Superciliousness

“In a moment of high drama, his aged father hurled himself on the ground at Gregory’s feet, and cried ‘My son, where are you going? Shall I ever see you again?’

‘It is written,’ Gregory answered, as he stepped over the obstacle, ‘ that thou shalt trample on the ass and the basilisk.’

Thus saying, he mounted his mule, which started to walk backwards. Eventually, another animal was brought, and the pope was able to start out for Marseille, the scribes, lawyers, engrossers, and bullatores of the Papal court dribbling along behind him with their piles of parchment, documents, seals, ribbons, and all the other material of the spider’s web that Avignon had woven around Christendom.”

— Frances Stonor Saunders, Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman

An engrosser is either someone who seeks to obtain a monopoly in a limited market, or someone who makes illuminated manuscripts. In the context of this sentence I would say that either meaning is equally likely. After a little research, I have no idea what a bullatore is, though it’s probably related to a bulla, which is the round seal used to stamp papal documents (bulls).

Starvation

“The killer targets the most innocent, the people who would never steal food, lie, cheat, break the law, or betray a friend. It was a phenomenon that the Italian writer Primo Levi identified after emerging from Auschwitz, when he wrote that he and his fellow survivors never wanted to see one another again after the war, because they had all done something of which they were ashamed.”

— Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy

Xerxes whipping the Hellespont

“To forget that we are hemmed in by facts which are for the most part independent of our desires is a form of insane megalomania. This kind of insanity has grown up as a result of the triumph of scientific technique. Its latest manifestation is Stalin’s refusal to believe that heredity can have the temerity to ignore Soviet decrees, which is like Xerxes whipping the Hellespont to teach Poseidon a lesson.”

— Bertrand Russell

In this case, the phrase ‘scientific technique’ refers to the theory of Marx, Dewey, et. al, that science is useful insofar as it allows us to exert power. So, ‘technique’ as the opposite of knowledge, curiosity, wonder, etc.

Philosophical Tapdancing

“Hume, nearly two hundred years ago, threw doubt upon induction, as, indeed, upon most other things. The philosophers were indignant, and invented refutations of Hume, which passed muster on account of their extreme obscurity. Indeed, for a long time philosophers took care to be unintelligible, since otherwise everybody would have perceived that they had been unsuccessful in answering Hume. It is easy to invent a metaphysic which will have as a consequence that induction is valid, and many men have done so; but they have not shown any reason to believe in their metaphysic except that it was pleasant.”

— Bertrand Russell

Propaganda, Unintended Consequences

A North Korean soldier would later recall a buddy who had been given an American-made nail clipper and was showing it off to this friends. The soldier clipped a few nails, admired the sharp, clean edges, and marveled at the mechanics of this simple item. Then he realized with a sinking heart: if North Korea couldn’t make such a fine nail clipper, how could it compete with American weapons? For one North Korean student it was a photograph in the official media showing a South Korean on a picket line. The photograph was meant to illustrate the exploitation of the worker in capitalist society; instead the student noticed that the ‘oppressed’ worker wore a jacket with a zipper and had a ballpoint pen in his pocket, both of which were luxuries at the time.

— Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy

An Estimate of the Real Military Budget

The Trillion Dollar Defense Budget is Already Here, by Robert Higgs.

The Defense Department’s budget is only a small part of the amount the United States spends on its military: hundreds of billions of dollars are hidden elsewhere, in the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, the DHS, in interest payments on defense-related national debt, and so on.

Therefore, I propose that in considering future defense budgetary costs, a well-founded rule of thumb is to take the Pentagon’s (always well publicized) basic budget total and double it. We may overstate the truth, but if so, we’ll not do so by much.

James Burke:

In most people’s everyday life, the computer isn’t much more than a very fast adding machine. It tends to send you bills. But it is very much more than that. The modern world could not function without computers, because they operate everything from production lines, to telephone exchanges, to traffic systems, to international finance. But the reason computers matter to you, and me, and our future, is because they have perfect memories. They never forget anything they’re told about you and me. The kind of data, say, you have to give somebody if you want a bank account, or credit, or if you want to vote, or buy a house, or if you’ve been accused of a crime. And that’s why computers contain the future within them: if you tell a computer everything about a group of people, it’ll juggle the mix and come up with the one factor that is most likely to affect the decision that group will make about something, one way or the other. Knowing that is knowing the future, and that is power—but in whose hands?

Ours is the era of big data, so that observation is almost too trivial to make. You’d be laughed right out of your TED Talk if you proposed it as a novel insight.

However, Burke said this in 1978, when computers were still using punch cards, and the personal computing revolution was almost a decade away. The idea of doing computational analysis on consumer data wasn’t exactly new, but the idea that it would be used to wield thorough and casual power over people’s lives was.

Re-watching *Connections*, I’m finding that Burke only carves out occasional space in the program to wax paranoaic about the future of technology, but his batting average (from my position almost 40 years ahead) is unusually high, compared to other futurists.

Books Read in 2015

Non-Fiction

  • Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman by Francis Stonor Saunders
  • The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux
  • The Western Canon by Harold Bloom
  • Ten Years Under the Earth by Norbert Castaret
  • West with the Night by Beryl Markham
  • A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
  • Design Is a Job by Mike Monteiro
  • Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Fiction

  • Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

Science Fiction & Fantasy

  • Abaddon’s Gate by James S. A. Corey (The Expanse)
  • Caliban’s War by James S. A. Corey (The Expanse)
  • Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling
  • The Terror  by Dan Simmons
  • The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  • The Drowned World by JG Ballard
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  • Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey
  • The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
  • The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter
  • Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie
  • Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  • Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Authority by Jeff Vandermeer
  • Deathworld by Harry Harrison

Rereads

  • On Blue’s Waters by Gene Wolfe (The Book of the Short Sun)
  • In Green’s Jungles by Gene Wolfe (The Book of the Short Sun)
  • Shadow Games by Glen Cook (The Black Company)
  • The White Rose by Glen Cook (The Black Company)
  • Shadows Linger by Glen Cook (The Black Company)
  • The Silver Spike by Glen Cook (The Black Company)
  • The Guns of Avalon by Roger Zelazny (The Chronicles of Amber)
  • Nine Princes In Amber by Roger Zelazny (The Chronicles of Amber)