Saturday, 28 February 2015
Friday, 27 February 2015
canine confessions: Ze Frank presents Sad Dog Diary
hootenanny: big in Japan, owl bars are coming to London
a pox upon thee: gerbils should get the blame for spreading the plague
phonemic handshape: a video on how some of the latest slang and jargon is signed
monogrammed: dozens of vintage corporate emblems, mostly logographic to peruse
After learning about some clever entrepreneurs’ plan to partner an open all hours chain of diners with parcel delivery services for the sake of more convenient pick-up and drop-off—and just after hearing of a single US hotline number to order anything from pizza to a horse-drawn carriage ride around Fantasy Island, I must say, while clever and enterprising—and possibly well-connected, I don’t know about this middle-man economic model. Sim salabim!
This thoughtful essay from Æon magazine, which hangs the chief friction between faith and science on the transition of God from being a dissembler and a Noble-Liar for our own good to one incapable of deception, reminded me very much of a thin but engrossing book by Portuguese writer José Saramago called Cain that I read recently. Unflinching to the last, the author tries to answer that same paradoxical quandary that’s plagued philosophers and theologians since the beginning: why did a perfect and all-powerful God need to mislead or test his creations? Cain, an ostensible victim of one of those trials (others including the expulsion of his parents from Eden, Sodom and Gomorrah, Job’s suffering, Noah’s deluge, etc., etc.) condemned to wander the Earth for the act of killing his brother—which arguably was not unprovoked, confronts God directly over this and other injustices perpetrated seemingly by a petty deity who was far from omnipotent, and doesn’t relent.
Neither side can afford to give in, nor really—kind of tenderly, is either willing to accept the argument that that business was all Old Testament or that God’s ways are mysterious and inscrutable, and the standoff echoes through the ages. In seeking to reconcile these founding inconsistencies, God, who was and is ever present, was made a bit mute and aloof and it was argued that was ever the case. In hardly something to pin one’s faith to but illustrative, Descartes posits that the feeling of being forsaken or deceived is akin to one suffering from dropsy (funky cold œdema), where one is retaining too much water but is nonetheless constantly thirsty. Our faculties are generally configured to drink when parched and one person’s unfortunate condition isn’t universal, invoking Ockham. A little strangely, Descartes also supposes that in the heavenly-sphere that God were to erase a star but still perpetuate the sign of it, it’s similarly a self-delusion that we ought not to project—though looking to the skies, we are looking to the past, which is a quandary that the philosopher could not have known, scientifically at least. What do you think? Has God stepped back after setting things in motion (as the re-discovered writings of the Greek classics that led to the Renaissance and Enlightenment revealed), have we gone deaf or is it something else that the troubled old folks have failed to question? I’d like an answer—and would even wrestle an angel for one.
Thursday, 26 February 2015
When I first saw this feature as the frontispiece of a rather venerable and unfailing website, I had a moment of misgivings—wondering if they had surrendered to those catch-penny walls of copy-pasta when one strays too near the lower bounds of a webpage.
The New Yorker has a nice, succinct piece on the recent demonstration of the artificial intelligence DeepMind, whose talents draw from two sources, a deductive network of filters and positive-reinforcement.
The program—instructed with only the protocol that winning was good and losing bad—dazzled the human audience with a stellar progression on a platform of classic arcade games with some very masterful and unexpected strokes. It is not that DeepMind is inside the game, like when one challenges the game, but separated like a human player, and quickly devised a sure strategy. The program, however, did not perform quite so well with certain games—like Ms. Pac-Man, and the handlers weren’t quite sure why. Some disparaging voices checked their enthusiasm, as milestones like Deep Blue beating a chess grand-master or Watson winning against Jeopardy! quiz-masters. These achievements, though not coddled and not insignificant, came about, however, through extensive coaching, whereas DeepMind is learning on its own. What do you think? Is growth going to be exponential and get very quickly out of human hands?
neat, petite: Agent Scully posing as Morticia Addams
dog and butterfly: some beautiful photography of an unlikely pairing
geisterstadt: there is a growing website of abandoned places and ghosts towns all over the world
de stiji: a print or tee-shirt of the TARDIS in the style of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian
a great rodd of birch: a character called Whipping Tom (with several copy-cats) terrorised Londoners in the 1600s, beating their hinders and shouting, “Spanko!”
Wednesday, 25 February 2015
The inexhaustibly fascinating Dangerous Minds features a look at the major arcana of a suite of tarot cards conceived by the brilliant artist Edward Gorey, who gave us the lovable in the macabre.
The cards are not properly prognosticating ones, however, as they all represent different aspects of our internal fantods, a word more than for the nonce, that describes our worries and anxieties and irritations and bode no hope for a bright and uplifting fortune. For instance, drawing the Feather can be interpreted to forecast obstacles of a most pernicious nature—including, rather specifically, blackmail, a forged passport, intestinal discomfort, and loss of eyelashes (which is called madarosis). The horror. Be sure to check out the link for more backstory and augury, and Dangerous Minds in general for some veteran discoveries.
Tuesday, 24 February 2015
After the long, violent delay in Antioch, the Crusader army found itself on the last short leg through the Levant and onto Jerusalem. Though diminished in numbers and supplies, they met little local resistance in blazing a trail across the wilderness towards the heart of the Holy Land.
While the intervening populations, Tripoli, Haifa, did not exactly roll over, the Crusaders’ dread reputation for ruthlessness proceeded them and communities decided prudently that it was easier to aid and abet the advancing army and send them on their merry way rather than suffer their wrath and wind up slaughtered and cooked for supper. That act of cannibalism during the siege of Ma’arrat al-Numan grew in people’s imaginations and echoed, along with a lot of other misdeeds, through the decades and contributed to the so-called Great Schism, when the Eastern Church asserted independence from Rome. Another rumour—or rather a realisation began to circulate regarding the Crusaders’ ultimate goal, conquest of Jerusalem. Byzantium and Fatimid Egypt, while not exactly fast-friends, did maintain diplomatic-relations, since after all they had a shared enemy and shared national-interests in the Seljuk Turks, who’d captured many Byzantine lands and until only a decade or so prior, held Palestine and Jerusalem. The Shia Egyptians had expelled the Sunni Turks at a great cost, but now were wise to the Crusaders designs and did not want their hard-earned gains to fall to Christian occupiers. Egyptian leaders appealed to Emperor Alexios, offering terms that all parties could live with—safe passage for pilgrimage, protection of the churches and freedom of worship. Alexios had to concede, however, that the army had gone rogue, after failing to restore Antioch to the Empire and founding their own Crusade States (Egypt was probably also smarting for having spilled so much blood and treasure expelling the Seljuk Turks, while if they had been patient, this army would have been sent down from Europe to do the dirty-work and Egypt would only have light-duties), and he would be powerless to stop them.
The Crusaders too had gotten a taste of the Holy Land not as pilgrims but as conquerers and were far from sated. Egypt resigned itself to raising an army to dispatch with this nuisance, but the Crusaders’ pace was too quick and they ended up taking Jerusalem and unleashed a terrible and unconstrained massacre of Muslim residents before falling to that familiar routine of deciding ownership of the prize. Out of humility, no one in the end claimed kingship over Jerusalem but rather Advocate-in-Chief. And scene—well, not quite. The noble families of Europe who’d sat out the first Crusade, dismissing it as a fool’s errand, hearing reports of the glory and plunder of these instigators were kicking themselves for not having gotten in on the ground-floor, launching successive waves of sloppy-seconds raising more ire and polarisation hoping to maintain that tenuous hold on the Holy Land and secure greater conquests.
brotherly-love: these two siblings have been exchanging a single birthday card for twenty-seven years
worrywart: the not so obvious benefits of anxieties
ewe-net: wifi-enabled sheep aim to create mobile access points for rural Wales
honourable mentions: some of the contenders from Sony’s World Photography Awards
tip of the iceberg: research suggests that the unconscious mind is capable of mental acrobatics we usually associate with conscious deliberation
Sometimes a reminder is far better than a discovery.
Monday, 23 February 2015
Once our adventure got off to a start, more as Pope Urban II had envisioned it and under the sanctioned leadership of penitent princes of Latin Christendom, there were quite a few trials along the learning-curve to sort out first and throughout the interminably long and punishing siege of Antioch. To begin with, a large contingent that the Byzantine Emperor Alexios was welcoming into Constantinople—already being a little miffed by his previously ungracious guests in the peasants’ army, were Italo-Norman mercenaries, the same group that had been conducting raids on Byzantine lands in the Balkans. Much of the rest of the princes were either very ambitious or were impoverished, landless nobility who sought to make their fortunes in the Crusade, and whom, like the poor serfs that did not hesitate over-much in leaving their estates, didn’t have much to lose and a great deal to gain, but there was the universally-respected Bishop Adémar of Le Puy, the papal legate who was officially in charge, and a few excellent strategists to hopefully reign in these more dangerous elements. As Urban had in part sold the idea of retaking the Holy Lands to Byzantium, whose blessing was absolutely necessary for the venture to succeed, with the promise of helping the Eastern Empire regaining territory lost recently to the Seljuk Turks, the Crusaders deployed first to this task.
Although a safe corridor for resupply was also needed, admittedly, these first conquests were a bit half-hearted, as all conquests reverted to Byzantium and the Crusaders, though they surely gained in plunder and spoils, saw less out of the deal than they’d wished for. These lands in Anatolia, extending into the Levant to Syria, were only taken by the Turks about a decade prior and there was still a sizable population, if not an overwhelming majority of Greek citizens in the towns and villages, whom—while not exactly persecuted and yearning to be liberated—were happy to lend aid to this army on the march and help to overthrow the Seljuk Turks. The apparent cake-walk towards the Holy Land could also be attributed to the political landscape of the region, which was not much different from that of contemporary Western Europe from whence the Crusaders were recruited—local rulers were on the defense and the offense. Powerful families were forever trying to wrest more lands from one another, an there were the same old intrigues, sectarianism, dynastic concerns and marriages of allegiance plus that new order of hashish smoking Assassins to contend with. The Turks, though not wanting their lands attacked, also had little sympathy for seeing rivals suffer, and they assumed that the Crusade was just another bunch of soldiers-of-fortune sent out to reclaim some of the territory of the Byzantine Empire, not suspecting a greater, holier goal since the Crusaders’ deportment did not indicate otherwise. A Shia embassy from Fatimid Egypt, in fact, even visited the encampment, pleased that the Crusaders were making life difficult for their Sunni enemies. Edessa (then called Justinopolis but now known as Şanlıurfa) came under Crusader control, as the native Armenians wanted to free themselves from both Seljuk or Byzantine rule—as did a number of important ports along the coast. The advance halted, however, before Antioch, with its impenetrable fortified walls. Knowing it was vital to take this city, a Christian stronghold and important nexus—not to mention a place of considerable wealth, the Crusaders, numbering some thirty to fifty-thousand souls, warriors and non-combatants, families and support personnel which made up the bulk of the army, encamped themselves in the orchards and fields that lie beneath the city-walls, with designs to starve out the population.
The siege went on for months and months, like the Achaeans before Troy with moodiness and fatigue—not to mention privation, and still Antioch held. Misgivings aside, two events managed to allow the Crusaders access: one was a relationship forged between one of the senior leaders and a tower guard and later the visions of a poor monk. A watchman named Firouz agreed, after much consultation, agreed to toss down a rope ladder to allow an advance group access to the city, who would throw open the city gates to the Crusader army. Just as the Crusaders took Antioch, however, a relief force had arrived from Aleppo, allied with the ruler of Antioch, and greatly outnumbered the Crusaders. After months on end of the Crusaders spent at the gates, Antioch was depleted and now the Crusaders, inside the city-walls, found themselves under siege, the Syrian army encamped on the same pitch that they’d recently left. The second event that brought about the egress came when a priest and servant of one of the wealthy nobles approached Adémar and others, saying that he’d been told by Christ that the Holy Lance was buried beneath a church in Antioch and should it be retrieved; the army bearing the standard of the spear that the gladiator Longius pierced the side of Jesus with would be invincible. Some were a bit skeptical, being as there was already a Holy Lance, enshrined in Constantinople, but no matter as there is a Spear of Destiny today in Saint Peter’s and also one in the Hofburg of Vienna, part of the imperial regalia of the Hapsburgs (which was hidden and kept safe from Hitler, as it was believed to possess the same potent powers), and as the Crusaders had truck with relics, genuine and supposed, which were important monetary-instruments to secure re-supply from the Genoese and Venetians, they let the excavation proceed.
When the sought-after evidence was produced, it became at-large an amazing morale-booster for those invaders now become captives, and the Crusaders successfully fought their way out of the city. Once at liberty to continue their mission, however, the Crusaders did not march straightaway to Jerusalem. Instead, rather, the squabbling continued as to who should govern Antioch and surrounding lands—no one wanted to cede their conquests to Emperor Alexios, but there were quite a few claimants, chief rivals being the noble that had turned the loyalties of the watchman and the patron of the monk that found the Holy Lance. None were budging and the arrival of re-enforcements by ship—now that the ports were under Crusader control, brought a pestilence to the army, taking many lives, including Bishop Adémar. Now the Princes were not only bereft of a consensus and direction, they also had to nominate a new leader and there was no placating anyone. The undermining was despicable and it looked as if the Crusade would never make it further than Antioch, with no one willing to relinquish his stake. A particularly shameful and needless massacre on the neighbouring town of Ma’arrat al-Numan, whose unspeakable carnage included acts of cannibalism and the eventual total destruction of the settlement—which was only targeted, expressly, to keep the Principality of Antioch under-supplied and at the mercy of the princes who were not vested with that land, really revolted many of the knights who began to march off without their petty leaders and the princes finally agreed that one among them would remain behind to govern the territory and they’d march on.
Sunday, 22 February 2015
let’s roll: elocution, gesture and rhetoric illustrated through marshaling the legions of the fallen in Milton’s Paradise Lost
la bambola: check out this awesome song and dance number with Don Lurio and Patty Pravo
mariner: here’s a fun and interactive guide to space probe missions
class-m: a pretty keen chart that breaks down the atmospheric composition of planets in our Solar System
handbag revolution: peaceful protests in Sweden over a decision not to erect a statue commemorating an act of courage and defiance
Possibly surpassing spiders’ silk for its tensile strength, biologists may have discovered a new candidate for a new class of more efficient and durable housings and casings in the humble but unmoveable but not immoblie limpet.
Saturday, 21 February 2015
Ages ago, the private motor vehicles of Americas affiliated with the military stationed in Germany were plated with distinctive licenses, as if the major of American cars weren’t already conspicuous enough—with either the prefix HK for bumpers that took the short, standard US tags or AD for bumpers that could accommodate the longer, German style license plates.
Here is a pretty keen vintage map of the United States of America, printed circa 1927 from a Greek cartographer.
Friday, 20 February 2015
I don’t know why exactly I forsook reading science-fiction—although admittedly I did not have much of a literary foundation to spring from. I did read the Dune saga and A Canticle for Lebowitz and enjoyed them immensely—especially as the later was partially set in a post-apocalyptic Texarkana, where I was living at the time, per-apocalypse.
grand hotel paradox: a TED talk thought-puzzle on the nature of infinity
symmetry group: stunningly uniform modern architectural façades in a Turkish neighbourhood
echo parque: there is a popular attraction in Mexico that simulates the dangers of illegal border crossing
reinventing the wheel: a small collection of ingeniously useful and essential medieval apps
ramifications: happy lunar new year
Thursday, 19 February 2015
I think I must just be a little naïve, because although I never felt that the threat that the Caliphate poses was not a very real one, proved wrenchingly cruel and callous but not potent many times over, though shock and determination which can sometimes make up for other shortcomings for a little while—and when it seemed their violence had reached a sort of plateau, unspeakably gruesome reports come that ISIL may be harvesting the bodily organs of its victims to sell on the black-market—I never saw the potential for Rome and the Vatican to become prime targets, but I suppose they always were. ISIL is gaining territory in Libya—the former Italian colony on just the other side of the Mediterranean. Taking advantage of the power-vacuum created with the overthrow of strongman Qaddafi, whom had ambitions for creating a superstate across the Maghreb as well, the group is finding another staging ground in a leaderless land, like that American mandate, Iraq, that’s also proved to be vulnerable over its vacuity in leadership. They’ll be no defenders forthcoming for that past peerage of dictators, but destabilising order, especially a tyrannical one, has consequences.
alternate history: new serial adaptation of the Philip K. Dick classic, The Man in the High Castle, is in the making
lady liberty: Bartholdi’s iconic statue was originally intended to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal on the Red Sea
through the looking glass: Physics Girl illustrates how mirrors work
sea monkey kingdom: the diminutive horseshoe shrimp is one of the oldest species on earth
A word or two more on the quite disastrous dress-rehearsal that preceded the commencement of the opening act: Urban II was not quite alone in stirring up furor, but surely the Pope’s summons inspired all the other holy-recruiters. The group that managed to get themselves, mostly, massacred in Anatolia, however, probably did not need to be enticed, over-much, to leave behind the drudgery of the manor to secure a blessing in a distant land, maybe even the Holy Land, which they understood to be the land of milk and honey. Being the first wave to embark on their crusade, the peasant army had easy going at first, but soon ran into complications. Urban II orchestrated the details of the adventure carefully, delaying departure until after the autumn harvest, so the rear-detachment that kept the home-fires burning, already having lost a good deal of their manpower to the advance-party, would not be without food during the winter and the Crusaders might encounter farmers with their lagers full and would be willing to share their bounty.
Aside from the awful mission-creep that excused the marchers to torment the Jews (which the nobility also championed though not condoned by the Church), it also apparently became license for indiscriminate pillaging and violence, plundering everything in their wake as they crossed the frontier into Byzantium, murdering any one who crossed them, even before the reached total desperation with their supplies dwindling, the local being left with little to share with the advancing horde, the summertime being the leanest season a thousand years ago, as the afore-mentioned crops had not matured and last year’s harvest was nearly depleted. By the time the rabble arrived in Constantinople, under escort, the Emperor Alexius was rather at a loss for words, as this group of untrained hooligans was not exactly the calvary he’d asked the Pope to send. In fact, camped outside the city walls while the emperor tried to figure out how to manage this influx, this relief army proved a much greater liability and terrorised the countryside even more than the occasional, more scrupulous raids carried out by the Turks and Normans—another desperate group of restless plunders suffering from mission-creep. Given a target in Turkish-controlled territory, the peasants decamped and were more or less summarily dispatched, but not without leaving an important blemish—not on the Crusades really since there are no winners in this exercise but on humanity. A few of the peasants even defected, as it were, to the other side, not that as if their convictions had not been tossed away long ago, and fight to expel the Byzantine Greeks. Once the professional crusaders came through months later, following the same route along the Danube to reach the Levant via Anatolia, they were regarded with great suspicion, locals fearing more of the same trouble and disappointment, and the Crusaders faced mounting resistance when it came to provisioning. Moreover, the Seljuk Turks assumed when the encountered this new army that it would be as handily rebuffed as the previous mob.
Wednesday, 18 February 2015
The shrewd administrator and extremely accidental pope Urban II toured France and Italy, mostly to set aright the balance of the respective domains of Church and State—not to pull the twain asunder nor to eschew the clerics’ civic responsibility, which most would describe as meddling—by putting the secular powers firmly in their place. Urban was heir to the battle royale of the wills between the papacy and the imperial throne. His predecessor Pope Gregory VII had excommunicated Emperor Henry IV for his attempts to circumvent Church authority by giving out (or rather selling, what’s known as simony) religious offices as sort of grace-and-favour rewards to his loyal nobles.
Such facets of the complicated geo-politics of the day (and the Muslims surely had their own sectarian and sacred and mundane intrigues to contend with and spin as well) were too bothersome to try to extract, so in the year 1095 with fire-and-brimstone Urban rallied the crowds to commit themselves to retaking the lands lost in the Eastern Empire—and, with spot-on improvisational skills, the Holy Land itself—with tales, harking back to the worse atrocities magnified of the mad caliph. Urban attached a grave urgency to this holy campaign, as churches were being desecrated and pilgrims tortured and executed—a pilgrimage being a popular way to atone for one’s sins, though Canossa was not arduous enough to impress Pope Gregory. The pope hoped to let his convocation germinate and give the feudal lords the chance to assemble men and supplies, but perhaps his speech was a little too persuasive, as instead of under the leadership warrior-bishops or the knights of those newly created recruiting orders (the Hospitallers, the Templars, the Teutons or the Maltese) the peasants marched off at their own accord, infused with righteous indignation. Some forty thousand massed in Köln and headed towards Constantinople. Along the way, I suppose to vent some aggressions and prime themselves for combat, they burned synagogues and harassed the Jewish population. Shamed into quick action and more importantly, deprived of the serf labour force needed to work the land and provide protection, the armies of the nobility marched the other direction, towards Jerusalem on their crusade—the peasants having all been captured or killed in their zeal by the Turks.
It’s pretty difficult to point to something and declare it either original, visionary or retro and derivative.
Tuesday, 17 February 2015
Though some may posit that the refugees that come in hopes of settlement in better lands represent those whom did not make the cut in their homelands, and while that might have been a true characterisation of the pilgrims that landed on Plymouth Rock and the penal colony that was Australia, I think that it’s a rather placating racist thing to believe, allowing one to believe that he is refraining judgment on a whole people and culture while excusing the xenophobia one harbours for the neighbours.
Though it is probably not possible to legislate morality or majority opinion with controls and tactics that paradoxically would not wilt before Corporate Europe Observatory’s latest fact-finding report, the group, which is devoted to uncovering cronyism, revolving-door political appointments and general corruption within the EU halls of power, hopes to at least sham-shame those European public-relations firms that play the willing sophist—with bogus, whitewashed blather—to some of the world’s most brutal regimes. One would think that one can only recognise ruthlessness in hindsight, given what image-makers can do, and how a little, well targeted character assassination can obscure real assassinations. The detailed study with eighteen cases can be perused at the link.
The young country of Finland found itself in a very unenviable position just after the start of WWII. Until 1809, Finland had been a part of the Kingdom of Sweden, until Imperial Russia conquered the territory to provide a buffer-region (a march) to protect Saint Petersburg during the Napoleonic Wars. This freshly created Duchy of Finland, however, took the chance to break free during the chaos of successive revolutions and civil wars that visited Russia and was able to declare independence in 1918, just before the peace was brokered for WWI.
crucible: Norway’s memorial to victims of its witch-trials
stereoscope: the classic View-Master gets a virtual-reality upgrade
there and back again: illustrations of the Hobbit from all over the world
fleuron and range-dash: rather convincing illustration of how typewriters have destroyed the art of type-setting
think different: one’s next ride could be an Apple product
Here are a few parting-impression of our little trip to Hanseatic Hamburg, one of three of Germany’s city-states but unique in many ways. Though our exposure was limited to the usual tourist-experience, it struck me as quite livable, more so than other metropolitan areas—though there were distinct signs of gentrification and I had the feeling that denizens were cleft if not to their class but to the demographics of their boroughs, a truth about gentrification that was probably peppered by the voting Sunday and campaigning in the air.
It was also quite striking to me how this city, this inland empire, as close to the Baltic as to the Atlantic, controlling only the narrows of the Elbe for trade, has retained its dominance, even as many other knots only over-land and over-sea routes have faded.
It seems a lot of naturally endowed infrastructure, staging has been forgot, whereas Hamburg remains an attractive force. There are outposts, once regaled in the same way, along the roads that once brought trade between the great cities, usually anchored to the seaways, but have only memories to show for their strategic locations. I am grateful, however, that Hamburg preserved its heritage and has only grown its capacity for import-export, without regard for how the paradigm of trade might have changed.
There’s a genuine character that’s formed and sustained the famous Reeperbahn (named after the street where the rope-weavers lived) and Saint Pauli, despite the tourists but maybe because. Not far afield from its renowned football-pitch lies a brutal-looking WWII era anti-aircraft tower. The finely- tiled old Elbe tunnel is buried deep underneath the river and the narrow lane is open to cars during rush-hour and not just foot traffic.
The bureaucracy has created a unique skyline, as has the corporate headquarters and the prestige-projects, like the newly added Elbe-Philharmonic, that are terriors of the shipping business that remains as big and prominent as ever. With some two-thousand four-hundred bridges, Hamburg has the most crossings of any city on Earth and has more canals than both Amsterdam and Venice combined. I am not sure if that figures in number or volume, as Venice did seem to be unsurpassed in the quirkiness of its waterways.
The architectural heritage of the city, blocks of warehouses that until recently characterised a free-trade zone, are really transfixing when set against the history and machinery—the cranes and cargo containers, and, as office-space for any business wanting a foothold, still are prized real-estate and without, out-priced, denigrating where one might hang his shingle. I am really glad that we had the chance to visit and spend a few days discovering, and I am looking forward to going back in warmer weather, even if that means braving the crush of other visitors and not having the place all to our selves.