The Mask of Agamemnon


Today I was in Oxford.  The one in England.  The one with the famous university.  The image above has two things in it that are dear to me.  One is my wife.  The other is that mask on the top shelf.  That is the death mask of King Agamemnon.  I saw this at the Ashmolean Museum about ten years ago and since then, I’ve often thought back on it thinking it couldn’t possibly have been real.  Must have been dream or something.  Agamemnon couldn’t possibly have been a real person.

The story of The Illiad is a really crazy, fascinating, violent myth.  It’s full of gods being capricious and manipulating humans to get things done.  Nonsensical things, like starting wars and whatnot.  I mean, if you trace the entire mythological story of the Trojan War, it starts with a wedding on Mount Olympus and ends with a whole lot of people getting killed.  Including some of the greatest heroes in Greek lore.  Basically a typical party on Mount Olympus.

Agamemnon did not die in the war.  He was murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra.  She had her reasons.  I mean really.  Honestly, the dude had it coming.

The mask is really, really cool because it shows that there really is a grain of truth to the whole story.  Maybe more than a grain.  Agamemnon actually did live.  The Trojan War actually did happen.  The city of Troy was excavated by Heinrich Schleeman (sp?) a terrible archaeologist, but a man who knew how to think outside of the book, so to speak.  Finding the city of Troy was amazing because it forced us to really think about what we assume is myth.  Obviously, Eris did not throw the golden apple and Paris was not bribed by Aphrodite so that he could have Helen.  However, is it possible that Helen and Paris did exist and did, in fact, have an affair?

The question of why the Greeks attacked Troy is, perhaps, a mystery that we cannot answer.  I’m not sure if it had any tactical value or was a source of some significant trade good or trade route or what.  But it is most certainly a fact that they did attack and sack and mostly destroy the city.  And it is possible that it was because of some act of infidelity.  This is actually the explanation that I like the most because it lines up with the myth and it’s quite plausible.  Imagine you’re the king of Sparta.  You’re a king.  You have been told all your life that everything you say is basically gospel.  You technically can’t do anything that isn’t already sanctioned by the people because you are the people.  You’re the guy.  You are the decider.  Your wife cheats on you and you want her back and you think to yourself, “Well, Menelaus, old boy, I have thousands of the best warriors in all of Greece and my brother is  also a king with many more soldiers, so all I need to do is find a way to spin this.”

Yeah.  I mean, he probably had to do something to convince the people that this was the right thing.  If Troy had no real tactical significance, there had to be a higher reason to go.  Like a holy war.  And if you read all the plays and the epic poetry, this whole thing was a holy war.  Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter to the gods for favorable winds and their blessings in combat (that’s why his wife murdered him, by the way).  When people are willing to go to those lengths to convince their troops (and perhaps themselves) that this is what’s right, well, crazy things can happen.  Stories that will ring down through the ages (embellished, but essentially true).  That lasting fame is why Achilles went along in the first place, right?

In the end, we will probably never know just how true these stories are, but the mask is proof that on some fundamental level, all that crazy shit happened.  A man named Agamemnon, a king, lived, died, and probably waged war somewhere in between, existed.  And that’s pretty damned cool.

And also a really big argument against the divine right of kings.


Things that Douglas Adams taught me

My favorite author died 10 years ago, today.

I don’t want this to be one of those weepy sentimental things, because Douglas Adams was not a particularly sentimental person. What he was, was a man, a writer, an atheist, with a love of life and a love of humans and the sorts of things that they do that I don’t know if I can hope to live up to.

He was not a satirist, I think. He wasn’t cynical enough for that. He loved the shit out of life too much for that. What he did, was point out all of the things about humans that were absurd and point out how funny they are and how we should all be happy about it. Without all of life’s little absurdities, it really wouldn’t be very interesting.

He was an existentialist, though he might not have used the word. He showed me that life had no meaning, but that this is a good thing.

He taught me what it means to be a “radical atheist.”

He taught introduced me to Richard Dawkins who taught me about evolution.

He taught me that science is ridiculously interesting but reminded me that science is not so interesting that we should forget about life and why science is important.

He taught me that literature is important.

He showed me that even tragedy is necessary.

He taught me a lot of very important things and is largely responsible for the person I am today.

He was my friend even though he didn’t know it. I think he would have liked me.


Self-Publishing. Really just for fun?

This is sort of my little nod to xkcd. It is by far my favorite webcomic. Possibly the best of all possible webcomics.

I’m being a little hard on self-publishing and these days, it is largely undeserved, however, I think the point remains valid, at least for the foreseeable future. Self-publishing is clearly the wave of the future. Many people are doing it and some are making money at it. Blogging is an obvious example of self-publishing that has the ability to create a revenue stream for an independent blogger. For instance, I have made all of five dollars in the last couple years of writing this blog. This represents an actual monetary loss, of course, since I am loaded with hubris up to my eyeballs. No blogger or wordpress domains for me. No, I had to go out and buy a domain and host the bastard myself. I host through inmotionhosting and while I could not be happier with their product, I do take a yearly nontrivial pocketbook hit.

But it’s different when it comes to self-publishing that story that you sat down to write. There is a stigma to it. It’s like, “Why did you self-publish? You couldn’t get it published anywhere else?” This is a perfectly valid criticism, because often it is true. There are few people out there who opted to self-publish for idealistic reasons without ever sending it off to a publisher (though they do exist).

If you are published by a big publishing house, then you have instantly gained a certain amount of credibility. Of course, publishing houses are notorious for publishing terrible books. But that’s just it, isn’t it? For every hack musician that makes it big, there are a hundred exceedingly talented garage bands that never get noticed and only have their little groupies in their hometowns. There’s something personal about that, but you can’t make a living off it.

Self-published authors are the garage bands of the literary world and there is a certain sort of ronin samurai honor in that. They are not beholden to a daimyo. They have no feudal lord. They are independent, rogue artists, who are the future of the art. They are legion and it is from them that the greatest artists emerge.

It is technically the Kindle which makes it all possible, of course (and the B&N variant, the Nook). There are on-demand self-publishing print services like CreateSpace, but, by and large, self-publishing became a thing of the past after the printing-press became corporate. I mean, Ben Franklin self-published (he ran a print shop). But Amazon is sort of bringing back the heady, whimsy-filled days of self-publishing. When anything was possible. Anything. I suppose you could look at it as though Amazon is their daimyo, but it is like this big, indiscriminate daimyo that doesn’t care if it has a bunch of totally weak samurai running around, but I’m inclined to think that, since most of it happens on the writer’s terms, it’s not so bad. So they sell that novella for $.99, and they only get to keep $.35 per copy sold. The customer isn’t out anything if the work is bad. They can always pick up something else. And that is the key to selling a $.99 novella. Indeed, the very format of the novella is likely to make a resurgence as a result of the self-publishing wave.

Anyway, all of this is bringing me to an important announcement. I have self-published a novella. It is called The Harbormaster. It is a martian novella. It is on sale now in e-book edition at both Amazon and Barnes and Noble. You literally can’t go wrong picking it up. It’s very fun.

Oh, and if you don’t have e-reader, smartphone, or tablet, there are PC and Mac apps for both Kindle and Nook editions. If you don’t have a PC or Mac, then you couldn’t possibly be reading this unless you’re some sort of technomancer wizard and probably don’t need a kindle or nook in the first place.

Technically, I get more money if you buy it from B&N, but I think if you click on this handy Amazon Affiliate link, I might actually make up the difference:

And here’s the link to the B&N page in case you have a Nook (or just like B&N).

Wörter wie Honig.

Why sexual reproduction is so popular


There are organisms that reproduce sexually and there are organisms that reproduce asexually. The former outnumber the latter by many orders of magnitude. Hell, even plants have sex on a pretty regular basis–though it’s a sort of kinky, bee-assisted sex. The question is why? Asexual reproduction is far more efficient than its more popular cousin.

In New Zealand, scientists found an astonishing opportunity to test one hypothesis. Snails are known to reproduce both sexually and asexually. In the fresh waters of New Zealand, both types of snail live side by side. So they could watch, over time, the changes in populations.

Here’s the thing. Evolution is affected by pressures. Behaviors and adaptations result for many different reasons, but the need to survive appears to be the primary factor in most adaptations–there are exceptions to this, of course. And so, the fact that sexual reproduction, which is terribly inefficient, is more popular than asexual reproduction is something of a mystery. Aside from the fact that it’s more fun.

They hypothesis that these researchers in New Zealand were testing has to do with parasites. Parasites infect all organisms. Consider that a population of snails that reproduces asexually essentially just clones itself off ad infinitum. Every child is genetically identical to its parent. It inherits all of its parent’s strengths, and, more importantly for this discussion, all of its weaknesses.

The offspring of a species that reproduces sexually is genetically unique, as it’s a sort of random mixture of its parents’ genes. So what’s a parasite likely to have an easier time with? A species that’s always the same, with the same defenses and the same weaknesses to exploit? Or a species whose members are always going to be different, have different chemistries, have different defenses?

The study showed that the population of asexually producing snails showed a marked reduction over time as a result of infection from parasites. The sexually reproducing snails showed a far more stable population trend and far less susceptibility to infection by parasites. The evidence seems to show that the evolution of sex was influenced strongly by parasites.

The thing that I find interesting about these findings is what they mean when examined in light of other things that we know about sex evolution.

Consider: Sex evolved as a defense against parasites. Once it became established as the dominant reproductive activity, sex took on a life of its own.

Peacocks have these long, ornate tails that serve absolutely no survival purpose whatsoever. They are purely a result of sexual selection. They are used to attract a member of the opposite sex. In fact, survival-wise, peacocks must strike a delicate balance between ability to attract mates and ability to escape from predators. The tails are a hindrance in a survival situation, but they ensure that their genes will be passed on. And so there are two completely separate pressures affecting the size of peacock tail feathers. One pressure creates a trend toward a smaller tail and other toward a larger, more showy tail. A very interesting tension.

But then look at humans. We are interesting because, not only are we social creatures, but we are also sentient. The most intelligent species on this planet. Sexual selection in humans is a far, far, far, more complicated affair than even that of peacocks. Look at the bizarre and strange rituals that humans adopt. Look at the prejudices, the tragedies, the arguments, the problems, that all arise as a result of a defense mechanism against parasites.

Sex brings out the absolute worst in humankind. I suppose it wouldn’t be poetic if it weren’t also true that sex can bring out the absolute best in humans as well. Poetry and literature as we know it would probably not be possible if it weren’t for sex.

I just got married. I couldn’t be happier about it. I don’t necessarily believe that monogamy is the only way that humans can (or should) interact on a sexual level, but I have made a choice to join in that sort of relationship. The fact that we can choose what sort of relationship we want to be in is probably one of our biggest problems because anyone that wants to have a different sort of relationship than what is deemed normal is often ostracized or worse.

Perhaps the best literary example of what came about as a result of sex is the Trojan War. Imagine it. Helen of Troy. The “face that launched a thousand ships.” And also spawned one terrible Wolfgang Petersen movie. All of that, because of parasites.

Maybe the Transformers are better off without it.

Maybe not.

Liebe ist in Ihrem Herzen.

A Funny Thing About Harry Potter

harry and snape

Some years ago, I wrote a post on my old blog about Harry Potter and certain moral issues pertaining to it. At the time, I had primarily been lamenting the fact that these kids at Hogwarts never take an English class. I mean, they’re growing up to be illiterate wackos with the power of the cosmos at their fingertips. Dangerous to say the least. But at the time I was also taking issue with the fact that they never learn science. It’s not like it doesn’t exist. There’s the muggle world, where tons of people are doing science every day, but the wizarding world is totally ignorant of this fact to their own detriment. Finally, I figured that the existence of magic ought to be utilized for humanity as a whole, and not just for the people who could wield it.

I was, essentially, being deliberately obtuse. Obviously I understand that nature of the narrative. I am a huge fan of the Harry Potter books and enjoy the films as a visualization of the stories that were so carefully told in the novels. Rowling is a wizard of a sort herself. A wizard of words, if that isn’t too cheesy for you. But it’s more than that. Her prose itself is not really that sophisticated. It’s more her ability to build a universe that doesn’t fall apart two days later. The world in Harry Potter is actually quite stellar. It’s an entire mythos that’s very fun and engaging.

In some fictions, we get pretty generic settings. Take for instance, one of my favorite sci-fi television shows: Firefly. It’s an incredibly generic sci-fi setting that is only held together by the strength of its characters and the writing. I mean, a sci-fi western is a really cheesy idea that has been literally done to death. And yet, a stellar cast with great chemistry, great acting, and helluva decent script make the show what it is.

But in Harry Potter, we have a setting that carries its characters. Let’s face it, most of the characters are cardboard cutout archetypes, Harry Potter being the worst, most boring offender. He’s an utterly one-dimensional character who, despite this fact, we actually manage to cheer for. Who is he really? In a high-school drama, he’s the jock. Think about it. If it weren’t for that British accent, you’d have exactly the character in the above image.

I watched the new film last night and it did not disappoint. I’ll spare you the details, because they’re not relevant. Suffice to say, it is and does exactly what it’s supposed to be and do. It is satisfying in that you can watch it once and never have any pressing desire or need to ever watch it again. In a sense, it was a blessing to get it over and done with at the midnight showing.

It was fun, but the films, moreso than the book, have this thing called set dressing that highlights some of the holes in the world that Harry Potter inhabits. A lot of crazy stuff is happening left and right. Terrorist activities by the Death Eaters, right? Just what in the hell is the British government doing about it? I’m talking about the government that governs sixty million beer swilling britons, not the Ministry of Magic that oversees a few thousand (?) magic-slinging ones.

I mean, isn’t there a public outcry to, oh, I don’t know, do something? All I want to know is, how they’re spinning it. I think it’s perfectly possible for the right spin to be spun and still manage to maintain the same narrative, but there’s just this part of me that is absolutely dying to know what’s going on in the muggle world!

Is that because I’m a muggle and, thus, sympathize with them? Is it because I’m a compulsive critic who’s always looking for flaws and problems? Who knows? I invite anyone and everyone to think up headlines that might appear on TV and in muggle newspapers to explain these catastrophes and post them in the comments section.

verbotene Künste.