Calvino excerpt: the wisdoms of knowing and not knowing


Calvino’s Mr. Palomar, “Serpents and skulls.” Mr Palomar is getting a tour of Toltec city of Tula from a knowledgable local scholar who goes deep into the mythos, symbolism, and network of associations. But they interrupted by a schoolteacher telling his students a simpler story.

The line of schoolboys passes. And the teacher is saying, “Esto es un chac-mool. No se sabe lo que quiere decir.” (“This is a chac-mool. We don’t know what it means.”) And he moves on.

Though Mr. Palomar continues to follow the explanation of his friend acting as guide, he always ends up crossing the path of the schoolboy and overhearing the teacher’s words. He is fascinated by his friends’s wealth of mythological references: the play of interpretation and allegorical reading has always seemed to him a supreme exercise of the mind. But he feels attracted also by the opposite attitude of the schoolteacher: what had at first seemed only a brisk lack of interest is being revealed to him as a scholarly and pedagogical position, a methodological choice by this serious and conscientious young man, a rule from which he will not serve. A stone, a figure, a sign, a word reaching us isolated from its context is only that stone, figure, sign, or word: we can try to define them, to describe them as they are, and no more than that; whether, beside the face they show us, they also have a hidden face, is not for us to know. The refusal to comprehend more than what the stones show us is perhaps the only way to evince respect for their secret; trying to guess is a presumption, a betrayal of that true, lost meaning.


This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 9th, 2021 and is filed under books, nescience, science.

In case there’s doubt that Charles Bukowski’s Post Office is about himself
Bukowski was dissipated, a postal worker, and a dissipated postal worker.

Here are letters to “Mr. Henry C. Bukowski Jr.” from the USPS informing him of his right to participate in the various stages of disciplinary review for actions including drunken arrests and skipping work. These letters make it look like you really have to try to get fired from a government job, so we should be impressed at his commitment and hard work.

These come from the amazing collection of Indiana University’s Lilly Library in Bloomington, Indiana, one of the few special collections library’s that is open to random wanderers off the street.


This entry was posted on Friday, July 12th, 2019 and is filed under audio/visual, books.

Philip K. Dick’s vanity was his best protection from his vanity

I went on a deep dive and learned several fascinating things about Philip K. Dick and his life. Foremost, he named his daughter “Isa Dick”. Talk about a Dick move.

Among his notes about A Scanner Darkly were a question and answer. Question: “How will the book sell?” Answer: “Such inducements have no appeal to the superior man.” I like that he both considered the question unselfconsciously and posed himself to deny interest in it. I like how, in the context of an answer to a question about himself, the funny construct of the “superior man” isn’t about superiority to everyone else, like it would come off in any other context, but superiority to oneself. The phrasing was so peculiar that I Googled it. Expecting to find more by him, I stumbled on the same phrasing in the divination manual The I Ching, or The Book of Changes, which he wrote a book about and got deeper into as he fought less hard against schizophrenia and started to imagine us all in the Matrix.

In his notes he had written under each question, and prior to each answer, numbers and dashes and codes that looked meaningless until I had made the I Ching connection. The questions were real questions he had, and the answers were divined. His roll for the question about how the book will sell was for hexagram 58, where I found the quote about the superior man. That means that he didn’t endogenously pose himself to deny his crass interests, but that his reading emboldened him. In that context, it’s very clear that The Superior Man is best imagined as a version of you that’s notable only for being superior to yourself.

No, I’m wrong. Dick’s question was crass because he was vain. His attraction to the I Ching’s was an attraction to the idea that the Universe is organized around the Superior Man, which is vain. His speechifying about being The One who saw into the computer simulation controlling us was an assertion that he was host to the superior. The only thing that pulled him from the vain thought of his book sales was the vain thought that he was too much better than everyone else to worry about them. Any of my tea leaf reading about this softer interpretation of the superior man says more about my hopes than about either Dick or the Book that inspired him.

I was also interested to learn that, after his divorce, he lived communally but maybe not inappropriately with 1970s street kids, that he was very much from the Bay and Berkeley, and that despite his reputation for a variety of drugs, his devotion was exclusive to prescription amphetamine, on which he wrote most of his books. The mathematician Paul Erdos had the same hangup. They were contemporaries in more ways than one.

I learned all this from the audio commentary track on a Scanner Darkly DVD, which had Linklater, Keanu Reeves, Isa Dick, the flick’s screenwriter, and another person. It’s funny to hear Reeves philosophize without the benefit of a script. Nearly every time he spoke up, it was to helpfully and prosocially elicit more commentary from one of the others, but it came off like a philosophical conversation between a bunch of sage elders as convened and presided over by a stoned 14 year-old.


Image is from this comic about the man.

Scott’s “Art of not being governed,” in a nutshell

I read James Scott’s 2009 “The art of not being governed: An anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia.” I’ve reproduced a quote that concisely captures a nice chunk of the ~400 page book. The terms raw and cooked are Chinese euphemisms, possibly outmoded, for distinguishing between “barbarians” and “citizens.” It would seem to describe refinement, but it could as easily have come down to whether the person was someone who paid taxes.

As a political location — outside the state but adjacent to it — the ethnicized barbarians represent a permanent example of defiance of central authority. Semiotically necessary to the cultural idea of civilization, the barbarians are also well nigh ineradicable, owing to their defensive advantages in terrain, in dispersal, in segmentary social organization, and in their mobile, fugitive subsistence strategies. They remain an example — and thus an option, a temptation — of a form of social organization outside state-based hierarchy and taxes. One imagines that the eighteenth century Buddhist rebel against the Qing in Yunnan understood the appeal of “barbarian-ness” when he exhorted people with the chant: “Api’s followers need pay no taxes. They plow for themselves and eat their own produce.” For officials of the nearby state, the barbarians represent a refuge for criminals and rebels, and an exit for tax-shy subjects.
The actual appeal of “barbarity,” of residing out of the state’s reach — let alone forsaking civilization — has no logical place in the official state narratives of the four major civilizations that concern us here: the Han-Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Burman, and the Siamese. All are “produced on irrevocable assimilation in a single direction.” In the Han case, the very terms raw and cooked imply irreversibility: raw meat can be cooked but it cannot be “uncooked” —though it can spoil! No two-way traffic or backsliding is provided for. Nor does it allow for the indisputable fact that the core civilizations to which assimilation is envisaged are, themselves, a cultural alloy of many diverse sources.

This is one of those books where the Conclusion is a good synopsis of
the whole book, so if you want more after these notes, read that

(2011). Life without the State The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia . New Haven: Yale University Press. 2009. James C. Scott , Anthropology Now, 3 (3) 111-114. DOI:


This entry was posted on Saturday, January 17th, 2015 and is filed under books.

Translation with rotation. An American railroad man sold Marx on Iroquois culture.

By a strange irony, the League of the Iroquois has become a model for Marxist theory. The twisting trail that leads to Friedrich Engels begins with Lewis Henry Morgan, a Rochester lawyer and lobbyist for railroads. His interest in the Iroquois was aroused because he wanted to use their rituals in a rather sophomoric fraternal organization he and several business friends were setting up. As a result, he studied the Iroquois deeply …
He was a thoroughly conventional man, unquestioning in religious orthodoxy, and also a staunch capitalist. But he published his theories in Ancient Society in 1877, at the very time tht Karl Marx was working on the final volumes of Das Kapital. Marx was enthusiastic and made notes about Morgan’s findings, which by accident fitted in with his own materialistic views of history. Marx died before he could write a book incorporating Morgan’s theories, but Engels used them as the cornerstone for his influential The origin of the family, private property, and the state (1884). This volume has become the source book for all anthropological theory in Soviet Russia and most other communist countries. Engels was ecstatic about what he had learned, or thought he had learned, of the League of the Iroquois from Morgan … That bourgeois gentleman Morgan is to this day enshrined in the pantheon of socialist thinkers.

“This day” is the 1968 of Peter Farb, from his book Man’s rise to civilization as shown by the Indians of North America from primeval times to the coming of the industrial state. Any book written by a 1960’s anthropologist is going to be dated, but this one is also so progressive in some places (even by today’s standards) that I say it breaks even.

Other valuable excerpts from the book:

Extremely literal rank accounting:

Once a society starts to keep track in this way of who is who, there is no telling where such genealogical bookkeeping will end. In Northwest Coast society it did not end until the very last and lowliest citizen knew his precise hereditary rank with a defined distance from the chief, and he knew it with exactitude. There is record of a Kwakiutl feast in which each of the 658 guests from thirteen subdivisions of the chiefdom knew whether he was, say, number 437 or number 438. … A specialist in the Northwest Coast has wisely stated: “To insist upon the use of the term ‘class system’ for Northwest Coast society means that we must say that each individual was in a class by himself.”

Emergent market exchange:

Membership in other kinds of societies was also often purchased, and in fact many things were for sale among the Plains tribes: sacred objects, religious songs, and even the description of a particularly good vision. The right to paint a particular design on the face during a religious ceremony might cost as much as a horse. Permission just to look inside someone’s sacred bundle of fetishes and feathers was often worth the equivalent of a hundred dollars. A Crow is known to have paid two horses to his sponsor to get himself invited into a tobacco society, and teh candidate’s family contributed an additional twenty-three horses. A prudent Blackfoot was well advised to put his money into a sacred bundle, and investment that paid him continued dividends.

Of the Cheyenne, with a connection to Bengime:

Only the bravest of the brave warriors could belong to the elite military society known as the Contraries. Somewhat like the Zuni Mudheads, they were privileged clowns. They did the opposite of everything: They said no when they meant yes; went away when called and came near when told to go away; called left right; and sat shivering on the hottest day.

How the Cherokee got screwed, an important story from the USA’s 19th century campaign of genocide:

About 1790 the Cherokee decided to adopt the ways of their White conquerors and to emulate their civilization, their morals, their learning, and their arts. The Cherokee made remarkable and rapid progress in their homeland in the mountains where Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina meet. They established churches, mills, schools, and well-cultivated farms; judging from descriptions of that time, the region was a paradise when compared with the bleak landscape that the White successors have made of Appalachia today. In 1826 a Cherokee reported to the Presbyterian Church that his people already possessed 22,000 cattle, 7,600 houses, 46,000 swine, 2,500 sheep, 762 looms, 1,488 spinning wheels, 2,948 plows, 10 saw mills, 31 grist mills, 62 blacksmith shops, and 18 schools. In one of the Cherokee districts alone there were some 1,000 volumes of “good books.” In 1821, after 12 twelve years of hard work, a Cherokee names Seqoya (honored in the scientific names for the the redwood and the giant sequoia trees in California, three thousand miles from his homeland) perfected a method of syllabary notation in which English letters stood for Cherokee syllables; by 1828 the Cherokee were already publishing their own newspaper. At about the same time, they adopted a written constitution providing for an executive, a bicameral legislature, a supreme court, and a code of laws.
Before the passage of the Removal Act of 1830, a group of Cherokee chiefs went to the Senate committee that was studying this legislation, to report on what they had already achieved in the short space of forty years. They expressed the hope that they would be permitted to enjoy in peace “the blessings of civilization and Christianity on the soil of their rightful inheritance.” Instead, they were daily subjected to brutalities and atrocities by White neighbors, harassed by the state government of Georgia, cajoled and bribed by Federal agents to agree to removal, and denied even the basic protection of the federal government. Finally, in 1835, a minority faction of five hundred Cherokee out of a total of some twenty thousand signed a treaty agreeing to removal. The Removal Act was carried out almost everywhere with a notable lack of compassion, but in the case of the Cherokee—civilized and Christianized as they were—it was particularly brutal.
After many threats, about five thousand finally consented to be marched westward, but another fifteen thousand clung to their neat farms, schools, and libraries “of good books.” So General Winfield Scott set about systematically extirpating the rebellious ones. Squads of soldiers descended upon isolated Cherokee farms and at bayonet point marched the families off to what today would be known as concentration camps. Torn from their homes with all the dispatch and efficiency the Nazis displayed under similar circumstances, the families had no time to prepare for the arduous trip ahead of them. No way existed for the Cherokee family to sell its property and possessions, and the local Whites fell upon the lands, looting, burning, and finally taking possession.
Some Cherokee managed to escape into the gorges and thick forests of the Great Smoky Mountains, where they became the nucleus of those living there today, but most were finally rounded up or killed. They then were set off on a thousand-mile march—called to this day “the trail of ters tears” by the Cherokee—that was one of the notable death marches in history. Ill clad, badly fed, lacking medical attention, and prodded on by soldiers wielding bayonets, the Indians suffered severe losses. An estimate made at the time stated that some four thousand Cherokee died en route, but that figure is certainly too low. At the very moment that these people were dying in droves, President Van Buren reported to Congress that the government’s handling of the Indian problem had been “just and friendly throughout; its efforts for their civilization constant, and directed by the best feelings of humanity; it’s watchfulness in protecting them from individual frauds unremitting.”

My dissertation

In August I earned a doctorate in cognitive science and informatics. My dissertation focused on the role of higher-level reasoning in stable behavior. In experimental economics, researchers treat human “what you think I think you think I think” reasoning as an implementation of a theoretical mechanism that should cause groups of humans to behave consistently with a theory called Nash equilibrium. But there are also cases when human higher-level reasoning causes deviations from equilibrium that are larger than if there had been no higher-level reasoning at all. My dissertation explored those cases. Here is a video.

My dissertation. The work was supported by Indiana University, NSF/IGERT, NSF/EAPSI, JSPS, and NASA/INSGC.

Life is now completely different.


This entry was posted on Monday, November 25th, 2013 and is filed under books, science, updates.

The birthplace of Western civilization was killed during the birth of Western civilization.

Deforestation from Classical Period (~1000BCE and on) mettallurgy in the Holy Land dramatically amplified the effects of an otherwise small regional trend towards a warmer and drier climate. Before 10,000 years ago, we were in a different geological and human era and you can’t say too much about civilization. But starting at 10,000 until 2,000 years ago that part of the fertile crescent is known to have been fertile. And from 2,000 years to the present, it has been a desert. On learning about metal, locals supported their furnaces by making the region one that is no longer covered in forests. The authors of the paper below showed that semi-arid climates are particularly vulnerable to the kinds of changes caused by humans. “Water availability” is the important variable for life on the ground. In semi-arid climates, a large change in rainfall actually has little effect on water availability. However, a large change in ground cover (trees) has a huge effect. Trees hold water, in and on themselves, but their biggest role is keeping soil in place. A tablespoon of healthy soil has the surface area of a football field, making soil one of the best ways to keep water in an ecosystem.

This is all from a very academic, but really fascinating interdisciplinary book “Water, Life, and Civilisation.” A bunch of people out of U. of Reading in the UK had a multi-year project to reconstruct ancient climate and habits. They went across disciplines (meteorology, geology, archaeology, paleontology, biology, sociology, geography) and therefore methods (lit reviews and metaanalyses, digging (taking biological samples, cultural samples, building samples, rock samples, water samples, cave samples, and other fieldwork), qualitative fieldwork, policy analysis, computer simulation, model fitting, GIS, carbon dating, isotope dating, and agricultural experiments. They even invented some new methods under the heading of archaeobotany). With these methods you gain amazing insight into the past. The authors can show how bad floods got, that wells dried up, that agriculture was adapted for dry vs. wet climates, and that populations swelled or dwindled.

Focusing on one site, Wadi Faynan in southern Jordan, they show high absorption of water by soil (“infiltration”), less runoff, and less evidence of floods during the early and middle Holocene (12—5 thousand years before present). “This hydrological regime would have provided an ideal niche for the development of early agriculture, providing a predictable, reliable, and perennial groundwater supply, augmented by gentle winter overbank flooding.” By contrast, “During the late Holocene (4, 2 ka BP), the hydrology of the Wadi Faynan was similar to that of today, a consequence of reduced infiltration caused by industrial-scale deforestation to support metallurgical activity.”

They add,

A review of regional and local vegetation histories suggests that major landscape changes have occurred during the Holocene. There appears to be consensus that the early Holocene in the Levant was far more wooded than the present day (Rossignol-Strick, 1999; Roberts, 2002; Hunt et al., 2007), as a consequence of small human populations and prevailing warm, wet climates. Since mid-Holocene times, the combined trends of increasing aridity and human impact upon the landscape have combined to cause deforestation and erosion of soils. In Wadi Faynen, there is clear evidence that Classical period industrial activity would have played a significant role in this process. We propose that these changes would have greatly reduced infiltration rates in Wadi Faynan since the middle Holocene.

This chapter stood out for looking at how humans influenced climate, where all of the others focused on the equally important subject of how climate affected humans. But this was just one fascinating chapter of a fascinating book. A lot of the meteorology and geology was over my head, but using computer simulations calibrated on today and other knowns, and managing their unknowns cleverly, they got a computer model of ancient climate at the regional scale. Using that they got various local models of ancient precipitation. They complimented that guesswork with fieldwork in which they used the sizes of surviving cisterns, dams, gutters, roofs, and other ancient evidence of water management to estimate the amount of rainfall, the extent of floods, the existence of this or that type of sophisticated irrigation, and other details at the intersection of hydrology, archaeology, and technology. They learned about how resource limits constrained human settlements by examining regional patterns in their placement: early and high settlements tended to be near springs while later on they tend to be on the roads to larger cities. They used extra clever carbon and nitrogen dating to learn what the livestock were fed, what the humans were eating, and if a given area had mostly desert or lush plants. They can prove using differences in the bone composition of pigs and goats from the same period that they were raised on different diets. And with almost no evidence from surviving plants or surviving fields they were still able to infer what plants were being cultivated, and by what kind of sophisticated agriculture. Every plant makes microscopic sand crystals and in arid environments, these crystals are the same for plants grown yesterday and plants grown thousands of years ago. Because different plants grow crystals of different shapes, they were able to identify date palms at 1000 years before date palms were thought to have been domesticated. The crystals also shed light on ancient irrigation technology. By growing some grain crops with different kinds of technology and examining the resulting crystals, they showed that the clumpy crystals they were finding in ancient sites could only have come from grain fields with sophisticated irrigation systems.

Altogether, I’m impressed by how much we can know about ancient life and climate when we combine the strengths of different disciplines. I’m also afraid. For me, the natural place to go from here is to Jared Diamond’s Collapse for more examples of how civilisations have followed the resources around the world and then burned them down, and for what we might be able to do about it.

The book was Water, Life, and Civilisation; Climate, Environment, and Society in the Jordan Valley (Steven Mithen and Emily Black Eds.) Cambridge Universiity Press International Hydrology Series. The chapter I focused on was number fifteen:
Sean Smith, Andrew Wade, Emily Black, David Brayshaw, Claire Rambeau, and Steven Mithen (2011) “From global climate change to local impact in Wadi Faynan, southern Jordan: ten millenia or human settlement in its hydrological context.”

The fall of cybernetics in anthropology, with citations

I’m reading an ethnobotanical ethnography of the Huastec or “Teenek” Mayans. Its a big fat impressive monograph published by Janis B. Alcorn in 1984. Here is a passage suggesting that cybernetics had come and gone from anthropology by 1980. The criticism focused on the restriction of early cybernetics modeling to closed systems. The attack is well-targeted and well-cited, pointing to a bunch of lit I hope to check out at some point.

Ethnobotanical interactions occur in an open dynamic ecosystem of natural and social components. The closed cybernetics systems once used to descrbie natural and social systems have been criticised as inadequate representations of reality (Bennett, 1976; Connell, 1978; Ellen, 1979; Friedman 1979; Futuyma, 1979; and others). Although feedback has an important stabalizing effect, other non-feedback factors operate to influence the Teenek ecosystem and the directions of its development. The friction of opposing tendencies and the introduction of new variables (themselves often the products of other internal and external processes) create a dynamic ecosystem in non-equilibrium, evolving in ways shaped by its past and its present. Less than optimal adaptations may exist because of quirks of history and available variability. But, at the very least, suboptimal adaptations are not so maladaptive as to become unbearable “load.” Evolution often proceeds along a path of trade-offs in the midst of conflict.

Besides pointing out that no useful model is an adequate representation of reality, I think its worth asserting that the closed systems of cybernetics were not an ideological commitment but an assumption of convenience that the founders hoped to be able to break one day. I’m really only speaking to the first sentence or two, I didn’t totally get the bridge from cybernetics to the picture of trade-offs. Of course my role isn’t to defend cybernetics, I’ve got my own problems with it. But I’m always interested in problems that others have faced with influential theories. Here are those citations in full:

  • Bennett, C. F. 1976. The Ecological Transition: Cultural Anthropology and Human Adaptation. Pergamon Press, New York.
  • Connell, J. H. 1980. High diversity in tropical rain forests and coral reefs. Science 199:1302:1310.
  • Ellen, R. F. 1979. Sago subsistence and the trade in spices. IN Burnham, P. and R. F. Ellen (eds.) Social and Ecological Systems, Academic Press, New York.
  • Friedman, J. 1979. Hegelian ecology. IN Burnham, P. and R. F. Ellen (eds.) Social and Ecological Systems, Academic Press, New York.
  • Futuyma, D. J. 1979 Evolutionary Biology. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, Massachusetts.

As a bonus, here are some fun bits from the glossary:
boliim – a large (25 cm. x 25 cm. x 10 cm.) square tamale-like ceremonial food prepared by placing an entire uncooked chicken or turkey, large chunks of meat, or a pig’s head on a flattened piece of masa dough, dribbling a thickened red chili sauce over the meat, wrapping the dough around the meat, and then wrapping the whole thing in banana or Heliconia schiedeana leaves and steaming it in a large earthen vessel for several hours. (Boliim are referred to elsewhere as “large tamales”)
Boo’waat – tranvestite male apparition.
ichich – illness caused by the heart of an older or more powerful person sapping strength from a more vulnerable heart leaving the person weak; in infants characterized by green diarrhea.
theben – weasel who climbs under the clothing of a curer-to-be as he walks down a path, tickles him/her until he/she falls unconscious, and the piles shoots of medicinal plants around him/her.
tepa’ – a person who flies over long distances repidly to steal from the rich, seen as a bright streak in the night sky.
te’eth k’al a iits’ – bitten by the moon; painful, swollon, purulent fingertips caused by pointing at the moon.
ts-itsiimbe – condition of suffering from an imposed spirit caused by spirit, human, or bird agent (usually following loss of patient’s own spirit); symptoms include midday drowsiness, poor appetite, and bad temper (occasionally equated with mestiso folk illnesses “tiricia,” “avecil,” or “mollera”)
walelaab – evil eye

What it means to know things about early Christianity

I’ve been reading a lot about the history of early Christianity, and a lot of the theories and ideas that define it. A lot of the scholarship is totally wild, and a lot is pretty sound; some is both, but its all confusing, because these things get mixed together indiscriminately. It motivated me to create a taxonomy of “knowability” for theories about Christ and early Christianity. The taxonomy allowed me to craft a test by which I judge if a theory is worth taking seriously. For me to take a Bible theory seriously, it has to have more evidence than the suspicious theory that Jesus was a hypocrite and demagogue.

First, the taxonomy. It isn’t exactly a scale, and there is room for overlap and grey. It is still loose enough that two people could put the same theory into the pragmatic or reach categories, so this is currently only a personal taxonomy for establishing one’s own sense or the sense of a community that shares one’s assumptions.

  • Universally know: Assert the truth of. The existence of this type of knowing is justified by faith and only faith. The type of knowledge that good Christians hold for the existence of Christ and God.
  • Humanly know: know as well as its possible to know something (that I’m standing on a floor and its not demons). Beyond reasonable doubt. It can be proven wrong. The existence of Pilate, and of Jews and early Christians in the first century A.D. Probably the existence of Paul. Herod killing all those kids on 0 A.D.
  • Functionally know: Whether theory is completely satisfying or not, you can’t imagine an alternative. Not necessarily a failure of imagination; often any competing theory that accounts for the evidence is much more complicated. Existence of the apostles and maybe Paul. The books of the Torah existed around 0 A.D. and people in the Levant often knew someone who had actually read them. They were acquainted with the lore of those books.
  • Pragmatically know: Probably the best theory. Alternative theories could be maintained by a reasonable person, even the same person—there is still reasonable doubt. Every physicist knows that Newton’s billiard ball mechanics is “wrong,” but indistinguishable from the truth in an impressively wide range of problems. Existence of a Yeshua from Nazareth. Existence of Q document.
  • Reach: Theory could of course be true, but no more plausible than its opposite. Still, one may be more accepted than the other for historical reasons. Birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem and then to and fro Egypt—Could as easily have been ad hoc fabrication to satisfy prophecies in Isaiah. I’m putting here everything else that was prophesied by Isaiah, because these are things that people at the time wanted to be true: a Christ will come, he will be killed, resurrected, and seen, virgin birth/immaculate Conception, and he will perform miraculous healings (which have really gone out of fashion in modern Christianity).
  • Fringe: Theory could be true, other reasonable theories are more supported, or better supported. Existence of secret gospels from the first century.
  • Spurious: Fundamentally not knowable except below Pragmatic sense. More specifically, not knowable given current knowledge, and possibly future knowledge. Things prophesied by Isaiah, the existence of secret gospels from the first century. Armageddon happened way back in the first or second century A.D.. Armageddon will happen. Armageddon won’t happen. Mary M. and Jesus were doing it. Mary M. was an Apostle.
  • Wrong (Know not): theory has been falsified. That is, it could always wriggle its way to being true, but there exists current evidence on the subject (itself impressive when it comes to the history of early Christianity), and that evidence speaks against the thing. Infancy gospels were almost certainly not written before 200 or 300AD.

I’ll only warily assert anything into the faith type of knowing, and “beyond a reasonable doubt” is a luxury reserved for very few aspects of Biblical history. In general, I’m wary to assume that I know anything with more certainty than I know that I’ve got two feet on the ground, and even that is fair to call suspect. Going down the ladder, none of the theories I’m willing to work with can really be proven false, so I’m lowering the bar; falsifiability is too strict a standard for ancient history. Even without it, historians can establish things that are worth trying to establish. So how far down should I go?


Now that we’ve got a scale of knowing things about the history of early Christianity, I’m going to be the devil’s advocate and pose a reach/fringe theory that Jesus was a demagogue and a hypocrite. Its purpose is to serve as a criterion for judging other theories, and for establishing the legitimacy (in my eyes) of theories of ancient history. I’ll consider your theory if it is more plausible than the theory that Jesus was merely a human demagogue.

Here is the theory: Demagogues are people who preach a populist message, often to the poor, while themselves living within the means that they criticize.* Demamgogues happen. People want supernatural, and a demagogue can convey that without doing anything impossible. Here is the case that Jesus was living large, using only evidence from the Gospels, the most legitimate accounts of the Life of Christ: getting his hair perfumed, breaking Sabbath by not fasting, the thousands of loaves, the parable for rich people. From this theory it makes sense that he would say he isn’t having wine tomorrow night, and it explains the doting entourages that retrieved him donkey and presented lepers and blind people to him.

This theory is reach/fringe, but it errs on the side of pragmatic. It obviously has lots of problems as a theory, but that’s the point. I think that a more sympathetic read is at least as plausible, but also that a reasonable person could believe all of this.

Whether it is right or wrong is irrelevant. It is at least as true as the New Testament case against (for example) homosexuality *. Things I’m willing to work with: I think Q passes the test, also the existences of Herod and Pilate *, even the existence of Godfearers.

These theories that I’m willing to work with are above the border between reach/fringe and pragmatic. That’s the line I’ve drawn in helping myself know what I think.

Political use of the rhetoric of complex systems

I’m excited about the field called “complex systems” because it reflects of best of science’s inherent humility: everything affects everything, and we oughtn’t pretend that we know what we’re doing. I think of that as a responsible perspective, and I think it protects science from being abused (or being an abuser) in the sociopolitical sphere. So imagine my surprise to discover that the “everything affects everything” rhetoric of complex systems, ecology, and cybernetics was leveraged by tobacco companies in the 1990s to take attention away from second-hand smoke in office health investigations. Second-hand smoke wasn’t causing sickness, the hard-to-pin-down “sick building syndrome” was. For your reading pleasure, I’ve pulled a lot of text from “Sick building syndrome and the problem of uncertainty,” by Michelle Murphy. I’ve focused on Chapter 6, “Building ecologies, tobacco, and the politics of multiplicity.” Thanks to Isaac.

The meat of the chapter is pp. 146-148, and on a bit:

In the 1980s, the largest building investigation company was healthy Buildings Internations (HBI), located in Fairax, Virginia. HBI had been a modest ventilation cleaning service called ACVA Atlantic until the Tobacco Institute, an industry lobby group, contacted its president, Gray Robertson 46. Tobacco companies hoped to thwart the regulation of secondhand smoke in workspaces, restaurants, bars, and public spaces. Sick building syndrome appealed to the Tobacco Institute because it drew attention to the multiple causes of indoor pollution. Only a few cases of SBS had been attributed to tobacco smoke, a fact that Robertson, HBI, and the literature sponsored by the Tobacco Institute emphasized over and over 47. Soon the Tobacco Institute and Philip Morris were building a database together on sick building syndrome cases, collecting a literature review, and contacting sympathetic indoor air quality experts who could spread news of sick building syndrome. In 1988, five big tobacco companies found the nonprofit Center for Indoor Air Research (CIAR), which quickly became the largest nongovernmental source of funding for indoor air pollution studies.

Robertson, with a monthly retainer from the Tobacco Institute, began to underbid other companies for lucrative building investigation contracts in the Washington area–the US Capitol, the CIA headquarters, the Supreme Court, as well as corporate buildings on the East Coast such as the offices of IBM, MCI WorldCom, and Union Carbide. 49. Underwritten by Philip Morris, HBI expanded its scope by publishing a free glossy magazine that distributed over three-hundred thousand copies in multiple languages 50.

While Robertson was promoting sick building syndrome on the road, his company continued collecting data that later became tobacco industry evidence demonstrating that secondhand smoke —— unlike other culprits such as fungi, dust, humidity, bacteria, and formaldehyde —— was rarely a problem in buildings 54. His testimony before city councils, in court cases, and at federal hearings was pivotal to the tobacco industry’s case that secondhand smoke was not a substantive indoor pollutant and thus not in need of regulation 55.

the effort was so successful that the Tobacco Institute launched similar promotions of SBS in Canada, Hong Kong, and Venezuela.

Healthy Buildings International was not the only building investigation company wooed by the tobacco industry, nor was the Tobacco Institute the only industry association invested in derailing possible regulation of indoor pollution 60. The Business Council on Indoor Air, founded in 1988, represented industry sponsors such as Dow Chemical and Owens-Corning at fifteen thousand dollars for board membership. It too promoted a “building systems approach” 61. In addition, the Tobacco Industry Labor/Management Committee developed a presentation on indoor pollution for unions, creating a coast-to-coast roadshow that ran from 1988 to 1990 62. Conferences, professional associations, and particularly newsletters proliferated in which industry sponsored experts rubbed elbows with independent building investigators.

The appeal of sick building syndrome was that pollution and its effects could be materialized in a way impossible to regulate —— as an unpredictable multiplicity. “Virtually every indoor decoration, building material or piece of furniture sheds some type of gaseous or particulate pollutant,” testified Robertson 63. In its manual for building managers, the EPA warned that indoor pollution was “the product of multiple influences, and attempts to bring problems under control do not always produce the expected results” 64. Managing complex relationships among many “factors” and “symptoms” replaced a “naive,” “single-minded,” and even “dangerous” attention to specific pollutants.

and last,

The implication is that multiplicity was not a quality that could be simply celebrated for its eschewing of reductionism and embracing of diversity. Materializing an object as a multiplicity allowed historical actors to do concrete things about chemical exposure; at the same time, it disallowed and excluded other actions. It was precisely this capacity to exclude specific causal narratives and affirm ambiguity that made ecology and multiplicity such powerful ways to manage the physical corridors of capitalism. p.150

All this comes with interpretation. Murphy takes ecology and cybernetics to be fundamentally “establishment.” She documents the affection of management rhetoric for ecological and cybernetic concepts, but she goes further, citing Eugene Odum’s declaration of ecosystems ecology as “a new managerial ethos for society” (p.134). Then she moves into buildings, the business of buildings, the rhetoric of buildings as living things, wrapping up with research on the idea of questionnaires.

Throughout the book the author rocks a latent hostility to these concepts and also to criticisms of them. The author pulls the same trick with sick building syndrome itself: criticizing the establishment for not recognizing it as a disease, but also criticizing the people who suffer from it because they are too privileged to have actual problems. I guess that’s why they call it critical theory, but I can’t help but feel like critical theorists do it as a hyperdefensive maneuver to avoid being vulnerable in front of their own peers. So I did find myself reading past her writing for the content, but there is a lot of that. She collected a ton of evidence, and its an impressive case in showing that everything has got politics.

Here are all of the citations, copied straight out of the footnotes.

46 Myron Levin, “Who’s Behind the Building Doctor?”; Mintz, “Smoke Screen.”
47. Using its own building investigations as the data, HBI often cited its estimate that tobacco smoke played a role in 3% of SBS cases. However, this obscures incidents when tobacco smoke might have been named as an irritant unassociated with any larger SBS episode.
48. The CIAR was disbanded in 1998 as part of the Master Settlement Agreement.
49. On the sponsorship of Robertson, see Mintz, “Smoke Screen.” For a list of buildings the firm investigated, see References, Healthy Buildings Internationsl, Web site, (accessed Nov. 19, 2003).
50 Myron Levin, “Who’s Behind the Building Doctor?”; Mintz, “Smoke Screen.”
51. Healthy Buildings International, “Sick Building Syndrome Causes and Cures,” 1991. Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, Philip Morris Collection, Bates No. 2022889303-9324, (accessed Nov. 27, 2003).
52. “Business Council on Indoor Air: A Multi-industry Response,” 6.
53. Gra Roberston, Healthy Buidings International, Sick Building Syndrome—Facts and Fallacies, Obt. 23, 1991, Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, R. J. Reynolds, Bates No. 509915547-5568, Recent Advances in Tobacco Science, v. 17. Topics of Current Scientific Interest in Tobacco Research, Proceedings of a Symposium Presented at the Forty-Fifth Meeting of the Tobacco Chemists’ Research Conference (accessed Nov. 27, 2003): 151-52.
54. Healthy Buildings International, “HBI Experience.”
55. HBI’s relationship with the tobacco industry was revealed in 1992 when a fired employee turn whistle-blower. By 1998 the Master Settlement Agreement, a settlement between the U.S. state attorneys general and major tobacco companies, along with the Tobacco Institute, mandated that the industry release digital snapshots of millions of pages of internal documents, which have since demonstrated the industry’s support of indoor air s quality research and investigators, establishing ties not only with Rboertson but a host of other indoor air quality specialists.
56. U.s> Environemtnal Prote tionAgentcy, “Indoor Air Facts.” Much of the credit for the successful publication of this pamphlet is due to James Repace, a senior EPA scientist, whistle-cloer, and active NFEE union member, who widely published his rebuttals to the tobacco industry. On the EPA’s building assessment approach, see U.S. Envionmental Protection Agency and National Instutute of Occupational Safety and Health, “Building Air Quality.”
57. Healthy Buildings International, “About Us,” (accessed Nov. 11, 2003).
58. Ibid.
59. Gray Robertson, “Sick Building Syndrome,” Nov. 18, 1987. Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, Philip Morris Collection, Bates No. 2061692010-2012, (accessed Nov. 27, 2003).
60. See, e.g., the role of tobacco industry representatives within ASHRAE; Glantz and Bialous, “ASHRAE Standard 62.”
61. Business Council on Indoor Air, “Indoor Air Quality: A Public Healthy Issue in the 1990s; How Will It Affect Your Company?,” undated brochure, received on April 11, 1996, and “Building Systems Approach.”
62. “Labor Indoor Air Quality Presentations and Events,” Jan 1990, Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, Tobacco Institute, Bates No. TI02120328-0338, (accessed Nov. 23, 2003).
63. “Investigating the ‘Sick Building Syndrome’:ETS in Context,” statement of Gray Robertson, president, ACVA Atlantic, Inc., before the National Academy of Sciences Concerning the Contribution of Environmental Tobacco Smoke to Indoor Air Pollution, Jan. 14, 1986, Legacy Tobacco Documents Library, Philip Morris Collection, Bates No. 2021005103-5125, (accessed Nov. 27, 2003) 7.
64. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, “Building Air Quality,” x.
65. Robertson, “Investigating the ‘Sick Building Syndrome’,” 21.

And, as an extra snippet, Here is an excerpt bringing ecology in:

… moreover, the healthfulness of buildings was of deep interest to a selection of industries and their associations, most particularly the chemical, carpet, and tobacco industries. Ecology proved a very useful frame to this set of financially driven actors, each of which brought distinct motivation to the materialization of sick building syndrome. Ecology gave a framework for affirming the nonspecific and multiplous quality of sick building syndrome that was especially appealing to the tobacco industry, which actively resisted regulation. This chapter concludes that the concept of sick building syndrome achieved the prominence it did in the last two decades of the twentieth century largely because of the tobacco industry’s efforts to promote an ecological and systems approach to indoor pollution
Sick building syndrome would have looked very different without the cybernetically inflected ecology of the 1970s. ‘Ecology’ was a word used to describe both a field of study (the scientific discipline of ecology) and an object of study (ecologies that existed in the world). Systems ecology took as its primary focus the study of the abstract patterns of relations between the organic and inorganic elements of a system. An emphasis on the management of the system, on the regulation of its flows, relationships, and second-order consequences, made systems ecology enormously attractive as a management ideology for business. This chapter traces how ecology was used to grant a complex, fluid, and multi causal form to business practices, building systems, and finally to sick building syndrome itself. The foregrounding of relationships defined by contingencies made ecological explanations extremely useful for assembling accounts that did not lay blame for indoor pollution on any one thing. p. 132