Musings on Vikings, the Show

I don’t know about you, but I for one have been obsessed with History Channel’s new mini-series Vikings. Yes, it’s highly fictionalized and dramatized, and yes, the plot is overwrought with all-too-familiar tropes, including the epic voyage into uncharted waters as a symbol that the times they are a-changin’, the stranger in a strange land who goes native, and even the Greek tragedy, i.e. man expedites perceived bad thing precisely by trying to quell or prevent it. It’s all in there, among the anachronisms, composite characters, and bizarre haircuts.

And still, the show is the closest thing to something we might deem historical on the History Channel at present, which is from what I can tell dominated by shows of two formulas: grown-up children doing dirty/dangerous/stupid jobs, or grown-up children buying and selling trinkets that are historical in the sense that they exist and may or may not be old. So even to have the monks at Lindisfarne speaking Old English for three seconds on a super-hyped television series is something. And did you see that sweet gratuitous illuminated manuscript footage?

And so Ragnar and co. have got me thinking: What can we learn from the real Vikings? Their actual history is, perhaps to the credit of the show’s writers, also something of a trope: population growth begets internal violence, then centralization of control and the repression of an underclass, then imperialist expansion, then the unraveling of a far-flung empire, then fragmenting and assimilation into new norms and practices, if possible.

This same story seems to be playing out over and over again over the centuries, though the context, characters, and technology are different each time, and now the oligarchies have the technology to take all species down with them during the unraveling phase.

I wonder what would’ve happened if the Vikings hadn’t decided to “settle down,” and instead of wintering in and then permanently inhabiting the lands they raided, they would’ve remained as autonomous marine units, perpetually sailing from town to town like the fabled ships of fools—boats captained by the insane with no memory of their port of origin. Would they have become a sort of aquatic hunter/gatherer tribe? Would they, like hunters, have kept their prey, i.e. sedentary civilizations, in check?


A Different Kind of “Birds and Bees” Talk

For a short introduction to the evolution of flowering plants, read this little primer on Science Daily. The side articles are also fascinating, and include topics like how pollinators and flowers co-evolved, how insects are good for crops, and other related things. And here’s a cool article in the New York Times from 2009 about Darwin’s understanding of flowers.

As the author of the second article points out, modern humans get the majority of their calories from flowers. Corn, rice, wheat, and other staples are the products of flowering plants, and our population would collapse without them. Thus we owe flowers a great debt of gratitude, even though a smaller human population is both inevitable and, for me, desirable.

A quote often falsely attributed to Albert Einstein states that if bees were to disappear from the face of the earth, humans would be soon to join them. The logic of such a statement should be easy to follow; no bees means no flowers, and no flowers means much less available food, especially considering the fact that we’ve poisoned or outright destroyed most of our other food sources and their habitats.

So as bees are dying en masse due to a “mystery illness,” we might want to ask ourselves what our options are, if we have any.

I for one do think we have options, some of them not even that radical. We could, for example, educate kids about sex, provide free contraception, and choose as a community to limit ourselves to one child per couple, i.e. halving our population gradually. This would not only curb our need for so much food to be produced, but would shrink our overall encroachment on the habitats of pollinators (bats are also dying in large numbers due to a “mystery illness,” hmm…).

To those shouting “This will never happen!”, ask yourself why not. And to those screaming “Get real!”, ask yourself what could be more real than bees and flowers.

Another simple option is to plant flowers. This one was in my garden last summer. While committing the deadliest sin in writing, I will attest that when you see flowers, it’s usually a good idea to stop and smell them.


The Hanford Nuclear Reservation Pretty Much Sums Up Everything

I found a paragraph that neatly encapsulates industrial civilization, from this story on NPR:

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeast Washington state is set to lose $182 million due to federal budget cuts known as the sequester. The cuts come just after news that six tanks full of radioactive waste are leaking. Those tanks are filled with millions of gallons of the most toxic nuclear waste on Earth and are not far from the Northwest’s iconic Columbia River.

It’s got everything: a stagnant, insulated oligarchy, the hidden premise of the inevitability of unavoidable externalized costs (in this case, fish in the river), the sacrifice of living human and nonhuman beings for the sake of First-World luxuries, the reckless stupidity of producing a substance that will kill us all and that can never be fully contained, and the pedestrian, casual reporting of said destruction, as if it’s simply to be assumed. Our culture poisons land and rivers so that no life can remain there. Ho hum, nothing to see here…

Here’s a little piece about nuclear power I wrote a while ago. For a longer and much better critique, read In the Absence of the Sacred by Jerry Mander. “No notion more completely confirms our technological somnambulism,” he writes, “than the idea that technology contains no inherent political bias.”

Toxic waste we can never ameliorate, let alone get rid of (plans were to ship this particular poison to New Mexico!) is not really a byproduct so much as the logical end result of our culture, which is apparently fine with not only killing humans as collateral damage in the pursuit of GDP but also fine with taking all other species down with it.

To question the production of a substance that will kill everything in its path and that can never be broken down or discarded, all in the name of air conditioning, is, in this culture, deemed to be “unrealistic.” That fact alone demonstrates the insanity of our culture.

Questions on the Maze

If you are stuck in a maze―even a very pretty one―and you can see the way out, is it your obligation to tell others how to escape, to simply escape yourself, to escape and leave a trail of crumbs for others to follow, to escape and then try to create holes in the walls for future generations to escape more easily, to stay in the maze and try to create holes in the walls from within, to blow the maze up entirely, to just read a good book while you stroll endlessly inside, none of the above, all of the above? What if there is no way out? What if you helped build the maze in the first place?

Here are some links to things about mazes and traps:

Before the Law

How to (not) drop out



Wife Husbandry

With all this talk about marriage lately, I thought Engels’ The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State would be even more apropos than normal. His thesis was that marriage was institutionalized as a mechanism for the inheritance of private surplus wealth. When land belongs to all in common, there isn’t much of a need to prove paternity.

Here’s what I thought about the gay marriage debate on the basis of economics two years ago: For Better or for Worse. My conclusion: “Instead of asking why certain people aren’t given the rights and economic privileges that come with marriage, we should be questioning why marriage carries these perks in the first place.”


If one looks up the noun “husband,” one will learn that the etymology of our current term is the Old English “hūsbonda,” meaning “master of a house,” from the combination of the Old Norse words “hūs,” (house) and “bōndi” (householder). The first definition entry is, not shockingly to our modern sensibilities, “1: a married man,” but the third entry points to the origins just mentioned: “3: a frugal manager.”

Of what, exactly, should we suppose a married man is the so-appointed frugal manager? Looking at “husbandman” and “husbandry,” one finds “1: one that plows and cultivates land” and “1: the care of a household; 2: the control or judicious use of resources,” respectively. That this same reader should then infer that “cultivate” and “control” are the two operative verbs, and that “resources” is synonymous with “property,” should be obvious enough at this point. Or, if not, she could ask herself the question: “What do animal husbandry and wife husbandry have in common?”

A Eulogy of Sorts for the Shark Who Died for K-Mart

Here’s a truly horrifying article about sharks being shipped across the country, only to die in swimming pools while being filmed for K-Mart ads. As is my usual response to news of our culture’s Caligula-like march towards complete destruction: it would almost be funny if it weren’t true. According to the article, a “company called Critters of the Cinema was hired to provide and care for the shark. They presumably didn’t have a shark at their facility, which is in Southern California, so they had a shark sent over from New York.” You know, like you do when you don’t have a shark handy. You have one sent over.

This unnecessary and extremely cruel and unusual shark killing reminds me of a show I watched about a year ago on Discovery or Animal Planet (which is “surprisingly human,” if by surprisingly you mean completely predictably), about scientists trying to develop netting that would “ease” a white shark into a cage-like contraption, making it possible to transport the shark into an enclosed tank for further study. White sharks, oddly enough, don’t much like being stolen from the ocean. Even healthy and fecund adults in the wild will, when in captivity, cease to mate or even eat; according to the narrator of the show, after capture many sharks apparently just kind of starve themselves.

The scientists were of course totally baffled by this. The sharks that didn’t commit suicide were noticeably “stressed,” and scientists were thus studying how to lessen their stress levels during capture, hoping that maybe the sharks would then acquiesce to further testing. The scientists featured in the show were, from what I could tell, very knowledgeable about sharks and even seemed to care for their well-being a great deal. They were putting themselves in real danger in order to make things as easy as possible for the sharks. They proudly stated that they would do anything for the sharks—anything, of course, except for the most important thing: not taking them from their home in the first place.

Ascension – or – The Honeycomb Conjecture

Here’s an introduction to fractals, a pictorial summary of the Fibonacci sequence in nature, and some awesome time-lapse video of flowering plants. And to top it off, here’s a cool picture of a kind of cauliflower.

All of these patterns converge to give us an astounding look at how nature operates. I look closely at how cauliflower grows in the garden, for instance, and one thing becomes quickly apparent: there is a game plan.

The object not just of the cauliflower but of every other being in nature seems to be the path of least resistance; water, plants, and even animals continuously searching for efficiency. For example, bees build hexagonal structures in their hives because hexagons are one of three geometrical shapes with equal sides that can fit together without gaps, and having equal sides allows them to work from multiple points simultaneously, saving both space and time. As Alan Lightman explains in “Symmetrical Universe,” his piece in the latest edition of Orion magazine:

More than two thousand years ago, in 36 BC, the Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro conjectured that the hexagonal grid is the unique geometrical shape that divides surface area into equal cells with the smallest total perimeter. And the smallest total perimeter, or smallest total length of sides, means the smallest amount of wax needed by the bees to construct their honeycomb. …But Varro had made only a conjecture. Astoundingly, Varro’s conjecture, known by mathematicians as the Honeycomb Conjecture, was proven only recently, in 1999, by the American mathematician Thomas Hales. The bees knew it was true all along.


When I Consider How My Light Is Spent

A poem by John Milton:

When I consider how my light is spent,
   Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
   And that one Talent which is death to hide
   Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
   My true account, lest he returning chide;
   “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
   I fondly ask. But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need
   Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
   Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
   And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:
   They also serve who only stand and wait.”
I really like this poem, and often find myself repeating it as I follow certain routines, like walking to the garden every morning as the sun rises. I think the poem is about the automatic existential crisis of being human, but especially the one of being so in a civilization that is, at its core, inhuman. Bearing such a “mild yoke” is a lot to ask, even before any discussion of talent and labor. While I don’t think this yoke is hung over our necks by some supernatural, all-powerful being—but instead is a simple function of having brains capable of realizing our material limits, i.e. that we’ll some day die—it is, nevertheless, a very present and, dare I say, universal burden. What does it mean to be human? Or, as a friend once wrote in a letter to me about not following our natural inclinations to be outside, seek sunlight, eat real food, and so on—in short, to put ourselves into cubicles: Why are we constantly at odds with ourselves?

Unauthorized Messages

Here’s a blog you should bookmark: conspicuous blankness. The blog documents messages written on public walls and other surfaces in and near West Campus. The premise of the blog is that corporations control most messages we read, so any messages from other sources, especially dissenting messages, are of course quickly erased. Thus, documenting them is valuable. Their illegality only lends them credence, in my opinion.

An old classmate at Lafayette documented the messages etched into desks in the school library every year he attended the college, saving digital files of thousands of examples, some of them stretching back to the early ’60s. Racism, homophobia, swastikas—they were all there, along with poetry, signs of boredom, and initials surrounded by hearts. Here’s his Wikipedia page (seriously): Paul Germain.

budget cuts

On a Walk

Here’s a photo I took while on a walk to the garden a few afternoons ago. I find most landscaping to be funny, in a futile-attempt-to-replicate-nature kind of way. It’s certainly a kind of public relations problem for environmentalists and doomers alike that people really think that evenly cut, chemically treated grass in a square lawn surrounded by concrete is some kind of suitable or sustainable habitat. Sure, trees in urban areas are a good thing, and I would advocate the planting of as many of them as possible. But a tree surrounded on all sides by a fake wilderness is only really doing so much (although the bird I’m looking at directly out of my office window thinks her tree is just dandy, thankyoueverymuch). And trees are usually as contained and controlled as the evenly cut grass. On that point, I have to say that one of my least favorite of all sounds, and one that I believe future generations will be most glad to be rid of, is that of a leaf blower, the most silly object ever created. What could be more wasteful than using oil to power a metal machine to blow leaves around from one street corner to another? Here’s a blog post about why leaf blowers suck, among other things.

on a walk