Boo!

October 31st, 2022

I’ve written about Halloween and horror quite a bit over the years:

What the Italian teachers wanted was no violence

October 30th, 2022

Edward Luttwak is an enfant terrible at 79, David Samuels says:

David Samuels: Edward, you are a Washington fixture, surrounded by a flourishing mythology that suggests among other things that you are a Romanian vampire who was raised by the Mafia. So let’s get it straight.

Edward Luttwak: I was brought up by parents who, at no point, believed that they were Romanian. They were living in Romania, and quite happily. The part of the world that I came from is the only province in the whole of Europe where there was no Holocaust. In Banat, where we lived, nothing happened.

My parents were international people. In 1938, they went on honeymoon to Bali because KLM introduced service to Bali, so they went. My mother’s family’s house, in Timisoara, is a main tourist attraction. It’s called the Baruch Palace. So my mother’s family were people who had palaces. My father had rented the house where we lived. He didn’t own it. He owned warehouses and railway wagons. I actually saw one in Yugoslavia, in 1963.

My father lost everything, and he arrived in December 1947 to Naples. He then went to Palermo, Sicily, because he figured that Palermo is the only place in the world where he, as an international trader, would be able to become a millionaire in three years, which happened. The reason is that he was well-informed. He read that the British had created the National Health Service and the National Health Service distributed orange juice to pregnant women. They’d been to London. He knew there weren’t too many orange trees there.

So they went to Palermo and bought the green oranges on the tree. When they were ripe, they shipped them to London. He became very rich, very fast. Then, unfortunately, he developed an insane passion for a new technology called polyvinyl chloride, PVC. He went to Milan to set up a factory to electronically meld PVC.

He was not wrong.

I know. But he was very wrong for me because I loved Palermo. The Milanese children would make fun of me. I would break their noses.

Dalya Luttwak (Edward’s wife, an artist, who grew up on a kibbutz in Israel): Edward, Edward.

David Samuels: Tell me for three minutes about your upbringing in Palermo, who your classmates were.

Edward Luttwak: We lived in the best part of Palermo because my parents, being Central Europeans, had a total need for opera and classical music. There’s an opera house and a concert hall. They brought over the world famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin and other such people. We lived right there.

Many families around us were all aristocratic but they sent their children to boarding school in Tuscany, so they wouldn’t speak the Sicilian dialect. But my parents loved Palermo and they were not going to send me away. The only people who were both rich and nonaristocratic were the Mafia bosses. So I grew up with the Mafia bosses’ children.

Already, by the age of 6, we knew that we couldn’t fight each other because if one wins, then the older brother comes. If the older brother comes, then fathers, then eventually guns might come out. So we already knew all about deterrence and power politics.

Did you make the mistake of assaulting any of the Mafia bosses’ children?

No, no, no, no. We all knew what to do and how to do it. We formed a gang, first of all. Our gang had to control our street, so nobody from the other gangs would come in. Now, there was a socioeconomic gap between us and the others, because aristocrats lived there. In fact, just two years ago, I was in Venice and went to see a childhood friend, the prince Alliata, who runs a foundation that owns an island there. He has a Botticelli in his apartment. I was at Alliata’s house when his father died over Monte Carlo while flying his own plane. All of this was my world in Palermo.

It was a paradise, also because Mondello Beach is right there. The place where they invented ice cream in the 12th century, because there’s snow on the mountains every winter, which they would bring down store in ice wells. It was a place where there were Arabs, Byzantines, Jews, all kinds of people. After centuries, it still had that atmosphere.

So from that paradisiacal place, they sent me to Milan, which was cold, rainy, and gray. They spoke Milanese. I spoke Sicilian. I broke noses. I got kicked out of school. Then I got kicked out of a second school.

My parents then had no choice but to send me to boarding school in England. I didn’t speak a word of English, but my mother knew it well because she had taken English as a third language in Timisoara. She was a woman who did nothing but read books and play tennis. As I say, her family’s house, the Baruch Palace, is one of the main tourist attractions in Timisoara. It’s a spectacular building.

Anyway, they wrote, “He doesn’t speak English, so we don’t know if he’s intelligent or even educable, but it’s all right, Mrs. Luttwak, he can take care of himself.”

What the Italian teachers wanted was no violence. What the British teachers wanted was no running off to teacher crying. Since I could take care of myself, I was fine there. I learned English. Then I went into the school’s British Army Cadet corps, and so forth.

Is the Albanian Army going to take over the world?

October 29th, 2022

Back in December 2010, Jeffrey Bewkes, CEO of Time Warner, told the New York Times what he thought about the hype surrounding Netflix: “It’s a little bit like, is the Albanian Army going to take over the world? I don’t think so.”

It was the shot heard round the entertainment world:

By buying House of Cards, Netflix would change the market’s perception of what internet video businesses did. “Up until the moment we launched House of Cards,” Holland recalls, “everything that was made for the internet was webisodes — Funny or Die, people falling off horses or getting kicked in the nuts.” Other streamers like Hulu, says Holland, were making early investments in original programming, but it was what she considered “the Comedy Central space” — in other words, low rent. Netflix, they agreed, ought to begin by aiming high.

Because HBO was in hot pursuit, the only way Netflix was going to win was to make an astounding offer. At the time, in keeping with the new paradigm of tech investing, Netflix was selling its story to Wall Street based on rapid customer growth, not bottom-line performance.

The most important thing, according to the prevailing market view, was for tech disrupters to crush the incumbents. Wooing new customers with ludicrous prices that made little long-term economic sense beyond undermining competitors was not only tolerated, it was expected and rewarded. Traditional publicly traded media companies, by contrast, enjoyed no such leeway.

“There’s a thousand reasons not to do this at Netflix,” Sarandos told Fincher. “I want to give you one reason to say yes.” Sarandos and Holland outlined their plan to Fincher and MRC executives: Not only would there be no pilot required, but Netflix would commit to a two-season, 26-episode guarantee, which was unheard of. They also promised Fincher that they would not bog him down with any notes. He could make the show any way he saw fit. And then Netflix offered a staggering amount of money: $100 million for the two-season commitment.

“We made the richest offer that had been seen for something that hadn’t been made yet,” Holland says.

Their sales pitch worked. Fincher’s team chose to go with the streaming newcomer over HBO, the reigning king of home entertainment. Plepler and the programming team were stunned at Netflix’s two-year commitment. “We couldn’t do that,” Plepler says. “We didn’t have the financial flexibility to make that commitment.”

(From It’s Not TV: The Spectacular Rise, Revolution, and Future of HBO.)

American geneticists now face an even more drastic form of censorship

October 27th, 2022

A policy of deliberate ignorance has corrupted top scientific institutions in the West, James Lee suggests:

It’s been an open secret for years that prestigious journals will often reject submissions that offend prevailing political orthodoxies — especially if they involve controversial aspects of human biology and behavior — no matter how scientifically sound the work might be. The leading journal Nature Human Behaviour recently made this practice official in an editorial effectively announcing that it will not publish studies that show the wrong kind of differences between human groups.

American geneticists now face an even more drastic form of censorship: exclusion from access to the data necessary to conduct analyses, let alone publish results. Case in point: the National Institutes of Health now withholds access to an important database if it thinks a scientist’s research may wander into forbidden territory. The source at issue, the Database of Genotypes and Phenotypes (dbGaP), is an exceptional tool, combining genome scans of several million individuals with extensive data about health, education, occupation, and income. It is indispensable for research on how genes and environments combine to affect human traits. No other widely accessible American database comes close in terms of scientific utility.

My colleagues at other universities and I have run into problems involving applications to study the relationships among intelligence, education, and health outcomes. Sometimes, NIH denies access to some of the attributes that I have just mentioned, on the grounds that studying their genetic basis is “stigmatizing.” Sometimes, it demands updates about ongoing research, with the implied threat that it could withdraw usage if it doesn’t receive satisfactory answers. In some cases, NIH has retroactively withdrawn access for research it had previously approved.

Note that none of the studies I am referring to include inquiries into race or sex differences. Apparently, NIH is clamping down on a broad range of attempts to explore the relationship between genetics and intelligence.

That’s ten times the population-to-restaurant ratio

October 26th, 2022

Thai restaurants are everywhere in America, but why?

With over 36 million Mexican-Americans and around five million Chinese-Americans, it’s no surprise that these populations’ cuisines have become woven into America’s cultural fabric. Comparatively, according to a representative from the Royal Thai Embassy in DC, there are just 300,000 Thai-Americans — less than 1 percent the size of the the Mexican-American population. Yet there are an estimated 5,342 Thai restaurants in the United States, compared to around 54,000 Mexican restaurants; that’s ten times the population-to-restaurant ratio. So, why are there so many Thai restaurants in the US?

[…]

Using a tactic now known as gastrodiplomacy or culinary diplomacy, the government of Thailand has intentionally bolstered the presence of Thai cuisine outside of Thailand to increase its export and tourism revenues, as well as its prominence on the cultural and diplomatic stages. In 2001, the Thai government established the Global Thai Restaurant Company, Ltd., in an effort to establish at least 3,000 Thai restaurants worldwide. At the time, Thai deputy commerce minister Goanpot Asvinvichit told the Wall Street Journal that the government hoped the chain would be “like the McDonald’s of Thai food.” Apparently, the government had been training chefs at its culinary training facilities to send abroad for the previous decade, but this project formalized and enhanced these efforts significantly.

[…]

At the time of the Global Thai program’s launch, there were about 5,500 Thai restaurants beyond Thailand’s borders; today there are over 15,000. The number in the US increased from around 2,000 to over 5,000.

[…]

Inspired by Thailand’s success, South Korea, for example, has earmarked tens of millions of dollars beginning in 2009 for its Korean Cuisine to the World campaign. Taiwan has followed suit, as has Peru with its Cocina Peruana Para el Mundo (“Peruvian Cuisine for the World;” quite creative) initiative, as well as Malaysia (“Malaysia Kitchen for the World 2010” — clearly there’s a pattern here).

The Aéroplume is a one-person blimp

October 25th, 2022

The minimum viable airship consists of 70,000 liters of helium strapped on to someone’s back — with paddle-wings for steering and propulsion:

(Hat tip to Slime Mold Time Mold.)

This machine-feeding regimen was just about as close as one can get to a diet with zero reward value and zero variety

October 24th, 2022

In The Hungry Brain, neuroscientist Stephan Guyenet references a 1965 study in which volunteers received all their food from a “feeding machine” that pumped a “liquid formula diet” through a “dispensing syringe-type pump which delivers a predetermined volume of formula through the mouthpiece.”

What happens to food intake and adiposity when researchers dramatically restrict food reward? In 1965, the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences published a very unusual study that unintentionally addressed this question. …

The “system” in question was a machine that dispensed liquid food through a straw at the press of a button—7.4 milliliters per press, to be exact (see figure 15). Volunteers were given access to the machine and allowed to consume as much of the liquid diet as they wanted, but no other food. Since they were in a hospital setting, the researchers could be confident that the volunteers ate nothing else. The liquid food supplied adequate levels of all nutrients, yet it was bland, completely lacking in variety, and almost totally devoid of all normal food cues.

[…]

The researchers first fed two lean people using the machine—one for sixteen days and the other for nine. Without requiring any guidance, both lean volunteers consumed their typical calorie intake and maintained a stable weight during this period.

Next, the researchers did the same experiment with two “grossly obese” volunteers weighing approximately four hundred pounds. Again, they were asked to “obtain food from the machine whenever hungry.” Over the course of the first eighteen days, the first (male) volunteer consumed a meager 275 calories per day—less than 10 percent of his usual calorie intake. The second (female) volunteer consumed a ridiculously low 144 calories per day over the course of twelve days, losing twenty-three pounds. The investigators remarked that an additional three volunteers with obesity “showed a similar inhibition of calorie intake when fed by machine.”

The first volunteer continued eating bland food from the machine for a total of seventy days, losing approximately seventy pounds. After that, he was sent home with the formula and instructed to drink 400 calories of it per day, which he did for an additional 185 days, after which he had lost two hundred pounds —precisely half his body weight. The researchers remarked that “during all this time weight was steadily lost and the patient never complained of hunger.” This is truly a starvation-level calorie intake, and to eat it continuously for 255 days without hunger suggests that something rather interesting was happening in this man’s body. Further studies from the same group and others supported the idea that a bland liquid diet leads people to eat fewer calories and lose excess fat.

This machine-feeding regimen was just about as close as one can get to a diet with zero reward value and zero variety. Although the food contained sugar, fat, and protein, it contained little odor or texture with which to associate them. In people with obesity, this diet caused an impressive spontaneous reduction of calorie intake and rapid fat loss, without hunger. Yet, strangely, lean people maintained weight on this regimen rather than becoming underweight. This suggests that people with obesity may be more sensitive to the impact of food reward on calorie intake.

Environmental contamination by artificial, human-synthesized compounds fits this picture very well, and no other account does

October 23rd, 2022

Only one theory can account for all of the available evidence about the obesity epidemic: it is caused by one or more environmental contaminants:

We know that this is biologically plausible because there are many compounds that reliably cause people to gain weight, sometimes a lot of weight.

[…]

We need a theory that can account for all of the mysteries we reviewed earlier. Another way to put this is to say that, based on the evidence, we’re looking for a factor that:

  1. Changed over the last hundred years
  2. With a major shift around 1980
  3. And whatever it is, there is more of it every year
  4. It doesn’t affect people living nonindustrialized lives, regardless of diet
  5. But it does affect lab animals, wild animals, and animals living in zoos
  6. It has something to do with palatable human snackfoods, unrelated to nutritional value
  7. It differs in its intensity by altitude for some reason
  8. And it appears to have nothing to do with our diets

Environmental contamination by artificial, human-synthesized compounds fits this picture very well, and no other account does.

We see a similar pattern of results in humans

October 22nd, 2022

It used to be that if researchers needed obese rats for a study, they would just add fat to normal rodent chow, but it turns out that it takes a long time for rats to become obese on this diet:

A breakthrough occurred one day when a graduate student happened to put a rat onto a bench where another student had left a half-finished bowl of Froot Loops. Rats are usually cautious around new foods, but in this case the rat wandered over and began scarfing down the brightly-colored cereal. The graduate student was inspired to try putting the rats on a diet of “palatable supermarket food”; not only Froot Loops, but foods like Doritos, pork rinds, and wedding cake. Today, researchers call these “cafeteria diets”.

Sure enough, on this diet the rats gained weight at unprecedented speed. All this despite the fact that the high-fat and cafeteria diets have similar nutritional profiles, including very similar fat/kcal percentages, around 45%. In both diets, rats were allowed to eat as much as they wanted. When you give a rat a high-fat diet, it eats the right amount and then stops eating, and maintains a healthy weight. But when you give a rat the cafeteria diet, it just keeps eating, and quickly becomes overweight. Something is making them eat more. “Palatable human food is the most effective way to cause a normal rat to spontaneously overeat and become obese,” says neuroscientist Stephan Guyenet in The Hungry Brain, “and its fattening effect cannot be attributed solely to its fat or sugar content.”

Rodents eating diets that are only high in fat or only high in carbohydrates don’t gain nearly as much weight as rodents eating the cafeteria diet. And this isn’t limited to lab rats. Raccoons and monkeys quickly grow fat on human food as well.

We see a similar pattern of results in humans.

English-speaking researchers studying other English speakers

October 21st, 2022

The cognitive sciences have been dominated by English-speaking researchers studying other English speakers, has led to an underestimation of the centrality of language to cognition at large:

Among spoken languages, English shares some features with many languages (e.g., it does not rely on tones to distinguish between words, as around 40% of all languages do) and other features with fewer (e.g., it allows complex sequences of three or more consonants before a vowel within syllables, something that less than one-third of languages permit). Such differences in the repertoires of speech sounds are reflected in the brain, as experience with specific speech sounds affects auditory sensory memory [9.] and speech encoding [10.]. Spoken language exposure impacts musical cognition as well [11.,12.]. English speakers, for example, are particularly sensitive to rhythm and mistuning of pitch, but less so to melodic discrimination; the opposite trend is found among speakers of tonal languages, like Mandarin Chinese [11.].

Biases brought by English

Speech sounds and phonetic features sometimes elicit specific percepts and meanings across languages [13.,14.], as demonstrated by the well-known preference across languages for associating the labels bouba and kiki with round and spiky shapes, respectively [15.]. However, the source of these associations remains unclear, despite the abundant supporting behavioral and linguistic evidence for such mappings [13.,16.]. For example, English speakers associate higher pitch sounds with higher altitudes, potentially reflecting an evolutionary adaptation to auditory scene statistics [17.]. However, Farsi and Turkish speakers, who do not describe pitch using a high–low metaphor, do not show robust high–low space-pitch mappings in nonlinguistic tasks [18.,19.], suggesting language itself is an important arbiter of these associations (Figure 2).

Unlike roughly 40% of the world’s languages, English has a developed writing system [4.]. English is alphabetic but only partly phonetic: a set of letters represents both vowels and consonants. By contrast, the vast majority of readers worldwide learn non-alphabetic scripts, such as abjads (where only consonants are represented, e.g., Arabic), abugidas (where consonants and vowels are represented within a single graphic unit, e.g., Hindi), or morphosyllabaries (where units stand for morphemes or syllables, e.g., Chinese [20.]). Despite this, English is massively over-represented in reading research, even in comparison with other European languages, and accounts for the vast majority of eye-tracking research [21.], even though evidence points to tight associations between script type and reading-related cognitive processes [22.].

English has been dubbed an ‘outlier’ with regard to its orthography, with rare features both quantitatively and qualitatively [23.]. Unlike other alphabetic writing systems, English generally has an irregular letter-phoneme mapping, so it is more difficult to learn and results in higher rates of diagnosed dyslexia, other things being equal [23.]. Phonological awareness – deemed essential for learning to read (from an English perspective) – is not required for other languages, where syllabic awareness is more important initially [20.]. So models of reading derived from English, and their accompanying intervention recommendations, are hampering broader progress in the field [20.].

Mastering the English writing system involves acquiring mirrored graphs (e.g., b vs. d, p vs. q), but most scripts do not require lateral mirror invariance. Tamil, for example, is expressed in an abugida script and has more complex written characters than English, but these do not have mirror relations to each other [24.]. Individuals exposed to an alphabetic system like English show a differential mirror cost in contrast to users of languages like Tamil [25.]: when asked to determine whether two shapes are the same regardless of orientation, they take longer when shapes are mirror transformed (b vs. d) than when they are strictly the same (b vs. b) (Figure 2). The symmetries present in a writing system like English influence visuospatial abilities and offer a backdoor for language to influence ostensibly nonverbal measures of intelligence, like Raven’s Progressive Matrices [26.].

Finally, English is written from left-to-right, but Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew are written right-to-left and a handful of other written languages use both or a different cardinal axis (e.g., Mongolian is written top-to-bottom). Writing direction affects memory, learning, and attention [27.]. Learning (nonlinguistic) sequences of visual stimuli is facilitated when presented in accordance with the written system people use [28.]. Moreover, writing direction predicts reaction times when experimental participants are asked to determine if a given visual image is part of a recently observed sequence, as if individuals are going over the memorized sequence following the convention of their writing system [29.]. Additionally, writing directions influence visual aesthetic preferences [30.], including the preferred order in which agents and patients are linearly arranged: English speakers prefer events where the agent is on the left of the patient, Arabic speakers prefer events with the opposite arrangement [31.,32.], and illiterate speakers of Spanish and Yucatec Maya (Mexico) do not display any preference [31.]. In fact, studies with nonliterate communities show no clear directional biases for number, time, or events [33.,34.], despite claims of an innate preference for a left-to-right mapping (e.g., [35.,36.]). These induced biases are not confined to the visual modality; in auditory tests, speakers of left-to-right systems conceptualize time as flowing in that direction too [37.] (Figure 2).

It can hear tracked vehicles and feel them coming

October 20th, 2022

The US Army is developing a smart anti-tank mine that detects the sounds of enemy vehicles and then destroys them with an armor-piercing slug — from above:

“It can ‘hear’ tracked vehicles and feel them coming,” an Army researcher said in a press release. “When it does, it uses a mechanism that starts tracking the vehicle. When the threat-tracked vehicle is a certain distance away, the XM204 will shoot a submunition into the air to fire the warhead down at the target within its zone of authority.”

A Textron executive told Jane’s that each XM204 weighs about 80 pounds. The acoustic sensor detects oncoming vehicles and a Doppler radar pinpoints a vehicle’s exact location.

The power to control the creation of money has moved from central banks to governments

October 19th, 2022

Russell Napier, who experienced the Asian Financial Crisis 25 years ago at first hand at the brokerage house CLSA in Hong Kong, wrote for years about the deflationary power of the globalised world economy — before predicting inflation two years ago:

This is structural in nature, not cyclical. We are experiencing a fundamental shift in the inner workings of most Western economies. In the past four decades, we have become used to the idea that our economies are guided by free markets. But we are in the process of moving to a system where a large part of the allocation of resources is not left to markets anymore. Mind you, I’m not talking about a command economy or about Marxism, but about an economy where the government plays a significant role in the allocation of capital. The French would call this system «dirigiste». This is nothing new, as it was the system that prevailed from 1939 to 1979. We have just forgotten how it works, because most economists are trained in free market economics, not in history.

Why is this shift happening?

The main reason is that our debt levels have simply grown too high. Total private and public sector debt in the US is at 290% of GDP. It’s at a whopping 371% in France and above 250% in many other Western economies, including Japan. The Great Recession of 2008 has already made clear to us that this level of debt was way too high.

How so?

Back in 2008, the world economy came to the brink of a deflationary debt liquidation, where the entire system was at risk crashing down. We’ve known that for years. We can’t stand normal, necessary recessions anymore without fearing a collapse of the system. So the level of debt – private and public – to GDP has to come down, and the easiest way to do that is by increasing the growth rate of nominal GDP. That was the way it was done in the decades after World War II.

What has triggered this process now?

My structural argument is that the power to control the creation of money has moved from central banks to governments. By issuing state guarantees on bank credit during the Covid crisis, governments have effectively taken over the levers to control the creation of money. Of course, the pushback to my prediction was that this was only a temporary emergency measure to combat the effects of the pandemic. But now we have another emergency, with the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis that comes with it.

You mean there is always going to be another emergency?

Exactly, which means governments won’t retreat from these policies. Just to give you some statistics on bank loans to corporates within the European Union since February 2020: Out of all the new loans in Germany, 40% are guaranteed by the government. In France, it’s 70% of all new loans, and in Italy it’s over 100%, because they migrate old maturing credit to new, government-guaranteed schemes. Just recently, Germany has come up with a huge new guarantee scheme to cover the effects of the energy crisis. This is the new normal. For the government, credit guarantees are like the magic money tree: the closest thing to free money. They don’t have to issue more government debt, they don’t need to raise taxes, they just issue credit guarantees to the commercial banks.

And by controlling the growth of credit, governments gain an easy way to control and steer the economy?

It’s easy for them in the way that credit guarantees are only a contingent liability on the balance sheet of the state. By telling banks how and where to grant guaranteed loans, governments can direct investment where they want it to, be it energy, projects aimed at reducing inequality, or general investments to combat climate change. By guiding the growth of credit and therefore the growth of money, they can control the nominal growth of the economy.

And given that nominal growth consists of real growth plus inflation, the easiest way to do this is through higher inflation?

Yes. Engineering a higher nominal GDP growth through a higher structural level of inflation is a proven way to get rid of high levels of debt. That’s exactly how many countries, including the US and the UK, got rid of their debt after World War II.

[…]

What tells you that this is in fact happening today?

When I see that we are headed into a significant growth slowdown, even a recession, and bank credit is still growing. The classic definition of a banker used to be that he lends you an umbrella but would take it away at the first sight of rain. Not this time. Banks keep lending, they even reduce their provisions for bad debt. The CFO of Commerzbank was asked about this fact in July, and she said that the government would not allow large debtors to fail. That, to me, was a transformational statement. If you are a banker who believes in private sector credit risk, you stop lending when the economy is headed into a recession. But if you are a banker who believes in government guarantees, you keep lending. This is happening today. Banks keep lending, and nominal GDP will keep growing. That’s why, in nominal terms, we won’t see an economic contraction.

The Shadow Kingdom is the origin of both the sword and sorcery genre and the reptilian conspiracy theory

October 18th, 2022

Will Oliver ran across a list of early Cthulhu Mythos stories and took up the challenge of tracking down and reading all of the stories in order, which got him wondering what a list of Golden Age of Sword & Sorcery stories would look like:

Finding none online, I decided to create one.

Starting with the well accepted premise that the genre, or sub-genre, known as Sword-and-Sorcery started with Robert E. Howard’s “The Shadow Kingdom,” I knew I had a starting point, August 1929. As a generation is approximately 20 years, that would take the end point of the list to August of 1949, or simply the end of 1949. This makes sense in that the date falls right before Gnome Press began reprinting the Conan stories in hardcover and well before the 1960s resurgence.

I was a bit embarrassed that I couldn’t have rattled off “The Shadow Kingdom” as the name of the first sword & sorcery story:

Robert E. Howard’s short story “The Shadow Kingdom” from Weird Tales magazine is the origin of both the sword and sorcery subgenre of fantasy fiction and the conspiracy theory concerning a hidden species of advanced reptilian beings disguised among us while covertly controlling the levers of power, which has been a recurring theme in fiction and conspiracy since the story’s publication.

Apparently the idea of reptilians was popularised by David Icke, a conspiracy theorist, in 1999:

Michael Barkun, professor of political science at Syracuse University, posits that the idea of a reptilian conspiracy originated in the fiction of Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard, in his story “The Shadow Kingdom”, published in Weird Tales in August 1929. This story drew on theosophical ideas of the “lost worlds” of Atlantis and Lemuria, particularly Helena Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine written in 1888, with its reference to “‘dragon-men’ who once had a mighty civilization on a Lemurian continent”.

Howard’s “serpent men” were described as humanoids (with human bodies and snake heads) who were able to imitate humans at will, and who lived in underground passages and used their shapechanging and mind-control abilities to infiltrate humanity. Clark Ashton Smith used Howard’s “serpent men” in his stories, as well as themes from H. P. Lovecraft, and he, Howard and Lovecraft together laid the basis for the Cthulhu Mythos.

In the 1940s, Maurice Doreal (also known as Claude Doggins) wrote a pamphlet entitled “Mysteries of the Gobi” that described a “serpent race” with “bodies like man but…heads…like a great snake” and an ability to take human form. These creatures also appeared in Doreal’s poem “The Emerald Tablets”, in which he referred to Emerald Tablets written by “Thoth, an Atlantean Priest king”. Barkun asserts that “in all likelihood”, Doreal’s ideas came from “The Shadow Kingdom”, and that in turn, “The Emerald Tablets” formed the basis for David Icke’s book, Children of the Matrix.

Historian Edward Guimont has argued that the reptilian conspiracy theory, particularly as expounded by Icke, drew from earlier pseudohistorical legends developed during the colonisation of Africa, particularly surrounding Great Zimbabwe and the mokele-mbembe.

Fans of old-school swords & sorcery fiction can’t help but notice Theosophy’s many mentions of Hyperborea, Lemuria, Atlantis, and reincarnated men evolving through various races from age to age.

(Hat tip to Ben Espen.)

Students with recent suicidal thoughts had higher levels of bacteria associated with periodontal disease

October 17th, 2022

Controlling for the influence of other factors known to impact mental health, such as diet and sleep, the researchers found that students with recent suicidal thoughts had higher levels of bacteria associated with periodontal disease and other inflammatory health conditions:

The study analyzed saliva collected from nearly 500 undergraduate students taking classes in the microbiology and cell science department at UF. These students also completed the Patient Health Questionnaire-9, which is used to screen for depression symptoms and asks respondents to share if they have had thoughts of suicide within the last two weeks. Those who reported recent suicidal ideation were referred to on-campus mental health services.

The Velaryons are described as having white skin, ghostly pale hair and purple eyes

October 16th, 2022

A recent HuffPost Entertainment piece opens with the assertion that the cast of House of the Dragon is visibly less white than its predecessor, Game of Thrones, which is interesting, because the original features large numbers of quasi-Mongols, quasi-Middle Easterners, etc.

Anyway, one of the co-creators recently claimed the “increased” diversity wasn’t intended to appeal to left-wing ideals:

“I think it was not that simple,” Ryan Condal said. “I think the reason that it’s been a successful choice … is because it was thought out. It wasn’t just done perfunctorily or wasn’t just done to tick a box or … to be seen as progressive.”

Condal, who is also a showrunner for the HBO series, then followed up this statement with one that seemed to somewhat contradict his previous remarks.

“It’s 2022,” he said. “It’s a different era than these shows used to be made in. We have an incredibly diverse audience that’s not only across America, but in multiple countries that speak all sorts of different languages, that represent … all the colors under the sun. And it was really important to see some of that reflected up on screen.

“This is a fantasy world. I think if this was a historical fiction piece, it would be a more nuanced discussion. But I think simply because this is a fantasy world, if we believe in dragons, and shape-shifters and [the fictional canines] direwolves, we can believe everybody in the story is not white.”

He’s content to engage with the straw-man argument that detractors are complaining that “everybody in the story is not white,” when the real complaint is that the characters’ ”pure blood” is a key element of the story:

The character Corlys Velaryon (also known as the Sea Snake) in “House of the Dragon” is portrayed by Steve Toussaint, a British actor of Barbadian descent.

Due to this, House Velaryon — a prominent family in the series whose members are pivotal players in the story — is characterized by darker skin and silvery-white, or sometimes dreadlocked, hair. (Not every character with the last name Velaryon fits that description, though.)

This departs from the show’s source material. In George R.R. Martin’s book “Fire & Blood,” the Velaryons are described as having white skin, ghostly pale hair and purple eyes.

This has put Toussaint on the receiving end of racist criticism online from Westeros purists.

That is no true Velaryon!

Condal said on “TheGrill” that the decision to make House Velaryon Black was inspired by the family’s unique place in the franchise and something that Martin had said years ago.

“Why we went to the Velaryons in particular was because that felt like the most fantastical race in the show, and it felt like … these were people from a lost continent that we don’t really know that much about,” Condal said.

“We know they all have silver hair, we know they have an affinity for dragons, some of them. And we know they are seen, as quoted in the books and in the show, closer to gods than to men. So what does that all look like?

“And it always stuck with me, this article … where George had talked about, at first when he set out to write these books, considering making all of the Velaryons Black. … Black people with silver hair — and that always really stuck with me as an image.”

Condal also noted that the time period in which “House of the Dragon” takes place is not that far off from the fall of Valyria in the franchise’s lore.

“I said: ‘Well, Valyria was this enormous continent, a very diverse and well-populated nation that fell into the sea. Why couldn’t there have been a line of Black Velaryons in that story?’” he remarked.

“I think if you’re willing to take that first leap of suspension of disbelief, you really come to [the idea that] it feels integrated and intrinsic to the show in a organic way.”

The showrunner also said that having a Black family on the show helps differentiate “people on screen and remembering who’s from what house.” He added that this aids in highlighting the “questionable parentage” of Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen’s very white-looking children, who have the last name Velaryon.

“I think there’s a lot of visual benefits that come along with it,” Condal said. “And because Corlys has such a rich and diverse family line himself, just simply making that one turn on him to cast Steve Toussaint, his entire family becomes then a diverse cast. And it’s a really interesting way to populate the show with a bunch of different faces that you may not have seen in another high fantasy show or in the original series.”