ON MISSING A FIRE

The house outside my window caught on fire last week. It was an old building, probably built in the first half of the twentieth century. It had started life as a Duplex, then was split into something like six units before eventually being abandoned. The most striking feature of this house was a tall peaked roof that looked like it belonged in a much nicer neighborhood.

Most of that roof no longer exists. The fire ate out the inside and collapsed the floors of the building into each other. The roof itself burnt and fell into the building. By the sheer damage it must have been a truly spectacular sight.

househouse twoI say “must have been” because I failed to even notice that the building was burning. This is despite the fact that the window in my bedroom looks directly at it. I failed to notice the sirens or the light or any of the other signs that a building was going out in its final blaze of glory. The only reason I noticed at all was the stench of plastic, tar, and several types of wood that permeated the entire neighborhood the next day.
This sheer obliviousness towards the world is a bit of a constant companion these days. It comes in different forms. Many days I feel a disconnection between living in the world and observing it. The world often seems surreal and unreachable. I can analyze it, question one aspect of it after another, but on many days I do not know how to live in it.

Other times I turn off the over-analysis. I just let myself go. I dance until I am too tired to keep going or until the music ends. I indulge myself shamelessly and purposelessly. But yet the world still seems far away.

I don’t really know that I intend to do anything about this, or that I could if I tried. It is just that there is something about entirely missing the fact that there was a house burning down outside my window that really throws feelings of oblivious disconnectedness into high relief.

WALKING UP HIGH STREET

Walking up high street in Columbus Ohio can be a trying experience. A man identifies me as a woman, decides that this gives him a right to heckle, “Hey dear, just smile, it’ll all be good,” he says. I keep walking. The next man I pass is asking for money, he winks at me as I pass, presumably also identifying me as a woman, I ignore him.  As I pass he yells, “You ain’t got no soul!” A part of me wants to stop and defend myself, but I keep walking.

Columbus is not kind to its homeless and it’s poor. Public transit here is shit, which traps people, and there are far too limited resources to help those on the streets. In many ways my daily annoyances are not the fault of the people who are annoying. I should feel sorry for these people I pass, they are products of a broken system, but I just don’t feel anything except annoyed. Instead I just keep my eyes forward and try and think about other things.

I don’t know how women handle it. I only get this sort of heckling in winter. To indulge in a bit of self-victim blaming, my winter fashion sense is not normal. Men take long hair, an odd hat, a scarf, and a unique coat as signifiers of femininity. Statements like “Aren’t you worried about getting beat up?” or “I like that coat, is it a woman’s jacket?” are commonly made about my winter clothing once people realize that I am in fact not identifying as female. I have lost count of the number of haltering apologies where they hear my voice and fall all over themselves trying to apologize for the sin of thinking that I was a woman. The first few times it was flattering, now it is just old.

But I could reenter White Masculine Normality by cutting my hair and getting a “normal” outfit. I choose not to do so mainly because I am a stubborn person and I have this implacable drive to force the world to accommodate my tastes. But if I were raised as a woman I would get this nonsense regardless of the clothing that I was wearing.  Frankly, I don’t know that I could handle that.

These experiences, and many like them, continue to make me question gender as a construct. The thing about American masculinity is that it is very safe. You have a fairly restricted set of modes of expression, but as long as you stay within the boundaries you have very little to worry about. I would like to destroy those boundaries, even though that seems out of reach. It would do people a great deal of good to pop their bubbles of personal superiority. I often wonder what would happen if every person raised male felt the discomfort that a woman or someone who expresses tastes tending towards androgyny feels.

Effectively, I keep wondering what “use” the ideas of male and female have. And I don’t just mean gender, I even question the concept of the two sexes. Why do we prioritize one chromosome set out of twenty-three to such a degree that it defines basic identity?

None of this is particularly original thinking. People have been wrestling with these sorts of question for years. But something about my daily walks up high street makes it personal.

THE AMERICAN MYTH OF THE WELFARE STATE

If you read much Science Fiction, or pay attention to right wing rants about socialism, the narrative of the bloated welfare state that results in a population of lazy bums who only care about their bread and circuses is an endemic story that is repeated ad nauseum.

If you have somehow missed it, the basic narrative is as follows: The government decides to give basic living standards to people who otherwise would be too poor to work. The number of people living on welfare goes up because people are fundamentally lazy. The bureaucracy increases in size and expense. Then the whole system becomes stuck. Riots occur if the poor are not given their food and entertainment. Growth and entrepreneurial activity stagnate because the government does not support it. Everything breaks down and the country ends up either going under or going massively expansionist.

Historical examples such as the plebs of Rome are used to support this line of thought. But it is fundamentally a mythical construction.

Let us break this down into some of its fundamental assumptions:

  1. People are lazy and will not do productive things if they are given the chance to be lazy.
  2. Low support for poor people stimulates economic growth.
  3. Work and money making are the most important elements in society.

None of these seem valid to me.

First of all, historically I do not see people as a whole failing to be productive unless they are forced to work. I do, however, see uneducated people as a whole failing to be productive unless the system forces them to work.

What do the plebs of Rome and people on food stamps have in common? First, both are given food and *not* money as their welfare. The thing about being given food is that you end up with enough to eat, and nothing else. There is no way to invest a food stamp. You cannot choose to be thrifty with your food stamp and then put the money into a dream to build a business.

They also both represent primarily undereducated populations. When you give people who are highly educated enough money to live on without attaching strings the result is quite different. My favorite example of this are the parson-naturalists of the 19th century. It turns out that when you give people an education that involves teaching them how to think critically and then give them a low work job that pays enough to have a decent life that they get bored and start doing crazy things like studying Geology.

Another example is that of Ancient Athens also applies. The ancient Greek word that we get the word School from means leisure time. The people who pioneered geometry and philosophy were people who were wealthy enough to not have to work at a daily job.

Now I need to be a bit careful here about what exactly I mean by education. The STEM initiatives of this century and the obsession with standardized education and testing are misguided. Vocational training is not and cannot be the sole purpose and metric of what makes education valuable if it is going to be useful for society. Indoctrination does not create a healthy society.

When I talk about education as a positive, I am talking about teaching people how to take evidence and analyze it. For an education to be effective it needs to teach people how to think for themselves in an effective way that allows them to process all of the information that is so readily available in this modern world. Unfortunately, this by its very nature is an individualized process not a standardized one, so it requires significantly more money to be spent on education (and not on more tests!) to get a positive result.

Returning to the various groups of Gentry in the past that have shown productivity despite having massive leisure time, I have to ask is there really anything special about rich people with leisure time that makes them so much better than poor people with leisure time?  Are Parson Naturalists really a phenomenon limited to the gentry of society? Unless you buy the nonsense that is prosperity theology, the answer basically has to be a resounding no. My guess is that if you give people an education that prioritizes questioning and critical thinking and then give them the luxury of leisure and disposable income you will increase the chances of people creating the great ideas that are the fuel for a progressive society.

Turning to the second point that low support for people gives them something to strive for and therefore causes entrepreneurial activity, it seems to me that this is only true for people who are economically stable enough to afford to take risks.

You cannot open a business or take time to create a new idea if you are living paycheck to paycheck. You cannot take a risk if your next doctor’s appointment is likely to wipe out your savings account. The system that we have now is a fundamentally anti-entrepreneurial system where only people with a certain amount of income can afford to take economic risks.

Furthermore, it is quite clear that trickledown economics are non-realistic and that they do not in fact produce growth. If you want a society that actively encourages entrepreneurial growth then you need to cushion the consequences of failure and create a minimum standard of living that allows people to take economic risks.

“But if people are given enough to support themselves with some leisure they will just spend all of their time doing drugs and watching TV,” is the common response I get to this whole line of argument. This brings us to the third given of the failed Welfare state myth, the intrinsic value of work and money.

As technology has increased, the value of physical work has decreased. We are not yet to a point where we can talk about a non-exploitative society, we still exploit the hell out of low paid workers across the world, but increasingly technology offers the possibility that eventually we may be able to exploit machines rather than people.

This trend towards automation raises a serious challenge to the idea that you need to be doing a certain amount of work to be able to justify being able to eat and live a decent life.

Furthermore, the idea that a society’s wealth represents its value is a rather flawed idea. When we look to past societies and talk about golden ages we are usually talking about periods of (ill gotten) wealth, but we don’t rate those societies by how much money they had (otherwise we would give the Byzantine Empire a much higher place in historical analysis!). Artistic and intellectual achievements are as much a part of what causes us to value a particular time and place higher than other times and places.

The problem with our current system in this country is that money making endeavors are about the only supported form of “work.” If you gave people the basics they needed to live and enjoy life then I would indeed expect many people to drop right out of the workforce. But I would also expect many of those people to go straight into artistic production and other “labors of love.”

The irony of the whole Welfare State myth is that there is a very real chance that we will end up in a dystopian future that looks a lot like the broken welfare state narrative. But we will not end up there through socialism or other pro-equality governments. We will end up in a welfare state through income inequality, education inequality, and crony capitalism.

To go back to the Roman Plebs, or even Communist Russia, the key to the whole model relies on domination of society by a rich oligarchy. The way you end up with a dysfunctional mass of people at the bottom of society that drag down the rest of the state is through anti-competitive practices committed by people at the top. When you close the door to education for the poor and when you gut the public school systems and make healthcare expensive, you actively help create an exclusive upper class at the expense of the entirety of society. The way I see things, giving a monopoly on leisure and education to the wealthy leads to a stagnant society where as giving leisure, stability, and education to as many people as possible leads to a competitive society.

The United States of the Ionian Islands

One somewhat interesting chapter in Kythera’s history is that for most of the 19th century the island was under British control as part of the United States of the Ionian Islands. This has some interesting ramifications for the island’s history.

First of all, the island is dotted with monumental buildings built by the British during this time period.

British Bridge

Perhaps the most important of these are the bridges. A large portion of the island’s bridges that are still in use were built during the British period. Kythera provided an ideal place for testing architectural concepts. The labor was cheap (or more accurately, free) and the political ramifications if something went wrong were significantly less than they would have been if someone had been trying the same thing in Britain. As it happens, the bridges seem to be holding up extremely well and the roads and bridges built in the 19th century are often still in use.

The other monumental building that dots the landscape of Kythera are the schools.

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The British built many schools all over Kythera that meant that the Island had a significantly more westernized education system in the 19th century than the rest of Greece. One effect of this is that after Kythera became part of Greece in 1863, many Kytherans became teachers and academics on the mainland in the newly formed country.

One interesting example of this is Valerios Stais, who became the director of the National Archeological Museum in Athens.

(Image from http://www.le-flamant-rose.org/machine-anticythere/photos/valerios_stais.jpg)

Valerios’ particular moment of fame, aside from being responsible for a good deal of 19th century archaeological work in Greece, was when he was the person responsible for realizing that the Antikythera mechanism might be an astronomical clock. No one believed him at the time, but now the device is significantly better understood and is often called the world’s first (or more accurately, oldest surviving) analog computer.

This narrative of improved infrastructure and education may be too triumphalist, however. Greece is in many ways the oldest victim of western European colonialism, and the British period was not an exception. The buildings here were built by local labor that was levied rather than hired and the fact that the British tests seem to have mostly played out positively does not really fix the problem that they were using the island as a guinea pig.

We tend to think of Colonialism as something that was done by western countries to countries that were not “European,” but the story of the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean as a whole is an ongoing part of the colonialism narrative, and it is not a story that is over. The current economic situation in Greece is not entirely of its own making and the country is not calling the shots in its attempt at recovery.  While the Venetian and later British control of Kythera over the course of the early modern period had a result of a more westernized education system and more westernized infrastructure than mainland Greece, it is worth questioning to what degree that westernization was a good thing.

Income Inequality and Academics and Such

This article has me thinking about income inequality again, so I am going to take a break from writing about Kythera to talk politics. It’s less fun, I know, but this issue is bugging me a lot lately.

Basically, the takeaway is that as more people have less and a few people have more, the inequality/lack of opportunity created will have an effect of make the economy actively grow less as a whole.

I think a factor that is worth adding to this discussion shows up in some of the statistics on happiness.

In the Q&A for this lecture on happiness by Daniel Kahneman, the following point was made when talking about a survey on happiness:

I think the most interesting result that we found in the Gallup survey is a number, which we absolutely did not expect to find. We found that with respect to the happiness of the experiencing self, when we looked at how feelings, vary with income. And it turns out that, below an income of 60,000 dollars a year, for Americans — and that’s a very large sample of Americans, like 600,000, so it’s a large representative sample — below an income of 60,000 dollars a year, people are unhappy, and they get progressively unhappier the poorer they get. Above that, we get an absolutely flat line. I mean I’ve rarely seen lines so flat. Clearly, what is happening is money does not buy you experiential happiness, but lack of money certainly buys you misery, and we can measure that misery very, very clearly.

So, what happens if we add the principle that money might not buy happiness, but lack of money buys misery to the brew of income inequality and lack of opportunity that has come about in this country?

An unequal society effectively becomes a less happy society than a society with more even distribution of wealth and opportunity. This in turn means that there is likely to be less wealth generation across as unhappy people seem less likely to be effective entrepreneurs/workers/ect.

Another issue I keep thinking about is that an unequal society is also an anti-entrepreneurial society, because an ever smaller percentage of people are the only people able to afford to take economic risks. This limits growth for the entire country, especially given the weakness of our safety nets.

It becomes even worse given the issue of student debt and rising tuition. Unless a student comes from a privileged background, chances are that they are now taking a good deal of debt to get through school. Each dollar of that debt and the interest it accrues is a dollar not spent by these newly educated people in their early to mid-twenties that should be starting to attempt to develop new ideas, businesses, families, and the like.

The only people who benefit from the system being the way it is now are the University Presidents, the Football coaches, and the lending banks. Everyone else loses, especially the students and the educators.

To be an entrepreneur requires someone to be able to take risks. With a healthcare system that only works effectively for the wealthy, a pathetic safety net for the unemployed, and the inability to get rid of student debt, the result is that income inequality means that large portions of our up and coming generations will be effectively not taking risks unless they are stupidly optimistic. If you cannot afford to invest in an idea and lose, then you cannot take that risk.

As a digression, this also makes the entire university education system less effective. Younger students
(and often their parents) now regularly are expressing the attitude that if they pay the exorbitant amount the university charges then they should by default get credit (often specified as As) in their classes.

And, you know, I find it harder and harder to argue with them on this point. Some of these students are basically giving up years of income in debt money to get that piece of paper that says they went to college so that they have a base chance of getting a half decent job. And if they take loans and fail out, then the economic equation is a devastating one for them.

This is not at all how it should be. Education *should* be a right, not a commodity. Especially in a country that regularly claims to be the best in the world.

In a world where students weren’t paying out the nose to be in my classroom, I would find it very easy morally to roll back decades of grade inflation. Average work and just showing up to class could be a C again, rather than a B+/A-.  That is how it should be. But I cannot help but think that in the current system the students who just expect their A’s may just have a point. Who am I to destroy economic futures over a silly thing like the history of the Roman Empire? I’ll continue to grade the students I have like I always have, because that is my job, and free As are also not a recipe for people to learn anything, but the economic argument adds a rather depressing element to general education classes.

And this is especially sad because I truly believe that the courses in things like history, philosophy, religion, language, culture, literature, art, and gender (that is, those that seem to suffer the most from this issue and to be the most maligned in certain parts of the media) are among the most potentially important classes for teaching people how to effectively understand the world around them. A world full of STEM specialists is all well and good, but if we do not teach people evaluate evidence and to understand how humans function and have functioned then that same world of STEM students seems to me to be a quite dangerous thing to produce. Classes focusing on human behavior are a truly vital element in general education for everyone, especially when the destructive capability of our technology has reached such spectacular levels.

But general ed classes that are treated by students as a check-box to mark off and a waste of money that is only important because it might keep someone from a productive future don’t help. If anything they make it worse as the economics seem purposely tailored to create resentment towards non-major education.

Due to the idiotic prices the universities and colleges ask people to pay, it is hard to see how we can morally justify *not* being factories for getting people jobs. But being a job-getter factory is a failure of the moral imperative to actually do a good job educating. This makes for a pretty crippling catch 22. The only acceptable answer I see is to quit allowing this absurd inflation of the cost of college, but I do not see that happening as it would require a rejection of the corporate model of university education and a re-implementation of large scale government funding of education.

Add to the whole mess the fact that many of the teachers are not being paid in line with the tuition increases that have happened and it becomes quite clear again that no one wins with the system we have now for higher education. Well, except for the aforementioned football coaches and the like, of course.

If you take all this together you get a truly nasty vicious cycle that leads towards a truly unhappy, under-educated, and prospect-less society where the only people who have real options for getting their lives started in their 20s are those who are lucky enough to both have a degree and to not be burdened with massive amounts of debt.

But that is enough cynical depression for a day, I’ll get pack to posting pictures of a pretty Greek island soon enough, I expect.

St. George Vrochandaris

Yesterday, three of us went and visited a 13th century church that has definitely seen better days.

The church of St. George Vrochandaris is nestled in the hills that approach the old Byzantine era capital of the Island at Palaiochora.

Palaiochora

The story goes that Palaiochora was sacked by Barbarossa in the 16th century and there certainly seems to have been a total collapse of population on the eastern side of the island at about that time, and the region is still mostly abandoned now. The place has a bit of a ghostly reputation, and local legends will tell you that if you go to Palaiochora alone at about noon you stand a good chance of seeing the ghosts of the people killed during the sack.

Anyhow, the people who built the church we went to yesterday almost certainly were connected economically to Palaiochora, so it is likely that the building’s decline into the state we found it in started centuries ago.

St. George Vrochandaris is not an easy place to get to.

DSC01956

 

It took quite a bit of planning to figure out how to get there at all, because there is no road access whatsoever. The closest you can do is to follow a footpath on the other side of the ridge that has been kept up as a tourist attraction. However, the church is not visible from this footpath, so it was a bit of an exercise in orienteering to try and figure out where exactly to turn away from the path. We then had to cross a ridge and move through about 300m of scrub. As mentioned before, Kytheran scrub tends to come in varieties of thorny, thornier, and thorniest, so 300m of scrub is no laughing matter to force your way through.

We knew what we were getting into, though, and were able to reach the church without any major problems.

The church is a small little barrel vaulted single aisle structure with an apse. It still has a shist roof, which means that it hasn’t had any major repairs to its roof since sometime in about the 16th century. It has definitely seen better days.

The narthex seems to have collapsed some time ago, and I would not want to be anywhere near the place in an earthquake.

Narthex

Unfortunately, its clear that we were not the only people to see the church in the last decade or so. Ten years ago, there were intact 13th century bowls built into the western wall of the church. These have since been removed by someone or another, probably to sell on antiquities markets. The place has also been used as a sheep pen, as demonstrated by the droppings on the floor, and at least three people have carved their names into the walls at different points in the 20th century.

Holes

The two holes above are where the bowls used to sit.

Inside, the church is also falling apart, but it still has a good number of surviving frescoes.

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In particular, the apse has a Mary and Christ image,

Mary+Jesus

There were several images of figures holding scrolls, one on the iconostasis and one on either side of the door in the west wall.

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As you might be able to see on the right here, the Iconostasis seems to have been added later than the rest of the construction and had two layers of frescoes on it. This probably means that the figure here is a good deal later than the other frescoes on the main structure, as the construction of the wall seems to have cut the vault’s frescoes down the middle.

Finally, there was the thing I came specifically to see:Stabbing

This is probably the image that gives the church its name. It is half of a saint’s head, his arm, and a spear stabbing downwards. In the part below there was almost certainly a horse and either a dragon or a human figure being stabbed. Other than the apse, this would have been the most dominant image in the chapel. It most likely was St. George, given the name of the place, but that is not at all certain.

Unfortunately, as you can also see from the image, the frescoes on the north side of the vault have been having a bit of a problem with water running down them in the rainy seasons. The roof no longer functions properly, so the entirely of the south wall and most of the north wall have become indistinguishable smears of paint. If even a little more of this image had washed away, I would not have been able to tell that it was a mounted saint at all.

On the one hand, I am lucky to have been able to go and record what is there. We took measurements and a large number of pictures. Hopefully, I will be able to write it up in an effective enough way to do something with it and keep the place from completely being lost. But on the other hand, I cannot help but be sad at seeing the last gasp of some very old paintings.

Stuff relating to Ancient Music in Corinth

Aulos

I am going to backtrack a bit from Kythera and talk about a couple of neat things relating to music that we saw in Corinth and Isthmia.

The rather stern looking fellow up above is the monument of Kornelios the Corinthian, a fellow who was apparantly extremely successful at winning competitions with the aulos. Each one of the wreaths represents a victory at a certain festival, and most of the wreathes have a number saying just how many times the guy won the contest. The three at the top are about the really big pan-hellenic festivals. This fellow won the Pythian, Nemean, and Isthmian games.

The monument was found in the paving stones for a road running through the Hexamillion fortification that was built to control the Isthmus of Corinth and the stele now is on display at Isthmia.

The aulos is a rather annoying instrument to teach about from a modern point of view, simply because someone in the 19th century decided that the way to translate the word was “flute.”

However, the instrument is a double reed instrument that sounds something like this:

So calling it a flute is a bit misleading.

If we can believe his victory monument, Kornelios here was just about the best there was at making noises with that instrument.

In the Corinth museum is this little gem.

Lyra

This is a 1000 year old piece of a musical instrument. Specifically a Byzantine Lyra.

Unlike the classical Lyra, which was played with a pick, the Byzantine Lyra was a bowed instrument.

Earliest depiction of a Byzantine Lyra. From Wikimedia.

It would have probably sounded something like the modern Cretan Lyra:

I was really surprised to find that in the Corinth museum, as its one of the coolest pieces of material culture that I have seen anywhere.

Edit:

Thinking about the shape of that Lyra more, I am really curious why the lower body of the lyra survives so completely, but the top side is completely missing. I am wondering if that is perhaps a sign of it having had a skin head like the ones you see on some kemenche.