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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.


Books! (War and Rules Edition)

Golem (Moshe Idel, 2015/#67): A fascinating book about a long and heterogeneous religious tradition; the legend of the Rabbi Loew isn't nearly the most interesting part of it.

And Four to Go (Rex Stout, 2015/#68): I swear, the byzantine mechanisms of Wolfe and Archie's relationship are often the most interesting part of these books (which is no slight on the other aspects). The sheer amount of energy, time, and brainpower these two professionally intelligent adults dedicate to the ritual complexities of their friendship-cum-psychological-warfare is astounding. And I hadn't realized this before, but Archie would have made one hell of a lawyer; he'd pretty much own any courtroom he walked into, of course, but his analytical skills for complex rule-bound situations are also superb. He's always thinking in terms of what he can, should, and must or mustn't do, legally and morally, which isn't something many characters (and certainly very few fictional detectives) do.

Brunelleschi's Dome (Ross King, 2015/#69): A history of how the Duomo of Florence was built, both in human and technical terms. I've been to Florence and admired it, but I want to go again, now that I know quite how much of an astounding technical achievement it was, how much intrigue and jealousy and art went into its construction. Fun fact one: Brunelleschi was perhaps the first person in European history to get a patent for a mechanical invention (the man was vain, secretive, ambitious, and bad with money, and also a mechanical inventor of the first order). Fun fact two: to get revenge on a guy who missed a party (!), Brunelleschi set up an elaborate prank where dozens of people, from city officers to random extras on the street, conspired to make the guy believe he had switched bodies with somebody else. The guy was so shaken up by the experience that he left the city and moved to, if I recall correctly, Poland. Brunelleschi: engineering pioneer, architectural genius, an early master of perspective, and gaslighter extraordinary. Fun fact three: a Florentine mathematician called Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli used the Duomo to make astronomical calculations to improve navigational tables. He also made an slight miscalculation regarding the size of the Earth, prompting him to send a letter and map to the King of Portugal suggesting a western route to the Indias. The King didn't buy the idea, so Toscanelli contacted one Christopher Columbus, who eventually found a backer for the ill-conceived but lucky endeavor, and I'm sure you've heard about what happened then (also, the thing about balancing an upright egg was Brunelleschi's, not Columbus).

World Without End (Hugh Thomas, 2015/#70): An overview of the development and local practices of the Spanish Empire during the reign of Philip II. Plenty of very interesting information; at times I think it takes the Spanish too much at their word, but it's true that sometimes we tend to do the opposite. The most fascinating angle (although a very minor one) is the amount of interest Spain had on the conquest of China, which at some point they thought might be accomplished with eight or ten thousand soldiers.

The Mongol Art of War (Timothy May, 2015/#71): More detailed on logistics than on tactics and strategy, but a good summary of the underlying narrative. One clear lesson, although not emphasized in the text: the Mongols were constrained by ecology, but collapsed because they couldn't solve the problem of political succession. To be fair to them, it's a very difficult one; once you have multiple independent armies, you end up almost inevitably in a late Roman mess.

An Age of Neutrals (Maartje Abbenhuis, 2015/#72): This book makes limited, but I believe well-supported, claims about the importance of the concept of neutrality as a tool of international statecraft by European countries between 1815 and 1914 (that is, the Congress of Vienna and the First World War, aka the "long" nineteenth century), with some initial forays in the centuries before that. It's certainly an interesting angle, and in the context of 21st century state-sponsored violence, it might be worth revisiting.


A label I like: design horror

It's like design fiction, except that when it gives you nightmares it's on purpose.

You know, like the Behavior Improvement Oniric Induction Device they use in prisons, or the version they sell to parents.


I'm not awfully familiar with NCIS:LA canon, but from what I've seen, Hetty Lange has a rather nasty habit of finding traumatized orphans with little or no family ties to mold them as operatives. Sometimes she does this when they are adults, and sometimes from a frighteningly young age; in many senses she built Callen almost from the ground up, and I believe she has begun to push him towards developing roots (buy a home, etc) because he's no longer more useful wholly unattached.

I used to think that she's overprotective of "her team" because that's part of the often disturbing pseudofamiliar psychodynamics underlying most genre shows (one of the most interesting bits of Hannibal is how much of a manipulative bastard Jack Crawford is). But her recruiting pattern gives another, properly Watsonian reason for it. She protects her team because they are hers in a way other people wouldn't; they are personally loyal to an almost fanatical level, carefully crafted in their skills, and, to a very large degree, broken in just the right ways not to have competing interests. Hanna is possibly the exception to this, although I suspect that his combination of skills, professionalism, and emotional stability made her choose him as the interpersonal core of her team; after all, he does have a tendency to form families and care about them.

I guess what I'm saying is this: Hetty does what Bruce Wayne did, except (a) on purpose, and (b) much, much better. She must have been one hell of an asset handler-slash-interrogation specialist-slash-whoever it is that rebuilds people in useful ways. Weaponized therapist? Jason Bourner?

If only she didn't *enjoy* the process quite so much. But carefully designed emotional relationships from a position of power are tempting, aren't them? Ask Geppetto (Pygmalion's goals were of a different sort).

ETA: I know what she's doing with Nell Jones, by the way. I can recognize a Tim Drakeing when I see one.


Books! (Money, Murder, and Canals Edition)

(It's clear 2015 is going to have an unusually low book count. Not unsurprisingly so, maybe, but I hope it doesn't become a trend.

Venice: A Literary Companion (Ian Littlewood, 2015/#62): Writing about what others wrote about and while in a city might be boring in other cases, but for Venice, it's possibly be one of the best approaches, and this book uses it to nice effect. By now, it's less a city than a consensual four-dimensional hallucination, so unique in geography and architecture, so implausible in history and manners, so overwhelmed by layers of memory, that it's not even quite real anymore.

Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics, and Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence (Tim Parks, 2015/#63): What it says on the cover. Enthusiastically written, and it doesn't shirk from the subtly shifting but still all-pervading role of religion in their society.

The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection (Ed. Gardner Dozois, 2015/#64): Perhaps the best annual anthology of contemporary science fiction. Of special fannish interest, Daryl Gregory's The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm, an street-level view of a realistically bleak and quite Eastern European Latveria (serial numbers filed off).

Three at Wolfe's Door (Rex Stout, 2015/#65): Three unconnected novellas; the format doesn't seem to cramp Nero's style, but I noticed that it doesn't leave much time for Archie's usual romantic antics.

Venice (Jan Morris, 2015/#66): A reread. One of my favorite books about my favorite city.


Didn't we get two canonical confirmations that Beast bringing the teenage versions of the original X-team into the present broke the multiverse? (quoth Beast: Ta-da) First, the Watcher himself told him so by getting into his bedroom (nope, not creepy at all) and giving him visions of all the universes, both good and bad, that he had killed. And later, in one of those bi-monthly situations when one or more people get cosmically omnipotent or thereabouts, he made the calculations himself and confirmed it.

So I'm calling shenanigans on the the Beyonders weaponized the Molecule Man crap. Beast did it (in his defense, he was dying at the moment, and it was an hilarious thing to do).

Things get interesting after that. Beast being an X-Men, he won't give up just because he screwed up at a cosmic level. I mean, that's what they do: they screw things up at a cosmic level and then they sort of fix it, mostly. Therefore, he's Rabum Alal (oh, and in the Black Swans' language, that's more accurately translated as the Predator, the one who culls the weak). Because he didn't find another way to save universes, he keeps destroying Earths to buy time, going to other universes to find increasingly powerful weapons. He's no Doom or Reed Richards, but there's an awful lot you can do if you're a genius that has seen them work and has given up on small measures. Needless to say, the accumulated guilt has driven him quite crazy, but there you go.

Bottom line: Beast is a doctor. He knows that sometimes you have to cut something out to extend the life of the rest. And there's so much blood on his hands that the marginal guilt of each new genocide is negligible.

As my slow rewatch of Hannibal goes on...

One aspect of the series that becomes plainer on a rewatch is how often we see characters think. They don't necessarily speak aloud, but you can follow in their expressions, and even things like brief glances, how they are reacting to and processing what they are seeing and hearing. There's a great degree of viewer projection, I grant you, and you can't really know what they are thinking, but while watching things a second time you can often pick up when somebody decided or figured out something, even if it was impossible to know at the moment. (One exception: there's one moment in S01E03, the one I just watched, when Abigail shifts her eyes away for about half a second, and you know why, and they show Hannibal's expression for another second, and you know that he knows why she did that, and although the episode makes sense if you don't notice that, if you do it changes the way you look at what happens during the rest of it. It's a lot to put in about two seconds of facial expressions, and it's very neat.)

Another thing that becomes more obvious the second time around: Jack was always a bit of a piece of shit. Loving husband, devoted law enforcement officer, doesn't give a rat's ass about the psychological or physical safety of the people that work for him, or anybody else's, actually, as long as they are potentially useful to catch a killer. In a show without a Hannibal, and with killers perhaps just a little bit less horrendous, it wouldn't take much to make Jack the villain, the abusive boss who knowingly pushes somebody beyond their breaking point just to further his own goals.


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?


Just watched the Hannibal (S3?) finale

As a placeholder for further thought (or not): The series began with the Devil as chess master, then the Devil as corrupter, and now ended up with... I'm not sure Hannibal is the Devil any more, biblical references aside. Something broke in Hannibal Lecter at the end of season two, and season three felt less like the desperate battle of wits and imagination that were the first two seasons, than as a beautifully shot mess of insane people bouncing against each other, intermittently orchestrated by a(n also participating) Hannibal Lecter who seemed to be almost going through the motions.

Season 3 was almost languid, that's what I'm saying. Frequent, horrifying murders notwithstanding. I think that was a deliberate thematic choice, a gradual deepening of the emotional components over the logical (I didn't say sane) ones. After all, the series began with the aria from the Goldberg Variations, and ended with Love Crime. That's the series' arc in a nutshell.


Books! (Modern Condition Edition)

And Be a Villain (Rex Stout, 2015/#56): A good Nero Wolfe story; curiously, I chose it at random and ended up having an Arnold Zeck angle, and thus (very indirectly) a prequel to In the Best Families.

Some Buried Cesar (Rex Stout, 2015/#57): A reread.

Addiction by Design (Natasha Dow Schüll, 2015/#58): I knew a lot of what's in this book (in my previous jobs helping online game design, Las Vegas slot machines were my personal non plus ultra of efficiency), but there was a lot I didn't knew, and it was at the same time fascinating, infuriating, and heartbreaking.

I'll Mature When I'm Dead (Dave Barry, 2015/#59): I think he's getting more conservative in his hold-er age (or maybe, hopefully, I've learned some things since I first started reading him literally half a lifetime ago), but he's probably the funniest prose writer in English this side of Pratchett at the phrase and paragraph level. His arguments and plots aren't necessarily very funny as such (and, following this, I've found his novels rather underwhelming), but he's a master of the understated turn of phrase that you both see and don't see coming. He's one of the few writers I can't but laugh aloud as I read.

Montaigne and the Life of Freedom (Felicity Green, 2015/#60): An study on what, exactly, Montaigne meant by freedom, and how he meant to get and keep it. The author stresses, rightly, the continuity between his ideas and concerns from late Antiquity, as well as the relevance of the French religious wars to his thought, as much as the originality of his conception. I keep finding Montaigne very close to my own attitudes, both for good and for ill: as for him, I count lack of responsibilities and debts to others as (of course never fully realized, and that for the best) components of my own freedom.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Tom Stoppard, 2015/#61): Each element on its own would be interesting, but the combination of the metatextual conceit, the relentlessly bleak humor, and the language, works very well as a whole. Not having any idea of what's going on, and nobody giving us any sensible clue, is very much at the core of our experience of the world.


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