Monday, February 20, 2017


Via Vox Day I saw this Daily Mail article on 1970s British PM Edward Heath.

"The police chief investigating claims that Sir Edward Heath was a paedophile is convinced the allegations are ‘120 per cent’ genuine, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
More than 30 people have come forward with claims of sexual abuse by the former Conservative Prime Minister, according to well-placed sources. 
And they are said to have given ‘strikingly similar’ accounts of incidents to Wiltshire Police – even though the individuals are not known to each other.
The Mail on Sunday has been told that Wiltshire Chief Constable Mike Veale regards the allegations as ‘totally convincing’, and plans to publish a report in June."
Astonishingly, Mr Veale is also understood to support claims that Sir Edward’s alleged crimes were reported to police years ago but covered up by the Establishment."
There's a theory that this sort of thing is more common among the Brit elite than in the general population because a lot of the Brit elite grew up at single-sex boarding schools, and not at home. This idea assumes that the imprinting theory of sexuality is correct.
According to Heath's Wiki article, he did go to a single-sex school, but it was so close to his birthplace, that he almost certainly lived at home then. Still, I got curious enough to look through the first few pages of one of his biographies on Amazon.
"Inevitably he was prominent among the school prefects."[...]
"But though he was allowed to use a gym-shoe to beat recalcitrant schoolboys, he rarely availed himself of the opportunity."
"Rarely" is more than once. What exactly is meant here? Wiki explains:
"In the United Kingdom, especially in England and Wales, the slipper was a common implement for administering corporal punishment in schools for students of both genders and all ages.[...]
"Slipper" is a misnomer, as the usual item of footwear used was the plimsoll, or gymshoe or tennis shoe, with a fabric upper and a heavy rubber or synthetic sole.[...]
A typical gym shoe, which was actually used in a school in Lincolnshire, is shown on the left.[...]
Boys aged between 11 and 16 were required to bend over and received up to 12 hard whacks on the seat of the trousers."
I knew that there was corporal punishment in British schools until recently, but I didn't know that they used shoes for that or that some of it was administered by students to other students.
It reminded me of Rousseau saying in his Confessions that his life-long desire to be pushed around by powerful women, as well as to be whipped by them, was born when a 30-year-old woman whipped him for some misdemeanor when he was 8. He boarded with her and her husband then. I don't think they were related to him.
This is all very anecdotal of course. I have feeling that the imprinting theory explains at least some of the variation in human sexuality, however. And I'm not alone in this. Back to the Daily Mail article:
"Some of those who said Sir Edward abused them are believed to have told police they went on to commit sexual abuse crimes themselves as a result."
The most astonishing thing here, though, is that this was kept under wraps during Heath's life. There were rumors, but he ascended the peak of British politics anyway.
You'd think that a rival politician could have exploited this. People do a lot to gain power. Some think that Churchill's father went insane because his bid for Prime Ministership failed. I remember watching an American documentary where someone said, completely seriously, that there are people who would kill to become a US senator.
Why couldn't a rival get some journos to interview some of Heath's victims? Because all of the newspapers were owned by people who were satisfied with Heath? Why not get some foreign newspaper to do this then, an American one for example? Or a French one. The news would have gotten back home, and he probably wouldn't have been reelected in his constituency.
Also, Heath had a long career. The people in charge of the police in Britain must have changed a few times during it. And all of them wanted to protect him until ten years after his death?
If things that are only important to a few people (Heath and, likely, a few dozen victims) could be hushed up so thoroughly for such a long time by the political system, with nothing but rumors escaping, what about bigger, more important things like secret government policies? The reality of politics could be weirder than we imagine.  

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

YouTube Links

First, Rigamaroo by a band called Sleepy Sun. I love the album cover in the video, but not as much as the song.

I first heard this song in a supermarket a month or two ago. Googled its lyrics, noted its name and then found it on YouTube at home. I doubt the younger generation understands how elusive music was before the Internet. If you heard something amazing on the radio, you might never hear it again. The announcers didn't always name the titles and the bands, and record stores carried a tiny fraction of what you can now see online.

When lyrics first became searchable I found a long list of songs I dreamed of hearing for ages. Not everything though. For example, there was this incredible song by a young English woman whose name I forgot. I remember the style and exactly how it made me feel, but unfortunately none of the lyrics, so it just can't be found.

Back to the Decembrists, here's a live version of Down by the Water from NPR's Tiny Desk Concerts. It's not as good as the album track, but look at the fiddler. A very attractive woman. This, with her, her brother and a pianist, is also good.

I love the Tiny Desk Concerts in general. I've never found anything wrong with the SWPL aesthetics or sensibilities, just with the politics.

This is great for example. But the best Fountains of Wayne song I know of is Sink to the Bottom. Even though the singer speaks with an American accent, he was born in Britain, which is where the humor in the lyrics obviously comes from.

Here's Suzanne Vega's Tiny Desk Concert. The song I Never Wear White was new to me. It's like Left of Center with colors, but she's an amazing lyricist, probably the best female one I know of, so she can make simple ideas like that work great. The best Suzanne Vega songs I'm aware of are the original a capella Tom's Diner (of course), Marlena on the Wall, St. ClareThe Queen and the Soldier, A Small Blue Thing, and Knight Moves.

The last time I did a post like this I mentioned the Canadian band Metric. I love this song of theirs.

Years ago someone correlated people's musical preferences, as revealed on their Facebook pages, with the average SAT scores of the colleges they attended to produce a list of the smartest and dumbest musicians. Number two, behind Beethoven, was a guy named Sufjan Stevens. This whole post has gone in a very SWPLy direction for some reason, and there's really not much more SWPLy in life than this song of his. But it's also good. And he does sound smart.

The Cranberries aren't SWPL, which may have something to do with the fact that their Tiny Desk concert isn't representative of how awesome they are. My favorite Cranberries songs are Disappointment, Twenty-one, Pretty (these two have a similar mood; I wish there was a third song like that in the Universe), Not SorryEmpty, No Need to Argue, Dreaming My Dreams, I Still Do, How, Waltzing Back, Ridiculous Thoughts, Sunday, Yeat's Grave, Linger (which was the first one I heard of theirs), Ode to My Family (which was the one that made me buy a cassette tape of theirs in 1994 or 1995), I Can't Be With You and So Cold in Ireland. The quality went down after the second album, but there are some good things in this song and in this solo single too.

By the way, if for some reason your taste in music is similar to mine, you might enjoy this other post of mine.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Language History

I recently wrote here about the Cambridge Histories. I ended up choosing to read the New Cambridge History of Islam first. I'm now about 58% through its first volume, and will post a review here once I get to the end. It's fascinating.

Since I wrote that post I became aware of the existence of a 6-volume Cambridge History of the English Language. I love linguistics and will likely read that whole thing eventually. That made me want to look at histories of other languages.

It turned out that the largest history of French contains 26 volumes which appeared between 1905 and 2000. However, the great majority of these were published before 1938. They were republished between 1966 and 1979, but I'm under the impression that only the bibliographies were updated then, not the main text. A lot of research must have gone on since then, so much of this stuff is probably obsolete.

The biggest modern history of French seems to be the 2-volume effort by Alain Rey. I bought its first volume through iBooks and browsed it a bit. It's much more pop-sci than the Cambridge History of English. So I don't know what I'll do with French yet.

I also looked for histories of Russian. I haven't found anything huge and thorough yet, but while searching I came upon this great video of professor Andrey Zaliznyak talking about the history of Russian for an hour. I already knew a lot of this, but it was fascinating to watch one of the biggest minds in that field express these things in his own words in real time. And some of what he said I didn't know until now.


During the middle ages the two main forms of Russian were the Novgorodian dialect and "all the rest". The differences between the speech of Vladimir, Moscow, Tver', Kiev, Chernigov, Polotsk etc. were minor, even though this huge area is now divided between three official state languages: Russian, Ukrainian and Belorussian. But the difference between the language of this huge area on the one hand, and the Novgorodian dialect on the other, were considerable. The latter covered all of northeastern Russia, the area where original-Slavs mixed with Estonian-like Finnic speakers.

Zaliznyak implied that the Novgorodian dialect was the most divergent member of the Slavic branch in general and that it must have split from the original Slavic core very early, perhaps before all the others. He said that in the earliest available birch bark letters, ones written in the 11th century, the differences between the Novgorodian dialect and the rest of Russian were largest, and that during the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries Novgorodian speech gradually moved towards the dialect of the rest of Rus'. The dialect of Pskov, situated at the north-western edge of both medieval Rus' and modern Russia, was even more divergent than the Novgorodian one.

Zaliznyak said that this last bit of info - the greater divergence of the Novgorodian dialect at the start of Russian history than in the later Middle Ages - was only established in the last 25 years through the study of birch bark letters.

He also said that up through the 13th century the Novgorodians did not apply the word Rus' to themselves. In the 9th and 10th centuries this word only described Varangians, in the early 11th century it began to describe all of the people in the area around Kiev, including Preyaslavl and Chernigov. Then the definition widened to all of the Rurikid principalities except for Novgorod. And by the 14th century even Novgorodians started calling themselves Rus'. But there are birch bark letters from the 13th century where Novgorodians talk about Rus' as some other land that one could visit. By the way, in this interview Zaliznyak cautiously supported the theory that the original source of the word Rus' is the Norse word meaning "rowers".

Why did Zaliznyak talk so much about the Novgorodian dialect? First because he's the chief authority on birch bark letters, most of which were unearthed in Novgorod. Second, because the medieval Novgorodian dialect ended up greatly affecting modern standard Russian in which this interview was conducted.

In the late 15th century Novgorod lost an epic power struggle with Moscow. It's plausible to me that this might have had something to do with the beginning of the Little Ice Age. The agricultural productivity and population size of the far north would have probably gone down then. But this wasn't discussed in this interview because it was about language instead.

In the aftermath of Moscow's victory Ivan III ordered a series of population transfers. A lot of Novgorodians were resettled in the Muscovite heartland. The Novgorodian merchant elite was settled in the city of Moscow. And a lot of peasants from central Russia were settled in Novgorodian lands. I guess the logic was "if we disperse them, mixing them with others, they're not going to revolt." The Assyrian Empire did this in antiquity, as did many other states throughout the ages.

How large was the Novgorodian contribution to the later Muscovite language? Zaliznyak kind of implied that it was about half. I was surprised by that. And he gave some examples.

By the way, in the discussion that I linked to in this post someone theorized that Novgorodian influence is the reason why Russian is the most archaic modern Slavic language. The Novgorodian dialect split from the Slavic core early on and then moved towards the edge of the earth, touching on the Arctic Ocean. So for a while (we're talking 7th through 10th centuries) it was probably insulated from general Slavic trends, preserving some archaic features.

Anyway, this was all very interesting for me to listen to. If you got this far in this post, you might be a language nerd.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A New Quatrain

I wrote another quatrain for my big Credo poem last Sunday:

We cannot explain tradition
Any better than a spleen
Can expound upon its mission
Of maintaining our blood clean.

At first I thought "maybe I worded this too strongly". But no, what we have is, surely, a mixture of correct and incorrect explanations of individual parts of traditional systems of morality. But every part interacts with every other, and the system only works as a whole. How would progress in the understanding of the whole look like? The changes that we introduce would lead to better outcomes.

There was a moment in the history of medicine when knowledge about individual parts accumulated to such an extent that life expectancy started to rise, indicating that medicine as a whole started doing more good than harm. I don't think such a change has happened yet in the arena of rational thinking about politics and morals. So I would say that our current explanations of tradition as a whole aren't any more useful, aren't any better, than a complete lack of explanations would have been.


Now a bit on how poetry works:

Everyone understands rhyme, but few understand meter, which is at least as important. It's possible to read and enjoy lots of poetry and song lyrics that contain meter, and yet be unaware of it.

Meter is essentially rhythm. If you're rhyming two lines, they will sound better if you make them conform to the same rhythmic pattern.

By rhythmic pattern I mean the sequence of stressed and unstressed syllables. For example, the word "pattern" contains two syllables: "pa", which is stressed and "ttern", which is unstressed. If we represent stressed syllables by slashes and unstressed ones by dashes, "pattern" will look like this:


Here is the rhythmic pattern of the first line of my quatrain above:


In this poem I rhyme alternate lines within each quatrain, so the first line rhymes with the third one. And they have the same rhythmic pattern.

There's one complication here though. In other quatrains in this same poem the first line is  /-/-/-/- while the third one is --/-/-/- or vice versa. Yet that sounds OK. Why? I guess at some level the brain interprets --/-/-/- as a variation on the simpler, more regular /-/-/-/-. So /-/-/-/- becomes the expectation. By the way, the fancy term for /-/-/-/-  is trochaic tetrameter. It seems to be OK to put an unstressed syllable where a stressed one is expected, but not vice versa. At least that's been my experience. If you put a stressed syllable where the reader has come to expect an unstressed one, the effect is often unpleasant.

People like both repetition and variety. There is a happy middle somewhere between these two things which a good poet, musician or writer can find, and which the bad ones miss. Of course, the smarter the audience, the less repetition it likes.

One way to insert some variety into a poem is to alternate lines that end in a stressed syllable with lines that end in a unstressed one. I like this effect a lot, so I'm using it in this poem. It makes the writing process harder though because in English the number of two-syllable rhymes (like tradition/mission above) is more limited than the number of one-syllable rhymes like spleen/clean.

Why do people enjoy listening to rhyme and meter? I don't know. Maybe a liking for rhythm prevented our hunter-gatherer ancestors from getting bored on long walks, allowing them to walk further. Think of soldiers' marching songs: they're all heavy on rhythm and have a meter.

But that's a guess. As I was trying to say in my above quatrain, our ability to understand why we are the way we are is limited. The evolutionary and cultural forces that made us were much too complex for us to understand them fully.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Listening to French News

According to my hobby time spreadsheet, last year I spent almost 53 hours listening to French news, mostly to France2's 8 PM newscast. I think it's France's main TV news show. Some impressions:

They do cover the terrorist incidents thoroughly. And they always say the perps' names, all of which are Muslim. Radicalization and "Daech" are mentioned frequently. For every successful attack there are several failed ones, and they cover those as well.

A long time ago I used to watch British prime minister's question time on C-SPAN, and it became clear to me then that British politicians are much smarter on average than American or Russian ones. It's not because there aren't any super smart people in Russia or America. But in both of those countries there seems to be a popular understanding that leaders shouldn't be very different from regular guys. For some reason that kind of a feeling is weaker in Britain.

Well, watching French news made me think that maybe the French are closer to the Brits on that than to Russians or Americans. I don't think that makes France and Britain better-governed though.

Among the politicians I've seen interviewed on France2's set was Marine Le Pen. The anchor treated her like an insane person who required a lot of benevolent patience.

One thing I didn't expect was France2's heavy focus on French industry. They do a lot of positive segments about French companies trying to conquer the global market. The viewer is supposed to root for them in a citizenist-patriotic way.

By the way, they call those segments "Made in France". How many English terms do they use in general? Fewer than modern Russians, more than late-Soviet-era Russians. It's funny to see them borrow words that they themselves lent to English long ago. For example, the French election system has primaries now, and they call them "primaires".

The first time I hear a segment I probably understand about half of it. I think by the 5th or 6th time I'm close to 99%. Then I obsessively replay the words that I missed, trying to figure them out. It becomes a challenge. It's common to misinterpret where the word boundaries are, so I mentally cut up the obscure utterance in various ways, looking for sense. Sometimes there's a "eureka!" moment. More often there's a "you dumbass!" moment after I finally give up and turn on the subtitles. Then I replay the trouble-causing segment a couple more times, trying to see how I could have missed it.

When I learned to understand spoken English and Spanish in the early 1990s I didn't have the luxury of replay. Well, I guess I could have made VHS tapes. But I didn't. I let obscure words wizz by me and listened on.

This replay system fits my nerdy personality much better. I like to be thorough.

By the way, all of the above concerns what I hear from France2's anchors and correspondents or from politicians. When they interview flood victims in shelters or the proverbial man on the street, I understand much less. This must be partly because newsmen and pols speak more clearly. But I suspect that it's also a question of regional and class-based accents. I'm really looking forward to figuring them out. Each dialect and accent of a language is a unique attitude.

I have exactly zero experience speaking French. My plan is to sign up with Italki once I improve my ability to understand it when it's spoken. As for visiting, no desire at all. I hate being a tourist, and you can see all the sights online.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Peeling Funny?

A horse's neigh is equivocal,
While on the sunny coasts of Spain
Provincial nuthouses are local.
They'll treat a mare that's gone insane.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

On Debt

I wrote a comment on Anatoly Karlin's blog today about the 1990s in the former USSR, and that started me thinking about politics and economics in general. One such thought led to another, so that in the end I decided to describe my attitude to credit here on my little blog.

I'll start with a simple observation: the more responsible, conscientious, hard-working a person is, the less likely he is to ask for a loan. But this is exactly the kind of person who's most likely to repay a loan if he gets one.

So the people who come to a banker, asking for his services, giving him business, are disproportionately of the kind who aren't likely to repay him. The people who are most likely to repay him need him the least. How does a banker normally solve this problem, this contradiction?

Very simply. He establishes private relationships with government officials. Loans on favorable conditions, bribes, job opportunities in his bank after the officials retire. When debts go bad, as they always do, the government bails out the banker with taxpayer money.

In this way a responsible person (the taxpayer) is made to subsidize an irresponsible one (the debtor). Remember that the more responsible, hardworking individuals tend to pay more in taxes than the less responsible ones.

At this point everyone remembers the 2008 economic crisis which was caused by banks loaning money to irresponsible people. Sub-prime loans, zero down payments, no checking of credit histories. And of course there was a government bailout afterwards. Too big to fail, etc. At about the same time in Europe German taxpayers were bailing out Greeks. A couple of decades before that there was the Savings and Loans scandal.

I don't think the average person realizes how common this is. A few years ago I read Niall Ferguson's 2-volume history of the Rothschilds. Since the Rothschilds were the world's chief bankers from about 1815 to about 1914, Ferguson's work comes close to being the financial history of the world in that century.

Banking crises followed by government bailouts happened all the time then. What do I mean by banking crises? Loans going bad, debtors not paying. The bailouts weren't exceptional events. They were an essential part of the banking cycle, of the business model of banking. As they still are I think.

Ferguson described a hierarchy of credit-worthiness among 19th century countries. Of course Britain and the various German states were on top, France a little below, Spain and Italy lower still, and Latin American states in the gutter. It was every stereotype confirmed.

At one point in the books the Rothschilds start loaning money to the pasha (or whatever he was called) of Egypt. And you think "well, this pasha doesn't seem like a very creditworthy person. How would they get their money back?" As I remember, Ferguson was good at creating a feeling of suspense here.

They asked their friends in the British government, one of whom was Gladstone I think, to invade Egypt, making it a colony. After that the British government assumed responsibility for Egypt's debts to the Rothschilds. So in effect the average British taxpayer (shopkeeper, colliery owner, whatever) ended up subsidizing the pasha's harem. For a while at least. Think of all those orientalist paintings.

To me this is a symbol of how credit works in general. It's a transfer of money from responsible people to irresponsible ones, from those who do to those who spend. Often on bling.

Would it be possible to eliminate the corruption factor from the banking cycle? I don't know of any countries where that was ever done. I recently reviewed here a book about the history of Florence from 1200  to 1575, and it was full of banking crises and taxpayer bailouts. By the way, all of the biggest bankers there were Italians.

I know of countries that completely dispensed with debt internally. The post-WWII USSR, modern Saudi Arabia. Though obviously I don't know the latter from the inside. And I know of countries where credit works in the corrupt manner that I described above. But I don't know of any places where it's ever worked honestly. And of course, if bribery and bailouts were eliminated, the banking business would shrink considerably. Bankers would only loan to those whom they truly considered creditworthy, and that's not a lot of people. And these are exactly the kind of people who need credit the least.

Why is bribery so hard to eliminate in this context? Because the bankers' profits exceed government officials' salaries by many orders of magnitude. This is almost like gravity. Why does the Moon revolve around the Earth?

I'm sure that this reality is partly behind the condemnation of banking by several religions and by much of humanity's wisdom literature. Quoting Shakespeare, "neither a borrower nor a lender be."

I freely admit to being hypocritical on the issue of immigration, but I've never been a hypocrite on this. I've taken out zero loans in my life. I bought the apartment in which I'm typing this outright, by saving money when I was working while living with my parents in my younger days. The only bits of debt that I've ever had were two or three overdue credit card bills. I've always had enough money to pay them, but I sometimes forgot to do it on time. So I've been assessed a little interest. Probably $20 or $30 in total. Never had any other debt of any sort.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Review of the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt

The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, Ian Shaw (editor), 2003. Glossy's rating: 6/10

This is a history of Egypt from the Paleolithic to 395 AD.

In the early chapters nothing seems to presage the country's later greatness. Agriculture came to the Nile valley several thousand years after the Middle East, most likely from the Levant. There was an intense period of development between about 4400 BC and 3100 BC, at the end of which a unified state, by far the largest one on Earth at the time, was born, already equipped with a unique culture that's instantly recognizable to the modern eye. Aesthetically this culture was far above anything created in the Middle East or in Europe until it was surpassed by the Greeks in the 5th century BC.

It's interesting that the initial unification of Egypt was accomplished from the south.

"By the end of the Naqada II phase ( c .3200 BC ) or early Naqada III, the indigenous material culture of Lower [Glossy: northern] Egypt had disappeared and was replaced by artefacts (especially pottery wares) deriving from Upper [southern] Egypt and the Naqada culture."

There is a pattern in global history of northerners conquering southerners much more often than vice versa, but in Egypt the record seems to be closer to parity than in most places. The south unified the country again after the First Intermediate Period, and then again after the Second one. In pharaonic times Upper Egypt seems to have been more authentically Egyptian and more interested in national unity and sovereignty.

Among the roughly half a dozen foreign peoples who conquered Egypt in the period covered by this book one - the Nubians - came from the south. In some periods they even served Egypt's rulers as mercenaries, as did Libyans, Anatolians, Greeks and others.

Writing appeared in Egypt contemporaneously with unification, in the 32nd century BC. During my lifetime the scientific consensus on its origin shifted from "probably influenced by Mesopotamian cuneiform" to "probably developed independently at about the same time as Mesopotamian cuneiform".

The earliest examples of this writing unearthed so far are labels attached to the grave goods of a king, inscribed with his name. An enormous share of what we know about ancient Egypt comes from tombs. This is partly because many settlements cannot be excavated, having been covered by many layers of Nile silt in antiquity. I'm under the impression that burials tended to be located on higher ground, closer to the desert. Also, Egyptians were more obsessed with the afterlife than most ancient peoples. The amount of effort they put into the building of tombs, not just for the pharaohs, is absolutely shocking. The big pyramids at Giza represent a very small share of it.

By the way, while reading about all the archeological digs mentioned in this book I was surprised to learn that a few of them were carried out by the Japanese.

During the Old Kingdom Egypt was a highly-centralized absolute monarchy with a command economy.

"Internal dissent was minimal, and support for the system was genuine and widespread. Coercive state mechanisms, such as police, were conspicuous by their absence."

There was no cash, so all economic activity proceeded through barter or royal decree. I've read that by that time Mesopotamians were already using silver as a medium of exchange, though I don't know in what form. There were no coins anywhere in the world until much later.

Gradually the pharaohs' control began to slip. Provincial governors, at first appointed, began to pass on their positions to their sons. These dynasties slowly acquired patronage networks of their own, and with them independent sources of power. Eventually central government broke down, order was replaced by chaos, temples were looted and large-scale building activity ceased.

After about a century of instability the country was unified again under the Middle Kingdom. Prosperity came back and the arts flourished once more, becoming more human and individual than before. Portraiture was now more likely to reflect the subjects' personal features. Literature began to deal with ordinary people as protagonists.

Senusret III
Again Senusret III. Notice that it's clearly the same person, but sadder, less defiant.
Amenemhat III
Amenemhat III
The Middle Kingdom ended with the invasion of the Hyksos, nomads who hailed from southern Palestine and spoke a West Semitic language.

Egyptians called all Middle Easterners, not just the Hyksos, Aamu, which modern historians usually translate as "Asiatics".

"Egyptian intolerance toward the ‘easterners’ was already apparent in the reign of Senusret I, who described himself as ‘the throat-slitter of Asia’, and this general perception is reinforced by the so-called execration texts. These were lists of enemies inscribed on pottery objects and figurines, many of which name individual Asiatics and the people of Asia in general. The intention of the texts seems to have been to ensure the magical destruction of Egypt’s enemies by burying or smashing the pots or figurines in question."

I'm sure that the Hyksos felt the same way, but their testimony did not survive. Resistance to their rule was led, unsurprisingly, by the south.

A king of Upper Egypt named Kamose proclaimed, speaking of his Hyksos counterpart, ‘I will close with him that I may slit open his belly; for my desire is to rescue Egypt and to drive out the Asiatics.’

After the Hyksos were defeated we read of Queen Hatshepsut boasting, ‘I have banished the abomination of the gods, and the earth has removed their footprints.’

In other words, the Egyptian side saw this conflict as a war of national liberation. What, your professor told you that nationalism didn't exist before the French Revolution? It is to laugh.

The severed hands of defeated enemies
In the New Kingdom the already-existing practice of pharaohs marrying their sisters became more common. I would have ascribed this to empty symbolism or misunderstood metaphor if genetic testing on Tutankhamun's mummy hadn't revealed that his parents were full siblings. Pharaohs had large harems, so not all their wives were their sisters and not all their heirs were heavily inbred, just some.

The Ptolemies, though ethnically Greek, followed this Egyptian tradition. By the way, this book says that in almost 300 years of Ptolemaic rule in Egypt the only monarch of that dynasty who's known to have learned Egyptian was the last one, Cleopatra.

A few local census returns have survived from the Roman period in Egypt. About a sixth of all marriages recorded in them were between brothers and sisters. Amenhotep III is mentioned here as marrying his own daughters, but I don't know if those marriages produced any children.

His son Amenhotep IV is the earliest known monotheist in history. He renamed himself Akhenaten in honor of the sun disc ("aten" in Egyptian), which he saw as the only god in the universe. There had been a gradual movement towards the worship of the sun and towards monotheism before Akhenaten however, so this didn't come entirely out of the blue.

Under Akhenaten "...the traditional gods were banned completely and a campaign was begun to remove their names and effigies (particularly those of Amun) from the monuments, a Herculean task that can only have been carried out with the support of the army. The traditional state temples were closed down and the cults of their gods came to a standstill. Perhaps most important of all, the religious festivals with their processions and public holidays were no longer celebrated either."

"In everyday practice, the new religion probably only replaced the official state cult and the religion of the élite; the majority of the people must have continued to worship their own traditional, often local gods."

Beyond realism: Akhenaten


In future eras monotheism was extremely "sticky", meaning that once it took hold in a population, polytheism never returned. But this first known instance of monotheism in world history was an exception, since as soon as Akhenaten died, the Egyptian government and elite came back to their old gods. Not content with just that, they tried to obliterate all mentions of Akhenaten, erasing him from official king lists.

A few decades later Egypt defeated an invasion of the Sea Peoples, who seem to have come from Greece and perhaps Italy as well. This was a very impressive accomplishment because the Sea Peoples destroyed most of the Middle Eastern states of that time.

An Egyptian relief showing a Sherden soldier, a member of the Sea Peoples. The Sherden probably had some connection to Sardinia. I'm not aware of any earlier representations of the European facial type that are this realistic.
Some time later power in Egypt was seized by a Syrian official named Bay, who was then removed by a native Egyptian king. I'm fascinated by interethnic relations, both modern and ancient, so the Egyptian description of this episode was interesting to me:

"The papyrus describes how a state of lawlessness and chaos had broken out in Egypt because of forces from ‘outside’; after several years in which there was no one who ruled, a Syrian called Irsu (a made-up name meaning ‘one who made himself’—that is, ‘upstart’) seized power, and his confederates plundered the country; they treated the gods like ordinary human beings and no longer sacrificed in the temples.... "

"The gods then chose Sethnakht to be the next ruler"... "and he re-established order."

The New Kingdom ended with another era of decline and division called the Third Intermediate Period. Different chapters of this book were written by different authors, and two of them seem to offer competing explanations for this.

Jacobus Van Dijk blames the long-term effects of Akhenaten's religious reforms. He says that after Akhenaten monopolized all religious devotion for the god Aten, and for himself as his sole representative, people reacted by starting to worship the gods directly or nearly directly, going some way towards cutting out the royal intermediary. This is supposed to have damaged the pharaohs' power and prestige for many centuries to come.

John Taylor, the author of the chapter on the Third Intermediate period, instead blames the breakdown of authority on a massive inflow of Libyan nomads into Egypt. These people simply weren't used to powerful, centralized governments.

This is the period when royal tombs began to be looted and when the amount of effort put into tomb building declined. Of course Libyans had no reason to feel much reverence for old Egyptian kings, and, as nomads, didn't have a tradition of building anything substantial.

This latter theory feels much more convincing to me. I think that in general most historians underestimate the effect of ethnic conflict and demographic change on ideology, economics and the structure of government.

According to this book, "a substantial influx of non-Egyptians (Libyans and Nubians) permanently modified the profile of the population."

"The evidence of names, titles, and genealogies reveals the population of the north as predominantly Libyan and that of the south as Egyptian. Reflections of this can also be detected in material culture."

"There are, in fact, several indications that the Libyans retained a large measure of their ethnic identity. Their distinctive and very un-Egyptian names—Osorkon, Sheshonq, Takelot, and others—survived for centuries after the arrival of the Libyans in Egypt, whereas in earlier periods foreigners usually adopted or were given Egyptian names within one or two generations."

" has been suggested that by the end of the New Kingdom the Egyptian army was almost entirely made up of Libyan mercenaries."

As we move forward through the Kingdoms and Intermediate Periods of Egyptian history, the number and duration of foreign invasions increases. Why? I've read of genetic studies that purport to show that Egypt's population hasn't changed much since the pre-pharaonic Naqada period. This seems to contradict some of the quotes above. I don't know who's right. The genetic study of the past is in its infancy now.

A partial replacement of a disciplined agrarian population by nomads could explain some of the change though. Another obvious explanation is the immense civilizational progress in southern Europe, home to two of the powers that conquered Egypt in the first millennium BC.

It's important to note however that Egyptian art retained its customary level of sophistication well into the Roman era.

The last period of ancient Egyptian independence came to an end in 343 BC. I don't think Egypt was ruled by natives again until the 20th century. And except for Alexandria, all of whose intellectuals were Greek, this ancient country was never again important. It had an amazingly long run though.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

School, Part 2

I'm slowly writing an auto-biography. This is the third installment. The first two can be found here and here.


My most vivid memories of school have nothing to do with classes of course. Breaks between periods, which lasted between 5 and 20 minutes, were filled with running, fighting and games. At the beginning of a class we were often sweaty and red-faced, trying to catch our breaths, nauseous from exertion.

I was shorter, thinner, quicker and less powerful than the average kid, so I loved to play tag. Often, as we were running towards the end of a straight passage, with some kid's outstretched arm a few centimeters from my back, I just knew that I was going to gain some distance when I made a turn, because I always did, because I was just like that, and this big oaf behind me wasn't, and that I was going to get away. And this feeling gave me great joy.

The metal tubes which made up the framework of our classroom chairs were plugged with square pieces of plastic. We often took those out in order to play soccer with them. I was normally a goalkeeper. One day someone brought a big, ovoid piece of heavy metal, probably lead, to school, so that we could play with it instead. The challenge was to change this thing's trajectory without hitting it head on.

Our fighting did not look like boxing, wrestling or anything else that appears on TV. The goal was often to push your opponent in such a way that he'd trip over your extended foot and fall. Since both of you were trying to do this to each other at the same time, the fight tended to slowly revolve around a central point.

Sometimes we simulated mounted warfare by fighting in two-man teams. A lighter kid like me would climb on the back of a heavier one to grapple with his counterpart on the other team, trying to make him and his "mount" lose their balance and fall to the floor.

In the mornings we hung our coats and shoe bags in the big dressing room downstairs. There were no lockers, yet nothing was ever stolen. Of course bicycles were never stolen either, in spite of the total absence of bike locks. To avoid dragging dirt into classrooms we had to take off our winter boots in the dressing room and change into indoor shoes that we brought from home, hence the shoe bags.

In the early grades those bags were sometimes used as weapons, and my muscle memory still retains the movements necessary to swing one menacingly from its string.

Sometimes at the end of the day we chased each other around the dressing room, tripping over fallen coats, laughing and fighting. Someone once threw me at one of the windows there, breaking it with my back. I have a memory of going to a store with my parents to buy a replacement window for the school. That was the first time I saw a glass-cutting tool in action - an exciting thing for a little boy. But why were we buying the new window? He threw me! That part I already forgot.

When a teacher called in sick, we had the entire 45 minutes to ourselves. One typical thing to do in such a situation was to start throwing wet cloths at each other. Those were normally used to erase chalk from the blackboard. Repeated hits imparted our uniform and hair a specific smell that I still remember today.

Our math and science notebooks contained graph paper, which became an integral part of a very large number of strategy games. The one I liked the most was an adaptation of Go called Tochki (Dots). We often played it for hours on end, both during and after classes, filling both sides of an open notebook with our encirclements.

Tochki. This is a short game though.

There was a popular graph paper game dealing with naval warfare, in which you called out the chess-like coordinates of the squares you hit, and several graph paper games dealing with tank battles, but for some reason nothing relating to aerial or nuclear war.

In the early grades the game of "fantiki" was popular. You put a chewing gum wrapper on a desk, and then the other kid tried to overturn it by hitting, or nearly hitting it, with his hand. It was really the air flow created by the hand's movement that flipped it. If he succeeded, he won your wrapper, but then he had to put one of his own on the desk, so that you'd get a chance to win it. Kids had collections of these wrappers which they displayed in albums. Rare foreign ones were more valuable than the domestic kind.

There were lots of word games too of course: a Scrabble-like game for pen and paper, which I would guess is much older than Scrabble, "hangman", which was probably the inspiration for Wheel of Fortune type games worldwide, and many others. If I ever come across a history of children's pen-and-paper games, I'll definitely read it.

How do I feel about being a member of the last generation before the massive spread of computer games? I think it's great. I got to experience this very old bit of human culture right before it declined. And none of it was addictive. The only traces of it in my current life are pleasant memories.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Reading Speed

I've long been dissatisfied with the table that I put in this post, which showed my proficiency in various languages. In it I gave my reading, listening and speaking abilities subjective grades on the 0 to 10 scale. It should be easy to measure the first two of these objectively. I recently started to do this with reading.

I chose newspaper editorials as material. Why? There's less variation among them in terms of difficulty than among novels. There are fewer personal and place names in them than in newspaper articles. They're easy to find.

Here's what I have so far:

For this table I read about 5,000 words in English, German, Russian, Spanish and French each. I read a little fewer than 2,900 words in Italian and about 1,250 characters in Chinese. This is a work in progress. Eventually I want to base my table on 5,000 words in all of these European languages and on 10,000 characters in Chinese. And I want to add Portuguese and Ukrainian, which I can read to some extent.

For the record, the one English word I didn't know was "exons", encountered in an NYT editorial by Nicholas Kristof. I comfort myself with the near-certainty that he doesn't know what it means either.

What does "Adj. reading speed" mean in my above table? Well, German words, for example, tend to be longer than English ones. So a thousand words in German usually convey more information than a thousand words in English. I decided to quantify this, and then to adjust for it.

When people compare languages, they often use the Lord's Prayer because it's the text that's been translated into the most tongues. However, it's short and sometimes contains archaic vocabulary, which is unrepresentative of modern speech. I decided to go for one of the chief texts of the religion of liberalism instead, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The web site of the High Commissioner of these rights has translations of their Declaration into 501 languages. The document is broken up into chapters. I removed chapter headings ("Chapter 25", for example) before counting the words because I'm more interested in the length of real sentences. In the end I came up with the following numbers:

For Chinese I used the number of characters instead of the number of words. I used the coefficients in the last column to adjust the reading speed numbers above. My entire worksheet can be seen here.

My plan for measuring listening comprehension is to find some audio-books of classic novels and then to calculate the percentage of the words that I understand correctly the first, the second, the third, etc. time that I hear a passage spoken.

The only way to objectively quantify speaking ability is to ask lots of native speakers to grade you. I can't really do that, so those grades will remain subjective in my new system.