Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Did Santa get high?


Quick!  What does this image remind you of?  If you said or thought Santa, read on.


What do we really know about this  guy who climbs down chimneys dressed in red and white, and gives presents to children?

Well, we know he wears a bright red outfit, trimmed with white fur.
We know he has a white beard and glowing, red cheeks
He rides around in a sleigh pulled by reindeer.
He also flies around in the same sleigh pulled by reindeer that can fly.
And of course, he climbs down chimneys.
He puts presents into stockings hanging by the fireplace.
He has something to do with the North Pole.

That pretty much covers the sum total of our knowledge of Santa.


Now let's ask the question, "Why".

Why does Santa wear a red and white outfit?
Why is he an old man?
Why does he live in the frozen, northern wastelands, (instead of, for example, on an island in the Mediterranean)?
Why does he fly?
And again, why does he climb down chimneys?

Also, why do we put a star on top of our Christmas trees?
Why are Christmas trees coniferous?


A theory that answers all of these questions takes us to Siberia and the ancient traditions of the Siberian shamans.  At least we're in the right place - the frozen north lands.

The word 'shaman' comes from the Tungus-speaking people of Siberia, and it can be defined as a religious specialist.  The Tungusic are Russian indigenous people who live in the Arctic circle.  They are reindeer herders.

The shaman dealt with mushrooms, and their spiritual (hallucinogenic) properties, in particular with a mushroom called Amanita Muscaria, also known as Fly Agaric that causes visions and altered states.  It is also toxic, and must be handled in a particular manner so as to get the psychedelic effects without the toxic ones; and that was the shaman's job.  (For more on the subject of this marvelous mushroom, go to Little Foxes and the History of Civilization.)


Santa Claus, so the theory goes, is modeled on this shaman.  His appearance, his clothing, and his mannerisms all mark him as the reincarnation of these ancient mushroom-gathering shamans.  The shaman would also have been an old man, which explains Santa's white beard.

In fact, our current idea of a roly-poly Santa has him even looking like a round red and white mushroom.

One of the side effects of eating amanita mushrooms is that the skin and facial features take on a flushed, ruddy glow; and Santa is always shown with glowing cheeks and a red nose.

As for his jolly "Ho, ho, ho!", that could be the euphoric laugh of one who has indulged in the magic fungus.

Santa also dresses like a shamanic mushroom gatherer.  When it was time to go out and harvest the magical mushrooms, the ancient shamans would dress much like Santa, wearing red and white fur-trimmed coats and long black boots; probably ceremonial clothing to match the mushrooms.  (The white fur would be easy to get in the frozen north of silver foxes and other fur-skinned animals, but where did the red dye come from?)


What about the gifts in a sack slung over his shoulder?

The shamans would gather the mushrooms from under the sacred trees (coniferous trees, now Xmas trees) where they grew.

First they would hang the mushrooms on nearby pine boughs to partially dry.  This is why we decorate our Christmas trees with ornaments and light bulbs, because the gatherers would  adorn trees with drying mushrooms.

Drying the amanita mushroom before it is consumed is crucial; the drying process reduces the mushroom's toxicity while increasing its potency.

The dwellings in which these peoples lived were made of birch and reindeer hide.  They were called "yurts", and were similar to the teepees of the North American Indians.  The yurt's central smokehole is often also used as an entrance after snowdrifts have covered the lower parts of the yurt, where the regular entry flap would be located.

The shaman would take his sack of partially dried out mushrooms and enter the yurts through the smoke hole, (Santa coming down the chimney.)

He would distribute his gifts, the mushrooms, which would then be threaded on a string and hung around the hearth-fire to dry out.  Alternatively the mushrooms could be placed in socks and hung by the fire.  Socks were probably used because clothing amongst these poor peoples was crucial in winter, and anything that resembled a bag would have a more important function as a sock.  These traditions are echoed in the modern stringing of popcorn and other items, as well as the hanging of socks by the fireplace

The shaman would deliver his 'presents' on the evening preceding the winter solstice; and the mushrooms would be ready to share their revelatory gifts in the morning of the solstice.


Santa's famous magical journey, where his sleigh takes him around the whole planet in a single night comes from the "heavenly chariot," used by the gods Odin and Thor.  The chariot is now known as the Big Dipper, which circles around the North Star in a 24-hour period.


Flying reindeer?

Possibly the reindeer would drink the urine of the people who were under the influence of the amanita mushroom and get 'high' and start prancing around.  Having experienced the magical effects and knowing them to be akin to flying, the people would come out of their yurts to watch and laugh at the 'flying' reindeer


The World Tree .

These ancient peoples, including the Lapps of modern-day Finland, and the Koyak tribes of the central Russian steppes, believed in the idea of a World Tree.  It was seen as a kind of cosmic axis, the roots stretching down into the underworld, its trunk being the "middle earth" of everyday existence, and its branches reaching upwards into the heavenly realm.

The North Star was considered sacred, since all other stars in the sky revolved around its fixed point.  The top of the World Tree touched the North Star - and that is the true meaning of the star on top of the modern Christmas tree, (and also the reason that Santa makes his home at the North Pole.)


"Getting Pissed"

Gross-out warning!

The active ingredients of the amanita mushrooms are not metabolized by the body, and so they remain active in the urine.   In fact, it is safer to drink the urine of one who has consumed the mushrooms than to eat the mushrooms directly, as many of the toxic compounds are processed and eliminated on the first pass through the body.

It was common practice among ancient people to recycle the potent effects of the mushroom by drinking each other's urine.  The amanita's ingredients can remain potent even after six passes through the human body.  Some scholars argue that this is the origin of the phrase "to get pissed," as this urine-drinking activity preceded alcohol by thousands of years.

Reindeer were the sacred animals of these semi-nomadic people, as the reindeer provided food, shelter, clothing and other necessities.  Reindeer are fond of eating the amanita mushrooms; they will seek them out, then prance about while under their influence.  Reindeer also enjoy the urine of a human, and they can get hooked on the urine which follows the consuming of the mushrooms.  Some tribesmen carry sealskin containers of their own collected piss, which they use to attract stray reindeer back into the herd.


Well, there is.  It's just a theory, but it covers all the bases, from chimneys to the North Star.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

TO BE thine own self, or NOT TO BE thine own self


In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Polonius says:

                  "...... to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man."

Polonius gives this immortal advice to his son Laertes who is leaving home to begin his university education.


Here's another quote, author unknown:

"I've been many things in my life, but the one thing I've never been is myself."

Reconciling these two quotations could mean the start of a new life.


Given the character of Polonius that Shakespeare was fleshing out, what his advice probably means is, "look out for yourself first; when you take care of yourself, you'll be in the best position to take care of others." In this case "true" would mean "loyal to your own best interests".  We shouldn't mistake this for Shakespeare's so-called "universal wisdom".  He was a writer of fiction after all.  It does make sense though; if you want to be charitable, you need to have the money to give.

Perhaps it's best to ignore this bit of realism.  Let's focus on the poetic sensibility of the lines and stick with a meaning where the poetry speaks to the heart.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Columbus' Egg and Facebook


Columbus' Egg refers to a brilliant idea or discovery that seems simple or easy after the fact.

Italian historian and traveler Girolamo Benzoni in his book 'History of the New World', published in 1565, wrote that Columbus was dining with a number of Spanish nobles when one of them said: "Sir Christopher, even if your lordship had not discovered the Indies, there would have been someone else here in Spain, which is a country abundant with great men versed in cosmography and literature, who would have started a similar adventure with the same result."

Columbus did not respond to these words but asked for an egg to be brought to him.  He placed the egg on the table and said: "I will lay a wager with any of you that none among you is able to make this egg stand on its end, which I will do without any kind of help or aid."  They all tried without success.  When the egg returned to Columbus, he tapped it gently on the table to flatten the tip slightly and so stood it on its end.  All those present understood what he meant - once the feat has been done, anyone knows how to do it.


According to Vasari (a chronicler of Renaissance artists), the young Italian architect Filippo Brunelleschi had designed an unusually large and heavy dome for Santa Maria del Fiore, the new cathedral of Florence.  City officials had asked to see his model, but he refused.

Instead he proposed that anyone who could make an egg stand upright on a flat piece of marble should build the cupola, since in this way a man's intellect would be revealed. None was able to accomplish the feat.  Whereupon Filippo was told to make it stand.  He took the egg graciously and gave one end of it a blow on the flat piece of marble, thus making it stand upright.

The craftsmen protested that they could have done the same.  Filippo answered, laughing, that they could also raise the cupola, if they saw the model or the design.  And so the decision was made to give Brunelleschi the commission to carry out the construction of the dome.

When the Duomo was finally built it had the shape of half an egg slightly flattened at the top.

The concept of this story is a little different from Columbus' Egg, for that was a metaphor for those acts of creativity that give everybody 20/20 hindsight after the fact; the Brunelleschi story is more of an intellectual conundrum since his plan had not yet been revealed.

It is possible that Columbus, being Italian, had read the Vasari story, whereas the Spanish Grandees were not aware of it.


What could be more obvious than a website that would function like a private house where friends gather to talk in private, and invite other friends, and share photos, ideas, opinions etc.

But no-one did it till that guy from Harvard came up with Facebook - Columbus' Golden Egg.


If the story of Columbus' Egg says anything, it's this - the mark of  a creative mind is an ability to see the obvious.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Farmers and The Magnificent Seven.


 Dialogue about peasants (farmers), from The Magnificent Seven:              

"They are afraid of everyone and everything.

They are afraid of rain, and no rain...

The summer may be too hot, the winter - too cold.

The sow has no pigs, the farmer is afraid he may starve.

She has too many, he's afraid she may starve."


The farmers across the midwest were complaining that this would be a terrible year for them because of the extended drought - all the worse because the early spring had raised hopes of a banner year, and they had over planted accordingly.

Amazingly, after all the complaining about the heat and lack of rain, this year (2012) may not be so bad.


There's no question there will be less corn for sale than expected in the U.S. this year. But here's the rub - it's driven grain prices to record levels.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said despite the current drought, it predicts net farm income will rise 3.7 percent this year to more than $122 billion, as high grain prices offset loss of production.

Most grain and oil seed farmers have taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance which will cover, on average, 70–80 percent of their loss of "average production."  It is also becoming apparent that most farmers will still have some corn they can sell at top prices, if they haven't pre-contracted too much of it back when corn was $5 a bushel instead of $8, and provided they made the decision to buy crop insurance - it's a free country, and it's their choice, but they could complain that they made the wrong choice


In fact, some farmers will make more money this year having crop insurance than they would have if there was a normal yield because they planted so many corn acres.

Surely someone's got to get hurt.  Possibly the livestock producers because of the high cost of corn.  And so it goes on - unless there's still another angle to this.

And then there are the insurers, which includes the federal government, which means taxpayers like you or me.  We should be the ones complaining.  We're the peasants from The Magnificent Seven.


It seems someone always benefits from a drought.  Remember the movie Chinatown. There's a drought in Los Angeles sometime in the thirties. The sheep farmers certainly aren't benefiting, as is made clear at the beginning of the movie when a flock of sheep is herded into the city water department meeting in protest.

Turns out it's Noah Cross, (played by John Huston), who's going to benefit.  He's been buying up land in the Valley at daylight robbery prices driven down by the drought; and while he has been siphoning off city water to irrigate his orange groves, he's been depriving the other landowners of water so that he can buy their land cheap.  Too far fetched?, or not.

Victorian Bodybuilding (Lack of).

                                       Members of Brighton Swimming Club, England 1863.


1863, the middle of the American Civil War.  That gives an idea of the time period of the photograph.  Note the physiques.  No six-packs.  Bodybuilding was not part of the health club culture of Victorian England.  Yet this was the England that was building an empire as large as that of Genghis Khan, and sending out young men like these to administer the vast domains.


From the top hats that they are wearing, they appear to belong to the upper classes.  The working classes, who do not appear to have been invited to participate in the activities of the Brighton Swimming Club, may well have had more solid physiques.  But just as Theodore Roosevelt writes in his "The Winning of the West: The spread of English-speaking peoples", the American frontiersman was seldom a match for the Indian in a one to one fight; so the English soldier, whichever class he came from, would seldom have been a match for a Zulu warrior.  But that is not what colonial warfare was about.  It was about firepower and military discipline, and character.


Victorian England was the age of the cold showers as a way of building character.  Even the Prime Minister of England, Benjamin Disraeli, was not immune to the cold shower craze; but he had a hard time pulling the trigger, and while he stood apprehensively under the shower, it devolved on his wife to actually turn on the cold water.

The photograph is from the BBC History magazine, August 2012

Thursday, August 23, 2012

USS Constitution ("Old Ironsides") and Guerriere. Was it a fair fight?


The sea battle between the USS Constitution and the HMS Guerriere occurred 19 August 1812, exactly 200 years ago.  It was   a great morale booster for the young American republic, occurring so soon after America became independent of Britain.

But was it  a fair fight?


Compare the size and armament of the respective ships.  

The Constitution was 1576 tons and carried 44 guns with 950lb of broadside (ammunition). The Guerriere was 1092 tons and was rated as 38 guns, with 526lb of broadside.

The Constitution had a complement of roughly 450 including 55 Marines and 30 boys, as compared to the Guerriere's 272.

The Constitution's 24-pound cannonballs felled the Guerriere's mast, which turned the British ship into a sitting duck; while the British vessels' 18-pound cannonballs had trouble penetrating the Constitution's hull. 

It doesn't look like a very equal struggle.  However Britain had been waging war with France for some nine years and British ships had considerably more experience of sea warfare than the Americans. Despite the diference in size and armament of the respective frigates, the British captain considered it an equal struggle ; accordingly, it was a traumatic defeat for British sea power.

But here's the kicker:


A sailor's memoirs of the struggle record how one cannonball seemed to slightly penetrate the ship, before dropping into the sea.  The sailor then called out the quote that would give the Constitution its nickname, "Huzzah, her sides are made of iron!  See where the shot fell out!"

The hull of the "USS Constitution" was made of Georgia live oak sandwiched between two layers of white oak, and was 21 inches thick.  The Guerriere had been built in France, using European oak of poorer quality than the Georgia oak, which tipped the scale of the conflict in favor of the American.

It was a tradition that when a ship was captured in battle, it would retain the name it had before the capture.  The British navy had captured the Guerriere from the French.  It never became an American vessel because it burned and sank immediately after the battle with USS Constitution.

Rebellion in Syria. Father's Love


TAL RIFAAT, Syria — Abdul Hakim Yasin, the commander of a Syrian antigovernment fighting group, 37, had been a clean-shaven accountant before the war.  He had lived a quiet life with his wife and two young sons.  Now he had a thick beard.  The war had hardened him.

In July, his father, Jamal, had been arrested by the soldiers.  He suspected it was because the government knew his son led an armed group; he said he expected his father would be killed.

His father had just called to say his jailers had released him and he needed a ride out of Aleppo.

Abdul Yasin shouted that his father had called and said he had been unexpectedly let out from prison.  They needed to rush to retrieve him.  The rebels climbed onto trucks, loaded weapons and drove on nearly deserted roads toward a city under siege, to reclaim their leaders father.


Mr. Yasin was pensive as he drove, worried that the call was a ploy to lure him and his fighters into a trap.

In the lead truck, Mr. Yasin repeatedly tried to call a friend he had sent ahead in civilian clothes in an empty freight truck.  He was expecting a trick, and wanted the lead driver to ensure that his father actually was free and there was no trap.  Then the fighters could drive in.

At the outskirts of the city, he reached the other man, who reported that he was with Jamal Yasin, driving north.

In the darkness of the abandoned road, the other truck approached and stopped.  Jamal Yasin (Abdul's father) climbed out.

Jamal Yasin said he had not been tortured.  But the prison cell was tiny and so overcrowded that he almost could not sleep.

Abdul Hakim Yasin admitted to his worry.  “I was 99 percent sure it was an ambush,” he said.


His father listened, then gently admonished his son. “You really think if it was an ambush I would call you?” he said.  “Even if they were slitting my throat?”

From a New York Times article
Published: August 20, 2012

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Montaigne and Glory. Death in a ditch.

Montaigne's tower, in which he wrote his 'Essays'


Glory in battle.  It's all about luck.  To what do Caesar and Alexander owe the infinite grandeur of their renown if not to luck.  How many men has fortune  extinguished in their first encounter with battle, at the very beginning their life's journey.  Yet through so many great dangers that he encountered Caesar was never wounded; whereas a thousand have fallen in lesser dangers than the least of those he went through.


Men do not write histories of things of little moment, of the things that happen to the common soldier.

A man must have been a general in the conquest of an empire or a kingdom; he must have won two-and-fifty set battles, (and always outnumbered), as Caesar did.  Ten thousand brave fellows and many great captains lost their lives valiantly in his service, whose names lasted no longer than their wives and children lived.

"When beggars die there are no comets seen.
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes."
(Julius Caesar, Shakespeare)


To gain renown in battle, a man must be seen to do great deeds; but the fact is he is not always on the top of a breach, or at the forefront of an army, where his general can see him, as if he were an actor on a stage.

Reality is different.

A man is often surprised between the hedge and the ditch; he must run the hazard of his life against a hen roost; he must root out four paltry musketeers from a barn; he must go out alone from his company, and do his job as the need arises.  And whoever will observe will find it true by experience, that occasions that are the least brilliant are ever the most dangerous; and that in the wars of our own times there have been more brave men lost in trivial, unimportant occasions, fighting over some little shack, than in places of greatest importance, and where their valour might have been more honourably employed.

So that's the nitty-gritty of battle in France in the 1500's - an inglorious and unseen fight to the death, between a hedge and a ditch.

From Montaigne's essays.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Cinderford. 1943. Mustard Gas.

Under a forest canopy. 


The debate between Roosevelt and Churchill on the subject of whether to use Nerve gas lasted throughout the war.  Roosevelt was opposed, and in June 1943 he sharply reaffirmed United States policy on gas warfare: "Use of such weapons has been outlawed by the general opinion of civilized mankind.  This country has not used them, and I hope we will never be compelled to use them.  I state categorically that we shall under no circumstances resort to the use of such weapons unless they are first used by our enemies."


Nevertheless, in 1942 the Army's Chemical Warfare Service (CWS) received one billion dollars and had more then sixty thousand employees.  Its tasks included preparing for gas and bacteriological warfare, as well as producing incendiaries for bombing, flame throwers, and other devices.


In December 1943, after the bloody Battle of Tarawa, which had cost the United States more than thirty-four hundred casualties in four days, the chief of the CWS pleaded with Army superiors to start using gas.  He argued that in view of american air superiority, there would be no danger of reprisals.  

There was some popular support for this view.  The New York Daily News declared , "We should gas Japan".  The Washington Times Herald asserted, "We should have used gas at Tarawa" because "You can cook 'em better with gas".  But this was a minority opinion.  About 75 percent of Americans still opposed initiating gas weapons.

It was on military grounds, not moral, that the Army decided against their use.  The argument that won favor was that this was a two-theater war, and the use of gas against Japan might provoke Germany "To gas in retaliation."


About a week after D-day, Germany launched a massive V-1 rocket assault on Britain, killing twenty-seven hundred people, injuring ten thousand, and damaging the homes of more than two hundred thousand.  Eager to punish Germany and hoping likewise to deter future rocket attacks, Churchill wanted to "drench the cities of the Ruhr and many other cities in Germany (with gas) so that most of the population would be in constant need of medical attention".

Churchill informed his military advisers: "It is absurd to consider morality on this topic when everybody used it in the last war without a word of complaint from the moralists or the Church.  On the other hand, in the last war the bombing of open cities was regarded as forbidden.  Now everybody does it as a matter of course.  It is simply a question of fashion changing as she does between long and short skirts for women."

But not yet quite ready to cross what many considered a moral threshold, he qualified his statement indicating that he would use gas only if "it (is) life or death for us, or (if) it would shorten the war by a year."

Note on the Battle of Tarawa:  There were between 10,000 and 12,000 casualties out of 160,000 troops landed on the Normandy beaches on D-Day,

He directed his military advisors to come up with a "cold-blooded calculation as to how it would pay us to use poison gas...I want the matter studied in cold blood by sensible people and not by that particular set psalm-singing uniformed defeatists which one runs across now here now there'

Disappointingly for Churchill, his advisors argued that aircraft would be diverted from their more effective utilization in bombing Germany's industries and cities.


In 1945 as the war in Europe was winding down, General Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff, wanted to initiate gas warfare against Japan.  British opposition prevented him.  It was feared that Germany, involved now in the last few weeks of the war, might be tempted to resort to gas in Europe.


After the War, it was revealed that the United States had produced 135,000 tons of chemical warfare agents, Germany about 70,000 tons, Britain 40,000 tons, and Japan had 7,500 tons.

From the American Heritage Magazine.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Quotations from the Olympics Closing Ceremony Floor


"Rage, rage against the dying of the light"

From 'Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night', by Dylan Thomas.

"The rest is silence"

Last words of the play, Hamlet

"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life."

Samuel Johnson

"To be or not to be"


"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times"

'A Tale of Two Cities' by Charles Dickens

Friday, August 10, 2012

Montaigne on Fate

Montaigne 1533-1592


Words to give courage in battle.

I have seen a great many commanders encourage their soldiers with talk of the necessity of fate; for if our time has been fixed to a certain hour, then neither the enemies' shot nor our own boldness, nor our flight and cowardice, can either shorten or prolong our lives.

See also Stonewall Jackson and fate.

That's easily said (says Montaigne), but see if anyone is that easily convinced.  Indeed, if a strong faith is evidenced by the strong and brave actions that it inspires, then this faith we so much brag of in this day and age of ours, must be a very light weight faith.  He's talking of religious faith four hundred and fifty years ago, but he could be speaking of today. 


The Bedouins.  Their bravery.

So it is, that to this very purpose the Sire de Joinville, as credible a witness as any could be, tells us of the Bedouins, a nation amongst the Saracens, with whom the King Louis fought in the Holy Land.  He says that they, in their religion, so firmly believed the number of every man's days to be from all eternity prefixed and set down by an inevitable decree, that they went naked to the wars, excepting a Turkish sword, and their bodies only covered with a white linen cloth.

When they wished to curse someone, the greatest curse they could invent in their anger was this : "May you be cursed like the man who arms himself for fear of death".


A young Turkish lord, who had performed a notable exploit in the sight of both armies, being asked by the commander Amurath, that being so young and inexperienced, (for it was his first sally into arms), what had inspired him with so brave a courage, replied, that he had learned his valor from a hare.

"One day," he said,  "I was out hunting, and I found a hare sitting.  I had some excellent greyhounds with me, yet I thought that the surest method of killing the hare was with my bow, for she seemed an easy target.  So I let fly my arrows, and shot forty that I had in my quiver, not only without hurting, but without even startling her."

"At last I let loose my dogs after her, but to no more success than my arrows.   By which I understood that she had been kept safe by her destiny; and that neither arrows nor swords can wound without the permission of fate, which we can neither hasten nor defer."

The Turkish historians say that the strong belief that the people of their nation have imprinted in their minds of the fatal and unalterable prescription of their days, gives them a great feeling of security in the midst of dangers.

See Lawrence of Arabia, the Movie.


Montaigne's discussion of God and fate.

Men say: "Since God foresees that all things shall so fall out, as doubtless He does, it must then necessarily follow, that they must so fall out"

So how do we tie our own free will to this argument of a certain and inevitable necessity:

Seeing anything come to pass, as we do, and as God Himself also does (for since all things are in the present for Him, He rather sees, than foresees), is not to compel an event.

For us knowledge of fate is always after the fact.  We see because things do fall out, but things do not fall out because we see: events cause knowledge, but knowledge does not cause events.

That which we see happen, does happen; but it might have happened otherwise: and God, in the catalogue of the causes of events which He has in His prescience, has also those which we call accidental and voluntary, depending on chance or our free will.   He has given us our free will, and knows that if we do amiss, it is because we have chosen to do so.

Stonewall Jackson and Fate.


General Stonewall Jackson was fearless in battle.  He believed very powerfully that the time and place of his departure from life had been fixed in advance by God, and nothing he did could change that predicated moment.

Speaking to Captain John D. Imboden (24 July 1861), as quoted in Stonewall Jackson As Military Commander, by John Selby, p. 25:

"Captain, my religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed.  God has fixed the time for my death.  I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready, no matter when it may overtake me.  Captain, that is the way all men should live, and then all would be equally brave."


"You know."

You know how people are always mixing the phrase, "you know" into their conversation; well, it's not a new thing.  It was the same in Jackson's age, one hundred and fifty years ago.  Persons who, while speaking with Jackson, interlarded their conversation with the unmeaning phrase “you know” were often astonished by the blunt interruption that he did NOT know.

See also Montaigne on Fate.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Lawrence of Arabia, The Movie and "It is written"

Peter O'Toole as lawrence and Omar Sharif as Sherif Ali.

Lawrence as painted by Augustus John.


In the 1962 movie, Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence (played by Peter O'toole), has convinced a bandof Arabic warriors to cross the Arabian Desert, to attack the Enemy port of Aqaba from the undefend rear.

The crossing is treacherous - searing heat in the "Sun's Anvil"; dust storms and swirling cyclones - an endless trek that exhausts and kills some of the men.  As they begin to reach the end of the desert, it is noticed that one of the camels is riderless.  Lawrence unhesitatingly insists on going back for the rider, Gasim.

Sherif Ali (played by Omar Sarif) says to Lawrence, "If you go back, you'll kill us all.  Gasim you have killed already."

Another man says, "Gasim's time is come, Lawrence.  It is written!"

Lawrence replies, "Nothing is written."

Sherif Ali says to Lawrence, "You will not be at Aqaba, English.  Go back, blasphemer!  But you will not be at Aqaba!"

Lawrence replies, "I shall be at Aqaba.  That is written...(He points at his head.)..in here!"

In a triumphant sequence, the heroic, courageous Lawrence retraces his steps, finds the half-dead Gasim (who has been wandering aimlessly), rescues him, and returns to the oasis/camp with Gasim clinging to his saddle.  The "Englishman" gives a penetrating, searing look at Ali, and before drinking from water offered to him, he defiantly and proudly repeats himself:

"Nothing is written."


Read about the courage of the Bedouin in about the year 1600 in Montaigne on fate.


Now comes the twist of fate which shows that Lawrence is after all an instrument in the hands of fate, and that indeed, "All is written":

In their camp the night before the attack on Aqaba's undefended landward side, a potentially divisive event occurs that could split the rival tribes into a bloody feud.  One of the Harith Arabs has murdered a man from the other tribe.  Only Lawrence, as a non-Arab neutral who stands above petty tribal rivalries and age-old blood feuds, can even-handedly execute the offender.

As the offender raises his head, Lawrence sees it is Gasim - the man whose life he saved in the Nefud desert.  With a look of shock, he cold-bloodedly fires all six shots from his pistol into Gasim's body.  The two rival chieftains exchange words about the just execution and the emotional uncertainty displayed by Lawrence:

Auda: What ails the Englishman?
Sherif: That man he killed was the man he brought out of the Nefud.
Auda: Ah, it was written then.  Better to have left him.
Sherif (to Lawrence): You gave life and you took it. The writing is still yours. (Lawrence throws the gun away in disgust.)

Gasim had been fated to die in the desert.  Lawrence had cheated fate by rescuing him, but in the end, it was only a short reprieve, and death came to Gasim as had been written.


A verse from The Rubaiyat of Omar khayyam, written about 1120 AD.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Women and Children Last.


The chivalrous code "women and children first" is a myth that has been nourished by the Titanic disaster," say economists Elinder and Erixson of Uppsala University, Sweden, in a paper titled "Every man for himself!"

The two economists analyzed a database of 18 peace-time shipwrecks over the period 1852–2011 in a new study into survival advantages at sea disasters.  They considered the fate of over 15,000 people of more than 30 nationalities, and they found that more women and children die than men in maritime disasters, while captains and crew have a greater chance of survival than any passengers.


Being a woman was an advantage on only two ships: on the Birkenhead in 1852 and on the Titanic in 1912.

It was the sinking of the troopship HMS Birkenhead off the coast of South Africa in 1852 that inspired the tradition of "women and children first."

The soldiers' commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Seton, ordered his men to help get the women and children on board the three lifeboats as the Birkenhead began sinking in shark-infested waters off Cape Town, South Africa.  A survivor reports that, Lieutenant-Colonel Seton, drew his sword to keep the way free for the women and children (Addison and Matthews, 1906).  All 13 children and 7 women onboard were saved.   Not a single woman or child was lost.

So the ‘women and children first’ protocol came into existence based upon the iron discipline of one chivalrous British Colonel, and the lives of only twenty women and children. 

 About 20 minutes after striking the rock, the Birkenhead had disappeared from he surface.  At this time, the soldiers had been given the order to abandon the ship.  Of the some seven hundred people on board the doomed ship, 40 survived by climbed the rigging, 76 escaped in lifeboats, 9 escaped in the gig and 68 had reached the shore swimming by swimming the two miles or floating on debris.

This went down in maritime history as the Birkenhead Drill - women and children first - and it deeply influenced the behavior on the Titanic.


When the luxury liner Titanic sank in the North Atlantic on April 14, 1912, the captain E.J. Smith admonished the men to "Be British," letting women and children leave first.  In the best romantic tradition, he did go down with his ship.  1,496 of the 2,208 people aboard died as the 46,000-ton vessel plunged to a depth of 12,400 feet.

"Women had a quite remarkable survival advantage over men in this disaster; 73.3 percent compared to 20.7 percent.  First class passengers had a survival rate of 62 percent, second class 41.8 percent and third class 25.4 percent.  Children had a higher survival rate than adults,"  wrote Elinder and Erixson.

The Titanic stands out in that an unusually high percentage of women escaped death — a direct result of the ship's officers making their safety a priority.

It was the last time that women benefited from the Birkenhead tradition.


Continuing their investigation, Elinder and Erixson found that women had a lower chance of survival in 11 out of 18 shipwrecks.  Women fared worse also in recent times; during the sinking of the Russian river cruise MV Bulgaria in 2011, for example, they had a survival rate of 26.9 percent, opposed to 60.3 percent of men.

Migrants and pilgrims of low socio-economic status who traveled by ship were very often not given the dignity of being divided into men and women.  They were simply regarded as mobs, crowds or 'cargo.' You very rarely had women and children of this class and racial background being given precedence in shipwrecks.

These are the survival rates from the eighteen disasters used for the analysis:

Crew 62 %, Captain 43%, Male passenger 38%, female passenger 28%, child 16%.


From the above statistics it can be seen that the crew and the captain had the best odds of survival on average - a rule confirmed by the recent Costa Concordia disaster.

"Only seven out of 16 captains went down with their ship," said Elinder

What really seems to matter is the behavior of the captain, who has the power to enforce behavior.  "His policy, rather than the moral sentiments of men, determines if women are given preferential treatment in shipwrecks.  This suggests an important role for leaders in disasters," the researchers wrote.


Women would have been better off if they had avoided British ships.  In contrast with the notion of British men being more gallant than men of other nationalities, women fared worse in shipwrecks involving Union Jack ships.

"Based on our analysis, it becomes evident that the sinking of the Titanic was exceptional in many ways and that what happened on the Titanic seems to have spurred misconceptions about human behavior in disasters," Elinder and Erixson concluded.


Ships used for the analysis:

HMS Birkenhead 1852 Grounding Indian Ocean                     British
SS Arctic 1854 Collision North Atlantic                                   US 
SS Golden Gate 1862 Fire Pacific Ocean,                                US 
SS Northfleet 1873 Collision English Channel                         British
RMS Atlantic 1873 Grounding North Atlantic                         British  
SS Princess Alice 1878 Collision River Thames                       British 
SS Norge  1904 Grounding North Atlantic                               Danish  
RMS Titanic 1912 Collision North Atlantic                              British  
RMS Empress of Ireland 1914 Collision St Lawrence River    British  
RMS Lusitania 1915 Torpedoed North Atlantic                       British 
SS Principessa Mafalda 1927 Technical Atlantic Ocean           Italian 
SS Vestris 1928 Weather Atlantic Ocean                                  British 
SS Morro Castle 1934 Fire Atlantic Ocean                               US  
MV Princess Victoria 1953 Weather North Channel                British 
SS Admiral Nakhimov 1986 Collision Black Sea                     Russian 
MS Estonia 1994 Technical Baltic Sea                                     Estonian  
MS Princess of the Stars 2008 Weather Philippine Sea             Philippine 
MV Bulgaria 2011 Weather Volga                                           Russian 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Death. The Inevitable Appointment.


Death is speaking.

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me.  She looked at me and made a threatening gesture,  now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate.  I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.  The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went.  Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?  That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise.  I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samara.

The road to Samaria by Somerset Maugham. 


In the earlier days of dueling, before the specific code duello was created with specific norms to follow, it was common to agree on all sorts of unusual conditions.  In one bizarre incident, an Englishman abroad was challenged to a duel by a wealthy resident of the particular area in which the Englishman was travelling.  Unable to avoid a duel, the Englishman agreed to a meeting with pistols in the challenger's baronial hall - but he specified that it be held in complete darkness.

He was determined not to hurt his opponent, so the Englishman waited till the challenger fired first, and then, slowly and carefully, he felt his way around the wall until he found the large fireplace that he had noted before the darkness.  Then he carefully discharged his pistol up the chimney.  To his horror the body of his overly cautious opponent dropped down to the hearth with a sickening thud.

From The Treasury of the Gun, by Harold l. Peterson


More popthems needed to illustrate further this unavoidable encounter with Death.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Lord Byron and the Rolling Stones.


Lord Byron was the original "Bad Boy", and this 150 years before the Stones founded their band.  He was barred from Long's Hotel on Bond St. in London.  The regrettable incident for which he was barred is that, "On a cold wet night, Lord Byron deemed the hall to be a less inclement place than an uncovered yard".  What he did is left to our imagination.

The source for this is "For your Convenience" via "Cleanliness and Godliness"


In March, 1965 three of the Rolling Stones were spotted urinating in the forecourt of the Francis Service Petrol Station in East Ham.   A private summons was issued against Mick Jagger, Brian Jones and Bill Wyman.  In court it was said that Wyman had asked if he could use the petrol station lavatory, but had been refused.

A mechanic, Mr Charles Keeley, then asked Jagger to remove his group from the forecourt, but Jagger had brushed him aside, saying: "We will piss anywhere, man."  The rest of the group then began chanting "We will piss anywhere, man" while carrying out their threat.

As they drove off they added insult to injury by “making a well-known gesture”.

Each of the three Rolling Stones was found guilty and fined £5 with 15 guineas costs on March 18th.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Elizabethans and Cleanliness and Bad Teeth


As far as washing, if you're poor, you probably don't bother.  So says Ian Mortimer in the BBC History Magazine.  If you live in a rented room on the fourth floor of one of those timber-framed tenement houses it's simply too much effort to go to the public water supply conduit and carry the water back in sufficient quantity for a bath on the fourth floor. and then you wouldn't be able to afford the cost of the firewood to heat up the water. So you stay unwashed, and since all your acquaintances don't wash either, you can't tell the difference

Those who are able to wash don't use soap.  They rub themselves clean with fresh linen, and you can't afford to buy the fresh linen.


But how does the water get from the public water conduit to the houses of those who can afford it?

The guild of water-carriers took care of that.  They carried two tubs of water either from the River Thames, or from one of the wells, on a yoke across their shoulders.

Around the year 1600, the Company of Water-Tankard Bearers presented a petition to The House of Commons stating that they and their families numbered 4000 persons and complaining that wealthy people were running pipes from the conduits to their houses - the beginning of household water supply.

(from 'Cleanliness and Godliness' by Reginald Reynolds.

In the fourteenth century Fitz Stephen, speaking of London, says of the wells of Holy Well, Clerkenwell and St. Clements Well, "....water, sweet, wholesome and clear, streaming forth among the glistening Pebble Stones".


The wealthy, according to Ian Mortimer, wash themselves daily by rubbing themselves in clean linen (wet or dry?), they wash their hands and faces daily in clean water, they wash their hands before after and during every meal.  Occasionly they take a hot bath.  They wash their hair in lye and use tooth powder to clean their teeth.


Source unknown:

In Elizabethan times sugar was an imported delicacy, and as such, expensive.  Only the upper classes could afford it.  Too much sugar without appropriate dental care, as we know and they probably did not know or didn't care, damages your teeth.  So it follows of course that the upper classes would have had bad and blackened teeth; and since such discolored teeth were, like sugar,  exclusive to the upper classes, it became the fashion to re-enforce your status as an aristocrat by blackening your teeth using some kind of cosmetic.

Can this be true?  Bad dental hygiene, discolored teeth, and yet still the subject of sonnets?

Monday, July 30, 2012

Early America and Portrait Artists


Itinerant portrait artists roved around the country looking for portrait commissions.  There were so many of them that William Dunlap in his 'Lives of the Artists' wrote that Gilbert Stuart remarked of them:

       "By and by you will not by chance kick your foot against a dog-kennel but out will start a portrait painter".

Gilbert Stuart was the great American portrait artist who painted the iconic portrait of George Washington.


Thomas Cole, 1801-1848, was the founder of the Hudson River School, an American art movement. He was a renowned landscape artist, but first he tried his hand at portraits.  He grew up in Steubenville, Ohio, and there he learned the rudiments of his profession from a portrait artist named Stein.  In his early twenties he set up as a wandering portrait painter, walking from village to village with his paints and brushes.

He found that others had got there before him and had already reaped the harvest in the towns  of southern Ohio such as Zanesville, St Clairsville and Chillicothe.  In particular he butted heads with one, Jacob Descombes, who had painted portraits of the most prosperous citizens of these towns.  Descombes soon gave up the arts to become a minister.

One might have supposed that the woods were full of painters, for there were portraits all over the walls of the many inns of the area.  But there were still villages further off the beaten track where farmers were ready to welcome the work of another itinerant artist. However, Cole had little success painting portraits, and his interest shifted to landscape.

From 'The World of Washington Irving', by Van Wyck Brooks


Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the Polish patriot and hero of the American Revolutionary War, who oversaw the construction of the fortifications of West Point, was a painter of portraits.  He painted Thomas Jefferson in 1798, before returning to spend the latter part of his life in Europe.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

They freed the slaves. One was Abraham Lincoln.

Of two men in history can it be said, "They freed the slaves".  One was Abraham Lincoln.  The other was Epaminondas  (ca. 418 BC - 362 BC).  He was a Theban general and statesman of the 4th century BC.  Thebes was a city-state a little north of Athens.


His references:

The Roman orator Cicero called him "the first man of Greece" - placing him ahead of Alexander, Pericles, Socrates etc.

Montaigne, 16th Century writer of the famous 'Essays', judged him one of the three "worthiest and most excellent men" that had ever lived".

But today few people have ever heard of him.


In 371 BC., Sparta sent an invading army into Theban territory.  Everyone knows of Sparta's fearsome reputation in war, so it seems like a foregone conclusion that 10,000 Spartans would annihilate 6000 Boeotians (Thebans).  Faced with these odds, Epaminondas, the leader of the Thebans, was to display a grasp of tactics hitherto unseen in Greek warfare, and in so doing he would change the face of battle for all time to come.


Psychology of ancient battle.

The foot soldiers of the phalanx formation used by Greek armies held a shield on their left arm, and a sword in their right hand.  There was a distinct tendency to seek the shelter of the shield of the foot soldier on your right during the charge into battle and during the battle "because fear makes each man do his best to shelter his unarmed side with the shield of the man next to him on the right". (Thucydides)

Traditionally, therefore, a phalanx would line up for battle with the elite troops on the right flank to act as a wall or anchor to counter this tendency, and to keep the line tight.  With both sides following the same strategy, it seems that the result would be an indecisive anti-clockwise movement - kind of yin yang turning anti-clockwise.


The battle of Leuctra. (371 BC)

The Spartan army contained some 10,000 hoplites, of whom only 700 were the elite warriors known as Spartiates, while the rest consisted of allies; which was not untypical of the Spartan way of war.  The Boeotians opposite them numbered about 6,000, but were bolstered by a cavalry superior to that of the Spartans.

Based on the traditional tactics, in the Spartan phalanx at Leuctra, Cleombrotus (the spartan general) and the elite 'Spartiates' were on the right, while the less experienced Peloponnesian allies were on the left.

Epaminondas needed to counter the Spartans' numerical advantage.  He implemented two tactical innovations.  Firstly, he took the best troops in the army, and arranged them 50 ranks deep (as opposed to the normal 8–12 ranks) on the left wing (not the right as was typical), opposite Cleombrotus and the Spartiates

Secondly, recognizing, that he could not match the width of the Peloponnesian phalanx, he abandoned all attempts to do so.  Instead, he instructed the weaker troops on his right flank to avoid battle and withdraw gradually during the enemy's attack.  This reversing of the position of the elite troops, and an oblique line of attack were innovations never before tried in battle.  At the battle of Leuctra, Epaminondas was responsible for the military tactic of 'refusing one's flank'.

The fighting opened with a clash between the cavalry, in which the Thebans were victorious over the inferior Spartan cavalry, driving them back into the ranks of the infantry, thereby disrupting the spartan phalanx.  The powerful blockbuster of the Theban left flank now charged into battle while the right flank retreated.

After intense fighting, the Spartan right flank began to give way under the impetus of the mass of Thebans, and Cleombrotus was killed.  The Spartans held on for long enough to rescue the body of their king, but the line was soon broken by the sheer force of the Theban assault.  The Peloponnesian allies on the left wing, seeing the Spartans put to flight, also broke and ran.

One thousand Peloponnesians were killed, while the Boeotians lost only 300 men.  Most importantly, since it constituted a significant proportion of the entire Spartan manpower, 400 of the 700 Spartiates present were killed.  When, after the battle, the Spartans asked if they and their Peloponnesian allies could collect the dead, Epaminondas suspected that the Spartans would try to cover-up the scale of their losses.  He therefore allowed the Peloponnesians to remove their dead first, so that those remaining would be shown to be Spartiates, thus emphasising the scale of the Theban victory.


THe spartan society was a slave-based society.  Messenians, who were conquered in the Messenian Wars of the 8th century BC, become the slaves known as Helots.  They were ritually mistreated, humiliated and even slaughtered.  According to Aristotle, the ephors (religious leaders of Sparta) declared war on the Helots every autumn, thereby allowing Spartans to kill them without fear of religious pollution.  This task was given to the Kryptes, graduates of the difficult agoge (advanced school system) who took part in the Krypteia.  This lack of judicial protection is confirmed by Myron of Priene, who mentions killing as a standard mode of regulation of the Helot population, which was several times greater in number than the pure Spartan population.

The Nazi SS would have felt right at home in Sparta.


More Nazi stuff:

What was the Krypteia?

Young Spartan men who had completed their training at the agoge with such success that they were marked out as potential future leaders would be given the opportunity to test their skills and prove themselves worthy of the Spartan military through participation in the krypteia.

The kryptes were sent out into the countryside, with only a knife to survive on their skills and cunning, with the instructions to kill any helot they encountered at night and to take any food they needed.
Their mission was to root-out potential sedition.  Troublesome Helots could be summarily executed. Such brutal oppression of the Helots permitted the Spartans to control the agrarian population and devote themselves to military practice.

If only night-time killing was allowed, it suggests there was a curfew in place, and that any Helot out after dark would be considered a troublemaker.

Only Spartans who had served in the Krypteia as young men could expect to achieve the highest ranks in Spartan society and army.  It was felt that only those Spartans who showed the ability and willingness to kill for the state at a young age were worthy to join the leadership in later years.


In the immediate aftermath of Leuctra, the Peloponnesian cities, formerly under Spartan dominance, became independent.  The Mantineans decided to unify their settlements into a single city, and to fortify it.  This greatly angered the Spartans who declared war on Mantinea, whereupon the majority of Arcadian cities grouped together to oppose the Spartans and requested assistance from the Thebans. The new Theban army arrived late in 370 BC, led by Epaminondas and Pelopidas.  It consisted of some 50-70,000 men.  In Arcadia Epaminondas encouraged the Arcadians to form a league, and to build another new city named Megalopolis as a center of power opposed to Sparta.


The Theban army moved south, crossing the Evrotas River, the frontier of Sparta, which no hostile army had breached in memory.  The Spartans were unwilling to engage the massive army in battle. They stayed within their city simply defended it, and the Thebans did not attempt to capture it. The Thebans and their allies ravaged Laconia, down to the port of Gythium, freeing some of the Lacedaemonian perioeci from their allegiance to Sparta.


Now comes one of those transcendental moments in the history of the world.  Instead of marching his army home, Epaminondas continued on to Messenia, the home of the Helots.  He freed the Helots and then, after obtaining omens from the gods, making sacrifices and inviting the spirits of past rulers and heroes to live in Messene, Epaminondas invited construction engineers and artisans from everywhere to join him.

In 85 days the combined armies and exiles guided by the engineers and artisans completed the walled city of Messene over the site of the previous Ithome.  The new city included within its walls Mt. Ithome and enough agricultural land and spring water to withstand a siege indefinitely.  The massive new walls and fortifications were among the strongest in Greece.  Epaminondas then issued a call to Messenian exiles from other parts of Greece from Italy, Sicily and Africa to return and rebuild their homeland   

Did he do it out of expediency?  For the loss of Messenia was particularly damaging to the Spartans, since the territory comprised one-third of Sparta's territory and contained half of their Helot population. It was the Helots' labor that had allowed the Spartans to be a constant "full-time" army.

Epaminondas' campaign of 370/369 has been described as an example of "the grand strategy of indirect approach", which was aimed at severing "the economic roots of Sparta's military supremacy."  In mere months, Epaminondas had created two new enemy states that opposed Sparta, shaken the foundations of Sparta's economy, and all but devastated Sparta's prestige.  Having  accomplished this, he led his army back home, victorious.  After the departure of the Theban army the Spartans attempted unsuccessfully to retake Messenia.


Abraham Lincoln likewise had strategic reasons for emancipating the slaves; but whatever their reasons, Lincoln and Epaminondas are the only two leaders in history of whom it can be said, "They freed the slaves".


How ironic that he walls that Epaminondas built to free the slaves still stand to this day, whereas little remains of the architecture of Sparta to show that it ever existed, for unlike other cities of Ancient Greece, Sparta did not have any walls surrounding it.  In part the walls weren’t needed because the Spartans had little to steal; in part it was Sparta’s remote location, deep in the mountains and far from the sea.   Mostly, it was the reputation of the warriors of Sparta.

When one Athenian questioned the Spartan king about the lack of walls, the king responded "Our shields are our walls." The Athenian asked how many warriors they had and the response was "Enough".  Another Spartan King replied to the same question saying that "The bodies of our young men are our walls and their spear points are our borders".



Upon his return home, Epaminondas was greeted not with a hero's welcome but with a trial arranged by his political enemies.  According to Cornelius Nepos, in his defense Epaminondas merely requested that, if he be executed, the inscription regarding the verdict read:

"Epaminondas was punished by the Thebans with death, because he obliged them to overthrow the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) at Leuctra, whom, before he was general, none of the Boeotians (Thebans) durst look upon in the field; and because not only, by one battle, did he rescue Thebes from destruction, but also secured liberty for all Greece..."

The jury broke into laughter, the charges were dropped, and Epaminondas was re-elected as Boeotarch for the next year.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Islam and Image Deprivation

Painting of Abu'l Hassan, Persian Ambassador to the Court of St James (England), 1810. Painted by one of the greatest portrait artists of all time, Sir Thomas Lawrence.


What does aniconism mean?  It's the absence of images like paintings and statues in a particular society, such as Islam, where there is a proscription against the creation of images of sentient living beings.  Images of Allah are absolutely forbidden, followed by depictions of Muhammad, and then Islamic prophets and the relatives of the Prophet.

However, the depiction of all humans and animals is discouraged by the long tradition of Islamic authorities, especially Sunni ones.  This has led to Islamic art being dominated by Islamic geometric patterns, calligraphy and the foliage patterns of the arabesque style.


The painting above gives an insight into the results of this 'image deprivation'.

It was commissioned by Sir Gore Ouseley during Abu'l Hassan's tenure in London as Persian Ambassador.  Later, Sir Gore went to Persia as Ambassador Extraordinary for the purpose of concluding a treaty between England and Persia, and he took the painting with him.  He took the painting with him.

The painting was temporarily placed on a sofa, and the Persian Prime Minster, Mirza Shefi, entered the room.  He had never seen a European oil painting and he mistook the painting for the real person.  He is said to have become outraged and to have shouted at the offending painting:

"I think that when the representative of the King of England does me the honor of standing up to receive me, in due respect to him, you should not be seated."

Only when he had touched the painting did he realize his mistake.

He said, "I could have sworn by the Koran that it was a projecting substance - in truth that it was Abu'l Hassan himself".

Monday, July 23, 2012

Plato and the Olympic Games

                                         The stadium today.


The Olympic Games were held at four-year intervals, and later the term Olympiad (the period between two Games) was used as a measure for counting years.  For example, Diodorus states that there was a solar eclipse in the third year of the 113th Olympiad, which must refer to the eclipse of 316 BC.  This would give a date of 765/6 BC for the first year of the first Olympiad.

The Olympic Games were held in Olympia, in a remote area of southwestern Greece, about 200 miles from Athens.  To get there most spectators had taken rough mountain roads and a ten-day journey.  When they got there they found a venue poorly prepared to accommodate them.  "An endless mass of people" is how second-century A.D. author Lucian describes it.


Whatever facilities Olympia had would have been swamped.  At night most of the spectators would have flung their bedding wherever they could find a spot, or they would have put up a tent or paid for a spot in some temporary shelter.  Sounds like Woodstock.

Plato himself once slept in a makeshift barracks, head to toe with drunken strangers.  An image of Plato as a hippy - probably in his younger years.

                                         Athletes entry into stadium.


Dried riverbeds used as latrines, and sweat of unwashed multitudes wafting out nose-teasing odors; and everywhere the flies, a plague of them.  Priests at Olympia sacrificed animals to "Zeus, the driver-away of flies" probably to little effect.

The spectators stood for up to sixteen hours.  Seating was not provided.  In fact the Greek word stadion means 'a place to stand'.

"But" said Epictetus, "you put up with it all because it is an unforgettable spectacle."

Lucian writes,  "..... you should be there sitting in the middle of the spectators, looking at the men's courage and physical beauty, their marvellous condition, their skill and invincible strength, their enterprise, their emulation, their unconquerable spirit, and their never-wearied pursuit of victory.  Oh, I know very well, you would never have been tired of talking about your favourites, cheering them on them with your shouts and hand gestures."  He could be writing today not eighteen centuries
The Games were sensationally popular, and were held without fail every four years from about 765 B.C., till they were banned as a pagan festival by Christian emperors in A.D 394.

Like a pilgrimage to Mecca, for the Greeks it was considered a great misfortune to die without having been to Olympia.  One Athenian baker boasted on his gravestone that he had attended the Games twelve times.


Some observations on the Olympic events:

Sprinters would be leaning slightly forward, feet together and arms outstretched.  False starts were punished with a thrashing from official whip-handlers.

The pankration was a kind of mixed martial arts contest; differing from today's MMA in that the only thing barred was eye-gouging; whereas snapping opponents' fingers, even tearing out intestines were acceptable and, as one coach noted, "the judges approve of strangling".  It is said that Plato [427-347 BC] was a double winner of the pankration, which adds a new dimension to his philosophy.

The long jump was performed with a weight in each hand which would have the effect of "pulling'  the jumper forward, and then, jettisoning the weights backward prior to landing would give that final "push" for distance.

A four hundred yard sprint was run in full body armor, emulating the charge of the Greek hoplites into battle.

Boxing became increasingly brutal over the centuries.  Initially, soft leather covered the fingers, but eventually, hard leather weighted with metal was sometimes used.  The fights had no rest periods and there were no rules against hitting a man while he was down. Bouts continued until one man either surrendered or died.  However, killing an opponent was frowned on, and the dead boxer was automatically declared the winner.



The judges sometimes took bribes.  In A.D. 67 they took some pretty heavy bribes from the emperor Nero to award him first prize in the chariot race - notwithstanding that he fell out of his chariot and failed to complete the course.  Like Sacha Baron Cohen's movie 'The Dictator' in which he wins the sprint by shooting anyone who threatens to beat him.

From an article in the Smithsonian, August 2004, by Tony Perrottet.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Horrors of War

In his book, "Adventures with The Connaught Rangers 1809 - 1814", William Grattan gives a first hand account of his experiences with Wellington's British army fighting against Napoleon's French forces in the Spanish Peninsula.


As the French army retreats it leaves horrors in its wake.

"As we approached the town the road leading to it was covered with a number of horses, mules and asses, all maimed.  But the most disgusting sight was about fifty of the asses all floundering in the mud, some with their throats half cut, while others were barbarously houghed (crippled or maimed) or otherwise injured.   What the object of this proceeding meant I never could guess; the poor brutes could have been of no use to us, or indeed anyone else, as I believe they were unable to have travelled another league.  The meagre appearance of these creatures, with their backbones and hips protruding through their hides, and their mangled and bleeding throats, produced a general feeling of disgust and commiseration."


"Two wounded French soldiers had been abandoned to the fury of the Portuguese peasants who invariably dodged on the flanks or in the rear of our troops.  These poor wretches were surrounded by half a dozen Portuguese, who, after having plundered them, were taking that horrible vengeance too common during this contest.  On the approach of our men they dispersed, but, as we passed on, we could perceive them returning like vultures that have been scared away from their prey for the moment, but who return to it again with redoubled voraciousness.  Both the Frenchmen were alive, and entreated us to put an end to their sufferings.  I thought it would have been humane to do so, but Napoleon and Jaffa flashed across, and I turned away from the spot."

(The discredited story is that at Jaffa Napoleon poisoned all his non-transportable wounded during his retreat to Egypt, in order to prevent them being massacred at the hands of the turks.)


In the Second World War, Japanese troops were instructed to become self sufficient when they found themselves cut off from supplies.  This effectively gave them carte blanche to adopt whatever measures, no matter how extreme, were necessary to keep alive.  This included cannibalism of both Allied prisoners of war and the local inhabitants.  It is not clear whether they killed the prisoners or waited for them to die naturally.  This story was suppressed at the end of the war and was not brought up at the Tokyo war crimes tribunal because the authorities did not want the families back home to be left forever wondering if their sons had been cannibalized.

From Antony Beevor's book, The Second World War.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

World War II Assassin and Wyatt Earp

In the Smithsonian magazine of September, 1993, is an article by Robert Wernick, on the wartime activities of an amazingly efficient British assassin working in Occupied France from 1941 to 1943.  Fascinating reading.


There was nothing remarkable in the background of Ian (Johnny) Kenneth Hopper.  He was born in 1913 of solid East Anglian stock. In 1940 when the French army collapsed, and the Germans suddenly arrived, he was living in a village near Caen in Normandy, happily married to a vivacious girl named Paulette, with a little boy, Jean-Claude.

His reasons for becoming a killer were that, "I don't believe in taking things lying down.  It was the Germans who set the rules, don't you see.  I did terrible things, things as bad as the Germans did.  I was responsible for the death of innocent people.  But when you meet an aggressor, you have to aggress back, aggress all the time."

For security reasons, he kept no records.  You will not find Hopper's name in the official history of British secret operations in France.  His friend Dr. Chanel was convinced to his dying day, as were all the other French who worked with Hopper during the war, that he was an agent of the legendary British Intelligence Service.  He was not.  Officers of the Special Operations Executive, which was responsible for underground operations in France, only knew of him as an elusive maverick operator.


A priest that Johnny Hopper had known when he was a little boy had drilled two rules into him: 'Never give up. Never complain'.


For two years before he was caught, he roamed the roads of German-occupied Normandy and the streets of German-occupied Paris.  When he needed a German colonel's uniform so that he could walk unimpeded into a local German headquarters and talk his way (he was good at languages, and good at barking out commands) into picking up some documents that interested him, he waylaid and killed a German colonel.

A newspaper from Caen, 1941, wrote of "An Englishman named Hopper who, in defiance of a German ban against celebrating the French national holiday on July 14, had put on a French colonel's uniform and deposited a huge wreath of flowers on the monument to the war dead in Caen, directly in front of the German Army headquarters".

It was Hopper's first act of open resistance against the German occupation of France, and it was in many respects a model for all his future operations.  It was a spontaneous individual gesture, boldly conceived, carefully planned, neatly executed.  Every detail -- including finding the right French colonel (there were many who would be willing to make a small contribution to the national cause, but where would he find one whose uniform would fit his six-foot-three-inch frame?), the stealthy stealing of a truck to drive up in, preparing a hiding-place known only to himself for afterward - had to be precisely calculated.  It was only a symbolic gesture, it was not going to harm a single German soldier or a single stone of the German headquarters [which is today a Holiday Inn].  But as a symbol it resonated, all the way to Vichy, a faint suggestion that there might be a spark of resistance in defeated demoralized shell-shocked France.


"Nerve, not technique" - compare to Wyatt Earp's thoughts on gunfighting!

"I worked at close quarters, and at close quarters you don't need technique, you need nerve.  I learned a great deal the first time I ever shot a man, a French policeman named Bernard.  He had ordered me to drive him to police headquarters, and when he saw that I was heading for open country, he pulled out his gun.  I was quicker.  I shot him in the head.  It was a small gun, a 7-millimeter, and it only wounded him.  I dropped him off at a hospital with a word of advice about keeping his month shut.

"I was quicker."

"The reason I was quicker was, at the moment he started reaching for that gun, I noticed a kind of tightening about his jaw.  I saw that tightening many times afterwards, saw it in some of the best killers the Gestapo put on my trail.  What it means, don't you see, is that at that moment when their lives are on the line, no matter how professional they are, there is just a moment when they can't help thinking of what might happen, what might happen to them and their careers and their families.  It might last only a fraction of a second.  But that was the fraction of a second I could use."

"...it was different with me. I knew that as one man against so many I didn't have a chance of surviving in the long run.  Betrayal or bad luck, something was bound to catch up with me. "


First gunfight.

One day he was about to visit one of his garage depots when he heard a suspicious noise - it was a gun being loaded - warning him that he had walked into an ambush mounted by the local chief of police and a dozen underlings who were waiting for him a little further up the street.  He strode on nonchalantly, pulled out both his guns and started firing. The police chief fell dead, the others ran for shelter and began firing wildly into the void while Hopper jumped on a bicycle conveniently parked at the curb in front of a cafe and raced downhill (the brakes didn't work) through a crowded market place and out into the open country where the authorities would be looking for him in vain for weeks to come.


Another gunfight.

He had a midnight rendezvous a street behind the Opera with a man he described as "a Jewish gangster, a man who gained enormous respect because he was the only man in Paris who went around the city through all the years of the occupation with a forty-five stuck into his belt."  There was a whole carload of Germans waiting for him instead, and they jumped on him and pulled two guns out of his pockets with squeals of triumph and were jovially kicking him and beating him and describing the joys that awaited him in the dungeons of the Gestapo, when the gangster, who had been hiding in a doorway, began firing at them and they scattered, giving Hopper all the time he needed to reach for the third gun strapped to his leg which had been overlooked by his unskilled captors, and could join in the firefight, from which none of the Germans emerged alive.


A gunfight gone wrong.

"I was determined that they would not get me alive.  It was understood among whoever went into action with me that if there were any wounded who could not be taken safely away, they were not to be left to be tortured by the Gestapo, they were to be finished off then and there."

He had an appointment with a traitorous double agent.  He and his wife were waiting in a cafe.  The agent came in on schedule, and right behind him came two Germans in uniform and another in civilian clothes.  Soon there was firing all over the place, chairs being overturned, customers diving for safety under tables or behind the bar.  "I had to shoot around Mineur (the agent), who was a big man," said Hopper.  "If I had known then what I later learned about him in Mauthausen (concentration camp), I would have shot through him."

"I didn't know at first how badly I was wounded.  I ducked back through a door next to our table, to take stock and to get a fresh gun unstrapped from my leg.  It was only a sort of closet back there, but the Germans must have assumed it was a rear door to the alley.  I had hit all of them more or less badly, and when I kicked my door open, they were all running out the front door to get help.  All the customers and the bartender were still on the floor.  I looked around to the table where we had been sitting, and there was my wife with her head on the table."

Blood was gushing from her mouth.  In a single instant Hopper judged that the wound was fatal, but that she might live long enough to be tortured by the Gestapo and to tell them all she knew.  He did what he would have expected her to do to him in the same situation: he put the muzzle of his gun to her right eye and pulled the trigger.

"I have relived that moment every day of my life," he told the reporter 48 years later''


A perfectionist

"I have never seen anything like Hopper preparing for action," said Dr. Chanel. "He was a perfectionist; he had to be sure that everything and everybody would be in the right place at the right time."

Sometimes these plans worked out beautifully.  Once he assigned himself the job of liquidating a high-ranking SS officer, a "nasty piece of goods" who knew altogether too much, who had made a specialty of infiltrating Resistance groups and getting them liquidated.  His base of operations was a fashionable Paris hotel, where he would check in as a prosperous German businessman looking for contacts and contracts, and where the staff was too well trained to ask why he would disappear without notice for days or weeks at a time and then come back looking pleased with himself.  Apprised of these comings and goings, and of the tastes and habits of this businessman by the night clerk, who was in touch with the friend of a friend, Hopper could set up a quietly efficient operation demanding exact timing and of course total discretion.  The German was an orderly man who always had some brandy sent up to his room before he went to sleep between eleven and eleven thirty.  One night Hopper slipped in through a side door a few minutes before eleven o'clock with a gun and a bottle of brandy in his coat pockets, borrowed a waiter's jacket and a tray and a glass and a napkin and a small pillow from the night clerk, waited till the expected call came down for room service, went upstairs and with the quiet dignity of a well-trained servant, poured out a drink, put it on the night table, put the pillow over the man's face and emptied his gun into it.  He dragged the body to the big old-fashioned fireplace, and signaled with a cigarette lighter to a pair of confederates - Robert le Kid and another man - who had just taken up positions on the roof in the blacked-out Paris night.  They lowered a rope attached to a sack into which he stuffed the body, the brandy bottle and the pillow, and while they were raising it, he phoned the desk clerk to come up and remake the bed, clean up any spare feathers that might be lying around, and take down the tray, and also the room key which would be put in its proper cubbyhole as the room's occupant did every time he left the building.  The rope came down again and hauled Hopper up, and he and his friends quietly went through the well-rehearsed routine of tossing the sack on to the roof of the adjoining building, to which they had acquired the necessary keys.  They took it down the stairway and out into the blacked-out street, tossed it into the trunk of a stolen car with German license plates and drove on to a house in the suburbs where a pit in the garden was ready, half filled with quick-lime. . .


An old man reminisces.

For the details of what he did in Paris, we have to rely mostly on the stories of Johnny Hopper himself, and by the time he told them to the reporter, they were an old man's memories.  When he had come back, broken in health, from Dachau in 1945, the last thing he wanted to do was talk about what he had been through. Later on, when he was ready to talk, people were beginning to be tired of war stories, "The things we did every day then, people simply can't believe now.   Sometimes I start talking, and they listen politely, and after a while their eyes begin to glaze over.."

Sounds like Wyatt Earp in his later years speaking of his legacy.


Bad luck.

He was captured and spent the last two year in the camps.   Despite the dehumanization of the camps, he discovered that in the most atrocious circumstances there could be spontaneous gestures of human solidarity: a man standing in one of the hours-long roll-calls who could take the coat off his own back to cover the shoulders of the man next to him who was shivering in his thin tattered pajama-striped prisoner uniform and save him from pneumonia (as a French West Indian did for another prisoner one day during a blizzard in Buchenwald).  The smithsonian article gives many details of his life in the concentration camps.

One day when they moved him from his cell, they sewed on his jacket the letters "NN," for Nacht-und-Nebel, the "night and fog" into which Goethe had seen the ancient Germanic gods disappear and into which a Nazi law commanded dangerous enemies of the Third Reich to be sent.

So that's where 'Night and Fog' comes from.

But he survived. ("They had knocked out all his teeth, and his whole body was covered with cigarette burns".)

For the latter part of his life he was happily married to a wife named Diana.  He settled down to a humdrum civilian life in a picturesque provincial village.  He ran a mushroom farm successfully until he felt that union demands had become too outrageous, and he shut the business down.   He died in 1991 of cancer, having at last met a foe he could not outsmart or out-shoot.


An imposing figure.

"When he came down the street, every one was aware of him; when he came into the pub every pair of eyes swivelled to look at him.  Close to 80 and suffering from the cancer which would kill him a few months later, he was still an imposing figure, tall and gaunt, with a confident stride, piercing gunmetal eyes, and a deep voice which would not inflect whether he was talking to Jack the Plumber or Lord Whoever."

- could be a description of Wyatt Earp.