Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Traveler's tale

Yesterday's post focused on the unfortunate fact that gullible people will always be with us, as will the charlatans and fakers who make it their life's work to take advantage of credulity wherever they find it.  It's a theme regular readers of Skeptophilia will be all too familiar with.  However, today I'd like to look at something else -- something hopeful -- that, fortunately, will also always be with us.

My example of this is someone I wonder if you've heard of.  His name was Lābīn Sǎowùmǎ (拉賓掃務瑪), but he is more commonly known by his name rendered in the Syriac language, Rabban Bar Ṣawma ("Rabban," and the Chinese version "Lābīn," are honorifics, translating as "leader" or "master").  Bar Ṣawma was born into a wealthy family, probably of either Uyghur or Ongud descent, in Zhongdu (near modern Beijing, China) in around the year 1220 C.E.  

Bar Ṣawma was a Christian, a member of a small enclave of Nestorian Christians which had been founded during the Tang Dynasty in the seventh century.  In an open-mindedness unusual for the time, the Tang emperors allowed the Church of the East to coexist with the majority Confucian religion of the Han Chinese.  Although they had some ups and downs -- there was a bout of persecution in the tenth century -- there was still a small group practicing their religion by the thirteenth, officially overseen by a Patriarch who lived in what is now Iraq.

Bar Ṣawma became a monk at about age twenty, and quietly taught in Zhongdu for the next two decades.  It wasn't until the mid-1260s that he and a student of his, Rabban Markos, decided to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  And that was when their lives changed irrevocably.

It's a sad fact that a lot of religious people approach going to other cultures as "let's see how many people I can convert, voluntarily or otherwise."  Bar Ṣawma and Markos seemed to look at it more as "let's see how much I can learn from this amazing world."  Perhaps it came from their upbringing in a minority religion that had been treated with gracious tolerance; but however they came by the attitude, it allowed them to view other cultures with curiosity and not with fear, superiority, condescension, or condemnation.

They made their way through western China and Mongolia, into what are now Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Afghanistan, along the way making friends with the Mongol ruler Abaqa Khan.  The ended up in Baghdad, where they were welcomed -- amazingly, given the fact that the Crusades were kind of in full swing at that point -- and Markos decided to stay in a monastery in Mosul, where he was elected as Patriarch of the Church of the East, taking the name Yahballaha III.  (Markos/Yahballaha didn't always meet with such positive reactions; he was imprisoned by the Muslims twice, and each time had to be ransomed.  Despite this, he stayed in his role as Patriarch until his death in 1317.)

Bar Ṣawma, though, had a lot farther yet to go.

Chosen as the ambassador of the Church of the East to the Pope (then Honorius IV, although Honorius was to die before Bar Ṣawma arrived), as well as the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos and the various monarchs of Europe, he took off again in 1287 -- at which point he was 67 years old, so hardly a young man even by modern standards.  (I'm 63 and know whereof I speak, on that count at least.)  As hard as it is to imagine, Bar Ṣawma made his way through Armenia, across the Caucasus Mountains and through the Byzantine Empire, then on into the Greek Islands, Sicily (where he saw Mount Etna erupt), Naples, Rome, Genoa, Paris, and finally reached the Atlantic Ocean at Bordeaux, along the way having audiences with the various rulers of the lands he passed through, including King Philip IV "the Fair" of France and King Edward I of England (who was in Bordeaux at the time; in 1287 Gascony was ruled by the English).

Even more astonishing is that after this long voyage, he still had enough energy left to make the return trip.  He crossed Europe a second time, from west to east, and decided to settle down in Baghdad, where he spent the rest of his life, dying in 1294 at the age of 74.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons PHGCOM, VoyagesOfRabbanBarSauma, CC BY-SA 3.0]

In the final years of his life, he wrote his memoirs, which were first published in English in 1928 under the rather cumbersome title The Monks of Kublai Khan, Emperor of China: or The History of the Life and Travels of Rabban Sawma, Envoy and Plenipotentiary of the Mongol Khans to the Kings of Europe, and Markos Who as Mar Yahbh-Allaha III Became Patriarch of the Church of the East in Asia.  I've read excerpts of it -- I'd like to find a complete copy -- and what strikes me in every bit I've read is his deep curiosity and respect for the lands, people, and cultures he was visiting.  Here's a bit about his stay in Italy:

And from that place they travelled inland on horses, and they passed through towns and villages and marveled because they found no land which was destitute of buildings.  On the road they heard that Mar Papa [Pope Honorius IV] was dead...  Three days later the Cardinals sent and summoned Rabban Ṣawma to their presence.  And when he went to them they began to ask him questions, saying, "What is thy quarter of the world, and why hast thou come?"  And Rabban Ṣawma said unto him, "The Mongols and the Catholicus [i.e. the Patriarch] of the East have sent me to Mar Papa concerning the matter of Jerusalem; and they have sent letters with me."  The Cardinals said unto him, "Where is the Throne of the Catholicus?"  He said to them, "In Baghdad...  Know ye, O our Fathers, that many of our Fathers have gone into the countries of the Mongols, and Turks, and Chinese and have taught them the Gospel, and at the present time there are many Mongols who are Christians... "  Then Rabban Ṣawma said unto them, "I have come from remote countries neither to discuss, nor to instruct [men] in matter of the Faith, but I came that I might receive a blessing from Mar Papa, and to visit the shrines of the saints and to make known the words of King [Arghon] and the Catholicus.  If it be pleasing in your eyes, let us set aside discussion, and do ye give attention and direct someone to show us the churches here and the shrines of the saints; [if ye will do this] ye will confer a very great favor on your servant and disciple."

It's interesting how much you can gain in understanding when you go to a place with the attitude, "I'm not here to do anything to you, I just want to learn.  Show me whatever's cool."  I've tried to adopt that approach when I've traveled -- I've been lucky enough to visit a great many lovely places, and have met with nearly one-hundred percent positive responses from the people I've spoken with.

On the other hand, I have to admit that Rabban Bar Ṣawma rather puts me to shame.  After all, I had the convenience of an airplane to get where I was going.  He did the whole thing -- a one-way distance of over eight thousand kilometers -- in the thirteenth century, using a combination of horses, boats, and his own two feet.

It's easy to look back at the people of those times as being narrow-minded bigots whose only thought was forcing others to conform, at the point of a sword if necessary.  And certainly some of them were.  Don't get smug about how much more enlightened we are, though -- it's clear that we still have people of that mindset around today.  The Middle Ages didn't have the market cornered on bigotry, more's the pity.  

But more importantly, Rabban Bar Ṣawma is a reminder that then, as now, there were people who were kind, accepting, and broad-minded, who gazed around with wonder, saying "Look at this, isn't it all so beautiful?"

When you read the news every day, and it seems populated by the worst representatives of the human species, remember Rabban Bar Ṣawma and his long odyssey, driven only by his intellectual curiosity and his deep love for his fellow human beings.  Then set aside the doomscrolling, and reassure yourself that there are still those sorts of people around today, too.  Plenty of them.

Like Bar Ṣawma knew 750 years ago, to find them, all you have to be willing to do is to look around you.


Tuesday, July 16, 2024

The descendants of Dr. Dee

One of the difficulties with establishing paranormal claims is that there are so many ways of getting the wrong answer.

There are the inevitable battles with confirmation bias and dart-thrower's bias, and even when there's actual numerical data to work with, you have to contend with the subtler problem of cherry-picking and p-hacking (something that has plagued experiments designed to detect telepathy, clairvoyance, and precognition).  The difficulty becomes even worse when you have the additional problems that sometimes people honestly believe what they're claiming even though it's false (i.e. they're delusional) or that they don't believe what they're saying but say it anyhow for their own reasons, often having to do with personal gain (i.e. they're lying).

Those last two can be hard to tell apart.  Our memories are plastic enough that if you tell the same lie often enough, you're in danger of falling for it yourself.  Take, for example, the strange figure of John Dee, who was in his heyday during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England.

Portrait of John Dee (ca. 1594, artist unknown) [Image is in the Public Domain]

Dee was of Welsh ancestry but was born and raised in London.  His father was one of Henry VIII's courtiers; John had access to a good education, and got a degree at Cambridge University (something that was as prestigious then as it is now).  He studied in Belgium, France, and Italy, ultimately returning to England with an excellent background in mathematics, astronomy... and divination.

It was this last-mentioned that got him in trouble for the first (but not the only) time.  He was arrested and charged with the crime of "calculating" -- casting horoscopes -- in particular doing one for Queen Mary, who was a bit on the superstitious and paranoid side herself and looked upon anything like that as tantamount to wishing her dead.  He ultimately cleared his name through what appears to have been mere luck; "don't shoot the messenger" didn't carry a lot of weight with monarchs back then.  But when Elizabeth succeeded to the throne in 1558, he found a much more willing ear, and in short order really saw his star in ascendancy.  (*rimshot*)

Where things get interesting -- and where the question of "did he really believe what he was saying?" comes up -- is when he fell in with one Edward Kelley.  Kelley is a mysterious figure, probably by choice.  It is thought he was born in Worcester in 1555, but what he was doing between childhood and ending up in the Elizabethan court in his twenties is pure conjecture.  Kelley was obviously educated -- he knew Greek and Latin -- and in 1582 he approached Dee with the idea of a partnership.

Kelley told Dee he was in contact with angels, and they spoke to him in a language called "Enochian."  As the angels dictated, Kelley said, he'd transmit what they told him to Dee, who would then write it all down.  And they did... resulting in numerous diary entries and two books, the Liber Loagaeth and the Claves Angelicae.  Linguists have analyzed Enochian to a fare-thee-well, and found that it's in that odd shadowland between a conlang (i.e. an invented language with actual syntax, morphology, and phonology) and glossolalia, the random noisemaking that occurs during "speaking with tongues."  What syntax it does have is remarkably like English; this is a tipoff that it's not even an authentic conlang, but a simple one-to-one substitution code.  (As someone who has tried his hand at writing a conlang, I can verify that it ain't easy to come up with a language that has its own distinctive structure, and not merely to copycat the languages you know.)

Kelley's "Enochian alphabet" [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Obankston, Enochian alphabet, CC BY-SA 3.0]

Now, I hasten to reassure you that I don't think Kelley actually was in communication with angels.  But you have to wonder if he thought he was.  A lot of the portrayals of Dee and Kelley in historical fiction have painted Kelley as a cunning liar and charlatan and Dee as a dupe, but from the extant records they both seem awfully earnest.  Both of them ended their lives still clinging to the claim that they were capable of magic -- they traveled all over Europe trying to convince people of their angelic communications, eventually ending up at the court of King Stephen Báthory of Poland and Hungary (interestingly, the uncle of the infamous serial killer Elizabeth Báthory).  The king, though, was a devout Catholic and told Dee and Kelley to shove off, that any claims of that sort had to get the approval of the Pope before they'd get his imprimatur.  Little chance of that; Dee and Kelley were both Protestants, and had worked in the court of the much-detested-at-the-Vatican Queen Elizabeth I of England.

Their case was not helped when Kelley told Dee to relay the message that the archangel Uriel had told him that men were now commanded to share all their possessions freely, including their wives.

You can only imagine how that went over.

Kelley, in fact, never made it back to England.  He and Dee parted ways in the 1590s, and Kelley ended up in the court of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, whom he had convinced that he could transmute lead into gold.  He couldn't.  Kelley died in prison in 1598 -- by one account, from injuries incurred while trying to escape, by another from poison at his own hand.  His end is as mysterious as his origins.

Dee didn't fare much better.  He got back to England to find his huge library had been burglarized, his home damaged by vandals, and his reputation sullied by his association with Kelley.  When James I succeeded Elizabeth in 1603, Dee found his presence at the royal court was no longer welcome -- James was deeply religious and hated anything that smacked of occultism or witchcraft.  Dee died in poverty and obscurity in Mortlake, Richmond upon Thames, in 1608 or 1609.

Dee's name, however, was still revered centuries later by the Spiritualists, Hermeticists, and Rosicrucians.  (Kelley's, not so much, which is odd; it's hard to imagine an explanation for the whole thing where Dee was speaking revealed truth but Kelley was a liar.)  Aleister Crowley (and many other members of The Golden Dawn) thought Enochian especially was the cat's pajamas, and claimed it was the "Adamic language" -- i.e., the language spoken by humans prior to getting their phonemes blenderized by the Almighty during the whole Tower of Babel incident.  Others have claimed that Kelley was in touch with a spiritual power, all right -- but an evil one.  In other words, a demon.

It's a curious story.  Like I said, whatever spin you put on this, both Kelley and Dee were claiming stuff that was objectively false.  But you have to wonder if they thought they were telling the truth.  And it's tempting to think that in our scientific, high-tech world, we're immune to falling for people like this -- either delusional fanatics or else cunning and persuasive liars.  I don't think I need to name names for you to come up with a few modern examples that prove we're still all too susceptible.  They may not be trying to persuade us that they can turn base metals into gold any more, but the falsehoods they're promulgating are perhaps even more dangerous.  The descendants of Dr. Dee, it seems, are still with us -- and now, as then, the only cure for their poison is a combination draught of facts, evidence, and critical thinking.


Monday, July 15, 2024

The strange tale of Clarita Villanueva

When I was a kid, I was big fan of books with names like Strange True Tales of the Supernatural and World of the Weird.  These books often had seriously nightmare-inducing cover illustrations, stories that were (to a twelve-year-old, at least) pantswettingly terrifying, and that important little word on the spine: "Non-fiction."

I still enjoy many of those stories, all these decades later, but now it's solely for their entertainment value.  (I've recounted a number of them here, as long-time readers of Skeptophilia know.)  Some of the most memorable ones have all of the hallmarks of a great Tale For Around The Campfire -- a scary monster or ghost, an innocent victim, brave people trying to combat the forces of evil and bring order back to the world.  

One of the ones of that ilk that I still recall to this day is the story of Clarita Villanueva.

According to the best-known version, Clarita was a young Filipina girl in her upper teens, living in poverty in Manila in 1951.  One night in May, she was found on the street by a policeman, having an apparent seizure.  The policeman took her to the local jail to "sleep it off" (you have to wonder why the words "seek medical attention" didn't occur to him).  But during the middle of the night, the girl began to shriek, claiming that a "bug-eyed man" wearing a hooded black cloak had floated through the bars and was biting her.  The policeman ran to her cell, and found the girl writhing on the floor, and bite marks -- surrounded by saliva -- were appearing on her arms, and in one case, on the back of her neck.

Whatever was biting her, though, was invisible to everyone but Clarita herself!

The policeman got the girl calmed down, and summoned the medical officer on duty in the jail, one Dr. Lara.  Dr. Lara arrived just in time to see the girl go into hysterics again, this time saying that the bug-eyed guy in black had returned, this time bringing a friend.  The doctor, too, saw bite marks appear on her skin.

The doctor, in an understandable state of fear, had the girl transferred from jail to a local hospital, where he saw to it that her wounds were treated.  She gradually relaxed, and the attacks weren't repeated.  She remained at the hospital for six weeks, gaining strength, and her fear of the strange creatures diminished.  Eventually, she was released, and (as far as the story tells) led a completely normal life thereafter.

The reason for the attacks, and who the mysterious creatures were, were never explained.

So, anyway.  See why this one scared me?  Everything about it is classic backbone-shivering horror, even down to the fact that no one ever figured out who her attackers were.  But now, fifty-odd years later, I've come to think of this as the perfect example of why skeptics should not rely on anecdotal evidence.

Because if you do a search for "Clarita Villanueva," you'll come up with (literally) hundreds of different versions of the tale.  The one I've related was the one popularized in those books I was so fond of as a child, but it's not the only one.

You have your religious versions.  Those seem to have been launched by a Christian evangelistic minister named Lester Sumrall, who had worked in Manila and probably heard the story there, but who claimed he actually saw, and treated, the girl.  In his version, Clarita Villanueva was a prostitute whose mother had been "a fortuneteller by vocation... holding seances, communicating with the dead, and using clairvoyance to predict to sinful people what they could expect in the future."  In his account, Clarita was not just being tormented by the monsters, she was (more or less) possessed by them; at one point, she shouted out "in a cold and inhuman voice" at one of her jailers, "You will die!" and the guy obligingly dropped dead four days later.  Dr. Lara finally called in a minister -- in Sumrall's original version it was Sumrall himself, but in others it's a Catholic priest -- and the minister after a "three-day confrontation with the devil inside her" expelled the evil spirits, and she fell to her knees with a smile and said, "The evil one is gone."

Then you have the "Reptilian Alien" version of the story, in which Dr. Lara is female (her first name is given as "Marianna"), doesn't work for the jail but for the hospital where Clarita ended up, and the creatures are "interdimensional aliens from another world."  Cautions are given that these extraterrestrials are "non-emotional creatures intent on performing acts that are considered by humans as evil or malicious."  In this version, no religious folks of any kind were involved; the attacks subsided on their own, presumably when the aliens decided that unwashed human doesn't taste all that good, and buggered off to their own "dimension."

A third version takes a psychic angle on the whole thing.  Here, Clarita Villanueva was a vagrant who was arrested for living on the street, and only experienced the seizures and attack (or whatever they were) once she was already in jail.  It occurred in 1952, not 1951, as the other versions claimed, and the attending doctor was male again -- "Dr. D. Mariano Lara."  In this version, she also was given an exorcism, but before that was apparently receiving information as well as bite marks from the creatures -- prior to the exorcism she was speaking in English, but afterwards didn't understand the language at all!

And so on.  Some versions call her "Carlita," "Carla," "Carlotta," or "Clara," not "Clarita."  The girl's age varies from 15 to 23.  The outcome differs wildly, from her returning to her poverty-stricken existence, to her finding Jesus and devoting her life to religion.  Even the inimitable Jack Chick took a crack at the story, in his bizarre über-Christian "Chick Tracts:"

All of this is why anyone who is interested in more than a quick scary story -- i.e., fiction -- needs more than anecdote to be convinced.  Human memory being what it is, not to mention the human capacity for embellishment and outright lying, a story by itself proves nothing.  In order to believe something -- or even to determine if there's anything there to believe -- we need hard evidence, something beyond the vague reports of one, or ten, or even a hundred people.

And the problem goes deeper than that, because (of course) these aren't all independent reports.  A researcher, with adequate time and energy, might be able to track all of these versions backwards and see where they'd come from, developing (as it were) a cladistic tree for this odd urban legend.  Ultimately, we might find the Last Universal Common Ancestor (the urtext, if you prefer a musical analogy) of all of the versions of the Clarita Villanueva story, and see what form it took.  (Regular readers might recall that I wrote a few years ago about some anthropologists who published a lovely piece of research doing exactly that, creating a family tree for the story of Little Red Riding Hood.)

But even if someone did find out where the story started and what form it originally had, there's no guarantee that it was true in the first place.  There may have really been a girl named Clarita Villanueva who lived in Manila in the early 1950s and had some bizarre experiences; but if she did, my bet is that she was either epileptic or schizophrenic, and everything else about the story (including the bites on the back of the neck) were later additions to add a nice frisson to the tale.  The fact that it's still making the rounds, seventy years later, doesn't tell you anything about its truth or falsity.

As author Gary Taubes put it, speculations and assumptions do not become the truth simply because they are endlessly repeated.  And anecdotes, however much they are embellished, and however often they end up in "non-fiction" anthologies, remain tall tales without much in the way of real value to skeptics.  In science, we need more than just a good story to convince us.


Saturday, July 13, 2024

Crash remnant

Well, another alleged UFO artifact has been analyzed and found wanting.

It's gotten to be a pattern, hasn't it?  Someone claims to have rock-solid evidence of something fringe-y -- hair or bone from a Bigfoot, the skull of a humanoid alien, ghost photographs, extrasensory perception -- and upon examination, it turns out to be tenuous at best and an outright fake at worst.  Nothing, certainly, that would convince an honest skeptic.

Now, allow me to state up front something I've said many times before here at Skeptophilia; I'm not a skeptic because I don't like the idea of the paranormal.  Honestly, I would love it if some of this stuff turned out to be true.  Not only is there simply the coolness factor, it would open up huge avenues for scientific research.  And don't @ me about how scientists are narrow-minded conservatives who are desperate to uphold the status quo and therefore would ignore hard evidence even if it existed; the truth is that scientists are constantly looking for new stuff, because finding something truly novel is how careers are made.  If they tend to give a suspicious side-eye at most of these claims, it's because they understand how data and evidence work.  (As astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, "We know what the hell we're looking at.")  Their training has made them all too aware of how easy it is to be misled by what what you would like very much to be true.

To quote the great physicist Richard Feynman: "In science, the first principle is that you must not fool yourself.  And you are the easiest person to fool."

That said, I find myself in much sympathy with Fox Mulder, even so.

In this case, a chunk of metal was provided to the All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office, a Pentagon program whose purpose is to check out anything odd that might have national security implications.  It was provided by To the Stars Academy, an independent research organization headed by Blink-182 front man (and UFO aficionado) Tom DeLonge.  The Academy's press release upon handing the artifact over to the AARO stated that "the material is clearly engineered with distinct layers of MgZn and Bi at structured thicknesses only microns thick" and "there is no precedent for this structured combination of materials."  Further, supposedly its composition would allow it to function as a "terahertz waveguide" (whatever the hell that is) which would give it the ability to "reduce inertial mass" -- in other words, to act as an antigravity device.

Ignoring the levitation bit for the moment, the part about there being "no precedent" for its structure highlights the problem with claiming something is an "alloy of alien origin."  Despite Georgi LaForge's analysis on Star Trek: The Next Generation that every spacecraft they run across is made of a phaser-resistant blend of whathefuckium and damnedifweknowite, there are only so many elements on the periodic table to choose from.  And there aren't any holes.  So to have a good case that a chunk of metal comes from an alien spacecraft, you have to be able to show that although the chunk might be made of the ordinary complement of chemical elements, the way it was put together is somehow different than what we could accomplish here on Earth.

Which is what DeLonge et al. are saying.  He also stated that the piece of metal comes from a crashed spaceship recovered in 1947 -- he never mentions the R-word, but that's the implication.  In any case, the AARO kind of went, "Okay, we'll look at it" (you'll have to imagine the sigh and eyeroll that probably accompanied it) and handed it over to Oak Ridge National Laboratories for analysis.

And what they found was...

... drum roll...

... it's terrestrial in origin.

The report said:

There was widespread domestic research on [magnesium] alloys for airframes, engines, weapons, and delivery systems starting in 1915 and peaking during World War II.  Many experimental [magnesium] alloys failed for reasons not well understood at the time of testing, e.g., stress corrosion cracking.  Unsurprisingly, records of failed [magnesium] alloy designs are scant.  Neither AARO nor ORNL could verify the specimen’s historical origin.  Unverifiable, conflicting personal accounts complicate its undocumented chain of custody...  The characteristics of the specimen are consistent with mid-20th-century magnesium alloy research and development projects, which often involved the use of zinc, lead, and bismuth additives for various purposes, including corrosion resistance.  The banding and structural features observed in the specimen align with manufacturing techniques from that era, such as vapor deposition.
And it doesn't have the ability to reduce inertial mass, so throw away your patent application for an antigravity/levitation device.  The Laws of Thermodynamics indicate that you can't decrease inertial mass unless you convert it into an equivalent amount of energy (the amount being determined by Einstein's equation E = mc^2).  This is not something to be undertaken lightly, as that kind of mass-to-energy conversion is how a nuclear bomb works.

You'd fly into the sky, all right, but I don't think you'd be happy about it.

In any case, if you're curious, you can find links to the complete report from AARO here.

There's nothing wrong with continuing to hope for positive results apropos of UFOs and other such alleged phenomena, and it's absolutely necessary to maintain an open mind and keep looking.  But -- disappointing as it is for those of us who grew up on science fiction -- the honest position at the moment is that the evidence we have thus far simply doesn't meet the minimum standard of what is required by science.  It'd be nice if that weren't true, and perhaps one day there'll be the proof we've all been waiting for.

But sadly, Tom DeLonge's chunk of metal from a 1947 crashed spaceship ain't it.


Friday, July 12, 2024

The web of contingencies

History is really nothing more than one contingency after another.

This leaves fertile ground for the "what-ifs."  What if the Roman Emperor Titus -- who by all accounts was shaping up to be a pretty good leader -- had reigned for more than two years, instead of dying young in 81 C. E. and being succeeded by his cruel, paranoid brother Domitian?  What if King Edward V of England, one of the "Princes in the Tower," had lived, and the Tudor Dynasty never come to power?  What if Mehmed II lost the Battle of Constantinople in 1453, and the Byzantine Empire had survived?  What if the Spanish failed in their attempts to conquer the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayas?  What if the Confederacy won the American Civil War, the Cavaliers the English Civil War, the Republicans the Spanish Civil War, or the Nazis World War II?

Certainly some of these are more likely than others, but the fact remains that the threads of history are pretty fragile.  Speculating about what would have happened otherwise is the realm of fiction writers, and "alternative history" is a popular topic.  I remember reading one of the first stories to use that trope, R. A. Lafferty's brilliant (and hilarious) short story "Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne," when I was in college.  In Lafferty's tale an avatar is sent back in time by some scientists to make sure that Charlemagne is assassinated at Roncevalles in the year 778 (one of the nearest of historical near misses) instead of surviving, winning the day, and eventually becoming Holy Roman Emperor.

The problem, of course, is that when the avatar returns, it appears that nothing has changed, because in altering history it had altered the scientists' knowledge of what happened at the same time.  All it did was create a completely different set of contingencies leading to a different set of circumstances.  So they do it again, and again, changing other seemingly pivotal events in history -- each time with the same results.  Huge alterations, which none of the scientists are aware of, because their own memories shifted every time the past was changed.  It simply became what they always had known.

Ultimately, they conclude that nothing in the past made any difference, because changing past events never has any effect on the present!

In reality, though, we can speculate all we want about the what-ifs, but it will always remain in the realm of speculation.  As C. S. Lewis put it in Prince Caspian:

"You mean," said Lucy rather faintly, "that it would have turned out all right – somehow?  But how?  Please, Aslan!  Am I not to know?"

"To know what would have happened, child?" said Aslan.  "No.  Nobody is ever told that."

Maybe it's because I'm a fiction writer myself, but my mind was bouncing along amongst the what-ifs when I read some recent research about the settlement of Europe.  Back during the Neolithic Period, northwestern Europe had been settled by a culture called the Megalith Builders who had come there from the Balkans, and who were responsible for raising Stonehenge, Avebury, the Carnac Stones of Brittany, and the many other menhirs and stone rings scattered from Portugal to Denmark.  (Contrary to popular misconception, Stonehenge was not built by the "druids" or ancient Celts; when the Celts arrived in the British Isles, Stonehenge was already two thousand years old.)

The Carnac Megaliths of Brittany [Image licensed under the Creative Commons Snjeschok, Carnac megalith alignment 1, CC BY-SA 3.0]

The Megalith Builders thrived for a couple of millennia -- then, around five thousand years ago, the entire culture collapsed.  It was sudden, leading many historians and archaeologists to surmise that they'd been wiped out in a war.  There's a significant flaw in that theory, though.  The Megalith Builders were superseded by the Yamnaya, who came from the Pontic steppe and may have been the first speakers of an Indo-European language in Europe -- but there's at least a five hundred year gap (possibly more) between the sudden disappearance of the Megalith Builders and the first definitive archaeological traces of the Yamnaya.

So the collapse of the Megalith Builders didn't occur because the Yamnaya destroyed them; it seems like when the Yamnaya colonized northwestern Europe, they found the land already strangely depopulated.

A study this week in Nature has found strong evidence of what happened.  DNA evidence from gravesites indicates that of the bones dating from that four-hundred year period between 3,300 and 2,900 B.C.E., during which the Megalith Builders disappeared, one in six showed evidence they'd died of bubonic plague.

"It’s fairly consistent across all of Northern Europe, France and it’s in Sweden, even though there are some quite big differences in the archaeology, we still see the same pattern, they just disappear," said Frederik Seersholm of the University of Copenhagen, who led the study.  "All of a sudden, there’s no people getting buried (at these monuments) anymore.  And the people who were responsible for building these megaliths (are gone)...  These plague cases, they are dated to exactly the time frame where we know the Neolithic decline happened so this is very strong circumstantial evidence that the plague might have been involved in this population collapse."

So the plague seems to have had effects on Europe's history besides the devastating Black Death pandemics in the mid-fourteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries.  And this is where the what-ifs come in; what if the epidemic that struck down the Megalith Builders hadn't happened?  When the Yamnaya came in five centuries later, they would have found a thriving civilization that undoubtedly would have pushed back on their incursions.  And if the historical linguists are right, this would have stopped the progress of Indo-European speakers in their tracks.

What languages would we people of northern European descent now be speaking?

So that's today's ramble through history, alternative and otherwise.  And even if Aslan's right that no one is ever told what might have happened, that doesn't stop us from wondering and speculating how things would have gone if the web of contingencies was rearranged by a little bit.


Thursday, July 11, 2024


Today, we have three stories that are particularly interesting in juxtaposition.

The first one is heartbreaking.  A unique species of cactus, the Key Largo tree cactus (Pilosocereus millspaughii) is now extinct in the Florida Keys.  It's a tall, slender, spiny plant with white, garlic-scented flowers that open at night and are pollinated by bats.

[Image credit: photographer Susan Kolterman]

Once abundant, it has been declining throughout the twentieth century, but took a nosedive at the century's end -- 84% of the surviving plants died between 1994 and 2017.  It still held on with a population of 150 individuals until Hurricane Irma, but the real culprit seems to be saltwater intrusion into the species's habitat.  By 2021 only six remained, and pieces were harvested by botanists for cultivation before the remaining individuals died.

As such, it has become the first species extirpated as the direct result of climate change and rising sea levels.

"We are on the front lines of biodiversity loss," said George Gann, executive director of the Florida Institute for Regional Conservation.

The second story comes out of Copernicus Climate Change Service, the research arm of the European Union's climate monitoring service.  New data released last week showed that for the last twelve months straight, the global average temperature has been 1.5 C higher than the average in pre-industrial times.  Anyone claiming this is some kind of natural warm-up is simply wrong.  There's no other way to say it.  This global temperature spike is orders of magnitude higher than anything we've ever seen before -- to find anything even close, you have to go back to the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, 54 million years ago, and even that probably happened at a slower rate than what we're seeing today.

Carlo Buontempo, director of the CCCS, was unequivocal.  "Even if this specific streak of extremes ends at some point, we are bound to see new records being broken as the climate continues to warm," he said.  "This is inevitable unless we stop adding greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and the oceans."

The last story is where it gets ironic -- because Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who presides over one of the lowest-lying and most vulnerable states in the United States, and the home (well, it was) of the first species to be extirpated because of climate change, just signed a bill that (1) strikes any mention of climate change from state statutes, (2) outlaws offshore wind turbines, and (3) deregulates the use of natural gas.

"We're restoring sanity in our approach to energy and rejecting the agenda of the radical green zealots," DeSantis said.  Probably because that sounds better than "fuck the long-term habitability of the planet, we've got to protect the fossil fuel industry."

We've got an election coming up in November, and the choice couldn't be clearer.  DeSantis (whose term doesn't expire until 2027, unfortunately), and the rest of the GOP, have rejected science, data, and evidence for the sake of short-term expediency and keeping the endorsement of the oil companies.  There's a plethora of other reasons to vote against them; their anti-education stance, the book bans, their targeting of LGBTQ+ people, the horrifying far-right partisanship of the Supreme Court, and their unquestioning support of a presidential candidate who is a convicted felon and sexual abuser, not to mention a compulsive liar.

But this issue affects every single individual on the planet.  If your mind isn't made up yet, then consider that.  Only one party seems to have the slightest concern about addressing the problem of climate change.  Yeah, what they've done thus far hasn't been all that impressive, either, but at least they're not denying it outright and calling the people who care -- and the ones who actually know some science -- "radical green zealots."

I'll choose the ones who are at least making an effort over the science deniers in half a heartbeat.


Wednesday, July 10, 2024

The echo of evil

One of the more horrifying stories from my home state of Louisiana is the more-or-less true tale of Madame Delphine Macarty LaLaurie.

I qualify it with "more-or-less" because being gruesome, even by New Orleans gothic standards, it's certainly been embellished along the way.  Plus, as you'll see there's a supernatural twist to the whole thing, and -- at least in my not-always-so-humble opinion -- that makes it fictional by default.  But with that caveat in place, here's what we know.

Delphine was born on the 19th of March, 1787, in New Orleans, to Louis Barthélemy de Macarty (or McCarty or McCarthy or MacCarthy) and his wife, Marie-Jeanne L'Érable.  Louis's father was from Ireland, but the rest of the family was French -- as well as influential and rich.  Her uncle by marriage was the governor of the Spanish colony of Louisiana, and a cousin later became mayor of New Orleans.  Delphine married three times; first to a prominent officer in the Spanish military named Ramón de Lopez y Angulo, then to a wealthy banker named Jean Blanque, and last to a doctor, Léonard Louis Nicolas LaLaurie.

Delphine Macarty LaLaurie [Image is in the Public Domain]

Until 1834, Delphine and her husband(s) showed every sign of being completely normal upper-class citizens, participating in the high society of the New Orleans French Quarter.  A few hints had gotten out about the LaLauries, especially Delphine, alleging that she mistreated slaves, but in that day and age it had to be pretty extreme before anyone would do anything about that even if it were proven true.

Eventually, it was.  And the reality turned out to be so bad that even the privileged White people of the antebellum South were revolted.

In April of 1834, a fire broke out in the kitchen of the LaLaurie mansion.  Responding to calls for help, neighbors came in to extinguish the blaze -- and found the family cook chained to the stove by her ankle.  This spurred an investigation, and the police found the family slaves in deplorable shape, showing evidence of torture and deprivation.  At first Dr. LaLaurie responded to the inquiry with derision, saying, "some people had better stay at home rather than come to others' houses to dictate laws and meddle with other people's business," but when the condition of the slaves was made public, the outrage was so strong that a mob descended on the house.  The couple fled, eventually making their way to Paris, where they lived for the rest of their lives.  Dr. LaLaurie's death is unrecorded, but Delphine's shows up in the Paris Archives, saying she died on 7 December 1849 at the age of 62.  She never publicly acknowledged any guilt over how she and her husband had treated the slaves; in fact, a letter from Paulin Blanque, her son by her second marriage, states that his mother "never had any idea about the reason for her departure from the city."

So either Dr. LaLaurie was the real villain, here, or Delphine was amoral and an accomplished liar.

Perhaps both.

Certainly the legend, though, favors the latter.  The tale of a depraved and sadistic woman had a cachet that grabbed people's attention, and the story began to grow by accretion.  The 1946 book Ghost Stories of Old New Orleans, by Jeanne deLavigne, went into explicit detail about what Delphine supposedly did -- I'll spare you the details, not only because they are downright disgusting, but because the more grotesque of the claims are entirely unsubstantiated by the records.  Now, I'm not saying the LaLauries were innocent, mind you; at the best, they were cruel, heartless people whose escape to Paris is the very definition of "getting off lightly."  But any time there's a claim like this, people always want to add to it -- and they have, throwing in enough gory details to do a slasher movie proud.

The LaLaurie house was rebuilt -- there wasn't much left but the frame after the fire and the attack by the enraged mob -- and over the years has been a private residence (the most recent owner was none other than Nicolas Cage), a music conservatory, a high school, a residence for delinquents, a bar, and a furniture store.  It's widely considered to be haunted, and features prominently on New Orleans ghost walks; some call it "the most haunted building in Louisiana," where at night you can hear the moans of the poor tortured slaves and the evil, cold laugh of the wicked Delphine, as she walks the hallways and staircases looking for new victims.

LaLaurie Mansion, 1140 Royal Street [Image licensed under the Creative Commons APK, LaLaurie Mansion, CC BY-SA 4.0]

The reason the topic comes up is because the home just went up for sale again -- target price, a cool $10.25 million.  So if you have a good chunk of cash and want to live in one of the most notorious haunted houses in the Deep South, here's your chance.

Predictably, I don't put much stock in the paranormal side of this, but the author of the article about the sale makes a trenchant point; ghosts or no ghosts, isn't it pretty tasteless to be using the evil reputation of the site as a way of jacking up the price?  After all, no one doubts that real human beings were treated horribly here, many of them ultimately dying of their injuries.  There's not even the relief of a just ending to fall back on; the LaLauries pretty much got off scot-free.  The article's author suggests that maybe the thing to do is turn the place into a museum chronicling the plight of slaves in the South, who even after they were nominally freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War, still had to endure generations of prejudice, persecution, and injustice.  (And to our nation's enduring shame, in many places their descendants still do.)

It's a nice idea, but money will talk, as it always does.  Some rich person will buy the LaLaurie Mansion, and it'll still be featured on ghost tours, cashing in on a legacy of human suffering.  Whatever the horrible details of the story of Delphine and her husband, having a building standing in their name is still on some level celebrating them, leaving an echo of evil on the streets of the French Quarter.

I understand the argument about leaving up places with horrific historical associations as reminders, but this is a case where I think the most fitting thing is to raze the damn place and erase every last trace of Delphine LaLaurie.  She got off easy (extremely easy) in life -- perhaps eradicating her memory after death is a fitting end for someone who was judged as sadistic even by the cruel standards of her time and place.