a small harborless sandbar of an island located far out in the North Atlantic, about a ninety-minute plane flight east from Halifax, Nova Scotia. This tiny island, shaped like a crescent moon, is about thirty miles long and very narrow. Buffeted constantly by violent North Atlantic storms, this island seems an unlikely home for free-roaming horses, yet as many as 450 graze here, surviving by eating beach grass and sea peas. This sounds like a meager diet, but the horses, abandoned there by a Boston entrepreneur before the American Revolution, have endured for more than 250 years.

The only non-marine mammals on the island, the horses serve as a real-world laboratory of evolution. Over the centuries, they have become unique. Their pasterns are now so short that, from a distance, their lower legs look something like the legs of mountain goats. The pasterns of most horses are long and angled, allowing for plenty of spring in the horse’s step, which in turn allows for greater speed and stamina when a horse gallops at high speeds over an open plain. Long pasterns evolved as a survival strategy. But longer pasterns also carry an important disadvantage: the pastern’s fragile bones and vulnerable tendons can easily break or strain, laming the horse. Many a racehorse has ended his career because of this vulnerability. But on Sable Island, the horse does not have to run fast to escape predators. Instead, their enemy is deep sand and their worst “predators” are steep, treacherous sand dunes, some almost a thousand feet high, which the horses must climb in order to eat. These dunes provide some pretty dangerous footing for horses. On Sable Island a horse is much more likely to injure a leg while descending these steep dunes than by running along the island’s beaches. Still, a hungry horse must ascend and descend these obstacles. Consequently, evolution has made a clear choice, just as in the Camargue region. Sable Island horses have shorter, less vulnerable pasterns, giving them that goatlike look. Over 250 years, natural selection has opted for shorter pasterns, improving the horses’ ability to graze, thus improving the horses’ ability to live longer and produce more offspring. We often think of evolution as complicated, but in this case, the process is pretty easy to grasp.

The author covers some of the dynamism of the Earth’s climate:

Most likely, paleontologists suggest, the truth behind the extinction involves many factors. When the asteroid fell, the world was already changing. The great supercontinent of Pangaea had broken up and North and South America were slowly migrating west, creating an ever-widening Atlantic Ocean—an ocean that would become a major player in the appearance of humans and in the evolution of horses and in the flight paths of birds and in the pulsations of ice and rain and drought for the coming tens of millions of years. These long-term events, the results of our always-convulsive, seething-with-energy planet, were probably more influential in the appearance of horses and humans than the onetime crash of a mere mega-asteroid. … the Yale University paleontologist Chris Norris called the emphasis on disaster as a major evolutionary force “asteroid porn.”

His point is well-taken: the worldwide climate had been changing for 10 million years before the asteroid fell. The dinosaurs were no more enjoying a steady-state world before the asteroid impact than we are today.

It was hot. For a brief period, it was very hot, much hotter than when I visited. In fact, it was as though there was a sudden explosion of heat, as remarkable in its own way as the fall of the asteroid had been 10 million years earlier. Curiously, this explosion of heat also marks the appearance of Polecat Bench’s horses and primates. This was a time when temperatures in some places shot up by 6 or 8 degrees Celsius in a very short time period, lingered at those heights, then, almost as suddenly, dropped back down. The cause of this heat spike remains elusive, but it may have been due to large bursts of methane that bubbled up from the deep ocean. On temperature charts that track the rise and fall of heat throughout our planet’s history, the heat spike looks to me like the outline of the Eiffel Tower. The anomaly is officially called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, PETM for short, but I prefer to think of it as the Eiffel Tower of Heat, with its sharp lines of ascent and descent that mimic so closely the graceful lines of the Parisian landmark. It’s a weird event. And it’s doubly weird that both horses and primates may owe their existence, in part, to its existence: the spike marks the beginning of the Eocene, when not just horses and primates, but most modern mammal groups finally came into their own.

Just a few things that surprised me:

  • North America, devoid of horses when the Europeans showed up to trash the place, has a rich fossil record of horses. Horses were here at least as recently as 30,000 years ago.
  • Horse teeth keep pushing out for about 20 years.
  • “The ten thousand or so varieties of grasses that cover Earth today take up an estimated 30 percent of our planet’s land surface.” (and grass is a relatively new plant)

More: Read The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion.

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Weekend in Gettysburg

Richard and I flew down to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania over the weekend to visit his brother, a professor at Gettysburg College.


On the way down we stopped at the Kingston-Ulster airport and were picked up by Richard’s friend Annie, a flying kinetic whirl of activity whose mass could only be characterized by a probability distribution.  We drove a few miles to Bard College’s new auditorium, designed by Frank Gehry.  From the air this had seemed like a misshapen metal-clad lump.  From the ground it still looked misshapen but not ugly.  It cost $60 million to build.  Running a not-for-profit college would seem to be a very good way to accumulate cash.  Even after spending $60 mil the school had enough money left over to pay lots of security guards.  A performance was in progress in the small theater and every door was locked and guarded.  Annie was not be deterred.  We walked around the back and walked in the stage door with the members of the Charles Mingus Orchestra, unchallenged past the security guard who was reading a book.  Lesson:  never hire a hippie college kid to work security.  The main theater did not impress but the backstage was amazingly huge and intricate.


While the local swells attended a play the students played Frisbee and sang folk music in front of the Student Center.  Posters advertised a show of “Palestinian Art; Four Decades of Response to Oppression” (with the world’s fastest-growing population (5% per year) and most of their money being siphoned off by kleptocratic rulers perhaps the Palestinians are now going to support themselves via indigenous arts and crafts).  We walked past the booths selling tie-dyed clothing and through the campus until we arrived at a mansion on the Hudson River, complete with formal garden.


After a late lunch in Rhinebeck we got back into the DA40, bound for Gettysburg.  We flew up a beautiful river valley that crammed together an enormous open-plan new prison, an enormous fortress-like old prison, a golf course, and a scattering of McMansions around the fairways.  We followed a ridge of uplifted hills, cut through by rivers and highways, then climbed to a more efficient altitude of 6500′.  We passed near Harrisburg and over the Three Mile Island nuclear power plants (two cooling towers dead; two blowing steam) before landing at the Gettysburg Airport.  This airport is right next to a mobile home park in which you could buy a nice trailer for $20,000 then rent a hangar for $200 per month.  All the convenience of an airpark without the expense!


The Gettysburg battlefield park is one of the best-preserved and most interesting among those in the U.S.  This was the pivotal battle of the War of Northern Aggression (know to the victors as the “American Civil War”).  The Southern armies under General Robert E. Lee had come to bring the fight into the North and were briefly in a position to reach the big cities of the Northeast.  After the South went home on July 4, 1863, the outcome was inevitable.  This was the first time that artillery, the rifle, and the digging of trenches came together to give the defense a huge advantage.  The Civil War was thus the first modern war in terms of tactics, in terms of press coverage (photographers were embedded with the troops), and in terms of the total mobilization of industrial civilian economies.  The offense did not gain the upper hand until Hitler’s air power, tank columns, and mechanized infantry conquered Europe in the 1930s and 40s (we’re still in the “offense wins” epoch of war, apparently, if the invasion of Iraq can be considered typical).


[To see what an improvement in political leadership can be achieved via professional speechwriters and Microsoft PowerPoint, check out the Gettysburg Address (original and improved).]


Being a professor at Gettysburg College seemed like a lot of fun.  First of all, even on a professor’s salary you can afford a large newish house on several acres of land, typically part of a recently subdivided farm (subdividing farms is to this decade what day trading was to the 1990s).  Now that you’ve got the big house you can start throwing parties for your colleagues.  Most of them will show up because there isn’t much else to do in Gettysburg.  Thus your life consists of going from one party to another, mixing with academics from every area of inquiry.


[Why doesn’t this happen at MIT?  First, the young fun people who work at MIT can’t afford to live anywhere near the school unless they want to cram themselves into a studio or 1-bedroom apartment, not suitable for parties.  Second there are all kinds of social and entertainment opportunities in a big city like Boston.  Third, there are too many professors in one’s own department to get to know and therefore one is unlikely to be coerced by circumstance into socializing with people from other fields (the EECS department at MIT has more than 150 faculty).]


Having soaked up the scenery and the smell of the apple blossoms it was time to depart this morning.  We were greeted by a dreary mist, clouds hanging on the hills, and a steady rain.  Flight Service said that the warm front was coming through sooner than expected but that the weather was clear to the northeast.  Richard and I departed under instrument flight rules (IFR).  This is a bit tricky at an airport with no control tower and no radio repeater for the air traffic controllers (ATC).  You need to take off and gain altitude before you can talk to ATC but it isn’t safe, prudent, or legal to climb into the clouds unless you’ve already talked to ATC.  We picked up our clearance with a cell phone call to Washington Center from the airplane as we sat on the ground in Gettysburg.  They cleared out the airspace north of Gettysburg for 10 minutes, giving us enough time to depart (if we’d had a problem taking off we would have called them back to cancel).


Despite a headwind, we were on the ground in Boston 2.75 hours later.  We had climbed up to 5500′ and never entered the clouds.

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