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Books! (Slyly Borgesian Edition)

The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization, and Cultural Change, 950-1350 (Robert Bartlett, 2016/#35): Quite a fascinating book. It's easy to imagine the Middle Ages as an static period of time in European history, even when you do your best to keep in mind that it wasn't, quite, but Bartlett shows it at positively bristling with activity: towns are founded (for profit reasons, using standarized legal patterns, as if they were Starbucks), territories settled, frontiers expanded, all looking for land and workers to grow and tax. Yes, scientifically they are almost stalled (and in some social senses they regress; the book shows how racism in its modern form is a mid-to-late Middle Ages development), but it was a period of very active, polyfacetic, enthusiastic development that exported an entire military-economic-social package of techniques and culture from the North of France to pretty much the rest of modern Europe (I hadn't realized, or thought about, the similitudes; there are castles in France and England and Spain, and I had sort of assumed some kind of convergent evolution, when it fact it was very much not). I enjoyed it very much.

The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (Thomas Ligotti), 2016/#36): Ligotti considers consciousness as uncanny, the fountain of horror, and the intrinsic value of existence at least indefensible and more appropriately a monstrous self-delusion. Perhaps not a book one should read while depressed, although it might actually be salutary; it's hard to tell, and an experiment would amount to misconduct in cultural competence.

London Under (Peter Ackroyd, 2016/#37): A collection of sometime interesting data, rather than a comprehensive whole. I don't find him as poetic as he thinks he is, but YMMV.

The Mother Hunt (Rex Stout, 2016/#38): A good Nero Wolfe story.

A Most Dangerous Book (Christopher B. Krebs, 2016/#39): A book on Tacitus' Germania, mostly from the point of view of its effects on later politics and society; it's a good thread to trace the disturbingly long and consistent intellectual and cultural development that was one of the factors leading to Nazi Germany.

Unruly Places (Alastair Bonnett, 2016/#40): A collection of notes on, unsurprisingly, weird places (renamed cities, precisely located islands that turned out not to exist, etc). I didn't enjoy the writing style or the author's musings, but the book doesn't lack interesting tidbits of information.


Good times

I'm spending some time rereading old issues of Byte magazine, courtesy of the Internet Archive. It's triggering a lot of memories, which isn't unreasonable given how much of my time and attention was dedicated to computers. And it's not just the articles (when Windows 95 was still codenamed Chicago, and Win32 address space separation was a big thing), but also the ads. Ads for database systems, my god, all hyperbole, exclamation points, puns, comparison tables, enthusiasm about obscure things. I can distinctly remember knowing, at some point in my life, the pros and cons of different commercial C++ compilers, how SCSI worked, and the details of linking .OBJ files. Ads for PKzip as a product you paid for. The magic of fractal image compression formats.

Now, of course, the industry is infinitely larger and more influential, not just a hobby or a new business tool but rather the atmosphere in which society seems to move, but back then it was, I have to say, it was dorky, people still weren't convinced about it so there was no need to make it fit the "real world," the only billionaire was Bill Gates, who was Evil, you could look at Word and think "oh my god", and you would care about microprocessor architecture just for the sheer fannishness of it.

Just now I read, in a 1994 issue, a short article on this newfangled thing called Linux. Linux, then, was this weirdly free variant of UNIX; nowadays UNIX is mostly the prehistory of Linux. I remember reading that article, being enchanted by the UI screenshot and the idea of a UNIX I could get my hands on, and looking for somewhere in Corrientes where I could somehow get it (this was back when BBS' were still a thing, and "the Internet" was one of a handful of alternatives, most of them commercial). It turned out that the same small place where you could get pirated copies of games as stacks of 5'25 floppies would also sell you Slackware as a stack of 5'25 floppies.

I could say the same about pretty much any period in my life (and isn't that a wonderful thing to be able to say?) but it felt so good to have so much to learn and play with, new things every month in a Cambrian dazzle of useless, endlessly fascinating arcana. Computers were the best toy ever, and they still are.


Interesting: John Dee engaged in a bit of research to justify Elizabeth's claims to the New World.

Amusing: His main argument ended up being that Arthur had conquered it, plus Iceland, Greenland, everything north of Russia, etc.

Fascinating: According to his sources, the North Pole is an inner sea surrounded by a ring of mountains, with a few passes through which strong one-way currents feed into it. On the inner side of that ring there's a number of cities founded or inhabited by the descendants of a group of people Arthur sent there. Apparently, one of their priests visited the court of the King of Norway during the XIIth century.

I started riffing ideas off this, and it got a bit out of hand.Collapse )

Link: John Dee, King Arthur, and the Conquest of the Arctic


Just realized this

You could argue that one of the constants in world history since at least the late 16th century has been the attempts by the Western world to tap into the Chinese market. The Spanish Empire wanted to do that, the Dutch wanted to do that, the British wanted to do that, then there was the Nope era of the communist phase of the Communist Party of China, and now the US wants to do that.

Which makes absolutely perfect sense: it is, and has always been, the largest potential market on the planet.


Time past in time present

The mes or concepts/technologies/institutions Sumerians believed the gods gave to humans as the foundations of civilization is a haunting concept. I'm sure a lot has been changed and added through the multiple layers of translation (we are talking about five thousand years old texts referring to myths that were already two or three thousand years old by then), but still, look how the goddess Inanna described part of what Enki, god of Eridu (if not the oldest city in the world, not much younger than it) gave her as what we might call the building blocks of civilization:

He has given me righteousness. He has given me the plundering of cities. He has given me making lamentations. He has given me rejoicing.

He has given me deceit. He has given me the rebel lands. He has given me kindness. He has given me being on the move. He has given me being sedentary.

He has given me the craft of the carpenter. He has given me the craft of the coppersmith. He has given me the craft of the scribe. He has given me the craft of the smith. He has given me the craft of the leather-worker. He has given me the craft of the fuller. He has given me the craft of the builder. He has given me the craft of the reed-worker.

He has given me wisdom. He has given me attentiveness. He has given me holy purification rites. He has given me the shepherd's hut. He has given me piling up glowing charcoals. He has given me the sheepfold. He has given me respect. He has given me awe. He has given me reverent silence.

He has given me the bitter-toothed (?) ……. He has given me the kindling of fire. He has given me the extinguishing of fire. He has given me hard work. He has given me ……. He has given me the assembled family. He has given me descendants. He has given me strife. He has given me triumph. He has given me counselling.

The list goes on: descent into the netherworld, ascent from the netherworld, sex, prostitution, weapons, the flood, art... I love the concept of me, the list of them, and, very much, the fragment I listed above. Again, it's a translation of a translation of a vague memory mostly made up on the spot, but if we can still be moved by the KJV Bible (and this morning I was thinking about how I walk through the valley of the shadow of death is as perfect a fragment of English as I have ever read), why not enjoy the beauty in this?


From Venice: A Literary Companion

It's an intensely charming book full of the kind of mostly true history that would sound unrealistic most everywhere else.

Here's a letter fragment from Byron, after retelling one of his anecdotes (and actually a tame one):

You need not be alarmed – jealousy is not the order of the day in Venice, and daggers are out of fashion; while duels, on love matters, are unknown — at least, with husbands.

I love those last four words.

By the way, you could teach an entire course or write a very nice book about modern literature just based on that little traveling group of freewheeling debauchery: Percy Shelley, the radical Romantic poet, Lord Byron, who sort of invented (a modern version of) the scandalously hedonistic and stunt-prone international superstar artist, John Polidori, who invented (not the original, but certainly) the modern vampire tale probably just because he was somewhat fed up with said superstar, and nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley, who just said you bunch of amateurs and wrote the seminal science fiction story we're still getting our heads around and kind of using as a to-do list.

There's nothing in this that I don't find both implausible and hilariously inspiring. It makes me feel like going to everybody who thinks literary history is about ponderous Hegelian dialectic developments and tell them "No, no, it was about sex-obsessed superstars, and sardonic doctors, and genius young women, and a volcano had cooled down the planet that year, and then there was this storm, you see. And then the superstar went to lead a guerrilla war and drowned, but that was later."

Seriously, at times I don't know why we bother with alternate history.
Just spent some time poking at old fanfic archive sites like The Family Archives. Chicago... Smitty... Tim and Cass's shenanigans... Dinah and Bruce's constant assertions about not sleeping together...

"Batgirl around?" Robin asked, glancing around the room.

"Nope. Off playing Evil Creepy Night Thing with Bruce. Did you come to visit her?" Barbara laid the back of her hand across her forehead. "I'm just not exciting enough to warrant my own midnight superhero encounters anymore?" [offpanel.net]

Looking back, in some cases ten or more years later... They aren't perfect, of course. I think we got a better handle over time on the economy of epiphanies and the avoidance of character bashing, and there has a been a drive, it seems, for more complex and less self-deprecatingly humorous grammar (obviously, I'm not making a global statement in any sense; I'm just talking about the fics I read then, compared with the fics I read later — there have always been fanfic of every kind and style, and each person's reading history, in her or his own way, traces the development of a one-person culture).

Be that as it may. The sheer enthusiasm of those stories! I'm certainly prejudiced because I was younger when I first read them, and perhaps very much in need of something like them, but it was a world in which Tim Drake could despair for coffee and Barbara Gordon would use a traffic gridlock to try and win a bet. A world where crime-fighting was a passion but not a psychopathology, where an entire fic could be dedicated to a dinner date, and among a kid's first words could be BA'GIRL. It was also a world where a single one-line story could freeze your blood.

They were good, and good for me, and it was good to revisit them.

Also, I revisited some old (but later) Stargate Atlatis fanvids. Atlantis! and Stress, in particular, were just as good as I remembered. There was a time when Stress was one of the ways in which I described myself to myself, although, thankfully, that has changed a bit.


Pastoral nomadism as a lifeway was (and still is) a flexible strategy enabled by co-community with herd animals and the cultural embedding of mobility (Honeychurch and Amartuvshin 2007; Frachetti 2008). These adaptations created social and productive expertise in socio-spatial dynamics and movement that included ways of binding together and maintaining human communities in the face of geographic dispersal. I argue that this capacity gave a unique spatial and temporal foundation for social relationships among Inner Asian nomads, and as a result, we should expect that politics and statehood assumed quite different configurations from those of sedentary and agricultural peoples. (Inner Asia and the Spatial Politics of Empire)

That's a fascinating concept: social technologies that aren't just sedentary social ties stretched over long distances, but rather purpose-built, so to speak, with distance in mind.

The physical destruction is conceptualized in the City Laments as an expression of the destruction of the mythological infrastructure of the city’s existence. Thus, what are actually being destroyed are the city’s ‘plans’ (ĝišhur), ‘rituals’ (ĝarza), and ‘rational judgment’ (umuš, ĝalga, or dim). Above all, the city loses its me, the divine essence that is the basis of its cultural, social, and religious institutions and enables its existence. (The Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur)

I can't overstate how gleeful that makes me. Not the destruction of Ur, I hasten to say (I got nothing against them), but the idea that (at least priestly) Sumerians thought of the physical end of a city as first taking place in the realm of mythology and ideas. Destroy its plans (as in blueprints? gods, what a concept), its rituals, and its rational judgement (John Boyd would approve), and then the walls will fall. It's an idea of sheer beauty, and you an see it echoing (or echoes sharing a same root) all through history.


Prohibition: A few things work out a bit earlier than expected, and by 1905 there are working electronic computers. WWI begins earlier (everybody thinks computers will give them the edge), and is equally destructive, but it also ends earlier. By 1917 Edison Electronics has made the New York-Berlin-London market the fastest, biggest stock market in history. In 1918 the Blitzkrieg Crash takes almost everybody by surprise (not Poincare, whose work on chaotic dynamics guided the investment strategies that made him one of the richest men in America after the crash). Unemployment soars; Edison Electronics factories making prototypes of "office computers" are torched down by angry mobs.

The Computer Prohibition Law passes: no (civilian) computers are allowed in the US.

But people of all sorts have tasted the forbidden fruit, from greedy businessmen to dreaming scientists. The demand exists, and when there's a consumer, the market finds a way.

The year is 1921, the place is Chicago, and if you need something smart, Al Capone is your guy.


cass, can you not

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