Tuesday, 31 March 2015

indistinguishable from magic

Æon Magazine has an excellent reflection on how automata slowly infiltrated Western Europe thought, through accounts of ambassadors to far-off lands to the East and South and curious, remarkable gifts given to comparably dull European sovereigns by potentates of unbelievable wealth and learning, but rather than immediately try to reverse-engineer what wonders they’d seen or heard of, that thought veered towards the preternatural, an aberration with esoteric causes.  Albeit the spectacle of the courts of the Near East with animatronic menageries and mechanised stages sound a little like an episode of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, it was sure to impress visitors and it seems that Europe, even the educated caste, reaffirmed the maxim of author and inventor Arthur C. Clarke that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic many times over. Though I suppose innovative craftsmanship and technical knowledge was never completely ruled out, rather than cogs and gears, witnesses were at a loss to account for these displays and resorted to the usual quiver of superstitious explanations, demonic possession, planetary alignment, necromancy.
Once the forgotten industrial prowess of Antiquity was rediscovered in the late Middle Ages, clockwork and associated applications began to promulgate slowly—however, European courts also were big for the theatrical, special effects. It strikes us as rather naïve and unreasonable to think anyone could be so primitive to mistake robotics for magic, like the cargo-cults that pray to air-traffic overhead to bring more humanitarian aid, but I suppose it is quite a bit similar to the modern phenomena of readily attributing past human achievement and future direction to extra-terrestrials or conspiracy. What do you think? Is technology demystified the closer in comes to appearing like actual magic? Maybe so long as we’re privy to the research-and-development phase, we won’t cower in fear and awe.

arsenal and armoury

Though medieval times are known—particularly in Europe, for violence and brutality and tactical sophistication does not exactly leap out, there were a few rather interesting innovations that were given exposure during the Crusades and contributed to the arsenal of exchange of destructive play-things among the East and West—arsenal itself coming from the Arabic word, dār as-sināça, a workshop.
The mainstay of the European Crusaders was the siege engine or the catapult (battering rams and siege towers included), which although refined and improved, was a technology already known and utilised during antiquity—and that was really the West’s best game. They were skilled at building secure fortifications that would repel attacks but were also good an undermining defenses. The Seljuk Turks were highly skilled archers and were more mobile than European warhorses at staging ambushes however they were also in possession of a secret weapon, inspired by the so called Greek fire of the Byzantines.  Still a mystery as to the exact formula, this was an incendiary substance, and like napalm, once aflame it was impossible to extinguish and would burn even across the surface of water or could be used like a flame-thrower.

The Muslims also expertly utilised messenger pigeons to quickly relay reports and commands across vast distances, a sorcery that the Europeans had never seen before and could not hope to compete with. It was, however, the armies of the khan from the far distant Mongolian steppe encroaching on Persia and on Transylvania to the north that brought to the battlefield the most volatile new weapon. The Mongols were able to ransack Baghdad and suppress nearly an entire continent through gun-powder, but once witnessing the power of explosives, the Muslims and then the Europeans alchemists were quick to harness it for themselves.

Monday, 30 March 2015

five-by-five

tron, troff: vector map that renders cities as if out of the film Tron 

milk’s for babies: a look how cheese and tolerance to dairy changed the world

sky hostess: gorgeous vintage collection of stewardesses in uniform, via Neat-o-Rama

phoenix: from out of the rubble, a show-and-tell of San Francisco rebuilding and reinvention after the great quake

digital syndicate: a roundup of podcasts to peruse

lexeme oder news you can use

Before the Norman Conquest and the explosion of French borrowings that displaced many but certainly not all Germanic roots—at least the straightforward ones, of the language, the word for news was tidings—frozen in biblical verse and carols—news coming from the Latin by way of the French term nouvelles, the latest. I had always thought that the German Nachrichten or Neuigkeit was the German equivalent, though these words refer more to the broadcast, presentation and the quality of being hitherto unknown and novel, whereas Zeitung, associated with newspapers, only refers to the medium by convention and rather means the news in the immediate sense. In the adjacent Dutch, it is rendered tijding and from there, just a hop over the sea to tidings. Comfort and joy.

cowboys and indians: fifth column or the last crusades

After stalling out at the strategically important but ultimately indefensible port of Damietta, the Crusaders were left with little option but to bid a retreat with no gains to show for their efforts, even with the Ayyubid sultanate of Egypt facing incursions on two fronts, with the previously unseen Mongols on their eastern boundaries. This threat is indeed not for another, separate story-line but folds fundamentally into our present narrative directly. The Crusader States in Cyprus and the Holy Land did not merely evaporate after Frederich II’s failed mission. The doubly-excommunicated Holy Roman Emperor was an Islamophile, having been exposed to the culture and religion early on in his court at Sicily and managed to negotiate a truce with the Egyptian armies that allowed the meagre holdings in the Near East to survive for almost another tumultuous fifty years.
Warrior pilgrims from Europe, however, were not content to be just tolerated under the conditions of standing treaties and came for a fight. The integration and cooperation, even if it was mainly kept up in order to vouchsafe trading-relations, was a bit of a revulsion for the newly-arrived and for leaders back in Europe, fatigued by their own civil-strife and lacking the will to bolster any harmonious middle-ground—as we have seen the Crusaders themselves do rather inexplicably time and time again when settlements of the Holy City of Jerusalem were offered and refused.
Though under continued threat externally and prone to the same problems of succession internally and civil war, the Crusader States had achieved somewhat of a happy equilibrium, similar to the case after the debacle of the Fourth Crusade and long-lull in adventuring. To the East, however, dust was stirred under hoof of the massive, unstoppable Mongol army, grandson of Genghis Khan, a talented and merciless general called Hülegü dispatched to conquer Persian and the Levant and expand the empire. Shocking, the Mongols sacked and utterly destroyed the ancient city of Baghdad and were making advances at Damascus and Cairo. The only lands that emerged from Hülegü’s wake unscathed were those that wisely, unhesitatingly surrendered, like the Kingdom of Armenia, without a fight and agreed to pay tribute and join the Mongol thrust. The ruthlessness and totality of destruction to the Muslim cities outdid even the worst of the Crusaders, but in a strange twist of history Hülegü spared the Christian inhabitants, allowing their churches to stand and for them to retain their property where all others were toppled and quickly relieved of the wealth and lives. The Buddhist khan had strong Christian sympathies due to the influence of his mother and number-one wife, who were both Nestorians, members of the Assyrian Church of the East.
Hülegü even returned lands that had been recently taken by the Egyptians back to the Principality of Antioch, and later traveled to Rome himself for a papal audience to urge a union of Mongols and Latin Christians to retake Jerusalem. It’s hard to say why this offer was not well received back in Europe—maybe Rome felt that the Nestorian influence was too radical and heretical to invite in.  Had that project been undertaken or had the Mameluke armies, usurpers of the sultanate, not been able to turn the tide of battle at the walls of Cairo at Ayn Jalut (the Springs of Goliath), the Mongols eventually bidden to leave the desert so that their horses could graze, the world we’ve inherited, I think, would have looked very different. Once Egypt was able to recover from that harrowing clash, the Mameluke sultan, Baibars, attacked the Crusader States, chipping away at them over the years until they were no longer sustainable, first as punishment for having sided with the Mongols and then for violence unleashed upon the resident merchant population of the Crusader territories.

Baibars’ diplomatic overtures to the Golden Horde, the rival khanate that had advanced into the southern Rus, the Crimea and across the Balkans, and subsequent allegiance, helped to keep Hülegü at bay, ensuring the survival of Egypt and Syria. After nearly two dread centuries of presence in the Holy Land, the European Crusaders were expelled, not to return again as occupiers until some seven-hundred years later with the dissolution of the vast Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of the Great War.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

weights and measures or avogadro’s number

German alchemists in Braunschweig (DE/EN), hoping to counter the ultimately violate nature of relying on a physical and slowly dematerialising objects for the definition of the kilogram—the prototypical and fiat Kilogram being a lump of metal housed in a safe in Paris, are hoping to restate the standard purely in numerical terms.
Should this elusive, precise number of atoms that makes up a mass of exactly one kilogram be calculated, then the definition becomes something constant and re-duplicable everywhere, not subject to the ravages of time, albeit they minuscule. As an intermediate step researchers are creating something that they can count with the requisite accuracy, a flawless crystal ball, whose elemental silicon lattice structure is being crafted to have the target-mass of one kilo, not speck more or less. Having a model independent of some artefact for weights and measures is certainly something, but repairing to precision on this level—as science is doing with time as well—makes me wonder if the Universe, even on a human-scale, isn’t supposed to wind-down a little bit, allowed to grow a little dotty and disperse in old age and the expectation of consistency is an illusionary or a false one.

moral-compass

We are already in possession of a psychological rather than psychic bridge of telepathy in the form of empathy, and Æon magazine questions whether computer-aided telepaths might engender more misunderstandings than the resolve, what with the forced intimacy that constantly makes tiny course-corrections to align one’s moral-thinking.
People are already wired to be both vicarious and viral but those influences are well-mediated by our own ideas of self and the limits of expression that lannguage limns. Despite whatever parlour-tricks (and some very helpful and promising applications besides) that science has induced—and not to say that the research in neurobiology is not an important one and that we ought not to be introspective especially for the sake of helping the disabled, but we know very little still about how the mind works and probably could not well cope with being fully integrated into some network to keep our feelings on tack and steady forward. What do you think? Would complete transparency encourage sympathy—or quite the opposite?

Saturday, 28 March 2015

five-by-five

dansk: a glorious celebration of Scandinavian design

roll of the dice: passwords natural enough to commit to memory but defy the guesswork of brute computing force

salton sea: Jovian moon Ganymede also has oceans

horny-toad: bizarre little frog that can radically alter the texture of its skin

if charlie parker was a gunslinger: discover multitudes through candid moments

the devil and the deep blue sea or bright lights, big city

The always intriguing BLDGBlog reports on the experimental use of a chlorophyll-based compound that’s employed by some denizens of the ocean’s depths to see in the perpetual blackness, distilled into eye-drops that may allow humans enhanced night-vision without goggles or other special equipment. Research and efficacy is a pretty guarded topic and those oily, black eyes are pretty off-putting. In his signature manner of launching into all sort of exciting potential prospects—and not just the obvious military-industrial applications of surveillance—the author ponders how such super-powers, should these tests pan out, might give us heretofore dimmer urban environments, using less energy and resources to limn us nightly in a good light.

Friday, 27 March 2015

local colour or instaham

The ever excellent Quartz magazine has an interesting piece of reporting for holiday-goers, that has some destinations affecting an accent and cultivating a culture in order to deliver to tourists the experience that they are expecting. Notwithstanding Bavarian taxi cab drivers and waiters really hamming it up, it seems to me that this programme is more than a marketing campaign and could transform into something positive.

Instead of souvenirs and native crafts that are really only sustained by visiting throngs—though one cannot generalise any experience or attraction whether established or on the rise—a step towards insincerity leads maybe to a stronger hold in the long run on genuine customs and outlooks that were suppressed to extinction either by the forces of hegemony or the encroachment of domineering globalisation. I know I am forever the guilty anthropologists for wanting to hear sheep-counting in Gaeltacht, but maybe that is not wholly condemning.  Maybe the sightseer, even for the expectations of cliché, have help to revive a moribund language—which I think is certainly worth a dose of dissimulation. What do you think? Are these enclaves and tours on offer a charade or a chance for visitor and local alike to discover something new on journey’s end?

poète maudit


five-by-five

de consumo popular: brilliant, hard-boiled galleries of Mexican pulp art

aviatrix: the adventures of Sophie Blanchard, Napoleon’s Chief Air Minister of Ballooning

seeing-eye: “service dog fraud” is a burgeoning phenomenon

nocebo: a study behind the psychology of medical break-through hype

cardinal points: destinations mapped out through the lenses of contemporary art and design

avignon quintet or bombshells and broomsticks

As I am approaching the conclusion of the excellent and engrossing podcast series on the history of the Crusades that I’ve been enjoying immensely, at first whilst only during my commute and then, what with all the cliffhangers, listening to an episode whenever I had the chance, I decided to supplement my lessons with a departure into what most would disapprove of as poor scholastics—PfRC being the go-to source it is for all manner of experts.
Sorry to disappoint, but I found a paperback edition of the 1982 collaboration by Henry Lincoln, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh—Holy Blood, Holy Grail whose basic premise is probably more familiar to readers from the derivative thriller and subsequent film, Da Vinci Code. I am about half way through already and I am reserving judgment, because although the sourced materials have been violently discredited and there’s quite a bit of cautioning rhetoric that sometimes tends to excuse speculation and leaps and the Priory of Sion has been disowned as the work of a hoaxer, it does seem methodically well investigated and assiduously imaginative. The basic theory, elaborated and championed in other works of lesser-repute, posits that Jesus survived the crucifixion in human form and traveled to France, where Jesus and Mary Magdalene raised a family. The original Frankish Merovingian kings were descendants of that royal bloodline, but the Church seeing its power and influence undermined suppressed this account (not just as heresy but never letting it see the light of day) and installed their own pretenders to the thrones of Europe. It does not seem entirely implausible, especially given the Church’s historical insecurity, misogyny and the fact that at least some of the royal households claimed their legitimacy on being descended from Jesus’ half-brothers and -sisters. As I said, I am just getting into the thick of the argument, so we’ll see. In any case, we are probably wrong to judge the authors too harshly, since surely there’s no better way to get investigators off the trail than a red-herring, forged documents or Hollywood success and I am sure they were under retainer of the Priory.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

chronograph

Quartz magazine features an interesting look at the reaction and reception that luxury watch-markers at Baselworld have for the newest onslaught of wearables.

It’s worth noting how some forty years ago, the Swiss market for mechanical time-pieces virtually collapsed when they chose to ignore the quartz cell technology emerging in Japan. The present sort of revolution—if it materialises, however, is different because I think there are still quite a lot of individuals, not a dying-breed either, who want a device to tell time and not one to steal time. There is a trend of course in being able to interface anything at any time—and have what’s on one’s wrist snitch to one’s other appliances and creditors and these two aspects are probably inseparable, but I think there will come a time when technology vanishes more and more into the background.

technical fairy, first class

The remarkable resource, the Public Domain Review, presents a really fascinating retrospective of how animation studios let slip the dogs, rabbits and ducks of war with patriotic cartoons parallel to the enlistment of Hollywood’s live-action actors in the 1940s, with a special look at the instructional cartoon series of hapless and sometimes reluctant Private Snafu.

The familiar acronym and familiar state-of-affairs was made friendly for general audiences, but interestingly as propaganda films were part of the war-effort and not subject to the same standards of censorship that relegated the commercial box-office and were able to get away with quite a bit more adult humour and raciness. Production, handled as a top-secret operation, brought together quite a few creative talents who would go on to become the some of the luminaries of the industry, including Mel Blanc, Chuck Jones, Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss), whose later punchlines and story-telling styles were shaped by this wartime collaboration—the approach to refining GIs in a straightforward but engaging manner translated well into entertainment and indemnity.

vanguard

Though it is no excuse for barbarous behaviour, the sacking of Constantinople occurred in part because of a populace complacent, as was Rome in its time, and unwilling to entertain the unthinkable—that these barbarians at the gates might ever breach their defenses and that the great Queen of Cities might be vulnerable.

As the Crusaders encamped at Galata and launched endless and seemingly futile forays against the outer most ring of fortifications from their galleons, lashing masts together to try to turn the boats into ladders and siege-engines, it did seem that the city was safe and secure and would just be able to wait these interlopers out. In fact, the regular army of the Byzantine Empire was never mobilised against this nuisance, with only the personal guard of the Emperor, the Varangians dispatched to monitor the perimeter, making occasional counter-attacks with a sweep of arrows or pouring boiling oil on Crusader undermining operations at the base of the city walls. The Crusaders never really breached those fortifications—that accomplishment was reserved for many centuries later, but one diligent and unnoticed Venetian did manage to prise away a small piece of masonry (not much bigger than a womp rat) and opened up a crawlspace inside. The gates were flung open and the Crusaders stormed in.
These Varangian body-guards, while ultimately ineffectual, were a pretty interesting retinue. Taking a lesson from history, knowing how fickle the loyalties Prætorian guard could be, recruited from native sources and subject to prevailing influences, Byzantine emperors had a long-standing tradition of importing personal protectors—much like the Swiss Guard of the papacy. The Varangians were originally Viking warriors who had expanded east to the Rus—westward expansion discouraged by Englanders who were willing to keep paying the Vikings tribute (called Danegeld) not to attack them. Eventually these Scandinavians encountered the Byzantines and after some initial clashes and subsequent conversion of the Kievian-Rus to the Orthodox faith, the leaders of the Varangians pledged a division of its fiercest, professional warriors as a sign of peace. As the displacing of populations was picking up, the Vangarian stock soon expanded to attract other landless individuals to join this foreign legion. Chiefly this army began to be staffed with ranks of men of Briton extraction, themselves having migrated from Germanic lands and settled in England, who in turn were dislodged by the Norman Conquest—the Normans being Norse mercenaries themselves. Having lost hearth and home, many Britons sought their fortunes in Byzantium. I do wish, however, this Varangian vanguard had been able to rebuff the Crusaders’ advances.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

beatnik


The inquiring minds over at The Curious Brain features a gallery of beautifully rendered, clever Hipster Animals, found at the artist Dynamoe’s Tumblr presence.
Not being terribly couth to all these new styles and affectations myself (I understand that there is a subculture calling themselves Lumbersexuals—and that is OK, I suppose), the sharp little barbs and references came out immediately. There were too many sly creatures, to a one all in the know, to choose from, so I’d encourage you to peruse the whole selection yourself, possibly also discovering your familiar or totem.

five-by-five

once and future sins: a projection on how future generations might judge us a century hence

club med: a look at the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations in Marseilles

the mads are calling: a chart to rate evil geniuses

she doesn’t even realise she’s a replicant: descend into uncanny valley with these interviews with robot and mind-clone, Bina 48

brainy, hefty, jokey: explaining secular stagnation through the lens of Smurf Village

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

rex mundi or spirits in the material world

The massacre of the Cathars in Europe—particularly in their bastions of southern France is not just a historical curiosity, a footnote or something merely comparable with the ongoing plight and persecution of the Yazidi under contemporary righteous bullies and deserves much more of a mention than a few lines sandwiched between the more well-known campaigns of the Children’s Crusades and the Reconquista. What little that is known for certain about the beliefs and traditions of people grouped under the name Cathar, which means pure one but may have been applied in the pejorative sense to a whole spectrum of individuals with unorthodox tenets, is scant and suspect since it was chronicled by those who sought to exterminate heresy in all its forms. A few common accusations of the inquisitors sketches at least a faint outline of the framework of their belief—the dichotomy between the material and spiritual world, which are the handiwork of distinct gods, the former faulty, evil and covetous and the later perfection, goodness and love, and born to the dual nature of mind and body, they believed that they were duty-bound (as reflected by their manner of worship) to try to reconcile this dual-nature through a series of reincarnation until finally pure, having elevated and shed that physical form.

With procreation seen as a way of perpetuating the cycles of death and re-birth, marriage was generally eschewed and couples practiced birth-control. As anyone might be reborn as anything, there was not the usual denigration of women and most of the sects practiced vegetarianism. Naturally, such beliefs were dangerous and subversive, as the community scoffed the authority of the Church, and while they believed that Jesus was a good man with admirable qualities and a prophet, the Cathars found it ridiculous to believe that a saviour would be made incarnate. Secular authority was questionable too, appealing as it did to the divine right of kings.
For decades, missionaries were sent into the Balkans, where the faith had probably originated, and into parts of southern France and Italy to try to reform the Cathars—but seeing no conversions for all their efforts and with the needed catalyst came in the form of murdered papal delegate, accompanied by Saint Dominic, and perhaps more pointedly, the tacit permission to sack Byzantium, a twenty-year long purge, called the Albigensian Crusade (named for the arch-diocese of Albi, which was in the centre of Cathar country), was launched to rid Languedoc of Cathar influences. Of course, frustrated clerics and nobles welcomed themselves to the spoils of the auto-de-fay. The story of this persecution, however, is an even greater crime than mankind generally unleashes on his own kind in that, like the destruction of Constantinople in terms of learning and culture lost to the world, the region that was home to most of the Cathars prior to the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Aude praire with the cities of Carcassonne, Narbonne, Perpignan, Nîmes, Toulouse and Avignon, was probably the chief contender for the most refined and advanced territory in all of medieval Europe—everything in between Ireland (with its monasteries, which were also irritants for the Church but remote enough to be left alone) and said Constantinople—which now toppled, exposed Europe to incursions from the Mongols and Ottomans.
Hints of this cultivation remain in the architectural tradition but little else, as the genocide was nearly total. Anecdotally at least, this indiscriminate slaughter was the source of the saying, paraphrased, “Kill ‘em all and let God sort them out.” Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius. Pockets endured in the most remote rural areas and Cathar communities were also incorporated into other sects of outliers, the new Protestants and the Moravian (Herrenhuter) of the German woodlands. On a lighter note, happily an international café chain affords us the opportunity to reflect and share our experiences with gnosticism and the Albigensian Crusade by branding the avatar of the dread and almighty Abraxas on all their merchandise.

font speciment

Knowing that my posts are absolutely lousy with typos—I tend to stall and duplicate little, mincing words and leave out the big, important ones quite often, and am bad, probably like a lot of us at proof-reading my own work, seeing what I expected my fingers to faithfully copy out of my head, I often wince with embarrassment when I look over an older entry. Since reading a few weeks ago, however, that garishly snubbed typefaces in the quiver of standard fonts may help stimulate rote, recall and improve structure and syntax by virtue of being nearly illegible and graphically off-putting, I have begun regularly to compose my first drafts in big, horsey letters. The incongruities raised when writing about serious topics and the lack of a reputable corporate image probably also cause a minor fugue in mind of readers and writers when scanning text. I don’t know if there’s any measurable enhancement that others might notice, but I do think that it is helping me to catch more errors that would be elided over when displayed in a smoother font.

five-by-five

exfoliate: make your own day-spa lady cheese and dip platter

mannerism: artist Matthias Jung creates beautiful architectural collages

landmark or bats in the belfries: cute series of animals posing as skyline familiars


psyc 101: some heuristic psychological hacks safe to try at home

singing telegram: tweets presented as antique wireless messages 

Monday, 23 March 2015

cowboys and indians: sacerdotal or the fifth crusade

I spoke ridiculously too soon when I claimed that the horrors of the misrouted Fourth Crusade which sacked Constantinople, ravaging the beautiful city, depleting its treasures and resulting in the very brief reign of a resented Latin emperor called Romania but failed to reunite the lands or the Church, had put Europe—or at least the guilty Church—off of crusading permanently. Far from it—in fact before the same Pope Innocent III rallied the European noble houses to again descend on the Holy Land—in keeping with his original vision of the campaign with a thrust through Egypt, there was a coordinated massacre of the Cathar gnostics at home, inspired in part by the papacy’s equivocal attitude when the Crusaders were attacking fellow Christians in Byzantium. Mainstream Christians had regarded this dualistic sect that believed in the transmigration of the soul and equality of the sexes with suspicion for some time and called them devil-worshippers and pagans for the tenet that God had a good and an evil aspect and were glad to have the excuse to be rid of them and take their lands in southern France.  The Reconquista heated up to drive the Moors from Spain and Portugal.
Separately, two charismatic shepherd boys in Seine-Saint-Denis and Köln gathered thousands of children, the poor and disposed to march on the Holy Land and convert the Muslims—both promising that the Mediterranean at Marseilles or over the Alps and in Brindisi would part before them, like Moses crossing the Red Sea. Once the horde made its way to the shore, the Mediterranean did not comply and those who did not try to start their young lives anew at these endpoints or try their fortune at going home were caught by Saracen pirates and sold into slavery. It’s hard to say if the adult population of Europe felt obliged to complete the mission their children were willing to undertake unquestioningly or not (some question the accounts or if such travesties even happened at all), but in any case, Pope Innocent was able to marshal the support of armies that might be able to fulfill the task of recapturing the Holy Land without too much variance. This time, however, the leaders of the Crusader States would rather that Europe didn’t try to help out again. The past few years had ushered in a time of relative peace and great prosperity and Christian and Muslims coexisted due to a constellation of conditions, including the death of Saladin and crises of succession among his heirs, lack of Crusader aggression and very lucrative and mutually beneficial trading arrangements.
The last thing that the County of Acre, then the dominant Crusader State, wanted was to have a bunch of uncouth holy warriors despoiling the calm but they were not in a situation to disinvite the coming armada of ships. A sizable Crusader fighting force landed at Acre and King John of the realm tried his best to occupy the restless men, who were additionally an onerous task to quarter, and as more forces from Hungary, Germany, France and Flanders arrived, King John was helpless to prevent the march on Egypt. The Crusaders sought control of the city of Damietta (Dumyāt) at the mouth of the Nile, which protected the waterway to the capital of Cairo, some two hundred kilometers downstream. Maneuvers were indecisive and guarded, the force strong enough to besiege the fortification but not strong enough to take the city outright and the months before the Crusaders decamped, they found that they had starved the population into submission. Once Damietta had fallen, the way-forward remained unclear as they were awaiting the arrival of relief-forces from the armies of Holy Roman Emperor Fredrick II that would give them an unstoppable numerical advantage and could thus safely proceed. The armies of Sultan al-Adil, Saladin’s brother, were watching events unfold in a similarly vacillating manner, as internal strife prevented them from a certain counter-attack.
While at this impasse, the sultan ordered the destruction of the defensive fortifications that protected the city of Jerusalem, preemptively entertaining the idea that the Holy City might become an important bargaining token in the near future and if it was to fall to the Crusaders, the Muslims wanted them to have a city not easily defended, just as Saladin had directed for the town of Ascalon to be demolished to stop the earlier Crusaders’ advance from Jaffa to the Holy City, then resolved to negotiate with the Crusaders in order to end this stalemate and attend to its own affairs. The offer that the sultan’s ambassadors brought to the table was unbelievably favourable—concession of Jerusalem and return of the True Cross in exchange for leaving Egypt in peace, but what was even more unbelievable was how the Crusaders rejected the terms. Maybe they were sly to the dismantling of Jerusalem and did not want to take it just to see it lost again, but I think the only plausible logic behind their stance—which was not universal among the ranks, was that they were sure that they were going to triumph, with the wealthy and powerful Egypt and not just out of the way Jerusalem as the prize.
The papal legate, nominally in charge of military operations, was flattered with a prophesy that he fancied to be a sure sign that he’d personally led the Crusaders to victory—and besides, Egypt was apparently being attacked on its eastern border by the long awaited cavalry from the land of Prester John and so there was no way that absolute triumph could be denied them. Except that the papal legate had misinterpreted the augurs and having waited so long in Damietta, the Nile had again flooded and was no longer navigable and the fighting-force was bogged down once again. Frustrated, the separate divisions splintered and sailed back to Acre and then back home to Europe. One last exception was that Egypt was not under siege from a magnanimous Oriental Christian Magi, but rather these skirmishes with an unknown and fierce tribe marked the first encounter that the Western world had with Genghis Khan and the Mongol Hoard, but all that is for another story-line.

monkeyshines or pearls before swine

Before entering his illustrious Star Fleet career as helmsman, LTC Geordi La Forge served in the civilian world as chief librarian at the universal database of Memory Alpha. La Forge was tragically blinded by the incorporeal luminous beings known as the Lights of Zetar, but the potential handicap became a great asset for this future officer. But don’t take my word for it. In the evenings for the past few weeks, rather than watch television—which for me has become too much of a backdrop to properly hold my attention in most cases and is too conducive of darting off to other things, or try to scourer the internet for something novel, I have been absorbed in reading and returned to one of my all-time favourite authors, Mister Kurt Vonnegut, JRand finding while it’s not some lost art to process words on paper in ways both imaginative and respectful of the intended message, it really did strike me as surprising and dandy how with a minimal amount of resolve, that reading a story like “God Bless You, Mister Rosewater” with its clever language and relevant message was far outstripping any other form of entertainment or nicety that passes for interaction and engagement.
The back-drop of gross wealth disparity, the nature of altruism and what we’d I suppose now call poverty porn, salaciousness to illicit attention, sympathy or outrage, fits contemporary times just as well—plus the author makes his signature cameo appearance in that universe as science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout. LTC La Forge never sternly shushed the hapless red-suit ensigns, but seeing him on an away-mission always made me think of his earlier gig with Reading Rainbow, a public service provided by the United Federation of Planets.  I was also pleased to be informed that the author gives this work high-marks himself.  I don’t want to unleash any spoilers, so I’d highly recommend you check out the books of Vonnegut yourself.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

five-by-five

la brea: a fascinating look at seeping tar and pitch in Los Angeles county

self-published: disastrously awesome pastiche of electronic-book jackets

shoegazing: new wave pop stars portrayed as comic book super-heroes

rip van winkle: a fun map from 1946 by artist and folklorist William Gropper that illustrates many of America’s mythological figures

don’t much trigonometry: World renown Finnish schools are experimenting with overhauling education, getting rid of disciplines in favour of phenomenology

Saturday, 21 March 2015

motor-city or monobrow

Via the superbly inscrutable Everlasting Blort comes a splendidly curated gallery of the impressions of artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera when they sojourned to the city of Detriot together during the height of the Great Depression. This enriching visit that was able to capture the spirit of the times in a manner that was happily preserved for prosperity has provided a unique retrospective that has tragically come full circle has another sort of poverty and desperation has been descending slowly on America’s Rust-Belt for decades, culminating in a nostalgic revival of the town’s cultural and industrial heritage. Hope there is a revival to follow in the vibrance of the region. 

five-by-five

first-flight: Slovakian Aeromobile will begin selling flying cars in 2017

look it up: bitchy resting face is a legitimate diagnosis, embodied by this cat

bikini-bottoms: fun map plots the location of cartoons characters around the world

hi-brow: museum-goers fawn over the artistry of a mass-produced print

spoil the broth: CNN lampoons the over-crowded incubator of political candidates

there ain’t no harm in that

The Reeperbahn, a strip in the Hanseatic City of Hamburg is sort of like that Island of the Donkey Boys where Pinocchio goes to carouse and behave badly but it looks rather cleansed and tamed on cold, bright mornings.
The neighbourhood is named for the rope-weavers, surely an important component of the shipping-business who traditionally lived in this quarter. I didn’t notice until afterwards, sorting through pictures, that the motto of the polished and modern Keese hotel and casino, visible through the middling tree is honi soit qui mal y pense, old French for shame on him who thinks ill of it and the motto of the venerable and chivalrous Order of the Garter. It’s a badge that bears repeating in heraldic contexts all over and was quite delighted to find it hidden there too.

sock-puppet or radio free europe

The Economist confronts readers with some notions to ponder seriously about the nature of bias and disinformation and how there’s a definite learning-curve when it comes to challenging the asymmetries of perception and reception. When a charm-offensive appears one’s greatest, enduring peril is it sophistical to argue that one can counter propaganda without restoring to louder and more persuasive counter-propaganda? Truth really is the first causality and sadly I think that is act of expiation is rather expected.

Friday, 20 March 2015

cottage industry

The Financial Times reports on a collaborative robotic-human experiment in the workplace. Unlike the industrial manufacturing application that one usually imagines when thinking about automation, these so-called co-bots are small and portable and can be mounted on a desktop to work alongside its human mentor, and assail tasks that benefit from nimbler and faster performance than human dexterity and can deliver.

Smaller factories and crafters would be able to produce items more efficiently by collapsing the concept of the assembly line upon itself, with an affordable alternative to contracting out production with adaptable, modular machines that can even be easily taught new moves by example and not reprogramming. I suppose though counterfeiters and sweat-shops would be equally able to churn out crap of more consistent quality faster and without a bothersome, exploited staff. What do you think? Could you share your space with a co-bot, looking eagerly over your shoulder so as to imitate and improve upon your techniques and work-ethic?

five-by-five

píratar: Iceland’s dominant Pirate Party may extend shelter and citizenship to the Fugitive

kinematografii: a collection of vintage Czechoslovakian film posters

3 quarks for muster mark: some of the invented words of author James Joyce

birds’ eye: an eagle presents Dubai as he descends to his trainer below

be mine: camera embedded in a ring box captures marriage proposals from a face-forward perspective