The Woman with Lapislazuli in her Teeth

I’ve had this tab open for ages because I really wanted to share this story with you, which is cool and sad atb the same time, as it shows how modern notions of society have clouded the vision on the past.

What Anita Radini noticed under the microscope was the blue—a brilliant blue that seemed so unnatural, so out of place in the 1,000-year-old dental tartar she was gently dissolving in weak acid.

It was ultramarine, she would later learn, a pigment that a millennium ago could only have come from lapis lazuli originating in a single region of Afghanistan. This blue was once worth its weight in gold. It was used, most notably, to give the Virgin Mary’s robes their striking color in centuries of artwork. And the teeth that were embedded with this blue likely belonged to a scribe or painter of medieval manuscripts.

Who was that person? A woman, first of all. According to radiocarbon dating, she lived around 997 to 1162, and she was buried at a women’s monastery in Dalheim, Germany. And so these embedded blue particles in her teeth illuminate a forgotten history of medieval manuscripts: Not just monks made them. In the medieval ages, nuns also produced the famously laborious and beautiful books. And some of these women must have been very good, if they were using pigment as precious and rare as ultramarine.

Read the whole story here.

Behind the Iron Curtain part 29 – Crime

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.


Today, if I want to see the official crime rate in my country, I can just go to google and look it up. There are even handy pre-made comparisons with USA to be found. When I was a child, this was not the case, and essentially nobody knew what crime rate the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic actually has.

But it was not due to the nonexistence of internet as some might think. It was due to state’s secrecy about matters that might speak unfavourably about the regime.

Part of our education were occasional visits of schools by party dignitaries, local law-enforcement officers or border patrol officers etcetera. On several such occasions the talks veered into the territory of law trespassers and sometimes some kid has asked “how much crime X happens”? Invariably, the answer to this was “that is a state secret”. So nobody, except a few officials, had a chance to know pretty much anything specific.

But I do not want to talk about some generic crime rates today, I want to concentrate on one specific crime and how it was used to control people – unemployment, or, as it was officially called, “the crime of parasitism”. Under the regime, everyone had a right to a job, but that came with the duty to have a job. Every able person had a duty to work and it was literally against the law to not fulfill this duty.

And whilst it is reasonable to have measures to discourage or perhaps even punish slackers and hangers-on in a social state, that was not the only purpose and the only use of the law. Because since jobs were to great extent assigned centrally, the state had a huge control over what kind of job one can get, or whether one can get a job at all. And therefore political dissidents were sometimes pushed to jobs where it was clear that they are at odds with their qualifications and needs, so they could eventually be pushed towards joblessness – and thus criminalized. It was also a way to completely criminalize any form of sex work, which officialy did not exist so any sex worker was automatically a parasite without the regime having to acknowledge even the existence of sex workers publicly.

In TV there was a regular broadcast “Federal Criminal Headquarters Searches, Advises, Informats” where names and faces of searched criminals were shown so that general populace can help in finding them. I did not give it too much thought at the time – it was just one adult thing in the background – but I do remember hearing the phrase “is searched for the crime of parasitism” quite often. In retrospect today I wonder how many of those people actually were real moochers and how many were slowly and deliberately pushed out of society for being inconvenient to the reigning powers.

Slavic Saturday

My oral graduation exam in highschool* was not looked forward to by my Czech language and literature teacher.  All the others (Biology, Chemistry, German language) have expected me to do reasonably well or even excel, but he had some reservations. I already had a 1 for my essay writing, but the oral exam was essentially going to be about history of Czech literature, and I had great dislike towards learning that history.

The reasons for this were multiple. Firstly history was taught as a sequence of dates  and names to memorize, and I have always had very, very poor memory for numbers and names, despite having excellent memory in general. It is extremely difficult for me to remember birth dates, even of the closest people I know. Secondly I was never convinced by the argument that learning history is important in order to avoid repeating mistakes, because I saw very early on that the whole of history actualy consists of repeating said mistakes by people who knew about them. And thirdly I did not go on well with that teacher on personal level.

So my knowledge of Czech literary history and theory was very, very sketchy. I have honestly tried my best to memorize all the dull and unpalatable shit that I was supposed to know for the exam, but it just did not hold. About the only thing I had a really detailed knowledge about was Karel Čapek, because I liked his books and I have read everything he wrote that I could get my hands on. The teacher knew this and later on I learned that he actually expressly said that he is apprehensive of my exam because “Čapek is all (Charly) knows”.

I was lucky during my exam. I have drawn a question where the main component was some poetry shit I knew nearly nothing about, and secondary question was something vaguely connected to Karel Čapek. I took my chance when preparing my notes and during talking I managed to drift to Čapeks works just after a few sentences and I stayed there talking in minute detail for the whole 15 minutes the exam took. The teacher, relieved, has let me. The observing teacher (an independent assessor from another school) did not intervene either, for whatever reason. And so I got lucky and passed.

Actually, to say that I liked Čapek is an understatement, I admired him greatly. Čapek is in my opinion unsurpassed in Czech literature. Very progressive for his time, and, above all, a fervent pacifist. In today’s world he would probably be left of Bernie Sanders, but he would not be radical leftist in a real sense of the word “radical” not how it is viewed in Anglophone world today, where anyone arguing that not everything should be privatized is labeled as radical leftie. He might even be accused of centrism by true radicals.

Čapek was very outspoken critic of Nazi Germany and its policies, so much so that his personal safety was threatened by local Nazi sympathisers. Allegedly some friends recommended to him to carry a weapon for self-defense after he received death threats, but his commitment to pacifism was such that all he could manage to do was to carry a small starter pistol and when confronted about it he replied “I know that I won’t hurt anyone this way”. Many of his works center around criticizing authoritarian regimes, social injustices and war horrors, and there is absolutely no uncertainty about where he stood on social issues.

But he did not like Marx and communism. And neither do I. And to this day I think his essay “Why I am not a communist” bears weight. Some parts are of course not well aged after nearly a hundred years (the casual sexism f.e.), some parts can be seen as predictive of the massive social and scientific failure that was Russia under Stalin. If we are to learn from the mistakes of the past, I would everyone recommend to go, read that essay and think about it.


*the closest translation I can get to anglophone equivalents)

 

Slavic Saturday

Czechs and Polish languages are reasonably similar. Not mutually intelligible, but similar enough that we can somewhat understand each other when spoken very, very slowly (which can be hard, especially for Poles). Our histories are also reasonably similar – both our nations wandered in from east and south, displaced local Germanic and Celtic nations, both established their foot on the ground by fighting and subjugating smaller slavic tribes and selling them to slavery to richer tribes to the south and west. Both eventually became big kingdoms of significant clout and with great ambitions.

But whilst the Lands of the Bohemian Crown were torn from within with Hussite wars and subsequently came as a whole under Habsburg rule, the Poland-Lithuanian commonwealth was not only torn from within by squabbles between its different religious and national groups (like Orthodox Cossacks vs. Catholic Poles), but the part of commonwealth inhabited by Poles was itself totally plundered by Swedes and in few centuries torn from outside and divided between Austria, Prussia and Russia. This difference in historical development has, to my mind, played a significant role in one of the most significant cultural differences between our nations today.

I was blissfully unaware of this difference until my twenties when I decided that a literate and educated person should have at least passing knowledge of the writings of Henryk Sienkiewicz. I have already read one of his books as a child – In Desert and Wilderness – but that is more or less just an adventure book, nothing special (with extra helpings of racism, which flew over my head at that time). I have decided to start with Quo Vadis, because that is his most prominent book internationally and has brought him in the end the Nobel Prize in Literature.

And thus my attempt at reading his works started … and immediately ended. After I have read Quo Vadis I was left with a huge “What The Actual Fuck Did I Just Read?!?” feeling and I could not bring myself to pick up that book or any other of Sienkiewicz’s works ever again. I was appalled, I was totally disgusted and repelled. The writing is excellent, I have no reason to not believe that it is historically well researched, the story is captivating but…

The whole book reeked to me of christian, specifically catholic, propaganda. And this is the difference that I was talking about.

The Czech nation has undergone internal religious divide around Jan Hus, a significant portion of it has challenged the authority of the Holy Roman Church, was beaten into submission and had Catholicism forced it. But it retained some religious diversity and freedom throughout – and ever since then there always were Catholic Czechs as well as Protestant Czechs living with each other in no insignificant numbers. When national revival came, Czechs did identify mostly around shared language and religion has always played second fiddle (even though Catholics were seen as “no true Czechs” by some, that point of view never really became mainstream) and that fiddle became more and more insignificant with each generation ever since.

Polish nation was beaten up from outside and divided into different empires, each with different ruling religion – Orthodoxy in Russian Empire, Protestantism in Prussia and a teensy bit in the predominantly catholic Austria-Hungaria. And although they were not persecuted due to their religion per se in their respective parts throughout this whole time, language as well as religion remained at the core of Polish identity for most, because the non-polish invaders were also mostly non-catholics.

And thus, through a complicated historical route we arrive at present situation. Czechs are one of the world’s leaders in “Not Giving A Fuck” about religion, and Poles are still predominantly actively observant catholics. Czech Republic has freedom of religion, freedom from religion and freedom to say just about anything about any religion you like, as long as you are not engaging in hate speech. Republic of Poland has still has anti-blasphemy laws on books and you can get into trouble for making a mildly amusing parody video making fun or being critical of the Pope.

TNET 30: Woke Brands

I noticed yesterday that TNET is overdue, so today’s video topic is a new TNET too. Sorry for not writing too much lately. I got over the winter depression, but I just did not get any inspiration the last few weeks. Combined with problems at work it made me grumpy and reclusive like a hermit. And to top it all off today I got down with flu-like symptoms, I had to excuse myself from work early due to a splitting headache and at home I found out I have a fever as well.

The latest video by hbobmerguy is really well made and thoughtful. It is important to remember, that corporations are not people, they are cynical and opportunistic entities that might, but also might not, contain good people in them, and rarely (very rarely) some good people might even be at the top management levels. When a company does something seemingly good, it probably is not without ulterior motive.

Open thread, talk about whatever you want, just don’t be an asshole.

Previous topic.

Tree Tuesday

 

This graceful bonsai is the Yamaki Pine and it resides at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington D.C. The tree, a Japanese White Pine, was gifted to the U.S. by the family of bonsai master Masaru Yamaki  in 1976. The tree is close to 400 years old and had been kept in the Yamaki family for at least six generations. It isn’t its age or its looks that makes this tree special, though. This plucky little tree actually survived the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan in 1945.

On August 6, 1945, at a quarter-past 8 a.m., bonsai master Masaru Yamaki was inside his home when glass fragments hurtled past him, cutting his skin, after a strong force blew out the windows of the house. The U.S. B-29 bomber called the “Enola Gay” had just dropped the world’s first atomic bomb over the city of Hiroshima, at a site just two miles from the Yamaki home.

The bomb wiped out 90 percent of the city, killing 80,000 Japanese immediately and eventually contributing to the death of at least 100,000 more. But besides some minor glass-related injuries, Yamaki and his family survived the blast, as did their prized bonsai trees, which were protected by a tall wall surrounding the outdoor nursery.

After going through what the family had gone through, to even donate one was pretty special and to donate this one was even more special,” says Jack Sustic, curator of the Bonsai and Penjing museum. Yamaki’s donation of this tree, which had been in his family for at least six generations, is a symbol of the amicable relationship that emerged between the countries in the years following World War II.

The full story is at Smithsonian.com.

New Books to Read Arrived

The situation at my work slowly deteriorates further*, nobody is sure whether they will have work tomorrow or not, management assurances to the contrary notwithstanding (we have been lied to before). I have already decided that should I get the sack, I will not be looking for a new job forthwith but I will dedicate a year to learning and perfecting my crafts – knife-making and wood-carving.

I already have decent knowledge of metallurgy, some rudimentary knowledge of history and even some skill, but there is a lot of potential for improvement on both the practical and theoretical side. And to expand my knowledge of theory, I have just invested non-trivial money into these beautiful books.

©Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

They arrived today and I am eager to dive into them. I expect to already know some of it, but by far not all, or even most, so I hope to get a real knowledge boost. Which will be of course mostly forgotten afterwards, but that is the way of the world. I still should get out of it ahead knowledge-wise. I glanced through each, some are more pictures than text, some the opposite, but they all seem to be cramped with information on each site and right now I have no regrets of buying any of them.

If anything I still think they are not enough, I wanted to buy much more, but many books that I have got my eyes on were not available. Well, after I am done with these, I will look again. These should occupy me for a few weeks, or even months.

If you have some recommendations on the theme of blade making and blade history, feel free to post them in comments.


  • Honestly, in the pursuit of their greed, american corporate managers are capable of dying of thirst by refusing to drink when given a bottle of water instead of the lake they demanded.

Harakka in Autumn: Chapter 10

Ice Swimmer’s here and today he has rocks to show us. Be still my heart…..

Chapter 10 – Southwestern Rocks on Sunday, I

Shaped by Ice Age. ©Ice Swimmer, all rights reserved 

The rounded forms of the rocks come from the Ice Age. The bottom of the glacier was full of rocks embedded into the ice that was quite flexible under the huge pressure, grinding the rocks into rounded shapes. [Read more…]

Behind the Iron Curtain part 28 – Guns

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.


Guns were not something one would see every day and in every household. They were indeed very, very rare. But they were not non-existent, there was some limited access to guns for the general populace and I got to see and even handle guns as a child. In fact, shooting was a skill that was positively encouraged, although gun ownership was not.

The most obvious case are hunting rifles and shotguns. I live in a small rural town, and there were plenty of gamekeepers around who were sometimes seen walking through the town with their guns slung on the shoulder whilst on the way to/from the forest. The safety requirement was for them to carry the guns unloaded and I do not remember anyone not observing this.

One gamekeeper was a leader of very small (5 people at most) local pionýr club which I attended, centered around nature and care for it. I learned a lot in that club, including how to shoot a varmint rifle. The gamekeeper took us one day far into the forest, to an inaccessible spot near a place where WW2 american aeroplane fell into bog, and he allowed us to take turns in shooting varmint rifle at a paper box hung from a tree. I still remember how my childhood bully (who was unfortunately also a member of the club) got dismayed that my shooting was better than his. But the best shot in the group was of course boy who had a gun at home.

A gun at home, you say? Impossible! Well, air guns were not illegal, although they were not cheap and easy to come by. Everybody got a chance to shoot them at some point. Shooting competitions were very common on fairs when the merry-go-rounds came into town, and they were also ubiquitous in summer camps for kids. Boys and girls were equally encouraged to learn shooting from the regime, although the general culture saw this more as a “boy’s” thing.

The regime wanted everyone to know at least the basic of how to shoot a gun, and since military service was compulsory for men, every man eventually learned how to handle firearms, including automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Not everybody got a chance to handle those weapons outside of military or People’s Militia, but in my town everybody got to see them. Because it is a border town near the iron curtain, and the border patrol was everywhere. Seeing an AK-47 was not something completely unusual, especially outside the town limits.

But getting your hands on one was more difficult. And getting your hands on ammunition even more so. The access to guns was very tightly regulated, and this had one positive outcome – no mass shootings whatsoever. When Olga Hepnarová, an infamous mass-murderer, has planned her deed, she initially wanted to either set off explosives or shoot a crowd from an automatic weapon. She learned how to shoot – which was easy – but was later forced to change her plan due to the difficulty of getting a gun and ammo So she decided to use a truck instead and managed to kill 8 and injure 12 people. American gun-nuts would no doubt use this as a proof of “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, but to me it is a proof that gun regulations work, because there is no doubt that had she had easy access to guns, the damage she would do would be even greater.

Fossil Find

An interesting find from Avalus.

I found this little piece of (oil) shale next to roadway currently under maintenance/construction. It is the imprint of a fern and something else. The stone might have come from the near Saar-region, where coal was dug up from the ground. The ‘waste-rocks’ are used as road-gravel.

‘We are walking on history’ gets a deeper meaning here, I guess.

(I need to take a picture of the fossil fern next to a living fern in spring :) )

schieferfossil, ©Avalus, all rights reserved

Cracking the Iron Curtain

[Note: This is not a historian’s overview of the events, so if you want to pick at the historical details, feel free to do so but don’t expect me to participate. I have compiled several sources of information and added my own personal impressions. That is all.]

It was two weeks in the frigid January air, two weeks waiting for an unknown future, two weeks that culminated in a night of violence but a final victory, of sorts.

The Barricades (LatvianBarikādes) were a series of confrontations between the Republic of Latvia and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in January 1991 which took place mainly in Riga. The events are named for the popular effort of building and protecting barricades from 13 January until about 27 January. Latvia, which had declared restoration of independence from the Soviet Union a year earlier, anticipated that Soviet Union might attempt to regain control over the country by force. After attacks by the Soviet OMON on Riga in early January, the government called on people to build barricades for protection of possible targets (mainly in the capital city of Riga and nearby Ulbroka, as well as Kuldīga and Liepāja). Six people were killed in further attacks, several were wounded in shootings or beaten by OMON. Most victims were shot during the Soviet attack on the Latvian Ministry of the Interior on January 20. One other person died in a building accident reinforcing the barricades. Casualties among Soviet loyalists are considered likely, but the exact number remains unknown. A total of 15,611 people have registered as having been participants of the Barricades,[citation needed] but other data suggests that more than 32,000 Latvians took part.

(wikipedia)

There’s a small photo gallery here (25 photos).

[Read more…]

Behind the Iron Curtain part 27 – Propaganda

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.


Marcus has shown old propaganda posters on his blog from time to time, and they are interesting to see, but that is not actually how the main bulk of the propaganda was done during my lifetime. In fact, that is not how it was done in my lifetime at all.

Of course I lived after Stalin has been dead and rotten for a while and the regime has mellowed a bit. But I got to see a lot of propaganda from earlier times nevertheless. And I – and most of my countrymen – do occasionally see it to this very day, and enjoy it. How come?

Because it was in the movies. Czech cinematography during the regime was quite well-off. The regime has recognized the importance of a good story for persuading people, especially children, and they capitalized on this. They shot a lot, and I mean a lot, of fairy-tales and movies for children and young people. The quality was often very high, which is why they are still popular until today – and quite frankly, Hollywood flicks cannot hold a candle to many of them in terms of historical(ish) accuracy and detail regarding the costumes and settings. If this -click- is accessible to you click through a few scenes of the movie and see for yourself. What has helped of course is that medieval architecture of whole streets and even towns is not hard to come by here and need not be built from scratch.

The movie that I linked to is first in a two-movie series about Prague during the reign of Rudolf II, the last Habsburg who made Prague the capital city of the Austrian empire and elected to live there permanently. It is a story of a young baker, who is the emperor’s doppelgänger and gets coincidentally swapped for the emperor at a time when the emperor has drunk a youth potion. The movie was very succesful and according to Wikipedia it was even distributed in USA with english subtitles -click-.

I am not going to relate the whole story to you, but in short the whole movie is about exposing the corruption of a feudal system, the shallowness of people who are always out there for themselves. And the importance of us all just getting along and pulling together in one direction. The selfish and greedy are to be ostracised and punished, and there is no greater achievement than to work for the good of the collective. The good ol’ communism in a nutshell.

And that theme was common in movie production of that time, sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly, but it was always there. As a child I of course did not see anything wrong with that message. As an adult I see plenty wrong with that message.

I agree with the principle in theory, but not in praxis. Because, in the words of Terry Pratchett, it approaches societal problems instead with “this is how people are, what can we do about it?” with “this is how people should be, how can we make them?”. Trying to build a society that depends on most people being an ideal that said society requires to work properly is just as silly as trying to build a society depending on ideal environmental/economic conditions*. The world contains neither ideal conditions, nor ideal people. All people are a complex mixture of selfishness and altruism, bigotry and acceptance, wisdom and stupidity and a lot more in the mix. Similarly all societies contain hierarchies and barriers that are outside of an individual’s control, and a plenty of built-in inequalities and unfairness. And it all changes continuously.

I admit that even today I watch these movies with a pang of nostalgia. I wish the message in them were applicable in real world. It isn’t. It only works in fairy tales.


*I summed it up for myself a few years ago thus: Communism can only work with perfectly round people and libertarianism can only work in perfect vacuum.

Behind the Iron Curtain part 26 – Five Year Plans

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.


This seems like a fitting theme for the beginning of a new year.

A few years ago somewhere around FtB I have said that “socialism doesn’t work” and I got immediately criticized for that statement. That day I learned that some people understand the word “socialism” to mean something different from what it means to me. Because when I say the word “socialism” without qualifiers, I mean the economic system that was practiced in the eastern bloc.

Central to the economy were so-called Five Year Plans, which right until the very end of the regime were touted as the bestest and greatest of things ever, a universal solution to every single economical problem there is. And as it is with universal solutions, it was everything but.

So how did it work? The head honchos of the Communist Party got together, looked at what the economy is doing – how much is produced of this, how much is produced of that, how many people work here and there – and then they have drawn a plan for next year delineating what shall be done in next five years – i.e. how much shall be produced of this, how much of that, and how many people will work doing it. This plan was really very detailed and specific, so not only how much steel ore shall be mined, but also how many cars will be produced, even how much of which agricultural products will be grown etc. The planing also included wages and all costs.

And, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details.

There is nothing inherently wrong in setting a specific long-term goal for yourself, for a company, for a country, or even a conglomerate of countries. The problem is too many and too specific goals. Any change of direction or rescheduling was only possible after the party’s say so, and that has proven too slow and sluggish in today’s world.

The results were twofold.

Firstly the economy could not react to demand for new goods. If during the five-year period a new product appeared for which there was demand, or a demand for an existing product increased unexpectedly, there was no room for meeting that demand. This was one of the reasons for the existence of “under the counter” goods that I mentioned previously. For some goods, like cars, there were waiting lists long many years, even decades. Some goods were sometimes scarce, and not only luxury goods, but even toilet paper and menstrual pads – when those appeared on the counters, they disappeared fairly quickly because everybody stocked up since you never knew when you will be able to buy them again. And people’s grumbling was of no consequence to the manufacturers, because as long as they met or slightly exceeded the plan, everything was officially hunky-dory.

Secondly sometimes goods were produced even if there was no longer demand for them, because meeting the planned target was paramount. A huge waste of resources and manpower. And of course another cause for backwardness. Imagine in today’s world the quick transition from old cellphones to smartphones, which happened in a year. Under the five-year plan a goal would be set to produce X cellphones, so cellphones would be produced for five years, even if a year into the plan the invention of smartphone made them nearly obsolete.

This sluggishness was one of the reasons why the eastern bloc was unable to keep up with the west economically. But the regime had all the best answers and critics were not allowed to speak up, so the system was bone headedly used right until the very end, when the regime started to fall apart.


As a side note, I see similar thinking in today’s USA owned corporations. I have personal experience with two of them. The first one was trying to plan everything centrally, allotting manpower from top down according to the numbers in their theoretical tables and allowing little to no space for local decisions. This has led to a lot of problems and actual waste of money, because instead of workers contractors had to be hired for prolonged times – and in Europe, contractors are more expensive than employees, even when taking into account mandatory severance packages. HR manager tried to tell me otherwise, but when he found out that I can count he shut up and said that he knows that I am right, but the commands from USA say it has to be done like this, so he is doing it.

The second company pretends to give local managers some leeway without actually doing so, and in addition to that forces everybody to use one decision tool, a tool they think is the holy grail of all business tools, the bestest there is, the one solution to all problems. Unfortunately I am not allowed to criticize it or point out its many fold problems in the open, but I have done so to my supervisors, who agreed with me, but were powerless to do anything about it – because despite the pretense, there is still heavy top-down management style. I am very skeptical of everyone who says they have a universal solution. Universal solutions do not exist.