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The Occult Mind: Magic in Theory and Practice (Christopher I. Lehrich, 2018/#25): The concept of analyzing magic/"the Occult" in its own terms is an interesting one — I think of it as akin to fannish meta in its Watsonian mode — but the author spends most of his time dissing contemporary authors in ways that, to the degree that I can evaluate it, oscillate between the intriguing observation and the malicious misreading. The book contains a number of nice turns of phrase and striking conceptual images, but... I guess a way to put it is that, while I'm interested in, although not swayed by, "magical" conceptual constructs, I'm neither interested in nor swayed by the more Derrrida-esque structuralist/post-structuralist theoretical arguments and battles. But then, as an undeconstructed positivist with a weakness for Borgesian aesthetics, I'm more a subject of the author's analysis than part of his intended audience.

Familiar Quotations (1905 ed.) (ed. John Bartlett, 2018/#26): It's sobering to see how much that was found memorably felicitious but a few generations ago is now almost unreadable in feeling and composition, if not language itself. But the right editor can do much, both in selection and commentary; I love Bergen Evans' Dictionary of Quotations, even if many of its quotations are as old as Bartlett's.

News Networks in Early Modern Europe (Ed. Joad Raymond and Noah Moxham, 2018/#27): There's quite a bit of space dedicated to methodological issues I'm not very interested in, and to detailed quantitative descriptions that (perhaps ironically) feel fishy to me, but nonetheless it's a large book full of goodies about avvisi, newsletters, newsbooks, the fine line between grateful travelers informing patrons and paid crown spies, and a lot of ceteras. While reading it I was frequently swept by the desire to launch a newspaper of some sort — so dynamic, scrappy, and full of potential were the networks and textual, technological, and commercial practices they were coming up with at the time — which is of course insane; we're living on the other side of that threshold now, and empathy and sympathy aside, what was a fascinating plunge *then* would be a manneristic affectation *now* (nothing wrong with manneristic affectations — under atheist conditions, a lot of life (excepting of course interpersonal ethics at both micro and macro-scale) is an act of style — but, if nothing else, it's convenient not to be delusional about what you're doing and why).

Hybrid Knowledge in the Early East India Company World (Anna Winterbottom, 2018/#28): A look at how the knowledge development initiatives of the (early, pre-territorial) East India Company (and very closely associated organizations, like the Royal Society) actually played out on the ground through the specific activities and interactions of (poorly supervised) agents with multiple overlapping agendas, natives with different sets of goals and degrees of autonomy (from the kings and officials on whom the very survival, not to mention profits, of the EIC settlements depended, specially during the XVIth/XVIIth century before the military balance of power shifted, to slaves, going through ex-captives, phonies, and other individuals with multiple, hybrid cultural identities). Issues of official and unofficial patronage, the balance between commercially valuable secrets and reputationally necessary publicity, collaborative networks of doctors, traders, seafarers, scholars (and most people were at least two of those) sharing local know-how and samples, the practice of "medical diplomacy", etc. — paraphrasing a bit, it's Latour knowledge-building under conditions of *serious* power asymmetry. A note of interest is how racism is, at that stage, more geographical than physiological; it's less "how you look" than "where you live" and a bit of "how you live," with climate and geography assumed to have insidious, cumulative effects on the old moral fiber. It's only slightly later and partially as a reaction to the ambiguous, shifting contact and interaction between "races" that more "scientific" concepts of races as biological categories developed.

The Mughal Empire (John F. Richards, 2018/#29): Quite a revelatory book to me. The Mughal empire was the second (if not the) largest and richest empire in the world, giving the XVIth-XVIIth century Ming a run for their money. The book makes clear the astounding wealth of the Indian subcontinent, and the effectiveness and sophistication of the Mughal's fiscal and political arrangements... that is, while they worked. It was only in long range/military seamanship and, eventually, the most concentrated gunpowder-based forms of violence that they (and China) fell behind Western societies — before the Industrial/Scientific revolution, that is — and there's a point to be made that the various East India companies took advantage of the deep self-inflicted wound of the Decaan wars' quagmire. It was a world of multiple overlapping religions, ethnicities, and cultures (the way Islam fostered violent and non-violent long-term relationships is interesting; conquest was of course the main way, but there was also pilgrimage and the way reputation and religious authority was contested and diffused; Iranian/Persian culture and governing methods — including very document-intensive patterns — had a huge influence); the Mughals could teach the Habsburg a thing or thirty about building and ruling that kind of empire (that said, the Deccan Wars...). Of note, the Central Asian/Mughal/Ottoman inheritance-by-deathmatch protocols were as spectacularly destructive as you'd imagine, and I'd argue that having a civil war every generation might not be the best way to build an empire over the long term; sooner or later you get a relatively evenly matched set of candidates, and then it gets really bad. Recommended; non-teleologically speaking, that's where the action was during those centuries.

Echopraxia (Peter Watts, 2018/#30): A reread.

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Currently reading Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire, which is a pretty straightforward, if at times darkly comical, description of how the Europeans were essentially socially- and geographically-ignorant thugs crashing into an enormously wealthy market that encompassed most of the world's wealth, with nothing to trade with except technically superior weaponry and ships (almost the only area of knowledge the West was at the forefront of, although that was about to change), and a vicious combination of commercial greed and aggressive religious fundamentalism that was quite beyond what the multi-ethnic, not tolerant by our standards but all in all generally more practiced at collaboration, societies of the area had been used to.

Barbarians, indeed. It wasn't the only thing they had going for them — once you start developing more efficient research processes and then come up with industrial methods, then societies without them pretty cannot compete regardless of their sophistication in other areas — but the existence, discovery, and exploitation of the Potosi silver mines is one of the great historical contingencies of the last few centuries; violence and American silver (extracted with violence, but from a much sparser and weaker population) where the only way Europeans could interface with the civilized core of the world.

Nobody with an empire is innocent in any sense, that's not what I'm saying, and if, say, American societies of the era were fucked up from 1492 on, the Ming and Quin Empires, the Tokugawa, or the Mughals, could have imported, over-developed, and exploited scientific and technical advances before European empires were comparatively powerful enough to block their attempts, or ahead enough to make the catch-up a long and fraught effort. Europeans were thugs with better weapons slightly before they were thugs with scientific-industrial complexes and much better weapons; you could tell quite an interesting story in a sci-fi-ish key about this event from the point of view of Indian Sea societies (the "violent and ignorant aliens with better weapons" is, after all, a trope), and maybe an AU outcome if you felt like.

Anyway, the original point of this post was the childish observation that the apparently the Arabs called these awful Frankish traders ferengi, and now I understand that The Next Generation reference (and a daring one indeed: making the Ferengi the series' philosophical counterpart of the Federation would have aligned the latter with the South Asian meta-society of XVIth century, not the European one) if only thirty years late.
The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe (Daniel Goffman, 2018/#1): Focuses on similitudes and relationships as much as in differences and distance; after all, the Ottomans weren't just Islamic (rather heterodox ones at the beginning, although this changed after they took over the Sunni sacred sites) and Turkish, but they also took from the Byzantine empire not just Constantinople, but also peoples, government structures, and so on, and even, in a way, their role as heirs of the Roman empire and as the hub of the Eastern Mediterranean. The author emphasizes the adaptability of the Ottomans, a necessary trait given that at one point most of the people they ruled were Christian. They were helped in this by Islam's approach to non-Muslims in their territories, which under the more flexible readings of its tenets can be allowed to exist lightly taxed (compared to some of the Christian states they took over, specially when Orthodox ruled Latin or vice versa; the Ottomans conquered so much so quickly in part because and most often where they were fighting societies where rulers badly abused the ruled, even by the standards of the age) and in some minor but significant ways self-governed, although of course not equal to Muslims. Not tolerance in the modern sense, by any degree, but still better than what most Christian societies offered at the time. The author makes the interesting point that this sort of formal allowances given by the Ottomans to traders from Europe might have inspired some of Venice's seminal developments in diplomatic practice. Paraphrasing, ultimately the Ottoman Empire didn't collapse as much as failed to keep up with Northwest Europe, hardly an indicator of inherent civilizational inferiority when you consider that pretty much nobody in the Eastern Mediterranean did, Italian city-states included.

The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties (Timothy Brook, 2018/#2): A look at China during the Yuan and Ming dynasties. It's a very good book; it mixes (without overdetermining developments) ecological changes, cultural changes, economics, and long-distance interactions in interesting ways. In many senses, what we (i.e., me, a not very informed layperson) think of as classic China is really a reflection of/construct of the late Ming, so seeing how they came to be, and in response to what, is illuminating. Besides, the book begins with dragon sightings, and what more can anybody ask for?

Mediterranean Identities in the Premodern Era: Entrepôts, Islands, Empires (Ed. John Watins and Kathryn L. Reyerson, 2018/#3): Some of the essays are interesting: a look at the multiple material translatios Venetians used to define their identity, the fascinating issues of janissary identity, the pragmatics of polyglot rulership, even, to a degree, the strange "gineteadas aren't Moorish, they are *Trojan*, read the Aeneid" thing of post-Reconquista Spain, or the a posteriori troublesome in their historical echoes biological metaphors of Inca Garcilaso de la Vega); other were, I'm afraid, quite bad. But the good ones justify picking up the book.

The Chinese State in Ming Society (Timothy Brook, 2018/#4): What it says in the can. The Ming state was both absurdly intrusive (for Medieval/Early Modern standards) and quite weak. The dynastic founder's initial reorganization of spatial arrangements is fascinating as an attempt (as is his pivot from pro-Buddhism (as an orphan he lived in a monastery) to awfully suspicious of unregistered, vagrant monks), but more successful than latter attempts to keep up to date registers of who lived where, or, as tax bases changed, what was raised where and who owned what. Given the size of the Empire and the sparseness of bureaucracy — the central government's lowest functionary wasn't somebody you'd necessarily ever see unless you were part of the local gentry — mapping taxable resources was both critical and impossible; all things said, I don't think they did a bad job. Ditto when it comes to rice polders and larger common infrastructure; getting local gentry to paid for them, specially as social arrangements shifted and things became more mercantile and wealth-driven by the late Ming, was a headache. Even censorship was, practically speaking, outside the power of the late Ming, given the fascinatingly huge and pervasive commercial book sector (the size and number of private libraries, and the sheer social spread of reading as a pleasure activity in late Ming China, makes the West at the time look positively ridiculous; I knew there had been a catch-up process, but I hadn't internalized how large it had to be. The fact that schools had to first build libraries because, as gifts from the Emperor, the official books coming from the court (the Four Treasures) had to be appropriately housed is kind of funny. Another tidbit that struck me: the way some Emperors sold what were basically "monk certificates" as a way to raise extra revenue — because monks didn't pay taxes, everybody understood that this was a way to pay, as it were, all your taxes in advance, forever, so nobody took those certificates into account when estimating the monk population (as moving, non-tax-paying/corvee-able? people, monks were rather suspect). Very highly recommended.

Opium Regimes: China, Britain, and Japan, 1839-1952 (Ed. Timothy Brook and Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi, 2018/#5): Short version: the British were pretty much indefensible on this, but then, so was almost everybody else. I hadn't realized the structural importance of opium not just at the level of international trade, but also for colony- and state-building in South and East Asia. In many places it was the first mass consumption "recreational" commodity, as well as a necessary ergogenic for early forms of exploitative export-driven enterprises — more significantly, addicting (already indebted) workers in mines and plantations to opium meant that essentially work was free; this made viable previously unprofitable projects. It was so profitably taxable, in fact, that pretty much every colonial, occupation, or native regime found difficult to reject the revenues, and most did a back and forth between different forms of opium farming and government monopolies (with justifications varying between "control it because we need the money" and "control is so we can eventually shut it down"), and, generally speaking, only did away with opium for good when popular opinion shifted drastically against it. A very special mention goes to Du Yuesheng, the most powerful boss of the Green Gang in Shanghai during the 1920s and 30s, incredibly well-connected politically, and all around an slippery son of a bitch. One of the articles refers to him as "the Chinese Al Capone," but that'd only be true if Al Capone had had or controlled banks, newspapers, logistics companies, and a huge cetera.

Revolution: The History of England from the Battle of the Boyne to the Battle of Waterloo (Peter Ackroyd, 2018/#6): Another volume of his history of England; as readable and interesting as the previous ones.

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Historically, medieval fairs (and thus the re-birth of intensive urban commerce in Europe) took place during religious feasts, and under the protection not only of ecclesiastic authorities, but also, and explicitly, of relics and saints, who were considered to own the lands and assets donated to each religious organization. What if this was literally true, and — in a purely Christian version of The Black Monday Murders — the invisible hand of the market was in fact a miraculous one? (instead of transubstantiation, the miracle being utility-maximizing market clearing)

In an alternate universe like this, a legal person would not only be a theological travesty (I have to side with Harold Bloom on Americans (really, Republicans) being not so much lousy Christians as belonging to a completely different religion), but also a commercial dead end. So saints, as effectively immortal and financially efficient entities, would end up owning most of the economy. Establishing a new saint would be like setting up a start-up (or getting a taxi medallion, with the Church very tightly regulating this). In a world where relics have even more of a financial impact than they did — in the real world, a "good" relic, by attracting pilgrims and donations, could save a struggling congregation, or even make it rich — the concept of "furta sacra", or sacred theft, becomes doubly meaningful. You'd notice your city's main relic was stolen because the next day the damned (pun intended) market would crash.

The financial/metaphysical Renaissance conundrum about usury would take a whole different look. Charging high interest rates would, in fact, lead you to bankruptcy, so you either go through the Jews (whose economy seems to obey different rules, in a very theologically problematic way), or figure out workarounds by trial and error (what they actually did, through wonderful and very Wall Street-like contortions with bills of exchange and other financial esoterica).

Throws a whole different light on the Protestant Reformation, by the way. Slightly facetiously (in an already very facetious post), it's something like the contemporary cryptocurrency libertarian thing... Saints and so on are paper money/government oppression, in a truly free market you interact directly with Him/It, etc. (Makes you wonder what the schism with the Orthodox Church was really about, and makes the way the European economy ended up being dominant after the massive theft from Constantinople of pretty much every relic in 1204 more of a cause-and-effect sort of thing.)


Making the later US economic dominance depend on some sort of unholy pact within a different religious framework would be the logical continuation. Note that the Pilgrims were escaping religious persecution (slash onerous taxes, like how Apple and Google are, theologically and legally speaking, Irish companies), and that, as a matter of historical fact, they did sign an honest-to-goodness contract with God, promising rigorous, saintly behavior in exchange for prosperity. Early Puritan America was a drab, brutal theocracy where God's favor was measured by how well you and your community were doing, financially speaking.

Er... Crap.

It's kind of frustrating when you start rambling about a nicely horrifying take on alternate history, and it turns out it's pretty much what they were actually doing.

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Books! (Arcana imperii Edition)

Normal (Warren Ellis, 2017/#69): A novella sold independently, or a Kindle single if you'd like. The dialog doesn't escape the usual Ellis-isms, and neither does the premise, but when said premise is weird mystery in a psychiatric asylum for (sometimes temporarily) burned-out futurists, that's probably a plus. Recommended, although don't expect it to be SF or futuristic; it's very much Weird Present.

The Final Deduction (Rex Stout , 2017/#70): A reread. Satisfactory.

Passenger to Frankfurt (Agatha Christie, 2017/#71): The weirdest Agatha Christie book I've ever read, and not in a good way. The short version of the plot: spoilersCollapse ). By the way, the books' cover mentioned Poirot, which was a filthy lie, but by the time I realized how much of a multi-lane, miles-long traffic apocalypse the thing was, I just had to keep reading to see how bad it could and did get.

The Under Dog and Other Stories (Agatha Christie, 2017/#72): A classic collection of Poirot short(ish) stories.

The Big Four (Agatha Christie, 2017/#73): A hybrid of the previous two books. It's Poirot versus an international cabal of four evil geniuses dedicated and actually awfully close to actual world domination; Number Three is an evil scientific genius, Number Four is a murderous genius actor, Number Two is the world's richest man, and Number One is Fu Manchu with the serial numbers perfunctorily filed off. Along the way, Christie makes fun of Conan Doyle, reiterates the idea of an evil cabal using drugs to turn youth into violent protesters, and has pretty much everybody insult poor Captain Hastings.

~The Best Science Fiction of the Year Vol. 2 (Ed. Neil Clarke, unfinished): I stopped halfway; it's not that they aren't well-written, but the repetitive background beats of bone-deep tired, awkwardly dystopian despair with the occasional sort-of-poetical semi-redemption has gotten on my nerves (and, yes, I realize how ironic is for me to complain about that). Used to like this kind of story, will probably go back to liking it again at some point, but right now it's too *realistic* a mood, and these stories were just leaving on my mouth the same awful aftertaste news, even nominally good news, does these days (not, of course, discounting the effect of unrelated personal going-ons).

Electing the Pope in Early Modern Italy, 1450-1700(Miles Pattenden, 2017/#74): An interesting study on the impact of the process by which Popes came to power on the nature and development of Church history, particularly the Papal States. The Church had (and at least de iure still has) a very unique political system: it's a theocratic absolutism where the ruler has an unique relationship with the divine, but it's also an elective position where the Pope is chosen from a relatively large number of candidates — by and large the same people voting — that came from a very varied set of backgrounds. This led to a number of interesting effects: Despite how horrid actual Conclaves were, they fact that they existed was the only real power they had, which means they wanted to exercise it as carefully, effectively, and often as possible. Also, the voting process was never even as remotely isolated as they were supposed to be, and yet they all had to pretend their choice of Pope had been inspired by the Holy Spirit, lest the figure of the Pope, and by extension, their own, lack legitimacy. But the Pope's authority, although personal, was highly perishable — there was a lot of political, pragmatic, and doctrinal back and forth over time to handle the problem of who, if anybody, was in charge of what, if anything, during Sede Vacante; Rome, never a safe city, became particularly violent during those interregnums for much of this period. And because it was quite impossible for Popes (who came often and increasingly from powerful Italian, and specially Roman, families) to keep the post in the family, which meant they had to grab as much money as they could as fast as they could, yet making as few enemies as possible, before they died, because the next Pope was very likely to come from a rival faction, and the only concern limiting his actions against yours would be fear of setting a precedent for the next one. Needless to say, this didn't lead to much fiscal responsibility. (Relatedly, there's an interesting analysis about how the Papal States had quite sophisticated financial and bureaucratic systems for the age — venality, for all of its bad reputation, was an almost universal feature of secular states, not dissimilar to annuities or perpetual bonds backed by specific sources of revenue — but one that wasn't driven by exploding military costs, as was the case for large contemporary states, but rather as the slow development of a sort of para-Papal government structure capable of partially isolating elites and processes from the frequently changing boss.)

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I just read To Serve Man in a scanned pdf of the magazine it was originally published in, which gave me all the old school feels. The Galaxy archive is great comfort food reading (as long as you give yourself permission to skip all the admittedly very bad stuff it's in there as well).

I'm very tempted to pick up again my much-loved complete set of Holmes The Strand Magazine facsimiles; it's been a long while since I've done a Full Sherlock Holmes Reread, after all.

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Everybody's so focused on how important it was when the Vulcans made first contact with Earth during the 21st century, but is anybody grateful to the Klingons for tutoring the Sumerians?

Actual Sumerian sky map:



To be honest, I'm growing fond of the aesthetic.
I've been calling today Amerexit Day every time the subject came up with one of my US-based coworkers.

That's pretty much it.

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Aristeia: An aristeia or aristia (/ærᵻˈstiː.ə/; Ancient Greek: ἀριστεία, IPA: [aristěːaː], "excellence") is a scene in the dramatic conventions of epic poetry as in the Iliad, where a hero in battle has his finest moments (aristos = "best").

Also known in contemporary epic (e.g. set piece battles in comic crossovers) as Crowning Moment of Awesome. The relationship seems to go deeper than this, though: the way large comic battles are depicted — the roll calls, the individual combat, the tides and turns — seems, with the obvious changes from an oral to a visual medium, very similar. I think it goes deeper than the straightforward observation that hero is a common term in both, and that metas = (demi)gods; it seems to be a common narrative trait (I'm not familiar with, e.g., Hindu epics, but if I had to bet I'd say that it owes more to the intersection between human cognitive limitations and the synchronous complexity of battles than to an specific cultural tradition).

Anyway, nice to know DC and Marvel do live up to very old traditions (although not even Homer dared have the Greeks do a new siege of troy every year).

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Today, in Things That Please Me:

There's a decades-old tradition in Norway of reading crime/detective novels during Easter. It even has the awesome name of påskekrim.

Granted, it's mostly a commercial gimmick. But most near-contemporary traditions are.

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