Category: History

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.

The Rise and Triumph of the Bayesian Toolshed

Bayes LawIn Asimov’s Foundation, psychohistory is the mathematical treatment of history, sociology, and psychology to predict the future of human populations. Asimov was inspired by Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that postulated that Roman society was weakened by Christianity’s focus on the afterlife and lacked the pagan attachment to Rome as an ideal that needed defending. Psychohistory detects seeds of ideas and social movements that are predictive of the end of the galactic empire, creating foundations to preserve human knowledge against a coming Dark Age.

Applying statistics and mathematical analysis to human choices is a core feature of economics, but Richard Carrier’s massive tome, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, may be one of the first comprehensive applications to historical analysis (following his other related work). Amusingly, Carrier’s thesis dovetails with Gibbon’s own suggestion, though there is a certain irony to a civilization dying because of a fictional being.

Carrier’s methods use Bayesian analysis to approach a complex historical problem that has a remarkably impoverished collection of source material. First century A.D. (C.E. if you like; I agree with Carrier that any baggage about the convention is irrelevant) sources are simply non-existent or sufficiently contradictory that the background knowledge of paradoxography (tall tales), rampant messianism, and general political happenings at the time lead to a likelihood that Jesus was made up. Carrier constructs the argument around equivalence classes of prior events that then reduce or strengthen the evidential materials (a posteriori). And he does this without ablating the richness of the background information. Indeed, his presentation and analysis of works like Inanna’s Descent into the Underworld and its relationship to the Ascension of Isaiah are both didactic and beautiful in capturing the way ancient minds seem to have worked.

We’ve come a long way from Gibbon’s era where we now have mathematical tools directly influencing historical arguments. The notion of inference and probability has always played a role in history, but perhaps never so directly. All around us we have the sharpening of our argumentation, whether in policymaking, in history, or in law.  Even the arts and humanities are increasingly impacted by scientific and technological change and the metaphors that emerge from it. Perhaps not a Cathedral of Computation, but modestly at least a new toolshed.

On Killing Kids


Mark S. Smith’s The Early History of God is a remarkable piece of scholarship. I was recently asked what I read for fun and had to admit that I have been on a trajectory towards reading books that have, on average, more footnotes than text. J.P. Mallory’s In Search of the Indo-Europeans kindly moves the notes to the end of the volume. Smith’s Chapter 5, Yahwistic Cult Practices, and particularly Section 3, The mlk sacrifice, are illuminating on the widespread belief that killing children could propitiate the gods. This practice was likely widespread among the Western Semitic peoples, including the Israelites and Canaanites (Smith’s preference for Western Semitic is to lump the two together ca. 1200 BC because they appear to have been culturally the same, possibly made distinct after the compilation of OT following the Exile).

I recently argued with some young street preachers about violence and horror in Yahweh’s name and by His command while waiting outside a rock shop in Old Sacramento. Human sacrifice came up, too, with the apologetics being that, despite the fact that everyone was bad back then, the Chosen People did not perform human sacrifice and therefore they were marginally better than the other people around them. They passed quickly on the topic of slavery, which was wise for rhetorical purposes, because slavery was widespread and acceptable. I didn’t remember the particulars of the examples of human sacrifice in OT, but recalled them broadly to which they responded that there were translation and interpretation errors with “burnt offering” and “fire offerings of first borns” that, of course, immediately contradicted their assertion of acceptance and perfection of the scriptures.

More interesting, though, is the question of why might human sacrifice be so pervasive, whether among Yahwists and Carthiginians or Aztecs? On Patheos, Chris Hallquist comments on the brilliant Is God a Moral Compromiser? by Thom Stark (free PDF!) that runs through the attitudes concerning the efficacy of human sacrifice for achieving military goals. And maybe you can control the weather or make your crops grow better. Killing one’s own kids sets up a dilemma for evolutionary psychology in that it immediately reduces your genetic representation. So the commitment to the gods must override the commitment to family and its role as a proxy for biology. Sacrificing other people’s children is less incomprehensible, though it does affect the tribe and larger political constructs as well.

Looking at the story of Abraham and the emergence out of the Yahwistic cultic mlk, we might see even more evidence of the effect of multi-level selection overriding the individual’s biological urges. Order, obedience, tribal practices, and one’s identity as part of the group overrule preservation and familial bonds, and society gradually emerges as the lawmaker and orchestrator of human interractions.

Inequality and Big Data Revolutions

industrial-revolutionsI had some interesting new talking points in my Rock Stars of Big Data talk this week. On the same day, MIT Technology Review published Technology and Inequality by David Rotman that surveys the link between a growing wealth divide and technological change. Part of my motivating argument for Big Data is that intelligent systems are likely the next industrial revolution via Paul Krugman of Nobel Prize and New York Times fame. Krugman builds on Robert Gordon’s analysis of past industrial revolutions that reached some dire conclusions about slowing economic growth in America. The consequences of intelligent systems on everyday life will have enormous impact and will disrupt everything from low-wage workers through to knowledge workers. And how does Big Data lead to that disruption?

Krugman’s optimism was built on the presumption that the brittleness of intelligent systems so far can be overcome by more and more data. There are some examples where we are seeing incremental improvements due to data volumes. For instance, having larger sample corpora to use for modeling spoken language enhances automatic speech recognition. Google Translate builds on work that I had the privilege to be involved with in the 1990s that used “parallel texts” (essentially line-by-line translations) to build automatic translation systems based on phrasal lookup. The more examples of how things are translated, the better the system gets. But what else improves with Big Data? Maybe instrumenting many cars and crowdsourcing driving behaviors through city streets would provide the best data-driven approach to self-driving cars. Maybe instrumenting individuals will help us overcome some of things we do effortlessly that are strangely difficult to automate like folding towels and understanding complex visual scenes.

But regardless of the methods, the consequences need to be considered. Our current fascination with Big Data may not lead to Industrial Revolution 4 in five years or twenty, but unless there is some magical barrier that we are not aware of, IR4 seems to be inevitable. And the impacts will perhaps be more profound than the past revolutions because, unlike those transitions, the direct displacement of workers is a key component of the IR4 plan. In Rotman’s article, Thomas Piketty’s r > g is invoked to explain the excess return on capital (r) versus economic growth rate (g) and how that leads to a concentration of wealth among the richest members of our society, creating a barbell distribution of economic opportunities where the middle class has been dismantled due to (per Gordon) the equalization of labor costs through outsourcing to low-cost nations. But at least there remains a left bell to that barbell in that it is largely impossible to eliminate the services jobs that are critical to retail, restaurant, logistics, health care, and a raft of other economic sectors.

All that changes in IR4 and the barbell turns into the hammer from the Olympic hammer throw as the owners of the capital take over the entire cost structure for a huge range of economic activities. The middle may not initially be gone, however, as maintenance of the machinery will require a skilled workforce. Even this will be a point of Big Data optimization, however, as predictive maintenance and self-healing systems optimize against their failure modes over usage cycles.

So let’s go back to Gordon’s pessimism (economics is, after all, the “dismal science”). What headwinds and tailwinds are left in IR4? Perhaps the most cogent is the recommended use of redistributive methods for accelerating educational opportunities while reducing the debt load of American students. The other areas that are discussed include unlimited immigration to try to offset hours per capita declines due to retirement and demographic effects, but Gordon’s application of this is not necessarily valid in IR4 where low-skilled immigration would cease because of a lack of economic opportunities and even higher-skilled workers might find themselves displaced.

One lesson learned from past industrial revolutions is that they created more opportunities than worker displacements. Steam power displaced animal labor and the workers needed to shoe and train and feed those animals. Diesel trains displaced steam engine builders and mechanics. Cars and aircraft displaced trains. But in each case there were new jobs that accompanied the shift. We might be equally optimistic about IR4, speculating about robot trainers and knowledge engineers, massive extraction industries and materials production, or enhanced creative and entertainment systems like Michael Crichton’s dystopian Westworld of the early 70s. Is this enough to buffer against the headwind of the loss of the service sector? Perhaps, but it will not come without enormous global disruption.

Language Games

Word GamesOn The Thinking Atheist, C.J. Werleman promotes the idea that atheists can’t be Republicans based on his new book. Why? Well, for C.J. it’s because the current Republican platform is not grounded in any kind of factual reality. Supply-side economics, Libertarianism, economic stimuli vs. inflation, Iraqi WMDs, Laffer curves, climate change denial—all are grease for the wheels of a fantastical alternative reality where macho small businessmen lift all boats with their steely gaze, the earth is forever resilient to our plunder, and simple truths trump obscurantist science. Watch out for the reality-based community!

Is politics essentially religion in that it depends on ideology not grounded in reality, spearheaded by ideologues who serve as priests for building policy frameworks?

Likely. But we don’t really seem to base our daily interactions on rationality either. 538 Science tells us that it has taken decades to arrive at the conclusion that vitamin supplements are probably of little use to those of us lucky enough to live in the developed world. Before that we latched onto indirect signaling about vitamin C, E, D, B12, and others to decide how to proceed. The thinking typically took on familiar patterns: someone heard or read that vitamin X is good for us/I’m skeptical/why not?/maybe there are negative side-effects/it’s expensive anyway/forget it. The language games are at all levels in promoting, doubting, processing, and reinforcing the microclaims for each option. We embrace signals about differences and nuances but it often takes many months and collections of those signals in order to make up our minds. And then we change them again.

Among the well educated, I’ve variously heard the wildest claims about the effectiveness of chiropractors, pseudoscientific remedies, the role of immunizations in autism (not due to preservatives in this instance; due to immune responses themselves), and how karma works in software development practice.

And what about C.J.’s central claims? Well I haven’t read the book and don’t plan to, so I can only build on what he said during the interview. If we require evidence for our political beliefs as much as we require it for our religious perspective we probably need to have a scheme for how to rank the likelihood of different beliefs and policy commitments. For instance, C.J. follows the continued I-told-you-so approach of Paul Krugman in his comments on fiscal stimulus; not enough was done and there is no evidence of inflationary pressure. Well and good that fiscal stimulus as a macro-economic stabilizer has been established in the most recent economic past. The non-appearance of inflation was somewhat surprising, actually, but is now the retrospective majority opinion of economists concerned with such matters. It was a cause for concern, however, as were the problematic bailouts that softened the consequences (if not rewarded them) of risky behavior in pursuit of broader stability.

The language game theory of politics and religion accounts for most of the uncertainty and chaos that drives thinking about politics and economics. We learn the rules (social and pragmatic impact as well as grammatical rules) and the game pieces (words, phrases, and concepts) early on. They don’t have firm referential extension, of course. In fact, they never really do. But they cohere more and more over time unless radically disrupted, and even then they try to recohere against the tangle of implications as the dust settles. This is Wittgensteinian and anti-Positivist, but it is also somewhat value-free in that there is no sense for why one language game should be preferential to another.

For C.J., there is a clear demarcation that facts trump fantasy, and our lives and society would be better served by factually-derived policies and factually enervated perspectives on the claims of most religions. But it is far less clear to me as to how to apply some rationalist overlay to the problem of politics that would have consistent and meaningful improvements in our lives and society save the obvious one of improving general education and thinking.

I recently irritated and frustrated my teen son in questioning him about some claims he was making about bad teachers in the local school system. The irritation came as I probed into various rumors about a teacher who had been fired because she was, according to him, sexist and graded boys poorly. It turns out he only had a handful of rumors about everything from the teacher’s firing to the sexism. It looked more likely that one of his friends made it up in conjunction with other boys who were doing poorly in the teacher’s class. They created a meme in a language game and it propagated. My son was defensive about the possibility of the whole story and I admitted it was possible but that it was sufficiently unlikely as to not warrant concern. The attachment of levels of likely veracity and valuations were ultimately the only difference in the end.

I apologized for making him mad but didn’t apologize for my skepticism and, later, there were signals that his network of beliefs had been moved a bit, the vile evil sexist teacher drifting out of focus among the other shades of consideration.

And that is how the language game is played.

Hits and MITS

I just came across the following scan that describes how an MITS Altair 8800B became my first personal computer, journeying from Albuquerque to Las Cruces, New Mexico and getting an EEPROM burner attached to a ribbon cable snaking out through the enameled steel case. The speech synthesizer predated stored digital samples, by the way, so it instead emulated phonemic mixtures generated by digital waveform filtering.

And that young chap on the left would later become my boss, three or four parts removed, at Microsoft. I still have that Altair, too, safely stored away.

MITS Altair Convention

Original PDF Scan:

MITS Computer Convention



The Vapors of Hell

Concept map created with
Concept map created with

Since Plutonium has now been unearthed in Turkey–no, not the element, but the gates of the underworld where the Priests of Cybele got drunk on gases erupting from below the water table–it seems only appropriate to trace the historic, mythic, and semantic roots of the notion of Hell out from its roots in antiquity straight through to our modern representations.

We can draw a direct line from Tartarus to the concept of punishment and the afterlife that arose during the Hellenistic period and filtered into the Near East, and what better representation of the dangerous threats from deep beneath the earth than a cave that kills animals and makes people drunk on the fumes? Such a place must have captivated the minds of the ancients by providing a corporeal connection to the mythic dancing of the deities.

The great irony is that the Hierapolis and the Plutonium was bulldozed by Christians in the 4th to 6th century CE, thus destroying a touchstone of their own cosmology.

Hirsi Ali’s Social Evolution

Ayaan Hirsi Ali reminds us of the depressingly anti-freedom recent history of Islam in her recent Newsweek article, Muslim Rage & The Last Gasp of Islamic Hate. For Hirsi Ali, despite fatwas on Rushdie, 9/11, and the murder of  her friend and collaborator, Theo von Gogh, a kernel of hope is nascent in the democracy movements that emerged from the Arab Spring: when people have to govern themselves they will, ultimately, turn towards freedom of expression, thought, and worship.

But is that hope warranted?

Is there any sense of inevitability to the liberal programme that emerged from industrialization, affluence, and education? Or is the “progress” of the West more contingent than that, built from happenstance due to the geographic separation of America from Germany and Japan in World War II combined with the widespread availability of raw materials on the American continent, leading to success in that war and the growth of American post-War power in an unbombed industrial landscape that, ironically, led in turn to the defeat of Soviet Communism, itself claiming an inevitability to the flow of history?

Azar Gat raised a parallel question in The Return of Authoritarian Great Powers (Foreign Affairs, 86 (4), pp. 59-69) when he asked whether the rise of “Authoritarian Capitalism” in the form of China and recent Russia constitutes a viable challenge to the claims of liberal democracy. If so, then the notion that there is any sense of inevitability evaporates like the suppositions of dialectical materialism.

The underlying assumptions are taken for granted among most Americans: (1) all people are the same; (2) all people want freedom; (3) authoritarianism is anti-freedom; (4) people will oppose authoritarianism. It’s a nice thought that has some resonance in, say, the history of the Eastern Block, where economic limitations combined with cronyism and foreign political control led to (4). And the domino effect went in reverse. Yet China remained steadfastly authoritarian through all the churn, even while opening its economy in emulation of its neighbors, while managing corruption and building economic prosperity to just an extent that people have been unable to summon the urge to fight the parts that should appall them.

Can the same happen in Islamic states?

I’m not convinced. If the secular authoritarianism of China can thrive alongside economic prosperity, so can Sharia-driven intolerance thrive alongside democratic institutions. There doesn’t seem to be any inevitability to social change, but it is good to hope. And that brings us to a less contestable part of Hirsi Ali’s argument:

If we take the long view, America and other Western countries can help make this happen in the same way we helped bring about the demise of the former Soviet Union. We must be patient. America needs to empower those individuals and groups who are already disenchanted with political Islam by helping find and develop an alternative.

And that sense of empowerment costs little, yet can potentially achieve peace and prosperity until there are no more fatwas hanging over cartoonists’ heads. It may not be inevitable, but it is better than hopeless.

The Evolution of American Gods

Taking a break from my countdown, Simon Critchley is back in the New York Times with his fascinating analysis of Mormonism and the varied doctrines concerning reincarnation and the eventual divinity of, well, at least men. Interestingly, reading The Book of Mormon doesn’t illuminate these topics–they exist largely as exegesis through specific lectures by Joseph Smith. As Critchley notes about Smith’s lecture, the character and nature of God is finite, is a member of the Host of Heaven (or a council per the lecture), and creation in Genesis is not creation per se, but is instead some kind of reorganization of an infinite and timeless universe.

Fascinatingly strange, and compounded in its strangeness by the assertion that:

The mind or the intelligence which man possesses is co-equal [co-eternal] with God himself.

It is an evolutionary assertion that suggests our ultimate being is a divine form, and that we have the capacity to achieve this divinity through action, through works, and through effort at being good. As Critchley concludes:

…I see Joseph Smith’s apostasy as strong poetry, a gloriously presumptive and delusional creation from the same climate as Whitman, if not enjoying quite the same air quality. Perhaps Mormonism is not so far from romanticism after all. To claim that it is simply Christian is to fail to grasp its theological, poetic and political audacity. It is much more than mere Christianity.

While I doubt that this analysis will help assuage the concerns of conservative Christians about Mitt Romney’s faith, it undoubtedly serves as a touchstone for that uniquely American principle of religious freedom, and the underlying assumption (on Constitution Day), that the choice of a leader should not be tied to their choice of romantic delusions.