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Category archive: How the mind works

Friday November 20 2015

On Friday November 27th (i.e. exactly one week from now), my friend from way back, Antoine Clarke, will be giving a talk at my place entitled “Herding cats, or lessons from drunks about organising anarchy”.

These talks happen every last Friday of the month, and before they give one of them, I ask each speaker to supply a paragraph or two about what they’ll be saying, so I can email my list of potential attenders.  Antoine has just supplied me with ten paragraphs on his talk:

It would be hard to imagine any more dysfunctional organisation than a leaderless group of drunks promising among themselves to quit drinking and to help other drunks to quit.

And then I realized that there is a similar organisation for narcotics addicts, one for cocaine addicts, crystal meth addicts and even “sex and love addicts” - whatever that may mean.

Alcoholics Anonymous has been described as a “benign anarchy” by one of its founders and manages to organize over 100,000 groups worldwide with between 1.5 million and 2 million members. Its power structure has been described as an “inverted pyramid”.

AA operates by having almost completely autonomous branches, no publicity, no professional class of “charity workers” and no set fees.  It has a “12-step program” and “12 traditions” which have been described respectively as “rules for not killing yourself” and “rules for not killing other people”.

The effectiveness of AA at curing or controlling alcohol addiction is not clear cut. Because of anonymity, self-selection and the difficulty of known if someone who stops attending meetings has relapsed or simply found he can lead a functional lifestyle. The fact that over a dozen other organisations have copied AA’s 12-step and 12 tradition system suggests at least some level of success, unlike, say the UK’s National Health Service which has fewer imitators.

One particular problem for AA is that any 12-step program will only really work if it is voluntary, but in the USA especially, courts mandate that convicted criminals attend AA meetings as a parole condition.  I think this reduces recidivism among the criminals (compared with them NOT following a program), but it surely dilutes the effectiveness of AA groups (more disruptive attendees, people going through the motions, possible discouragement of others).

I shall be looking at the elements of AA’s structure and organisational culture to see what lessons can be learned about the possibility of anarchic institutions especially at handling social problems.

What interests me is the “anarchy with table manners” aspect of AA and the contrast with truly dysfunctional libertarian organisations, like the Libertarian Alliance.

I’m also interested in the issue of government interference and the ways in which well-meaning interventions make matters worse. I shall also take a look at the spiritual element of AA’s 12-step program, noting that it claims to work for atheists and agnostics as well as for theists.

Hopefully, this is an attractive alternative to binge drinking on a Friday night in central London.

Indeed.  There will be no binge drinking at the meeting.

Tuesday November 17 2015

So there I was, in the bath I think it was, listening to the cricket in Dubai, and Agnew mentioned what sounded like a rather interesting photo, of a very tall cricketer called Mohammad Irfan, being interviewed.  The particular fun being that Irfan is very tall, and both the interviewer and the cameraman are standing on boxes:

Agnew mentioned that he had seen this photo on Twitter, and that was enough of a clue for me to find it (scroll down to Nov 15 until you get to the bit where it says: “Love this pic of Irfan being interviewed") very quickly:


Bonus: another photographer in the shot.

More and more, the world is following me, in no longer wanted to exclude other photographers from its photos, but instead to include other photographers.

Sunday November 15 2015

This is a hastily drawn illustration of a characteristic urban phenomenon of the late twentieth century, namely: the Meaningless Triangle:


The blue lines are the edges, aka the curbs, of two city streets, which, for reasons lost in history, meet each other at an angle.

The black lines are are piece of Modern Movement type Modern Architecture, circa 1970, made of grey concrete, with big, boring windows.  Something like an office block or a department store.  The Meaningless Triangles are the pink bits.

In the days of Modern Movement type Modernism, architects were obsessed with making everything rectangular, which explains that jagged, saw-like edge to the big Modern Movement type building, at the bottom of my diagram.  In order for the building to be in line with one of the streets, it has to be at an angle to the other street, because the streets are not themselves at right angles.

So, why not just have wall to the building that are not at right angles?  This is what is done now.  Why not then?

There are many reasons.  One is that doing this kind of thing, in the days before computers, was a bit difficult.  But more fundamentally, right angles were, you know, Modern.  Only the despised higgledy-piggledy Past had walls at crazy angles.

More fundamentally, Modern Movement architecture was not so much about building a mere building, as about building a small fragment of a potentially infinite urban grid.  In a perfect world, the Modern Movement type building would not stop at the boundaries of the site.  It would instead stride madly off in all four directions, covering the whole earth in a single rectangular grid.  You think that’s mad?  Sure it’s mad.  But this was how these people thought, in those days.  Hey really did publish schemes to cover the entire world with just the one new building, and smash all the others.

The boundaries of the site were an affront to the building.  The building did not end gracefully and decorously at the boundary, and then show a polite face to the world.  No.  It merely stopped, as gracelessly and rudely as possible, and in a manner which threatened to go bashing on, just as soon as a socialist upheaval (preferably worldwide) could clear all the higgledy-piggledy crap of the past out of the way.  In a perfect world, there would be no boundaries, no property rights.  No arbitrary lines where one bit of “property” stops and another bit starts.  Oh no.  All would be owned by the People in Common, and our architect is the instrument of the People in Common, and supplies tham all, all I say, with a new and infinitely huge new building.

I know, insane.  Don’t blame me.  I’m just telling you what these lunatics were thinking.

Luckily, the higgledy-piggledy old world kept these maniacs under control.  They had to stop their damn buildings at the edge of the site.  If they had tried to bash on beyond the site, they’d have been arrested.  But, they could make the ragged edge of the building look as ragged and ugly as they liked, and they did.

Hence all the Meaningless Triangles.

If you want to hear me talking about the above, go to this video, of me giving a talk about Modern Architecture, and start watching at 41 minutes.

What got me blogging about Meaningless Triangles was that I recently, in the course of wandering through my photo-archives, came across this photo:


What we see there is a very meaningful building, built to fill in a Meaningless Triangle.  As I recall, this is a few dozen yards from the entrance to Kensington High Street Tube station.  Yes, I just found the Caffe Nero in Wrights Lane, near that very tube station.  That’s the one.  I took my photo of it in 2010.

Monday November 09 2015

The German conductor Herbert von Karajan probably did more to popularise classical music after WW2 that any other single person.  His LPs and then his CDs and DVDs sold in their millions.  I have many Karajan CDs myself.  So, the question of whether he was any sort of Nazi and if so what sort remains a hot topic.

Playwright Ronald Harwood, author of a play about Wilhelm Furtwängler, was recently interviewed on BBC4 TV.  During this, Harwood mentioned, in contemptuous passing, that Karajan was obviously a Nazi.  Furtwängler was interesting because it wasn’t clear, hence that play.  Karajan?  Not interesting, because clearly he was.  He hired a Jewish secretary after the war.  What more do you need to know?

Well, I for one needed to know a bit more than only that, so I did some googling and came across this by Peter Alward, former vice-president of EMI Classics:

I first met Karajan in 1976, and we remained friends up to his death. He was one of EMI’s flagship artists in the late 70s and early 80s; most of his operatic work was for us, his symphonic work for Deutsche Grammophon. Yes, he cultivated the cult of the maestro - he was a shrewd businessman and recognised his market worth. He was not slow in coming forward and speaking his mind, but no conductor is a shrinking violet. I feel he was misunderstood. There was the glamorous image - the jet-set lifestyle - but this was all a defence. He was really very shy, a simple man with simple tastes. I vehemently oppose the theory that he was a Nazi. He was an opportunist. I’m Jewish, and if I believed otherwise, I wouldn’t have spent a minute in his company.

Opportunist sounds about right to me.  Karajan, like all conductors, needed power, over an orchestra.  Needing this sort of power, he had to avoid antagonising whoever the politicians were, the ones with the more regular sort of power.  But he did not care about politics for its own sake, merely as a means to the end of his music making.

Trouble is, you can surely say the same for a great many other servants of the Third Reich.  I bet plenty of rocket, airplane, tank, bomb and ship designers were equally opportunistic, and equally free of any positive desire to be Nazis.  But whoever happened to be Germany’s politicians, these people would have served them.  All they cared about was rockets, airplanes, tanks, bombs and ships.  Classical music was not as important to the Nazi regime as armaments were, but it was quite important.  Karajan did help.

The most interesting titbit I learned from this little burst of Karajan-googling was that apparently his second wife, Anita, whom he married in 1942, was burdened with a Jewish grandfather.  But hKarajan wasn’t merely “burdened” thus.  He burdened himself.  Wikipedia:

On 22 October 1942, at the height of the Second World War, Karajan married Anna Maria “Anita” Sauest, born Gütermann. She was the daughter of a well-known manufacturer of yarn for sewing machines. Having had a Jewish grandfather, she was considered a Vierteljüdin (one-quarter Jewish woman).

Just marrying a quarter-Jewess, before that was dodgy, is one thing.  Being a celeb and marrying a famous heiress with a famously rich and half-Jewish dad, and doing all that in 1942, is something else again.  That’s more than just hiring an entirely Jewish secretary after the war.

When I read about such people and about such times, I don’t feel inclined to condemn.  I merely wonder how I might have behaved, or misbehaved, had I been confronted by such pressures and such temptations.

Friday November 06 2015

The modified cliché is a standard method to spice up writing.  You take a too-much-repeated clutch of words, like a metaphor so stale that you hardly notice the metaphor any more, and you alter it or add something to it to bring things alive again.  (Said Vinegar Joe Stillwell of Louis Mountbatten: “There’s less to that young man than meets the eye.” I still remember something Harry Phibbs wrote about how he was “eager to intrude upon private grief”.)

Something similar can be done with architecture, on a far more grand scale:


The individual bricks, so to speak, of this architectural pile are impeccably dull.  Yet they are combined in a very dramatic way.  Which makes the impeccable dullness that is thus still very visible all the more entertaining.

Modifying a cliché has particular architectural advantages, because it means that you already know how the cliché bits work, because that’s been done thousands of times already.  (See this earlier posting.)

Of course, combining them in this new way could create all manner of problems of different sorts, so you still need to be careful.  But, despite the dangers, I like this.

Tuesday November 03 2015

... causing them to stay stuck inside my head for ever.

That’s it really.  Provided something can get out of hand inside a head.

What I am talking about, in the event that you don’t already recognise the syndrome, is that you think of something to put on your blog, and start seeking out links, and you find highly pertinent links to add, but at the far end of them, you find further highly pertinent things to add to the original posting, until it ceases entirely from being the piece of fun that blogging ought mostly to be, and becomes a giant piece of homework that never gets done.

So, memo to self: Stop it.

Friday October 30 2015


As I published this, I made another mental note to look up a bit of the history of this place on Cambridge Street. I also made a mental note that my mental notes seem not to be working at reminding me to do things.

This is a big part of what blogs, and now Twitter, Facebook, and all the rest of it, are for.  Never mind all those damn other readers.  What proportion of internet postings of various sorts are there not for anyone else, but for the poster himself to remember whatever it was?  This of course requires you to trawl back through your own output from time to time, which I do do from time to time.

Here is another internet posting vaguely relevant to the above, about people who find it impossible not to remember things, the things in this case being faces.  Most of us have heard of those unfortunates whose brains have been smacked and they can’t remember faces that ought to be familiar, like their children’s.  This is about people who have received a different sort of smack, from their own DNA, which makes them super-good at remembering faces, even ones they don’t want to.  When someone says to you “I never forget a face”, it just might be true.

The piece includes gratuitously irrelevant pictures of that actress who was in that favourite TV comedy series you know the one and of that other actor who was in that James Bond movie from way back, called whatever it was called I don’t remember.  It’s on the tip of my … that thing inside my face … you know, that hole, under my eyes …

Going back to 6k’s bon mot above, this only got typed into the www on account of his rule, and mine, of trying to do something every day.  You start doing a pure quota posting, and then you think of something truly entertaining to add to it, which you would never have put on the www had it not occurred to you at the exact moment you were in the middle of typing in a blog posting that was in need jazzing up a bit, e.g. with a bon mot.

Thursday October 29 2015

From the Washington Post, yesterday:

What if your self-driving car decides one death is better than two - and that one is you?

The piece also asks if it is only a matter of time before regular driving is banned.  I think this will happen in lots of places, and driving a car will become like riding a horse. It will be something you do only for fun.  I probably won’t live to see this, but I probably will live to see it quite widely discussed.

Tuesday October 27 2015

One of the key themes of Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature is that moral advance has on the whole not been lead by religion.  Religious people have often defended ancient moral positions, as when defending slavery, for instance.  Only when persuaded by secular moralists of the wrongness of slavery did religious people then become fierce and very vigorous opponents of slavery.  But the secularists lead the way when it came to winning the argument in the first place.  All of which is unsurprising, if you look at what it says in the Bible about such things.  Which Pinker does.  One of the most remarkable passages in The Better Angels is Pinker’s description of what the Old Testament actually says (pp. 7-14).  If you get tired of all the mayhem and slaughter, at least skip to the end and read Pinker’s final paragraph.  As he says, he is not accusing Christians of believing this stuff.  Christians pay the entire Bible “lip service as a symbol of morality”, but they no longer believe in the morality that is actually contained in the first half of it:

Like the works of Homer, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) was set in the late 2nd millennium BCE but written more than five hundred years later.  But unlike the works of Homer, the Bible is revered today by billions of people who call it the source of their moral values.  The world’s bestselling publication, the Good Book has been translated into three thousand languages and has been placed in the nightstands of hotels all over the world.  Orthodox Jews kiss it with their prayer shawls; witnesses in American courts bind their oaths by placing a hand on it.  Even the president touches it when taking the oath of office.  Yet for all this reverence, the Bible is one long celebration of violence.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.  And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.  And the Lord God took one of Adam’s ribs, and made he a woman.  And Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.  And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain.  And she again bare his brother Abel.  And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.  With a world population of exactly four, that works out to a homicide rate of 25 percent, which is about a thousand times higher than the equivalent rates in Western countries today.

No sooner do men and women begin to multiply than God decides they are sinful and that the suitable punishment is genocide.  (In Bill Cosby’s comedy sketch, a neighbor begs Noah for a hint as to why he is building an ark. Noah replies, ‘How long can you tread water?’) When the flood recedes, God instructs Noah in its moral lesson, namely the code of vendetta: ‘Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.’

The next major figure in the Bible is Abraham, the spiritual ancestor of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  Abraham has a nephew, Lot, who settles in Sodom.  Because the residents engage in anal sex and comparable sins, God immolates every man, woman, and child in a divine napalm attack.  Lot’s wife, for the crime of turning around to look at the inferno is put to death as well.

Abraham undergoes a test of his moral values when God orders hm to take his son Isaac to a mountaintop, tie him up, cut his throat, and burn his body as a gift to the Lord.  Isaac is spared only because at the last moment an angel stays his father’s hand.  For millennia readers have puzzled over why God insisted on this horrifying trial.  One interpretation is that God intervened not because Abraham had passed the test but because he had failed it, but that is anachronistic: obedience to divine authority, not reverence for human life, was the cardinal virtue.

Isaac’s son Jacob has a daughter, Dinah.  Dinah is kidnapped and raped - apparently a customary form of courtship at the time, since the rapist’s family then offers to purchase her from her own family as a wfe for the rapist.  Dinah’s brothers explain that an important moral principle stands in the way of this transaction: the rapist is uncircumcised.  So they make a counteroffer: if all the men in the rapist’s hometown cut off their foreskins, Dinah will be theirs. While the men are incapacitated with bleeding penises, the brothers invade the city, plunder and destroy it, massacre the men, and carry off the women and children.  When Jacob worries that neighboring tribes may attack them in revenge, his sons explain that it was worth the risk: ‘Should our sister be treated like a whore?’ Soon afterward they reiterate their commitment to family values by selling their brother Joseph into slavery.

Jacob’s descendants, the Israelites, find their way to Egypt and become too numerous for the Pharaoh’s liking, so he enslaves them and orders that all the boys be killed at birth.  Moses escapes the mass infanticide and grows up to challenge the Pharaoh to let his people go.  God, who is omnipotent, could have softened Pharaoh’s heart, but he hardens it instead, which gives him a reason to afflict every Egyptian with painful boils and other miseries before killing every one of their firstborn sons. (The word Passover alludes to the executioner angel’s passing over the households with Israelite firstborns.) God follows this massacre with another one when he drowns the Egyptian army as they pursue the Israelites across the Red Sea.

The Israelites assemble at Mount Sinai and hear the Ten Commandments, the great moral code that outlaws engraved images and the coveting of livestock but gives a pass to slavery, rape, torture, mutilation, and genocide of neighboring tribes.  The Israelites become impatient while waiting for Moses to return with an expanded set of laws, which will prescribe the death penalty for blasphemy, homosexuality, adultery, talking back to parents, and working on the Sabbath.  To pass the time, they worship a statue of a calf, for which the punishment turns out to be, you guessed it, death.  Following orders from God, Moses and his brother Aaron kill three thousand of their companions.

God then spends seven chapters of Leviticus instructing the Israelites on how to slaughter the steady stream of animals he demands of them.  Aaron and his two sons prepare the tabernacle for the first service, but the sons slip up and use the wrong incense.  So God burns them to death.  As the Israelites proceed toward the promised land, they meet up with the Midianites.  Following orders from God, they slay the males, burn their city, plunder the livestock, and take the women and children captive.  When they return to Moses, he is enraged because they spared the women, some of whom had led the Israelites to worship rival gods.  So he tells his soldiers to complete the genocide and to reward themselves with nubile sex slaves they may rape at their pleasure: ‘Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.  But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for your-

In Deuteronomy 20 and 21, God gives the Israelites a blanket policy for dealing with cities that don’t accept them as overlords: smite the males with the edge of the sword and abduct the cattle, women, and children.  Of course, a man with a beautiful new captive faces a problem: since he has just murdered her parents and brothers, she may not be in the mood for love.  God anticipates this nuisance and offers the following solution: the captor should shave her head, pare her nails, and imprison her in his house for a month while she cries her eyes out.  Then he may go in and rape her.

With a designated list of other enemies (Hittites,Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites), the genocide has to be total: ‘Thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them ... as the Lord thy God has commanded thee.’

Joshua puts this directive into practice when he invades Canaan and sacks the city of Jericho.  After the walls came tumbling down, his soldiers ‘utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.’ More earth is scorched as Joshua ‘smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded.’

The next stage in Israelite history is the era of the judges, or tribal chiefs.  The most famous of them, Samson, establishes his reputation by killing thirty men during his wedding feast because he needs their clothing to pay off a bet.  Then, to avenge the killing of his wife and her father, he slaughters a thousand Philistines and sets fire to their crops after escaping capture, he kills another thousand with the jawbone of an ass.  When he is finally captured and his eyes are burned out, God gives him the strength for a 9/11-like suicide attack in which he implodes a large building, crushing the three thousand men and women who are worshipping inside it.

Israel’s first king, Saul, establishes a small empire, which gives him the opportunity to settle an old score.  Centuries earlier, during the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, the Amalekites had harassed them, and God commanded the Israelites to ‘wipe out the name of Amalek.’ So when the judge Samuel anoints Saul as king, he reminds Saul of the divine decree: ‘Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.’ Saul carries out the order, but Samuel is furious to learn that he has spared their king, Agag.  So Samuel ‘hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord.’

Saul is eventually overthrown by his son-in-law David, who absorbs the southern tribes of Judah, conquers Jerusalem, and makes it the capital of a kingdom that will last four centuries.  David would come to be celebrated in story, song, and sculpture, and his six-pointed star would symbolize his people for three thousand years.  Christians too would revere him as the forerunner of Jesus.

But in Hebrew scripture David is not just the ‘sweet singer of Israel,’ the chiseled poet who plays a harp and composes the Psalms.  After he makes his name by killing Goliath, David recruits a gang of guerrillas, extorts wealth from his fellow citizens at swordpoint, and fights as a mercenary for the Philistines.  These achievements make Saul jealous: the women in his court are singing, ‘Saul has killed by the thousands, but David by the tens of thousands.’ So Saul plots to have him assassinated.” David narrowly escapes before staging a successful coup.

When David becomes king, he keeps up his hard-earned reputation for killing by the tens of thousands.  After his general Joab ‘wasted the country of the children of Ammon,’ David ‘brought out the people that were in it, and cut them with saws, and with harrows of iron, and with axes.’ Finally he manages to do something that God considers immoral: he orders a census.  To punish David for this lapse, God kills seventy thousand of his citizens.

Within the royal family, sex and violence go hand in hand. While taking a walk on the palace roof one day, David peeping-toms a naked woman, Bathsheba, and likes what he sees, so he sends her husband to be killed in battle and adds her to his seraglio.  Later one of David’s children rapes another one and is killed in revenge by a third.  The avenger, Absalom, rounds up an army and tries to usurp David’s throne by having sex with ten of his concubines.  (As usual, we are not told how the concubines felt about all this.) While fleeing David’s army, Absalom’s hair gets caught in a tree, and David’s general thrusts three spears into his heart.  This does not put the family squabbles to an end. Bathsheba tricks a senile David into anointing their son Solomon as his successor.  When the legitimate heir, David’s older son Adonijah, protests, Solomon has him killed.

King Solomon is credited with fewer homicides than his predecessors and is remembered instead for building the Temple in Jerusalem and for writing the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (though with a harem of seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines, he clearly didn’t spend all his time writing).  Most of all he is remembered for his eponymous virtue, ‘the wisdom of Solomon.’ Two prostitutes sharing a room give birth a few days apart.  One of the babies dies, and each woman claims that the surviving boy is hers.  The wise king adjudicates the dispute by pulling out a sword and threatening to butcher the baby and hand each woman a piece of the bloody corpse.  One woman withdraws her claim, and Solomon awards the baby to her.  ‘When all Israel heard of the verdict that the king had rendered, they stood in awe of the king, because they saw that he had divine wisdom in carrying out justice.’ The distancing effect of a good story can make us forget the brutality of the world in which it was set.  Just imagine a judge in family court today adjudicating a maternity dispute by pulling out a chain saw and threatening to butcher the baby before the disputants’ eyes.  Solomon was confident that the more humane woman (we are never told that she was the mother) would reveal herself, and that the other woman was so spiteful that she would allow a baby to be slaughtered in front of her - and he was right!  And he must have been prepared, in the event he was wrong, to carry out the butchery or else forfeit all credibility.  The women, for their part, must have believed that their wise king was capable of carrying out this grisly murder.

The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery.  People enslave, rape, and murder members of their immediate families.  Warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the children.  Women are bought, sold, and plundered like sex toys.  And Yahweh tortures and massacres people by the hundreds of thousands for trivial disobedience or for no reason at all.  These atrocities are neither isolated nor obscure.  They implicate all the major characters of the Old Testament, the ones that Sunday-school children draw with crayons.  And they fall into a continuous plotline that stretches for millennia, from Adam and Eve through Noah, the patriarchs, Moses, Joshua, the judges, Saul, David, Solomon, and beyond.  According to the biblical scholar Raymund Schwager, the Hebrew Bible ‘contains over six hundred passages that explicitly talk about nations, kings, or individuals attacking, destroying, and killing others. ...  Aside from the approximately one thousand verses in which Yahweh himself appears as the direct executioner of violent punishments, and the many texts in which the Lord delivers the criminal to the punisher’s sword, in over one hundred other passages Yahweh expressly gives the command to kill people.’ Matthew White, a self-described atrocitologist who keeps a database with the estimated death tolls of history’s major wars, massacres, and genocides, counts about 1.2 million deaths from mass killing that are specifically enumerated in the Bible.  (He excludes the half million casualties in the war between Judah and Israel described in 2 Chronicles 13 because he considers the body count historically implausible.) The victims of the Noachian flood would add another 20 million or so to the total.

The good news, of course, is that most of it never happened.  Not only is there no evidence that Yahweh inundated the planet and incinerated its cities, but the patriarchs, exodus, conquest, and Jewish empire are almost certainly fictions.  Historians have found no mention in Egyptian writings of the departure of a million slaves (which could hardly have escaped the Egyptians’ notice); nor have archaeologists found evidence in the ruins of Jericho or neighboring cities of a sacking around 1200 BCE.  And if there was a Davidic empire stretching from the Euphrates to the Red Sea around the turn of the 1st millennium BCE, no one else at the time seemed to have noticed it.

Modern biblical scholars have established that the Bible is a wiki.  It was compiled over half a millennium from writers with different styles, dialects, character names, and conceptions of God, and it was subjected to haphazard editing that left it with many contradictions, duplications, and non sequiturs.

The oldest parts of the Hebrew Bible probably originated in the 10th century BCE.  They included origin myths for the local tribes and ruins, and legal codes adapted from neigh boring civilizations in the Near East.  The texts probably served as a code of frontier justice for the Iron Age tribes that herded livestock and farmed hillsides in the southeastern periphery of Canaan.  The tribes began to encroach on the valleys and cities, engaged in some marauding every now and again, and may even have destroyed a city or two.  Eventually their myths were adopted by the entire population of Canaan, unifying them with a shared genealogy, a glorious history, a set of taboos to keep them from defecting to foreigners, and an invisible enforcer to keep them from each other’s throats.  A first draft was rounded out with a continuous historical narrative around the late 7th to mid-6th century BCE, when the Babylonians conquered the Kingdom of Judah and forced its inhabitants into exile.  The final edit was completed after their return to Judah in the 5th century BCE.

Though the historical accounts in the Old Testament are fictitious (or at best artistic reconstructions, like Shakespeare’s historical dramas), they offer a window into the lives and values of Near Eastern civilizations in the mid-1st millennium BCE.  Whether or not the Israelites actually engaged in genocide, they certainly thought it was a good idea.

The possibility that a woman had a legitimate interest in not being raped or acquired as sexual property did not seem to register in anyone’s mind.  The writers of the Bible saw nothing wrong with slavery or with cruel punishments like blinding, stoning, and hacking someone to pieces.  Human life held no value in comparison with unthinking obedience to custom and authority.

If you think that by reviewing the literal content of the Hebrew Bible I am trying to impugn the billions of people who revere it today, then you are missing the point.  The overwhelming majority of observant Jews and Christians are, needless to say, thoroughly decent people who do not sanction genocide, rape, slavery, or stoning people for frivolous infractions.  Their reverence for the Bible is purely talismanic.  In recent millennia and centuries the Bible has been spin-doctored, allegorized, superseded by less violent texts (the Talmud among Jews and the New Testament among Christians), or discreetly ignored.  And that is the point.  Sensibilities toward violence have changed so much that religious people today compartmentalize their attitude to the Bible.  They pay it lip service as a symbol of morality, while getting their actual morality from more modern principles.

Sunday October 18 2015

I’m talking rugby, not life.  If you came here because of the above headline but care only about life, relax, the Northern Hemisphere is safe.  It isn’t being culled.  It is merely that the Northern Hemisphere’s rugby teams haven’t been doing very well in the Rugby World Cup, which is now taking place in England.

Watching Ireland lose to Argentina had me conflicted, as they say.  On the one hand, another Home Nation succumbs to a Southern Hemisphere monster.  But on the other hand, England don’t now need to feel quite so bad.  Wales knocked out England by a whisker, and that was disappointing.  But England, Wales, and now Ireland, all got beaten by Southern Hemisphere sides.

And if Scotland do anything different against Australia in the last of the quarter-finals, about to be played, it will be a major upset.

England merely got the same bad news just the one game earlier.

Which means that, unless Scotland have entirely failed to read this script, the semis will be NZ v South Africa, Australia v Argentina.  These four teams have their own tournament every year, in their own stadiums.  Now, they are having another such tournament, in England.

As for France, well, they have done almost as badly as England, and perhaps worse.  They beat their minnows, as England did.  But, like England, they lost very upsettingly in the group stage to a home nation, Ireland in their case, and they were then completely shredded by the All Blacks.  Many neutrals had hoped for a repeat of 1999 or 2007.  By the end, even the humiliation of NZ only winning by one mere point in 2011 was expunged from the record.  This time around, the margin was: 49.

John Inverdale told a good joke after England got beaten by Australia 13-33.  He was in a taxi afterwards with a couple of England supporters, and one of them said: that was as bad as 1066.  Not really, said the other.  It was only 1333.

But 1362 (the year of the battles of Brignais and of Launac (blog and learn)) is quelque chose else again.  And if an All Black hadn’t dropped the ball just as he was about to score yet another try right at the end, it would have been 1367 or 1369, years in which other things presumably also happened in France.

LATER: Scotland have NOT been reading the above script.  They now lead Australia 34-32 with five minutes to go.  In-obscene-present-participle-credible.
But, penalty to Australia.  They lead 35-34 with a minute to go.  End.  “Southern Hemisphere clean sweep”, see above.

Saturday October 10 2015

I feel an orthodoxy developing.  Former England rugby international Austin Healey:

For now, let’s postpone the period of introspection and focus on maintaining what has the potential to be the best World Cup ever. Even with the final few pool matches to be played, it has been the best tournament in terms of attendance and the overall quality.

There you go.  We may be crap at playing these games, but we invented them all, and we have lots of great stadiums.  We know how to organise a game, even if we can no longer play it.

Plus, we have lots of immigrants from everywhere on the planet to come and cheer for everyone taking part.  We do tend to hate and fear foreigners quite a lot, especially in large clumps, but not as much as the damn foreigners do.  Which is what passes for friendliness, in the world now.  And these are not the kind of foreigners who want to live here in huge numbers of one nationality, and to corrupt our women and steal our jobs and defraud our welfare system.  (None of that applies to England’s football fans, who seem to be about two percent scum of the earth, which can rather spoil things.)

As for me, I find that I really am enjoying this jamboree.  I am enjoying all the pent-up anger of England’s anti-Lancaster tendency (I like to think of them “Yorkists"), who have been biting their tongues for the last few months, but who are now letting it all spill out.  Their ire seems mostly concentrated on Lancaster’s dithering and bizarre selection decisions, which have indeed seemed peculiar even to an ignorant onlooker like me.

Also, freed from the torture of hope, I find I am settling down to enjoy the rugby.  This afternoon’s game, for instance, is looking like an absolute belter.  As of now, with the clock having just past 35 minutes of the first half, it stands at 23-23.  Correction, make that 26-23, to Samoa, against Scotland.  Next up, Wales v Oz, and then England v Uruguay.

In the latter game, if all goes well, England will capture that vital third place in the group spot, and thereby qualify for the next World Cup in Japan.

Tuesday September 29 2015

Photography is light, and in this rather odd photo the light was coming from behind the object I photoed, making it look … odd:


But there is no way to take this photo again, because just after taking the photo but before looking at the photo, I chopped the object into bits with a bread knife and stuffed the bits into a black plastic rubbish sack.  The point here being that Modern Life is all about getting rid of clutter, an in particular, packaging clutter.

Like so much packaging clutter, this piece of packaging clutter was amazingly beautiful in its making, being of a very elegant, abstract sculptural shape, and made of a sort of cross between polystyrene and sponge of the sort you wash with.  Its structural strength and its ability to look after the piece of electronics it was cushioning, on its journey from China to me, had all been perfectly calculated.  How can you just throw something like this away?  But, you must, or you will drown in such stuff.

The packaging industry has clearly been one of the great growth industries of the late twentieth century.  Remember when you used to buy sweeties or paper clips or screws from a bloke in a brown coat, who would shovel them into a brown paper bag, and decide what to charge you by weighing them with a pair of scales?  Perhaps you don’t because those days are now long gone.  Now shops selling sweeties or paper clips or screws sell them in small packages.  Nobody weighs such things in shops any more.  The little things cost about twenty times as much, per little thing.  The packaging also includes anti-theft devices.  The process of selling is speeded up.

Supermarkets still weigh certain sorts of fruit and veg, but I bet they are working flat out to get rid of the need for that, by regularising the size of individual fruits and veges, and by packaging them in ever more cunning ways, with the price already decided for each package, and with the weighing done way back in the supply chain.  (When they do, I might consider using those shopping robots in supermarkets.)

All of which involves literally tons and tons of packaging.  And a discipline of modern life is knowing that such packaging must be binned, no matter how handy you might think it might come in in the future.

Equally troubling to me is cardboard boxes.  These also have to go, and often that involves chopping them up, so that the bloody bits will fit into bins.  When I say “bloody” bits, I am not just swearing, I am describing.  Recently I cut my hand while doing this.  The cushiony thing above was, on the other hand, very easy to carve into bits, and by its nature did not threaten my hands in the process, the same cannot be said of cardboard.

The ultimate expression, so far, of the urge to package is the shipping container, which has literally transformed the economy of the entire world.  Imagine if everything you bought came inside those and you had to chop those up, until the bits fitted inside bin bags.  I would have died of self-inflicted wounds long ago.

Sunday September 27 2015

How much you learn from something that you just read depends not only on what it says, but on what you knew before you read it.  And for me, this short paragraph cleared up several big blurs in my knowledge of Olden Times:

The new technique of fighting which had won the battle of Hastings for the Normans was also adopted in England; instead of standing or riding and hurling the lance overarm, these new warriors, the knights, charged on horseback with the lance tucked beneath the arm, so that the weight of both horse and rider was behind the blow and the weapon was reusable.  Though it required discipline and training, giving rise to the birth of tournaments and the cult of chivalry, a charge by massed ranks of knights with their lances couched in this way was irresistible.  Anna Comnena, the Byzantine princess who witnessed its devastating effect during the First Crusade, claimed that it could ‘make a hole in the wall of Babylon’.

That’s from the second page (page 8) of the first chapter of Agincourt, by Juliet Barket.

That bit in school history where they explained what a knight was and what knights did and how the knights did it … well, I missed it.  And ever since, everyone talking about such things has assumed that I knew it very clearly, when I didn’t.  It’s so obvious.  How would someone like me not know it?

Oh, I sort of knew it, from having seen a hundred films where film actors did this, in film battles and in film tournaments.  But I had not realised that it was a military innovation like the phalanx or gunpowder or the tank or the airplane or the atom bomb.  I had not properly realised that the essence of Knighthood was collective action rather than mere individual virtue, the point being that it was the former which required the latter.  And I had not realised that it was what won the Battle of Hastings.  Or, even more interestingly, I had not realised that it was what won the First Crusade.  (After which, I’m guessing that the Muslims then copied it.

Medieval society did not give rise to Knights.  The Knights technique of fighting gave rise to Medieval society.

I remember reading Tom Holland’s Millennium, and being presented right at the end with the result of the First Crusade, without there having been any mention (that I recall) of how a European military innovation was what won it.  (That doesn’t mean Holland does not mention this, merely that I don’t remember him mentioning it.)

So, at the heart of the European years between Hastings (1066) and Agincourt (1415 (when I now suppose the Knights to have met their nemesis in the form of the next big military innovation, the Archers (hence the picture on the front of Agincourt))) was a technique of fighting.  Like I say, I sort of knew this, but have never before isolated this fact in my head, as a Big Fact.  Instead, I have spent my whole life being rather confused about this Big Fact, reading a thousand things where the Big Fact was assumed, but never actually explained.

Why did I not correct this confusion decades ago?  Because, not knowing it properly, I had not realised what a huge confusion it was.

Friday September 25 2015

Yes, because that was when I took this photo:


One of the ways I have got (I think) better as a photographer is that I have gradually identified more classes of object or circumstance to be worth photoing.

This often starts with me just photoing something, because, what the hell, I like it, or it’s fun, or it’s interesting, or it’s odd, or it’s getting more common, or nobody else is noticing it and talking about it, or whatever and I just photo it, without even telling myself why, in conscious words.

Later, often much later, the conscious, verbalised thinking starts.  Perhaps because, as in this case, someone else starts talking about it. Guido having a go at that Labour politician was what got my conscious brain into gear on the subject of White Vans.  And I then decide to get more systematic about photoing whatever it is.

Mobile Pet Foods is still going, and if that link doesn’t convince you, then note the date on the latest piece of customer feedback here.  (That this feedback may be fake doesn’t alter the fact that the dates are recent.)

There is, of course, a cat angle to this.

Saturday September 19 2015

Jade Dernbach’s international career ended last year, amidst much derision and recrimination.

Surrey very nearly won today’s ODI Final against Gloucester.  If Surrey had won, everyone would now be talking about how well Dernbach has done for Surrey this year.  As it was, Surrey, having been ahead of the game all day long, instead lost three tail end wickets in a heap at the end and lost by six runs.

Had Surrey won, Dernbach would have been Man of the Match, having taken six wickets, including a hat trick at the end of the Gloucester innings and even better, at the beginning of the Gloucester innings, the prize wicket of Michael Klinger for a three ball duck in the first over of the game.

As regulars here will know, I was at the semi-final at the Oval that got Surrey to today’s final.  (It was probably my day of the year so far.) Dernbach did well in that game also.

Sangakkara hit 19 runs off Surrey’s penultimate over of batting.  Notts, needing 19 to win in their last 2 overs, could only manage 5 and a wicket off their penultimate over, bowled by Dernbach.  The wicket was Notts captain Chris Read, bamboozled by Dernbach’s disguised slow ball.  Read is the kind of batsman who could have got Notts home with balls to spare, but Dernbach did him.  Those two penultimate overs were the difference between the two teams that day.

As for me, I photoed the first of these two penultimacies:


But when I should have been photoing the equivalent scoreboard description of the second penultimacy (you can read about it by scrolling down here), I was instead busy taking this photo:


Which just goes to show that photoing cricket matches, like photoing anything else, is a skill.  Everything you have to do - which actually means everything you have to remember to do - at the right time and in the right order - is easy and obvious, just commonsense really.  But, doing seventy three bits of commonsense at the exact right time and in the exact right order adds up to uncommon sense.  Or, as it is commonly known, knowledge.

I digress.  But the point of my digression is that I also digressed in my photography at that cricket game, at what was clearly, at the time I digressed, a critical moment.  There really is no excuse for the above photographic omission, except for me to say that I have not photoed very many cricket matches and am not very good at it.

After my day at the Oval, I am now strongly tempted to correct that, given what else you can see from the place, if you are a member.  A crane and a Shard are a bug, when you should be photoing the scoreboard.  But normally they would be a feature.

LATER: In other sports news, Perry de Havilland has a strange dream, and I had the exact same dream myself.