Better than salt money

Work like you were living in the early days of a better nation

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Navel gazing

Today was a day of difference.  We started by meeting Merav’s parents’ friend/guide near the Jaffa Gate, and heading to the Churches of the Holy Sepulchre. Off we went, left turn on to the street of the Greek Patriarchate and then right past the Cloisters of the Greek Orthodox, and into the plaza in front of the complex which is the Holy Sepulchre.

The Holy Sepulchre, as with all the other churches in Jerusalem is a mishmash of tradition, legend, and superstition. The story is Helena, Constantine’s mother, came to Jerusalem to poke about and found not only his tomb, but the crosses of both Jesus and the Two Brigands. Conveniently the tomb was right by the crosses (she tested the veracity of them by touching sick people. One of them healed people, the others did not, ergo she had found, The True Cross).

On top of all that she found the slab of stone on which Christ’s body was prepared for burial, and the tomb of Adam.

It’s no more plausible than George Washington and the Cherry Tree, or Alfred and the Cakes. Which is fine by me. I dont think the point of all this isn’t to see the actual sites (which, absent a whole lot of evidence which would have already come to light, ages ago. The point is that Jesus death, if not his life, was tied up with Jerusalem.  If one wants a sense of place, to engage in communion with that sense of place, one needs a focus.

The churches (and there are many, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Coptic, each jealously guarding the piece of turf they have staked out, and arguing about who gets to do what, where, and when), manage to do that. These have been places of pilgrimage for going on 1600 years (that’s for the Christians, add the people who came through here on their way to Jerusalem; for any of the three festivals one was supposed to hie oneself to the Temple to observe, and it’s connections stretch back no one can know how long).

It’s a variation on the only heretical scene “The Last Temptation of Christ”, where Paul declaims the actual life, or death, of Jesus is immaterial because the message is what matters.
I didn’t come to Israel as a pilgrim. I came to visit family. On the other hand it IS is a place of pilgrims, and this is a week for pilgrimage. So we went; I’m the only Christian in the family, and I’m not much for performative religiosity. I am not going to bend down to kiss things, nor climb the Spanish Steps on my knees. What I do take to heart is continuity, so putting my hands in the deep hollow on the door, trailing along the wide, dark, band of stained stone; crossing the incised graffiti carved by others heading all the way down to the purported location of the true cross… those are meditative, connective; Communal.

The shared sense of what the teachings in Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles are what tie the various sects of Christianity together. Climbing the stairs to the Chapels overlooking the Stone of Unction the common threads are visible. The Catholic Chapel is cheek by jowl with the Greek Orthodox, where Armenians, Russian Orthodox, Lutherans, Romans, Greeks, Baptists, Anglicans, Congregationalists, Quakers, et alia, all make their personal acts of worship; or observation.

I stood, as in the Women’s Gallery of an Orthodox Shul, listening to the Greek Orthodox liturgy below me, joining in the responsorial Kyrie Elieson: one with the entire body of the faithful.

That, I think, is the thing I was trying to sort out before, how the thread which warps its way from Judaism, to Christianity; and also to Islam, binds up the separate warps of our personal beliefs, bound in the passage of the years, and the variations of the weft spun by our different creeds. It’s all tied up in this city. Even for the devoted, who like myself, are not very devout.

It is, by virtue of historical accident, the Omphalos of the world for something like one third of humanity. That sense of connection  to the rest of humankind, not the fripperies of the fables told of the churches here (be they the Temple, The Dome of the Rock, or the Tomb of the Holy Sepulchre) are, I have come to see, what I ended up making pilgrimage to find.

For the moment, I can rest my scallop on the mantlepiece.


The mind goes where it will

Israel is small, in the same way California isn’t.

Much of what people think of as “California” is in a narrow zone, not more than 50 miles from the sea. Much of what people (or at least I) want to see is within fifty miles of Jerusalem. It’s not that I don’t want to see the Negev, I do. I love the desert, but desert abides and I can carry *my* desert with me. A brief sojourn in another desert is much like feeding a sourdough starter; the calmness the expanse of desert gives me is renewed.

People talk of how looking at the vastness of the sky makes them feel small an insignificant in comparison to the empty vastness of space.  Not me.  I look at the sky and feel enlarged. So There is so much out there that EVERYTHING is insignificant, so I am equal to galaxies. I am become the universe. Not so the desert. The Desert is unforgiving in a way “space” isn’t.  No one ends up in space without preparing.  One can’t just hop on a horse, jump in the car, walk out of town, into “space”.

But “The Desert”?  It’s right there (or was, when I lived in Calif.)  All it took to be in the sere and sandy “wastes” was a couple of hours. But being in the desert, where the wind sweeps from the dry interior to the drier area behind the hills which gird the peopled piedmont, that makes you feel small. The desert will kill you. Water?  It’s there, but you have to know where it is, and how to get it. Food?  The same.  Shelter?  Non-trivial.  But people live there.  People have lived there since time immemorial. Learning how to avoid dying there was something I started doing when I was about nine.

Sitting three miles up Rattlesnake Canyon, with a plan to head up toward Chair Rock, and down the backside, over toward Boy Scout Trail and back to Indian Cove… that takes planning. In that trek you will walk across deep sand, up narrow draws, across open rock faces; and over boulders. Scramble, and climb and saunter. By turns you will cold and overheated. You will sit in the sun to warm yourself, and hide in the shade to cool off.

It sounds trite, but the desert will test you. It’s not that the desert hates you. The desert doesn’t care. No place cares, but the forest, or the city, or the plains don’t seem to be so open about it. The desert makes you feel small because you have to plan for everything. The cold of winter, the heat of summer. The bites and stings of bugs, snakes, scorpions and plants.

In exchange… you get nothing.

And nothing is wonderful. You can sit, where the wind is all you hear, look down from some rocky fastness, and think. You can hie yourself to where the only evidence of humanity is the odd contrails of people in planes, thousands of feet above you.

Introspection is possible there as no place else I’ve been. I understand the desert  hermits. It’s not that god is any closer in the quiet places, it’s that they were.

Which wasn’t what I meant to talk about at all.

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I am as a stranger in a strange land

I’ve been in Jerusalem for about a week. It’s sort of like my trips to Germany… I don’t speak the language (and unlike Germany I can’t really decipher the signage; except that most f them here are tri-lingual, so I can * but not with any rapidity). As with Germany I don’t mark as being foreign (I suspect the beard I’ve grown since Sept. last, married to my hat-wearing habits, has something to do with this. {photo}), so I get a lot of Hebrew tossed at me when I do things like go for my morning coffee. This means I don’t feel out of place when walking about (which I sort of did when in Korea), but am at a moderate disadvantage when dealing with random interactions (which was not true in trips to Ukraine).
Jerusalem. Setting aside any religious sentiment I might have, it’s a city pregnant with meaning.  I was reared in the USA. I am a grandchild of Europe and a student of history. That, in itself will color one’s views. When Reagan said the US was a City on a Hill, he was making reference to Jerusalem. When people use the metaphor of “Crusade” it refers to Jerusalem. For a good three thousand years the ability to control trade has meant people fought for control of the city on these hills.

That’s on top of the religious significance three different groups attached to it. Which significance led to Rome’s most troubled province, and the revolt it had the hardest time suppressing **. Jerusalem was seen as the center of the world for a large part of the history which shapes the culture Westerners grow up in.

The same way being a Native English Speaker makes London something of a mental homeland, so too does being reared with a European perspective give a strange sense of place to Jerusalem.

But it’s more than that. We are here to visit family. My wife’s cousin has a son who is turning thirteen. We are here for his Bar Mitzvah.  So Israel, which is more than just Jerusalem is place to which I have a direct connection. A connection to which my christian sensibilities also disconnects, in more than a few ways.

But I am also, in many ways, a Californian. How does that relate?  The landscape, and the weather, are like unto  that of “home” (where home is that place one feels innately at ease, just by virtue of being present).  We went to Qumran, and thence to Masada. It was a day of rarity. Neither of our guides had ever been to the Dead Sea on a day of rain.  In Jerusalem the rain came down in buckets. In the wild hills above the sea there we had some rain and the smell of water on dusty rocks. Setting aside my views of the interpretations of the totality of the Dead Sea Scrolls *** I could see myself living a moderately hermetic life in the area. The climate, the smell, the appearance are all of piece to the places in Joshua Tree where I was wont to retire to collect my thoughts, when I was living in South-ish California. The hill about Judea, are as those I lived in San Luis Obispo, and wandered when I lived in the San Gabriel, and San Fernando Valleys.  Israel looks like home.

The day before we were in the Old City; though we didn’t go to the Christian Quarter (and I am mixed on visiting it, as I was already seeing pilgrims heading into Israel last week, and next week is Holy Week; which means crowds, married to the decided risk of encountering the sort of Fundamentalist American Christians I don’t enjoy being around when they are home. I don’t know how tolerant I can be of them here ****). But we went to the area of the Hulda Gate, and wandered the layered ruins, running a mixed gamut from the Umayyids, to the Second Temple and the Byzantines, and the Outre Mer and some First Temple. My spiritual landscape piled in heaps; with bits of order in the rubble.

Standing on the far edge of the Valley of the Cross, looking at the geography all the military history I’ve read: from the accounts in Kings, and Numbers, to Josephus,  and then the Crusades, and Lawrence, and Allenby and the War of Independence; et sequelae… all of it made plain by the way the hills, and walls, control the valleys. It’s a nexus; all trade passing here is controllable. That, married to religion, has made this small patch of dirt a cockpit for not less than 3,000 years.

Which brings us back to Masada, not the Masada of landscape
It’s a lot to digest.



*which is, like a Rosetta Stone, helping me acquire the skills to decipher the signs
** which is a large, if not the greatest, reason for the anti-semitism in the Gospels. Rome was REALLY pisssed at Judea. They expelled all the Jews from the province, and renamed it Palestinia. They tore out all the trees, and gave it over to grazing, changing the landscape, creating desert and altering the climate. They were doing this while the Ur-text of the Gospels were being written. Sympathetic treatments of Jews weren’t going to be any help in converting Romans to Christianity, but I digress.

*** I don’t think they are all the work of the sect in Qumran.  I think de Vaux engaged in a lot of overreach as he ascribed all the discovred texts to Qumran, and tried to shoehorn some very divergent ideas into a coherent whole. I think either they were texts brought with candidates to the group, and so discarded as not relevant (with the option to be reclaimed if they decided the community was not for them), or they were the valuable objects of people who were fleeing the chaos further North as rebellion approached, then raged.

**** I already had to bite my tongue at Katros’ House where someone tried to engage me in the horrors of American Divisions; given that they were giving off a strong Fundamentalist vibe.


On JCW and heresy:

Teresa Neilsen Hayden asked me to elaborate on a comment I made that John C Wright has heretical views on the nature of the Eucharist, Free Will, and the nature of the divine.
This is what he said.

“I was unaware that he [Nielsen Hayden] was a Roman Catholic. This is cause for immense hope. He could go tomorrow, nay, today, to a confessional booth, receive the sacrament, and save his darkened soul from damnation. He could take the host tomorrow, nay, today, and the evil spirit of malice, greed, stupidity and sloth which had been darkening his intellect and casting such a shadow of malodorous corruption across our whole genre could be fumigated, or, to use a more accurate word, exorcised. It could happen in a moment, in a miracle. All of the last twenty years of crap that has been given awards, and all of the careers stifled or ruined by this man, all the promising books that never saw the light of day because they were shouldered aside by poorly-written uber-Leftist propaganda penned by freaks who hate our genre and despise our founding members — all that could be forgiven by heaven and not held against Mr. Hayden’s account on Judgement Day.”

There is a lot to unpack in this: and a lot of it has to do with (I think) Wright’s late conversion to Catholicism. It’s got nothing to do with his having been an atheist prior to his conversion to Christianity (at the age of 42). I think it has more to do with 1: the general nature of Christianity we see in the press. 2: that he converted to a non RC form of Christianity some five years before he joined The Church*.

Roman Catholics do not believe in pro-forma, magical, salvation. There is no certainty for any of us. In fact the baseline assumption is none of us, not laity, nor clergy, no, not even the pope, is guaranteed a place in heaven; most of us, even the most devout and observant, will still be short of the purity of spirit to get into heaven directly, and today’s sanctity is no guarantee of tomorrow.

This is at odds with much protestant (esp. Born Again) doctrine. As a general rule protestants believe those who have been “saved” go straight to heaven. Everyone else goes straight to Hell. Grace, and grace alone, is all you need. Among many of the Born Again sects, once you have that grace, it’s yours forever. Get “saved” at eight, commit mass murder at 30, go to heaven when you die.

Which brings me to the magical thinking of Wright.

“I was unaware that he {Nielson Hayden] was a Roman Catholic. This is cause for immense hope. He could go tomorrow, nay, today, to a confessional booth, receive the sacrament, and save his darkened soul from damnation. He could take the host tomorrow, nay, today, and the evil spirit of malice, greed, stupidity and sloth which had been darkening his intellect and casting such a shadow of malodorous corruption across our whole genre could be fumigated, or, to use a more accurate word, exorcised.”

What rubbish. Earlier Wright averred that Patrick was a “Christ hater”. Why? Because Patrick is not a reactionary zealot on social issues which Wright sees as horrible (things like the equality of women, and homosexuals; the use of contraceptives, choice, etc.). So Wright seems to think that if one comes to the Sacrament of the Eucharist with a clear mind. and an open heart, the mere act of taking the wafer will cause one to suddenly become a reactionary Catholic.

I can’t tell you how offensive that is to me, as a Catholic. It strips us of the thing which most shows how we are made in God’s image. We have reason. We have free will. At the risk of grave oversimplification the entirety of Doctrinal Argument, over some 2,000 years is how to reconcile those two things with the idea of a just and loving God.

At the risk of excessive digression, every time someone who is anti-religion whips out some “gotcha” question I have to laugh. I’ve yet to hear one that hasn’t been asked before. There is nothing new under the sun. If Augustine didn’t grapple with it, Aquinas did. What they glossed, Francis, and Ignatius, and Benedict, and any number of parish priests have grappled with, from the least of problems (my husband snores, my wife always undersalts the soup) to the great and terrible (why do good things happen to bad people, why to bad things happen to the good).

Some of the answers are facile. Some are subtle. Some bring cold comfort; and some uplift the soul. All of them, are the fruit of reason (filtered by belief, dogma, and doctrine). Over time those have all changed. The world is not static, and no one gets to put God on retainer†. Not only that, but Wright is arguing that if one takes the Eucharist with a properly pure heart one will suddenly be changed in a John C Wright sort of Roman Catholic.

Which is interesting, because many of John C Wright’s beliefs are in direct contravention of Church Doctrine. He has argued:

Since sex is ordered toward reproduction, anything that hinders it is an imperfection. Prudence, if nothing else, would warn potential mother and potential fathers not to do the act which makes you a mother or a father until you have a household and loving union ready to rear children.

This is not what the Church teaches. 1: Birth Control is not forbidden. Contraceptive devices (in which I include hormonal BC) is a venial sin. But using rhythm isn’t prohibited (and using tools to make one’s use of rhythm more effective doesn’t count as a “device”). 2: The Church thinks sex, just for the sake of sex, is just fine. Yes, it needs to be in the context of marriage to not be a venial sin, but that’s it. Venial sin. Married people are enjoined to have sex, just for the sake of sex, because it’s good for them.

Venial sins are minor.∞ The Church divides sins into two categories. Venial, and Mortal. Mortal sins will lead one to Hell. To avoid that we have to confess our sins. We don’t need a priest (though it makes things easier). Even a Mortal sin, confessed to God, with a sincere heart, can be absolved without anyone else being involved (though the conditions in which that happens are the sort where screwing up, and not getting the confessing done are more likely, it’s a deathbed realisation one has really screwed up. Most of us have time between something like bearing false witness and our dying day, to admit we did it, and pursue making formal amends).

Moreover, what Wright is railing about are not personal actions; they are the attitudes of lots of Catholics to matters of public (as opposed to private) life. My religion prohibits all sorts of things (e.g. praying to other gods). It doesn’t prohibit other things (e.g. mixing linen and wool§). What it also doesn’t do is demand that I make my faith the law of the land. Really, it doesn’t. It abjures me to look for the divine in everyone. It enjoins me to be compassionate and merciful. It enjoins me to obey the laws of the nation in which I live. It might be taken that it commands me to be publicly opposed to some things. Even in that, the things Wright rails against, e.g. “sodomy”, aren’t things I am enjoined to persecute; even if I am expected to abjure them for myself.

The Church has some fucked up ideas on homosexuality. Not gonna argue. I think them more subtle than most outside it do; and while I understand (and sympathise with) those who, having suffered as a result are furious with Her for what She has done; and for what She has failed to do, I also know that Pope Francis has said things which should make Wright feel shame for his failure to be a dutiful son of The Church.

So, looking at Actual Doctrine, and at what Patrick has said publicly (I cannot speak to his private thoughts. I have no window to his soul**) I don’t see one damned thing to assume he is not taking communion with a pure and open heart. I have no way to know what conversations he has with his confessor. I do know that I have not seen the level of vitriolic hatred toward others of God’s creation as I have seen Wright spewing.

And the idea that God would, to make any one person happy, force the conversion of belief to some other template, that is heresy. It denies the action of free will. It tosses all of the bible out the window. It makes a mockery of thousands of years of thinking, arguing, reasoning, by tens of thousands, yea millions of people of good will.

All because Mr. Wright got his feelings hurt when he tried to rig an election. He might want to think about that, the next time he attempts an Examination of Conscience.

*I am a Roman Catholic, Forgive me my use of “The Church”, but I think it adds some context. As to my religious belief… I am a Catholic of heterodox practice. I am Quaker adjacent, an adherent of Liberation Theology, went to parish schools for portions of my primary education, considered taking orders with the Society of Jesus. Ultimately the things about my personal faith which make it useful to me, also led to my realising I have some significant differences about Doctrine, which meant I couldn’t have taken vows in good conscience. I wish John Paul I had not died so soon, that John Paul II had not been pope for so long, that Benedict has been the worst pope in modern memory (and that his effect on the Church in his role as Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has done more harm to the body of the church than will be undone without great effort, perhaps taking lifetimes). I have great hope for Francis.

†That is the crux of my doctrinal difference with The Church. Ex cathedra (i.e. the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility on matter of doctrine). I don’t buy it. At a fundamental level I can’t. If it were true then the pope gets to tell God what to do or the pope loses at least some of his free will. Neither is consonant with my faith.

∞There is an argument to be made that the continued practice of a venial sin may rise to the level of Mortal Sin, but that’s a much longer issue; the fundamental question seems to boil down to, “does this harm another person”.

§NB, those are the only fibers one may not mix, per the OT. Wool/poly, not a problem. Linen/cotton, not a problem. every time that list about, “what do I tell my friend when they say” goes around to make fun of the “Fundamentalists” I cringe. I cringe for more than just that, but the thing about that line is it makes it clear it was written by someone who was mining the OT for talking points, and ignoring both the context of the Leviticus/Deuteronomy, and that some 2,000+ years of evolving doctrine have taken place on the Christian side. More than that on the Jewish side (where that restriction still applies).

**Though Mr. Wright pretends to have one into the souls of all who disagree with him: “Support for contraception tempts the weakminded to support the sexual revolution hence to support abortion; support for the sexual revolution require the normalization of divorce, then fornication, then perversion; support for abortion tempts the weakminded to support euthanasia, because human life is no longer sacrosanct, but instead merely an adjunct to human bodily pleasure. Once an otherwise intelligent and decent man is convinced all these abominations and horrors are moral, he has a visceral hatred of morality, of decency, and of honest, and he soon learns to hate decent and honest people.”

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Going Deep

I broke down recently and bought an electric bass.  The guitar and the banjo were plum evading me.  I play (or did) the cello, and the pennywhistle.  Both of those are pretty straightforward.  One note at a time, read the note, put the fingers where the note lives et voila, music.
So I’ve been poking at the basses in the local music store.  Not quite the thing.  Last week we were in, looking to get a guitar for a friend, after we’d been doing some basic work because he expressed interest, and we only had two guitars in the house, so the three of us couldn’t work together.
Across the street we went.  He looked at guitars, and I poked at the basses some more.  A no name job actually felt good.  The action was nice, the tone seemed ok.  So we hooked to an amp, and took it for a spin.  Sounded good.  Felt good.  Was the least expensive bass in the place.
Home it came, with an amp (Vox Pathfinder Bass 10) a strap, a book, a carry case, and a stand.  The stand means I can just pick it up, jack in, turn on and rock out.  Ok, the rocking out is gonna take a while, but bass is my sort of instrument (to my surprise, what with the orchestral musicians quasi-disdain for Bass [there are jokes about every instrument, but Bass and Percussion get a lot more grief than most]).
Oddly, part of what gives me frustration with the guitar is how one (or at least I) need to understand the theory to make it behave, and there is a lot of theory in those six strings. Everytime I thought about tuning methods, capos, alternate fingerings… I was somewhere between lost and overwhelmed.
The bass is no less dependent on theory, in some ways it seems as if might be more so; at least from the reading I’m doing.  The nature of the beast is to provide support and fill for what the rest of the music is doing.  If the guitars are running blues, you need to avoid building a major tone to the sound.
Lord knows the book I’ve got wasn’t helping, mostly (I think, because it assumes one has zero knowledge of music theory.  Telling me that Dorian mode C Maj, from the second, was confusing, infuriating, and mystifying all at once.  When I figured out that he was teaching the static pattern (because the base is [unlike a guitar] possessed of a completely regular progression from one string to the next) it made perfect sense.
So, for all that I want some of the theory (specifically in re chords), I probably have enough musical skill to make being able to play the bass a matter of practice.  Getting better than “not horrible” will take application, and expertise/mastery/getting really good, will take dedication (in this all things are much of a muchness), but it’s not opaque to me, as so much of the guitar still seems to be.
I can do this.

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Everything old is new again

I got a new laptop: the old one is working well enough, but was a bit cranky at times (being left alone seems to make it unhappy, and sometimes it just locks up if left unattended). I also fell in love with Dragon Age, which meant it wasn’t going to be enough. It can run Dragon Age II, after a manner of speaking (when the graphics card gets overloaded I had to close the window to get it to come back) but it won’t even launch DA:I.

I was, however, planning to keep it because my preferred application for working photographs is LightZone, a program which wasn’t able to compete with the behemoth which is PhotoShop.  It was written for XP, but when I got the last machine (running Win7, and bought because I wasn’t going to let them force Win8 on me: this machine was bought because I knew WinX was on the way, and glad I am of it.  Win8 is so annoying I’d rather be running WinME, but I digress) I discovered it was orphaned.  The team had folded up shop.

But it could still be downloaded and was, fundamentally, stable.

This morning, on  whim, I decided to see if it was stable in Win8.  I popped it into Google and lo!, they have released new versions as open source.  So I called my father and gave him the good news.

I like it because it’s built by someone who grew up using  darkroom.  It’s not “intuitive” (I don’t think that’s a useful word for user interaface in the first place, because it implies there is some Platonic Ideal which all users will “just understand”, that’s bullshit, and leads to assumptions of PEBKAC when it’s nothing of the sort), but once one gets the idea (which is that of Adams/White and the zones between black and white), it’s graspable.  If one has internalised that idea (as one must to become good at black and white darkroom printing) it seems intuitive, because it’s familiar (and if you read Ctein’s “Post Exposure” [available for FREE: here: probably until such time as Ctein does a new edition: it’s not as nice as the print edition, but it’s out of print, and this can be read on a tablet], this is the sort of thing he’s talking about).

Gah… that lost the plot.  I like it because it plays with images the way I learned to play with them, back when my fingernails were brown from fixer and smelt vaguely of vinegar from slopping in and out of D76.

So, it looks as if I’ll be trying to find a new home (or new use) for my middle aged laptop.  Happy days.


P.S: the HP envy series have less than stellar keyboards.  The click isn’t positive enough and I find I have to work more to be accurate: as well as pressing harder, so my arms get tired faster.  I hope I get used to it.

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Another of the “Lost Secrets” school of stories:

The “Ulfberht” swords:

Ignoring the guy they have chopping away in the opener (his technique is terrible, no way I’d let him play with any of my swords), there is a lot of blather in this, right down to saying the guy they found to make the sword is, “one of the few people on the planet who has the skills to unravel the mystery of how the Ulfbehrt was made”.  It’s bullshit. Lots of people know how it was made.  They talk to several.

The question isn’t how it was done.  I can tell you the basics.  The question is where it was done, how the steel made it to Scandanavia, why it stopped coming, etc.  That the smith they got to take part is good is obvious, but there are a lot of people who could do what he did: sure, in relation to some 6 billion people on the planet, there are only minuscule number who can do it, probably between 20-100,000.  I have a knife worked by a guy in Ukraine which, were you to give him the same sort of steel, I’ll wager he could work up as well (into a knife, I doubt he has a market for swords, and so hasn’t bothered to learn the specifics).

If you look at the documentary, the things they make such a big deal of: how to make steel, mumbo-jumbo about, “the bones of one’s ancestors, burnt to char and used to turn iron to steel…” is rubbish.  The steel came from elsewhere (perhaps from the same area the swordsmiths of Damascus were getting theirs) and when the supply dried up, the blades stopped being that good.

There is no mystical magical “Steel of Ulfberht”, there is just steel, and it got made into a style of (really solid) sword.

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Imma gonna rant some

And it’s likely to be a bit disjointed.


You may have seen the video of the Danish archer who is purported to have “rediscovered” the “lost art” of combat Archery. It’s hogwash. I think I first saw it back in 2013 (because I am the sort of guy who watches such things). I filed it under, “overblown” and forgot about it. Then, last week sometime, a friend asked about it. I dismissed it as being overly simplistic, and moved on.

Then it started popping up everywhere and I started drafting a rant. Then Elizabeth Bear posted her beefs with it, and so I am spurred to actually put pen to paper.

First… it’ s really reductionist. It’s argued that gunpowder so eclipsed archery that it lay fallow for, “hundreds of years” before being reinvented as a sport, and that the “real combat techniques” were lost. Nope. Archery lost out on the battlefield, but in the first case, not so recently as all that (with people still arguing for its merits in European warfare as little as 250 years ago). In the Americas there was still a martial culture using bows and arrows not much more than 100 years ago.

Second, his technique is inadequate to combat: full stop. I’ve been using weapons all my life. I’ve been playing with bows and arrows for… call it 35 years. I’ve used a fair number of types of bows and (because I am that sort of guy) read up on a lot of techniques. Because (in part) I am also something of a nut for military history (as well as having been a career soldier) I’ve read/studied a lot about the actual application of bows, and how they worked.

He’s fast, and (apparently) pretty accurate, but his arrows won’t do squat in a combat environment. As he demonstrates his technique, they aren’t going to be very good at bringing down game either. Why? He short pulls (look at the video, right around the 0:55 mark, he’s not drawing the bow more than a third of its; short, length.

That’s fine for knocking over a lightweight cutout, and it will damage an unprotected person, but it’s not going to be more than a nuisance against someone wearing armor, even so little as what is dismissively scorned as, “quilted”

He argues that speed is the big deal. He’s wrong. It would be if the archer were in a duel, and had to be able to deal with more than one opponent before those opponents were able to engage in direct offense, but that has never been the way archers were used. Archers have always been used en masse, to either deny parts of the field to the foe, or to harass them before the melee phase of the battle (Crecy, Poitier and Agincourt were outliers).

He conflates things to the point of absurdity: seriously… he’s taking prehistoric images from cave walls, to Egyptian tomb paintings, Japanese woodcuts, Assyrian stele carvings, the Bayeux Tapestry, ancient Greek cartoons, Medieval illumination, coinage, and treats them as 1: dispositive, and 2: all showing pretty much the same thing.

Then he argues the things he does is what they show.†

Which they don’t. If you look at the detailed pictures, the Egyptian Pharoah, the woodcuts, the stele carving, all the archers are taking a full draw. As to the “they put the shaft on the outside of the bow”, there is no way to tell. Some of the images aren’t clear enough to tell what the artists thought the subjects were doing. Which is an important point, those pictures weren’t made by the archers, but by artists. Artists can be ignorant of details. Sometimes they change things because it looks better that way.

But those full draws, which he seems to avoid, can be fast. In my teens I spent a lot of time doing archery (and rifle). I had a 35lb fiberglass recurve. I probably shot about 100 arrows at a time, three-four times a week (and the same for the rifle, air-rifles are really cost effective ways to gain/maintain skills, but I digress). M y targets were bankers boxes, about 50 yards away. I’d guess a practice session took about an hour, to an hour and a half. What I was trying to do was keep the arrows bunched. I wanted to have a forest of shafts, about 18” in dia. I started with about 24 arrows. When enough of them got dinged past being useful I’d go and get some more. So I’d have between 18-36 functional shafts at a time. I used a hip quiver, and the “stick ‘em in the dirt method (referenced in accounts of Poitier, Crecy, and Agincourt)

So I’d shoot through my supply, Feel what caused the outliers. walk up the hill, collect them, and do it again. Three or four times in an an hour, using the inside rest style of shooting.

I was working to establish rhythm.

I’m not sure he could get the accuracy I did either. (the one example of distance he shows is 70m, and he’s able to hit a cubical target, about 1.5 meters wide. It would be adequate for hunting… if he was close, and using some sort of point capable of causing traumatic damage, but for war… nope, not the way he talks about archery as some sort of super tool.

War bows (of all their stripes) were brutes. They had draw weights of 50-100 lbs (the lighter draw were shorter bows, fired from horseback, more on that in a bit). They had that heavy a pull because they needed to do two things… punch through armor, and carry a long way. Arrows are pretty good at punching into things, if they are heavy (E=1/2mv^2) but they need the initial V if they are going to be more than a massive irritant§. Reports from the 16th century were that Turkish archers could punch through the curaisses of the Hapsburg cavalry. Turkish accounts say that archers of foot had to be able to fire arrows to a distance of 500-600 meters.

The declaration of the student’s proficiency was possible only when he could shoot a pishrev arrow to 900 gez (594 m) or an azmayish arrow to 800 gez (528 m). This particular shot must have been witnessed by a minimum of 4 persons, two being at the shooting spot and two at the spot the arrow landed. After then the archer was recorded to the Tekke’s Registration Book and accepted to be proficient. One of these books remains until today.

But Lars (or his amanuensis) doesn’t actually cite his sources (and when he does, it’s problematic, either images (some of which contradict his thesis) or mythical figures having propagandistic dialogues.

Archery, as with all human endeavor is a creation of culture, and need. It has never been (and never will be) homogenous.

Archers shooting from horseback tended to have lighter bows (in the 50 lb range: English longbows had a pull somewhere between 75-110 lbs. Modern hunting bows are in the 45-65 lbs rangeº). They may have been shorter (as with the bows of the Huns, Mongols, Turks) or not (as with the bows of the samurai). What they had in common was horses.

The Roman complained of the Parthians, who wouldn’t stand still and fight but rather harassed the marching columns, riding up; firing at them, riding away, all before the Romans could form up and engage.

He blathers about how his archery is superior to all the “sport” archers with their degenerate methods. He confuses differences of technique with deviation from purity, and he pretends the way he likes to shoot is the one and only TRUE WAY OF THE BOW.

It’s nonsense. Take his, “rediscovered” idea of, “two-handed drawing”. First all archers use two hands to draw the bow. I think what he means is a style of draw where the bow hand and the string separate in a somewhat equal manner. This used to be called, “The English Draw”. It’s how we think the archers at Agincourt did it. It’s also faster when one has arrows one’s arrows stuck in the ground (as reports say the English were fond of doing).

Mongols, and Turkish, archers had a “push” style, where they set the string on their chest, and stretched out the bow hand. This was faster for use on horseback from a hip quiver; it also had the advantage of keeping the body in a more contained position when doing the sorts of twisting, turning, horsemanship those cultures were fond of.

The Samurai were mounted archers before they were famous for swordplay, but they liked to ride in straight lines, across the face of units drawn up to fight. They also had bows which were large for their power (because Japan didn’t have good woods, for self bows, nor the understanding of glues, sinew and horn needed for the compact recurves common to the steppes). They stood in flat stirrups, and pulled the bow back.

And (to go back to his technique) he’s got a light weight on his bow… I’m guessing not more than 40 lbs, and probably more on the order of 30-35. He’s not pulling all the way back, so he’s got a lot less than that (which is how he can catch an arrow… the nonsense about “splitting one on a blade… just that. Arrows are spinning, they will deflect off before they can split.  Writers in the past talked a lot of rubbish, he’s just perpetuating it.). Can a 35 lb bow pierce mail? Yeah… if the mail is cheap, and the point is thin. That’s a bit part of the drive for plate armor… to defeat arrows (and it did. Those flutes in “Maximillian” armor… more than just decoration, projectiles have their best penetration at right angles, be it arrows or the main gun on a tank).

I could go on (a lot) about the technical flaws in his arguments (and others have). What really bothers me is the question of how it came to be that this took off.

Part of it is simple ignorance. Most people have not made a lifetime study of things like this. This video paints a coherent (too coherent) picture of the “forgotten past”, and has a lot of flashy stuff, none of which is more than cursorily explained (really… WTF is the thing with the bow at the table?… The time he spends reaching back to grab the bow [and arrows lying loose behind him, is less than the time it took someone to stab Kit Marlowe in the eye. Yes, one can fire that close, but there is a reason for the weapon known as an “archer’s sword”)

But a lot of it, perhaps most, is the idea that we missing some secret knowledge, that there are mysteries which have been lost (and some have e.g. the close fit of the massive drystone construction of the Mayans, or the amazing durability of Roman concrete) and that we can “rediscover” them. This is really common with weapons.

Which is what really pisses me off about this clip. Not the specifics about archery, it’s the idea that we are so much less smart than the people of the past, and that the past had “ONE BEST WAY”, which has been lost until now.

It’s the problem of, “The Katana is Better” I get a lot of this in my day job, where one of the things I do is sell cutlery. Oh My God. The blather I hear about Japanese steel; and the myths of how special it is, and how one must study for years with a master before one can sharpen a knife made in Japan… because the steel is so special, and the angle is so precise. It ain’t so. Knives are knives, and sharpening is, as any other skill, a question of application, and practice. I’ve been sharpening things for 30+ years. If you want me to sharpen it, I can (and probably have). It’s not because I spent years in a mountain cave fetching ice cold water from a stream to boil for my master’s bath… nope. It’s because I’ve spent a lot of time dragging pieces of metal on rocks.

Movies (and television… Kung Fu, anyone?) make this worse. They take short cuts. Luke goes to visit Yoda, and Boom! in twenty minutes we see him listen to a lot of half-baked aphorisms, and do some soul-searching and off he goes… a Jedi. Except that he isn’t, because he didn’t stay long enough to have The Master, show him all he needed to know. Andersen actually makes reference to this when he compares himself to Legolas, and with all the jumping and bouncing and spinning and stuff.  Thats dramatics.  Archers were in groups.  They didn’t need to do that.  Most of them just couldn’t (because they were inside a large formation).  As someone who has been in the Army… running and jumping and the like is exhausting.  Add the adrenaline of people tying to kill you, and the accuracy needed to avoid getting dead… goes down the drain.

Even films which try to show that it’s about work, and practice, and diligence (e.g. The Karate Kid, with the tedium of muscle memory shown in the Wax On/Wax Off, and Paint The Fence) suffer from the limits of time. So we have the trope of it being about learning The Secret. That’s what Lars Andersen is selling, “the secret”. He’s ignoring history (if archery was all that he says it is in the two videos I’ve seen, why didn’t it displace swords, and pikes, and how is it that the pathetic firearms of the 1450 managed to displace it so quickly?… oh right, it took years to get good enough for it to be a combat weapon of limited utility). Our ancestors weren’t stupid. If Archery was so powerful as to be the ultimate weapon… they’d have given it pride of place on the battlefield.

Why didn’t Europe have horse archers? Because they couldn’t compete with mounted knights. You can’t really wear heavy mail while managing a horse and handling a bow. The guys who were wearing heavy mail (and later plate) would ride up and fetch you a serious knock with a sword, mace, or spear.

A solid shield wall meant that most arrows were nuisance. If there were spears to chuck , life was gonna suck for the people who were having them rain down on them… while guys they couldn’t do much do were marching up to hack at them with swords.

So the idea that someone, somewhere, was keeping The Secret of ancient archery, and it was “lost” (except that it wasn’t, anyone who wants to look around the internet can find the things Andersen found, and the things I found; and a lot more besides), and now it’s been found is selling something.

What Andersen is selling is Andersen.


†: I don’t know how much of the drivel in the narration is his argument, or the producer of the video trying to sex it up… at root it doesn’t matter, since the video, as seen, is what people are talking about.

‡: Quilted armor was layers of wool, and wool felt. It wasn’t great against arrows, but much more effective against swords than people give it credit for. Being light it also made it easier to run away if the enemy was encumbered with armor.

§: Don’t underestimate the irritant value of arrows. Reports are that cuts, and piercings get ignored (by accident, or design) in ways that having an arrow stick out of one don’t. This is one of the reasons most military arrowheads, even bodkin points, had a protrusion of some sort. It’s also why, the story goes, the Mongols wore undershirts of raw silk… because it let them extract even barbed arrows. That it might also function as a self-administering bandage was a secondary feature.

¶ There are at least two videos of showcasing his arguments, one discusses ambidexterity, the other is more vague, and seems to be talking about the method of draw, not the choice of bow hand.

° Most modern shooters used a “compound” bow, this is a complex arrangement of pulleys, and leverage to cause “fall-off”. The longer the draw, the more energy the archer has to put into pulling the string back, then one has to hold that to the moment of release. When used en masse, the time of holding was minimal, when making sure one is spot on the target it may be a bit longer. The resting energy of a compound bow can be as much as ½ the resting energy of a non-“compound” one. I remember the first time I pulled one (about 40 lbs). I got to the point of “fall off” and thought I’d broken it, so dramatic was the decrease in pressure on my fingers.

Endnote: Some of the comments at antipope are about how hard it is to make a bow… long list of materials and skills. Not so much, at least not for potting small game. I’ve done it. A simple self bow, draw weight of about 15 lbs. The tricky part stabilsing the arrow. I used twine (which is pretty easy to make). Yeah, it cuts range, a lot, but it works, and if I wanted to get a rabbit/squirrel, it’s just fine. Has the advantage of “drag-trapping” a wounded animal.

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The holidays are coming ’round

Which means some of you might be thinking of getting gifts for people. If the people you know happen to like knitting, crochet, or weaving, I can help you out.

Because I will make yarn to order. For a basic yarn (two-ply, semi-woolen), in weights from light to “super chunky), I figure twice the fiber weight is a reasonable exchange.  It’s not so little that I feel I am underselling the market (or my time), nor yet so dear it’s too expensive to consider (roving goes for between $2.50 and $50.00 US an oz, depending on type).

For more complex yarns (e.g. cables,) or more difficult materials (silk, camel hair, alpaca silk) I will probably ask for a bit more than double; because that takes more time/effort, attention.

I mention this now, because it takes a bit of time to get the yarn made (assuming I knuckle down and waste not a minute) a 4. oz skein is two-four hours of spinning singles, a day of rest on the bobbins; and then another hour or so of plying.  Then it’s overnight to set the twist.  Counting in the time for fiber to get to me, and then yarn to get to the recipient, this is the time to start thinking about it, esp. as it’s a first come, first served proposition.

I will also have some skeins available later (right now I have about half a dozen), which will be available for cash.


When the shit hits the fan

I am a prepper’s wet dream.

I’m male. I’m a vet (and a combat vet). I was in Intelligence (and better yet Interrogation, with time spent instructing). I know how to make gunpowder, and turn that into grenades, bombs and rockets.

I’ve studied martial arts. I know how to use bladed weapons. I can ride a horse, and a motorcycle. I know how to make minor mechanical repairs. I’ve studied fortification. I can use swords, pikes, axes, knives, bows, crossbows and firearms. I’ve made cannon.

All of which makes their eyes glaze over as their breath gets short. They see me as some massive asset in the bloodbath they expect to come when The Shit Hits The Fan.

And they are wrong. Not only is that not the likely scenario, even if it were I’m not on their side. I’ve studied history. All those times of death and destruction from one end of, “the world” to the other… were not because society fell apart. Nope, the death and destruction were why society fell apart. The plague comes, people hunker down and try to ride it out (or they move to cities. France didn’t recover the population she had in 1300 until 1900, but the distribution of population changed, a lot).

Preppers don’t get that. Even the ones I’ve interacted with who seemed to get it (that more than just gun and guts are required), still fail to see how things work. I was on a couple of panels with John Ringo a few years ago. Now John seems a tolerably decent fellow, but in the course of a couple of hours of discussion I realised he’d picked up some of the same blinkered ideas that so many End of the World sorts have; mainly that the end will be sudden, and then it’s warlord city.

So when the conversation got to farming, he was dismissive of pretty much everyone; until I told him I’d run a small farm (and I do mean small about ½ an acre). That said, with a bit of work, and some knowledge of what was required, that’s enough to add a fair bit of food to the table for a family of six (which is what I was doing with it).

Some chickens, some attention to the compost and putting in a balance set of crops (such as with the milpa systems in Meso-America) can get a lot of food out of a moderate amount of land. It’s not that tricky to set up, and a small investment in practice (a working vegetable garden is often enough to see what’s needed), and some books are all one needs (that, and seeds).

Want to have fun with a prepper… ask them where they intend to get socks. Most clothes are pretty durable, so it will be a couple of years before the supply of pants, shirts, coats and hats run out. But socks, socks get a lot of wear, and (as one who spent a lot of time in the Army) if they don’t get washed frequently your feet rot. Also, if they don’t get changed/washed regularly, they wear out. I have a lot of socks, and I change them. A four day weekend means I pack six pair (yeah, I might obsess a bit about socks).

That’s where my predilection for books, and futzing, comes in. I’ve done a lot of crafty stuff. I was a machinist for several years. I can run a lathe, or a mill. I understand the basics of using brakes. I’ve done a bit of forging. I make yarn. In theory I can weave.

This is where the preppers fall apart. They think of marauders. They contemplate a world of scavengers, living off the plunder of those fools who didn’t prepare. They imagine Mad Max, and envision the wasteland of the 30 Years War. They forget it was marauding soldiers who made that wasteland.

They don’t know how to make things, and they don’t know how to run things. I’ve been fortunate. The choices I made in my life mean I’ve never been rich. I have (through good fortune, and the help of my friend and my partners) been able to live a life which allowed me to indulge in hobbies which are modern luxuries, but used to be essential skills.

Take my spinning. I have a wheel at home. It cost, all in, about a grand. I paid for about half of it, and my partners kicked in the rest (as an early holiday present). I spin when we watch television or when I need to take a break and compose my thoughts for some piece of writing. I use it as therapy when I see something ungodly stupid on the internet, and as a way to unwind at the end of the day (the moreso when the winter comes and I can’t garden). It is, for me, an interstitial pleasure.

For much of “civilisation” it was an interstitial need. Women did (and do, if you look at the Andes today, as well as the highlands of Afghanistan, parts of India, etc.) spin when they had, “nothing else to do” (women, largely, did the spinning, while men did the weaving). I’ve got a project on spindles right now. I have about an oz. of Merino/silk spun up. I think I might be able to get to an oz. and a half before the total weight is too much to keep working.

That oz. is about 450 yards of fine yarn. To make sock-yarn (you thought I’d forgotten the socks), needs three plies. It happens I intend to spin three singles (ea. of which becomes one ply), and then make some sockweight yarn. For the other singles I have alpaca/silk (80/20) and pure merino. Socks last longer when you have cellulose, like tencel, or bamboo, or silk in them, which is part of why I’m adding to this yarn; but mostly because the fibers I had were blended, and I thought they would be pretty together.

I do most of my spindle spinning (up to about .9 oz. before the spindle start to be too heavy to manage when the train slews) while I’m on the subway, so it really is interstitial. I’m making yarn when I don’t really have a task at hand. I could, read (or play games on my phone, but I do this (and it ties me into the work of women going back some 10,000 years, maybe more). I will probably sell this yarn, so I can afford to buy more fiber to make more yarn (it’s sort of Ourborosian).

So, to get 450 yards of sock yarn, I need to spin about 1,500 yds. of singles (because twisting them up to get the final three-ply will reduce some of the total yardage, which varies based on how tightly the yarn is spun). I’ve spun about ½ oz. of the second spindle in the past five days of commuting, but it’s the sort of thing preppers don’t account for.

They see cans, not chickens (to quote @civilwarbore), and don’t think about the nature of the lifestyle they imagine. Yes, one can be a marauder, if there is a stable society to pillage, but as with any predator, the prey can’t be depleted if they want to survive. Since the actual prey of Vikings, Mongols, Huns, etc. was the fruits of urban cultures, it behooved them to not destroy those cultures (which is why they tended to settle down, and set up shop… thus becoming potential targets for the next wave of marauders).

And they somehow think it’s impossible for people to co-operate. They ignore the aftermath of disaster. New York has a blackout… people come together. Post Sandy, when Lower Manhattan was dark… restaurants were running on cash, or tab. There wasn’t any light, but the gas worked. They didn’t have refrigeration, but they could get deliveries. I stopped into a liquor store, and they offered me lunch. The vast majority of people are, at root decent. Not saints, maybe not even nice, but decent.

So, when I said, in one of those panels, that while I didn’t have experience in lots of things (e.g. I’ve never tanned leather), but you should see my library, John Ringo laughed, and said that wasn’t going to be good for much. Perhaps, for him, it wouldn’t, perhaps he’s not good at research (one of his books says black powder has more energy than smokeless), but for me, they would be.

In part because I trust that other people will pitch in, that we can divide the labor, and find materials to let us make mistakes. Some things (like brewing, and pickling, and salting), I’ve already practiced. But when the “Next Dark Age” comes, it will, as with Rome (both of them) probably be more a gradual loss of the trappings of easier living than some cataclysmic catastrophe.  I know how to do more than I can do (run a herd of cattle, tend sheep, grow grapes, grow cereals, thresh grain, harvest corn, make pots, build ovens, dry lumber, felt wool, make a yurt; or a tipi, build a weir, build a dam, make a catapult (or a trebuchet), fashion bows, entrench a town, set an ambush, cook, knit, plough, sharpen, play pennywhistle, play baseball, football, soccer, skittles, turn wood, make glue, make wine, beer, and vinegar, press olive oil, prune fruit trees, &c. &c. &c.), and I can teach.

And for that, I am as prepared as I can be. Preppers aren’t. Because people who can do violence (and well) are easy to come by (e.g. me). People who can do the rest of it are more common than people think. People who can do both aren’t thin on the ground. And people who value comity will band together, where those who are good at violence will (in all probability) leave the plough as needed, to put paid to those who plan to live off the sweat of other’s labors.