Category: History

Amazonian Griffins and the Fantastical New World

Background research for ¡Reconquista! (or any book) takes unexpected dips and turns, from Google Street Views of Mexicali, Mexico to the origins of Alta California and the campaigns of Colonel Frémont. But the most unusual find in a week punctuated by trail running in Guadalupe Mountains National Park and a brief, one hour, twenty minute circuit of Carlsbad Caverns (I was first in and had the descent largely to myself!), was a 19th-century translation of the Queen of California from Las Sergas de Esplandián. This 1510 book by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo related an amazing tale that, as the translator and commenter Edward Everett Hale notes, provided the origin of the name of California, for Cortez imagined what is now Baja California to be an island that was to the West of the Indies, following Columbus’ lead in mislabeling the New World.

Hale’s translation and commentary are even more remarkable in their intertextual reading of the postbellum mindset that pervades all the way to San Francisco. He carries a descriptive thread likening the battle prowess of the Queen of California’s man-killing griffins to Civil War naval craft:

These griffins are the Monitors of the story, or, if the reader pleases, the Merrimacs.

And in those comparisons, he shows a careful traversal of residual war sentiments, though he is more direct in calling out the implicit racism of Hiram Powers’ statue of California for being incorrect in depicting Queen Calafia (sic) as classically whitewashed when she was described very clearly as “large, and black as the ace of clubs.”

But what of the story of Calafia? She is queen of an island of Amazonian-like women who kill men and boy children alike by feeding them to a hoard of semi-controllable griffins. The island is made of gold and gemstones litter the ground. Calafia decides to go to war, joining several sultans in an assault on Constantinople. She ultimately gets her chance to deploy the griffins and they kill legions of men on the walls. But when she directs the Sultans’ armies to scale the walls, the griffins slaughter them, too. Oops. She gets control of the griffins, finally, but then the assault becomes more problematic.

Finally it resolves that the Christian-side king will meet with one sultan and Calafia in personal combat to resolve the conflict. The losers will become the subjects of the winners. But before that happens, Calafia wants to meet those with whom she will fight. She is quite taken by the beauty of one of the king’s sons and arrives to check him out on a wild beast:

They brought out an animal which she rode, the strangest that ever was seen. It had ears as large as two shields; a broad forehead which had but one eye, like a mirror; the openings of its nostrils were very large, but its nose was short and blunt. From its mouth turned up two tusks, each of them two palms long. Its color was yellow, and it had many violet spots upon its skin, like and ounce. It was larger than a dromedary, had its feet cleft like those of an ox, and ran as swiftly as the wind, and skipped over the rocks as lightly, and held itself erect on any part of them, as do the mountain-goats. Its food was dates and figs and peas, and nothing else.

So the bestiary contained more than just the ravenous, man-eating griffins. But she and the sultan are ultimately beaten in combat. Indeed, it seems inevitable that the Christians must triumph and the man must best the woman. She even gives up her pagan ways in the end and gets married to a random, good-looking member of the ruling class. She gets her sister a husband, too.

What becomes of the island and the women? They convert, take husbands, and help with further adventures we are told. The story and commentary concludes with some interesting notes on Columbus and his beliefs about the New World (Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, 1872). Learned men knew Dante and few other things then, so it is not surprising that Hale suggests that Columbus took seriously the cosmic geography that Dante laid out in the Divine Comedy.

The New World, it seems, was named and traversed in equal parts reality and fantasy.

Traitorous Reason, Facts, and Analysis

dinoObama’s post-election press conference was notable for its continued demonstration of adult discourse and values. Especially notable:

This office is bigger than any one person and that’s why ensuring a smooth transition is so important. It’s not something that the constitution explicitly requires but it is one of those norms that are vital to a functioning democracy, similar to norms of civility and tolerance and a commitment to reason and facts and analysis.

But ideology in American politics (and elsewhere) has the traitorous habit of undermining every one of those norms. It always begins with undermining the facts in pursuit of manipulation. Just before the election, the wizardly Aron Ra took to YouTube to review VP-elect Mike Pence’s bizarre grandstanding in Congress in 2002:

And just today, Trump lashed out at the cast of Hamilton for lecturing Mike Pence on his anti-LGBTQ stands, also related to ideology and belief, at the end of a show.

Astonishing as this seems, we live in an imperfect world being drawn very slowly away from tribal and xenophobic tendencies, and in fits and starts. My wife received a copy of letter from now-deceased family that contained an editorial from the Shreveport Journal in the 1960s that (with its embedded The Worker editorial review) simultaneously attacked segregationist violence, the rhetoric of Alabama governor George Wallace, claimed that communists were influencing John F. Kennedy and the civil rights movement, demanded the jailing of communists, and suggested the federal government should take over Alabama:


The accompanying letter was also concerned over the fate of children raised as Unitarians, amazingly enough, and how they could possibly be moral people. It then concluded with a recommendation to vote for Goldwater.

Is it any wonder that the accompanying cultural revolutions might lead to the tearing down of the institutions that were used to justify the deviation away from “reason and facts and analysis?”

But I must veer to the positive here, that this brief blip is a passing retrenchment of these old tendencies that the Millennials and their children will look back to with fond amusement, the way I remember Ronald Reagan.

Theories of Leisure, Past and Future

img_0028I am at leisure. Specifically—and many may not regard this as leisure—I just ran 17.71 miles in Yosemite Valley. I dropped the car along the road near the 41 junction and then just started running. I went south for a while, then circled back to Bridalveil Falls (lightly flowing), then up to the Glacier Point loop, then back down to El Capitan, then up to Yosemite Falls (not flowing). Lunch was at the Village and then I tracked down the car again.

Now, then, I am at leisure. The barman has set me up with a martini. I have a Fresno Fig flatbread on the way: goat cheese, bacon, arugula, and the critical figs. I am showered all the way down to between my toes. The late afternoon light is filtering through a mild haze onto the muddy belly of the lake. There must be bass out there somewhere. Let the bass live. Let them be at leisure.

A must-read on this topic is Derek Thompson’s Atlantic article, The Free-Time Paradox in America. I don’t agree with the thesis, though. It’s not really a paradox. It’s just an unknown. You should read Derek’s original, but I will comment briefly on some of his points. He argues that John Maynard Keynes forecast a reduction in work requirements by the 21st Century. Mechanization would take the drudgery out of most things and we would get to 15 hour work weeks with the management of our leisure time an increasing burden on us.

The present didn’t work out that way.

Instead, educated high-earners work ever harder. The only leisure class is the non-college-educated male youth who don’t work much these days but instead play video games (75% of their spare time) and are happier than when more of them worked. Derek rolls up several theories about why this might be the case. First, maybe it’s because the industry jobs disappeared and young men don’t like to work in retail and health care. Second, perhaps it’s because the wealthy workers are trying to keep up with the Joneses, though not exactly in the way that the Thorstein Veblen imagined it. Instead of conspicuous consumption, it is conspicuous activity. Finally, maybe it’s because work and leisure have blurred too much; entertaining ourselves on our smartphones is just too close to responding to an email from work.

I agree partly with the suggestion that economic productivity can be a very high level of creative action that is implicit in some of Derek’s commentary. Is there really much difference between landscape design and watercolor painting? Both require an understanding of materials and methods that result in an aesthetic outcome, though the former has more of a pragmatic impact than the latter. Is this a significant deviation from past economic efforts? Perhaps. The modern startup doesn’t have the dark satanic mills of the past, and is based, generally, on technological advances that are intellectually interesting. Sometimes this was the case historically, but not consistently.

Ultimately, what constitutes leisure activities rather than productive activities is inherently blurry. I suppose the golfing set might claim otherwise, but I do work-related thinking while running, and may intertwine writing efforts with other actions without harm to either of them. Leisure is fungible.

The future of leisure is similarly fungible. We can guess that virtual gaming will be even more compelling than existing gaming options, pulling young men and others even further away from engagement with the traditional economic sphere. Yet, even here there are opportunities: toolkits for virtual world design, the designs themselves, monetizing the experiences in compelling ways. Even my Yosemite experience can be virtualized. Fly drones around, mapping and imagining every square inch in ultra-4K resolution. Yes, drones are currently illegal in National Parks, but they could be used by licensed content producers, I’m guessing. Then everyone could fly, run, hike, walk, boat, and swim this little, leisurely experience.

I am at leisure.

Euhemerus and the Bullshit Artist

trump-minotaurSailing down through the Middle East, past the monuments of Egypt and the wild African coast, and then on into the Indian Ocean, past Arabia Felix, Euhemerus came upon an island. Maybe he came upon it. Maybe he sailed. He was perhaps—yes, perhaps; who can say?—sailing for Cassander in deconstructing the memory of Alexander the Great. And that island, Panchaea, held a temple of Zeus with a written history of the deeds of men who became the Greek gods.

They were elevated, they became fixed in the freckled amber of ancient history, their deeds escalated into myths and legends. And, likewise, the ancient tribes of the Levant brought their El and Yah-Wah, and Asherah and Baal, and then the Zoroastrians influenced the diaspora in refuge in Babylon, until they returned and had found dualism, elemental good and evil, and then reimagined their origins pantheon down through monolatry and into monotheism. These great men and women were reimagined into something transcendent and, ultimately, barely understandable.

Even the rational Yankee in Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court realizes almost immediately why he would soon rule over the medieval world as he is declared a wild dragon when presented to the court. He waits for someone to point out that he doesn’t resemble a dragon, but the medieval mind does not seem to question the reasonableness of the mythic claims, even in the presence of evidence.

So it goes with the human mind.

And even today we have Fareed Zakaria justifying his use of the term “bullshit artist” for Donald Trump. Trump’s logorrhea is punctuated by so many incomprehensible and contradictory statements that it becomes a mythic whirlwind. He lets slip, now and again, that his method is deliberate:

DT: Therefore, he was the founder of ISIS.

HH: And that’s, I’d just use different language to communicate it, but let me close with this, because I know I’m keeping you long, and Hope’s going to kill me.

DT: But they wouldn’t talk about your language, and they do talk about my language, right?

Bullshit artist is the modern way of saying what Euhemerus was trying to say in his fictional “Sacred History.” Yet we keep getting entranced by these coordinated maelstroms of utter crap, from World Net Daily to Infowars to Fox News to Rush Limbaugh. Only the old Steven Colbert could contend with it through his own bullshit mythical inversion. Mockery seems the right approach, but it doesn’t seem to have a great deal of impact on the conspiratorial mind.

Build Up That Wall

No, I’m not endorsing the construction of additional walls between the United States and Mexico. There are plenty of those and they may be of questionable value. Instead, it is Thomas Jefferson’s birthday and I’m quoting from Christopher Hitchens (who shared his birthday with Jefferson) in repurposing and inverting Reagan’s famous request of Gorbachev. Hitch promoted the Jeffersonian ideal of separating out the civic from the religious:

Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.

from Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

A rather remarkable continuation of Enlightenment concepts that derive, typically, from a notion of “natural rights” and, even in the Virginia Statue, from religious concepts: “Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free.” With the following paragraphs noting that human rulers are fallible and have tended to create false religions down through time, apparently regardless of God’s wishes.

Natural rights are an interesting idea that re-occurs in the Declaration of Independence and were also championed by George Mason in the Virginia Declaration of Rights. The notion that natural rights did not extend to slaves was something that Jefferson was conflicted about, according to Hitchens, until the end of his life, with the issue of state’s rights a pragmatic basis for opposition to an institution that he both profited from and found morally repugnant.

Natural rights might also be derivable from something like Rawl’s  “veil of ignorance,” which, in this capacity, just reiterates what might be more simply considered a method for minimizing the interference of people in the behavior and thoughts of other people. This concedes that evolving perspectives on interference may reduce the universality of any claim concerning those rights. But an interference model only accounts for specific categories of rights.  The right to schooling provided via taxation would not be covered, nor would the right for equality in dealings in the civic space. In fairness, Rawls’ argument about rights is greater than this minimal fragment, but both show how jettisoning a deontological approach to ethics yields testable hypotheses.

Michael Boylan’s “Are there natural human rights?” in the Stone Reader covers the controversy in some detail, describing the agency and capability theories, as well as objections from Chinese and Islamic sources. The latter rise to the level of problematic, for if the individuals within a society complain that outside perspectives on natural rights are not their own, is there any sense of universality in natural rights? Oppressing women is Allah’s will, after all, and is therefore “natural.”

And so, on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, I have to commemorate one of the greatest contributions to our modern world: a secular state with definable rights of conscience and radical freedoms, regardless of how natural that might be.

Against Superheroes: Section 18 (Chapter 15)

Against SuperheroesThe sessions with Sakara were illuminative and intimate. She asked me about what I remembered from before the transformation. I sat in the chair across from her, the susurration of the air conditioning that seemed to feed the field projectors as much as our comfort was a constant presence beneath our discussion. I remembered very little: hints of childhood, more about the dig at Mt. Hasan, bits of Ela’s sexual mystique, strange flashes of schools and lights. Interrogating this past revealed very little new or surprising to me. I was candid about my limitations concerning the changes to my memory. I was also candid about how with the loss of a personal history came, inevitably, a loss of the essentials of being human. We are continuitities of experience. I can’t describe who I am except as part of my memories and the feelings that surround and enervate them. The protracted calamity of religious ideas that Sakara raised, from ethical concerns about harming others to the status of the unborn all unravel with this consideration. A baby is alive but only tentatively human in the strongest sense. A god knows this—can even feel it as a ribbon into the future—but humans just arbitrarily assign categories that are driven by misunderstandings of these cognitive postures.

Why were the gods so capricious, she asked me. Why were they so inhuman? They were good human questions but the answer hardly raised above this faint echo of incapacity. If your mind is subsumed in this web of temporal flux, if you recognize the flammability of experience, and where there are other islands of experiences too, like for a human that there is only instead a moving arc of intransitive expectations and plans, then what is left is the broader permamence of an ineffable now. She tried to pin this to the Eastern experience, wrapping it like a crèche Jesus in the swaddling of Buddhist and Taoist language. They are partially there, I explained, but so are the ardent Penitentes or the Hindu self-mutilators. Sure, of course, that is what they think they see, what we as gods see and experience. It is confounded by the lustful futurism of the human condition. I don’t care if I live or die. I am not even sure I can. I only care about injustice through a willful effort to define and engage with my human past. I’m not sure any other gods ever did.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses, when asked why God might be so cruel as to not only drown the entire world but to also kill all but some hundred thousand elect who will join Him in heaven, respond that we are like ants to Him and cannot know His morality. It is true, I realize and scare Sakara with this revelation, that Yahweh, if he was as real as I am, necessarily had a moral code that was indifferent to humanity. That any creation act was just a likely contigent effect of some greater, unknowable temporary perspective, a new technology almost built out of these fields and rhythms. He didn’t care and his confused expressions were recorded by his followers like imbecile ants trying to see beyond the pheromonic trails that took them in their daily cycles. Losing those gods to just myths and history was critical to developing freedom, but we kept reappearing in theosophy, in mysticism, in alien encounters, in superheroes imbued with superpowers. The gods lived on in our aspirations until they were actually discovered again.

Yes, re-engaging with humanity, becoming a force for good regardless of the edge randomization, was something that I wanted to do after a while. It was maybe loneliness—sure Sakara—I wouldn’t deny that diagnosis, that analysis. Discovering how to be human again brought the ability to quell the Tiamat within me, and the capacity to grok that vast, limited double-cone of past and future that comes with that humanity.

The sessions went on and on. I began marking the passing of days on the walls of my cell with a red crayon they granted me. A television arrived a week later and I asked Sakara if it was some kind of gift for being a good little god. She said she though it might help with boredom. I had little of that even now, maybe something like it at the edges, though. Holding the crayon in my hand late in the night, watching the unchanging shadows from the now-dimmed lights, I continued to work on the corners of those tubules, enlarging them against the pervasiveness of the suppression field. I felt like I understood its mechanism more in interfering with my penetration of the ensembles of microstates. It was like static that disrupted the realizations. By flexing a bit I could lift the edge of the gauzy veil without setting off alarms. I had begun in my cell but tried again during a session with Sakara to test my theory. No alarms, no stunguns.

By the third week Sakara asked me if there was anything I needed and I told her answers, just all the answers that I was waiting for. That was all I needed. She agreed at that point but said that I had to remain in the field for a bit longer. I was surprised that they were even considering lifting the field from me, and briefly suspended my own experimentation on it, fearing I would dissolve that trust that we had built together through these seemingly irrelevant chats. She smiled at me and told me I had been remarkably forthcoming and didn’t seem to be trying to manipulate her at all. I hadn’t, admittedly, though not telling her that I could probably throw off the effects of the field and break the building into pieces was not particularly forthcoming in the sense she was using the term. I thought briefly about telling her or showing her what I could now do. I wanted her trust, too. She was a wonderfully delicate woman doing some of the most fascinating and risky work in the human universe. And she was doing it competently in the face of incredible ambiguity and uncertainty.

I reached out, then, as I acknowledged her trust using the standard English symbology, a wrapping of idiosyncratic semaphors that conjoined our emotional transaction. Information was always secondary to the feeling, to the stance. And then as I felt through the field’s matrix of spongey sequenced variables, I touched the side of her face, disturbing the plumule like a gentle, cool breeze that can flow through any room, when an air conditioner comes on or a colleague passes near, but this was a controlled cell, a womb, and there was no motion outside our own flexing and re-arranging, and her right eyelid twitched and then pulsed reflexively, her searching about at the anomaly. But it was just that once, and I relented, satisfied with my cryptic stalking for that slice of time.

She continued then, though with a loss of certainty to her patter, a temporary hesitancy, until she excused herself to use the bathroom and I waited, watching the tile floor and the multiple shadows radiating from the complex of reflected lights bouncing through the room. When she returned she began to describe what they knew and what they were still trying to understand.

Neutered Inventiveness

I just received an award from my employer for getting more than five patents through the patent committee this year. Since I’m a member of the committee, it was easy enough. Just kidding: I was not, of course, allowed to vote on my own patents. The award I received leaves a bit to be desired, however. First, I have to say that it is a well-crafted glass block about 4″ x 3″ and has the kind of heft to it that would make it invaluable as a weapon in a game of Clue. That being said, I give you Exhibits 1 and 2:

Vitruvian Exhibits

Exhibit 1 is a cell-phone snap through the glass surface of my award at Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man, so named because it was a tribute to the architect Vitruvius—or so Wikipedia tells me. Exhibit 2 is an image of the original sketch by da Vinci, also borrowed from Wikipedia.

And now, with only minimal scrutiny, my dear reader can see the fundamental problem in the borrowing and translation of old Vitruvius. While Vitruvius was deeply enamored of a sense of symmetry to the human body, and da Vinci took that sense of wonder as a basis for drawing his figure, we can rightly believe that the presence of all anatomical parts of the man was regarded as essential for the accurate portrayal of man’s elaborate architecture.

My inventions now seem somehow neutered and my sense of wonder castrated by this lesser man, no matter what the intent of the good people in charge of the production of the award. I reflect on their motivations in light of recent arguments concerning the proper role of the humanities in our modern lives. I have consulted with my wife, an expert on a range of obscure matters concerning art history, mythology, pagan traditions, and other scholarly things that enrich our lives but are sometimes hard to assign tangible value. She insists that penises should never be removed—nor inserted—just to make a point.

Further reflection suggests that the very choice of Vitruvian Man really wasn’t a very good one. How about this?


Shaft intact and all, it represents inventiveness far better than old Vitruvius’ meditations on the architecture of the body and the world.

Machine Learning and the Coming Robot Apocalypse

Daliesque creepy dogsSlides from a talk I gave today on current advances in machine learning are available in PDF, below. The agenda is pretty straightforward: starting with some theory about overfitting based on algorithmic information theory, we proceed on through a taxonomy of ML types (not exhaustive), then dip into ensemble learning and deep learning approaches. An analysis of the difficulty and types of performance we get from various algorithms and problems is presented. We end with a discussion of whether we should be frightened about the progress we see around us.

Note: click on the gray square if you don’t see the embedded PDF…browsers vary.

Download the PDF file .

Against Superheroes, Section 7 (Chapter 5)

coverar-v3-2-10-2015Section 7

With Chapter 4 we see a combination of narrative forms. There is, first, the factual discussion of the details of the archaeological dig itself. There are the problems that arise from the details of the ground, the water, the shaft, the descent. These problems and the detailed resolution of them lend to a sense of consistent realism concerning the tasks at hand in the everyday lives of the protagonists. The level of detail is strikingly at odds with the other primary narrative form: Sinister’s soliloquy on the symbolism and history of other deities. The position of these paragraphs juxtaposed amongst the more detailed discussion has produced several potential explanations, the most important of which was the requirement for presaging the unknown technology and its role in past conflicts. While there is an element of that, as a memoir presenting a linear sequence of developments (remember that he was concerned about that presentation), it is equally plausible that his recollections were merely jumbled and possessed of a certain confused emotional state.

The content of the soliloquy is worth further analysis. The primary descriptions are of conquest of people and their gods against others. There is a spreading out of the various factions, Hellenists, Israelites, Romans, etc. They are constantly at war with one another and the more powerful gods subjugate the less powerful. The subtle indication that amongst at least some of them, the Hellenists, that the gods were somewhat distant to them is of particular interest because it begs the question of how, amongst all the spirits and entities that are referenced, they were applied during war? What means of attack and influence did they have that apparently led to them conquering Yahweh and others? This is where we see some light shining through our subthesis that not only was Sinister real and his narrative also real, but that he represented a line of descent in his use of the Baal technology. If the gods were not factually present on the battlefields, then they might have been merely metaphorical for the hopes and beliefs.

We are against this theory for several reasons. First, Sinister may be simply reporting his state of understanding at the time in the narrative flow. He had not yet developed his greater insights into the flow of history and believed that this was a conundrum among the ancient peoples as to whether they believed or did not believe in the actual existence of their gods. Second, the fact that some groups may have been victorious but the historical record merely had certain traceries of ideas that limited the role of their gods does not rule out a broader influence. Third, the referential period for the reporting on the belief system of the Hellenist may have been after the primary period of influence. Allah, for instance, is highly influential among the Muslims as we later see, yet Sinister does not encounter Allah in his terrorization of the lands during and after The Oasis. We presume, however, based on the descriptions of early Islam that Allah was strongly influential. Finally, and most critically, the widespread existence of worshipful sites like the Baalic one at Mt. Hasan combined with their elaborate design and construction efforts, seems unlikely to comport with mythos. The idea that a constructed fantasy shared among an extremely large number of believers would influence the expenditure of massive resources to the described levels seems wholly implausible.

In this final point, we must draw out some nuances. We certainly can imagine that a powerful entity possessed of transhuman powers could be briefly present but then wane in influence. These gods were somewhat destructible, especially by others like them, and their emotional influence over humanity via the various mechanisms Sinister describes could conceivably last a generation or two, but the lack of repeated re-seeding of the imaginations of the believers by a contemporaneous presence lends more to the theory that in the interregnums between their strong influence the people wandered off to other gods, until perhaps their original gods returned and tried to reclaim their attentions. But if some of these beings died, some left, some hibernated, some were broken in pieces and then resurrected (as per Baal and Mot), there we see the possibility of this variegated and perplexing history. There was no one deity who was ultimately victorious, just roving, regional spontaneous events that led to the eruption of worship and legends, with the lack of consistency in the reporting associated with this complex landscape of cultures and customs.

In this respect Sinister can himself be seen as achieving what these others could not or did not want to do, finalizing Ragnarok, Frashokereti, the cycles of Shiva, and some of the other end-of-days predictions that apparently accompanied worship of these entities. His realization of this continuous current of eschatological ideation among recorders of religious ideals in many ways fulfills those other prophesies. The predecessor deities were not, in other words, incorrect in their transmission of a strong likelihood of utter destruction of humanity. They were as disturbed by their capacities for pettiness, power, anger, and selfishness as Sinister himself, but for purely contingent reasons they simply didn’t achieve that end state.

We continue with the new translation.


We spent more than two weeks working on the shaft and the room, documenting, translating, photographing. We had to report our find to the Head of Curation at the museum, and I became concerned that he would want to take over the site and insert himself into the new find. Nildag expressed concern over the same but found out that Dr. Terzi’s daughter was getting married within the month and that he was suitably distracted that he merely congratulated us and requested that we keep him informed. The Chief of Police came around, as well, and spent some time looking over our trucks and tent areas, as if looking for contraband. We covered over the main shaft when we saw his jeep rolling up the path and he seemed completely uninterested in the few physical finds that we showed him, including potsherds and flakes from Neolithic tool production.

The translations required a fair amount of speculation. Ugaritic dialects are typically gendered and the grammar is VSO[1] or SVO. This was similar and appeared mostly SVO but there was also an occasional SOV construct that was highly indicative of Indo-European influences from the proto-Iranian language group and others. The content, as best we could tell on initial reading, was not radical for Ugaritic texts, focused on Baal riding the clouds, the worship of the people, their strong feelings for him, and their forsaking of other gods in his honor. There were oddities, however. A singular section declared that the clouds had fallen from the heavens, that El and Ashera were merely companions of Baal, and that the power of the world emerged from the spirits or tendencies of the gods. There was even an introductory collection of verses that paralleled Genesis in declaring that El and his Host had come to the world and created mankind in their own images, and that they had wrested the giant creatures like lizards in the earth to establish a garden for creating man and woman, who were infused with the wills of the gods but not given their powers. Touching the snake or coiled bracelet or belt that adorned Baal was the only thing forbidden to the new creatures, for it would poison them and set their minds on fire.

The woman tried to seduce Baal, however, because in her creation the Host had infused all the best attributes of beauty among the gods themselves, and then she reached for the snake bracelet and was shocked by it, and her purity was lost and corrupted for she knew the desires and powers of the gods in small measure. She longed to be the consort of Baal but was trapped as a worshipper, consumed by the want of that which she could not have. And her husband was jealous of her love and still innocent in the world, and so he wandered the earth and longed for her, in turn. The world was formless and empty outside the garden they had created but there were rogue gods who summoned seas and urged life out of the chaos. The interplay with Mykenaen civilization should not have been a significant surprise to us, nor the mention very clearly of Dian-e, or of Chronos and Prometheus, rendered into transliterations that preserved the consonants but were obvious in their juxtaposition. There was a continuous war among the gods, powers incalculable that rended the lands and irrupted islands of life, designed as competitions of creative stakes and claims. There were the Jotuns and the Aesir, and other attributional epithets for Shiva and Rudra; the gods were all at war for the land, the air—especially the air—and the want of the people.

The spirals of cuneiforms began at the panels, at the doors, and swirled down into the ground and up along the ceiling, then tightened into the shaft, until finally announcing the rebirth of Baal from the stomach of Mot and of the return to power in the world in the final blocks near the capped hole. The image paint layers were gently sampled and Faruk drove down to the town to post the tiny plastic bags back to the lab at the museum for analysis and testing. Dark ochres, blues, grays, oranges, and saffrons were piled up in dense formations on the surfaces, remarkably well-preserved and with little damage from the ambient moisture in the room.

I finally met Nildag in front of the final image showing the twin rooms and suggested it was time that we proceed where the evidence was taking us. He agreed and two students lowered digging tools down to us. Blowing out the cracks around the panels with an air compressor, I inserted a thin crowbar into the dividing chink and began pushing and pulling, but with little effect. We continued this process for more than an hour, then moved to larger crowbars with lever extensions. Faruk descended and provided additional muscle, but with no clear impact other than some unfortunate scraping along several of the edges. We decided to set up an electric winch in the space, using extendible aluminum beams to anchor the winch between the floor and ceiling in an area where there was no writing. Thin wire hooks were fashioned for us by a machine shop in town and arrived the next day. We slid one into the seam vertically and tested rotation until we discovered a void six inches in, allowing us an additional four inches before the opposing hook for securing to a block harness. With eight hooks secured to the interior edge we fired up the generator up above and slowly eased the edge of the block back. Our greatest fear was that it would fall over, smashing the cuneiforms of the floor, so several of the grad students worked with Faruk to fashion a frame out of heavy lumber that had a seventy degree angle at the top and would support the block if it fell towards us as the block rotated outward. Rough calculations supported this theory, but the timber wasn’t uniform in quality and we were all fairly concerned that the block might just pancake the arrangement.

As the wire hooks pulled back, dust fell from the sides and top of the panel, but it rotated slowly and without snagging until we had a two feet of clearance into the space beyond. Everyone cheered and there were high-fives[2] all around, the Turkish kids enjoying being able to show off their hip Americanism. I was fast in moving in with a flashlight to peer into the space, giving a cursory overview of the block to make sure it was not wobbling. The space beyond mimicked the wall painting with a twenty foot hall opening into a larger room beyond. The passage was devoid of the cuneiforms of the larger room, however, lined with simple basalt and thin joins between them. Nildag cautioned me that the block needed to be shored up before further action, but I shined the flashlight at him, briefly causing him to recoil at the bright flare. I slipped inside and was ten feet down the hall when I heard him curse and yell my name.

The air inside was warmer than in the outer hall, I recall, and seemed to grow slightly warmer as I moved towards the inner room. As I closed in, my expectations were hopeful for a continuation of the incredible find that we already had; there had to be some significance to this place other than merely a shrine to Baal dressed in odd pre-Ugaritic linguistic constructs. I would be mildly disappointed, though, as I emerged into the inner room. There was a small dais and some skeletal remains. It was a tomb, after all. It was well preserved, appearing to have been untouched by graverobbers, which was significant, but the bones were mostly alone except for a small bronze bracelet near the right wrist, and a small statuette in the center of the torso where the ribcage had collapsed to dust in parts. The statuette was very similar to regular finds of hearth Astartes or Asheras in the region and throughout the Middle East.

Nildag arrived moments later, unable to restrain himself after I slipped through, and scanned the area with his headlamp. His reaction was a bit of a letdown, too, but he quickly recovered and said that it was still significant, even if it was just a tomb. The elaborateness of the antechamber meant that this was a person of significance, and the linguistic evidence supplied a new opportunity for scholarship. The bones would need to be dated. There might be DNA analysis opportunities. The lack of preserved cloth or other jewelry or offerings required a new reading of how wealth and power were interpreted by the minds of these people.

I agreed but had hoped for much more, and sat down on the floor, casually flicking my light around at the space, looking for anything more of interest. There was little to be seen, however. The space was smooth, the dais was smooth, the blocks were solid with minimal seams. There were the bones, about average height, maybe a bit bigger. I was not a specialist in that area. It was a good and interesting find, Nildag kept assuring me, realizing I was in a minor doldrums. I was. Academic pursuits were in many ways distractions from what I would subsequently label an elaborately empty core. Forced to value myself based on the opinions of those around me, to grovel for grants to study an imperfectable lens onto the fog of historical chance, to feel the fleeting exuberance of my enhanced life with Ela, and then to realize that each of these things were just the next arduous rung on an infinite ladder that terminated in death and only a temporary solidity in the memories of family, friends, and the scholarly community, was an unobservable dark variable in the watershed of momentary experiences that together flowed as my experience of being, my qualia. That unobservability would emerge later in the passions of emotional maelstroms that accompanied the transformation, would become a central and unquenchable fire that sustained me straight through the uncontrolled phase of gathering and oppression, but that also became the central spark by which I became reconfigured, if you will, and aligned with positive goals.

But there I was in my little imperfect world, unfulfilled by random possibility, but I quickly recovered and began the diligent cataloging efforts that I was trained to do, already discussing a few of the publishing options that we might pursue with Nildag. There was the linguistic evidence that suggested a proto-Ugaritic Northern Semitic influence in potential creole or patois arrangements with some Indo-European Slavic dialects derived from interactions with Black Sea tribes. There was the linkage to Çatalhöyük manifest in the twin volcanoes imagery and the Ugaritic poetry. There was the artistry and unusual representational stylizations of the wall murals. There was the design of the crypt itself. There was the simplicity of the tomb room, the lack of adornment, the two remaining artifacts, and the nature of the bones. It was a lot, but I had built it up into potentially more.

It took two weeks of diligent work before we were ready to move the bones. We fashioned a large cardboard box to accommodate the find and carefully drew locations and silhouettes onto the surface before transferring each piece, raising them with tweezers, photographing them, placing them on a 3D scanner, then carefully attaching a small label and wiring them to the cardboard surface. The figurine and the bracelet were examined and catalogued. Like many of the figures from the first milennia BC and before, she was mostly shapeless but with a widening of the hips that suggested female, She also resembled common Astarte figurines, Astarte who was syncretized with Ashera, who became Ishtar, and who probably carried down the female goddess tradition from earlier still. The bracelet was unremarkable, a bronze circle broken by a one inch opening with a flaring and roundness to the ends. There were some faint scores in an undulating pattern along the edge of the bracelet. We scanned it, measured it, and bagged it with the rest of the site.

I was mostly done with the site at this point and I invited Ela to come down for the weekend. She took off early on Friday and wanted to see the site. I was cataloging images on my laptop that morning, I recall. The sun was the relentless yellow of late summer days as I worked in my tent. I got a text from Ela around 10AM. She was halfway, gassing up her Volkswagen along the highway. But by noon I was concerned. She wasn’t responding to texts at all and I called and left voicemails that were unreturned. And then I finally got a call. It was her image on the phone but when I answered it was a man’s voice that opened in Turkish. I caught part of it, something about the woman and the ancient people or relics. I asked him to slow down and he paused at my accent, then asked me if I spoke English. His English was good enough and he explained in a high-pitched, nasally cadence that Ela had been taken and that they wanted the relics found at the site. I asked him first if she was alright, to which he said she was unharmed and nearby. He repeated that he wanted the gold and artifacts from the site, which told me he had no idea what had been found there. I didn’t let on and agreed to bring him what we had. Where were they? He said he would call back in a few minutes and sent me a picture SMS[3] with Ela, looking terrified, in the back seat of a car, a gag over her mouth and her hands bound in front of her. It was her Scirocco and I could see a bruise along her cheek.

I hurriedly called Nildag and Faruk up from the shaft and they sensed immediately something was very wrong. Nildag paused as I described the scene and blurted out that it had to be the police captain. He seemed too interested and now he wanted to profit from the find. I agreed that it had to be someone with detailed knowledge, but unless they had just staked out the access road, it had to be someone at the museum or a grad student. Nildag thought that unlikely. The kids couldn’t have set it up. None of them were from this area of the country, and they knew what had been recovered. It wasn’t gold. We processed the details with intense fury, Nildag translating details to Faruk between frantic interchanges. We could go to the regional or national police. We could call the head of the museum and get the government and military involved. There were so many options and I felt helpless.

The phone rang. Ela’s young grin behind big, fashionable shades popped up. The picture was from a day trip to the Black Sea at the beginning of summer. She had worn a bikini under her top and shorts, jumping into the water at the first opportunity, unafraid of the mud flats or uncertainties of rocks, squawking when she lost those glasses in the shallow, muddy waters and couldn’t find them again. I waded in slowly, cautiously, feeling the bottom with uncertain toes, repelled by the cold of the water in bands downward, until finally dropping my head under at her urging. The rush of the icy edge around my torso was intense and I erupted back out of the water with a whooshing sound from my lips. Ela had laughed but then pulled me against her to warm me and herself.

I answered the phone, Nildag huddled close by. The kidnapper spoke in English and demanded that we drive to a crossroads in Obruk and they would meet us there. He repeated that we needed to bring the gold and I started to tell him there was no gold but Nildag waved his hands rapidly in front of him. I said OK and hung up. Nildag said it was better that they think there is value. That way Ela was valued too. It made sense but I wondered briefly why I should trust Nildag in these matters. He was an academic like me, and while Turkey had its share of corruption issues, reading out a uniquely local perspective was unlikely for a man who had grown up in Istanbul in a family of automobile importers.

We huddled and decided that the bones, the figure, and the bracelet weren’t worth Ela’s life. Her car was probably more valuable than the finds on the open market, though the structure and cuneiforms of strange proto-Ugaritic were in a sense priceless, though not in a way that mattered to kidnapping bandits from the Anatolian countryside. Faruk pounded his fist into his hand and grunted something I had never heard before to Nildag, who rolled his eyes and told me that Faruk didn’t have any weapons and so his bravado was probably misplaced. We put the cardboard box with the bones and the figurine and bracelet in the back of a transport van and headed down to the meeting place, checking our phones against the description given by the kidnapper until we had resolved that we were in the right place. The nearest structure was a quarter mile away and traffic was almost nonexistent. No one was around and we sat in nervous silence, playing with our phones while we waited. Finally a text came in from Ela’s phone and instructed us to move to another location. We were being watched it added in strangely capitalized English, ending with an angry emoticon.

Arriving at the second location, even more remote than the first, we waited until we saw headlights moving towards us. They were more modern looking, in the bluer part of the spectrum, and I was hopeful that it was Ela’s car. It stopped fifty feet from us and the door opened. I was pretty sure it was Ela’s car from this distance and started to walk towards the shadowy figure. He told me to stop in Turkish, which was simple and clear enough. I asked him for Ela in English and he responded by rearranging his clothes, or so I initially thought in the dim light. I soon realized that he had a fat revolver in his hand and he asked where the treasure was. I told him we had everything we had collected from the site, but that it was mainly interesting to archaeologists. He waived the gun at me and walked to the back of the truck, surveying the contents with the flick of a flashlight before demanding it be moved to the car. Faruk and I picked up the box of bones and walked it over to the car. As we approached, I  could see Ela’s struggling form in the back seat. We lowered the box into the trunk and the kidnapper opened the rear car door and dumped Ela onto the dirt, closed the door and walked back to the passenger’s side. Dropping into the seat he gunned the VW in reverse and was quickly gone.

I ran to Ela and ungagged her. I could barely see in the dark, but Nildag brought a flashlight from the truck and we had her untied and free after a short period. Ela was enraged, yelling in English, Turkish, cursing in French. She had been so stupid, seeing the car paralleling her and not turned around, not driven evasively. She had been stupid and she yelled that she knew better. She apologized to me about the bother and loss of the artifacts, but I was just clutching her and telling her it was alright. Nildag yelled over to us that we had forgotten the statuette and bracelet. They had fallen off the cardboard in the dark. All he got was the bones. And the car, I mentioned. We went to the local police station and spent several hours waiting and reporting the events. They told us we should have come to them immediately, but I was still concerned the chief or his extended family were somehow involved. We were finally released and I took Ela to a hotel and we got the night clerk to get us some food from the kitchen. Ela hadn’t been harmed but had been groped a bit while being bound. At one point she kicked her kidnapper and he slugged her in the mouth. I laughed a bit at her bravado and she laughed too, especially after learning that he had gotten nothing more than some bones. Her VW was worth more but would probably show up again according to the police detective we had talked to. Cars are too trackable in the EU to be good targets.

I had the figurine and bracelet in a small plastic bag and Ela felt their textures through the bag. That was it, I told her. It was all a great find, an interesting find, but not as great as I had initially expected when we uncovered the shaft. She was sorry for me and the waves of contingency that surrounded my field. Ridiculous, I said, and I held her late into the night, glad she was still alive.

[1] We believe the V (Verb), S (Subject), O (Object) language hypothesis remains correct here, but add that the lack of definition accompanying first mention plys well into the supposition that the manuscript is a factual account. Sinister simply didn’t bother to explain something technical because he was deeply in the milieu of the explanatory framework.

[2] Literal juxtaposition from other individual occurrances. We assume a celebratory action or gesture, possibly symbolically drawing the character for the number five in the air.

[3] Unknown reference, assumed to be image communications over the portable communications “phone.”

Informational Chaff and Metaphors

chaffI received word last night that our scholarship has received over 1400 applications, which definitely surprised me. I had worried that the regional restriction might be too limiting but Agricultural Sciences were added in as part of STEM so that probably magnified the pool.

Dan Dennett of Tufts and Deb Roy at MIT draw parallels between informational transparency in our modern world and biological mechanism in Scientific American (March 2015, 312:3). Their article, Our Transparent Future (related video here; you have to subscribe to read the full article), starts with Andrew Parker’s theory that the Cambrian Explosion may have been tied to the availability of light as cloud cover lifted and seas became transparent. An evolutionary arms race began for the development of sensors that could warn against predators, and predators that could acquire more prey.

They continue on drawing parallels to biological processes, including the concept of squid ink and how a similar notion, chaff, was used to mask radar signatures as aircraft became weapons of war. The explanatory mouthful of the Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) with dummy warheads to counter anti-ballistic missiles were likewise a deceptive way of reducing the risk of interception. So Dennett and Roy “predict the introduction of chaff made of nothing but megabytes of misinformation,” designed to deceive search engines of the nature of real info.

This is a curious idea. Search engine optimization (SEO) is a whole industry that combines consulting with tricks and tools to try to raise the position of vendors in the Google rankings. Being in the first page of listings can be make-or-break for retail vendors, and they pay to try to make that happen. The strategies are based around trying to establish links to the vendor from individuals and other pages to try to game the PageRank algorithm. In turn, Google has continued to optimize to reduce the effectiveness of these links, trying to establish whether hand- or machine-created content with links looks like real, valuable information or just promotional materials. This is, in some ways, the opposite of informational chaff. The goal is not to hide the content in plain sight, but to make it more discoverable. “Information scent” was a concept introduced at XeroX PARC when I was there and it applies here.

But what of chaff? Perhaps the best example that I can think of is the idea of “drowning in paper” that lawyers occasionally describe, on TV or otherwise, where huge piles of non-digitized materials are dumped in the hopes that the criminal or civil needle-in-the-haystack will be impossible to find. This is highly dependent on the temporal limitations of individuals to ingest the materials, and is equally countered by OCR and scanning services to produce accessible forms of data. Dennett and Roy point out that more sophisticated search engines (and I’ll add other analytic tools) can counter efforts at chaff.

More broadly, though, we get to the issue of whether evolutionary metaphors provide us with any new insights into the changing role of information in an interconnected and digitized society? I’m not altogether sure. It is routinely argued that the existence of early computing machines led to cognitive science as we have known it, conflating problem solving with algorithms and describing the brain’s hardware and software. Is evolutionary adaption equally influential in steering weapon’s designs or informational secrecy strategy? I think we are probably cunning enough (thanks evolution) about proximate threats and consequences that there might not be much to learn from metaphorical analysis of this type.