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Archive for November 30th, 2020

Five Books on Julius Caesar, genocidal maniac

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Peter Stohard recommends five books on Julius Caesar:

Julius Caesar was a populist politician and general of the late Roman Republic who immortalized himself not only by his beautiful writing about his military exploits, but also by the manner of his death. Here, British journalist and critic Peter Stothard, author of The Last Assassin, chooses five books to help you understand both the man and what motivated him and some of the people who have been inspired by him in the 2,000 years since he died.

Interview by Benedict King

Perhaps, before we discuss your selection of books about Julius Caesar, you might briefly outline who Caesar was. As a non-Classicist, I think he conquered Gaul and Britain, and brought the Roman Republic to an end by crossing the Rubicon. He was then assassinated and said: ‘Et tu, Brute?’

Yes, he did conquer Gaul—between 58 and 50 BC—killing maybe a million Gauls in the process, also getting too rich and too powerful for traditional Roman politics to cope with him. No, he didn’t conquer Britain—even though his skill as a self-propagandist has often led people to think that he did. He had two goes at invading Britain, 55 and 54 BC, and was knocked back both times—more by the weather than the Britons.

And yes, he did cross the Rubicon, which was a shallow stream between Gaul and Italy. By crossing it with his army, in January 49 BC, he broke the rules designed to keep victorious armies away from Rome, began a civil war and gave the world a new term for an act from which you couldn’t go back.

Four years later, he might have said something like, ‘Et tu Brute,’ when he saw that one of his assassins on the Ides of March was the much loved son of his mistress. But, if he did, it would have probably been in Greek. It was quite usual for educated Romans to speak Greek. More importantly, he was a great writer in plain and elegant Latin. With words he established his place in the minds of his fellow Romans and of millions of people later by saying what he’d done—just as his death defined him for other writers.

By being assassinated he set a standard for thinking about the motives and consequences of assassination. For Romans, how you died was a very important summation of how you had lived. His death cemented what he’d written about what he had done. And the consequences of his death meant that no one ever forgot him.

Your book, The Last Assassin, deals with the pursuit of Julius Caesar’s assassins by his supporters, most notably his adopted son, Octavian, who would go on to become Emperor Augustus. What does that campaign to get back at his assassins tell us about the early establishment of his myth and reputation?

Caesar had many friends, as people who get to the top always do. But it turned out that some of those friends, for various reasons, were also his greatest enemies, so much so that they were prepared to kill him.

They each had slightly different motives, some of which are related to aspects of Caesar’s own character. Some hated him because they hadn’t become as rich under his watch as they felt he’d promised them they would be, or they’d hoped to be. One of them didn’t like him because he’d slept with his wife. Some didn’t like him because he pardoned them and made them feel, by his famous clemency, that somehow he was holding that over them. They felt ashamed of having been pardoned.

Others killed him because they were jealous of other people who hadn’t been as close to Caesar in the hard days in Gaul, but who seemed to have done almost as well as they had. There were lots of different personal reasons. One of them was upset that Caesar had stolen some lions he had planned to put in a circus show.

But they all had this fear that Caesar, even if he wasn’t yet a tyrant in 44 BC, was going to become a tyrant and a single autocratic ruler of Rome. There had been brief periods in Roman history when there had been single autocratic rulers before, but the assassins had this idea that he was going to be different. They couldn’t know that, of course, but they thought he would become a kind of hereditary monarch and impose a different kind of tyranny that they wouldn’t be able to get rid of.

So, they argued amongst themselves, probably suppressing their personal motivations, as to whether it was the right thing to kill a man like Caesar, who had done a great deal for Rome, but who was now on the brink, or over the brink, of establishing a tyranny. Sophisticated arguments were brought to bear about whether they should kill him, or whether the civil war that would probably follow from his death would be even worse.

So, there were these discussions about the evil consequences of tyranny versus a civil war. That discussion was conducted at quite a high philosophical level, but was brought together with a whole lot of those personal motivations for killing him. The philosophical arguments and the individual personal motivations taken together address the issue of who Caesar was.

Let’s move on to the books you’re recommending about Julius Caesar. First up is Et Tu, Brute?: the Murder of Caesar and Political Assassination by Greg Woolf. Tell us about why you’ve chosen this one.

Having to choose five books about Julius Caesar has been a great challenge. Caesar is someone whom you have to look at through many different lenses and prisms. He is not an easy character to see straight up. Looking at him might be compared to looking at the sun. He wasn’t the sun, except to some of his most extreme admirers. But if you try to look at him from one sole direction, it is rather blinding. So, the books I’ve chosen—and Greg Woolf is a very good introduction to this—try to look around Julius Caesar, to look at the ways different people saw him at the time and have seen him since. Woolf’s is a good account of how Caesar got to the Ides of March and what happened on the day. It’s quick and short and a very good start. But there’s also a long section on how the assassination reverberated through history, across Europe and across the Atlantic.

If he didn’t say ‘Et Tu, Brute?’ what did he say?

Et tu, Brute?’ was one of Shakespeare’s many contributions. If he said something like it, it is more likely he said the Greek words, ‘kai su, teknon’, which means ‘and you, my child’ and has been variously interpreted to mean ‘even you, who I’ve loved so much’ and ‘even you, the son of my mistress’ or ‘you, too, are going to be assassinated in your turn.’ Maybe it meant ‘I’ll see you in hell’ or a version of ‘up yours, Brutus.’ The Greek phrase has been interpreted in many different ways and Shakespeare’s ‘Et Tu, Brute?’ was just a convenient way of Shakespeare saying what a Roman might have said.

And just before we get on to the next book: we all know how Caesar died, but where did he come from? Was he born into a senatorial Roman family or did he pull himself up by his bootstraps?

He was born into a good family. All the people we’re talking about in the story, all Caesar’s assassins, were part of the elite, if you like, although the man that I have recently become most interested in, Cassius Parmensis, the last surviving assassin, wasn’t one of the top ones, which in some ways made his eyes a good lens through which to watch the action.

Caesar was a member of one of the elite families which had been rivals, squabbled and cooperated with each other, and fought against each other for hundreds of years, and had made Rome the extraordinary conqueror of so much. Gradually, it turned out that the bigger Rome’s empire, and the bigger the army its generals had, the more impossible it was to control them from the centre. So, Caesar, out in Gaul, with a lot of legions, was a lot more powerful than the Senate, which was supposed to be his master. So the system risked toppling over under its own weight.

But there were still people who thought they could prop it up, that the problem was not the system but Caesar himself. These people were also within the elite—not among the people or the army, who largely loved Caesar, as the assassins found to their cost. These killers thought that, if they could just get rid of Caesar, they could go back to divvying up power in Rome between themselves, as they’d always done.

Let’s move on to American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964 by William Manchester. This is the life of the American general Douglas MacArthur, who was the ruler of occupied Japan after the Second World War. Why have you chosen this book?

This book is a great example of . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2020 at 3:49 pm

Posted in Books, History

Take a look at the effect of “rubber bullets”

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They’re obviously not Smurf bullets, but US police routinely shoot these at people who are protesting and at reports observing protests. Take look a look at what they do (1-minute video).

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2020 at 12:48 pm

The GOP Is a Propaganda Party: Media parasites have taken control of the host.

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A clownfish with a Cymothoa exigua parasite functioning as its tongue. (Christian Gloor / Flickr [CC BY 2.0:])

Amanda Carpenter makes some insightful observations in The Bulwark:

Cymothoa exigua is a terrifying creature.

The parasite enters a fish through its gills, attaches to its tongue, consumes the tongue, and then becomes a sort of new tongue. For the rest of the fish’s life, it swims around with the “tongue-eating louse,” as the isopod is known, operating its mouth.

At first, seeing a photo of it made me recoil. Then, I realized it seemed oddly familiar: It reminds me of the relationship between what’s loosely defined as “conservative media” and the GOP.

For a long time, most influential right-leaning media figures were content to swim alongside the GOP, flowing along in the same general direction. Until Donald Trump came along. Then they saw an opportunity to burrow deep inside the GOP and wield real power.

It worked. So well that the GOP, as an institution, no longer controls its tongue and its craven media parasites are the only thing keeping it alive.

Ask yourself, “Who are the actual leaders of the GOP?” Who truly influences Republican voters?

It’s not whoever the Republican National Committee will nominate as its next chairman. It’s not Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, for God’s sake. It’s the Fox News primetime lineup, the large galaxy of radio and digital outlets clamoring to place their personalities and stories on Fox News, and their vast array of fringy lower-tier knockoffs.

All day, every day, these talkers, writers, producers, and editors set the party agenda. They act as the Republican party’s “war room.” They give favored politicians airtime to solicit donations from their viewers. They go negative on their political enemies. Their stars even headline campaign events to rev up the base and get out the vote.

The ones who are good at it get paid far more by the likes of the Murdoch and the Mercer families to carry out the political agenda than any mere senator or congressman. These talkers, not the elected officials stuck grubbing around shaking hands and campaigning in the streets, are the party’s real leaders.

Donald Trump is almost an afterthought in this context. After all, where is Trump without the glow of the TV camera and his Twitter handle? Nowhere. Long before he announced his candidacy in 2015, Fox primed the GOP base for a candidate like him; the network gave him more airtime than other candidates, including a longstanding call-in segment on Fox & Friends; no one blinked an eye when Fox head Roger Ailes, who had a quarter-century friendship with Trump, began advising the Trump campaign soon after Ailes’s ouster from the network. And beyond and before Fox, the media—news, talk, and entertainment—always have been and always will be Trump’s source of political strength. That will only become more true after he leaves office. He will continue to seek out ratings, somewhere, as sustenance for relevance and survival.

The only question is what channel and whether he appears on the network, owns it, or licenses his name.

Knowing this dynamic within the GOP, it’s no wonder that (to name just one ambitious pol) Sen. Ted Cruz has adopted the posture of an online Twitter troll instead of the constitutional scholar-turned-statesman of the most Republican of the big states. One doesn’t amass a rabid grassroots following by passing bipartisan legislation, delivering on constituent services, or even acting to protect the homeland during a pandemic. The demands of leading and governing in the public interest have never meshed well with the demands of winning and keeping office, but they have never before been so contradictory.

Propaganda Party rules dictate that “owning the libz” and generating likes, retweets, and reactions online are the key to success. In the absence of any policy platform, a new party operating philosophy has emerged among politicians and media figures alike: present Trump-friendly figures in the best light possible and depict anyone who stands in their way as some variation of a socialist, child-eating, Satan worshipper.

Plenty of deep-pocketed investors are down for it; they’re looking to fund more media that will do exactly this. In a piece published last nightNew York Times media reporter Ben Smith found a healthy appetite among media investors eager to “convert Mr. Trump’s political profile into cash”:

“There are a lot of well-capitalized people circling,” said Michael Clemente, a former executive at ABC News and Fox News and former chief executive of Newsmax, who has been part of conversations as a potential leader of a new venture. . . . The noisiest effort is led by  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2020 at 10:48 am

DeepMind’s AI makes gigantic leap in solving protein structures

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Artificial Intelligence has definitely come to pass — though not general AI. Still the specific uses of AI are delivering results at a level mere humans cannot match (though some of us can console ourselves with the thought that, however good these AI are, we created them. (I’m not one of those who can, though, and probably neither are you.) We (humans) find ourselves being spectators, either delighted or dejected depending on the impact on our personal lives, while the AI entity achieves heights of excellence beyond — sometimes far beyond — human capabilities (cf. AlphGo Zero).

This, of course, has been a general theme for a long, long time: a human creation humbling a human (cf. John Henry and the steam drill, Whitney and the cotton gin — and, on a broader scale, the locomotive and a team of strong draft horses.

That plot theme has now arisen in predicting protein folding. Ewen Calloway reports in Nature:

An artificial intelligence (AI) network developed by Google AI offshoot DeepMind has made a gargantuan leap in solving one of biology’s grandest challenges — determining a protein’s 3D shape from its amino-acid sequence.

DeepMind’s program, called AlphaFold, outperformed around 100 other teams in a biennial protein-structure prediction challenge called CASP, short for Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction. The results were announced on 30 November, at the start of the conference — held virtually this year — that takes stock of the exercise.

“This is a big deal,” says John Moult, a computational biologist at the University of Maryland in College Park, who co-founded CASP in 1994 to improve computational methods for accurately predicting protein structures. “In some sense the problem is solved.”

The ability to accurately predict protein structures from their amino-acid sequence would be a huge boon to life sciences and medicine. It would vastly accelerate efforts to understand the building blocks of cells and enable quicker and more advanced drug discovery.

AlphaFold came top of the table at the last CASP — in 2018, the first year that London-based DeepMind participated. But, this year, the outfit’s deep-learning network was head-and-shoulders above other teams and, say scientists, performed so mind-bogglingly well that it could herald a revolution in biology.

“It’s a game changer,” says Andrei Lupas, an evolutionary biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany, who assessed the performance of different teams in CASP. AlphaFold has already helped him find the structure of a protein that has vexed his lab for a decade, and he expects it will alter how he works and the questions he tackles. “This will change medicine. It will change research. It will change bioengineering. It will change everything,” Lupas adds.

In some cases, AlphaFold’s structure predictions were indistinguishable from those determined using ‘gold standard’ experimental methods such as X-ray crystallography and, in recent years, cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). AlphaFold might not obviate the need for these laborious and expensive methods — yet — say scientists, but the AI will make it possible to study living things in new ways.

The structure problem

Proteins are the building blocks of life, responsible for most of what happens inside cells. How a protein works and what it does is determined by its 3D shape — ‘structure is function’ is an axiom of molecular biology. Proteins tend to adopt their shape without help, guided only by the laws of physics.

For decades, laboratory experiments have been the main way to get good protein structures. The first complete structures of proteins were . . .

Continue reading. There’s more — but you knew that, didn’t you.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2020 at 10:36 am

Empire of fantasy: British colonialism in children’s literature

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In Aeon Maria Sachiko Cecire has a very interesting essay adapted from material published in Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century. The essay begins:

Much has changed in the fantasy genre in recent decades, but the word ‘fantasy’ still conjures images of dragons, castles, sword-wielding heroes and premodern wildernesses brimming with magic. Major media phenomena such as Harry Potter and Game of Thrones have helped to make medievalist fantasy mainstream, and if you look in the kids’ section of nearly any kind of store today you’ll see sanitised versions of the magical Middle Ages packaged for youth of every age. How did fantasy set in pseudo-medieval, roughly British worlds achieve such a cultural status? Ironically, the modern form of this wildly popular genre, so often associated with escapism and childishness, took root in one of the most elite spaces in the academic world.

The heart of fantasy literature grows out of the fiction and scholarly legacy of two University of Oxford medievalists: J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis. It is well known that Tolkien and Lewis were friends and colleagues who belonged to a writing group called the Inklings where they shared drafts of their poetry and fiction at Oxford. There they workshopped what would become Tolkien’s Middle-earth books, beginning with the children’s novel The Hobbit (1937), and followed in the 1950s with The Lord of the Rings and Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series, which was explicitly aimed at children. Tolkien’s influence on fantasy is so important that in the 1990s the American scholar Brian Attebery defined the genre ‘not by boundaries but by a centre’: Tolkien’s Middle-earth. ‘Tolkien’s form of fantasy, for readers in English, is our mental template’ for all fantasy, he suggests in Strategies of Fantasy (1992). Lewis’s books, meanwhile, are iconic as both children’s literature and fantasy. Their recurring plot structure of modern-day children slipping out of this world to save a magical, medieval otherworld has become one of the most common approaches to the genre, identified in Farah Mendlesohn’s taxonomy of fantasy as the ‘portal-quest’.

What is less known is that Tolkien and Lewis also designed and established the curriculum for Oxford’s developing English School, and through it educated a second generation of important children’s fantasy authors in their own intellectual image. Put in place in 1931, this curriculum focused on the medieval period to the near-exclusion of other eras; it guided students’ reading and examinations until 1970, and some aspects of it remain today. Though there has been relatively little attention paid to the connection until now, these activities – fantasy-writing, often for children, and curricular design in England’s oldest and most prestigious university – were intimately related. Tolkien and Lewis’s fiction regularly alludes to works in the syllabus that they created, and their Oxford-educated successors likewise draw upon these medieval sources when they set out to write their own children’s fantasy in later decades. In this way, Tolkien and Lewis were able to make a two-pronged attack, both within and outside the academy, on the disenchantment, relativism, ambiguity and progressivism that they saw and detested in 20th-century modernity.

Tolkien articulated his anxieties about the cultural changes sweeping across Britain in terms of ‘American sanitation, morale-pep, feminism, and mass-production’, calling ‘this Americo-cosmopolitanism very terrifying’ and suggesting in a 1943 letter to his son Christopher that, if this was to be the outcome of an Allied Second World War win, he wasn’t sure that victory would be better for the ‘mind and spirit’ – and for England – than a loss to Nazi forces.

Lewis shared this abhorrence for ‘modern’ technologisation, secularisation and the swiftly dismantling hierarchies of race, gender and class. He and Tolkien saw such broader shifts reflected in . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2020 at 10:17 am

Posted in Books, Education, Memes, Politics

“My Shocking Discovery at 58 Years Old That I Have Autism”

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This Medium article by Kerry McAvoy struck me as very interesting (for obvious reasons). It begins:

Almost two weeks ago, someone challenged a fundamental assumption I’d held about myself. This revelation has upended my world. Suddenly I feel wobbly, tentative, and not quite sure who I am.

I’m undergoing a massive shift in self-understanding.

As a licensed psychologist with over twenty years of clinical experience, I’ve considered myself an expert on matters of the psyche and personality.

My scope of knowledge includes myself. I’m an avid believer in the power of therapy and have seen my fair share of specialists over the years. If a few weeks ago, you’d asked me if I think I know myself, I would have answered affirmatively and then described me as a “sensitive extroverted introvert.”

But two weeks ago, I saw a therapist I hadn’t seen in a while. She challenged my self-definition with something so stunning that I’ve done nothing for over a week except to try and take it in, to make sense of this piece of information.

I think I’m ready to share it now.

I’m autistic.

There. I said it.

Those two words have both transformed my reality and, at the same time, has scared the living shit out of me.

What does it exactly mean to be autistic?

I thought I knew. When I hear that diagnosis, I imagine a young boy lost in his own world. He’s sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor, spinning plates. He grunts and screams if anyone interferes with his repetitive play or tries to move him to another activity.

That’s what comes to my mind when I hear the word autism. I’d never imagined that someone like me — a formerly married psychologist with three grown sons — would be on the autistic spectrum.

Women and Autism

My confusion makes sense. Until a few years ago, women and autism were rarely mentioned in the same sentence. Older research speculated that the female-to-male ratio was anywhere between 1:4 and 1:10 for autism.

Now researchers and physicians believe that alongside the world’s one million autistic boys and men, there are also nearly one million autistic girls and women, most of whom have gone undiagnosed. In other words, the ratio of men to women is much closer to 1:1 than previously thought.

There is a myriad of reasons why autism in women and girls goes undetected. Typical symptoms manifest differently based on divergent gender neurology. When women experience hyper focusing, sensory stimulation sensitivity, and social awkwardness, these symptoms are often attributed to an emotional or mental problem rather than to neuroatypical differences. Misdiagnoses like ADD, Borderline Personality Disorder, and anxiety-related conditions are common among autistic women and girls.

Autism in women is harder to spot.

Women’s strength in social skills also makes autism harder to spot. Since fitting in is paramount, we are better at blending in, a technique often called masking.

We learn to imitate those around us as a way to camouflage our social struggles. According to Charlotte Egeskov at the Tiimo Blog, we know to use “social imitation strategies,” including:

“Making eye contact during conversation, using learned phrases or pre-prepared jokes in conversation, mimicking other’s social behaviour, imitating facial expressions or gestures, and learning and following social scripts”

We use these to hide our struggles. Social imitation strategies work exceptionally well during our younger years but become more difficult as we age, and the complexity of female socialization increases.

Such strategies, however, are stressful and fatiguing. In “The Cost of Camouflaging Autism,” Francine Russo points out:

“Camouflaging calls for constant and elaborate effort. It can help women with autism maintain their relationships and careers, but those gains often come at a heavy cost, including physical exhaustion and extreme anxiety.”

Looking back, I see the hefty price I’d paid hiding my neuroatypicalness. After a long day of counseling patients, I’d come home so physically exhausted that I had to take the next day off to recover.

How I Found Out

I had no idea I was autistic. None.

This diagnosis has come as a complete shock. One of my sons was diagnosed in his early twenties, and I suspect my father, an odd man, was on the spectrum. I never considered that this genetic condition might not have skipped me.

Two weeks ago, I saw an old therapist — someone I’d seen before. As we caught up, she stopped me and asked if I’d ever wondered if I might be neuroatypical. Stunned by her proposal, I emphatically said, “No, I’ve looked at the autism screening assessments (most based on stereotypical male symptoms). They clearly don’t fit me.”

She cocked her head, blinked, and then asked, “You sure about that?”

I stared back at her, speechless. I knew she was telling me something important, but she wasn’t going to push me. For two days, I did nothing. No research, nothing.

Slowly, I found the courage to turn to the Internet and research online the characteristics of adult women with autism. Two articles, in particular, caught my eye. . .

Continue reading. There’s more. And the two articles to which she links are good.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2020 at 9:51 am

Posted in Daily life, Medical, Science

Missed the window for the pumpkin-pie shaving soap — but it’s good anyway

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I should have used this on Thanksgiving, but forgot — now it’s in my calendar for the fourth Thursday of November each year.

And a very nice soap it is, too. I used another in the gentle-brush series, my Fine Classic, and the fragrance of the lather was right in the spirit of the holiday. (I think this was a one-off, but various good artisanal vendors will have seasonal fragrances available, so it’s easy enough to find a pumpkin-pie-spiced shaving soap.)

I used my Parker slant (which they call a “semi-slant,” perhaps to reduce the intimidation factor), an excellent razor. Three passes to perfection, and then a good splash of Ogallala’s Bay Rum + Sandalwood, an aftershave I like.

A new week begins as an old month ends. So it goes.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2020 at 8:38 am

Posted in Shaving

Short videos of wonderful local Chinese foods in Chaoshan, Yunnan, and Gansu

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I occasionally blog about some local food or drink I enjoy that distant readers cannot try — but it seems every locale has its own food specialties available only to those who live there or very nearby.

The Netflix series Flavorful Origins has short episodes — about 10 minutes each — on such local specialty foods three provinces in China: Chaoshan cuisine (Season 1), Yunnan Cuisine (Season 2), and Gansu cuisine (Season 3). Watching the first two episodes of Gansu cuisine, I long to eat the grilled lamb in Jiaguyuan city or the sheep herders’ mutton cooked in tripe using hot cobblestones, all in the open air in their Ganjian pastures. And I would love to eat Lanzhou lily bulbs, sweet and crisp, roasted in the oven or used in a stir-fry — and the lily blossoms from the same plant.

The episodes are beautifully shot and would be especially good if you speak Mandarin. I do not, but fortunately subtitles are used — and the main impact is from the images.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2020 at 8:30 am

Posted in Food, Movies & TV

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