Friday, June 20, 2014

Sneakers, Sandals, Slippers, Shoes?

It appears to me that the Department of Defense will soon be engaged in a redefinition exercise, this time relating to footwear. In George Orwell’s novel, 1984 (ah, those were the days), one perfectly respectable occupation for scribblers was rewriting history so that it was always in line with political orthodoxy. Similarly, these days, it would seem equally respectable to redefine things in order to adjust reality to the pronouncements of our highest leadership.

The other day President Obama pronounced that he will not put American boots on the ground in Iraq. Okay. Got that. Today, however, we are told that some 300 American “advisers” will be arriving in Iraq. They will be divided into teams of 12 each and stationed with Iraqi army units at various levels, suggesting that some at least will be very close to sites of actual armed combat.

And this calls for definitional changes. The simplest would be to rename “boots on the ground” “shoes on the ground.” No boots—the President said so. But combat shoes might be permissible. The other way might be to make a distinction between “advisers” and “soldiers”; under this definition, “adviser boots” are okay, but “soldier boots” are not. Another way to match fact to policy might be to issue sneakers, sandals, or (fortified) slippers to the 300 advisers so that “no boots on the ground” would become irrelevant.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Brasil v. Brazil

It took us some time before the contrasting spelling of Brazil—always rendered with a Z on the Canadian Broadcasting Company, whose coverage we’re lucky enough to watch but with an S when we see actual local names of Brazil spelled out.

A quite complete and persuasive discussion of this difference, with very nice illustrations, also comes from Canada, this time Uma Nota, which happens to be a music blog about Brazilian music. Here is the link.

It turns out that the original name comes from the Portuguese pau brasil, brazilwood, a reddish-hued tree (Caesalpinia echinata). But that word, brasil, could be and was also spelled brazil, all depending on the mood of the speller, not only in foreign lands but also by writers (or typesetters) in Portuguese—even on currency. The official change, Uma Nota informs me, came in 1945 when a Portuguese and Brazilian commission set the formal rules for the Portuguese spelling of words. We, meanwhile, clung to Brazil.

We are among a minority—with Hungarians (Brazilia) and Bosnians (Brazil). The Germans say Brasilien, the French Brésil, the Spanish Brasil, the Italians Brasile. So where does that Z get its original roots? Well, the original name of Brazil, based on the earliest Portuguese records, was Terra da Santa Cruz, thus Land of the Holy Cross. That Z from the cross keeps hanging in there at least in some languages.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Letters in the News

Strikes me as interesting, if nothing else, that just days after a general called SISI was sworn in as President of Egypt a group called ISIS has overrun northern Iraq and now threatens Baghdad.

Such is my weariness of endless civil wars—or such is the poor quality of normal reporting in the media—that I had never heard of ISIS until Mosul had fallen to them. Now I learn that this group controls, more or less, significant sections of Syria and that its acronym derives from the translation of a name in Arabic, literally Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but “the Levant” is translated as “Syria,” hence ISIS. These complications caused some interesting sputtering on the PBS News Hour by one of the anchors, telling me that they had not been all that familiar with this would-be emirate themselves.

The aggressive advance of ISIS is developing into a new uproar in this country, with some people sounding like they’re about to blame President Obama for loosing the glories won in battle by President Bush.

I would suggest calming down. We have something neither the Egyptians nor the Arabs have. We call it the MISSISSIPPI. If only we could relax, the Old Man would just keep rolling along.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Two-Faced Monger

Tinker, Tailor
Manager, Dealer
Merchant, Trader
Monger, Manger.
Eight I hold here in my mitt
But one of them just doesn’t fit.

In one of our MyWord games the other day Brigitte gave me FISHMONGER. The word came from one of her many, many word-lists, but later she discovered that Michael Gilleland had posted the picture of a lovely vase showing a fishmonger on Laudator (link) earlier that day. Nice coincidence—and then discussion. That word is still in circulation, obviously, but when was the last time we’ve heard anyone say, heading out to Kroger or to Ace Hardware, that he or she was going to visit the fishmonger or ironmonger. In such contexts a monger is a seller, dealer, merchant, or trader.

I concluded that a different use of the word—in the political sphere—as in warmonger or scaremonger, would be much more common. Brigitte was not so sure. Well, these days, Google Ngrams (a facility that tracks the usage of words in print back to 1800) can resolve disputes. Turned out that Brigitte’s hunch was better. In 2000, both fishmonger and ironmonger were much more used in print than warmonger. But the meaning in the latter case is more akin to “promoter,” “activist,” or agent provocateur.

Monger comes from the Latin mango, meaning salesman and, especially, slave-dealer. I got curious about other words with a similar spelling, like manager and merchant. Manager has its roots in the Latin for hand, manus. Our own usage comes from the Italian maneggiare, meaning to handle, particularly a horse.  Merchant derives from the Latin mercatus, thus the market, trade, and such. Last and definitely least, I got to wondering if “manger” has some linkage to “monger.” The two words are spelled almost the same way. Furthermore, we link manger so closely to Christian origins, we tend to overlook its actual function: presenting fodder to our beasts. And yes. That is the origin. It comes from the Old French for mangier, “to eat,” to which the suffix -oire was added (mangeoire). The suffix signifies some kind of implement or device: eating-thing, eating-device—the word, in my revised nursery rhyme, which doesn’t fit.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Birth and Expansion of Islam

In the now accepted version, the Western Roman Empire ceased in 476 when a 16-year old emperor, Romulus Augustus, ruling the West, more or less, from Ravenna in Italy, was pushed from the throne by a Germanic conqueror. 476 also, therefore, by convention, marks the beginning of the Middle Ages. Not quite a century (95 years) later, Mohammed was born in distant Mecca in 570. The fastest travel in those days was by horse. The distance between Ravenna and Mecca is just shy of 3,500 miles. In those days, when someone could travel about 30 miles a day, the trip by land (through Italy, the Balkans, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq) would have required 4 months. Today, by car, assuming 400 miles per day, it would take about nine days.

I show the map here, linking Ravenna and Mecca, by way of making more viscerally tangible the geographical aspects of a nascent Islam and the Christianity attempting to establish itself on the lands once covered by the Roman might. When Mohammed had turned 40, he experienced a religious revelation (610). Islam came into being and then began to spread with extraordinary energy. Its rise, viewed from the various centers of an already fragmenting Christendom, would have been experienced as a threat—like a great Green Hand reaching up, out of the south, and trying clasp Christendom in its grasp. It almost happened, but not quite. Virtually all of the Byzantine Empire, however, eventually fell ultimately to the Ottomans; they reached the gates of Vienna in Austria and controlled all of Syria, the Levant, and North Africa. And an earlier conqueror, the Umayyad Caliphate, took Iberia and held it to the Pyrenees—venturing north of there as well foiled in this attempt by Charles Martel in the Battle of Tours close to the center of France in 732. This Muslim expansion was a genuine and lasting aspect of the Middle Ages, in part, if only in part, triggering the Age of the Crusades, of which the first began in 1096—and, indeed bringing the Middle Ages to an official end when the Ottomans took Constantinople in 1453 and then began to continue expanding north.

I’ve attempted to render an image of that Green Hand in the map of Europe that follows. The coloration is entirely mine and shows, overlaid, the conquests of Mohammed, the Rashidun and succeeding caliphates who followed him, and finally the Ottoman conquests which brought Islam to Vienna’s gates.

The next two maps are the sources I used to produce the composite. The first shows the territories conquered by Mohammed (darkest, 622-633), by the Rashidun (meaning “the righteous”) Caliphs (reddish, 632-661) and by the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750).  Note that Turkey has not yet been fully overrun.

The second map shows the Ottoman Empire  at its greatest extent—with dates given in the legend. Note that during Ottoman times Spain had already been recovered and Moroccan lands held by the Umayyads had also been lost; but Turkey and the Balkans, in the East, had fallen to the Muslim conqueror.

The timeline of the incomplete embrace of Europe by Islam shows the successive conquests by Mohammed and then the caliphates which followed it. All of these held roughly the same territories of Arabia, the Levant, West Asia, Egypt, and North Africa—be they Sunni or Shia, as the Fatimid Caliphate was. The Umayyads, the second, extended its power to include Spain and Portugal; the last, the Ottoman, managed to capture Turkey and also made itself, de facto, the successor of the Byzantine, reaching far to the north.

If we date things from Mohammed’s revelation, thus from 610, the very rapid expansion of this faith is illustrated. Less than a quarter century later, Muslims had seized Syria and the Levant, a core part of the Byzantine realm. Just a tad over a century later Iberia fell into Muslim hands. But what with the Byzantine already separated from the West by the Great Schism, it took nearly 500 years from the date of the revelation to the first call it culture-wide response to develop in the West. That was the First Crusade. It was—like most of the crusades—a bloody awful thing. After the holy warriors managed to take Jerusalem, they slaughtered all Jews and Muslims captured. The Jews had been among Jerusalem’s most energetic and determined defenders—and their time had come.

I am only showing the dates for the First, Fourth, and supposed last “major” crusade, sometimes called the Seventh, Eighth, or Ninth. Different campaigns of that so-called last one were given extra numbers. But it was not by any means the last. Tedious counting produces the following counts. Nine major crusades. Wedged in between these were four others. Following the Ninth came nine others of which the last, called in 1487, was actually aimed some Christian heretics, the Waldensians located in an Alpine region between France and Italy. The crusades, with their religious aura, rapidly became a cover for any kind of war in the Middle Ages—whatever its real motives were. The institutional arrangements of that period gave princes leave to levy new taxes in support of crusades—and the institution, if one can call it that, fell into the devil’s hands right from the outset. I date the Fourth Crusade because it featured the capture of Christian Constantinople by Christian arms—and by this conquest it sealed in 1204 by arms what had begun in 1096 as the Great Schism by an exchange of excommunications.  

As already noted, the major impact of the new Muslim faith—the expansion of which was, initially, northward—fell on the Byzantine Empire and Spain. Both were, viewed from the North or from the center of Western Europe somewhat distant. The Byzantine had already begun to unravel thanks to pagan invasions and internal feudal fragmentation. In the West the enclosing thumb of the Muslim advance never effectively reached beyond Spain. The Byzantine Empire’s core, which was Turkey, resisted the first wave of attacks. Turkey fell, in the end, of internal conflict and warfare with the West had already essentially dismembered the Byzantine for the Ottomans harvest. The West resisted more successfully—although, as usually, the Muslim armies eventually covered its eastern edge, my own place of birth.

Meanwhile, in the West, people were living in “interesting times.”  The unity between state and religion, experienced under Charlemagne, was breaking apart locally as unity had also been sacrificed to the Great Schism. The Papacy entered its Babylonian Captivity in Avignon. The population suffered from a combination of the Little Ice Age and distractions like the Black Death (which, per Barbara Tuchman, in her magnificent history, The Distant Mirror, “killed an estimated one third of the population living between India and Iceland” (p. xiii). Europe also endured the threats of Genghis Khan. The Muslim pressure was just one of many. And with the fourteenth century already, the early light of the Renaissance was beginning to paint the edge of the horizon.

The two aspects of the rise of Islam that most fascinate me is the energy it released down there in the deserts of Arabia with a quite different, simpler, but very genuine religious ethos. It transformed regions that had long simply endured in a kind of same-old-same-old decadence. The other aspect is that the Christian-Muslim clash—which still endures today, albeit “crusade” now has a new name—is a wondrous illustration of how different cultures form, almost synchronistically in this case, and inevitably must sort themselves out. The process is still underway. Looking back at its beginnings in the Middle Ages, we are looking at a distant, but not very distant mirror. The words change but the actions beneath them remain unmistakably the same. To be sure, when looking back, we see our faces in some macabre distortion. That was still us—even though the glass is colored darkly.
Map of Muslim Caliphates’ territories is from Wikipedia (link) and the map of the Ottoman landholdings, also from Wikipedia (link).

Middle Ages Posts:

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Times of Transition

The cyclical character of life in this dimension is so well known we do not notice it at all—say day and night—unless, in the more complex cases, we invert their order thus: summer and spring, winter and fall. Major transitions, thus in culture, take such long times that we notice them only when, by pure chance, we live our lives at one of the pivotal moments of it, e.g., the French Revolution. That revolution conveniently marked, I would suggest, the start of modernity, but it wasn’t seen quite in that same way. It was thought to be an aberration, a local disturbance, by those not yet affected by it.

When we first moved into our house here 25 years ago, weather events punctuated, with very small black dots and only now and then, the news. For the last three years certainly, major storms, destructions, rains, droughts, fires, floods, and such were not yet weekly consuming almost all time on CNN and thus starving us of other vital BREAKING NEWS like the loss of airliners, the rude remarks of NBA team owners, or mass shooting of children. But if this global warming, or whatever else, causes storms with newfangled names like derechos (the name comes from the Spanish for “straight”) continues to produce these phenomena so that, in future, every spring and summer brings these—and every fall inundates our coasts with tsunami-like ocean attacks—why then the times will have completed their transition and vile weather will have become, as they say, “the new normal.”

Thoughts along these lines occur to us here right at the moment—because we’re ourselves engaged in a time of transition. We are in a prolonged process of moving from this house after a quarter century’s possession into a new home located across the whole wide metro area. About that new house, which we now finally own, in due time. And it looks like it will take some time. In the meantime, this house must be emptied of its contents—and, I’m fairly sure of this, it has never been so full of stuff as it is now. Every habit’s in the air, every routine is disrupted. Blogging under these conditions resembled organizing one’s stamp collection during a tornado.

Hence be surprised when a new post appears—rather than expecting posts at frequent intervals. Busy preparations, and agonizing decisions on what to keep and what to shed, are now becoming the new normal here—and out there somewhere is the hope and prayer of another life with fewer square feet but a larger yard, more sun, and views of a lake.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Where is Frodo Baggins?

How can we ever hope to understand very large aggregates of anything? The first step, in any such venture, is to collect statistics. Once such collection is institutionalized—and data become available over some span of time—changes in the measured category may be detected by analysis. And any action taken to change or influence that aggregate can also be tracked—again with statistics.

Around here we fondly remember Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the activist Democratic senator—also a sociologist. In his engagement in the War on Poverty, he always urged the Bureau of the Census or the Bureau of Labor Statistics to set up new data collections. He knew full well that managing mass phenomena begins with numbers.

But collecting information is expensive. Suppose, however, that you’re already collecting it, but for another reason. Supposing that, in keeping records, a company captures hundreds, thousands, millions of various kinds of transactions—and saves these data for legal purposes. It was and still is done. Back in the ancient times these data were held on paper. In the early computer age on tape. It took a while before the secondary value of such data came to be recognized. I don’t remember when exactly—but my guess is that it was in the 1980s—data mining began to surface as a useful method of milking some value from these “givens.”  (Anciently I looked up data and discovered what the word means—just facts as recorded.)

The term used back then, mining, was quite appropriate in an age when old records were on cumbersome magnetic tape—and you had to read, rather slowly, many, many of them to get, say, ten years’ worth of history. After that analysis could begin—and new patterns would emerge.

Since the 1980s, massive technological changes have caused the transformation of ho-hum data mining into the new celebrity industry of Cybernetic Spying. Two new stories in today’s New York Times reminded me of that. One talks about NSA collecting images of faces from the electronic traffic; recognition software is in full development. The other is a story about a company called Palantir Technologies. The company is privately held but valued at around $9 billion; the story deals with the impatience of investors in the company because Palantir is unwilling as yet to go public. The company’s business? Cybernetic spying. The company’s name comes from Tolkien. A palantir is a magic stone that a very corrupt wise man, Saruman the White, uses to spy on the world. Very interesting choice of company name. The company, with Pay Pal figures active in its initiation, was initially funded by the CIA which, curiously—first time I’ve ever heard of it—has a “venture fund.”

Some fiction writers have quite prophetic powers—and Tolkien was one. We already have at least one palantir—and no doubt there are actually dozens. But where is Frodo Baggins? And never mind Gandalf the Grey…