Technology: who needs it?

First of all, let me say straight out that I am against all these new fangled ‘improvements’ on things that were working just fine.  Remember the old adage, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?’  It seems we have long since forgotten it, in our haste to make things easier and more productive.  We may gain a second or two, or reduce energy expenditure by a point or two, or allow more people access to some particular process or commodity, but at what price?  Do we really gain anything if we have to sacrifice ancient wisdom and tradition to get it?  Or give up our long-held values, our ways of testing the worth of ourselves and our families to ‘spread the wealth?’  Whatever happened to the concept of  earning wealth?

Take, for example, the bow and arrow.  Easy as pie.  You just pick it up, insert an arrow, pull the string, and point it, and presto!  you’ve killed something.  What could be easier? Anybody can do it.

And that’s the problem.  With a spear, you had to have some skill.  You had to calculate the distance to the animal you were hunting, figure the arc to make the spear end up at the level you wanted to strike the animal at, or at which you wanted to strike .. oh, never mind.  And not only that, you had to have some strength.  It was bad enough when they came up with the atlatl (is that a dumb name or what?)  Now, with the bow and arrow, all the strength you need is to pick the damned thing up, put in the arrow, and point it at something.  Is that the kind of man we want to encourage?  Is that who’s going to get us out of a jam when we’re attacked by enormous beasts?  Or when someone makes a really stupid comment around the fire?

I will just ask you this and leave it at that: when you’ve stolen something or insulted someone, who do you want at your side, a spearman or a ‘bowman?’

The king is dead! What king?

In 1478 BCE, give or take a year, Hatshepsut ascended to the throne of Egypt, her recently deceased husband, the Pharaoh Thutmose II, leaving as heir only his infant son, Thutmose III. Thutmose II, the son of Thutmose I by a secondary wife, married Hatshepsut, the daughter of the same Thutmose I (bear with me here) because she was T. I’s daughter by his primary wife, and thus had a stronger claim to the royal lineage. T.II thought, apparently, that this would cement his position permanently.

It worked, sort of. The only thing is, Hatshepsut was a much better leader than her husband, and when he died after a decade or so, she took control and refused to let go, even after T. III got old enough to rule on his own. I always thought of Thutmose III as being kind of like poor old Prince Charles, whose mom refuses to step down so he can be king.

In any case, Hatshepsut finally kicked the bucket around 1458 BCE, having had an illustrious career as only the second female pharaoh that the Egyptian chroniclers would admit to, and Thutmose III finally got his shot. But his Aunt Hattie’s reign must have stuck in his craw, because eventually either he or his son Thutmose IV (AKA Amenhotep II; are you still with me here?) set about obliterating as much of the record of her accomplishments as he could. This was no mean task, since royal memoirs in those days were literally carved in stone.

Which brings me to Donald Trump and the Republican Congress (nice transition, eh?). It will not do for a man of Trump’s boundless ego to succeed someone who, well, succeeded. So, in cahoots with the congress, which has been doing its level best to make Obama a failure, and failing at that, Trump will try to see to it that any vestige of Obama’s success be obliterated.

The process has already started with an executive order cancelling unspecified parts of the health care act, and will soon continue with more executive orders.

Care to take any bets the congress will suddenly stop whining about the “imperial presidency?”

We well might ask how effective this kind of exercise is. Did it work in ancient Egypt? Ironically, two and a half millennia later, Hatshepsut is not only remembered, but honored as one of the most effective pharaohs Egypt had.

I suspect Obama’s reputation will be restored much sooner than that.  His accomplishments may not be carved in stone, but I predict it won’t be long before people start pining for the good old days when he was in charge.

It’s going to be all right

I have always found history fascinating, perhaps because I thought I had so little of it personally. My favorite writers growing up were Shelby Foote and Stephen Ambrose, and even in fiction, I preferred novelists like Michener and Uris. I read Bradbury, but I think he was as much a historical writer as the rest in his own way, despite his genre. Throw in a bit of Mickey Spillane and Ellery Queen just for fun, and you’ve got the picture.

Discounting military service, virtually all my adult life has been spent as an archaeologist. In short, you might say I’ve been obsessed with the past. I’ve seen it all come and go: war and peace, wealth and poverty, nations rising and falling, cultures great and profane, cemeteries full of lives cut short, of crises forgotten or remembered, but either way, good for nothing better than allegory now. Through it all, one thing stands out, clear and cold.

It’s going to be all right. Not in the sense of world peace, the brotherhood of man, and all that, but it is going to be all right. In time, no one will remember any of the this. What we’re going through is serious, yes, and will cause a great deal of pain to people who deserve better. The same was true of whatever it was those people in the cemeteries of the world were enduring, those things we either can’t remember or experience only as intellectual abstractions today. The same will be true of whatever traumas and crises future generations will face, if there are any future generations.

Nor will anyone remember all the joy, the love and human companionship we are also experiencing, the intensity of compassion and purpose that fill the struggle against all the adversity I mention above, but that too, will continue beyond us, as it has these millennia.

You know the old joke: an optimist is one who believes this is the best of all possible worlds, and a pessimist is one who’s afraid that’s true.

One way or the other, this is the world we’ve got, and we are the humanity we’ve got. It could be that we have broken the earth as a habitable place for us beyond repair, and it could be the death of us, of our species. If that happens, the earth will continue to spin on its axis and hurl itself around the sun; other living things will thrive, and possibly evolve to wonder about the remains we leave behind.

We’ll be just one more of the billions of species to disappear, just one more bag of remains in the vast cemetery we live on.

It’s going to be all right.

À la recherche du temps déplacé: memory as myth

In the intro to my recent post about the death of Bill Vukovich and its effect on me as a child, I lamented my mistaken memories, and how I had conflated distinct events. That made me consider how that could happen; after all, we should be able to remember things we have experienced in their right sequence, shouldn’t we?

Actually, no.  Eye-witness accounts of even fairly recent events are notoriously unreliable, and the situation doesn’t improve with the added distance of time.  Complicate this with identity issues, and it isn’t so surprising.  But how, I asked myself; what is the mechanism?  The answer, I believe, lies in the way we construct our past, that is, our identity.

Time, we imagine, proceeds according to the strict logic of causation.  Events follow one another relentlessly in a sequence.  Whether this is so is not relevant here; it’s how we’ve been trained to see things.  But we file the events of our own past in terms of epochs rather than linear chronologies.  I was a boy, a teenager, a young man, etc.  We know which things can be assigned to which epochs of our past, but the internal ordering of these things remains murky.  To make matters worse, these categories themselves remain fluid, constructing and deconstructing according to our needs.  Not only do specific events swirl around within these contexts, but physical events are thrown together with emotional events, and when we call on our memories to arrange specific occurances in their proper relationship to one another, we do so according to the logic of compatibility rather than chronology.  Thus, the separate events of a racing death and the loss of a friend got pulled out of the soup together, since both occurred in the same epoch, and had similar emotional consequences.

I’m tempted to think that this is the same tendency that leads historians to construct eras in history, rather than being satisfied with chronology.  The truth is I don’t even know whether it’s accurate for personal histories.

What do you think?

Look upon my works, ye mighty

Among the privileges of a career  in archaeology is the great perspective it reveals on life and history, great and small.  Years of digging up abandoned settlements and graves of nameless, long-forgotten people leave one thing without doubt: all the fears and tribulations of the world we live in will one day be nothing but a mystery to any who might survive us.  Future archaeologists, if there are such people, will marvel at our occasional outbursts of technology amidst the overweening primitiveness.

The learned among them will imagine that they have come to understand us.  But whatever reconstruction of our cultures they will come up with would look bizarre to us, like some fun-house mirror image of what we hold to be reality.

They will give lectures in which they declare, with righteousness, that the 21st century wasn’t as bad as we seem to think, and point to evidence of some rudimentary technology.  Indignation at the prevailing opinion that we were savages will become trendy.

Or they will find, to their surprise, that there were empires and complex social structures, or that the one or two “great” civilizations of which they might be aware were not so great after all.  And all of this will be for reasons which we would find utterly perplexing today.

I will always remember looking down at the mummy of Ramses II at the Cairo Museum, in its controlled atmosphere glass case.  I looked down at the face of Ozymandias, hoping to gain some sort of empathy, some glint of recognition, some insight into that long ago place and time.  To my astonishment, only one thought came to me.

It’s just another corpse.

Document No. 1235a

Document No. 1235a
Classification: Top Secret
Subject: Report on Operation Nullification

Pursuant to the development of a viable instrument for travelling back through time and returning safely (Document no. 1234), and the subsequent approval of Operation Nullification (Document No. 1235), this report details the results of said operation.

The objective of Operation Nullification was to travel back to 1917 and assassinate Oberleutnant Heinrich Knebel, later known as Heinz Volker, the charismatic leader of the National People’s Party (Napi) beginning in 1934. Removal of this target was deemed to forestall the rise of the Napi Party, and thereby vitiate the events leading to World War II.

Result: Objective successfully completed.

Nero’s fiddle


Ah, Nero, second only to Caligula, or perhaps, thanks to Hollywood, Commodus, among the Roman Emperors we love to hate.  Why, he fiddled while Rome burned.

Well, not really, since fiddles as such were a long way from being invented yet.  There was a rumor, though, perhaps started by Cassius Dio, certainly fueled by Seutonius, that when Rome caught fire and burned to the ground in 64CE, Nero climbed the Palatine Hill and “…sang the whole of the Sack of Ilion in his regular stage costume,” the aforementioned piece apparently being a long, theatrical declamation he had written (just for the occasion?).

What?  Regular stage costume?  Well, you have to understand the man.  Nero fancied himself a first class poet and playwright, a brilliant actor and dramatist, and, need I add, a superbly gifted athlete.  It was rumored that when he ordered his slave to kill him after he was driven from Rome by angry mobs and a smattering of generals, lacking the balls to do it himself, his dying words were “The world is losing a great genius!” or something to that effect.  He instituted regular festivals featuring contests of poetry, drama and music, which he himself inevitably entered, and just as inevitably won, since none of the judges fancied their chances if they declared for someone else.  This timorousness of judges extended to his athletic prowess as well.  He once entered the Quadriga,  a four horse chariot race, and the most prestigious of the races in the favorite athletic event in all of Rome, with a special chariot fitted with twelve, count ’em, twelve horses.  The judges conferred, and ruled that it was legal, having noted, I suppose, that twelve was a multiple of four, after all.  To be fair, he was leading into the turn-about (who would pass him?), but tipped over, surviving a horrible crash unscathed.  And victorious.  Those astute judges noted sagely that, well, he would have won, had he not tipped over, and awarded him the trophy.  In defense of the judges, it should be noted that more than one general lost his job, rank, and occasionally life, just for falling asleep during one of Nero’s poetry recitals.

So, the burning question (sigh) is, did or did not the man diddle, if not fiddle, while Rome burned?  It seems as though, if he did, he still had time to handle the situation honorably enough.  Tacitus wrote that he took in refugees from the fire at his own residence, and fed and clothed them, opening the substantial palace grounds to anyone in need.  So, if there was a fiddle, it was figurative, and much deeper, and here we get to the subject of who or what started the fire in the first place.

Fires in Rome were commonplace.  Just beyond the familiar temples and palaces of stone and brick, the city was a ramshackle jumble of rickety wooden structures.  Truthfully, even in the more substantial stone buildings, fire was a danger; remember, before electricity, heat and light were provided by fire.  The ubiquitous lamps used all over the city and beyond consisted of an open bowl filled with oil.  A wick was added, and the whole thing, when lit, provided ample opportunity for spillage and subsequent disaster.  Stone and brick were, all the same, filled with furniture, carpets, draperies – in short, fuel.  In the poorer quarters outside the central district, fires were so common and so dangerous that indoor cooking was forbidden.  More than one emperor capped his hallmark forum with a firewall against the slums next door.

Still, this particular fire had started suddenly, in an unusual place, and spread like, well, wildfire.  In the end, only a bit more than one fourth of the city escaped unscathed, with much of the central district destroyed completely.  And there’s the rub.

Nero had this area cleared, and built a fabulous new palace compound, the Domus Aurea, on the site.  It had a lake big enough to stage recreations of famous naval battles, and a statue of himself, as Sol Invictus, stood 30 meters (about 100 feet to us colonials) at the head of the grounds.  It was called the Colossus, and gave its name to the Coliseum that replaced his palace (a whole other story).  The name Domus Aurea refers to the centerpiece of this garden of splendor, the residence, with its dome covered with gold.  The dome was engineered to rotate, and the night sky was painted on the interior for the bemusement of dinner guests, who were sprayed with perfume and showered with petals on entrance.  True, other emperors before and after built lavish homes for themselves, but this particular effort sorely rankled, because Nero used public money to build it, on the grounds that it was essentially a city renovation project.

Truth to tell, there was precious little difference between public and private money where public officials were concerned, but each had its own pocket, and the populace cherished the fiction that they were separate.  Far from using public funds for their personal projects, high officials, and especially the emperor, were expected to spend their own money on public projects, as a show of magnanimity.  The lavish Domus Aurea  was a step too far, and it fueled rumors that Nero himself had set the fire, to rid himself of senate rivals, and clear the land.

To be fair, Nero had his own theory, and that was that Christians had set the fire in a sort of apocalyptic fervor.  The result was a very public campaign of persecution, leading, among other things, to the particularly venomous description of Rome in the Book of Revelations, generally supposed to have been written 30 years or so after the great fire, but could have been earlier. Well, to a lot of the Roman public, that seemed pretty likely, or at least plausible.  Nobody who wasn’t a Christian liked them very much.  They refused to honor the other gods of Rome, they hung around with slaves and other low-life, and they met in secret, where it was rumored that they partook of cannibalistic rituals.  If the fire wasn’t set by Christians, most people were content to let them get persecuted all the same.

Even some modern scholars believe that the idea of Christians starting the fire is not entirely out of the question.They got a lot of propaganda mileage out of the persecution, and laid the groundwork for expansion. Even so, it is the consensus now, as it was then, that it was either accidental, or set by Nero’s agents. But whether or not Nero was at fault, he certainly benefited from it, at least in the short term. He silenced most of his senatorial critics, and he got his magnificent residence in the middle of downtown Rome.

If there was a fiddle involved, that was it.