No, not the drugs forum, the real one.  I just read a book about it, Silk Road: A new history, by Valerie Hansen.

silkroute

There’s been a lot of archeological research in the last fifty years, and it overturns much of the received wisdom about the Silk Road. E.g., let’s take the summary from Wikipedia:

Trade on the Silk Road was a significant factor in the development of the civilizations of China, the Indian subcontinent, Persia, Europe, and Arabia, opening long-distance, political and economic interactions between the civilizations. Though silk was certainly the major trade item from China, many other goods were traded, and religions, syncretic philosophies, and various technologies, as well as diseases, also travelled along the Silk Routes. […]

The main traders during antiquity were the Chinese, Persians, Greeks, Syrians, Romans, Armenians, Indians, and Bactrians, and from the 5th to the 8th century the Sogdians. During the coming of age of Islam, Arab traders became prominent.

The major edit: strike the focus on “trade”. Thanks to the dry conditions in the Taklamakan desert, we have extensive written records from certain cities and periods, and trade was– if you’re picturing huge, constant caravans– underwhelming. The size of a party was generally under 10 persons. Only a third of the parties had horses. Groups arrived and departed less than once a week. (We have these records because trade was taxed and regulated. To move within China you had to have a document listing the people and animals in your group and the cities you intended to visit.) It was also incredibly slow: if you made 20 miles a day you were doing pretty well.

The biggest actor in the height of the Silk Road (the first millennium CE) was the Chinese government. It was the major source of product (silk bundles used both as cloth and as currency), of coins, and of demand (what it mostly wanted was horses). When the Tang lost control of the Taklamakan, trade declined greatly.

Also strike “Romans”. The silk route was essentially a line of contact between China and Persia, with an important spur down to India. Quite a few Persian coins have been found in China; no Roman ones. (By contrast Roman coins are easily found in India.) However, the Byzantines got in on the action. The Romans had silk, but most of it came from India or the island of Cos.

And don’t picture people traipsing from Antioch to Xīān. Most trade was local– a merchant would make a circuit of 500 miles or so.

Once you accept the scale and nature of the trade, I’m afraid Hansen ends up undermining her own point. She emphasizes over and over that “merchants” are rarely mentioned in official documents, that full-time traders were small beans, that pilgrims, Chinese garrisons, and official envoys were more important economic factors. Well, yes, that means that goods were traded. The people doing the trading might not have called themselves traders, but large amounts of materials were entering and leaving the region.

It’s well documented (and not neglected in the book) that religions traveled along the silk road– especially Buddhism, but also Zoroastrianism (the old Persian religion), Islam, Judaism, and Nestorian Christianity. And again, by her own account, there was a Central Asian community in Xīān, and a Chinese stereotype of Central Asians as rich merchants. These point to a fairly intense level of contact– China was influenced by people and ideas coming from Central Asia far more than those coming from, say, India. (E.g. the Indic writing systems and Theravada Buddhism reached Southeast Asia but not China.)

Plus, don’t underestimate local-scale trade. There are Shāng dynasty tombs from about -1000 containing Central Asian jade. This was long before there was any military presence in the Taklamakan; but jade was increasingly valuable the farther you got from its origins, so it could migrate east in small steps. The major long-distance trade items on the silk road were things like spices, silk, paper, jade, and sal ammoniac– items that were lucrative even in small volume. Thanks to the magic of geographic pricing, the silk road could move items a long way without any individual travelling its whole extent.

Finally, the total tonnage transported might have been low, and mostly inessential luxury goods, but, well, what else would you expect? Large-scale trade in staples like grain existed, but within empires (Egypt to Rome, south to north China). Luxuries are big motivators– the European rush to reach the East was driven by a taste for spices and other Asian goods.

In UI design, a user model is how the user thinks something operates. This is my user model for the shower in my apartment.

waterworx

  • I turn the faucets to a desired temperature.
  • The settings are transferred by mechanical means to the basement.
  • Sensors there determine the position of the controls. These are converted into verbal instructions and communicated by telephone to an old man, who actually adjusts the amount of cold and warm water.
  • The old man is deaf, grumpy, and frequently away or drunk, we don’t know.
  • He’s of mixed Italian and Serbo-Croat descent, and sometimes he hears “cold” as caldo (Italian ‘hot’), or “hot” as Serbo-Croat hladan ‘cold’.
  • Sometimes salesmen call; he takes whatever they say as more commands and changes the water setting. Or maybe it’s just sheer cussedness.
  • There is a range of settings that produces a warm, comfortable shower. These settings are marked “DO NOT USE, FIRING OFFENSE” and he strictly avoids them. However, he can sometimes be coaxed into this range by confusing him with frequent, contradictory orders.

This user model explains and predicts the shower behavior quite reliably.

For my book, I just read Robert Temple’s The Genius of China (1998), which is a popularization of Joseph Needham’s decades-long project to recover and inventory the science and technology of China.

A drum roll for... the dromon

A drum roll for… the dromon

Now, I’m 90% satisfied with the book. For most of its history, China was not only ahead of Europe– which wasn’t that hard to do– but ahead of the Mediterranean and Middle East. It had more intensive agriculture, more sophisticated government, a more inclusive religious atmosphere, and a jump start on any number of technologies: paper, porcelain, gunpowder, printing, the wheelbarrow, the spinning wheel, canal locks, watertight bulkheads, cheap cast iron, the compass, even mathematics and equal temperament in music.

Nor is this, as a general principle, surprising: you’d expect the planet’s richest and most populous civilization to be its most advanced, and so it was. It’s not a bad bet that in a few centuries, when we finally enter galactic civilization, we won’t be known as Terrans but as Dìqiúrén.

But sometimes I want to ask… did anyone check over Needham’s work? To support the idea that the Chinese had man-lifting kites, Needham cites the alchemist Gě Hóng, writing in the 4C:

The Master said, Some have made flying cars with wood from the inner part of the jujube tree, using ox leather straps fastened to returning blades so as to set the machine in motion. Others have had the idea of making five snakes, six dragons, and three oxen to meet the “hard wind” and ride on it, not stopping until they have risen to a height of forty lǐ [13 miles]… This account comes from the adepts and is handed down to ordinary people, but they are not likely to understand it.

Needham concedes that we have no evidence of the sort of machines Gě describes, but as for the kites, he thinks “there would have been really nothing to prevent it.” Reeeeally, Joe? That’s the sort of dodge you use when you really really want to believe something. Temple helpfully provides a picture of a hang glider to help the claim sink in.

Surely flight is one of the things attributed to sages all over the world? The Siberian shamans and Castaneda’s Don Juan were supposed to be able to flit about using the spirit world; TM dudes are said to levitate; witches fly on brooms; the Monkey King could jump 108,000 lǐ at a time. In Matthew 3, the devil takes Jesus to a mountain tall enough to see “all the kingdoms of the world”. Gě Hóng goes on to support his notion of a high gale by appealing to how dragons fly. Reading an alchemist literally is generally not a good idea.

In other cases my question is, if you pored over the Western and Arabic historical record, mightn’t you find a large number of surprises? The Greeks and Romans were loquacious on their philosophy and politics, tight-lipped on their engineering. E.g. knowledge of the Antikythera gear work was lost for millennia.

A few pages after the hang gliders, Temple remarks “For most of history, Europeans used ships which were drastically inferior to Chinese ships in every respect imaginable. They had no rudders, no leeboards, no watertight compartments, single masts, and square sails…” Which is simply wrong. Roman ships had rudders and multiple masts. The Byzantine dromon, shown above and used throughout medieval times, had multiple masts and triangular sails.

Needham often suggests that any particular Chinese discovery must have found its way to the West. This is frustrating, as in fact science is full of multiple independent discoveries. Now, sometimes he has good clear evidence: e.g. he has a 1787 quote from Ben Franklin suggesting that mail ships be built with watertight bulkheads “after the Chinese manner”. But the monogenesis of ideas is a terrible heuristic.

Temple’s cheerleading gets tiresome at times— e.g. the last section, on warfare, says “No nation in the world could match the Chinese expertise in warfare for two millennia.” Except, you know, China was conquered twice by northern nomads, and northern China several times more. And China, for all its might, was remarkably unsuccessful at expanding into Korea and Vietnam, despite multiple tries. I think the problem here is that Temple confuses invention with mass deployment: they had land mines! burning gas! cannons! repeating catapults! Well, yes, but it’s far from clear that these were manufactured in sufficient quantity, or used with sufficient skill. Everything in China was at huge scale, but so were the logistical problems. So far as I can see, China’s government was always underfunded, and its army was subpar for an empire its size (not least because its elite was– unusually for the premodern world– not drawn from the military).

(And yes, I’m aware that for some of those conquests, the nomads used Chinese troops and engineers.  On the other hand, the Sòng, back when they controlled all of China, were completely unable to get the Sixteen Prefectures back from the Khitans, which doesn’t say much for Temple’s claim of unbeatability.)

Anyway, it’s still a fascinating book.  As I say, I don’t have problems with 90% of it.  It’s just that a few bits rang my skepticism meter.

I’ve just read a good swath of the New 52 Catwoman, written by Ann Nocenti, drawn by Rafa Sandoval, Jordi Tarragona, Patrick Olliffe, and Tom Nguyen.

Isn't that kind of uncomfortable?

Isn’t that kind of uncomfortable?

On the plus side: it’s very well drawn. I prefer the more minimalist line of Darwyn Cooke, but I can’t complain about the art (as I did with Hellblazer), especially Sandoval’s. Well, actually I can: I like the way the artists design the whole page, and yet they don’t make a pleasing whole in the way that J.H. Williams can do effortlessly, and they rarely offer the sense of wonder  offered by John Cassaday. Plus it kind of bugs me that the artists think people can talk with their mouths closed.

Drawing Catwoman in particular is tricky. On one hand, she’s supposed to be sexy, and she dresses head to toe in black latex. On the other, she’s a badass heroine, so she shouldn’t look like a bondage model. Again, Cooke got the balance right, seemingly without effort. Your mileage may vary, but I’d say these books, in their choice of poses and camera angle, err a little too often on the side of senseless cheesecake.  The shot above is a mild example: is that a pose a rational person would use to get within ten feet of the Joker? (Curiously, though, she keeps her suit zipped up these days, and she wears underwear beneath it.)

As for the stories— I dunno, they’re grim and ultraviolent (autocorrect wants me to say ultraviolet) without any concession to realism. Nocenti’s Catwoman is a little more immoral, more of a loner, than before the New 52. More like Batman, then, but that doesn’t feel like a good move for her— her greater empathy and real concern for the East End were solid pluses.

Gotham City requires a weird balance too. Batman grew out of noir, and his enemies are goth exaggerations of ’30s gangsters. I think Catwoman works best when she’s planning an elaborate heist, or confronting the gangs directly. E.g. there’s a pretty good arc where Penguin sends drone bombs after her, and she directs them back at him.  It’s always fun to see Penguin going in a few seconds from arrogant to sniveling when his bodyguards are stripped away. There’s at least a little grounding in reality here— the book doesn’t have anything to say about gangsters, but at least they’re based on something real.

But Nocenti amps up the wackiness, and I think that doesn’t work so well. Joker plays some mind games with her… eh, that doesn’t make sense; he’s too much the anti-Batman; he was designed to illuminate Batman’s methods and thought processes, and can’t do the same with the Cat. There’s an extended sequence in the remarkably spacious and well-populated underground of Gotham City… it’s just fantasyland with fourth-tier supervillains. Then there’s a competition for Best Thief, which sounds like something from the ’60s Batman TV show. First, if there really were elite thieves, they’d find this sort of reality-show competition beneath them, or too high-profile to be worth it. Second… jeez, one whole issue is devoted to a Mad Max style race in the desert, it’s just goofy. And this arc is narrated in such a fractured way that it felt like pages were missing. (On the plus side, it had one nice idea: during the actual burglary competition, one team almost wins by stealing a bunch of gold; Catwoman wins by stealing a set of documents that’s worth more. A nice touch establishing her greater sophistication.)

Well, Big Comics has to fill dozens of titles every month, and it’s hard to have good ideas each time. But I wonder if grimdark isn’t a little played out. Gangsters and psychopaths are powerful narrative elements, but they don’t constitute an injection of realism any more— quite the opposite, Gotham City’s villains have just been banging around inside their own lurid bubble for eighty years. I don’t have any bright ideas on how to fix it, except to suggest that the most satisfying Catwoman stories tend to be those that downplay the supervillains entirely, and make use of her intelligence and social skills.

I’m doing research on China, and one of the many arduous research tasks is watching Chinese movies. Here’s a neat one: an animated version of the story of 孙悟空 Sūn Wùkōng, the Monkey King, from Journey to the West. The director is Wàn Làimíng and the movie was made into parts, in 1961 and 1964.

The movie’s name is 大闹天宫 Dà Nào Tiāngōng ‘Big disturbance [in the] heavenly palace’, thus Uproar in Heaven. It’s a rather faithful adaptation of the first chapters of 西遊记 Xī Yóu Jì (Journey to the West), by the Míng writer Wú Chéng’ēn.

If you’ve never met Sūn Wùkōng, one of the best-loved epic heroes of China, the movie is a good introduction. He’s a superhero monkey, born in the Flower-Fruit Mountain on the Eastern Continent. The first chapters of the book are largely Dàoist— the monkey searches for the secret of immortality, learning that as well as the 72 Transformations and the 108,000-mile Cloud Somersault from the immortal Subhūti. He picks up his trademark weapon, a size-changing staff, from his neighbor the Dragon King.

The Dragon King complains to the Jade Emperor in Heaven (he didn’t think Monkey could actually pick up the staff). Amusingly, the bureaucracy of the Chinese empire is projected up into Heaven. One advisor demands war against the monkey, but another suggests a very Chinese-imperial solution: give him a minor post in Heaven, as stablemaster. Sūn Wùkōng happily accepts the position— he likes the horses— until he learns that it’s the lowest-ranking post in Heaven…

The movie is very well done— colorful, inventive, drawing deeply on Chinese opera and painting. What I like most about it is how non-Western it feels. The Japanese made their own version, Saiyūki (which is how you read 西遊记 in Japanese) in 1960, based on the manga version by Osamu Tezuka; it’s very nicely produced but highly Disneyfied— Monkey becomes too damn cute.

The animators also rose to the challenge of making supernatural fights into balletic visual spectacles— one highlight is Sūn Wùkōng’s fight against one of Heaven’s champions, where both shape-shift every few seconds. They remember what many modern animated movies forget: the medium is about drawing and movement, not dialog. (Though the voice acting is good… I like the like “Nnnnn” the Jade Emperor utters while contemplating how to address Monkey’s latest impertinence.)

It’s curious that the movie ends just after Sūn Wùkōng has defeated the Dàoist pantheon— and just before he’s defeated by the Buddha. After that, he’s imprisoned under a mountain for 500 years, which breaks down his rebelliousness. When a supernatural guardian is needed to escort the monk Xuánzàng to India in search of Buddhist scriptures, he is happy to take the role. Every demon between China and India— and there are a lot of them— wants to eat Xuánzàng, so he has his furry little hands full.

(Xuánzàng was real— he made the actual trip to India in the 7th century, and did bring back hundreds of Sanskrit texts, which greatly enriched Buddhist literature in China.)

Animation is expensive, and it’s possible that that the studio planned to continue the story— the Cultural Revolution intervened instead, and the studio was shut down. Leaving out the Monkey King’s redemption makes the film an unusual celebration of pure anarchy. Sūn Wùkōng defies Heaven, eats the Celestial Empress’s peaches of immortality, trashes a banquet hall simply because he wasn’t invited to the feast, defeats every champion sent against him, and returns to the Flower-Fruit Mountain unvanquished.

If you play League of Legends, the champion Wukong is a (rather diminished) version of the Monkey King.

I discovered the movie on this list of less-known animated films, which contains plenty of other stuff to check out.

Cartoons are universal… sort of. They often have words in them that need to be translated, and a context, and a cultural tradition. Here’s a cartoon by the French cartoonist Cabu:

cabu

They’re listening to the Marseillaise, with its bloody lyrics: “May impure blood overflow our furrows!” Sarkozy, in the center, pointedly adds “Unemployed and immigrants, you’ve been warned!”

Cabu was murdered by terrorists yesterday, for making cartoons like this.

I find this shocking and insane. I love French comics; I have a page on them. One of the cartoonists on that page is Wolinski… I didn’t have a very high opinion of him, but he was murdered as well, and I feel personally affronted. I had one of his books, and ran into some of the other Charlie Hebdo cartoonists back when I was reading Fluide Glacial. Here’s a cartoon from one of the other victims— Charb, the editor:

charb

The guy is saying “I’d hire you, but I don’t like the color of… um, your tie.”

What’s almost as upsetting is the victim blaming I’m seeing in many places. They deplore the shootings, but after all, weren’t the victims being unwise, being offensive, mocking religion, distributing “hate speech”, being racist, upholding the power structure, maybe even being “neo-Nazi”? It’s left-wing gotcha culture at its most unattractive.

Note, many of these same people would be offended if anyone suggested that Trayvon Martin was holding that pack of Skittles in a threatening manner. Generally when people are murdered in cold blood, you don’t second-guess the victim, at least for a few days. Hell, even if the victim was a criminal, he’s dead now, what other punishments do you want to apply?

Neil Gaiman takes a hard line free-speech position: you have to support everyone’s right to produce offensive speech, because if people can silence the kind you dislike, they will inevitably also silence the kind you like. He’s mostly speaking about the law, but let’s be honest: the only reason some people, left or right, can’t use the law to shut down free speech isn’t because they lack the will, but because they lack the votes.

For radicals who think Charlie Hebdo went too far, I’d like to ask two questions.

  • Did Diane DiMassa also go too far with Hothead Paisan, Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist? The title is pretty descriptive, but to refresh your memory, she has scenes where the title character goes out murdering and castrating random men.
  • Did these Muslim satirists also go too far by mocking and satirizing ISIS? Are you really maintaining that everyone, including Muslims, has to pull their punches to avoid offending jihadists?

Here we’re likely to get a lecture about “punching up” vs. “punching down”. Now, on the whole, “don’t punch down” is great advice. Afflict the powerful and comfort the afflicted, and all that. But I don’t think it’s very clear in all cases who’s up and who’s down. In this particular case, I remind you, the cartoonists were firebombed, then murdered. I think mocking armed thugs is always “punching up”. It took courage for Charlie Hebdo to stand up in the face of very real violence, just as it takes courage for those Muslim writers and comics to stand up to ISIS.

So far I’ve been concerned to defend anyone’s right to free speech, even if we don’t like them. In the case of Charlie Hebdo in particular, I’d go much further: these were the good guys. They aren’t racists and neo-Nazis; to say so is profoundly ignorant and hateful.

I chose the cartoons above to help illustrate this. They both poke fun at xenophobes, racists, and right-wingers. Cabu invented the trope of the “beauf”, more or less the French equivalent of Archie Bunker. Wolinski was deeply influenced by the May 1968 movement and was for some time staff cartoonist for the left-wing L’humanité. They loved to make fun of the French right-wing. Don’t be one of those people who get all upset with an Onion article not realizing it’s satire. Some people have defended Charlie Hebdo as “attacking everybody”, but that’s a misrepresentation. They felt that nothing was sacred, but their particular target was always authority figures, particularly reactionary ones.

When it came to caricatures of Muslims, their targets were not Muslims, or Islam, but jihadists– the people who’ve killed thousands of Muslims, the people who bombed their offices, the people who finally murdered them. This collection from Vox should make it clear— e.g. Charb’s cartoon “If Muhammad returned”, showing the Prophet being executed by a jihadist. One of the stories teased on that cover is also relevant: “French Muslims are fed up with Islamism.” Charlie Hebdo was perfectly able to distinguish between Muslims and Muslim terrorists.

But weren’t those caricatures ugly and nasty? Yes, like all their cartoons. French humor isn’t American humor. It’s closest to our ’60s underground cartoons (like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton– and DiMassa fits into that line as well), but that element is far more mainstream in France. The Charlie Hebdo style is vicious, dark, deliberately provocative and obscene. And if you’re shocked by it, they’ll double up and do it some more.

To anyone who thinks that art they don’t like must be suppressed… I really wish you’d think about that, in the light of this attack. These people were suppressed. They were shot down with machine guns. Oh, you didn’t want to do it that way, but how did you want to do it?

But but but solidarity with Muslims… yeah, yeah, did you ask any Muslims what they thought? Here’s an interview with an Algerian cartoonist, Ali Dilem.

It’s joking around. There’s nothing nasty about it. It’s not weapons that we’re carrying; we’re not there to do evil. When there were drawings on Muhammad, I was one of those who defended the Danish cartoonists, saying that there’s no need to cut people’s throats because they drew a caricature. There’s things in life that are a little more serious than that. Here [Algeria], there have been massacres, including in editorial offices. In the paper l’Hebdo libéré, people killed the editorial staff in 1994. I knew that they were capable of that, of such an extremity. But to hit cartoonists like Tignous… you can’t hurt someone like Tignous. Cabu, he’s the one who made me want to take up a pencil, who made me dream of being a cartoonist.

He goes on to say that he tries never to enter the premises of his newspaper… for fear of a similar attack. He’s been put in jail for his cartoons.  He knows what dangers he’s risking. But he’s going to go on cartooning.

Some important nuances and caveats:

  • Some reactionaries will blame the attack on all Muslims. They’re idiots, feel free to mock them. Charlie Hebdo would have.
  • It’s not the responsibility of Charlie Hebdo to manage global geopolitics. They publish cartoons, for god’s sake. Grave-minded politicians who lecture them to be careful can spend their time far more constructively.
  • I’m by no means saying you can’t criticize artists. Criticism is not silencing, especially where the point is that we want additional viewpoints. Though I think ignorant dismissals of Charlie Hebdo are offensive, there’s a place for an informed critique. And a time, but that time is probably not this week.
  • European societies are not so good at assimilating minorities. (By this I mean that the majorities are messing up, not the minorities.)  They should do better, but Dilem’s advice is on point: cartoonist behavior is very low on the list of things that need to be taken care of.

Just got the numbers from the Accountancy Wing of the Zompist Fortressplex. Since the beginning of time I’ve sold just under 13,000 books in all formats.  Print and Kindle run about even.

Nearly half that— 6351 books— is the Language Construction Kit. That’s pretty respectable sales for a book; Amazon tells me it’s #39,836 on their print books ranking (#39 in linguistics). This year it’s being used as a textbook in two different university courses. (Not the first time; last year I visited a class at Purdue that was using it, which was a lot of fun.)

The news if you’re hoping to sell your sf/fantasy novel is: keep the day job. Babblers, along with its supplementary volumes, has sold 71 copies. That’s actually better than Against Peace and Freedom did in its first four months (42 copies). APAF still hasn’t reached the 200 sales where I said I’d create a conlang for it. (It will probably be Hanying, by the way.) I’m not complaining– doing Babblers this year was a labor of love, and the people who’ve read my novels tend to like them a lot– but the next book will definitely be non-fiction.

What will that be? Well, might as well start building interest: I’ve been working on a book about China and Chinese, tentatively called China for Conlangers. I think most conworlders know enough about European history to create classical and medieval worlds, but don’t know where to start with China, so the book will tell you what you need to know about Chinese history, religion, literature, art, technology, and architecture, as well as the Chinese language and writing system. As with all of my conworlding books, it’s also a sneaky way to impart actual information.  I haven’t thought of a better title, though.

(I’m also tempted to write an English-language grammar of Quechua, since such a thing isn’t readily available. Feel free to lobby for this…)

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