Burning the Books


Diego de Landa was a Fransiscan Friar and Archbishop of Yucatán during the initial phase of conquest by Spain.  He appears to have been a scholarly man and did his best to document Mayan culture.  Sadly his original works were lost over time and what remains to us are fragments of copies pieced together.  He had royal scribes decipher the Maya script and tried to produce a Maya to Spanish translator by simple substitution of Maya Characters with Spanish letters.  Anyone who played with Google Translate for more than five minutes can see the flaws in this approach.

Unfortunately well over 90% of what we now know about the Maya comes from this priest.

In 1562 he learned that some of his Catholic Converts were continuing to observe Mayan practices, in particular Idol worship.  He also claimed to have uncovered evidence of ritual human sacrifice.  But this was in response to contemporary criticism of his subsequent actions which ran counter to Crown policy and Inquisition procedure.  His apologists were his own priests.

Bishop de Landa rounded up as many idols as he could find and held an act of faith – “Auto de fé” – the famous public expression of faith of the Spanish Inquisition.

Hundreds of Mayan nobles were tortured by the Spaniards by hoisting, also called La Corda or Strappado.  They were interrogated while suspended in a manner that causes the shoulders to dislocate.  The process is helped along by beating the victim, tying weights to their feet and by repeatedly raising and dropping them.  In this way the Maya were brought into the loving arms of Jesus.

On July 12th 1562 the Archbishop set fire to a pile of about 5,000 Maya idols.  He also then committed the greatest sin in the history of scholarship.  He burned every Maya holy book he could find.  He claimed to have burned 27 Mayan Codices on that day.  He then sent his priests out across the land to copy his example, and burn every Maya Codex they could find.

To give perspective on this act we now have three Mayan Codices and 10 pages of a fourth remaining today.  Nobody knows how many were destroyed.

This being a Sunday let’s say a Hail Mary for the eternal soul of Bishop Diego de Landa, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19)

Fishing for what?


I was in Crete back in the early 1980’s and came down with a bit of a bug in Chania.  I didn’t feel up to much and ended up spending a day by myself.

I saw all these guys fishing the old Venetian harbour.  So I found a tackle shop and bought a cheap fishing pole.  I stopped at a bakery and bought a couple of bread rolls.  Then I set up at a lamppost on the harbour, baited my line and started to fish.

One of the many stray cats emerged from the shadows and sat beside me on the off-chance that I might catch something.  I dangled my hook in the water and attracted a shoal of gudgeons too small to catch, which nevertheless made free with my bait.

A tourist stopped and asked “Deutch?”.  “Nein” says I “Irlander”.  “Hollander?” he asks.  “Nein, Irland, EeeerLand”.   In halting English he asks how the fishing is.  I say it’s so-so. And he moves off.

My French was marginally better, my leaving cert honours French facilitated the skeleton of a conversation and that guy went off satisfied, with a dreamy gait, head in the clouds of fond memories.

His place is taken by an English tourist.  He tells me of the great fishing he did as a youth. And so the day progressed.  I realised that what I lacked in fish I more than made up for in tourists.  Mostly middle aged men with fond memories of fishing as lads, who saw in me the hyper-real simulacrum of their perfect youth.  I caught story after story on the wall of that ancient harbour.

I did eventually catch a couple of tiddlers, much to the relief of my cat.  And when I packed up and collapsed my pole I judged it a day well spent.


Fishing On The Susquehanna In July: by Billy Collins

I have never been fishing on the Susquehanna
or on any river for that matter
to be perfectly honest.

Not in July or any month
have I had the pleasure — if it is a pleasure —
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

I am more likely to be found
in a quiet room like this one —
a painting of a woman on the wall,

a bowl of tangerines on the table —
trying to manufacture the sensation
of fishing on the Susquehanna.

There is little doubt
that others have been fishing
on the Susquehanna,

rowing upstream in a wooden boat,
sliding the oars under the water
then raising them to drip in the light.

But the nearest I have ever come to
fishing on the Susquehanna
was one afternoon in a museum in Philadelphia,

when I balanced a little egg of time
in front of a painting
in which that river curled around a bend

under a blue cloud-ruffled sky,
dense trees along the banks,
and a fellow with a red bandana

sitting in a small, green
flat-bottom boat
holding the thin whip of a pole.

That is something I am unlikely
ever to do, I remember
saying to myself and the person next to me.

Then I blinked and moved on
to other American scenes
of haystacks, water whitening over rocks,

even one of a brown hare
who seemed so wired with alertness
I imagined him springing right out of the frame.

Good or not good?

Richard Harris

These days he is best known in popular culture as portrayed by Richard Harris in the film “Gladiator”.  Marcus Aurelius was born on this day in 121 AD during the reign of Hadrian.  He lived his life under the Pax Romana in the glory days of second century Rome.

He became Roman Emperor in 161 AD and ruled until 180 AD.

Marcus Aurelius is traditionally seen as the fifth of the five “good emperors”; Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius.  But there is a view at large that he should not be in that club.  What marked out the good emperors was their replacement of dynastic rule with a meritocracy.

Dynasties often begin on merit with a great emperor, like Augustus who was first Emperor of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, and Vespesian who was first of the Flavians.  They tend to end badly with an idiod.  The last Julio-Claudian was Nero who was replaced by Vespasian.  The last Flavian was Domitian who was replaced by Nerva.

There is another trend in family dynasties that leads to the rise of a terrible emperor or ruler.  Disaster generally follows the appointment of a headstrong teenager to the top job.  Sometimes they can survive their teenage years if they listen to their mothers, but most are doomed to ignomy.

The “good emperors” built a meritocracy quite by accident.  There was a procession of childless emperors.  Each handed the baton to a successor who was already well proven.  Until we get to Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus Aurelius had 13 children with his wife Faustina of which one son and four daughters survived.  The Emperor appointed his son Commodus as co-emperor in 177 AD when the boy was 16 years old.  If Marcus Aurelius had lived longer perhaps Commodus would have been a better emperor, but the father died when the boy was still only 19 years old.

He liked to fight in the arena as a gladiator and styled himself a demi-God in the likeness of Hercules.  When a fire devastated Rome he had the city “re-founded” seeing himself as the new Romulus and renamed Rome after himself.  He also renamed the months of the year after all his own names.  He replaced the head of the colossus of Nero with his own head.

Commodus was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard and his death led to the era of the barracks emperors and the crisis of the 3rd Century.  All legitimacy disappeared from the imperial office.  The Roman Empire entered a period of decline which might have been its death knell if not for the arrival of Diocletian.

With this in mind can Marcus Aurelius count as a “good emperor”?  Do we blame the father for the sins of the son?

President Planck


Planking Craze of 2008-2011

Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck is famous for many things, but he had nothing to do with the Planking craze that swept the globe in the late noughties.

Born on April 23rd, 1858 Max Planck was the foremost German physicist of his day.  Nobel prize winner in 1918 for his work in quantum theory.  He was a president of the Prussian Academy of Sciences, the German Physical Society and the Kaiser Wilhelm Society which became the Max Planck Society which operates 87 Max Planck Institutes for research into the sciences.

It was Arthur Conan Doyle who said: Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius.  He could have directed it at Planck.  When Albert Einstein published his three epoch defining papers in 1905 Planck was one of the first to recognise their worth.  With the influence he carried in German academia it guaranteed recognition for Einstein.

He kept company with the premier quantum physicsts of his day, often hosting them in his own home.  The Copenhagen set of Bohr, Heisenberg and Pauli and the opposing team of Schrödinger, Laue, and Einstein with whom Planck aligned.

Religious fundamentalists love to quote Planck.  He said “As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent spirit. This spirit is the matrix of all matter.

He also said: “Both religion and science require a belief in God. For believers, God is in the beginning, and for physicists He is at the end of all considerations… To the former He is the foundation, to the latter, the crown of the edifice of every generalized world view

But the fundamentalists avoid this one: “.. ‘to believe’ means ‘to recognize as a truthand the knowledge of nature, continually advancing on incontestably safe tracks, has made it utterly impossible for a person possessing some training in natural science to recognize as founded on truth the many reports of extraordinary occurrences contradicting the laws of nature, of miracles which are still commonly regarded as essential supports and confirmations of religious doctrines, and which formerly used to be accepted as facts pure and simple, without doubt or criticism. The belief in miracles must retreat step by step before relentlessly and reliably progressing science and we cannot doubt that sooner or later it must vanish completely“.

We are what we do.

Change the World for a Fiver by We Are What We Do

In 2004 an organisation called WeAreWhatWeDo.Org published a book on how to change the world for a fiver.  At the heart of this philosophy is the concept of the “Parlour General, Field Deserter” so beautifully encapsulated by Marge Piercy (Happy Birthday Marge)

The Parlour General is also called a slacktivist.  Slacktivism is defined as: the practice of supporting a political or social cause by means such as social media or online petitions, characterized as involving very little effort or commitment.

The Slactivist is the person who constantly forwards touchy feely motivational posts on social media, wears the French Flag and sticks “Je Suis Charlie” on their profile, tags posts with #MeToo or #IBelieveHer but never actually gets off their backside to do anything about these causes.

So today figure out the cause that is most important to you and ask “What can I do?”  Not on social media.  What can you actually do?  The answer today is nothing because you are in lockdown, but prepare for the day you can get out.  Then act.


To Be Of Use; by Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Dissemination of Information

Chinese Typewriter

In every era, in every area, there emerge individual geniuses.  In economic terms the success of society lies in harnessing the output of these individuals, and this seems to come down to three major considerations:  Dissemination, Collaboration and Enabling.

Europe had no great advantage in the world of the High Middle Ages.  China and the Ottoman Empire enjoyed many advantages over the Europeans.  What changed the game for Europe was the printing press, which disseminated information widely.

The printing press was a chinese invention.  The chinese long used wood carved block prints to copy books and playing cards etc.  They even invented a moveable type block printing press.  But the technology was unsuited to the Chinese alphabet.  As an example look at the photo of a Chinese typewriter above.  It is a laborious and time consuming process to hunt down the correct character and type it onto the page.  Touch typing is not an option and speed typing is out of the question.

Out of pure serendipity the moveable type press was perfectly suited to European alphabets.  Once it was trialled it became clear immediately that printed books, pamphlets and periodicals were here to stay.

What followed was an explosion in the availability of knowledge.  When Petrarch wanted books in the 14th Century he had to delve into the basements of churches all over Europe to unearth old copies of Roman and Greek originals.  150 years later Erasmus was able to buy books from a printer.  Universities could expand their libraries from 100’s to 1,000’s of texts.

Universities were the centres of the second consideration; collaboration.  Before the arrival of the university collaboration occured only when a wealthy patron collected scholars in his court.  Usually this was done by rulers because few people have the resources to bankroll a room full of scholars.

A university is a financial model which takes income from students to bankroll the collaborative research of the senior academics.  It is the perfect collaboration engine.  These days we also have collaboration in other forms, but behind closed doors.  When the military brings “intelligence” together they have no intention of sharing the results widely.  Similarly private corporations are motivated to protect their intellectual property from the competition.  Only Universities, with the “publish or perish” mantra are motivated first and foremost by collaboration to expand the human body of knowledge.

Enabling is the final consideration of the three.  A salutory lesson in how important enabling is lies with the Arabic world.  When the first European presses were printing bibles and selling like hot cakes a printer in Venice looked east for a fresh market.  He printed a Koran.

When the Ummah, the controlling body of Islam, saw this first attempt they were horrified.  As with early bibles the printed Koran contained errors.  Instead of working to fix the errors the Sultanate banned printing in the Ottoman Empire.  The result of this decision was to plunge the Arab world into a technological backwater.  From being one of the most advanced centres of maths, astronomy, physics, geography etc they lost pace against the West becoming the “Sick Man of Europe”.

Enabling academics involves accepting that they can have some theories that people find uncomfortable.  During the “McCarthy Era” with Reds under the Beds and the Hollywood blacklist in operation many academics with socialist leanings in the USA found themselves under investigation.  That is not the environment that stimulates research.

Today, in particular in the USA, certain pressure groups use social media to “expose” academics in an attempt to close them down.  These attacks mostly come from the religious right and many are motivated by a distinctly anti-academic faith based approach to learning which runs exactly counter to scientific method.  The 1925 Scopes trial on the teaching of Darwinism in Highschool is the most famous instance, and these attacks persist to this day.

Anti-intellectualism is a universal tool of populism of both the left and the right.  Nazis and Communists are equally enthusiastic in the burning of books they dislike.  They share this fetish with religous fundamentalists of all creeds.

Beware anyone who opposes the dissemination of information.


Gary Whitehead, a mouse and Covid19


Carpark in Glendalough during Lockdown

Monday morning Week 2 of Coronavirus lockdown.

Spring is upon us and the weekend discarded its shroud of rain and wind and blessed us with some sun for a change.  Here in rural Tipperary we were released to walk the quiet country roads.  Dublin was somewhat different.  Given a sniff of good weather Dubliners all collectively head for the same spots:  Glendalough, the Sally Gap, Howth Head, Dollymount Strand, Bettystown, the Phoenix Park etc.  As a result you get crowding, traffic jams, queues for the coffee truck or the chip van.  The opposite of social distancing.

As a result the council steps in and shuts down car parks, exacerbating the problem in the ones that remain open.

Huge cities are not human places.  Now that many of us can work remotely what is the point of crowding millions of people into boxes of glass and steel? So much valuable time is lost commuting too and from the workplace.  Today that time is being used for exercise.  A fit workforce is a productive workforce.

If Covid-19 teaches us one thing it is that we can reverse the flow of people from country to city.  In the modern world it is not necessary to cram your employees into a factory where you can supervise them.  Technology can do that for you.  I predict that many of those working from home today will continue to work from home long after the crisis is past.


Mouse In The House; by Gary Whitehead

For two nights now it’s wakened me from dreams
with a sound like paper being torn, reams

of it, a scratching that’s gone on for hours.
Blind in the dark, I think of my father’s

letters, the ones composed but never sent.
They were addressed to his sister, my aunt,

a woman I never met but whose voice,
slurry and calling from some noisy place,

introduced itself one New Year’s eve, late,
before my mother came and silenced it

with a click. She was one of many things
we never spoke of. But when the phone rang

at odd hours, I’d wonder if it was her.
That voice had resurrected the picture

in the silver frame, my parents’ wedding
day: on the church steps the woman throwing

rice, blond and beautiful, showing no trace
at all of malice in her youthful face.

Now the awful sound, waking me again
like a secret, calls to mind the poison

I left out, and my mother on their bed
tearing a box of letters into shreds.

Empire of Plague

On this day, March 20th in 235 AD the Barracks Emperor Maximinus Thrax was acclaimed emperor of Rome by the Praetorian Guard.  His three year reign began in the year of the 6 emperors and is considered to herald in the “Crisis of the 3rd Century”.

Traditionally historians have viewed the crisis as a failure of leadership combined with a degrading of moral fibre as the goodly yeomen farmer soldiers gave way to effete and debauched libertines who would not bare a sword to defend the borders.

This is quasi-religious moralistic pontification as far as I am concerned.  As I sit in lockdown in a self-imposed isolation to limit the spread of the Coronavirus Covid-19 let me tell you how the Roman Empire declined.

In the years 165 to 180 AD the Antonine plague ravaged the Roman Empire.  Maximinus Thrax was born in the early 170’s right in the period when the plague was raging.  The disease wiped out a third of the population of the empire and in particular devastated the Roman Legions, where it spread first.

Legions needed to recruit warriors from the outside of the borders to make up the numbers.  “Barbarians” were settled on depopulated farms in border regions.  The family of Maximinus Thrax were of Dacian origin, replanted into the Empire.

The senate reacted against the elevation of a soldier who had no family from either the Senatorial or Equestrian classes.  The senate worked actively against Thrax by recognising other candidates.

Ten years after the reign of Thrax the Plague of Cyprian struck the Roman Empire from 249AD to around 262AD.  To have a single plague that kills one third of the population is an event that can destroy a regime, a nation or an empire.  To have two such events within the span of a single lifetime must have been devastating in the extreme.  In this context I don’t find the decline of the Roman Empire surprising, the thing that astounds me is that the Roman Empire survived.


A Litany in Time of Plague; by Thomas Nashe

Adieu, farewell, Earth’s bliss;
this world uncertain is;
fond are life’s lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
none from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
gold cannot buy you health;
physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
the plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
which wrinkles will devour;
brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Strength stoops unto the grave,
worms feed on Hector brave;
swords may not fight with fate,
Earth still holds open her gate.
“Come, come!” the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Wit with his wantonness
tasteth death’s bitterness;
Hell’s executioner
hath no ears for to hear
what vain art can reply.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Haste, therefore, each degree,
to welcome destiny;
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player’s stage;
mount we unto the sky.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!



As we face into the first full week of Lockdown it’s a good time to ponder the words of Richard Lovelace, and other great prison poets who used the cofinement of their person to liberate their mind.

The prison is of your own making.  Use the #Coronavirus pandemic to escape the normal confines of your existence.  What adventure can you pursue today from the comfort of your own chair?

To Althea, from Prison: by Richard Lovelace

When Love with unconfinèd wings
hovers within my gates,
and my divine Althea brings
to whisper at the grates;
when I lie tangled in her hair,
and fettered to her eye,
the Gods that wanton in the air,
know no such liberty.

When flowing Cups run swiftly round
with no allaying Thames,
our careless heads with roses bound,
our hearts with loyal flames;
when thirsty grief in wine we steep,
when healths and draughts go free,
fishes that tipple in the deep
know no such liberty.

When (like committed linnets) I
with shriller throat shall sing
the sweetness, mercy, majesty,
and glories of my King;
when I shall voice aloud how good
he is, how great should be,
enlargèd winds, that curl the flood,
know no such liberty.

Stone walls do not a prison make,
nor iron bars a cage;
minds innocent and quiet take
that for an hermitage.
If I have freedom in my love,
and in my soul am free,
angels alone that soar above,
enjoy such liberty.

A hateful son


Now that the Covid-19 media apocalypse is upon us here in Ireland I am taking a moment to think about the boy who gave us the name for next month.

The painting above is the Benjamin West 1795 “Death on a pale horse” which depicts the Biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse, Pestilence, War, Famine and Death, riding successively horses coloured white, red, black and pale.

In the ancient world disease killed more armies than battle, and was a constant companion of any assembled army.  Famine followed in the wake of every army as they stripped the land bare of food, like a plague of locusts.  Death of course is the bride of war.

So it is interesting to look at the parallels between the apocalyptic horsemen and the earlier Greco-Roman depictions of the Roman Mars (for whom we name March) and his Greek origination as the God Ares.

Homer, in the Illiad, quotes Zeus as calling Ares the god most hateful to him.  Such a thing to say to your own son!

The Greeks, for all their warlike tendencies, had a suspicion of unbridled passion.  They saw Eros (uncontrolled love) as a form of madness.  In Ares they saw the passion needed to succeed in battle, but they also saw the brutality.  Untamed aggression was achieved by letting slip the reins of mental discipline.

Like the later four horsemen Ares travelled in a gang of four.  Himself, the God of war, accompanied in his chariot by his two sons Phobos (Fear) and Deimos (Terror) and his daughter/lover Enyo (Discord).  Indeed it was Enyo who started the Trojan war.  But that’s a different story.

Ares had four sure-footed, gold bridled, immortal horses who pulled his chariot; Aithon, Phlogios, Konabos and Phobos (same name as his son).

The Greeks saw Ares as a destabilising force, and saw war as a necessary evil, both to be avoided if possible.  Ares is often ridiculed or embarrased in Greek mythology.

Rome took a different line.  Rome placed Mars in the top 3 of their Gods.  The Romans viewed War as the means to Peace and they treated their god of war with reverence and dignity.  Instead of being incestuously linked to Discord like Ares the Roman Mars is married to Nerio, the Goddess of Valor.

So we can see that the four horsemen of the bible have more in common with the Greek god of war than they do with the Roman Mars.

And now back to the painting.  In a twist of fate it carries its own apocalyptic tale.  When the first American Academy of art burned down a volunteer fireman cut the painting from its frame and saved it from the conflagration.