Wednesday, 23 December 2015

You're going to help us, Mr Anderson, whether you want to or not

This article should probably start in the same way as the Wikipedia page, whose first sentence I reproduce here in all its glory:

Cornealious Michael "Mike" Anderson III (born c. 1977) is an American convict whose case became nationally known when it was discovered (when he was due to be released) that, due to a clerical error, he was never imprisoned.
This was a big story in 2013 and 2014, although I never heard it at the time. But despite being self-evidently remarkable, I am of course less interested in the story itself and more in its chronicling by Wikipedia.

The gist is this: our man Cornealious, apparently the third of his great name, robbed a Burger King at gunpoint in August 1999, and in March 2000, he was sentenced to 13 years behind bars. He was released on bail during an appeal, but when this was rejected, the erstwhile Missouri Department of Corrections made no effort to return him to its custody, evidently burdened by the belief that he was already in it. Cornealious proceeded to live out a relatively happy and peaceable 13 years, which included getting married and founding his own company. In another standout sentence, Wikipedia states: "He registered his business, he voted, he renewed his driver's licence all using his full name and address."

No one noticed until 2013, when, as I like to imagine it, a bored guard turned up at an empty cell, looking at his clipboard and muttering if anyone had seen Anderson.

Wikipedia compares the case to that of Rene Lima-Marin, also convicted of armed robbery in 2000, this time in Colorado. Rene was sentenced to 98 years behind bars (justice!) but was erroneously released after a mere 8, without anyone - even Rene - realising that this was 9 decades early. "He became active in his church, married his former girlfriend, helped raise her son, and had another son with her." In a lovely, if suspicious, turn out for the books, Rene and Cornealious were represented by the same lawyer.

Now, the article spends more than 2,300 words describing these two cases, along with some of the "controversy" that they provoked in the media - this alone surely represents overzealous attention to detail for what is essentially a minor, if novel and attention-grabbing, moment in US legal history. But what I feel is really outstanding is the further 800 words dedicated to a section titled, drily, "Analysis".

The Analysis reads like an undergraduate law school assignment, comparing and contrasting several legal authorities (fully referenced, with citations for each publication) and their takes on what the whole kerfuffle says about the US justice system. Of particular note is the fact that Cornealious became - in the time he spent not in prison - by all accounts a fully reformed and upstanding member of society. As the judge finally put it in 2014: "Go home to your family, Mr. Anderson, and continue to be a good father, a good husband, a good taxpayer... Good luck to you."

This is to be contrasted - as the wiki-academics do at length - with the penal system as a whole, which has a famously poor record when it comes to reforming inmates. Consider the pros and cons weighed in this short, but thoughtful, passage:
Two thirds of people released from prison reoffend and often by committing a more serious crime. Instead of rehabilitating, prisons train people to be more violent.[29] According to Zeman, the failure to rehabilitate is a threat to society, but that it is a hard sell to convince those who focus on incarceration as punishment that incarceration should focus on rehabilitation.[29] According to Gilligan, allowing prisoners access to education and obtaining a college degree is the only program that has ever been shown effective in reducing recidivism.[29] However, such education programs are either viewed as too lenient or they are ineffectual in most prisons in the United States.[29]
Now, you or I might wonder what the minutiae of different expert opinions on modern recidivism has to do with a brief media sensation in 2013, but Wikipedia appears undaunted as it ploughs on for several lengthy paragraphs. This is why I love this website. The piece goes on to thoroughly explore the ideas of a man named Jayadev, who eventually makes Cornealious more or less a poster child for penal reform, citing the ludicrous costs of incarceration, the likelihood of re-offence and the problem of mandatory sentencing.

So if you ever thought Wikipedia was a simple one-stop shop for basic facts about stuff, remember Cornealious III. 

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

If you ain't scared, you ain't alive

OK, bear with. I'm going to attempt a short review of the new Pixar film, the Good Dinosaur, onto which I will then try to shoehorn such topics as: Batman, Dylan Thomas, Ernest Hemingway, Woody Allen, Arya Stark and the quest for immortality. But mainly it's about death. Spoilers follow.

I liked the film. It's a fairly simple Western for kids with a few good gags, even if it leans little heavily on the sentimentality. But the story is great. Pixar didn't do a film last year - a traumatic absence - but they made up for it this year with two films that approach storytelling in what to me feels like an exciting new way. Like Inside Out, the Good Dinosaur sees our hero plunged against his will into a fantastical landscape through which he must make his way home, learning much about himself and growing as a character as a result of his experiences along the way.

This is the hero's journey structure, used in virtually every great Disney film since Chris Vogler famously introduced it to the studio in 1985. In its particular incarnation in children's animations, the hero's journey has developed certain moral overtones (not that these are unique to Disney of course), which can be simplified as: the character has a Defect, and over the course of the Journey, it is Rectified.

Simba is childish and burdened with guilt; at the end of the film he is wise and has Remembered who he Is. Pocahontas doesn't know which path to take; she finds it as a peace-maker. Mulan can't seem to be a proper woman; she learns that proper womanhood lies in saving the Empire, sorry, I mean bravery and doing the Right Thing. Aladdin hates his scavenging street-rat status; eventually he uses honesty to earn the love of a Princess. Quasimodo is jealous of the freedom of others; by the end he is, almost manically, pushing the love of his life into the arms of another.

In Inside Out, Joy's problem is that Riley is sad, and in the Good Dinosaur, Arlo is afraid. But here's where things are slightly novel: the solution isn't to extinguish sadness or fear, but to find these "negative" emotions' utility. Joy realises that Riley needs to be able to feel sadness to grow as a person, and Arlo realises, in the words of the daddy Rex, "If you ain't scared, you ain't alive". Inside Out definitely makes this point more clearly, because Arlo has to overcome his fear at key moments, but the idea is still there and it's a good one to explore.

It's difficult for most of us in life to attempt a proper hero's journey where we completely change ourselves and purge our defects - for most people, it's more realistic to come to terms with them, and often, they're important to hold on to, because they help us in ways we might forget about. It's a profound, difficult and exciting idea, and it speaks to Pixar's immense creative talent that they are willing to pioneer it.

The point about fear is actually something that I've thought quite a lot about in the past. It was best brought home to me in one particular line from the Good Dinosaur, crowbarred though it may have been. The crazed, murderous pterodactyl Thunderclap attacks his foes by proclaiming the source of his power: "I have seen the eye of the Storm and I forgot what fear is!"

Now, Thunderclap is an insane cargo cult leader in a movie for infants, but I think his character really gets to the nub of what's so damaging about fanatical belief in anything. Cults and religions (wherever you draw the line between the two) are pretty much targeted precisely at people's fear. They offer the ability to remove your fear (of death, of being alone, of whatever) and replace it with an unthinking - but shared, communal - dogma. Dogma is something which you can trust and defend, whatever happens. You never need to worry again. But it's when you lose the ability to fear that you gain the ability to become a fanatic. In other words, fear is necessary for our sanity, not something to be driven out or overcome.

This brings me onto my next point (although, let's be honest, when is it ever not my next point?) - my crippling fear of death. As often as possible, I like to rewatch my favourite scene from Midnight in Paris:

I don't want to dive into the thorny topic of Hemingway's sanity, but in my view you've got to be completely barmy not to fear death. By comparison to his passionate denial of fear, the archetypal New Yorker neuroticism looks positively well adjusted, but it is the former that is held up as virtuous and manly. Whenever a thing's primary recommendation is that mainstream masculinity approves of it, you know there's a strong chance it's nonsense.

Being as obsessed with the fear of death as Mr Allen, it's something that I've written about before in the context of Chris Nolan's final Batman movie, the Dark Knight Rises. In that film, Batman is completely willing to lay down his life to protect his city, but what is really required of him is something much more challenging: to find the will not to die, but to live. To regain a fear of death. Like the Good Dinosaur, what the Dark Knight Rises shows so well is that fear can be a strength; it's something that can make life so much more worth living.

That's why I find it so difficult to understand the (very common) position that immortality should be avoided. Medical science has hinted at the possibility that, at some point in the next century, perhaps, ageing can be slowed and stopped. Yet some of my earliest memories involve being taught, earnestly, that death is not something to fear, that you can only achieve peace and happiness in life if you come to terms with the inevitability of its end. Many "wise" and "zen" philosophies (and of course religions) are built on this principle. But for the person who is happy to die, what kind of value can be placed on living?!

That's why I'd like to end this exceptionally strange monologue with a call to arms in support of research towards longevity and, hopefully immortality. Like my other hero, Game of Thrones' Arya, the correct response to death ought to be "not today!" We have the radical potential - just maybe - to be the first generation to truly embrace fear, embrace life, and to finally rage with some effectiveness against the dying of the light. And that should be a cause for hope.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Every obnoxious item that can be imagined

For some reason, although I like to think I have a wide range of interests, most of the articles on Wikipedia that really get me are historical. Maybe history is particularly suited to in-depth but not over-complex summaries in encyclopaedic style, relative to other subjects. I remember loving my history teacher at primary school because he literally just treated every class as a storytelling session. It was amazing.

The best bits of historical stories - like all stories - are the bits that you can relate to. When you manage to understand at some deep level that the people who went through the things being described weren't a special breed of cultural alien but basically normal humans like you and me. My very favourite example of this is the utterly brilliant and remarkably moving Michael Wood documentary bluntly titled the Story of England. All of history told through the archaeological and other records of a single town in Leicestershire.

The above is a preamble to today's Wikipedia article: Smithfield, London. I don't know about you, but I hardly ever go to Smithfield. It's a bit too close to the City to be something I'm ever likely to stumble across. And I have all my (non-existent) meat requirements met by Tesco Express. So in the spirit of inquiry, I ventured down there after reading the Wikipedia article and had a look. It was weird but strangely thrilling to find myself a tourist in my own city. I felt suddenly furtive, like I was trespassing and someone was sure to unmask me.

The first thing it says in the Smithfield article is that the name is derived from "Smooth Field". Given that this naming ostensibly occurred over a thousand years ago, many centuries before modern English existed, I find such a derivation somewhat suspect, and there is a pleasing lack of citations. The article itself even uses an image from the 16th century where the site is clearly marked "Schmyt Fyeld".

In any event, it is clear that fields were involved and that London was once incredibly - hilariously - tiny. I take an immense amount of pleasure in the mindblowing-ness of this idea: that a locality which today might as well mark the epicentre of one of the planet's largest and densest urban sprawls was once a grassy field populated by a few intermittent cows.

Basically, in the old days, Britain's capital was about the size of a shopping mall, surrounded on all sides by featureless pastures.

Because Smithfield happened to be the pasture that was closest to the city walls, that's where everyone brought their animals when it was time for them to be eaten. In Wikipedia's blasé phrasing: "Smithfield established itself as London's livestock market, remaining so for almost 1,000 years." Yeah. That's the next mindblowing thing about Smithfield. This place has been a slaughterhouse for a full goddamn millennium.

Empires have risen and fallen. Kings have come and gone. God himself has been killed. Humanity has progressed in countless ways. And a great big bloody metropolis has slowly grown around it, but in all that time - every single day, more or less - Smithfield has facilitated the purchase of freshly culled animal flesh.

The Market itself is the subject of the latter half of the (fairly long) Wikipedia article, such is its fascination. There is this enigmatic quote from 1178, describing Smithfield as, once again:
"a smooth field where every Friday there is a celebrated rendezvous of fine horses to be traded, and in another quarter are placed vendibles of the peasant, swine with their deep flanks, and cows and oxen of immense bulk."
Now, is that a typo for "pheasant"? If not, surely it should be followed by a colon, not a comma, unless the aristocracy of the time really was as joyously evil/cannibalistic as we like to think.

The maintenance of a meat market for a thousand years despite epic changes in urban development and culture was, as you might imagine, no easy task. By the Victorian era, 220 thousand cows and 1.5 million sheep per year were "violently forced into an area of five acres, in the very heart of London, through its narrowest and most crowded thoroughfares". Wikipedia rates the "hygienic conditions" as "extremely poor", and notes that they "started to raise major concerns".

Despite our authors' mild tone, these concerns were not taken lightly by people at the time, as well can be believed for those living in a city through which vast numbers of filthy beasts daily trudged towards a grisly fate. There's a delightfully Brooker-esque quote from a contemporary book that appears to have been titled by a Wikipedia editor, Suggestions for the Improvement of Our Towns and Houses:
"Of all the horrid abominations with which London has been cursed, there is not one that can come up to that disgusting place, West Smithfield Market, for cruelty, filth, effluvia, pestilence, impiety, horrid language, danger, disgusting and shuddering sights, and every obnoxious item that can be imagined; and this abomination is suffered to continue year after year, from generation to generation, in the very heart of the most Christian and most polished city in the world."
I always like a good use of "horrid".

By the second half of the 19th century, Parliament finally got involved, putting the city out of its misery and banishing the cattle market to distant, rural Islington. Smithfield was rebuilt as a new market where animals were typically deceased before arrival. Hence the overly grandiose, wrought iron affair you see today. The construction of the new Smithfield coincided with that of one of London's earliest underground railway lines, allowing faster transit of meats to the cold stores.

One such subterranean store was used for the experiments of a real life mad scientist during WWII (an attempt to create a brand new material for floating oceanic airstrips), in another snapshot of Smithfield's interaction with major events in British history.

Considering its primary commercial purpose in life, Smithfield as a London landmark has had an extraordinary number of these interactions. Wikipedia divides its more general history into "Religious" and "Civil" subsections.

Turns out, something about the stench of dying animals is attractive to God after all, as Smithfield appears to be the centre of London's religious life - at least from a casual reading of Wikipedia. The most famous institution here is of course St Bartholomew's, now better known as a hospital*, but still also at least two Smithfield churches.

The oldest of them was founded in the gloriously Fibonaccian year of 1123, as a favour from Henry I to a priest who had apparently saved his life. It must have been a lovely proposition: a nice little priory in a great big field right on the edge of town. Now you can barely see it as it's sandwiched between a wall built by a later King Henry and a massive modern hospital, but if you walk purposefully past the security guards, as I found the other night, it's still there and still being used at 8pm on a weekday. Although not everything about the church has survived: you ever heard of the Bartholomew Fair? Me neither. It was just a major London event for SEVEN HUNDRED YEARS until it was deemed indecent by the bloody Victorians.

Other religious institutions at Smithfield include the Carthusian Charterhouse - founded in 1371, although the infamous boarding school part moved to Surrey in 1872. In the 1500s, it was monks from Charterhouse who attempted to reason with the famously phlegmatic Thomas Cromwell when he first persuaded Henry VIII to enact sweeping religious renovations that decimated most of the Smithfield churches. Wikipedia tells it straight as ever:
This resulted in their being flung into the Tower of London, and on 4 May 1535, they were taken to Tyburn and hanged — becoming the first Catholic martyrs of the Reformation.
Such fun. Speaking of which, my favourite part of the whole Wikipedia article is the section on civil history. Again, its open position on outskirts of town made Smithfield an ideal site for all kinds of amazing public spectacles. But mostly, it "has borne witness to many bloody executions of heretics and political rebels over the centuries" as the article states at the outset. I like to think of it as the place you'd go, as a bored peasant, for something like the opening scene of the John Landis film Burke and Hare:

Smithfield "bore witness" to some of the real greats: William Wallace's fictional cry of "FREEDOM!" would have been heard there, far from his bonnie home, while the leader of the momentous 14th century Peasant's Revolt, Wat Tyler, also met his demise on the field at the hands of the Lord Mayor, in the spirit of Boris-like mucking-in. Tyler hadn't in fact come for an execution but a parlay, which went badly south when he started saying rude things about King Richard.

It wasn't just gruesome capital punishment that you could find at Smithfield back in the day (if William Wallace's intestines weren't bed enough, Queen Mary also hosted some of her well-known bonfires at Smithfield, while "swindlers and coin forgers" were apparently boiled to death in oil. It all went downhill when we started getting soft on petty crime, I'm telling you.) There were also proper chivalric tournaments. One particularly extravagant joust in 1390 was commanded by Richard II, not long after dealing with the revolting peasants, and was supervised by one Geoffrey Chaucer in his lesser known day job as an event organiser (actually he was a clerk to the King, which I also didn't know).

So Smithfield has seen it all. But think of all those who've seen Smithfield. All those ordinary Londoners over all those centuries, who've trod those cobbles/open grassland, smelled the blood and shit and religious incense, heard the dying cries of man and beast alike, and witnessed almost every major event to have befallen this magnificent, godforsaken city.

The article ends by noting the Museum of London's planned move to the part of the market that is currently unoccupied. It's a strange idea, but if any London landmark deserves recognition for its historical adventures, surely this is it.

*The hospital is in fact equally ancient - although in the 14th century a large part of it was used, even more hygienically than the livestock slaughter, as a mass grave for plague victims.

Never go into teaching

Today we consider the glorious wikipedia page Hypatia. Hypatia is quite a nice name, but surprisingly, according to the disambiguation, there has only been one other famous person called Hypatia in history - a pornographic actor - and even then it was a stage name. The name is derived from the Greek for "highest" or "supreme", which to me makes it sound even more awesome, but perhaps parents have avoided it for reasons of hubris.

Hypatia was a badass philosopher chick from Alexandria in the 5th century AD. By "philosopher", I of course mean "general academic", best known for her mathematics. In Roman times everyone was a renaissance man, although I suppose it would be more accurate to call them simply naissance.

What's incredible about the wikipedia page for Hypatia is its sense of proportion. Her life and work are of apparently trivial consequence compared to the authors' all-consuming obsession with one particular event: her death.

Don't believe me? Here is the section on the Hypatia page called "Life":

And here is the section called "Death":

Actually this is only part of it. Yeah, it's so long that even at maximum zoom-out, I still couldn't screenshot the whole thing. It's even got an illustration.

As a lifelong fan of morbidity, you can see why this page appealed. Sod the fact that Hypatia managed to become a female director of a major academic institution of the hypermasculine classical world (the Platonist school of Alexandria), as well as the leading lecturer, thinker and possibly political advisor in the city. As one of the first women in history to be recognised for her academic greatness, we should be completely in awe of her gumption and strength of character, not just her scholarly prowess.

Unfortunately, this seems to have passed most historians - and writers of crowdsourced encyclopaedias - by. While we have several detailed sources documenting her demise, it feels like nobody has wanted to talk about her actual life: a patriarchal conspiracy of epic proportions. If she'd been a dude, we'd know what she liked to eat for breakfast, but as a woman we don't even have a clue when she was born. Wikipedia gives a 20-year window for her DOB. 20 years! Not a single one of Hypatia's writings, which by all accounts were extensive, has survived. To be fair, she did have the bad luck to live in a city famous for routinely having its libraries destroyed, but even so, one can't help but feel that archivists, and history in general, have had it out for her.

The one contemporary source that Wikipedia does quote about Hypatia's life is amazingly endearing, as well as effusive, describing her as *the* leading thinker of her time, a teacher to whom acolytes from around the world would flock. Further:
"On account of the self-possession and ease of manner which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in the presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more."

So the one person who actually knew Hypatia makes her out to be a feminist trailblazer on a magnificent scale. Still, even this dude, who went by the incredibly humble name of Socrates Scholasticus, only deigns to give Hypatia a paragraph, and if there was anyone else writing about her, wikipedia doesn't bother to mention them.

Contrast this to the attention lavished on her death. Suddenly wikipedia turns into a paragon of historiographical inquiry, comparing and contrasting the multiple sources that tell us about how Hypatia met her grisly end - with no clothes on!

I won't dignify this episode with a major summary, suffice to say she was murdered by Christian fanatics who had been riled by the city's political/religious machinations du jour, and happened to seize on her as a scapegoat. Depending on the account, she was either stripped naked, torn to pieces, and set on fire, or she was stripped naked, dragged through the streets until she died, and set on fire. The important thing is that she was naked when it happened. And then she was brutalised and burned.

This last detail has led some historians to describe her as effectively the first witch, which is kind of cool. The thinking goes: she was pagan, she worked with ancient knowledge that confused and scared contemporary laypeople, and she was burned by an enraged/illiterate Christian mob. She probably weighed the same as a duck too.

After "Death", the next longest section of Hypatia's wikipedia page concerns her legacy. History has fought over this woman for centuries, despite the complete lack of information about her. Some have wanted to show her as a noble and virtuous practitioner of science and reason, while others have tried to portray a scheming pagan who literally possessed, in the cliche of a 7th century biographer, "Satanic wiles". Unsurprisingly, the issue of her virginity has vexed many commentators. In any event, she has cropped up in literature and research much more regularly than might have been expected for someone about whose actual life and work history has cared so little. All the poor woman probably wanted was to get on with her research and lecturing. Those lesson plans don't write themselves.

Mighty Citations

Welcome to round two of Wikiedit, in which I explore extremely random Wikipedia articles for my own amusement. Last time it was powerful Eastern European hordes and their extraordinary migrations. This time we lake a look at a slightly less consequential article, some might say, but it features equally incredible movements and acts of strength by Eastern Europeans. And isn't "inconsequential" the whole point of Wikipedia?! I think so.

Yes folks, roll up for Joe Greenstein, aka The Mighty Atom, an article about a tiny Jewish guy that makes phenomenal use of Wikipedia's greatest comedic asset: the "citation needed" tag. More on that in a moment.

Born in 1893, Joe was a sickly Polish kid. The thing to bear in mind as you learn more about him, is that even when full grown, he never measured more than 5'4". Doctors predicted death by tuberculosis. But after training with a Russian strongman named - apparently in all seriousness - "Champion Volanko," he seems to have conquered his physical limitations and transformed into something great and terrible.

Joe immigrated to America before WWI, initially setting up shop in Texas. This is where Wikipedia uses the first of several mouth-dropping sentences.
In 1914, a local Texas man who was obsessed with Greenstein's wife shot him between the eyebrows from a distance of 30 feet. Amazingly, Greenstein left the hospital on the same day - the bullet did not enter his skull, but was flattened by the impact.
It's the specificity here that I like. They could have written "shot him in the head", but no. You can see the bullet literally sticking between his eyebrows as he goes cross eyed for a second and topples over, with everyone in the room gawping in mute astonishment. This sentence is also one of two in the whole article that mention Joe's wife. The other one tells us her name was Leah. So much for her.

Anyway, at this point, Wikipedia gives up trying to string coherent sentences together about this guy and resorts to simply listing the feats he preformed to prove that he was a superhuman of Luke Cage proportions. (Wikipedia hints that he was actually the inspiration for DC's reasonably major hero, the Atom). These include hammering nails with his bare hands, supporting the weight of 14 men while lying on a bed of nails, and bending a horseshoe with his teeth.

Despite the fact that only one of these achievements is supported by any kind of reference, the good editors of Wikipedia have left most of them unchallenged. Except for three of them:
  • Bending half-inch steel bars with his hair[citation needed].
  • Biting nails in half with his teeth (he could perform this feat with a 25-cent coin)[citation needed].
  • Resisting the pull of an airplane with his hair[citation needed].
I mean, the horseshoe thing is reasonable. But when you're talking about bending steel with your hair, you need a goddam citation, am I right? How would that even work? Can he make his hair move of its own accord?

By the way, this is the Mighty Atom, if you want a mental reference for that superhair.

I can bite your coins in half. So what?
But the best is still to come. In 1939 - it doesn't say whether the war had actually started yet - the Mighty Atom single-handedly beat 18 Nazis to a pulp with a baseball bat. This event, which surpasses even Tarantino's most fevered Jewish revenge fantasies, led to his arrest on charges of "mass mayhem", surely the coolest misdemeanour to have on your record. And he didn't have a scratch on him when the dust settled, even telling the judge, "It wasn't a fight, your honour. It was a pleasure".

During WWII itself, Greenstein travelled the country like Captain freaking America, impressing crowds with his skillz in order to sell government bonds for the war effort. And he also personally taught jujitsu to the NYPD even though:
It was many years before the technique was known to most Americans[citation needed].
Well. I mean, if Wikipedia tells us that most Americans now know jujitsu, then it must be true. But it would be quite nice to have a citation for that, I agree.

Joe continued his performances into his eighties, as the article states casually, when he was finally brought down by cancer. In later life he also sold "elixirs", while he "traveled in an old Model A truck with panels that opened to show his extensive collection of newsclippings and citations from civic leaders and organizations."

Well at least someone's got some citations around here. Still, it's a somewhat sad closing image. The great hero who's time in the spotlight has faded, reduced to living in a car with his glory days scrapbook.

And yet, like the master storyteller, Wikipedia has been setting us up, pulling our heartstrings in just the right way, before hitting us with an image of life reborn, of hope for the Mighty Atom in the new world of the present day, like Captain America pulled from the ice. This is the article's last sentence:
Joe's son Mike Greenstein appeared as a 93-year-old on America's Got Talent in 2014 and successfully pulled a 3500 pound car with his teeth.[6]
Finally, a citation for some closure. Beautiful.

PS: If you've read Michael Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (highly recommended) you may understand how I discovered this article.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Wikiedit: Vandalust

This is what I hope to be the first of many posts about particularly amazing Wikipedia articles I have come across at 3 in the morning. For our inaugural edition (back myself), we're going to take a look at this absolutely mad page called, simply, Vandals.

You've probably heard of the Vandals. They were a Germanic tribe that kicked up a load of trouble for the late Roman Empire, winning a reputation for mayhem for which they were gloriously immortalised in the English word vandalism. In it's habitually cryptic fashion, Wikipedia nods to more recent analysis that somewhat undermines this legacy:
modern historians tend to regard the Vandals during the transitional period from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages as perpetuators, not destroyers, of Roman culture.
The page says no more than this, and never mentions the issue again. And nothing in what follows remotely hints at Vandalic "perpetuation", so take it as you will.

Here are some choice facts that you might not have known about the Vandals:

  • In the course of about 30 years, they sacked basically all of Western Europe, migrating from their temporary home in modern-day Hungary to establish a powerful kingdom in North Africa, via the very, very scenic route.
  • They accidentally killed Saint Augustine.
  • Despite originating in Sweden, their closest allies were Iranian.
  • Having rarely come anywhere near a coastline for most of their history, by far their greatest power was achieved practically overnight as a naval/pirate empire.
  • Although Christianised, they were fanatically opposed to the orthodox Catholic church.
  • Defeated as a result of a stupid blunder, their entire race vanished suddenly only a few decades after reaching its zenith.

OK, so lets start at the beginning. The Vandals came from Scandinavia. Probably. In a perfect reflection of Western historical priorities, the Wikipedia page mentions the first 500 years of known Vandal existence in a couple of sentences, and the rest of the huge mass of text deals with the roughly 200 years where they interacted with the Romans, from the 4th to 6th centuries AD. I mean, you've got to remember when you read this stuff that the Vandals were obviously far too violent and uncouth to record their own history, so the Wikipedia page is little more than a highly filtered distillation of Roman historians writing out of their arses about their invaders. With that in mind, let us continue:

By about 100AD the Vandals were living in modern day Poland, for reasons unknown. Equally inexplicably, they joined a ragtag bunch of other Germanic (seemingly a catch-all term for "non-Roman") tribes in a migration into Ukraine and then Romania about 150-180AD, taking advantage of, and maybe even taking part in, the various wars between the unrelated Macromannic confederation and the Romans. We know the Vandals also fought against the Visigoths, not for the last time, and that the first recorded Vandal king, Wisimar, a one-time lord of Transylvania, was killed by them.

OK so before the historical haze settles over all of that, let's skip forward to "around 330AD" (sorry, sorry), when Constantine the Great gave the Vandals land in Pannonia, a region in middle Europe to the northeast of Italy. Presumably letting them live there was easier than dealing with possible invasions - a Roman policy of appeasement that they were to adopt towards the Vandals for the foreseeable future despite it not working at all.

But it's around 400AD that things really kick off for the age of Vandalism, and it's all the fault of Attila. The Huns weren't just the scourge of the Romans, but also of the poor barbarian hordes wishing to pillage them. In reaction to unstoppable Hun invaders, the Vandals up and left Pannonia to flee west. But it wasn't so much a fearful escape as a crazed rampage across Germany and France. Here's were it gets weird: the Vandals were accompanied in their warpath/flight by some new allies, a tribe called the Alans.

The Alans (friends of the Dereks and the Craigs) were originally from Iran. Yes, Iran, in the middle of Asia. Having lived north of the Black Sea for a while, they had tipped up in Europe with the Huns, as part of the same migration. But now they joined the Vandals in fleeing from them; once again, God knows why.

Anyway, with the Huns in the rearview mirror, the Vandals and the Alans cheerfully plundered, burnt, raised, decimated, terrorised and butchered their way across Europe, and when they got to the Rhine, they found themselves facing an enormous army of Franks who were damned if they were going to let the same thing happen to la Belle Gaul. Wikipedia states monastically of the incredible bloodshed that followed:
Twenty thousand Vandals, including [King] Godigisel himself, died in the resulting battle, but then with the help of the Alans they managed to defeat the Franks, and on December 31, 406 the Vandals crossed the Rhine, probably while it was frozen, to invade Gaul, which they devastated terribly.
The hyperlinks provide barely any more info. Apparently the battle was an ambush, with the Vandals caught unprepared and slaughtered in droves, rescued at the last moment by the brave Alans (every single member of which was called Alan, including the women). But even through the extraordinary Wikipedia understatement filter, it's a striking scene: the huge expanse of the Rhine on an Arctic New Year's Eve, frozen solid but melting slowly as it runs red with the warm blood of innumerable bodies, the gruff Vandal King bleeding out in the arms of his saviour, Alan, screaming to the skies for a medic. Take that, Hobbit Part 3.

With Gaul devastated terribly, the Vandals and Alans decided, thanks to bizarre machinations that defy illumination, not to settle down again, but to continue their lovely walking tour over the Pyrenees and into Spain. Maybe their sojourn on the Rhine had understandably given them a hankering for some sun. Just bear in mind that they spent three whole years devastating Gaul before deciding to move on - not a long period historically, but it probably didn't feel terribly short either to the Gauls.

They arrived in Spain about 7 or 8 years after leaving Pannonia, and stayed for about 20 more years. On their arrival in 409AD, Rome again gave them land for free. But ten years later, Rome allied with the Suebi and Visigoths (two other German tribes who happened to be on their own migrations through Europe, in much the same way as a bull migrates through a china shop), to attack the Vandals and get them the heck out.

I like to think there was a meeting among high-level imperial officers around this time that went something like:

"Right, moving on, next on the agenda is Spain. How are they getting on over there?"
"Oh, Spain's being terrorised by Vandals."
"Beg pardon?"
"What, the Vandals who were giving us a damn headache in Romania and who we let live in Hungary?"
"Those're the ones."
"What the blazes are they doing in Spain?"
"They've been there for 10 years."
"10 years?!"
"Yes, we rather thought the Huns were more of a priority. We don't have any spare armies to deal with them."
"Well are there any other barbarian tribes from the other side of the continent who we can conveniently ally with to get rid of them?"
"Yeah, there's a couple actually."

The Vandals beat the coalition, but not before a massive army of Alans was completely wiped out, causing the survivors to finally join the Vandals more officially. Vandal kings subsequently called themselves "King of the Vandals and the First Men". Whoops, sorry, I meant, "King of the Vandals and Alans". So close. But still - how insane is it that the ancient Iranian Alans finally met their demise fighting Germans in Spain?!?!

Despite basically winning the war against Rome/Suebi/Visigoths, the Vandals left Spain anyway ("I mean, it's a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there"), whereupon it was promptly colonised by the Visigoths, who were the ones who lost it to the Moors much later. There was another casualty of the war, however: the Vandal king Gunderic, who was succeeded by the greatest of the half-a-dozen Vandal Kings we know of: Genseric. (By the way, Genseric was succeeded by Huneric, one of several examples of the awesome real-life Vandal tradition of naming people like they do in Lord of the Rings).

Fortunately we do actually know why the Vandals left Spain, at least probably: they were invited by the Count of Africa. That's right, North Africa was (kind of) ruled by a Count, named Bonifacius, a rebel Roman general. Although they came ostensibly to help Bonifacius conquer more of Africa, what actually happened was that the Vandals immediately attacked and besieged him in a town in modern-day Algeria that rejoiced in the name of Hippo Regius ("King's Hippo"). Also trapped inside Hippo, as it were, while the Vandals lurked outside, was a certain Augustine, not yet canonised, who found the siege all to much and promptly died "perhaps from starvation or stress", as Wikipedia puts it. One of the two. Turns out Augustine was actually from Hippo, hence being there when the Vandals attacked. Who the heck knew?!

So it was that the Vandals, the Germanic tribe from Sweden, came to establish an empire in North freaking Africa. Genseric captured both Hippo Regius and Carthage, his new capital, from which he swiftly built a vast fleet and suddenly found himself naval ruler of the Mediterranean. I guess he did look and have a name like a Viking, so maybe maritime raiding was in the blood all along. Vandal ships became some of the worst privateers that Rome ever faced, pillaging and conquering the islands and coasts to such an extent that the Mediterranean is actually called Wendelsæ in old English. Bear in mind that Genseric, the new African-Scandinavian pirate warlord, scourge of the Romans, was born in 389AD, and could certainly remember sedentary times in Pannonia before anyone had ever heard of the Huns.

Speaking of which, Atilla still hadn't gone away, and the Romans were so preoccupied by him in more conventional parts of their empire that they basically let the Vandals get on with it, even signing a peace treaty by which the Emperor Valentinian III's daughter would marry Huneric, the Vandal heir. ("What's all this about pirates from North Africa?"/"Oh, it's the Vandals again"/"What?!!!") In 455, Valentinian was usurped by the conniving Petronius Maximus, who was never bothered by dementors; he seized the dead Emperor's daughter to marry to his own son. Miffed at this insult, Genseric went to have a little world with his daughter-in-law's dad's deposer, accompanied by a "personal bodyguard", as it were, and casually wandered into the city, the centre of world power, and stripped it of all its riches. Petronius fled and was lynched by a mob outside the gates, his last words "I immediately regret this decision".

After Atilla finally died, Rome did try a little harder to get its own back on Genseric, but he "soundly defeated" their assaults (Wikipedia loves the phrase "soundly defeated"). For example:
In 468 the Western and Eastern Roman empires launched an enormous expedition against the Vandals under the command of Basiliscus, which reportedly was composed of a 100,000 soldiers and 1,000 ships. The Vandals soundly defeated the invaders at the Battle of Cap Bon, capturing the Western fleet, and destroying the Eastern through the use of fire ships.
The link reveals the sheer extent of this episode. The armada against the Vandals was one of the most huge and expensive in Roman history, and it was dramatically burnt to ash by a surprise attack made in the middle of peace negotiations. Even Wikipedia uses the word "enormous", a frantic outpouring of emotive prose by its standards. Genseric was left alone again, having completely outmanoeuvred the greatest military force in history, adding insult to injury after having literally sacked Rome. He consolidated his kingdom and died peacefully in 477, after almost 90 years of wanton destruction across the entire continent.

About 50 years later the Vandals were caught unprepared by a Byzantine attack when they'd foolishly sent most of their army to quash a small rebellion in Sardinia. With North Africa once again a Roman province, the Vandals basically slapped each other on the back, told each other that it had been fun, and went their separate ways. One of the most remarkable political powers of the late Roman era just suddenly dissolved into nothing on the edge of the mighty Sahara. Imagine if their Scandinavian ancestors could have seen it. Then imagine if they could have seen me, 1,500 years later, spraying my drink across my laptop screen as I read the words "which they devastated terribly".

John Wallis is the author of Human Not Human Enough, including this bit in italics at the end. If you have any suggestions for future Wikipedia pages to review, please send them to the comments under the facebook link where you almost certainly found this post. Thanks!

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Breadbasket timetravels

I'm in Kansas, experiencing the miracle of 17-year cicadas. This is a cicada:

Living in the ground their entire lives, they emerge in huge numbers only at precise intervals exactly 17 years apart, disappearing again a few weeks later. The insects make the most incredible racket, like a sea shore made of grasshoppers.

That I'm here for the cicadas is a remarkable coincidence. The Kansas brood, as it's called, is the only cicada population in the world blooming in 2015. But I didn't come for them. I didn't even come for the other inexhaustible delights of Kansas. I'm here, like a hero on a metaphorical journey of self discovery, to find where I came from.

This is George Joseph Staubus, born 1926. He died last year, and was my mother's father. For my whole life, and indeed for my mother's whole life, he lived in El Cerrito, California, in a modest but glorious house overlooking the San Francisco Bay. He moved there with his wife Sarah in 1954. But he was born and raised here:

This is Brunswick, Missouri, population ~800 and falling. The first suggested search term when you type "Brunswick Missouri" into Google is "Brunswick Missouri funeral home". It's about as far away as you can get from an ocean anywhere outside of central Asia. It likes to call itself - ambitiously - the Pecan Capital of Missouri. Most of the stores on its one commercial street are boarded up or sell antiques. Many of the houses are similarly abandoned.

The first white people to see Brunswick are thought to be Lewis and Clark, but it wasn't until the 1830s or so that the town was properly established, largely populated by German fortune seekers. Not originally among them was a certain Christian Staubus, my earliest known ancestor, who came to the New World at about the same time, after having served as a Prussian officer at the battle of Waterloo. His grandson, George Washington Staubus, and his great grandson, George Washington Jr, came to Brunswick to farm the rich Missouri soil. I find it strange to think that I am separated from the Napoleonic Herr Staubus by a mere five lifespans - George Washington Jr was George Joseph's father, and my great-grandfather. This is not necessarily impressive, however: my mother remembers a famous relative who lived to 102 and had been born during the Civil War. The oldest person in town at that time probably remembered the War of Independence.

As a boy, some of my grandfather's classmates rode to school on a horse. Yes, the grandfather of me, reared in the age of cat videos, knew a time when the main transport fuel was hay. The school consisted of one room and one teacher, who taught all ages simultaneously. George had no electricity or running water at home and had to survive prolonged sub-zero winters with nothing but wood fires.

After being sent to study accounting by the US Navy during World War Two, George eventually ended up becoming an academic. The young, folksy country lad, with his traditional Protestant upbringing, got his first teaching job at the University of Buffalo, where he met a Jewish girl from the mean streets of Brooklyn. They were married after 6 months and remained happily together until death did them part, over 60 years later.

Sarah Mayer was the daughter of proper hardcore immigrants. Her mother, Anna Lipshitz, hailed from a rustic homestead somewhere around the border of Poland and Ukraine; she and her many brothers and sisters were sent one by one to America as soon as their parents had gathered enough money for the next. Having come through the horrors of Ellis Island by herself at the age of 16, Anna had nothing but her siblings' names to go by - miraculously she located them in the seething cesspit that was New York in the 1910s. Working whatever jobs she could get, Anna scraped by, marrying another Jewish immigrant and producing, in contrast to her own parents, a single solitary child, Sarah. (Incidentally, as my mother's mother's mother, Anna's religion is what makes me technically Jewish).

Sarah had electricity, modern transport and all the glories of city life, such as the ability to spend a nickel on the movies every Saturday. What she did not have was money or personal space, living in a special kind of poverty equal in degree but opposite in kind to George's. Her position at Buffalo was only secured after her city university was asked to send male professors. They wrote back saying that the men had all been killed at war (those that hadn't were the ones now in needing of teaching), but they had some superbly qualified women to offer.

The coming together of these two souls, and the incredible longevity of their union, has never ceased to fill me with awe and inspiration. The two extremes of the quintessential American experience personified in the homely figures of my grandparents - an experience that could not be further from my own.

Why does family hold us in such a powerful spell? I know, rationally, that family is the result of relationships formed during one's upbringing, that the idea of blood ties is a purely social construct, and that people who died before I was born can't actually influence who I am in the slightest. Yet I can't help feeling fascinated by my ancestry. It's a gateway into a history that feels otherwise so alien.

Coming all the way to Missouri in pursuit of this dilemma, I've encountered another aspect of it. We've been staying a few hours from Brunswick with George's Kansas-based 90-year-old brother, great-uncle Charles Staubus. Last time I met him was in 1990, before my first birthday. Today he enjoys terrifically good health, living alone in a beautiful, well kept-suburban house. In 1945, his parachute regiment raided Hitler's "Eagle's Nest" HQ near the legendary Berghof residence in the Bavarian Alps, and he still keeps the Fuhrer's personal writing stationary in a box under the kitchen table. Also in attendance were Charles' sons Keith and Kent, and their children - my second cousins, not too far from my own age - all of whom I had not previously encountered; even my mother hadn't seen most of them since the 70s.

Kent lives in South Dakota and is an exceptional photographer and train enthusiast; his son Matthew is a computer science prodigy. Keith is a lawyer in Dallas, Texas; his daughter Addison is a talented graphic artist and a student at Texas Christian University. They say grace before meals. They consume red meat with incredible frequency. They use the term "good old boy" unironically. And they're all ridiculously lovely. My blood kin who I didn't even know existed. Their last name is all Staubus. We all knew the same story about great-grandfather George Washington - how he used to say that he only liked two kinds of pie: hot and cold. Now we're facebook friends. The cicadas will be gone soon, but we'll still be family when they return. Weird.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

The dead don't write op-eds

Charlie Hebdo happened. I'm not interested in the issues of freedom of speech, religious tolerance, global politics or all that stuff that's been reposted from every conceivable angle so many times that I want to tear my own face off; rather, I'm interested in death.

12 people died in the attack, another half a dozen in the ensuing chase. A massacre, by any definition. Think of those innocent people, promising young lives cut short by acts of senseless violence. Think of their families and their destroyed lives. What should we do about it?

We should ignore it.

Here's a challenge for everyone: next time there's a bloody tragedy, don't post about it. Unless you personally knew the victims, don't read news articles about it. Definitely don't read opinion pieces about it. Avoid conversations about it to the extent you can. Pretend the story contains spoilers from upcoming Game of Thrones episodes.

“How unbelievably crass and awful!” I hear you cry. “We should honour and remember innocent victims so that their loss wasn't in vain.”

And yet, I'm virtually certain, anyone making this objection doesn't do that. Almost no one in our society honours and remembers innocent victims of terrible massacres. OK, you honoured and remembered Charlie Hebdo, maybe you remembered the victims of flight MH370, heck, you definitely still remember 9/11. If you're politically attentive, you might have noticed and felt sorry for the victims of Boko Haram in recent weeks.

But you probably forgot about the many hundreds who died in the insurgency in Iraq in 2015 alone. The 144 people who died in Northwest Pakistan may have slipped your mind. More than a hundred in the Libyan Civil War. 52 in Somalia. 30 in the Mexican drug wars. All in the last few weeks. Not to mention Syria, Darfur, Palestine and dozens of other locations.

I definitely don't want to guilt trip anyone. I didn't know about any of these until I looked them up just now. The point is, we don't keep track of horrible massacres because we couldn't possibly. There are too many. We also don't mourn the thousands who die from horrible diseases every day, despite them being just as tragic and impactful for the victims.

To my mind, caring about the death of certain people when you so blatantly don't care about the death of most is somewhat thoughtless. When the ones you care about are the same race and religion as you, it becomes even more suspect.

If you choose to give your attention, opinions and solidarity rallies to a certain Death Event, you've got ask yourself what it will achieve. In the case of Iraq and Pakistan and the rest, it won't achieve much because we have very little power to do anything about those conflicts.

If you think it's different for Charlie Hebdo, ask yourself this: how would the world be different now if no one had ever heard of the attacks other than personal acquaintances of the deceased? If anything, the world would be better, right? There'd be tiny bit less threat to freedom of speech, and a tiny bit better relations between the Christian and Muslim worlds.

Did the massive parade convince anyone not to bow to the terrorists' whims? Of course not. No one was contemplating bowing. Did it help to improve the West's policies towards radical Islam? Nope. Was it even trying to? Not really.

The dead don't need our honour or remembrance. Frankly, if I died and could magically have an opinion on the matter, I would find the mourning of people who didn't ever know me to be highly patronising. I'd hope to be remembered by my friends and loved ones, but it would be insane, not to mention arrogant, to expect any more. Doesn't matter if I have a random heart attack or if I was blown up in a children's hospital.

If you have to mourn something, and clearly there's a lot in the world to mourn, then mourn the statistics. Focus your emotions and actions towards graphs and spreadsheets. Do whatever it takes to get those numbers ticking in the right direction. The survivors need more help than the victims.

Don't mourn the dead you never knew. In almost every case of random violence, it does more good to forget than remember.