Quotulatiousness

February 19, 2015

Al Stewart – Helen and Cassandra

Filed under: Europe,History,Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

February 3, 2015

QotD: Sexuality in the late classical world

Filed under: History,Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

There are two opposed beliefs about sexuality in the ancient world. Both are false, though not equally so. The first is that the ancient world fizzled out in an orgy of bum fun, and that we need to be careful not to let this happen to us. Where do you begin with a belief so completely unfounded on the evidence? I suppose you look to the evidence. Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar both had a taste for all-male sex. So did Mark Antony. So did Hadrian. So had most of the famous Athenians — Euripides being one of its most notable enthusiasts. No signs there of moral or any other weakness. If Mark Antony came to a bad end, it was because he married an ambitious foreign woman.

A growing prejudice against all-male sex becomes visible in the fourth century, when Constantine established Christianity as the official faith. He made the first laws against it. Within a century, the Goths were across the Rhine and had sacked Rome. Oh, and one of Constantine’s own sons had a taste for Gothic boys!

It’s absurd to try correlating national greatness or decline with sexual customs. Ancient civilisation didn’t collapse because its rulers were too worn out from buggering each other to take up swords. The ultimate cause may have been a mild global cooling, which lowered the Malthusian ceiling. There was an undoubted growth of rural impoverishment that left populations open to the pandemic diseases that swept through the Mediterranean world from late in the second century. Population decline was then worsened by various forms of misgovernment, and by the need to hold frontiers that had only made sense in an age of economic and demographic expansion. Rather than bursting through in unstoppable floods, the barbarians seem eventually to have wandered, in small bands, into a demographic vacuum.

The second false belief is that the ancient world was one big al fresco bath house. I once watched a television documentary in which it was seriously maintained that straight sex was out of fashion in Athens during the classical period. I thought of writing in to ask what books the researchers had been reading.

Because it lasted over a thousand years, and flourished on three continents, you should be careful with generalisations about ancient civilisation. But one good generalisation is that free men were expected to marry and beget children. These were societies with high death rates. They needed high birth rates not to die out. They particularly needed large numbers of young men to fight in their endemic wars of conquest or survival. Those men who wouldn’t breed were sometimes punished. Those who couldn’t were expected to adopt the surplus children of their poorer friends and relatives.

There were also strong prejudices against men who took the passive role in oral and anal sex. Take, for example, this epigram somewhere in Martial:

Secti podicis usque ad umbilicum
Nullas reliquias habet Charinus
Et prurit tamen usque ad umbilicum.
O quanta scabie miser laborat:
Culum non habet, est tamen cinaedus.

[Of his anus, split right up to the belly button,
Nothing remains to Charinus.
And still he longs for it right up to his belly button.
O behold the poor dear’s itching:
No arse left, yet still he longs to be fucked.]

On the other hand, the ancients didn’t have our concept of gay and straight. Latin has a large and precise sexual vocabulary — though you won’t find meanings in the standard dictionaries. See, for example: Irrumator, one who presents his penis for sucking; Fellator, one who sucks; Pathicus, the passive partner in anal sex, Exoletus, the active partner; Cinaedus, a male prostitute; Catamitus, a boy prostitute or lover; Glabrarius, lover of smooth-skinned boys; Tribas, a woman with a clitoris large enough to serve as a penis — and so it continues. The Greek vocabulary is larger still. There is no word in either language that means “homosexual.” Sodomitus is a late word, brought in by the Christians, and may not have had its present meaning until deep into the middle ages.

So long as legitimate children were somehow begotten, and so long as he didn’t disgrace himself by taking the passive role, what else a free man did was legally and morally indifferent. Elsewhere in his works, Martial boasts of sleeping with boys, and scolds his wife for thinking ill of him. In Athens and some other classical city states, it was a social duty for men in the higher classes to have sexual affairs with adolescent boys. We all know about the Spartans. In Thebes, an army was formed of adult sex partners. If anyone had said that all-male sex was in itself wrong, he’d have been laughed at. The Jews, who did say this, were despised. The Christian Emperors may have made laws against it. They were mostly enforced against political enemies when no other charges were credible or convenient.

Indeed, while there was a prejudice, and sometimes laws, against sexual passivity, it’s obvious that, once in private, men did as they pleased. One of the fundamental rules of the man-boy affairs in Athens was no anal penetration and no fellatio. Sex was supposed to involve mutual masturbation or intercrural friction. You can imagine how that rule was kept in private. There were problems only if the truth got out. Philip of Macedon, for example, kept a boy as his lover. One day, in public, he poked the boy in the stomach and asked why he wasn’t yet pregnant. The boy was so outraged that he murdered the King.

Then we have slavery, and the total power of an owner over his slaves. A slave-owner could demand whatever he liked, and expect the world not to be told about what he liked. So long as they weren’t physically injured, slaves were universally expected to do as they were told and not complain. As for prostitution, Rome and the larger cities were filled with brothels offering every sexual act imaginable. When Bible quotes failed, Christians were warned away from the brothels on the grounds that they might accidentally sleep with their own abandoned and enslaved children.

Richard Blake, “Interview with Richard Blake”, 2014-03-14.

January 11, 2015

6th century Sicilian shipwreck yields 39 ingots of orichalcum

Filed under: Europe,History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

I’d only ever encountered mentions of orichalcum as a rare metal in Guild Wars 2, but it was a real thing, and an underwater archaeology team found 39 ingots of orichalcum just off the coast of Sicily near Gela:

Gleaming cast metal called orichalcum, which was said by Ancient Greeks to be found in Atlantis, has been recovered from a ship that sunk 2,600 years ago off the coast of Sicily.

The lumps of metal were arriving to Gela in southern Sicily, possibly coming from Greece or Asia Minor. The ship that was carrying them was likely caught in a storm and sunk just when it was about to enter the port.

“The wreck dates to the first half of the sixth century,” Sebastiano Tusa, Sicily’s superintendent of the Sea Office, told Discovery News. “It was found about 1,000 feet from Gela’s coast at a depth of 10 feet.”

He noted that the 39 ingots found on the sandy sea floor represent a unique finding.

“Nothing similar has ever been found,” Tusa said. “We knew orichalcum from ancient texts and a few ornamental objects.”

Indeed orichalcum has long been considered a mysterious metal, its composition and origin widely debated.

According to the ancient Greeks, it was invented by Cadmus, a Greek-Phoenician mythological character. The fourth century B.C. Greek philosopher Plato made orichalcum a legendary metal when he mentioned it in the Critias dialogue.

December 11, 2014

David Friedman on the historical uses of torture in legal situations

Filed under: History,Law — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 06:50

David Friedman discusses a few of the legal systems under which torture was not only possible, but omnipresent:

The use of torture to extract information is not a new idea. Under both Athenian and Roman law, slave testimony could only be taken under torture. Presumably the theory was that slaves were interrogated in order to get evidence against their owners, the owner had ways of putting pressure on the slave, so torture was needed to get the slave to tell the truth. In Imperial Chinese law, not only the defendant but also witnesses could be tortured. In that system, and I think also in some legal systems of medieval and renaissance Europe, a defendant could only be convicted by his own confession. Torture was one way of getting it.

The argument against torture, that the victim will say whatever he thinks will end it whether true or false, is also old — people in the past were not stupid. Our main source of information on Athenian law consists of orations written by professional orators to be memorized by a party to a law suit in a legal system where there were no lawyers and each party had to represent himself. There is one oration which claims that slave testimony under torture is perfectly reliable, that there has never been a case where it turned out to be false. There is another making the obvious argument on the other side, that such testimony is worthless since the slave will say whatever the torturer wants him to say.

They were both written by the same orator.

People in other legal systems that used torture were also aware of the problem. There is a collection of Chinese cases compiled in the 13th century for the use of magistrates. Many of them are cases where a clever judge realizes that an innocent person has been forced to confess under torture and figures out who is really guilty.

That raises an obvious question — if they saw the problem with torture, why did they continue to employ it? One answer is that extracting information might only have been an excuse, that the real purpose was to punish someone without having first to convict him. That is a possible explanation in some contexts, including the current case of torture by the CIA. But it does not explain contexts where the person being tortured was not the suspect but a potential witness.

A second possible explanation is the belief that a competent interrogator could distinguish a real confession from a fake one. That strikes me as the most likely explanation in the Roman and Athenian cases, where it was the defendant’s slave, not the defendant, who was being interrogated.

A third explanation is that torture might produce information that could be checked. That is the situation in the hypothetical cases sometimes offered in defense of the use of torture — the suspect is being forced to say where the kidnap victim, or the terrorist time bomb, is concealed. More plausibly, to say where the loot is hidden.

November 22, 2014

What Thucydides can teach us about fighting ebola

Filed under: Africa,Europe,Health,History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:43

In The Diplomat, James R. Holmes says that we can learn a lot about fighting infectious diseases like ebola by reading what Thucidides wrote about the plague that struck Athens during the opening stages of the Peloponnesian War:

Two panelists from our new partner institution, a pair of Africa hands, offered some striking reflections on the fight against Ebola.

Their presentations put in me in the mind of … classical Greece. Why? Mainly because of Thucydides. Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War isn’t just a (partly) eyewitness account of a bloodletting from antiquity; it’s the Good Book of politics and strategy. Undergraduates at Georgia used to look skeptical when I told them they could learn ninety percent of what they needed to know about bareknuckles competition from Thucydides. The remainder? Technology, tactics, and other ephemera. Thucydides remains a go-to source on the human factor in diplomacy and warfare.

But I digress. Ancient Greece suffered its own Ebola outbreak, a mysterious plague that struck Athens oversea during the early stages of the conflict. And the malady struck, perchance, at precisely the worst moment for Athens, after “first citizen” Pericles had arranged for the entire populace of Attica, the Athenian hinterland, to withdraw within the city walls. The idea was to hold the fearsome Spartan infantry at bay with fixed fortifications while the Athenian navy raided around the perimeter of the Spartan alliance.

[…]

That’s where the parallel between then and now becomes poignant. Thucydides notes, for example, that doctors died “most thickly” from the plague. The Brown presenters noted that, likewise, public-health workers in Africa — doctors, nurses, stretcher-bearers — are among the few to deliberately make close contact with the stricken. Relief teams, consequently, take extravagant precautions to quarantine the disease within makeshift facilities while shielding themselves from contagion. Sometimes these measures fail.

Now as in ancient Greece, furthermore, the prospect of disease and death deters some would-be healers altogether from succoring the afflicted. Selflessness has limits. Some understandably remain aloof — today as in Athens of yesteryear.

Teams assigned to bury the slain also find themselves in dire peril. Perversely, the dead from Ebola are more contagious than living hosts. That makes disposing of bodies in sanitary fashion a top priority. As the plague ravaged Athens, similarly, corpses piled up in the streets. No one would perform funeral rites — even in this deeply religious society. Classicist Victor Davis Hanson ascribes some of Athens’ barbarous practices late in the war — such as cutting off the hands of captured enemy seamen to keep them from returning to war — in part to the plague’s debasing impact on morals, ethics, and religion.

October 22, 2014

QotD: Ancient history

Filed under: History,Humour,Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

New interests and different locations are provided by an iPad app that gathers pages relevant to my interests, and lets me indulge particular subjects, like “Ancient History.” This gives me the impression I am learning something, and perhaps I am, but when you finish an article about Xobar the Cruel who ruled during the Middle Period of the Crinchothian Empire (140 square miles in modern-day Herzo-Slavbonia) you think “well, there’s something of which I was previously unaware, and let’s preen for a second about being the sort of person who cares about ancient history,” and then it’s all forgotten. It’s all the history of rulers, which means the history of cruelty, and the remnants of settlements, which means the history of floors and walls and tombs. I fault myself for not having a better grasp on the shadowy beginnings of civilization; it doesn’t snap into focus until the Greeks, and then you’re surprised because they have shoes and religion and government and traditions and the rest of the recognizable pillars that hold up the ceiling mankind builds to put some space between himself and the raging caprices of the gods above. Except for Egypt, where they were doing stuff for a long time, but it was weird.

James Lileks, The Bleat, 2014-04-01

August 18, 2014

“It’s strange that the oldest literature becomes the model for the digital age”

Filed under: History,Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:04

Harvard University Press is putting all 520 volumes of the Loeb Classical Library online beginning in September:

When James Loeb designed his soon-to-be-launched series of Greek and Roman texts at the turn of the twentieth century, he envisioned the production of volumes that could easily fit in readers’ coat pockets. A century later, that compact format is still one of the collection’s hallmarks. Beginning in September, however, the iconic books will be far handier than Loeb had hoped: users of the Loeb Classical Library (LCL) will have the entire collection at their fingertips. After five years of dedicated work on the part of the library’s trustees and Harvard University Press (HUP), which has overseen LCL since its creator’s death in 1933, the more than 520 volumes of literature that make up the series will be accessible online. Besides allowing users to browse the digitized volumes, which retain the unique side-by-side view of the original text and its English translation, the Digital Loeb Classical Library will enable readers to search for words and phrases across the entire corpus, to annotate content, to share notes and reading lists with others, and to create their own libraries using personal workspaces.

LCL managing editor Michael Sullivan, whose position was created earlier this year to supervise the virtual library, said that the digitization project is “a major leap forward in the history of the Loeb.” According to HUP executive editor-at-large Sharmila Sen, the launch of the digital LCL marks “a moment of rebirth” for the historic collection. She explained that in the years preceding the library’s 2011 centenary, the trustees and HUP administrators began to think about how to make the LCL “relevant to the twenty-first century.” Even though online databases of Greek and Latin literature have existed for years, said the library’s general editor, Jeffrey Henderson, a classics professor at Boston University, the digital Loeb will be unprecedented in its accessibility and scope: for the first time, readers without knowledge of Greek and Latin will be able to explore a vast range of the classical literary heritage online through high-quality, modern translations. He added that the project, which cost the LCL foundation more than $1 million, will serve as a model for the digitization of other HUP series, noting, “It’s strange that the oldest literature becomes the model for the digital age.”

Consolidating a vast literary corpus involving two different alphabets into an interconnected, elegant, and easy-to-use website required much behind-the-scenes work, Sen said. Designing the software for the digital library and transferring the data have concluded, she noted, but the project overseers view the current product — which will be available by subscription to institutions and individuals — as only a 1.0 version. The website will be a dynamic workspace, Henderson pointed out, adding that user feedback will help the editors increase its functionality.

H/T to Colby Cosh for the link.

July 31, 2014

QotD: The cultural family tree of the West

Filed under: Europe,History,Middle East,Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 06:34

Looking at our own family history, we tend to pay more attention to our grandparents than our cousins. Whatever they did, we have a duty to think well of our grandparents. We often forget our cousins. So far as they are rivals, we may come to despise or hate them. So it has been with Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire. The Barbarians who crossed the Rhine and North Sea in the fifth century are our parents. They founded a new civilisation from which ours is, in terms of blood and culture, the development. Their history is our history. The Greeks and Romans are our grandparents. In the strict sense, our parents were interlopers who dispossessed them. But the classical and Christian influence has been so pervasive that we even look at our early history through their eyes. The Jews also we shoehorn into the family tree. For all they still may find it embarrassing, they gave us the Christian Faith. We have no choice but to know about them down to the burning of the Temple in 70AD. The Egyptians have little to do with us. But we study them because their arts impose on our senses, and because they have been safely irrelevant for a very long time.

Byzantium is different. Though part of the family tree, it is outside the direct line of succession. In our civilisation, the average educated person studies the Greeks till they were conquered by the Romans, and the Romans till the last Western Emperor was deposed in 476AD. After that, we switch to the Germanic kingdoms, with increasing emphasis on the particular kingdom that evolved into our own nation. The continuing Empire, ruled from Constantinople, has no place in this scheme. Educated people know it existed. It must be taken into account in histories of the Crusades. But the record of so many dynasties is passed over in a blur. Its cultural and theological concerns have no place in our thought. We may thank it for preserving and handing on virtually the whole body of Classical Greek literature that survives. But its history is not our history. It seems, in itself, to tell us nothing about ourselves.

Indeed, where not overlooked, the Byzantines have been actively disliked. Our ancestors feared the Eastern Empire. They resented its contempt for their barbarism and poverty, and its ruthless meddling in their affairs. They hated it for its heretical and semi-heretical views about the Liturgy or the Nature of Christ. They were pleased enough to rip the Empire apart in 1204, and lifted barely a finger to save it from the Turks in 1453. After a spasm of interest in the seventeenth century, the balance of scholarly opinion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was to despise it for its conservatism and superstition, and for its alleged falling away from the Classical ideals — and for its ultimate failure to survive. If scholarly opinion since then has become less negative, this has not had any wider cultural effect.

Richard Blake, “The Joys of Writing Byzantine Historical Fiction”, Libertarian Enterprise, 2014-07-27.

October 2, 2013

“Saving” Greek democracy

Filed under: Europe,Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:44

The sweep of arrests among the elected members of the Greek far-right Golden Dawn party are being hailed as saving democracy, but as Brendan O’Neill points out, this kind of action is extremely undemocratic:

Why isn’t there more discomfort, or at least the asking of some awkward questions, about the arrest of Golden Dawn MPs in Greece? Yes, Golden Dawn is a profoundly unpleasant organisation. Virulently racist, anti-Semitic, allergic to the ideals of free speech and free movement, and supported by people who are quite happy to use violence against those they hate, especially immigrants, it makes our own British National Party look like a chapter of the Women’s Institute in comparison. Yet that doesn’t mean we should give a nod to, far less cheer, the Greek state’s incarceration of GD’s leaders and members of parliament, who were democratically elected. Any police sweep on elected politicians should make those of us who call ourselves democrats anxious; that Greece’s military-style assault on GD hasn’t is very worrying.

[…]

Far from asking critical questions about what is motivating the Greek state’s clampdown on Golden Dawn, sections of the Greek left and vast swathes of the European left are celebrating it as a victory for democracy. They echo Greece’s public order minister, Nikos Dendias, who described the sweeping-up of GD’s leaders as ‘a historic day for Greece and Europe’. Greek newspapers are competing to see who can be the most effusive in their support for the clampdown. The brilliant arrests are ‘Golden Dawn’s Holocaust’, said one, rather tastelessly. Another claimed that ‘democracy is knocking out the neo-Nazis’. A left-wing British magazine described the arrests as ‘a victory for democracy in Greece’ and demanded to know why the Greek state isn’t doing more to shut down GD. SYRIZA, the left-wing opposition party in Greece which numerous European leftists have excitably hailed as a radical voice against austerity, has stood shoulder-by-shoulder with the state against Golden Dawn, claiming the arrests show ‘that our democracy is standing firm and is healthy’.

These radical cheerleaders of a state clampdown on democratically elected politicians urgently need to look up the word democracy in a dictionary. To describe the arrest of politicians who were elected by the public, by masked, armed police who were not elected by the public, as a ‘victory for democracy’ is the most profound contradiction in terms. Some leftists are claiming that the militaristic clampdown on GD has nothing to do with its political beliefs and is just a straightforward investigation of some men involved in alleged criminal activity. It’s hard to know whether such naivety is touching or disturbing. If this is just a criminal case rather than a political war waged by agents of the state against ideological undesirables, then why are so many describing it as a ‘victory for democracy’, as opposed to a potential victory for justice, and why are so many hailing the ‘knocking out [of] neo-Nazi ideas’? No number of lists of the alleged weapons found in GD members’ homes (apparently the party’s leader owns three guns) can disguise the fact that what we are witnessing here is a state war on a party supported by a significant number of Greeks.

September 24, 2013

The horrors of Greek Austerity strike!

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Europe,Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:02

Those poor Greek civil servants … this is so hard on them:

In a sign of just how hard the austere financial climate is hitting, it has been reported that the Greek government has been forced to put an end to one of its civil servants’ most treasured privileges. We speak, of course, of the Hellenic Sir Humphreys’ entitlement to an extra six days a year paid holiday if they are compelled to work with that frightful engine of misery, the computer.

Reuters reports that the long-standing regulation, in which all Greek government workers compelled to use a computer for more than 5 hours a day get an extra day’s leave every two months, was axed in an official announcement on Friday.

August 25, 2013

QotD: Persian and Greek views of abduction

Filed under: History,Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Up to this point, there had been abductions only from each other, but after this the Hellenes were largely responsible for offenses. For they began to make war on Asia before their enemies made war on Europe. Now the Persians think that the abduction of women is certainly an act only unjust men would perform, and yet once they have been abducted, it is senseless to make a fuss over seeking vengeance. It is the way of sensible people to have no concern for abducted women; it is quite obvious that the women would not have been abducted if they had not been compliant.

Herodotus, “Book 1″, The Histories, c.450-420 BCE

August 13, 2013

It’s accurate to describe the Greek plight as a depression

Filed under: Economics,Europe — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:44

Allister Heath says the catastrophic state of the Greek economy fully merits the descriptor “depression”:

Sorry, but the fact that Greece collapsed at an annual rate of 4.6 per cent in the second quarter, rather than a little bit faster, isn’t good news. It’s terrible, awful, horrible news. Greek output is down by 23 per cent since 2008 and unemployment is at around 28 per cent; no wonder, given the shrinking economy, that gross tax revenues are continuing to undershoot targets.

Hyperbolic economists sometime claim that the UK has undergone a depression, which is nonsense — but Greece’s woes cannot be described in any other way. Its depression has been catastrophic, one of the worst ever recorded for any country in the modern, industrialised era (apart from during or immediately after a war). Its dramatic collapse reminds us that stupid economic policies can destroy a nation; depressions have not been banished from modern civilisation.

It may be, of course, that the collapse is beginning to abate and that the economy may finally stabilise next year. I’ll believe it when I see it; unless Greece’s money supply starts growing again, and demand begins to increase, a recovery is impossible. But Greece is just a tiny part of the Eurozone, so achieving such an outcome is even harder than in a country like the UK, especially given that the Greek financial crisis hasn’t really gone away. There is no way that Athens will meet its bailout targets and its debt burden is utterly unsustainable.

July 9, 2013

Replacing impartial courts with revolutionary tribunals

Filed under: Government,Law,Media,USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:57

Victor Davis Hanson talks about earlier experiments with tribunals:

In ancient Athens, popular courts of paid jurors helped institutionalize fairness. If a troublemaker like Socrates was thought to be a danger to the popular will, then he was put on trial for inane charges like “corrupting the youth” or “introducing new gods.”

Convicting gadflies would remind all Athenians of the dangers of questioning democratic majority sentiment. If Athenian families were angry that their sons had supposedly died unnecessarily in battle, then they might charge the generals with capital negligence — a warning to all commanders to watch their backs. As in the case of Socrates, a majority vote often led to conviction, and conviction to a death sentence, or at least ostracism or exile. The popular courts freelanced to ensure that “the people” would hold sway over the perceived powerful and elite.

For a couple of years in revolutionary France, a Tribunal Révolutionnaire tried royalists, clergy, the wealthy, and supposed counter-revolutionaries on trumped-up charges of crimes against the people. Their purpose was a more violent version of the Athenian idea that the courts should serve the public by targeting the prominent, influential, or wealthy.

We in the United States are in jeopardy of turning our own criminal-justice system into revolutionary tribunals — fanned by the popular media and public opinion and directed against so-called enemies of the people.

[. . .]

The American court system is insidiously focusing on social transformation rather than individual justice. If Neanderthal reactionaries in California twice voted to reiterate that marriage is between a man and a woman, then leave it to judges and courts to find them bigoted and politically incorrect. In the present revolutionary environment, the degree of the Obama administration’s enforcement of federal laws concerning gay marriage, or illegal immigration, or the new health-care law has hinged on politics and perceptions about social justice — and the courts increasingly predicate their own decision-making on these same considerations. The street can brand a court either an esteemed ally or a reactionary enemy of the people, and so the courts make the necessary adjustments.

Update: The New York Times editorial board expresses its concern about “the laws you can’t see”.

As Eric Lichtblau reported in The Times on Sunday, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has for years been developing what is effectively a secret and unchallenged body of law on core Fourth Amendment issues, producing lengthy classified rulings based on the arguments of the federal government — the only party allowed in the courtroom. In recent years, the court, originally established by Congress to approve wiretap orders, has extended its reach to consider requests related to nuclear proliferation, espionage and cyberattacks. Its rulings, some of which approach 100 pages, have established the court as a final arbiter in these matters.

But the court is as opaque as it is powerful. Every attempt to understand the court’s rulings devolves into a fog of hypothesis and speculation.

[. . .]

As outrageous as the blanket secrecy of the surveillance court is, we are equally troubled by the complete absence of any adversarial process, the heart of our legal system. The government in 2012 made 1,789 requests to conduct electronic surveillance; the court approved 1,788 (the government withdrew the other). It is possible that not a single one of these 1,788 requests violated established law, but the public will never know because no one was allowed to make a counterargument.

When judicial secrecy is coupled with a one-sided presentation of the issues, the result is a court whose reach is expanding far beyond its original mandate and without any substantive check. This is a perversion of the American justice system, and it is not necessary.

June 19, 2013

Examining Vermouth’s claim to being the “oldest wine in the world”

Filed under: Health,History,Middle East,Wine — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:13

History Today linked to an article in their archives from 1975 from Pamela Vandyke Price discussing the ancient provenance of Vermouth:

When the great vermouth establishments refer to their product as ‘the oldest form of wine in the world’, they are not exaggerating. If we could travel in time, we might find many of the wines praised in antiquity to be harsh, sour and coarse to our palates, but the ‘aromatized wine’ that we know as vermouth would then have existed and, even if we drank it for medicinal or preventive reasons rather than for enjoyment, we could recognise it and relate it to the vermouths of today.

Vermouth can be, and often is, made wherever wine is made. The ancient Egyptians used both wine and beer, plus juniper, frankincense, celery, lotus leaves and honey, in the treatment of certain ailments; and it is by a method of infusion, maceration, distillation, or two or all three of these processes that, essentially, vermouth is made today. In Book IV of the Odyssey, Helen throws a drug given to her by an Egyptian lady into the bowl in which the wine is to be mixed and diluted before dinner; this ‘had the power of robbing grief and anger of their sting and banishing all painful memories’ — an efficacious aperitif, assuring good digestion. At the end of the third millennium B.C. what is perhaps the first written doctor’s prescription is recorded in cuneiform script on a tablet from the Sumerian city of Nippur — a physician notes that certain powders should be infused with a type of wine.

[. . .]

Other families in the drink business were quick to see the possibilities for vermouth, setting up in Turin, Marseilles and Sete (again in proximity to mountain herbs and a quantity of wine), and in Chambray. Many of them are still family concerns, even though they are great empires of the drink business. Martini & Rossi, who were founded about 1840, replaced a much older concern making vermouths and liqueurs at Pessione, near Turin (the head of that firm was the grandfather of Giovanni Angelli, founder of Fiat); the superb museum now established alongside the Pessione installations is a necessary detour for anyone interested in the history of wine from the earliest times.

The Cinzano family began in the drink business in the sixteenth century, and in 1757 the brothers Carlo Stefano and Giovanni Giacomo were invested as Master Distillers in Turin; today their business is gigantic, including, among other things, the Florio concern at Marsala, (itself including the former cantinas of Ingham and Woodhouse). Louis Noilly, in business at the beginning of the nineteenth century in Lyons, set up in the vermouth trade with his son-in-law, Claudius Prat and they enjoyed so much success that by 1843 they moved their headquarters to Marseilles. Madame Josephine Prat, who ran the business after the deaths of the two founders, was succeeded by her two children; and her granddaughter, Vicomtesse Vigier, who entered the firm before 1939, directed it until 1970 when she died, over a hundred years old.

It seems a little odd that, with so many modifications of wine-making and changes in the tastes of drinkers, aromatized wine should still be in demand. But, in fact, it is increasingly so. Whenever people order a straight vermouth they are ordering the oldest wine in the world.

June 6, 2013

IMF forced to admit that the Greek bailout “included notable failures”

Filed under: Economics,Europe — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:58

In the Guardian, Larry Elliott, Phillip Inman and Helena Smith round up the IMF’s self-criticisms over the handling of the bailout package imposed on Greece:

In an assessment of the rescue conducted jointly with the European Central Bank (ECB) and the European commission, the IMF said it had been forced to override its normal rules for providing financial assistance in order to put money into Greece.

Fund officials had severe doubts about whether Greece’s debt would be sustainable even after the first bailout was provided in May 2010 and only agreed to the plan because of fears of contagion.

While it succeeded in keeping Greece in the eurozone, the report admitted the bailout included notable failures.

“Market confidence was not restored, the banking system lost 30% of its deposits and the economy encountered a much deeper than expected recession with exceptionally high unemployment.”

In Athens, officials reacted with barely disguised glee to the report, saying it confirmed that the price exacted for the €110bn (£93bn) emergency package was too high for a country beset by massive debts, tax evasion and a large black economy.”

Under the weight of such measures — applied across the board and hitting the poorest hardest — the economy, they said, was always bound to dive into an economic death spiral.

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