Archive for the ‘Art’ Category.

The Expanse: Forget Star Trek and Watch This Show

I’ll admit I used to be a Trekkie. I grew up watching reruns of Star Trek and had a Starship Enterprise model hanging from my bedroom ceiling. When the movies came out I saw them in the theater. When Star Trek Next Generation came out, I loved the show so much that the Wife’s father taped it and sent us VHS episodes to us in Japan. I even followed the spin-off Deep Space Nine.

But then it became a bit repetitive. I never got into Voyager with Captain Janeway sounding too much like a dalek. And the remakes? I’ve skipped them. I even hear there’s yet another Star Trek themed show destined for TV. My first question: Why?

My first literary love was SF. In my teens I devoured writers like Ben Bova, Harlan Ellison and Ray Bradbury. I subscribed to the long defunct OMNI magazine which lit my imagination like no other magazine. I learned that there is a lot of good science fiction out there with universes as detailed and inviting as anything imagined in Star Trek. Think I’m wrong? Go read Larry Niven’s Ringworld series and get back to me in a few years.

So I had pretty much given up on science fiction TV even though there is a whole cable network devoted to it.

Then my wife made me sit through the pilot of The Expanse, and the only thing left to decide was where to put an OPA tattoo.

Detective Miller wonders where he lost his hat.

This series is good. Really good. So good I haven’t felt this excited about a show since the second season of Star Trek Next Generation when it began to get interesting. There are great writeups on this show. See here. Here. And here. Why do I like this show?

It’s realistic. When a single threat blows up in space it becomes a threat of a million little pieces. Physics is a harsh mistress, and that enemy ship speeding towards you that you’ve just hit with a rail gun? Well guess what? Now the remains of that ship are punching holes in yours.

It’s well written. The wife and I have seen a lot of good television over our combined 110 years. We’re also very well read. So it takes a lot to surprise us. Well, actually, let me dial that back and say it takes good writing to surprise us, and The Expanse is good writing. It’s unpredictable but not completely chaotic with threads that pass through the episodes and tie the series together in a very well-written ball.

The UN Sucks. Well I am an anti-UN conservative and the portrayal of the UN as world government of an earth where the haves live on the moon and the havenots live in the streets of the cities is poetic justice. Oh and they can’t blame the Republicans because they’ve all gone to Mars.

The Universe is incredibly detailed. The belters, the people living and extracting wealth for Earth and Mars, speak a language that is about what you would expect for a multi-ethnic group of people living together in the asteroid belt. The language has its roots in English but follows the development of creole languages and is carefully constructed. Even the gestures are a mix of Japanese, Indian and other ethnicities. Life in the belt is very Blade Runner-esque, which is a good thing given how great that movie is. Even detective Miller, one of the main characters, wears a fedora just like Gaff.

The future is limitless. The Expanse is based on a series of books by James S. A. Corey, and has only touched on the story in books 2 and 3. There is no limit to where it can go, whereas Star Trek will always be constrained by previous series and movies. A new Star Trek show brings not only the baggage of its audience’s expectations, but the limits of the stories told in its universe. Star Trek Voyager attempted to go beyond that by being teleported to the other side of the universe, but in the end it gave in to temptation and made it back to the Federation. This show has no such limits, and with a new series its audience’s baggage is a small carry-on that can be safely stowed under the seat in front of you. Which leads me to…

It’s fresh. The Earth vs Mars vs the Belt. All three groups are battling to stay alive and independent. Mars dreams of terraforming the planet and his held back by an agreement with Earth. The Belt sees Mars and Earth take and take and give little back in return. No wonder the OPA, the belter resistance movement, flourishes under these conditions.

And it even has a sense of humor. Mormons in Space. Enough said.

The Mormon Interstellar Ship Nauvoo

Oh and Mythbusters’ Adam Savage shows up in the season 2 finale in a bit role. How cool is that?

There is good science fiction around these days, and it’s about time that TV reflected it. We need more shows like The Expanse (and we also need more seasons of it too. So far we’ve only been promised season 3), not another retread of Star Trek. 50 years is enough for that show, let it live on in our collective nostalgia. Instead lets see strange new worlds and boldly go where no TV show has gone before.

Make it so, SyFy Channel. Make it so!

The Lesson of Julius Caesar For Trump Haters

The New York Public Theater’s production of “Julius Caesar” is making news, mainly for turning the play into the assassination of Donald Trump complete with the main character’s wearing of a yellow wig, having a wife who speaks with an eastern European accent, and assassins played by women and minorities. The controversy has caused some sponsors to pull backing, others to pledge their continued support. It’s worth remembering the facts of the actual assassination of Julius Caesar, facts that would likely cool the excitement the play has engendered among Trump-haters.

Like Trump Caesar was a populist who disparaged the ruling elite even though he was born into it, a member of the Julia family which claimed descent from the Trojan prince Aeneas, the son of the goddess Venus. Caesar went on to build an illustrious career as a general and was popular with his men. His political career also endeared him to the common people so that when the Senate tried to arrest him for treason, he descended upon Rome with his troops and took power and his Senate opponents led by Pompey fled. He hunted them down but pardoned his political enemies who stayed behind in Rome.

The Roman Senate was nothing like its US counterpart. Few people had the right to vote and those that had it faced a list of selected candidates by the elite. Voting in a Roman election wasn’t meaningful to the male Roman citizen who did it other than to repay the debt to his patron, usually the neighborhood politician who he owed a favor to. In fact the patronage system that operated in Democratic Machine-era cities of Chicago, New York and Philadelphia would be very familiar to ancient Romans.

Caesar cut deeply into the power of the ruling elite, so it was only a matter of time that the enemies he pardoned allied with his former friends worried about the power he was concentrating into his own hands. The conspirators evidently believed their own propaganda. They thought they were fighting to save the liberty of the republic and that the common people would view their murder of Caesar as an act against tyranny. They believed they would be celebrated as liberators of Rome and even made a coin commemorating the event.

Unfortunately their murder of Caesar backfired. The people were so distraught by his murder that at his funeral pyre they began to tear wood off buildings and grabbed furniture from nearby dwellings and threw it into the fire. Instead of being applauded for their heroic act his assassins were hunted down in the streets by angry mobs. Suetonius writes, “Immediately after the funeral the commons ran to the houses of Brutus and Cassius with firebrands, and after being repelled with difficulty, they slew Helvius Cinna when they met him, through a mistake in the name, supposing that he was Cornelius Cinna, who had the day before made a bitter indictment of Caesar and for whom they were looking; and they set his head upon a spear and paraded it about the streets.”

The elite had lost touch with the common people and simply assumed that they felt as they did, that Caesar had taken power away from them without understanding that the common people had no power, and Caesar’s edicts had benefited them more than those made by his elitist predecessors. Within three years all of Caesar’s assassins were dead and the elites that opposed him destroyed, their property confiscated.

The parallels are eerie. A man of the people born of the elite. An out-of-touch elite who doesn’t understand the popularity of their object of hatred. Their drive to destroy him at all costs. How far will these parallels go?

But let me end with this: Trump is not Julius Caesar and America is not Rome. Julius Caesar had complete power when he died, Trump can’t even get a travel ban enacted. America has a system of checks and balances that no president can destroy whereas the government of Rome laid completely at Caesar’s disposal. Portraying Trump as Caesar not only shows the ignorance of the play’s producers about Roman history, it proves their ignorance about American civics, and it makes Trump look much more powerful than he is.

Cord Cutting 2017

Back in Dec 2015 I wrote an update to my experience cord cutting, ending my subscription to DirecTV having cancelled my service in June of that year. Here’s an update.

So approaching two years of living without DirecTV or cable television. So how do I feel about that? Do I miss commercial pay television? That laughing you hear over the Internet is me. Having spent roughly $7,000 on pay TV till that point I reckon that since June 2015 I have saved roughly $60 a month, or over $1,300, and I still watch a ton of TV. I currently subscribe to Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu (although I’m about ready to ditch it), HBO Now, Acorn TV and recently added Crunchyroll for Japanese anime and drama all via a Roku 3. I probably watch an average of 3 hours of TV a day, less than most Americans, but what I do watch is much better quality, shows like Grimm, the Walking Dead, The Expanse, plus a slew of Japanese stuff that you cannot get anywhere but Crunchyroll.

Cutting the cord changed my viewing habits. I used to leave the TV on for company but replaced it with streaming music from Pandora. When I was bored I’d watch Discovery Channel but now I do other things. So when I sit down to watch TV it is to watch something good, not to avoid boredom. That wasn’t my original intent when I cut the cable, but it is a perk.

There is danger on the horizon. I’m discovering new streaming channels, so it’s only a matter of time before much of the cost savings is eaten up by new streaming offerings. For example I’m looking for more Japanese TV subtitled in English, and worst of all there is a competitor to Acorn TV for British shows that just started up, Britbox. There’s always plenty to watch even for a niche viewer like me who is hooked on Japanese dramas and British comedies.

Oh and DirecTV? I still get junk mail from them every few weeks with the same stale offer, return to paying $100+ a month for stuff I don’t watch and they’ll give me a $200 Visa gift card. Woo-hoo! Not. Ain’t happening and I really regret the holes in my roof caused by the satellite dish that remains there, gazing at the southern sky, slowly rusting away.

5/3/17 Update: Cord Cutting spikes fivefold. Welcome to the future!

The Sun God and the Vestal Virgin

The religion of Ancient Rome was unlike anything we’d recognize today. It was a set of superstitions centered around a pantheon of gods who needed to be kept happy otherwise the people would suffer. To keep them happy they demanded the sacrifices of animals and on a handful of occasions, humans. The gods manifested their will through omens, and the ancient historians would find plenty of these just before a major event in Roman history.

For example the ancient historian Livy provides a veritable laundry-list of bad omens before the battle of Cannae in 216 BC that saw the decimation of Roman forces at the hands of Carthaginian general Hannibal, leaving Rome defenseless. From Livy’s History of Rome, book 22:

To add to the general feeling of apprehension, information was received of portents having occurred simultaneously in several places. In Sicily several of the soldiers’ darts were covered with flames; in Sardinia the same thing happened to the staff in the hand of an officer who was going his rounds to inspect the sentinels on the wall; the shores had been lit up by numerous fires; a couple of shields had sweated blood; some soldiers had been struck by lightning; an eclipse of the sun had been observed; at Praeneste there had been a shower of red-hot stones; at Arpi shields had been seen in the sky and the sun had appeared to be fighting with the moon; at Capena two moons were visible in the daytime; at Caere the waters ran mingled with blood, and even the spring of Hercules had bubbled up with drops of blood on the water; at Antium the ears of corn which fell into the reapers’ basket were blood-stained; at Falerii the sky seemed to be cleft asunder as with an enormous rift and all over the opening there was a blazing light; the oracular tablets shrank and shrivelled without being touched and one had fallen out with this inscription, “MARS IS SHAKING HIS SPEAR”; and at the same time the statue of Mars on the Appian Way and the images of the Wolves sweated blood. Finally, at Capua the sight was seen of the sky on fire and the moon falling in the midst of a shower of rain. Then credence was given to comparatively trifling portents, such as that certain people’s goats were suddenly clothed with wool, a hen turned into a cock, and a cock into a hen.

But more important than all of these omens was the misbehavior of vestal virgins. It’s difficult to describe the importance of vestal virgins to the Romans to a modern audience. The Vestals were servants of the goddess Vestal, the protector home and family and ultimately of Rome itself. The vestals were viewed as the living embodiment of the state, a kind of “royal family” that consisted of women selected between the ages of 6 and 10 who served for 30 years. There is no modern equivalent, but the Romans took their vestals very, very seriously, and when they strayed, Rome was doomed.

Livy writes, “For, over and above these serious disasters, considerable alarm was created by portents which occurred. Two Vestal virgins, Opimia and Floronia, were found guilty of unchastity. One was buried alive, as is the custom, at the Colline Gate, the other committed suicide.”

1,800 years ago the Roman empire was under the domination of Septimius Severus and his descendants who ruled from 193 AD to 235 AD. Severus was of Carthaginian ancestry and his wife Julia Domna was of Syrian. Although Severus was a powerful general, the real power of the dynasty was his wife’s family, in particular his sister-in-law Julia Maesa. In 218 Maesa engineered the elevation of her 14 year old grandson, Elagabalus, to the throne.

Elagabalus usually appears near the top of the worst Roman emperors. During Severan rule the worship of Heliogabalus spread through the empire, and Elagabalus became a high priest of the cult like his grandfather, Maesa’s husband. As the teen emperor of Rome he must have seen himself in a unique position to spread the religion upon the normally religiously tolerant Roman masses. One of his first actions was to bring a sacred black stone, likely a meteorite, that symbolized Heliogabalus from Emesa Syria to Rome. When it arrived he placed it in a chariot pulled by four horses and led it walking backwards through the streets of Rome to the pantheon where he installed it above the statues of all the other Roman gods including Jupiter.


Gold coin with Elagabalus on obverse, quadriga chariot carrying the sacred stone symbolizing the sun god Heliogabalus on reverse. (British Museum)

Not content with angering the Romans with that move, he divorced his first wife and married a vestal virgin, Julia Aquilia Severa, viewing the act as a symbolic marriage between the Roman goddess Vesta and Heliogabalus. The marriage was quickly annulled and Elagabalus was forced to marry Marcus Aurelius’s great-granddaughter. But the marriage didn’t last long. Elagabalus rebelled and again married Severa.

Silver coin featuring Aquilia Severa on obverse, Concordia goddess of marital and civil peace on reverse.

It is unclear whether Elagabalus had feelings for Severa or whether he viewed the marriage as religiously important. The ancient historians weren’t objective writers so it’s difficult to determine the true nature of the relationship. Nevertheless Severa remained with the emperor until he was murdered at the age of 18 by his own guards. After that she disappears from history.

Elagabalus marrying a vestal not once but twice would be like a new British Prime Minister marrying the Queen of England. I can’t imagine what the average superstitious Roman must have thought being handed a coin featuring a portrait of Aquilia Severa. Coinage was seen as an important part of the state’s propaganda efforts. Whenever a new emperor took power one of the first things he did was issue coins with his portrait on them. After a particularly bad emperor was dethroned circulating coins with his portrait were often defaced in a process known as damnatio memoriae, literally “damnation of memory.”

Brass damnatio memoriae coin with Nero’s portrait defaced. (Romae Aeternae Numismatics)

The coins of Aquilia Severa are scarce and there is no evidence that she suffered damnatio memoriae. But one wonders how a Roman receiving one of her coins would have felt. How would a pious Roman have felt holding a piece of silver with a defiled vestal virgin on its face? Would he have felt the coin would bring the wrath of the gods on him and his family, or was he happy possessing a coin that represented a day’s wages for a Roman legionnaire?

Civilis – The Greatest General You’ve Likely Never Heard Of

Long ago in an ancient empire a subjugated people enjoys privileged status. This people had once belonged to another kingdom, but dissension caused them to successfully rebel, setting up their own on a large island in a broad and deep river. Fearing those whom they once considered they brothers, they allied with an even more powerful but distant empire exchanging the military service of their sons for protection. The greater empire so valued this exchange that it exempted the people from taxes. The subjugated people were known as the Batavians living in what would one day be known as the Netherlands. The greater empire, Rome.

The Batavian soldiers came with a fearsome reputation and the Romans deployed them widely. They sent them against the Britains after they showed incredible discipline and ferocity against the barbarian Germans. Unusually for vassal troops the Romans allowed Batavians to command their own troops, but the best Roman generals from the foundation of the Republic all the way through Caesar always valued results more than precedence, and one of these Batavian commanders shone above all others. His name was Julius Civilis and it was claimed he was of royal blood.

One of the Roman generals who commanded him saw Civilis as a threat. He had him arrested on made up charges of treason and sent to Rome in chains to Emperor Nero where he was to be strangled, burned alive or otherwise meet a gruesome end for the emperor’s entertainment. It was 69AD and Rome was a hotbed of intrigue. By the time the year was out Rome would have 4 emperors. When Civilis arrived in chains Nero had committed suicide and his successor showed no interest in this noble from a tiny vassal at the edge of the empire and had him freed.

Civilis wasn’t safe though. Supporting the right guy at the wrong time just as easily get you killed as backing the wrong guy at the right time in Rome, and the succession of emperors pretty much guaranteed that everyone was going to be on the wrong side of the guy in power at one time or another. During this time Civilis learned to truly hate Rome and began planning his rebellion. But he had to survive and did so by professing his support for Vespasian, a general who ended the chaos that year and took firm control of Rome.

But not the Empire. Civilis made his way back to his homeland and under the guise of his outward support of Vespasian convinced his people to rearm and rebel against Rome. It was an easy task. Roman commanders had taken to conscripting old men and young boys, becoming wealthy from the bribes given from their families for their release. The handsomest young men were targeted for what the historian Tacitus calls “immoral purposes.” Civilis summoned the chiefs and nobles to a sacred grove and laid the foundation of the rebellion. Tacitus writes that Civilis spoke, “We are no longer treated … like allies, but as menials and slaves… Now conscription is upon us: children are to be torn from their parents, brother from brother, never probably to be seen again. And yet the fortunes of Rome were never more depressed…  There is nothing to fear from legions that exist only on paper… We have infantry and cavalry: the Germans are our kinsmen: the Gauls share our ambition. Even the Romans will be grateful if we go to war. If we fail, we can claim credit for supporting Vespasian: if we succeed, there will be no one to call us to account.”

Civilis struck the Roman legions on the Rhine, forcing them out of Germany and capturing their ships. Using their own advanced military tactics against them, Civilis defeated two legions. Seeing one of their own leading a rebellion against their masters, Batavian members abandoned their posts and switched sides in the middle of the battle.

His success spread throughout Gaul and Germany, and both peoples proclaimed him their champion for liberty, flooding his army with recruits. Nevertheless Civilis made his growing army swear allegiance to Vespasian. He even sent envoys to the Roman legions he defeated asking them to join him and do the same. They refused, saying “they never followed the advice either of a traitor or of an enemy.” Nonetheless inspired by his success the province of Gaul revolted. Vespasian sent several cohorts of Batavians to capture Civilis, but instead they joined him. Two commanders of the Gallic auxiliaries convinced Roman forces occupying Gaul to revolt and join Civilis. Gaul, which had enjoyed independence until the late 2nd century and which was only crushed by Julius Caesar 100 years before, was on the verge of throwing off the Roman yoke and becoming free again.

But as so often happens with disparate groups who are only united by opposition to an occupying force, initial success breeds squabbling which ultimately leads to failure. Vespasian appointed Quintis Petillius Cerialis, a distant relative and like Vespasian an able general. Cerialis had helped crush the rebellion in Britain by the Iceni queen Boudica, and was experienced at handling rebelling natives. He immediately began to follow Cerialis and attacked him when victory was assured, avoiding conflict when it wasn’t. He also sent messages to the various tribes and rebel military leaders, promising them no consequences for their rebellion if they swear allegiance to Rome, offering financial incentives where they were appreciated, or attacking their forces instead. One by one the tribal chieftains and rebellious generals fell into line and swore allegiance to Rome.

With the rebellion collapsing and Civilis tired of fighting, he requested a meeting with Cerialis. They met on a broken down bridge over the river Nabalia, an ancient river in the Netherlands that no longer exists. For the Roman writers such as Tacitus rhetoric was a means of achieving drama, so it’s no surprise that the historian has Civilis confronting his nemesis with a speech. Civilis notes his hatred of Emperor Vespasian’s predecessor Vitellius stating “He began the quarrel, I fostered it. Towards Vespasian I have from the beginning shown respect.” He continues, claiming that his initial actions helped Vespasian by preventing the Roman legions in Germany from marching on Rome in the early days of his rule just as other generals in other regions of the empire maintained the peace. “I raised the standard in Germania, as did Mucianus [Vespasian’s ally] in Syria, Aponius in Moesia, Flavianus [Vespasian’s brother] in Pannonia…”

Tacitus’s histories cut off mid-sentence and at that moment Civilis disappears from history. It’s a disappointment not just for the abrupt end of Tacitus’s work. His writing style is quite modern in many respects, especially when communicated through a modern translator. But more importantly what happened to Civilis? Did Cerialis take him prisoner or did he let him go back to his homeland? Without the discovery of more Tacitus we will likely never know.

Civilis Meets Cerialis

What Amazon Prime’s Transparent Teaches About Feminism

2/11/16 Update: I lost interest in this show soon after writing this. All four main characters are predictable and what I would characterize as toxic people. In a season and a half we decided there was better TV to be had. Don’t waste your time.

I’ll be honest. The media circus surrounding Bruce Jenner’s transformation into Caitlyn Jenner made me avoid Amazon Prime’s Transparent. There’s only so much public sexuality I can stomach. Maybe it’s an age thing but I’ve found a hint to a better life is not leading it with your crotch, and the first few episodes of this show struck me as borderline voyeuristic as the main characters approached life with their genitals in the fore. But I stayed with the show because I’m a Judeophile as well as a connoisseur of great dialog, and the show is centered around a modern Jewish family whose patriarch decides he is a she at the age of 68, and the witty banter between the characters is worth suffering through the sex. And there is a lot of sex – mostly of the lesbian variety. But the show does provide some interesting lessons that are worth commenting on.

Women are just as violent as men, only the nature of their aggression is  not physical. Parents of teenage girls can confirm the brutality between girls, violence that leaves scars as painful and deep as any physical wound. Men know this as well, that women hit with their mouths instead of their fists, and the idea that a world dominated by women would be more peaceful is refuted by any junior high class.

Transparent does not avoid this brutality. For example when Maura, the father dressed as a woman known to his children as “Moppa” goes to the mall with his daughters, he tries using the women’s bathroom. Two teenage girls recognize him as being a transvestite immediately, and their mother begins attacking him for being a man in a woman’s bathroom. What follows is a verbal brawl where Maura’s daughters verbally parry and assault the mother and her girls in defense of their “Moppa.” It’s a strong, emotional scene made even more sad by Maura stopping at a porta-potty at a construction site on the way home.

In another scene the youngest daughter Aly intentionally sabotages her brother Josh’s budding relationship with a female rabbi. Aly senses the rabbi’s misgivings about the relationship, then masterfully accentuates them before striking, leaving the rabbi in tears and Josh completely bewildered.

The violence of attacking and killing relationships is a common occurrence on the show, with daughter Sarah hooking up with her lesbian flame from college and destroying not only her own marriage but her flame’s as well. Transparent ignores the aftermath of these breakups though, with the ex’s appearing in later scenes as if nothing is wrong, one of the show’s most glaring omissions. But it does capture the pain felt by Josh when his girlfriend has an abortion, a procedure that’s a more physical example of the supposedly “gentler sex’s” capacity for violence.

In a women’s world there is no place for men. All of the men in the show are either transvestites, gay, or emotionally-stunted man-boys like Maura’s son Josh.  Even daughter Sarah’s ex-husband, the father of her two children she jilts in order to run off with her lesbian flame from college, is an emasculated caricature who can’t even raise his voice when his wife announces her intentions to leave him. The character who exhibits the most masculinity in the show is a female to male transsexual love interest of Aly’s. Evidently it’s okay for women to explore their masculinity and men their femininity, but there is no place for a man to accept his inherent masculinity.

Feminism is a synonym for narcissism. One thing becomes obvious in the show very quickly: Maura and his ex-wife Shelly have raised three spoiled kids. In their minds their world revolves each one of them, and they display the emotional maturity of pre-schoolers. Maura understands this and in typical Jewish fashion blames himself for their failures. But Maura himself is not what I would call “loving” or thoughtful. There’s a scene at the funeral of his ex-wife’s husband where he commandeers the discussion about the departed and makes it about his coming out. Ironically later in the same scene his daughter confronts him for cancelling her bat mitsvah. Maura unleashes some female viciousness as he points out her own narcissism in his own defense, proving that he is very capable of employing the tactics of his chosen gender.

Creator, director and writer of the show Jill Soloway came up with the idea after her own elderly father came out as transsexual. Soloway characterizes herself as a feminist and appears in a scene as a feminist professor expounding on the violence within language, describing women being raped by exclamation points. “A patriarchal society can’t really handle that there’s such a thing as a vagina. The untrustworthy vagina that is discerning-receiving. So you can want sex, you can want to be entered, and then a minute later you can say, ‘Stop—changed my mind.’ That is something that our society refuses to allow for. You don’t feel like it now? You’re shit out of luck. You know why? Because you have a pussy! To me, that is what’s underneath all this gender trouble: most of our laws are being formed by people with penises.” she says in a recent New Yorker interview, sounding much like the professor her characters make fun of in the scene.

But the gender trouble displayed in her show doesn’t derive from people with “penises”; it’s entirely “vagina” driven. Women – those with and those without vaginas – rule in Soloway’s universe, and the results aren’t particularly pretty. Whether this proves Soloway is a better writer than she is an ideologue, or that she’s unintentionally succeeded in portraying a feminist-lead dystopia is hard to say.

I am not a misogynist – far from it. I was raised by a domineering mother with four sisters and amazingly grew up straight, marrying a strong-willed woman who later became a doctor. I do not believe women should be stuck tending hearth and home unless that’s what they want to do. If they want to become CEOs, scientists or athletes I have no problem with them. I believe people are complex and Society should step back and allow people the freedom to explore these complexities.

But I do have a problem with the ideology that feminism has become: a male-hating club that’s interested in overthrowing one system of oppression and replacing it with another. Ideologies have winners and losers, constrain people instead of freeing them – as the gradual decline of liberty (including sexual liberty) and free speech have shown on feminist dominated college campuses in the United States.

More ominously there is a thread that runs through the show that traces back to the Holocaust. In Season 1 Josh steals a ring from his mother that came from an aunt who was handed it by a doomed woman at Treblinka. Season 2 starts with “flashbacks” to a 1933 Berlin cabaret where men and women, assumed to be Jews, are exploring their own sexual identities. Is the aunt who survived somehow connected to Aly? Is Soloway suggesting that feminist narcissism eventually leads to fascism? Something to think about when ISIS is raping more women than exclamation marks.

Feminism’s flirtation with fascism is worth considering given how it functions on college campuses. Instead of empowering the individual it empowers the State. Take for example the anti-rape crusades that are forcing colleges to adjudicate sex crimes and base convictions on a low standard of evidence. Instead of teaching people how to respect themselves and others, it strips them of responsibility for their actions and hands it to an unelected bureaucracy answerable to no one. Young white males now face expulsion, financial ruin and mental anguish for being accused of the same crime Hillary Clinton’s husband was. If Paula Jones is a liar, why can’t “Mattress Girl” Emma Sulkowicz be one? Either women are capable of lying about rape or they aren’t, and if they aren’t capable of being liars they aren’t human.

Transparent is a well-written and interesting show from my perspective, but it’s clearly not meant for libertarian white guys who are comfortable with their sexuality – be they straight or gay. But anyone who comes from a dysfunctional family will appreciate the show, if only for the repartee between the main characters that may trigger a flash of familiarity.

The Detectorists – An Unearthed Gem of British Comedy

While flipping through Roku’s channels last night I stopped by AcornTV, a must subscription site for Anglophiles. I came across the show The Detectorists, a 30 minute comedy (in the theatrical sense of the term) and decided to give it a go. The show centers on the lives of two friends who share the passion of metal detecting in the English countryside. It’s a very geeky show from an American perspective, but after the first two episodes I found myself hooked, and I finished the entire series in two nights. The show is written by and stars MacKenzie Crook, a British actor who will be most recognizable to American audiences as one of the pirates in The Pirates of the Caribbean. Cook plays Andy, a ne’er-do-well who lives with his long-term girlfriend Becky, played by a stunning Rachael Stirling, hasn’t completed his degree in archaeology and spends way too much time with his friend Lance, played by Toby Jones, a British actor with roles in The Hunger Games and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Lance drives a fork lift in a produce processing plant and still pines for his ex-wife who ran off with the manager of a Pizza Hut. Together they spend as much time together as possible sweeping the British countryside with their metal detectors in a never-ending quest for the lost treasure of a buried Saxon king. The series chronicles the ups and downs of their lives as they interact with quirky and quintessentially British characters like the owner of a field who commands invisible dogs, their club members who include a terribly shy young man who collects shrapnel, and a young woman Sophie, played by Aimee-Ffion Edwards (of Luther and Peaky Blinders fame) who joins their club and turns everyone’s lives upside down for the entire 6 episodes. Throughout it all Lance and Andy struggle to maintain their heads, their friendship and their passion for the squeals and beeps of their detectors as they dig up pull tabs, lost Matchbox cars and buried barbed wire in their quest for the lost Saxon gold.

This show isn’t for everyone. I was surprised it was for me, but the characters were so interesting once you got beyond their boring superficialities. Crook’s style is simple, and the scenes were often quiet, but the writing is simply sublime. At first you laugh at the characters, then you pity them but half-way through the series you befriend them and demand to see them triumph. You want them to find that lost treasure even though you know they can’t find it because that would be the end of the show. And when they suffer you feel like you want to buy them a pint and offer them some words of hope.

The Detectorists won a 2015 BAFTA Award for best situation comedy, and has gotten rave reviews both in the UK and here in the US. I believe that TV shows and movies are alot like movies and music: they are very personal and rarely communicate to people in the same ways. But if you have an hour to waste you can do much worse than to try two episodes of this delightful show.

Cord Cutting Update

Back in August I wrote about my experience as a reluctant cord cutter. Here’s an update.

What I didn’t mention is that to avoid the high pressure sales pitch from DirecTV, I didn’t outright cancel; I suspended my service. When asked for details I said I was leaving the country (I was – but on vacation in Italy a few months later) and wouldn’t need the service. No problem. Service suspended and my  $103 bill dropped to $0.

I subscribe to the following streaming services: Hulu Plus, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Acorn Media (for UK shows), and HBO Now (for Game Of Thrones). Even adding up all these services, some of which I subscribed to for a long time before I stopped my DirecTV service, is $38 a month. Doing the math over the 6 months of this experiment I have saved $390.

Subtract from that figure about $90 in pay-per-episode charges for Walking Dead and a few other shows and I’m still up $300.

But a fairer assessment should look at the total of what I spent on TV prior to cutting the cable. For instance before cutting the cable I subscribed to all those services except for HBO Now (which only became available in September) and Hulu. So if I add the cost of Netfilx, Acorn, and Amazon Prime (considered free because I buy just about everything through Amazon) I’ve saved an additional $78. Plus the HBO Now will allow me access to the new Game of Thrones season included in the $15 monthly price (I ended up watching the entire series through Amazon Prime paying extra) and I figure the HBO Now will pretty much pay for itself starting in April.

After cutting the cable I missed a lot of the “junk TV” shows I used to watch like Fast N Loud and Gold Rush on the Discovery Channel. Discovery guards its content carefully and only allows episodes that are several years old to stream for free, charging $3 a pop for everything else. I have no problem paying $3 for a Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad or Sons of Anarchy episode. I’d sooner set 3 Washingtons on fire then hand them to Discovery to watch Misfit Garage.

Then I started watching Hulu, and amazingly enough I found plenty of junk TV there. I found Difficult People entertaining in an annoying sort of way, and am now hooked on RocketJump (although its PC self-awareness is a pain).

Since my suspension was running out in a few days, I made the call I avoided back in June. “Cancel service,” I told the automated attendant and soon found myself in Shaniqa’s headset. She asked why I wanted to cancel, and I gave her a summary. She then asked if I was aware of DirecTV’s streaming options. I thought for a second; had DirecTV begun offering something like Dish Network’s Sling TV? If so, I was interested. She gave me the spiel on DirecTV’s offering, and it’s not what I consider streaming: it’s really being able to watch DirecTV content on multiple devices in your home. It has nothing to do with Dish Network’s over-the-web service.

I politely thanked Shaniqa for explaining what DirecTV offered, but refused. She said if I had an issue with the cost, and I admitted I did. I said that it was hard to justify spending $103 a month on channels that I didn’t watch. I said that I would consider keeping the service if she could get the cost down to say, $20 a month. She put me on hold several times then came back with a $70 figure. I said thanks but no thanks; send me the box for the DVR. So she got my details, read some legalese about closing the account, and I was done. I had subscribed to DirecTV for  years and spent about $7,500 with them (about $1000 of that specifically for NFL Sunday ticket). Doing the math I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I spent so much on TV, but that’s the insidious nature of monthly bills: they add up.

So 6 months on the only regret I have is that I waited as long as I did to cut the cable. DirecTV’s picture was the best, and it’s true that with streaming one does have to put up with less than perfect, occasionally pixelated video, but is putting up with the occasional issue worth the savings? It is for me. More importantly I feel that while I feel I watch less TV, the TV I do watch is better quality. Plus we have complete control over when we watch, so no worries about DVRs. And there’s always purchasing an antenna for local stations if I felt the need.

My recommendation is that if you are thinking about cutting the cord, do what I did and suspend service for a few months just to see. If it’s too difficult, negotiate a lower rate before rejoining, but if you are like me and learned to live without spend the money on something better – like a present for your significant other or a new AR-15, or better yet, a new AR-15 for your significant other.

Confessions of a Reluctant Cord Cutter

Last quarter 566,000 Americans quit cable or satellite TV. I was one of them. For the first time since 1981 living in this country I have gone without cable TV and you know what? I haven’t noticed it. That’s because for the past year I have been subscribing to Amazon Prime, Netflix and Acorn TV, adding HuluPlus just to cover some of the more popular networks. Total bill after I cancelled my service on June 23? Excluding the Amazon Prime membership which I bought for the discounted shipping, about $21. That’s 20% of my monthly satellite bill.

But honestly I was already relying upon Netflix and Acorn TV for my TV watching for a long time before I called DirecTV and told them I was leaving the country for awhile (to avoid the hard sell and begging to stay subscribed). Instead of turning on the TV and seeing what was available as I had done since I was a kid, I bought a Roku 3 and was binge watching quality shows like Breaking Bad and Sons of Anarchy, as well as British-only fare like Time Team and Doc Martin. Now we’re hooked on Game of Thrones, but for the price of subscribing to HBO I can rent almost an entire season of the show. When HBO Now becomes available, I’ll probably swap out HuluPlus for it (or not until I’m done catching up with the UK version of The Office). The Roku makes navigation  and selecting services easy, although searches within the apps range from tolerable (Netflix) to god-awful (Acorn TV).

The bottom line? I’m watching less TV, but the TV I do watch is of high quality, much better than 99% of the shows you will find on extended cable or satellite. Plus I’m saving money overall, even when I add in the cost of additional rentals.

I grew up with the TV an ever present sound in my childhood. I can sing the Love Boat theme or rattle off quotes from various shows of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s simply because the TV was always on. Now I spend at most two hours a day watching it, and what I watch just cannot be compared with the dross you find on TruTV or E!.

But it still took me months to work up the courage to cut the cord. “What if there’s a news event?” I asked myself. And I answered that I already get my news from the internet from several different sources including the British media including Sky News. “What about Walking Dead?” Available for rental at $3/pop as soon as the show airs. Still I dragged my feet until I opened my satellite bill, saw I was paying $103 a month and couldn’t remember the last time I had watched a show on it.

So I made the phone call and haven’t looked back. And the most illustrative fact? My teenaged son didn’t notice that DirecTV was turned off for over a month.

Time To Stand Up Against the Morality Police (Once Again)

If there’s any libertarian creed it is this: I don’t know what’s best for you. This statement expresses my honest ignorance that it is impossible for me to understand your situation well enough to offer anything more than advice based on my experiences. Consequently that admission prohibits me from meddling in your affairs, and it is expected that you refrain from meddling in mine.

When I was coming of age in the 1980’s it was the Religious Right as personified in Jerry Falwell and his acolytes in the Moral Majority that claimed to know what is best for me. Today it is the Left that tells me that I should reduce my carbon footprint, lose my guns,  avoid GMO in foods, and in general control every aspect in my life the way the Moral Majority tried and failed to do in Reagan’s America. Back then I was younger and had more hair than money, and while the situation may be reversed today my feelings haven’t changed: whether the Moral Majority or the Regressive/Progressive Left, in the words of the great politically incorrect Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten “f*** off.”

These days are much like the 1980’s with the exception that the music and movies were better then. Both have an atmosphere that I best characterize as humorless. When the few talented comedians left like Amy Schumer are blamed for racist attacks like Dylann Roof’s rampage in Charleston, we’re living in a new Victorian era, and likely one that won’t be subject to endless period pieces on Masterpiece Theater. Amy Schumer’s humor is tepid compared to the greats of the 1980s like Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and pre-movie career Robin Williams. Schumer obviously tries to avoid upsetting people, sticking to a lot of sexual humor and often regressing to toilet humor as she searches for laughs. But off-color jokes are to humor what alcohol is to wine. You’re never going to have anything remarkable without it. Schumer seems to instinctively know this which is why she occasionally lets slip a joke that upsets our humorless morality police.

In the Washington Post two Leftist heirs to the mantels of Jerry Falwell and Ed Meese of 3 decades ago, Stacey Patton and David J. Leonard write, “What matters is the costs and consequences of these “jokes” to those being objectified. Invoking the “it’s just a joke” defense denies the social, historic and cultural implications of racial humor. It ignores the ways that disparaging jokes provide a safe vehicle to share stereotypes, release inhibitions and spread racism.” These self-appointed officers of the morality police then lay blame on Schumer for Roof’s actions.

Personally I blame his mother for naming him Dylann. It’s spelled like the name a transsexual would take mid-change. Or perhaps I’ll just blame Dylann himself.

Whereas I don’t know what’s best for Ms. Patton and Mr. Leonard, they clearly claim to know what’s best for us. Just as the Moral Majority sought to control what we watched (no porn) and listened to (no naughty lyrics), the Left seeks to control what we say in the magical belief that if we would all stop saying racist things we would stop being racist, as if that’s all we need to do. Schumer’s success at speaking freely offends them, so they attack her. After all, she’s a relatively easy target. Although a woman she is white, straight and better yet, Jewish. I suppose the next step will be to have her justify her sins in some public forum, the way Dee Snider of Twisted Sister was forced to defend rock music in front of Congress in 1985.

But before then we need to begin to stand up for ourselves, and eventually go all-Ferguson on these self-appointed morality cops. But for now the very least I’ll do is spin up the best album of the Punk era, “Never Mind the Bollocks” and tell Stacey Patton and David J. Leonard to just “f*** off.”

Update: At least we can assume the Ed Meese watched the porn he wanted to ban and Tipper Gore listened to the music she wanted taken off the radio. Debra Kessler writing for Interrobang interviewed Ms. Patton, and Patton admitted she has never watched one of Amy Schumer’s shows or seen one of her stand-up routine (worrisome in itself given how popular Schumer has become).  Kessler notes, “Despite seeing the quotes out of context, and without the benefit of knowing anything about Amy’s comedy, she was comfortable making judgements about whether Schumer’s comedy was or wasn’t racist.  She also was comfortable deciding whether Schumer’s audience was or wasn’t racially diverse (she characterizes Amy’s following as predominately white), and she was comfortable to conclude that Schumer’s comedy breeds racism in others.” Schumer even apologized and said she would try harder to be more sensitive.

But there is no pleasing these people when it comes to humor since they are humorless ideologues whose minds have been filled with the very hate they claim to despise. No, Amy Schumer should have simply said, “F*** off.”

UCSD Forces Students To Get Naked With Creepy Prof

I am an alumnus of the University of California at San Diego not that it matters much these days. The University used to call me and send me emails until I wrote a rather scathing letter stating I would not donate a dime to an institution that tacitly supported the BDS movement. Since then? Absolute sweet silence. But being an alum I nevertheless pay attention to news stories about my alma mater. Most of the time UCSD makes the news about computers or medicine but every once in a while there’s a story like this:

Naked Final Exam at UCSD Sparks Mom’s Outrage

In this Visual Arts class all students and the professor must get naked in a candlelit room in order to pass the final exam by performing “a gesture that traces, outlines or speaks about your ‘erotic self(s).”

Uh-huh. So a bunch of teens and twenty-somethings have to get naked with a middle aged male professor in a candle lit room in order to pass a class.

I used to hang out with visual arts majors. In fact I minored in photography so I ended up taking a lot of VA classes. One of them involved crawling on my hands and knees through a paper tunnel covered with images while being blasted with news headlines from hidden speakers. Not exactly Piss Christ but UCSD has always been the ignored sibling compared to UCLA and Berkeley, making it the UC version of Downton Abbey’s Edith in a way. So I’m sure Professor Ricardo Dominguez and UCSD as a whole is basking in the media attention.

But I find it ironic that in order to pass a class one has to get naked with the professor. Against one’s will.

Isn’t that sexual coercion? Even perhaps rape?

Look, VA majors can waste their and their parents money if they want by taking useless classes just as I did. But I’d like to see how many of Dominguez’s students would choose to get naked with the prof if given the choice.

If you watch the embedded video in the Breitbart link (you don’t have choice, it’s set to autoplay in the browser) you’ll hear the mother of the student break down into tears over the issue. A few thoughts on that.

First, while creepy the experience is not going to scar her little flower for life the way she states in the ABC interview. If it does, then I have some news for her: her daughter is in for much, much worse in Life. Good luck trying to protect her from that.

Second, I think the mother would get much more traction by attacking the prof along Title IX lines rather than making it a moral issue. The Left doesn’t have a moral compass anymore thanks to its corruption by Relativism, but the fact that a woman must submit to being naked in front of an older man stinks of patriarchal privilege. Attack the professor with feminism. It will be harder since he is a minority which is why he’s probably gotten away with it so far (if he was a white guy I’m sure this tactic would have already been taken much earlier.)

After all by forcing students to get naked isn’t Dominguez a type of rapist?

Would my perception would change if the professor was a woman? Perhaps it’s because I’ve been influenced by feminist culture or maybe it’s opposite but I think there would be a big difference. The power issue would still be there – getting naked in front of a superior in order to do their bidding – but it wouldn’t creep me out as much. Maybe it’s because I’m a middle aged man and see the reality of men and women differently.

Men and women are different. Men have been cursed with the sex drive necessary to maintain the species, and that drive often leads us to madness. Are there women sexual predators? Of course. The news is full of female teachers sexually assaulting their male – and female – students but the vast majority of sexual deviants remain male. And that results in a high creepiness factor for me in this story.

Would it matter if Dominguez is a gay man? Nope. The predatorial aspect would remain. If he were a lesbian? Yes but honestly I’d have to think for a while why.

We need to really pull back from the sexual aspect of the story and ask ourselves, “Is it really appropriate to force someone to undress in public?” I remember being terrified to undress in the boy’s locker-room in high school and I believe the bottom line is that our sexuality is sacred and it should never be toyed with by another human being for the sake of anything let alone “art”, especially by an aging third-rate Leftist hack like Dominguez.

In the meantime UCSD kids: Just say “No” to getting naked with a creepy middle aged dude. If it’s too late to withdraw and take a “w” then don’t worry about the GPA hit. No one takes VA grades seriously anyway.

Exceptional Americans by Don Surber

Commentator and fellow Watcher’s Council member Don Surber has released his new book, “Exceptional Americans.” The book tells the stories of 50 Americans who aren’t very well known but left their marks on our nation. Definitely inspirational and worthy of adding to your Summer reading list.

Fifty Shades of Pathetic

My teenage son is being forced by his girlfriend to see Fifty Shades of Grey. I suppose this is payback for him taking her to see American Sniper, a movie that’s much more his speed. Although he’s old enough to see Fifty Shades, I’d rather he didn’t because I have serious issues with the relationship portrayed in the movie, and I know that kids his age are still quite impressionable. When I was his age The Story of O was making the rounds of the art houses and I remember seeing it and finding deep revelations within the movie. I saw it multiple times and it did influence my thinking about relationships.

Unlike The Story of O, I haven’ t read the book Fifty Shades of Grey nor will I see the movie. I am past the age where sex touches upon every waking thought and with age, I hope, comes wisdom. Here is what I am telling my son about Fifty Shades of Grey.

Submission Is Not Empowering; It Is Abuse. One of the aspects of movies like O and Fifty Shades is that I find particularly troubling is the idea that being submissive to someone is somehow good for you. In the fantasies portrayed in these movies the protagonists become submissive to their partners and are toyed with and dominated. Through this state of submissiveness they end up learning  about themselves, becoming better, stronger people in the process.

Half a century of life has taught me this is bullshit. The submission portrayed in these movies would in real life be viewed as a form of psychological and sexual abuse that would result in war crimes if it were practiced on prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. Everyone I know has suffered in relationships where they have been dominated by a partner at one time in their life, one who cut them off from family and friends, who controlled what they did, what they wore and even what they ate. This goes way beyond kinky sex, and although I’m not personally familiar with the BDSM community I do know people who are, and my understanding is such domination only occurs within the context of  the “dungeon” where it is limited and contained.  Samantha Field who happens to be a part of the BDSM community and sees the movie as abusive writes, “Fifty Shades of Grey does to its audience what Christian does to Ana and what my rapist did to me: it completely resets our expectations and what we believe to be acceptable… The danger in Fifty Shades of Grey is that it does what an abuser does: it makes us think that abuse is normal.”

At a time when young men are being viewed as potential rapists, the last thing I need my son to think is that his girlfriend really wants to be abused, or worse, think it’s normal for her to do the same to him. There are so many mixed messages in our culture, so many competing definitions of what it means to be a man or woman, that a story like Fifty Shades should be seen for what it is: a vehicle to make money by the author and movie studios, and one that will inevitably hurt people.

People are Fragile. It will take the people who suffer in these unhealthy relationships years, and sometimes even decades to recover. It’s almost like the people hurt by the their own personal Christian Greys are poisoned by them, and this poison takes a very long time to dissipate. Before they recover anyone they touch will have to deal with the poison left by the Christian Greys in one way or another. The loved one who come after will be forced to deal with the alcoholism and drug abuse that comes with the destroyed self-esteem. They will spend years, decades even (for the more persistent) rebuilding what their loved one’s Christian Grey did without care or thought long before. At the very least those with a basic level self-preservation will run – not walk – away from the victims of the likes of the Greys, fueling their own guilt.

A Real Man Empowers and has no need to dominate another in order to feel alive. Consider how pathetic it is for a billionaire like Christian Grey to feel compelled to dominate a young nobody like Anastasia Steele (Good grief I can’t believe I’m wasting words on characters named like those in a self-published romance novel.) What, doesn’t he have any flies to pull the wings off of or puppies to kick? In real life a man like Grey would easily become Carl Icahn’s bitch, and would inspire an entire generation of character assassins and short sellers the way Enron’s Ken Lay did.

A real man builds up his partner. Destroying is easy, construction is hard, but just as fleeting as an orgasm is, the love that is built through daily nurturing can endure a lifetime. Imagine if Grey was a real man who helped Steele become a fully actualized human being, helping her define and chase her own dreams. The book would have been completely different and likely wouldn’t have been a best seller.

Real Men are the ones who encourage their spouses to go back to school or to start their own businesses. Real Men are the ones who flood the mail with books from Amazon on the works of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Galen Rowell when their loved ones express an interest in landscape photography. They are the ones who make sure there is endless half and half in the fridge so their loved one’s never miss having their morning coffee the way they like it.

A Real Man encourages without needing his own encouragement because he finds fulfillment in his creation, whether that is his career or his family (hopefully the latter). A Real Man’s character is evident through the success of his creation. Is his partner better off than before in all ways? Are his children well-rounded individuals who can grow outside their father’s shadow? Can his business survive without him at the helm? The answers to these questions are what separate Real Men from poorly written contrivances like Christian Grey.

Don’t Learn How to Live Your Life from Movies.  Movies are created for one reason only: to make money. We watch them for one reason only: to be entertained. Movies can inspire just as good music and good books can, but most movies, music and books are created to pay bills and consumed to keep boredom at bay. As science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once noted “ninety percent of everything is crap.” This is just as true for movies, so it’s likely that his saying will apply to Fifty Shades.

If you want to learn how to live your life, look around you. I learned faithfulness from my parents and from seeing the lives of my friends ripped apart by divorce. There have been times where I thought long and hard about the suffering I witnessed, and from the care expressed by my mother for my father, but in the end I made the right choice. There are all kinds of role models; Hollywood or whatever it produces should not be one of them.

Romance Novels Suck. Men watch porn, women read it. Back in the day I tried to read erotica like Anais Nin and of course Ann Rice, but it didn’t work for me. Writing about sex is like trying to photograph music. I just don’t think writing and sex go together. Maybe it’s because I write for a living, I don’t know.

I’m sure the author could have written a better book by reversing the roles. Why make Grey the dominant? Isn’t the power he wields being a billionaire enough? How much more interesting the story would have been had the relatively poor Steele been the Dominant, the one holding a billionaire’s heart in her cold steel hands (Get it? Ana Steele, steel hands? This is why I write systems requirements) . What would she do with that power? Perhaps she would only come to realize the power she held in a sequel, and then there would be the books exploring her own morality. See? The mommys get their porn, the studios and author get rich, and Fifty Shades has a better chance of beating Sturgeon’s Law. Everybody wins!

It’s a Fantasy. Just because a person might fantasize about being dominated by a man like Christian Grey doesn’t mean they want to be dominated. It’s a fantasy; it’s not real. Truth be told people often do not want fantasies to come true. It’s one thing for their imaginations to run rampant, it’s another thing to have an emotional vampire like Grey appear in their lives.

Oh well. Telling an 18 year old boy about porn is like explaining water to a duck. I’m sure he’ll figure it out on his own…

 

On the Writings of Julius Caesar

A few days ago marked the 2000th anniversary of the death of Augustus Caesar. The event passed quietly as far as I can tell which is a shame in my opinion. Augustus as well as his adopted father Julius Caesar shaped the foundation of our society in a way that even they would not have imagined. He should at least be remembered if not celebrated.

Most of us get history shoved down our throats. I remember being forced to read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar freshman year of high school when I was more interested in smoking pot and listening to Blondie than understanding Elizabethan English, even that of the Great Bard. Of course Shakespeare’s take on Caesar was about as factual as Tina Fey’s of Sarah Palin so I suppose I didn’t miss much. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve developed an interest in and a deep appreciation of ancient works. For this I credit “Black Swan” author and philosopher Naseem Nicholas Taleb, and the crazy frat boy turned project manager who turned me on to him. Taleb is one of the few writers I’d like to meet, and he has written extensively about the stoics and other ancient philosophers. I started reading Seneca because of him, and it hasn’t been easy. I’ve learned that I am weak when it comes to translated works. I need the rhythm and comfort of modern speech to appreciate these ancient writings, and while I’ve struggled with Seneca’s translation, The Complete Works of Julius Caesar as translated by W.A McDevitte and W.S. Bohn has been a good investment of $1.50.

Caesar writes in the 3rd person as if some disembodied narrator which I find somewhat annoying, but once you get past that his story comes alive. You are in the mind of one of history’s greatest generals at a crucial point in our civilization’s history.

One thing becomes quickly clear: Caesar is always at the disadvantage in battle. In Gaul his forces are always out-manned by the tribes arrayed against him, but Caesar understands victory does not rely on numbers alone, and his tactical genius combined with a veteran, well-disciplined force overcomes the numerical advantage of his enemies. But it isn’t easy. Here is a sample of Caesar in battle.

Caesar had everything to do at one time: the standard to be displayed, which was the sign when it was necessary to run to arms; the signal to be given by the trumpet; the soldiers to be called off from the works; those who had proceeded some distance for the purpose of seeking materials for the rampart, to be summoned; the order of battle to be formed; the soldiers to be encouraged; the watchword to be given. A great part of these arrangements was prevented by the shortness of time and the sudden approach and charge of the enemy. (Gallic Wars, Book 2, Chapter 20)

What comes through his narration is the unpredictability of war. One would also expect Caesar to embellish his successes while airbrushing away his failures, yet Caesar’s retelling of events comes through as exceedingly honest. For example, Caesar didn’t win all his battles. In fact at the battle of Dyrrachium he almost lost everything against another one of History’s great generals, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus or Pompey the Great.

Pompey had taken up a position upon some hills with his back to the sea. Unable to assault Pompey directly Caesar set about building fortifications around Pompey’s position with the idea of boxing him and eventually strangling his army. Pompey’s navy controlled the sea so his army could resupply whereas Caesar’s could not, but thousands of horses need a lot of forage Caesar became expert at picking off cavalry in search of food for their horses. A stalemate descended on the battlefield, and it wasn’t until two Gauls defected from Caesar’s camp to Pompey that the stalemate was broken. They informed Pompey about where Caesar’s forces were weakest, and Pompey focused his attack on that point. Caesar’s army turned and fled, and he struggled to figure out what happened, stopping panicked soldiers himself for details of the rout. Learning the circumstances Caesar believed that he had lost the war. Then his luck changed. Caesar writes,

In this calamity, the following favorable circumstances occurred to prevent the ruin of our whole army, that Pompey suspecting an ambush (because, as I suppose, the success had far exceeded his hopes, as he had seen his men a moment before fleeing from the camp), didn’t approach the fortification, and that his horse were retarded from pursuing… By retarding the rapidity of the enemy’s pursuit, preserved our army. (The Civil Wars, Book 3, Chapter 72)

Caesar had developed a reputation for daring as a general, but this can only have been abetted by his experienced army. Nowhere was this more apparent then at the Battle of Pharsalus, the climactic battle of the Roman Civil War. Before the battle Pompey had managed to starve Caesar’s army of supplies. Pompey employed this strategy of attrition, waiting for Caesar’s forces to fall apart under the stress of skirmishes and lack of supplies. Caesar in turn sought to provoke Pompey into battle, appreciating for himself the wisdom of Pompey’s strategy but Pompey resisted being drawn into battle. At this point Pompey had the high ground on a hill and had double the number of troops – 45,000 vs Caesar’s 22,000.

The pressure on Pompey to finish off Caesar’s forces was strong. His advisers and lieutenants pushed the old general to destroy Caesar and his army, and they claimed the victory at Dyrrachium proved that Caesar was fatally weakened. Excited at the prospect of ridding themselves of Caesar and returning to Rome as heroes, Caesar quotes one of Pompey’s generals as denigrating Caesar’s forces. “(This is not) the army which conquered Gaul and Germany… a very small part of that army now remains… the flower of the forces perished in the two engagements at Dyrrachium.” Finally Pompey relented, announcing “I have persuaded our cavalry, and they have engaged to execute it… to attack Caesar’s right wing on the flank, and inclosing their army on the rear, throw them into disorder, and put them to the rout, before we shall throw a weapon against the enemy.” (The Civil Wars, Book 3, Chapter 87).

Throughout his works Caesar portrays himself as favoring a peaceful resolution to a crisis over war, and when war was necessary, enforcing a just peace on the defeated. The lives of captured soldiers were spared; towns that surrendered to his army did not have their citizens put to the sword. These were uncommon practices by his enemies according to his Caesar, and his concern with his enemy and the Republic showed before battle. Facing double the number of men in his army, a force well supplied and enjoying better ground and lead by a general Caesar himself respected, Caesar exhorted his forces as Pompey  began arranging his men for battle. “He took care to remind them that he could call his soldiers to witness the earnestness with which he had sought peace… he had been always reluctant to shed the blood of his soldiers, and did not wish to deprive the republic of one or other of her armies.” (The Civil Wars, Book 3, Chapter 90).

The pivotal battle turned out to be somewhat anti-climatic from a modern point of view, but here again Caesar’s experienced troops were the deciding factor. Charging towards Pompey’s forces required Caesar’s soldiers to cross a vast no-mans-land between the two armies. Pompey under the advice of his adviser Caius Triarius held back his men, waiting for Caesar’s troops to tire and then be easily beaten. But his experienced troops understood what Pompey was doing and changed tactics in the middle of their run. Caesar writes, “(Caesar’s men) perceiving that Pompey’s men did not run to meet their charge, having acquired experience by custom, and being practices in former battles, they of their own accord repressed their speed, and halted almost midway; that they might not come up with the enemy when their strength was exhausted.” (The Civil Wars, Book 3, Chapter 93). Caesar notes that Pompey’s men did not fail in the battle, “for they received our javelins, stood our charge, and maintained their ranks,” but within minutes the tide of the battle changed. Caesar had made up his thin ranks not in the customary three rows but four. This crucial fourth row of men were able to withstand the cavalry charge Pompey had planned; had that fourth row not been there the cavalry would have broken through Caesar’s line and been able to attack his forces from behind. But the fourth line held and pushed back the cavalry, sending it routing. Once that happened the battle was for all intents and purposes over. Pompey left the battlefield and returned to camp, eventually disguising himself and fleeing.

Throughout the books Caesar drops names of those who helped him which reminds me of the way American presidents pepper their speeches with the names of average Americans. I find it fascinating that over 2000 years later these men, or at least their names, are not forgotten thanks to Caesar’s pen. Caesar writes, “There was in Caesar’s army, a volunteer of the name of Crastinus, who the year before had been first centurion of the tenth legion, a man of pre-eminent bravery. .. He looked back at Caesar and said “General, I will act in such a matter today that you will feel grateful to me living or dead.”” Earlier in the Gallic Wars he notes “two very brave men, centurions, who were now approaching the first ranks, T. Pullo and L. Varenus. These used to have continual disputes between them which of them should be preferred, and every year used to to contend for promotion with the utmost animosity.” These two men became the main characters of the HBO series Rome. Caesar sprinkles these names and vignettes throughout this works, betraying what I consider to be a literary sensibility by the writer. Caesar was educated in the Greek classics so he probably understood the importance of supporting characters to help tell a story, and since the Romans themselves were just as interested in their own history as we are in theirs, he no doubt knew that his story would be much more interesting if it wasn’t filled with self-aggrandizing commentary. It’s a lesson our current leader should learn if he was open-minded enough to appreciate the thoughts of a “dead white male.”

I know I’m not the first to realize this, but the epiphany that a long-dead man like Julius Caesar could come alive in my imagination through his writings has been profound and humbling. The Renaissance thinkers believed that the Greeks and Romans had discovered all there was to know about the human condition, and that it was up to them to rediscover that knowledge and refine it. Like them I am simply amazed at how little has changed between Caesar’s era and our own when it comes to the human condition. Caesar is betrayed and lied to just as the EU is today by Vladimir Putin. He experiences fake friends just as the US does in the guise of the Saudis. His men act with honor and cowardice just as our soldiers do today. We may shoot missiles instead of launching javelins but I would bet that if you took one of Caesar’s legionaries and put him in a foxhole in Afghanistan he would get along just fine with American soldiers.

It is readily apparent to me why Caesar has not been forgotten over the millennia. He speaks to us across Time to remind us of that we face the same struggles he did, possessing the same soul-destroying fears as well as our own capacity for courage and greatness. Through his writings he transcends death and serves as an important guide for us as we stumble towards our own future.

 

Why I Collect Ancient Roman Coins

In the picture above I’m holding within my hand a silver denarius minted in Ancient Rome during the reign of Marcus Aurelius between 161 and 180 AD. Emperor Marcus Aurelius was considered one of the better Roman emperors, the last of a string of decent leaders known as the “adoptive emperors” beginning with Nerva and ending with Aurelius’s choice of his biological son Commodus to succeed him. At that point it was all down hill for the empire.

I have begun a modest collection of ancient Roman coins, focusing on pre-Diocletian post-Republic silver coins known as denarii. As seen in the picture above they are quite small, roughly the size of a dime, and usually weigh around 3 grams. As with any hobby the key one can spend too much money. This site specializes in the high end where one can spend thousands on a single coin. Some of these are works of art (for truly beautiful ancient coins check out these Greeks). I stick to a $50 per coin limit.

There’s something sublime about holding a coin that was minted by hands long dead. I find the honest wear of these coins more appealing than the sterile beauty of their high end cousins. This wear is the result of being touched and carried by countless people, and each coin sets one’s imagination alight. Was this a day’s wage for a Roman on a Parthian campaign? Or was it an offering to the numerous gods the Romans worshiped? Then there are the hands of those who kept it over the millennia, first as a store of wealth after the collapse of the empire, then as a curiosity and finally, a reminder of a time long before. I sometimes reflect on Life and see the threads of generations that tie us to our distant past. The strands are clear for the most recent generations, but it doesn’t take long for them to trail into darkness after only a handful of generations. Yet what amazes me is although the strands are in the darkness and we don’t know to whom they tie us, we still feel their pull on us in our daily lives.

The foundation of the calendar that manages our time lay in the reforms made by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. The names and duration of all the months are courtesy of Caesar (except Quintilis and Sextilis which were named July and August after Caesar and his successor Augustus). Our political system, our philosophy, even the languages we speak are all tied to the Romans and their idolized yet disrespected  forebears, the ancient Greeks. Everything we do is shaped by the threads which stretch into the darkness and lead back to Rome and the hands that touched that coin, yet these threads remain invisible to us.

But the coins aren’t just about the past, and the threads don’t end with us. They pass through us and it has nothing to do with whether you have children or not.

We are participants in History and we shape its future in ways that are impossible for us to imagine. Dramatic gestures like voting mean much less than the low-level interactions we have with one another. One of the most important decisions I made in my life, to appeal my rejection from college,  was suggested by a co-worker at a video store I worked at. I forget her name, but her words led me to challenge the decision successfully which in turn placed me at a location where I met my Wife. I didn’t know that moment was so important, and neither did she, but her kindness and my humility to accept her advice came at a critical moment. The importance of that interactionhas tempered my interactions with others and made me more positive and helpful with those I meet because I never know if and when I will have a similar impact on them the way that bouncy little college girl at the video store in 1988 had on me.

Just as the hands shaped the Marcus Aurelius denarius, our hands will shape the world of those far into the future who will touch the things we touch, and feel the same tug of threads in the darkness that we feel. We of course will be long dead but our influence will live on just as the Romans does today. Let us hope they will think of kindly and not judge us too harshly, or worst of all, forget us.