The King in Yellow

Friday, February 28th, 2014

I didn’t find myself drawn to HBO’s True Detective until I learned that it alluded to The King in Yellow, a collection of short stories from 1895, which opens with four weird tales that refer to a fictional play, itself called The King in Yellow:

The first mention of the play comes in episode two when Rust Cohle, the cynical, nihilistic detective played by Matthew McConaughey, finds the journal of a young former prostitute, Dora Lange, who has been ritualistically murdered.

True Detective Journal 1

“I closed my eyes and saw the King in Yellow moving through the forest,” Cohle reads aloud from her journal. “The King’s children are marked. They became his angels.”

True Detective Journal 2

Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink beneath the lake,
The shadows lengthen
In Carcosa.

Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa.

Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in
Dim Carcosa.

Song of my soul, my voice is dead;
Die thou, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in
Lost Carcosa.

Cassilda’s Song in “The King in Yellow,” Act i, Scene 2.

Apparently these cryptic references have been enough to boost sales of the book, and that may have been the goal:

Speakeasy: If you could recommend any single work of weird fiction and/or horror to people, what would it be?

Pizzolatto: That’s tough — on the one hand I want to name one of the blue-chip classics, and on the other I’d like to give an endorsement to people who may not usually get enough attention. I mean, I’d suggest Lovecraft or Poe, but everybody knows them already. More recently, I’d point people in the direction of Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barron, John Langan, Simon Strantzas and others. For fans of the show who’d like to see what contemporary voices have done with Chambers’ “King in Yellow,” I’d point them toward Karl Edward Wagner’s short story “The River of Night’s Dreaming” or the recent anthology “A Season in Carcosa.”

The first story of the collection, The Repairer of Reputations, opens with an odd portrayal of the Progressive future — the 1920s, that is, from the perspective of the 1890s — which we can’t fully trust:

“Ne raillons pas les fous; leur folie dure plus longtemps que la nôtre…. Voila toute la différence.”

Toward the end of the year 1920 the Government of the United States had practically completed the programme, adopted during the last months of President Winthrop’s administration. The country was apparently tranquil. Everybody knows how the Tariff and Labour questions were settled. The war with Germany, incident on that country’s seizure of the Samoan Islands, had left no visible scars upon the republic, and the temporary occupation of Norfolk by the invading army had been forgotten in the joy over repeated naval victories, and the subsequent ridiculous plight of General Von Gartenlaube’s forces in the State of New Jersey. The Cuban and Hawaiian investments had paid one hundred per cent and the territory of Samoa was well worth its cost as a coaling station. The country was in a superb state of defence. Every coast city had been well supplied with land fortifications; the army under the parental eye of the General Staff, organized according to the Prussian system, had been increased to 300,000 men, with a territorial reserve of a million; and six magnificent squadrons of cruisers and battle-ships patrolled the six stations of the navigable seas, leaving a steam reserve amply fitted to control home waters. The gentlemen from the West had at last been constrained to acknowledge that a college for the training of diplomats was as necessary as law schools are for the training of barristers; consequently we were no longer represented abroad by incompetent patriots. The nation was prosperous; Chicago, for a moment paralyzed after a second great fire, had risen from its ruins, white and imperial, and more beautiful than the white city which had been built for its plaything in 1893. Everywhere good architecture was replacing bad, and even in New York, a sudden craving for decency had swept away a great portion of the existing horrors. Streets had been widened, properly paved and lighted, trees had been planted, squares laid out, elevated structures demolished and underground roads built to replace them. The new government buildings and barracks were fine bits of architecture, and the long system of stone quays which completely surrounded the island had been turned into parks which proved a god-send to the population. The subsidizing of the state theatre and state opera brought its own reward. The United States National Academy of Design was much like European institutions of the same kind. Nobody envied the Secretary of Fine Arts, either his cabinet position or his portfolio. The Secretary of Forestry and Game Preservation had a much easier time, thanks to the new system of National Mounted Police. We had profited well by the latest treaties with France and England; the exclusion of foreign-born Jews as a measure of self-preservation, the settlement of the new independent negro state of Suanee, the checking of immigration, the new laws concerning naturalization, and the gradual centralization of power in the executive all contributed to national calm and prosperity. When the Government solved the Indian problem and squadrons of Indian cavalry scouts in native costume were substituted for the pitiable organizations tacked on to the tail of skeletonized regiments by a former Secretary of War, the nation drew a long sigh of relief. When, after the colossal Congress of Religions, bigotry and intolerance were laid in their graves and kindness and charity began to draw warring sects together, many thought the millennium had arrived, at least in the new world which after all is a world by itself.

But self-preservation is the first law, and the United States had to look on in helpless sorrow as Germany, Italy, Spain and Belgium writhed in the throes of Anarchy, while Russia, watching from the Caucasus, stooped and bound them one by one.

In the city of New York the summer of 1899 was signalized by the dismantling of the Elevated Railroads. The summer of 1900 will live in the memories of New York people for many a cycle; the Dodge Statue was removed in that year. In the following winter began that agitation for the repeal of the laws prohibiting suicide which bore its final fruit in the month of April, 1920, when the first Government Lethal Chamber was opened on Washington Square.

Aaron Allston

Friday, February 28th, 2014

Game-designer (and novelist) Aaron Allston just passed away.

Two Years Old and Wealthy

Friday, February 28th, 2014

You may have heard recently that the richest 85 people in the world have more wealth than the bottom 3.5 billion, but Tim Harford has pointed out that his two-year-old also has more wealth than the bottom 2 billion, since his 2-year old has no debt.

By the way, one in three Americans aren’t saving any money.

The Rigid Hierarchy of the Persian Army

Friday, February 28th, 2014

The ancient Greeks commented on the rigid hierarchy of the Persian army — and not much has changed:

American and British forces in Afghanistan, for instance, have commented that local troops can be ferocious in combat, and like the action of getting into a fight. (I have this from personal accounts, and military publications.) Their main weakness is in their officers, especially the NCOs. Whereas American NCOs are trained to take initiative, especially when higher organization gets disrupted during the fog of battle, Middle-Eastern officers are wary of doing anything they might be criticized for.** Success as an officer is not necessarily a good thing. Outstanding success makes one a political threat; it also could be interpreted as showing up one’s superiors. Extrapolating backwards to Alexander’s time, there are numerous reasons why ethnic troops and their lower officers would not fight vigorously for their Persian commanders, if the battle started going against them. Generals who failed risked being executed; but generals who succeeded were potential rebels, and many of them got executed or assassinated in a few years anyway, in the distrustful politics of the Empire.

**In this respect, the Roman army was more like the contemporary American one. Centurions — leaders of a company of 100 — were widely regarded as the backbone of the army, and treated as such by successful generals. Also similar were the widespread opportunities for upward mobility in the revolutionary French army at the time of Napoleon.

Operation Red Wings

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

Operation Red Wings, the SEAL mission that led to Lone Survivor, started out as a Marine job, Ed Darack notes:

2/3′s planners took the Stars model and, based on Westerfield’s intelligence reports, developed an operation named Red Wings — also named after a hockey team, the Detroit Red Wings.

The plan would have a six-man Marine Scout-Sniper team walk under cover of darkness to the first of two designated observation posts near the summit of Sawtalo Sar (MAP), from where the Marines could get “eyes on” individual target structures within each of the NAIs, positively identify Shah and his men, and then radio the exact location of the targets. The main assault would occur at night (for maximum surprise), and as intel evolved with the development of the operation, that night looked more and more like one with virtually no lunar illumination (late in the month of June, 2005), requiring the battalion to utilize the aviation assets of the 160th Special Operations Air Regiment (Airborne), AKA “The Night Stalkers.” The main assault would have a team of twenty Marines from 1st Platoon, Company E, 2/3 raid the identified target structures, inserted by MH-47s of the 160th, while a company sized element would provide outer and inner cordon, they too inserted by MH-47s of the 160th. After taking down Shah’s cell, Marines would remain in the area for weeks, undertaking a variety of presence missions (general patrols, medical capability, and general humanitarian assistance), and then wind down the operation. This was similar to the Stars model, only they would simply task a SOF aviation element, not a ground element.

However, during the time when 2/3 was relieving 3/3, other command echelons were turning over — commands at the senior level of the coalition in Afghanistan, including both conventional forces and of special operations forces. The new special operations task force commanders adhered to a much stricter interpretation of special operations doctrine, and would not allow 2/3 to have access to special operations aviation assets unless they included a SOF ground unit for the opening phases of the operation — and handed command and control over to SOF during these first phases. In order to proceed with the operation, the battalion was forced to include a special operations ground unit. Conventional Army aviation assault support (troop and equipment transport) available to the Marines in their joint environment could not, by doctrine, operate in those low lunar illumination conditions, otherwise, the Marines would have used conventional aviation and maintained solid command and control over all phases of the fully conventional operation.

As a result, the battalion kept their overall plan, but the surveillance team of the initial phase would not be Marine Scout Snipers walking in under cover of darkness, rather, a four-man Navy SEAL reconnaissance and surveillance team, who chose to insert by helicopter (at night) to a location within just one mile of a populated area (although sparsely populated, populated nonetheless). This was a substantial deviation to the plan, as the original reconnaissance and surveillance team for Red Wings was to be a standard Marine Scout-Sniper team “plussed up” with two other Marines for added security, and battalion planners felt that a helicopter insert would compromise the mission by revealing coalition force presence in this area. The plan then had U.S. Navy SEALs conducting the direct action portion of the raid with U.S. Marines undertaking the cordon portions of the operation. The Marines would then continue with their original plan after the raid.

Herschel Smith’s former-Marine son, Daniel, feels that the operation should never have come off the way it did:

The Marines don’t take chances. I saw a room full of Navy SEALs sitting on their assess back at the FOB doing nothing but monitoring comms. If you set four SEALs down by helicopter, you could have set an entire platoon down. There was no reason to limit the recon team to four.

A former Army Special Forces weapons man points out that this is a line-soldier’s (or Marine’s) point of view:

This is the line soldier’s profound ignorance of two things speaking. One, is what all those SEALs (or SF, CAG guys, 160th dudes, the TF duty senior CC and PJ, etc) are doing at those FOBs. One of their major duties is tracking ops and clearing fires. Think of that, for a minute. Clearing fires — telling air or artillery that, “Yeah, you can blow that grid square to Kingdom Come, our guys are definitely not there.” You have literally seconds to make that call. You might want to have somebody on that other than a lance corporal. Another is liaison with sister sources. Darack makes clear that the Marines did not care to operate under SOF control, they just wanted to take the TF 160 aircraft, something they needed because they’ve botched aircraft procurement and most of their rotary-wing aircraft are 1950s designs that are sucking wind at Afghan altitudes, and their ships and pilots can’t operate in restricted visibility.

The only aircraft they have that can approach the Chinook for lift, and that beats it for speed, is the highly capable Osprey, and the USMC is extremely timid about exposing those to enemy fire. (We don’t think powered-lift aircraft are any more vulnerable to fire than normal helicopters, but a combat Osprey loss would be a PR disaster for the USMC, quite unfairly but there it is). We’re not sure they even had Ospreys in country in 2005.


Daniel, in his personal experience, does not understand the difference between recon and long-range recon, which the Army and SF have called things like LRR, LRP, LRRP, SICTA, and SR over the years. The principal difference, in tactical terms, is that a Marine unit like Daniel’s, like any combat unit, normally pushes ground recon patrols only to within its area of influence. A commander may push them out to his whole area of interest, but he’s accepting that they’re beyond the reach of his fires if they get into the $#!+.

In the interests of force protection, the commander may enlarge that patrol, but there’s a tradeoff: a larger recon patrol brings back less ground truth than a smaller one. A platoon patrol is thirty-plus guys with heavy packs, machine guns, and maybe even an attached mortar or two. They can fight if they’re seen and engaged; what they can’t do is hide.

A platoon-sized patrol has the stealth of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps, elephants and all. Accordingly, a large, powerful enemy can still surround it and defeat it in detail, if it is beyond the range of friendly fires; a small, elusive enemy (the use case in the mountainous, forested Kunar province region at hand) can simply melt away while the platoon is paused waiting for the platoon sergeant to send up the count at every danger area.

In SOF doctrine, a strategic reconnaissance patrol goes deep, alone, and fundamentally unsupported. SF, SEALs, and other sophisticated US SOF are accustomed to going 1000 kilometers or more into a denied area or, if you will, “behind enemy lines.” If they get into a fight, their tactic is to call for extraction, run, and engage the enemy to delay his pursuit.

In the Vietnam war, long range patrols and particularly the SOG patrols into areas that were truly denied, both de facto and de jure, had an option that not only frequently allowed them to break contact and extract, but even to break contact and continue mission. That was the toe-poppers (M14 antipersonnel mines) or booby-trap-rigged Claymores (M18/M18A1 command-detonated mines hooked up to a tripwire) on their back trail. Many of the guys who survive today from SOG were saved by that very tactic. These defensive mines were forbidden by the staff judge advocates and they were actually collected from US SOF years before Operation Red Wings.

The Mammoth Cometh

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

The New York Times Magazine piece is titled The Mammoth Cometh, but it’s more about the potential de-extinction of the passenger pigeon.

One mistake caught my eye:

The biologists would next introduce these living cells into a band-tailed-pigeon embryo. No hocus-pocus is involved here: You chop off the top of a pigeon egg, inject the passenger-pigeon cells inside and cover the hole with a material that looks like Saran wrap. The genetically engineered germ cells integrate into the embryo; into its gonads, to be specific. When the chick hatches, it should look and act like a band-tailed pigeon. But it will have a secret. If it is a male, it carries passenger-pigeon sperm; if it is a female, its eggs are passenger-pigeon eggs. These creatures — band-tailed pigeons on the outside and passenger pigeons on the inside — are called “chimeras” (from the Middle English for “wild fantasy”). Chimeras would be bred with one another in an effort to produce passenger pigeons. Novak hopes to observe the birth of his first passenger-pigeon chick by 2020, though he suspects 2025 is more likely.

Chimera is the name of an ancient Greek mythological beast — part lion, part goat, part serpent. (And all fire-breather.)

Shadowy World of Hitmen

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

British researchers have turned their eyes toward the shadowy world of hitmen:

“Hitmen are familiar figures in films and video games, carrying out ‘hits’ in underworld bars or from the roof tops with expensive sniper rifles,” said Professor David Wilson from Birmingham City University’s Centre for Applied Criminology. “The reality could not be more different. British hitmen are more likely to murder their victim while they walk the dog or go shopping in suburban neighborhoods.”

The team analyzed newspaper articles from an electronic archive of national and local papers from across Britain, using the reports to piece together a list of cases which could be defined as contract killings. The final list comprised of 27 contract killings, committed by 35 hitmen, and one hitwoman, active on the British mainland from 1974 to 2013.

“Using court transcripts and off-the-record interviews with ex-offenders we were able to identify recurring traits and patterns of behaviors amongst British hitmen,” said Professor Wilson. “We explored demographic data about the contract killers, who the targets had been, how they had been murdered, if the killer had been caught, if the killer was already known to the police, and how much they had been paid to carry out the hit.”

While the age of hitmen ranged from 15 to 63, the average age of a British contract killer was 38, while the average age of their victim was 36. Guns were the most common murder weapon of choice, accounting for 25 of the 35 victims.

The cost of ordered murder in Britain was also found to vary considerably, with the average cost standing at £15,180. The lowest fee in the sample was a mere £200, in contrast to the highest fee of £100,000.

Far from being carried out in smoky underworld clubs, the majority of hits took place in suburban neighborhoods, often as the victim was walking their dog or going shopping. Often the hitman and their victim lived in the same area, which is one of the most common reasons behind their eventual arrest.

Contract killings are overwhelmingly likely to be carried out by men. The only female hitwoman to be identified was Te Rangimaria Ngarimu, a 27-year-old Maori who was found guilty of being paid £7,000 to murder her victim in 1992.


“The motivations to pay a hitman the relatively small amount to carry out a murder were often depressingly banal. Spouses fell out, business deals fell apart, and young gang members wanted to impress their elders,” concluded Professor Wilson. “The reality of British hitmen stands in strong contrast to the fiction and we hope these profiles will help the police to identify patterns and behavioral traits common to contract killers in Britain.”

They have quite a problem with selection bias though, since “master” hitmen are unlikely to get caught — or even to commit their crime in an obvious way.

Alexander’s Victory Formula

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

Alexander’s victory formula combined caution and impulsiveness:

A better word would be patience. Alexander took risks once battle began, but his strategy of when and where to give battle was the opposite of risk-taking.

Alexander recognized that a big Persian army could not stay in one place very long. The bigger it is, the less it can live off the land; and bringing in supplies generates the vanishing-point mathematics of pack animals and humans eating up the supplies they are carrying, not to mention clogging the available roads.

Facing huge armies, Alexander delayed accepting battle. Before Issus, Darius assembled several hundred thousands on a plain near the Syrian Gates, where the Macedonians would be expected to come out of the mountains of Asia Minor. The plain gave unrestricted maneuverability for a large army, and there had been time to stockpile ample supplies. Alexander, crossing them up, went on a 7-day campaign westward against the mountain tribes. Then he returned to a city where he was well supplied by sea, made elaborate sacrifices to the gods; held a review of the army; athletic and literary contests; even a relay race with torches. Finally Darius had to move, and went seeking Alexander in the narrow region of mountains and swamps, throwing away his advantage of open ground. After two weeks inland, no doubt hurting for supplies, Darius finally met Alexander at the Issus River, where the Persian army — now down to about 150,000 — was packed in and unable to use superior numbers to outflank or surround him.

At Gaugamela 3 years later, Darius had an even bigger army, on a wide plain supplied by the main roads of Mesopotamia. They even cleared away bushes so that their scythe-bearing chariot wheels had room to roll. Alexander brought his army, now grown to 45,000, to a hill overlooking the plain, where at night the torches seemed to go on forever. Since the Persians were not going to move, Alexander gave his army four days rest. Alexander was also playing psychological warfare, not letting the Persians fight in their first flush of enthusiasm (the adrenalin rush, we would say). Their suspense grew even worse, since they began to expect a night attack, so after several nights of this, Alexander chose to attack in the daylight.

Alexander always started the battle. His formula was to seize the initiative, establish emotional domination as quickly as possible. His open-field battles all became walkovers. The units of the Macedonian army — infantry phalanx, light troops, heavy cavalry on both wings — advanced at different times, but the key was always Alexander’s assault. Once the Companion cavalry broke the Persian ranks in an intense but usually short fight, the Persians’ advantage in numbers was turned against them.

At Issus, the Persians had large numbers of troops, realistically perhaps four times the size of Alexander’s, lined up along a river bank. But most of those tens or hundreds of thousands could never engage the Macedonians, because they couldn’t get close to them. Once their defense crumbled on the right, Alexander turned obliquely against the center; this threw the Persian army into a stampede, particularly disabling when so many men trample each other in a traffic jam. In every major battle, the Persians lost 50 percent or more, the Macedonians a small fraction, perhaps 1 percent or less. The disparity in casualties seems unbelievable, but it is commensurate with complete organizational breakdown of one side, making them helpless victims. In violence on all size-scales, emotional domination precedes most physical damage.

At Granicus, Alexander positioned himself opposite where the Persian commander was surrounded by bodyguards. He waited for the moment when he saw a wavering in the Persian line, and charged his cavalry at that point. Alexander led 2000 or so cavalry splashing through the water and up a steep bank. This might seem a risky thing to do. But psychologically, relying on favorable geography for defense is a weakness; once the advantage of terrain turns out to be ineffective, the defending side has set itself up to be emotionally dominated. In every respect, Alexander aimed at the point of emotional weakness — a point in time and space, visible to a good observer.

Alexander did not have to fight the entire Persian army; he picked a unit about his own size, and counted on the superior quality of his troops — the superiority they created by generating emotional domination.

All three of Alexander’s fateful victories — Granicus, Issus, Gaugamela — ended the same way, with the enemy commander (in the last two, the King himself) running away in his chariot, setting off a general panic retreat. At Gaugamela, the Persian forces were so large and spread out that Parmenio, commanding on the left, had a stiff fight with Greek mercenaries and other Persian forces who did not know the rest of their army was routed. It took longer but Parmenio, too — the other cavalry commander — emerged victorious without Alexander’s help. This shows that the Macedonian style was not personal to Alexander alone.

There is another respect in which Alexander attacked the weakness of the Persian army. It was an army of an empire, a polyglot of 50 different ethnic groups, with their own languages, each fighting in their own formation. The army that invaded Greece under Xerxes had 30 generals, all Persian aristocrats; the armies of Darius III were probably similar. We can surmise that central control of the army, once battle began, was minimal. We can also infer that morale and loyalty of each ethnic unit was shakey; they had been recruited by going over to the victor, and they were aware of the possibility of going over to the other side if things did not go well.* There was also the rigid hierarchy of the Persian army — something all the Greeks commented on.

*This was the pattern of warfare in India before the arrival of European officers. Battlefields were displays of ferocious weapons — chariots, elephants and so on — but outcomes were decided mostly by side-switching in the midst of battle but arranged beforehand. (Philip Mason. 1976. The Indian Army.)

Spiderman and the Trust-Busters

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

Alberto Mingardi found himself fascinated by Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story:

Howe does a superb job in telling two stories at once: on the one hand, he leads the reader into the intricacies of the “Marvel Universe,” that is the narrative world where Peter Parker and The Thing live. I was a huge Marvel fan as a kid, but stopped reading comic books quite a while ago: the amount of creativity put into stories, cross-overs, deaths of characters and their sudden second births, that happened since I stopped following X-Men is just amazing. Howe points out that the greatest innovation of Marvel Comics was the idea of a “continuity” that interlocked all their superheroes. This may seem a rather trivial point, but was key to transforming consumers from occasional readers to loyal fans of basically whatever Marvel published. On the other hand, Howe tells the story of Marvel as a business: how the publishing house kept control of its characters, how authors and comic book artists gained contractual leverage over the years in spite of their work-for-hire contractual arrangements, how superstars of the sector emerged, how the distribution chain of comic books evolved, how tensions typically erupted between those writers, artists and “pure businessmen” who regarded comic books as a trade like any other.


One of the most interesting stories in Howe’s book is that, at some point, Marvel could acquire the license for Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman, which are basically the blockbusters of its oldest competitor, DC Comics. The then-editor in chief of Marvel, Jim Shooter, told the story in his blog here. The project was never to take off because of a smaller publisher, First Comics that “launched a lawsuit against Marvel Comics and others, alleging anti-trust violations, among other things.” “I think it’s safe to say — Shooter notes — that when you’re being sued under anti-trust laws, it’s a bad time to devour your largest competitor.” We typically associate anti-trust with breaking Standard Oil into pieces, or with making impossible to GE to acquire Honeywell. Here’s another great story: it prevented SpiderMan from publishing Batman.

Your Ancestors, Your Fate

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

When you look at social status across centuries, Gregory Clark finds, social mobility is much slower than many of us believe, or want to believe:

This is true in Sweden, a social welfare state; England, where industrial capitalism was born; the United States, one of the most heterogeneous societies in history; and India, a fairly new democracy hobbled by the legacy of caste. Capitalism has not led to pervasive, rapid mobility. Nor have democratization, mass public education, the decline of nepotism, redistributive taxation, the emancipation of women, or even, as in China, socialist revolution.

To a striking extent, your overall life chances can be predicted not just from your parents’ status but also from your great-great-great-grandparents’. The recent study suggests that 10 percent of variation in income can be predicted based on your parents’ earnings. In contrast, my colleagues and I estimate that 50 to 60 percent of variation in overall status is determined by your lineage. The fortunes of high-status families inexorably fall, and those of low-status families rise, toward the average — what social scientists call “regression to the mean” — but the process can take 10 to 15 generations (300 to 450 years), much longer than most social scientists have estimated in the past.

Clark studied surnames, and his findings on US doctors are fascinating:

Doctors per 1,000 People with Same Surname in US

There for the Taking

Wednesday, February 26th, 2014

Alexander the Great’s success depended on the fact that the Persian Empire was there for the taking:

The Empire was already an organized entity. Cyrus, Darius I, and their successors had created a unified administrative structure out of what previously had been several major kingdoms (Media, Babylon, Egypt), plus lesser kingdoms, plus a vast area that never before had been a state in the strong sense of the term. Back in the time of Cyrus in the 500s BC, Mesopotamia and Egypt, the two great fertile river valleys of the Middle-East, had already gone through their elimination contests and winnowed down to a few strong states based on big populations held together by water transport. But Iran, the uplands of Asia Minor and Armenia, and the adjacent plains of Central Asia, were still areas inhabited by sparse populations. Some were moving pastoralists, who formed at most shifting tribal coalitions. Others lived in pockets and valleys where agriculture could support a mid-size population and therefore petty kingdoms; but they lacked the logistics to supply an army big enough to conquer anybody, by carrying enough food and water to get across the infertile areas between them.

What Cyrus did was essentially what Alexander did later: starting from the major pockets of population and agriculture, he would win a few exemplary victories, then use his prestige to invite or overawe the outlying areas, with their lower level of production, to enlist as friends and allies. We could call this a system of tribute; the Great King, as Cyrus and his successors were known, was more than just an ordinary King, but overlord of lords. He did not change much locally; the same chiefs and petty kings remained in place, but they had to pay tribute. Above all, they had to provide goods in kind, especially the animals and foodstuff so that royal armies could pass that way.*

*In this respect, the expansive emperors, Darius and Xerxes, regarded the Greek city-states of Asia Minor and the other side of the Aegean sea as just so many more candidates for incorporation into the system of overlordship. Greek historians, and some contemporary politicians, saw this as a life-or-death struggle between democracy or despotism, but this was an exaggeration. From the Persian point of view, the Greek city-states were a version of small remote kingdoms, too much trouble to be directly controlled. The city-states of Ionia under Persian overlordship were left to run their own internal affairs; some continued to be democracies, others were oligarchies but this was the same spectrum as the Greek mainland. On the whole tribute was light, in fact generally less than what the Athenians demanded to maintain the anti-Persian fleet.

This was a thin administrative system. In some places, a tributary empire could be turned into a thicker, more intrusive system. Cyrus, Darius, and their stronger successors put their own administrators in place: high-level satraps, intermediate level governors, local garrisons. In richer places, older city-kingdoms like Babylon, taxes could be collected in money for the royal treasury. Paved roads were built, facilitating the faster movement of armies to keep things under control; messengers connected administrator and sent policy edicts throughout the Empire. With only moderate success, to be sure; satraps were often near-autonomous; and since they ruled over layers of locals most of whose traditional leaders were kept in place, they often had little effect except keeping the taxes or tribute coming in. Under the stronger Persian regimes, regional power was divided among a civilian head of government, counterbalanced by a chief treasury officer, and a military commander. There also was a service called “Eyes and Ears of the King,” roving inspectors with their own military escorts.


Sheer military force cannot take over a territory before it has developed to an economic level at which the conquering forces can be sustained. At the cusp of civilization, large armies couldn’t even traverse such places if economic organization isn’t complex enough. Conversely, a state with a strong enough infrastructure to support its military rulers also can support a conquering army. No Greek general, like Alexander or anyone else, could have conquered an empire spreading into the Iranian plateau and beyond into Central Asia, in the 500s BC when those places were still isolated agricultural oases amidst tribes and pastoralists. It required the intermediate step such as Cyrus took, to build the logistics networks.

Requiem for a Terrifying Force of Nature

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

When you combine a montage of melismatic and skipping micropolyphony with the gravitas of Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe, you get the official main trailer for Godzilla — of course:

Leopard on the Loose in Hospital

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

A leopard made its way into the Meerut Cantonment Hospital in Uttar Pradesh, India on Sunday, terrifying patients and staff for 12 hours before wounding a police officer after it smashed its way through a window and fled.

Leopard Jumping Between Buildings in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, India

Watch Groundhog Day repeatedly

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

Harold Ramis has passed away. Charles Murray offers this advice, rule 34 from his Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Watch Groundhog Day repeatedly:

Harold Ramis estimates that that the movie has to represent at least thirty or forty years’ worth of days. We see only a few dozen of them, ending when Bill Murray’s character has discovered the secrets of human happiness. Without the slightest bit of preaching, Ramis shows the bumpy, unplanned evolution of his protagonist from a jerk to a fully realized human being — a person who has learned to experience deep and lasting justified satisfaction with life as a whole even though he has only one day to work with.

Ramis’s own understanding of the story he is telling is sophisticated and subtle. That’s why you should watch the film more than once. You are sure to pick up subtexts the second time that you didn’t get the first time. And you’ll see even more when, after giving yourself a rest, you watch it a third time. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched Groundhog Day, but I’ve always seen something new.

Why is it a good thing to understand this movie so well? Because it will help you live a good life. Absorbing the deep meaning of the Nicomachean Ethics will also help you live a good life, but Groundhog Day will do it with a lot less effort.

Diplomacy and Logistics

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

Alexander the Great’s army solved its logistical problems through diplomacy:

It would send scouts or messengers ahead, seeking out availability of food and water.* Local chieftans or government officials presented themselves at the camp as word got around about an approaching army. Typically they would surrender to the conqueror, whereupon he would usually confirm them in their positions, enlisting them as allies. This meant they were obligated to help his army pass through their territory. Diplomacy on the whole meant generosity and persuasion. Alexander didn’t have to conquer everybody; leveling one resisting city and selling the population into slavery would be enough to bring the others around. In places where there was distrust, the invaders would leave a garrison, or demand hostages. It was a mild form of conquest, which left everything locally as it had been.

*We see the same thing in the Bible, when Jesus and a growing crowd of followers travel from Galilee in northern Israel to Jerusalem, a distance of 100 miles. Jesus sends out 70 forerunners to find towns to host them. It is not a military expedition, but Jesus calls down religious sanctions on the villages that refuse to receive them. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! … And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to heaven? No, you will go down to Hades.” [Luke 10: 1-16] Logistical issues recur throughout Jesus’ career, since big crowds overstress local resources: hence the need for miracles of multiplying loaves and fishes, and turning water into wine.

The essential thing was that new allies or friendly natives were obligated to provide stores of food and fodder along the route; pack animals to replace those lost by malnourishment, or to marshal their own local pack trains.

For Alexander’s army, the method worked well. It also explains why it took 10 years to conquer the empire. Conquering the eastern part meant more marches through deserts and mountains, careful planning of when harvests were available, and more advance diplomacy.

Alexander fought relatively few battles. After each one, he would stay in a well-provided location, receive visits of capitulation, and arrange logistics for the way ahead. His father, building a mini-empire on the barbarian fringes of Greece, was ruthless when he needed to be, but on the whole Philip expanded by diplomacy. It all meshed together: his fast-moving army, his combined-arms victories, and his diplomatic agreements that solved problems of logistics. His son operated the same way.