The third King

Balthasar is black, and it’s a good thing

Ravenna mosaic of the Magi

Today is Twelfth Night, Epiphany, the Christian feast commemorating an uncorroborated legend in one of the Gospels (Matthew 2, vv 1-9) of a visit by a group of Magi to the infant Jesus. By AD 500 the unnumbered Persian astrologers had become three kings. These mosaics from imperial Ravenna still depict them in Persian dress, but that knowledge was lost in the Dark Ages. Nobody in Western Europe in say 1100 AD had any idea what a Zoroastrian astrologer might have been like, so the shift is understandable.

What is far more puzzling is why one of the kings – usually Balthasar, sometimes Caspar – should be often painted as black. Continue reading “The third King”

Dayspring Mishandled?

A conspiracy theory on the Prague meeting.

(Explanation for the obscure title at the end)

I should not be telling you this, but I think readers have a right to know before the weekend.

The Steele dossier on Trump’s numerous shady ties to Russia includes the notorious alleged visit by Cohen to Prague in August 2016.

1. Speaking to a compatriot and friend on 19 October 2016, a Kremlin insider provided further details of reported clandestine meeting/s between Republican presidential candidate, Donald TRUMP’S lawyer Michael COHEN and Kremlin representatives in August 2016. Although the communication between them had to be cryptic for security reasons, the Kremlin insider clearly indicated to his/her friend that the reported contact/s took place in Prague, Czech Republic.

2. Continuing on this theme, the Kremlin insider highlighted the importance of the Russian parastatal organisation, Rossotrudnichestvo, in this contact between TRUMP campaign representative/s and Kremlin officials. Rossotrudnichestvo was being used as cover for this relationship and its office in Prague may well have been used to host the COHEN / Russian Presidential Administration (PA) meeting/s. It was considered a “plausibly deniable” vehicle for this, whilst remaining entirely under Kremlin control.

3. The Kremlin insider went on to identify leading pro-PUTIN Duma figure, Konstantin KOSACHEV (Head of the Foreign Relations Committee) as an important figure in the TRUMP campaign-Kremlin liaison operation. KOSACHEV, also “plausibly deniable” being part of the Russian legislature rather than executive, had facilitated the contact in Prague and by implication, may have attended the meeting/s with COHEN there in August.

Cohen – even after his plea deal – continues to maintain he has never been to Prague and was in Rome or maybe Capri at the time. However, McClatchy reporters have found circumstantial evidence (cellphone location records) that he was there after all. What will the Mueller report reveal? If the Steele dossier’s allegation is confirmed, it could be the smoking gun that ends the Trump presidency.

My own high-level source (whose identity I am sworn not to reveal) makes the following observation, couched as a speculation. Suppose you are the head of the Czech security service BIS, Michal Koudelka. He will see Putin’s machinations to weaken or destroy the NATO alliance and reestablish Russian hegemony over the former Soviet empire as a critical threat to the security of his country. Such threats justify extreme measures. The BIS will have put a major effort into checking the Steele claims of collusion with Donald Trump, the Trump organization, or the Trump campaign. They know what really happened in Prague.

Let’s suppose that these efforts have turned up a blank on the visit: Cohen did not meet Kremlin representatives in Prague, though the conspiracy was real. A professional counterespionage officer would inevitably think about an operation to “frame the guilty”. Continue reading “Dayspring Mishandled?”

Armistice Day 2018 woolgathering

Brazil’s war dead.

Since I have been harsh on the citizens of Brazil for their crass irresponsibility in electing Jair Bolsonaro, I’d like to recall a time when Brazil did the right thing. In August 1942, Brazil declared war on the Axis. 1,600 Brazilian sailors drowned in sinkings by U-boats during the conflict, and as many again in an undeclared naval war before it was made official. 948 soldiers of the 25,000-strong expeditionary force sent to Italy died in combat. (I’m not sure I am reading the Wikipedia article right on casualties, there may be some double counting. )

Brazil’s entry into the war resulted from strong American pressure, aided by the German own goal of U-boat attacks on merchant shipping when Brazil was still technically neutral. It was preceded by other Latin American countries: Cuba and the Dominican Republic (after Pearl Harbor); Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua in January 1942. Colombia and Bolivia followed in 1943. Still, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion, given Vargas’ quasi-fascist ideology, and Brazil’s military contribution was much the largest of any Latin America country.

The episode is remembered in Brazil, though it obviously does not loom large in the national myth. There is a rather bland but okay monument to the Brazilian war dead on Flamengo Beach in Rio.

So: Obrigado. There was a time when Brazil did the right thing, and 4,000 of its young men and women paid the price to join a very big club. If they play football (soccer) in the Elysian Fields, you can guess who wins. Continue reading “Armistice Day 2018 woolgathering”

Judge Incitatus

Caligula did not make his horse a consul, but the story fits Trump and Kavanaugh.

You all know that the crazy Roman Emperor Gaius Caligula (ruled 37-41 CE) made his horse a consul. Right? Wrong. There is no evidence whatever he did.

The main source of the story – Google tells me the only one [update correction, see comments] – is the Roman historian Dio Cassius. Roman History, Book LIX, 14.7:

One of the [chariot-racing] horses, which he named Incitatus, he used to invite to dinner, where he would offer him golden barley and drink his health in wine from golden goblets; he swore by the animal’s life and fortune and even promised to appoint him consul, a promise that he would certainly have carried out if he had lived longer.

So the source of the story claims that Caligula talked about making Incitatus a consul, the way Trump talked about assassinating Bashir al-Assad, but did not go through with it.

Even the watered-down version is fishy. Dio Cassius comes across as quite sober and was certainly very industrious, but he was writing 180 years later. The earlier historian Suetonius, whose gossipy Lives of the Caesars consists largely of lurid anecdotes, does not mention the incident mentions the consulship as a mere rumour. [Correction update, see comments]. Nor do the contemporary sources Seneca, Josephus, and Philo, writers of an altogether different calibre and reliability, and hostile to Caligula. So at most, Incitatus’ equine magistracy is something a mentally unfit four-year Roman Emperor may have joked about at drunken parties.

As a legend, it can still serve as an illuminating model. Fictional Caligula made his horse a consul. President Donald Trump is also clearly a work of dystopian fiction in progress, and the episode entitled “The Nomination of Brett Kavanaugh” is curiously parallel to Incitatus. Continue reading “Judge Incitatus”

Nature imitating art

It always does; never perfectly but well enough to teach us something.  At the end of The Lord of the Rings (the book, but not the movie), the evil wizard Saruman and his nasty, slinking sidekick Wormtongue Cohen arrive in the hobbits’ peaceable shire and spread ruin, fear, and mistrust. Along the way they cut down trees, destroying nature, and try to make an industrial wasteland out of it.  Eventually they are overcome, and in a final squabble resulting from Saruman disrespecting Wormtongue and betraying him to the hobbits, Wormtongue kills Saruman.

For some reason I am remembering this episode lately.

 

They’re (no longer) sending their best

New York used to send Washington, and the nation, a cavalcade of admirable, honorable, people, the pick of its élites: Hamilton, TR, FDR, Robert Wagner Sr., Robert Mueller III,..a long list. As a New Yorker, I used to be proud of this (though of course I can’t take credit for any of them).

Now, not so much; the Empire State and the Big Apple are–what’s the right word? yeah–infesting Washington with scrapings from the bottom: the Trumps, Michael Cohen, Rudy Giuliani, the Mooch,…

Well, it was a good run for a couple of centuries at least.

Some More Math/Logic Problems To Test Your Wits

I got a surprising amount of emails about this post, with requests for more such puzzles, so here you go (answers after the jump).

1. A deaf-mute man walks alone up to a movie theater counter shortly before a matinee which costs 50 cents to enter. Making no particular gesture (and obviously, saying nothing), he hands the clerk a dollar. Rather than giving him 50 cents in change, the clerk hands him two tickets. The man smiles and nods his thanks. How did the clerk know that he wanted two tickets rather than one?

2. Four people are fleeing the zombie apocalypse in the dark of night, and have to get across a narrow bridge in 17 minutes to survive. The bridge is so rickety that no more than two people can stand on it at any one time or it will collapse. It is also full of holes such that it can only be safely crossed while holding a flashlight. The 4 people have only one flashlight between them. A further challenge is that the 4 people are of different ages and levels of health, such that it takes each a different amount of time to cross the bridge. One takes 10 minutes, one needs 5 minutes, one needs 2 minutes, and one needs 1 minute (all invariably, i.e., no amount of help from a faster person can speed a slower person up). How do the 4 people manage to save their lives by crossing their entire party in the 17 minutes available?

3. A man with a heart condition has to take two medications at the same time every 4 hours or he will die. The medication regime is hard to follow: If he takes none or just one of the needed pills at the appointed time, or he takes that more than 1 of either pill within each 4 hour block, he will have a fatal heart attack. To add to the complexity, the pills of each medication are exactly the same in every respect – color, shape, size, texture, weight, labeling. He copes with this challenge by keeping each medication in its own, clearly labelled pill bottle.

While at his hunting lodge in Northern California, something terrible happens. Just before he is about to take his medications, a earth tremor hits and he falls over. The tremor passes quickly, but unfortunately all but 2 pills have fallen out of one bottle and all but 3 have fallen out of the other. Every other pill is scattered on the floor and he can’t tell them apart! It’s a two day trip back to town where he can help from his pharmacist and doctor, and he has no phone, so he has to figure out how to keep himself alive until he can return to town. How does he do it?

4. 4. A man hands a bank teller a check with the symbols “O – O X +” written on the back. The teller says “Oh, I see you are in the navy!”. Why?

Continue reading “Some More Math/Logic Problems To Test Your Wits”

Two Math/Logic Problems Upon Which To Test Your Brainpower

My family just had the pleasure of a visit from a friend I have known since first grade. Ever since we were kids, my friend and I would try to stump each other with math/logic problems we had heard about (or sometimes, invented ourselves). We went back and forth today, and these two were deemed the most fun — give them a shot if you haven’t heard them before. Answers after the jump.

His best to stump me:

Many numbers are the sum of consecutive digits, for example 29 is equal to 14+15 and 66 is equal to 21 + 22 + 23. Between 100 and 200, there is only one number that is NOT the sum of consecutive digits. What is it?

My best to stump him:

You are in the basement of a house and on the wall are three identical-looking light switches. Two of them are broken and one of them works, but the light that the working switch turns on is in the attic. If you could only make one trip to the attic, how would you determine which of the three switches is the one that works?

Continue reading “Two Math/Logic Problems Upon Which To Test Your Brainpower”

How to walk: the RBC guide

Two easy tips for better walking.

We all learnt to walk very young, normally in the second year of life. It’s completely automatic. Severely neglected babies in orphanages ( update – assuming they are physically normal, see comments /update) get up on their feet and walk (Bowlby, 1952, page 20) just as soon as the adored princelings of modern parents, who cheer on every step with praise and console with hugs after every fall. As with any self-taught skill, our methods are approximate, and we stick with what works.

Skills acquired like this can often be improved. Here is a tip sheet from British sports scientist and walking guru, Joanna Hall.

Ms Hall has a system to sell. If you can’t be bothered to wade through it all, here is the RBC tl;dr condensed version in two bullet points. Continue reading “How to walk: the RBC guide”

History’s Sloppy Summations

UK Labour grandee Denis Healey was once asked to name the best speech he had heard in his four decades in Parliament. He cited a 1959 oration defending the humanity of the Mau Mau prisoners who were murdered by British soldiers in the Hola Massacre. Who gave this passionate anti-Imperialist speech condemning abuse of the people living under British colonial rule in Kenya? (Take a guess, answer after the jump)

Continue reading “History’s Sloppy Summations”