Now, THIS is how you bring down inflation!

Some time later, Ben-Hadad king of Aram mobilized his entire army and marched up and laid siege to Samaria. There was a great famine in the city; the siege lasted so long that a donkey’s head sold for eighty shekels of silver, and a quarter of a cab of seed pods for five shekels.

… Elisha said, “Hear the word of LORD. This is what the LORD says: About this time tomorrow, a seah of flour will sell for a shekel and two seahs of barley for a shekel at the gate of Samaria.”

The officer on whose arm the king was leaning said to the man of God, “Look, even if the LORD should open the floodgates of the heavens, could this happen?”

“You will see it with your own eyes,” answered Elisha. “but you will not eat any of it!”

Now there were four men with leprosy at the entrance of the city gate. They said to each other, “Why stay here until we die? If we say, ‘We’ll go into the city’ — the famine is there, and we will die. And if we stay here we will die. So let’s go over to the camp of the Arameans and surrender. If they spare us, we live; if they kill us, then we die.”

At dusk they got up and went to the camp of the Arameans. When they reached the edge of the camp, not a man was there, for the LORD had caused the Arameans to hear the sound of chariots and horses and a great army, so that they said to one another, “Look, the king of Israel has hired the Hittite and Egyptian kings to attack us!” So they got up and fled in the dusk and abandoned their tents and their horses and donkeys. They left the camp as it was and ran for their lives.

The men who had leprosy reached the edge of the camp and entered one of the tents. They ate and drank, and carried away silver, gold and clothes, and went off and hid them. They returned and entered another tent and took some things from it and hid them also.

Then they said to each other, “We’re not doing right. This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves. If we wait until daylight, punishment will overtake us. Let’s go at once and report this to the royal palace.”

So they went and called out to the city gatekeepers and told them, “We went into the Aramean camp and not a man was there — not a sound of anyone — only tethered horses and donkeys, and the tents left just as they were.” The gatekeepers shouted the news, and it was reported within the palace.

The king got up in the night and said to his officers, “I will tell you what the Arameans have done to us. They know we are starving; so they have left the camp to hide in the countryside, thinking, ‘They will surely come out, and then we will take them alive and get into the city.'”

One of his officers answered, “Have some men take five of the horses that are left in the city. Their plight will be like that of all the Israelites left here — yes, they will only be like all these Israelites who are doomed. So let us send them to find out what happened.”

So they selected two chariots with their horses, and the king sent them after the Aramean army. He commanded the drivers, “Go and find out what has happened.” They followed them as far as the Jordan, and they found the whole road strewn with the clothing and equipment the Arameans had thrown away in their headlong flight. So the messengers returned and reported to the king. Then the people went out and plundered the camp of the Arameans. So a seah of flour sold for a shekel, and two seahs of barley sold for a shekel, as the LORD had said.

Now the king had put the officer on whose arm he leaned in charge of the gate, and the people trampled him in the gateway, and he died, just as the man of God had foretold when the king came down to his house.

2 Kings 6:24 – 25, 7:1 – 17

Book Review: The Brides of Maracoor

This book was a pleasure to read.

This review was originally posted by me on Goodreads and has been edited for clarity. The book is by Gregory Maguire, the author of Wicked, and is part of the same universe. It is the first book by Maguire that I have read. I gave it four stars.

The prose is almost like poetry, but not purple. Not hard to plough through; it draws you through. The psychology is amazing. So is the portrayal of a sort of ancient-Greece-based world. I picked up this book for the brides, who are sort of like pagan nuns (Vestal Virgins?) living all alone on a remote island, performing bloodletting and weaving rituals in order to guard a sacred artifact.

Every morning, the “brides,” who range in age from ten to about eighty, troop down to the seaside where they use sawgrass to cut crosshatched lines into the soles of their feet. Then they sit with their injured feet in the salt water and tie seaweed into a net. This ritual supposedly “weaves time” so that the world can go on. The brides are almost entirely self-sufficient, keeping gardens, goats, chickens, and an orchard. None of them have ever seen the mainland. They are brought to their island, called Maracoor Spot, as babies. There are always seven brides, so whenever one dies, a baby is brought to replace her.

The way Maguire introduces all this information is magical, as if he were weaving a spell. There are lyrical (but not sappy) descriptions of the island’s weather, the sea, the rain, the clouds, interspersed with descriptions of the brides’ suffering at their morning ritual. This slowly expands to show us their names, ages, personalities, and daily routines. They sleep in the outer part of a small marble temple, the inner room of which houses the terrifying artifact.

By the time Maguire was finished showing us the brides and their way of life, I was hooked. I knew I was going to finish this book.

The moral lessons, at least to which the story seemed to be heading, weren’t ones I could completely get on board with, however. So now let’s to spoiler town (though I should add that there are vast swathes of this book I haven’t addressed, so this is not a complete spoiler).

Rain, who seems to be the character we are most supposed to identify with considering that she is the one who comes from a beloved earlier series, makes the argument that Acaciana (“Cossy”) can’t be tried for murder because she is a 10-year-old child who has been raised in the very restricted environment as a Bride of Maracoor, not having a natural family, not having been given any chance to develop a conscience. She argues that the whole setup with the brides living on an island and ritually mutilating themselves every day, in service of the country’s religion, is inherently unjust and oppressive, and thus Cossy can’t be expected to know right from wrong.

It’s true that there are some troubling things about the “brides,” who are brought to the island as foundling babies and know no other life, being deprived of the chance to marry and have families and live in normal society. However, I can’t tell if this is a critique of ancient pagan customs such as the Vestal Virgins, or of there being traditions or religion at all. Obviously some religious customs are more oppressive than others. The brides are better off on Maracoor than if they had been made into temple prostitutes, for example.

It’s also not entirely true that Cossy was raised without any family at all. Cossy had a grandmother figure in Helia, who did some significant parenting, both good and bad. She had a sister in Scyrilla, and aunts in the other brides. Though there are only seven of them, the brides form a definite human society, with all the benefits and problems that come with that.

This raises the other point that Rain overlooks: no one gets to choose what family, society, or social station they are born into. The brides’ life might be more restricted than most people’s, but no one’s life is completely unrestricted. No one has infinite choices, and everyone has obligations placed upon them that they didn’t choose and don’t at first fully understand. These can be just or unjust, and we can argue that on the merits. But we should remember that they are not unjust simply because they are restrictions, obligations, and unchosen. Since the brides are all foundlings, we can assume that if they had not been brought to the island of Maracoor Spot, they would have either died of exposure (the fate of so many unwanted Greek and Roman babies), or been raised in some kind of institutional environment like an orphanage, where their lives would have been just as restricted, but without any sacred purpose.

Actually, I happen to agree that Cossy isn’t entirely responsible for the murder she committed, but it’s not because she was raised in an odd, isolated environment. It’s because Helia, her beloved grandmother figure, implicitly encouraged her to do it, told her exactly how to do it, and almost physically walked her through the steps. Helia is morally responsible, not only for the death, but also for taking an impressionable ten-year-old girl who is curious about death and making her into a murderer … and then throwing her under the bus. I don’t blame “the system,” I blame Helia.

That said, you can’t argue that Cossy absolutely did not know right from wrong or that she was in no way responsible. Witness how she falls apart after the death. She knows that she has done a terrible thing from which there is no going back. If she herself had not really committed murder, thus really changing her own character, then what Helia did to her would not have been such a terrible thing.

This book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. There are lots of unanswered questions, such as the nature and fate of the Hammer of Mara, whether Maracoor is going to continue sliding into paranormal chaos, and whether Rain is going to get back to Oz. For me, there are also unanswered questions about Rain’s back story, though I suppose those answers are already known to faithful readers of Maguire’s previous books.

Very Old Pyramids in Peru

The sacred city of Caral-Supe

Random thoughts:

  • The dates, as always, are messed up and questionably to be trusted. For example, the idea that the step pyramid at Saqqara is the oldest known pyramid in ancient Egypt.
  • Still, Caral-Supe seems to be old and I’ll accept that it was the region’s “mother culture.”
  • “The design of both the architectural and spatial components of the city is masterful, and the monumental platform mounds and recessed circular courts are powerful and influential expressions of a consolidated state.” Also, “Archaeologists think the sites collectively reflect the Americas’ earliest core of civilization, which existed from 3000 to 1800 B.C. and was totally uninfluenced by outside factors.” Both cannot be true. Given that it is a sophisticated city-state centered around pyramidal temples, it seems have been an expression of the ancient, pagan bureaucratic urban human culture. Triangulating with genetic evidence, it was probably carried to Peru across the Pacific when humanity was dispersing after the Flood.
  • “No trace of warfare has been found at Caral: no battlements, no weapons, no mutilated bodies. Findings suggest it was a gentle society, built on commerce and pleasure.” That’s a nice thought, but I’m withholding judgement. The same thing was said about the Maya until we got better at interpreting their inscriptions, and started finding pictures of gruesome human sacrifice, piles of bones, etc. As Caral-Supe is much older than the Mayan civilization, the traces of warfare might be even harder to find.

Stunning Mic Drop of the Week

What was peculiar about the West was not that it participated in the worldwide evil of slavery, but that it later abolished that evil, not only in Western societies but also in other societies subject to Western control or influence. This was possible only because the anti-slavery movement coincided with an era in which Western power and hegemony were at their zenith, so that it was essentially European imperialism which ended slavery. This idea might seem shocking, not because it does not fit the facts, but because it does not fit the prevailing vision of our time.

Thomas Sowell, in the essay “The Real History of Slavery,” in the book Black Rednecks and White Liberals, pp. 134 – 135

Let’s Learn World Building with Thomas Sowell

This is a brief review of the book Black Rednecks and White Liberals, by Thomas Sowell. Full disclosure: I am writing the review before I’m finished with the book. But given that it’s a series of historical essays rather than a novel, I doubt there’s going to be a twist at the end.

Contrary to what you might expect, not the entire book is about Black Rednecks and White Liberals. The book consists of five essays:

  • Black Rednecks and White Liberals
  • Are Jews Generic?
  • The Real History of Slavery
  • Germans and History
  • Black Education: Achievements, Myths and Tragedies
  • History versus Visions

As you can see from the titles, Sowell pokes directly at the eyes of all the sacred cows he can find. Like every Sowell book I’ve read so far, the essays in this book destroy popular misconceptions with facts and logic. But by “facts and logic” I don’t just mean bon mots and statistics from the last ten years. These essays offer detailed history lessons that cover social phenomena from around the world. As someone with an interest in anthropology, I am finding them fascinating. Sowell has drawn from the literature (he has 63 pages of endnotes), but he had also done some research in person. At one point, he mentions in passing something someone said to him “When I was traveling to research the economic conditions of different ethnic groups around the world.”

I’m not going to get in to the political and economic implications of these essays. Instead, I’m going to come at this like a fiction author.

I really recommend that anyone who wants to do worldbuilding for a fictional society read some or all of the essays in this book.

For example, the essay “Are Jews Generic?”. Kind of a weird title, but it turns out that what the piece is about, is economic middlemen. Sowell starts out talking about how, in WWII P.O.W. camps, a black market would immediately spring up around goods that people had saved from their Red Cross packages, such as cigarettes, jam, etc. Some people consumed these right away; others didn’t. Some people were nonsmokers. They needed to be able to barter things. And, just as quickly, up sprang economic middlemen. They knew who had what, and they could help the parties communicate and broker trades. And, they took their cut, which led the other prisoners to look on them as parasites who weren’t producing anything of value, even though they were clearly providing a service that was needed.

It turns out that there have been people, and groups, that fill this economic role in many places in the world throughout history. The Milesians in the ancient Levant, the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, the Lebanese in Sierra Leone, the Igbo in Nigeria, the Chinese in Southeast Asia, Koreans in inner-city America … and the Jews in Eastern Europe.

Middleman groups have a lot in common. They tend to be more enterprising than the population around them; they start small, in businesses that don’t require a lot of initial capital, and work their way up; they make great sacrifices to get their children educated; they tend to be clannish, as they must be in order to maintain the distinctive cultural characteristics that make them so well suited for the middleman role. They also tend to be hated: accused of corruption (often true, especially in countries where one must be corrupt to survive in business) and of extortion and hogging resources (often not true, as usually they started out very poor and rose to middle class). Interestingly, middlemen tend to be most hated in economic situations where their role is most vital. Sometimes they are driven out or genocided, which then causes the local economy to suffer because that vital middleman role is not being filled, or is being filled poorly.

Hence, the title “Are Jews Generic?” asks the question whether Jews are hated because they are Jews, or because they are, in a way, the ultimate example of an economic middleman ethnic group, whose intelligence, diligence, and drive tend to arouse the envy of others.

If all this isn’t useful for worldbuilding, I don’t know what is.

Readers will also benefit from this historical perspective. If a fantasy writer includes an economic middleman character who is clannish, a sharp bargainer, and very frugal, for example, it does not follow that the writer is employing a transparent stereotype of a Jew and that the book or movie is therefore anti-Semitic. There have been characters like this all over the world and all throughout history. It is good for readers and viewers to be aware of this.

As always, Thomas Sowell comes highly recommended.

Shaking My Head

… and laughing at human nature.

The close ties within middleman minorities have led some to imagine a wider web of loyalties than has actually existed. Such phrases as “Jews all stick together” confuse intense loyalties within particular subsets of Jews –or other middleman minorities– with a solidarity encompassing the whole population of the group. However, when Eastern European Jews began arriving in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the predominantly German Jewish community viewed their arrival with alarm. The Jewish press, which was largely controlled by German Jews at the time, characterized the new immigrants as “slovenly in dress, loud in manners, and vulgar in discourse,” speaking “a piggish jargon” –that is, Yiddish.

German Jews were willing to employ Eastern European Jews but living near them was something else … Hungarian Jews had their own enclaves, separate from the enclaves of Russian or Polish Jews. There was a “low intermarriage rate” among these various subgroups of Eastern European Jews and a “mutual incomprehension and intolerance that kept Jews apart.”

Among the Lebanese who settled in Australia, “their regional loyalties seldom extended beyond that of the village” in Lebanon from which they had come. A history of bitter and lethal intergroup violence in Lebanon and Syria, taking thousands of lives at a time, was part of the legacy that Lebanese took to other countries in which they settled. Even in a small country like Sierra Leone, the many internal disputes among various Lebanese factions, which spilled over into courts and involved political authorities, proved too baffling for either Europeans or Africans to understand –much less settle– during the colonial era. Indeed, one of the main tasks of the diplomatic representatives from Lebanon in Sierra Leone after independence was to arbitrate these internal disputes among various Lebanese factions there.

Thomas Sowell, “Are Jews Generic?”, in the book Black Rednecks and White Liberals, pp. 90 – 92