Category Archives: History

The Legend of Polybius. Now on YouTube!

Just today I found out that someone put my Polybius talk on Youtube. So, if you want to watch me talk about a killer fake video game, here it is.

In Which I Find Plagiarism in a Portland History Book

Plagiarism is one of the worst things that a writer can be accused of doing. This is not simply because it is an act of theft (though it is precisely that) but also because it reveals a certain intellectual bankruptcy on the part of the offender. A plagiarist does not interpret, analyze, or even bring new personality to what they’re purportedly writing about. They do not provide a unique voice, interpretation, or perspective. They do not, to borrow a pop business term, add value.

Earlier this week I found out that a local author copied another, earlier book. I was at the Multnomah County Library looking at secondary sources for an upcoming feature on Vanport, and I cracked open this book for obvious reasons:

photo (2)Because Vanport was in North Portland, I figured that some of the regional neighborhood publications could also be handy. Maybe there were stories or citations in those that would provide interesting details or dramatic first-person accounts, or just a different spin or viewpoint that would be worth looking at. I grabbed a few of them, including this one:

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History of the Kenton Neighborhood did indeed have a chapter on Vanport. However, the text felt a tad familiar. Here’s the opening paragraph from Manly Maben’s book (click it to enlarge):
photo (3)

And here’s the Vanport section from the book on Kenton:photo (4)

History of the Kenton Neighborhood, published in the late 1990s, copied from Manly Maben’s Vanport, which preceded it by about a decade. I read the section a few times and found that pretty much all of it was just lifted from the other book. I was shocked to see something so blatant, shameless, and obvious.

I didn’t know what to do. I thought, for a ridiculous moment, that I should go up to a librarian and say “pardon me, but this book in your Portland history section contains plagiarism,” however I doubt that would yield any kind of results. It’s not like I can go to the Writing Police and report author Alta Mitchoff as a plagiarist. I can’t take away her writing license.

I can do this, though. Alta Mitchoff, if you happen to be reading this (for some reason), I want to address you directly.

You are not a writer. You are not a historian. You are not a journalist, a chronicler, an interpreter of history, or a steward of culture. You took someone else’s work and copy-pasted it into your own crappy little neighborhood history book, and put your name on the cover. You’re a thief, Alta Mitchoff, and I caught you.

Types of Tour People, Ranked From Best to Worst

Being a tour guide is sometimes fantastic, and sometimes miserable. Whether it’s transcendentally awesome or utterly terrible depends on the kind of group you get. Below are people I encounter regularly, ranked from best to worst.

People who are totally into it and are geeking out as much as you

I like history and architecture and urban planning and anecdotes and all of that kind of thing. When my enthusiasm is shared by others, it’s spectacular. I’m into it, they’re into it, and it makes me feel like some kind of grandly talented imparter of truth, like I’m Carl Sagan or something. It’s a great feeling, and usually results in lots of tips.

Drunk people who are totally into it and are geeking out as much as you

Same as above, but more distractable.

College students

College students are actually pretty easy to talk to, because lots of them want to be adults. They want to seem smart and interested in things, so they act smart and interested in things.

High schoolers

Same as above, for the most part.

People who know more about history than me

I’ve had a few actual, real historians on my tours. They terrify me. I worry that I’ll get something horribly wrong. But, they usually like to chat afterward, and then I steal material from the knowledge they impart.

Bored people who are only there because their spouse or friend or someone else dragged them along

These people are fine. They usually stare into the middle distance, thinking thoughts of things. They bother me not, but add nothing to the experience.

People who want to tell the entire group this one story about this one time when they were growing up in Portland and, wow, that had nothing to do with the matter at hand.

I like it when people have interesting things to say or add. I don’t really like it when someone starts talking about how back when they grew up, things sure were different. Yep. Totally not the same as today.

Small children

Small children are easily impressed by things such as magnets. Also, they are very short so addressing large groups of them is easy. One is gigantic by comparison, so they can all see and hear you easily. They do, however, have the tendency to tire easily. Sometimes they spontaneously cry, and must be whisked away by a parent.

Disinterested guys in NASCAR hats and sunglasses who always seem to be thinking “What the hell is this shit?”

I imagine these guys as being the kind of dudes who actually get excited when the History Channel does yet another thing about WWII, and gritting their teeth whenever I extol the virtues of public transportation.

People who come up with weird rationalizations for Japanese internment

Portland used to have a big Japanese neighborhood. We don’t anymore. It got enthusiastically erased. Now, the only thing we have is a memorial by the waterfront where a big immigrant district used to be. Most people find this terrifying and horrible and sad. Once, though, a rather terrible woman tried to tell everyone why it was a great idea. It only happened once, but still.

Drunk people who are not at all into it

These people are asked to leave. They ususally stumble into a bar or something. An drunk old lady who had too much makeup grabbed my ass once. That was weird.

Middle schoolers

I kind of think that between the ages of eleven and fifteen children should be hooked up to some kind of energy-gathering cybernetic thing that would allow us to use the collective hyperactivity of the nation’s middle schoolers as a source of clean, renewable power. Middle schoolers do not stop. They do not tire. They do not focus. They are made of superballs and pop rocks. They are energy incarnate. Nothing can hold their attention. Nothing. Talking to them is like screaming at a jet engine. After the heat death of the universe, they will still be yelling at something.

Goodbye, Prof. Zinn

I saw Howard Zinn at PSU when I was a junior in high school. The room was packed, and security wasn’t letting anyone else in. Determined to see the man whose book I’d just read, though, I found an opening, ducked past security, and sat down on the floor in the back of the lecture hall. He was a wonderful speaker. I’d read his book A People’s History of the United States at the urging of my history teacher, Mr. Curry, who ranks as one of the four or five most influential teachers I’ve ever had. It was probably the fastest thousand pages I’ve ever read.

I didn’t agree with everything Prof. Zinn said, but he was an immense influence. From him, I learned something about history and politics that has stayed with me to this day:

When people argue about history, they’re not arguing about accuracy.

Historical arguments in the public sphere don’t really have anything to do with the fine details of what is true. Professional historians may take sides on whether something was characteristic of a given time period or carbon-dated correctly, but public historical controversies aren’t really about that. At that PSU lecture, Zinn gave the example of Columbus.

The historical record is fairly clear about what Columbus did and didn’t do, and who he was. It’s quite clear that he did not, in fact, prove that the world was round (that was already well known) and did, in fact, kill quite a lot of Native Americans. Columbus (and his crew) were professionals and kept records of what they were doing. The truth is, as they say, out there.

The perennial controversy every October 12th, though, isn’t about the accuracy or inaccuracy of the historical record. It’s not about whether or not those written records are accurate or not. Arguments about history are clashes between what people want to believe (the “truthiness” of something, if you will) and what is actually true.

Symbols, emotions, and cultural identifications all taint the way people evaluate history politics. It’s about people wanting history to be cleaner and more idyllic than it is, and the practice of willful ignorance on the part of those who want simplicity rather than truth. When the truth that people know they can’t fight, comes up against symbols and emotions, that’s when controversy strikes. One may say something like “Yes, Columbus did kill many people needlessly but…” followed by an argument about why he should still be lionized.

This is hard even for me. It takes a certain amount of emotional fortitude for me to admit to myself that Lincoln and FDR, my two favorite presidents, did some fairly awful things. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, probably the most primal and basic of all legal rights. Roosevelt had Japanese internment, a program that destroyed my own hometown’s Japanese community.

(MLK also committed plagiarism in college. It feels sort of uncomfortable to believe that, doesn’t it? Too bad it’s true.)

Being able to face these nasty historical truths, though, is not without a certain satisfaction. What’s more, it makes the more positive aspects of history stand out with even greater dramatic effect. Zinn, though, taught me to not look for perfect figures or statuesque titans in the history books. The desire to see them as such led only to disappointment. The facts are there, the truth is out there, and longing for lionized cultural symbols only leads to controversy and argument. It is not an argument about facts that occurs every October 12th, but an argument between an emotional desire for unblemished heroes versus seeing history as-is.

Zinn taught me that history is riddled with blood, injustice, and unfairness. He made me realize that as much as one might admire an ancient city, one still has to think of the slaves who built it. History is full of those who were trampled underfoot and never given a chance, and to ignore that- to only focus on polished marble edifices of imagined ancestors -is to do a disservice to them and the truth. I didn’t always agree with him, but he illuminated truths that needed telling.

Three Reasons Why The Past Decade Didn’t Suck

It’s the end of the decade. Yes, it really is. Mathematical pedantry aside, we’re entering a new, arbitrarily-determined time unit, and that’s something to be kind of excited about. People seem to be complaining about the last ten years, though, and I do think that they were a pretty nasty time, all told. But, they weren’t all bad. There’s a lot to like about the past ten years. Here are a few things:

It Has Been Much, Much Worse

Think about the twentieth century:

1900s- Not much
1910s- WWI, Spanish flu, millions dead
1920s- Decadence, stock market crash
1930s- Great Depression, WWII, millions dead
1940s- Great Depression, WWII, millions dead
1950s- Cold War, Korean War, nuclear paranoia
1960s- Cold War, Vietnam War, JFK assassination, general unrest
1970s- Cold War, Vietnam War, Watergate, recession
1980s- Cold War, decadence, hair metal
1990s- The Cold War is over! WOW! HUZZAH! (Gulf War happens, though.)
2000s- Iraq War, Recession

Our parents and grandparents faced existential threats to the U.S. in the form of the Great Depression, Nazi Germany, and the USSR. We no longer have that. As much as some might attempt to remake Islamic terrorists into the Nazis or Commies of our time, they do not pose a serious threat to Western civilization. Think about it: The biggest and most complicated thing that they were able to do was destroy a significant portion of downtown New York. As devastating as that was, it was nothing compared to what Germany did to Poland, Japan did to China, we did to Dresden, and any nuclear bomb could have done to anywhere.

Moreover, as awful as the current recession is, it’s remarkable that we don’t have people standing in bread lines or trying to sell pencils in the street. Yes, Detroit has suffered quite a bit, but the economy has started growing again. The Dust Bowl destitution from the thirties stayed in the thirties. We don’t have any Hoovervilles. Think about that: We’ve been through a long, crushing recession, but have managed to avoid absolute destitution. In its own way, that’s great.

The Internet!

Remember the internet ten years ago? It was full of dancing hamsters, pirated music and porn. Now, it’s full of lolcats, pirated music and porn, but also a bunch of other neat stuff. Think about this: Let’s say you want to learn how to decoupage. So, you Google “how to decoupage” and WHAM-O! There are a bunch of sites telling you how to do precisely that! That is really, utterly, super profound. That access to information is unprecedented in human history, and despite all of the annoying memes and pictures of cats, the Internet really is the greatest thing since bread or slices. Cyberpunk (remember that?) was a SF genre chiefly characterized by the existence of a giant web of computers all across the world connected to each other. Now, Cyberpunk is dead because it’s central tenant is real. This past decade, we made a subgenre of SF obsolete. How cool is that?

The Decline of Bigotry

Yes, there’s lots of problems with the health care legislation, and no, Obama didn’t magically fix everything with his ultra-charismatic Jesus-like wizardry, but it’s still fantastic that the U.S. elected a black dude. And, despite Proposition Eight passing in California, gay people are getting married in the U.S., and we will have it sooner or later. There’s gay marriage in Iowa! That’s pretty amazing. If, thirty years ago, you were to tell someone that in 2009 the president would be black and gay dudes would be setting up wedding registries they probably would have said “Shut your pie-hole, hippie!” HA-HA! Take that, you imagined Archie Bunker-like hypothetical conservative person! Woo-hoo!

Carl Sagan (one of my heroes) once said “We live in an extraordinary age.” He said that back in the eighties, and he was right-on then. He’s extra-super-mega correct now. As much fun as it is to bitch, we do live in an extraordinary age, and it really is getting better all the time. Here’s to the next decade.

Annotations To an Enjoyable Experience

(Don’t get the wrong idea about the following post- I had a great weekend. But, I’ve already talked about the positive aspects of dressing funny whilst camping, and this post is about something else. Think of this as an annotation, or addendum, to something that is mostly positive.)

Celtic knots and skulls seemed to be on everything. Bracers, boots, coats, necklaces, tatoos. The intricate, interweaving braids and headbones formed the ornamentation of choice, closely followed by pentagrams, dragons, and the occasional fairy. It was hot, unpleasantly hot, and I wanted a cigarette. No idea why. It’s a vice I try to limit, but I was in a mood and craving one. I was dressed as a pirate. All around me, other people were also dressed as pirates.

I was at what people who are into this sort of thing term an “event,” a large-scale camping trip wherein lots of people strut about in historical garb, maintain historical personae, and generally carouse and drink a lot. Several of these events are associated with the Society for Creative Anachronism. This one wasn’t- it was a pirate-themed extravaganza Called Sea Dog Nights and Gypsy Carnival. I’ve done this sort of thing before and enjoyed myself, but last Saturday found myself wandering and filled with a peculiar kind of anxiety about it all, an anxiety that I think had something to do with all of the Celtic knots all over the fucking place.

I don’t want to sound too pedantic, but Celtic imagery has about as much to do with historical pirates as petunias have to do with janissaries, and the juxtaposition was bugging me. (Bear with me here- I’m not trying to bitch, really. This is not a “Joe spews bile on x” post, not that I ever do that.) What was bothering me, is that the connections seemed tenuous and almost arbitrary. All over the place people were dressed in in Hollywood-style pirate garb, kilts, belly dancing skirts, boots, tricorn hats, flowing dresses, etc. It seemed, at once, a wild motley of unrelated things, a hodgepodge of anachronism. At the same time, though, there was a weird, settled uniformity to it. Almost all of the visual elements were things that had been adopted by geek culture, things that I was familiar with because they’d been adopted as recurring visual tropes by the sort of people who know what THAC0 means.

This bothered me. I looked around, very much hoping for some kind of originality, some kind of garb or conceit that would surprise me, and found not much of it. There was one guy dressed up in gear that looked African in origin, and I thought that was quite cool, but saw little else in the way of aesthetic differentiation. There were only the same sorts of variations- look, here’s a skull! Here’s a ship, a dragon, a pentagram!- recurring again and again. I wanted someone (for clearly there were a lot of creative, driven people involved in this thing) to mix it up. I wanted someone to wear a Fez or samurai armor, to dress up in a toga or gladiatorial gear. I wanted see someone bedecked in Aztec finery or have the rigging of a Chinese junk set up in their camp. The whole thing was crazy, yes, creative, definitely, but I wished that it was more insane and unrestrained, more varied and unrestricted. More diverse, divergent, and arbitrary, even more anachronistic. If histories were going to clash with each other, if supposed “pirates” were going to walk around with kilts on, than I wanted it to be anachronistic all the way. Vikings in cowboy hats. Centurions with muskets. Persian Immortals behind Prussian artillery. It wouldn’t clash any more than this Norse-looking figurehead at a pirate party.

The standard tropes seemed far too comfortable. I wanted someone to do something risky.

Make no mistake- I had a great time. I had a really good time. I mingled with my friends, drank a lot, and greatly admired the industriousness of my roommate K who managed to construct a wonderful and quite comfortable pavilion for us to hang out in. The inside was strewn with carpets, drums and cushions and a hookah acted as a centerpiece, making the camp a bit different from the normal “scurvy dog” theme that kept popping up. Lounging about inside, I had nothing but appreciation for her creative energy, and, indeed, saw her deviation from the norm as laudable.

At night I took in fire dancing and music, and in the dark the ships’ masts and pavilions of the participants lost all hokiness, and I was taken in by the experience. Yes, I was taken in, eventually. I sang, pranced about, and had fun, even as I thought way to much about it.

But, I kept thinking to myself: Go further. If you’re going to play fast and loose with history (and I’m okay with that), then play as fast and as loose as you can. I would have nothing but respect for someone if they showed up at something like this dressed as Barbary Corsairs or Zulu. I would applaud anyone who dressed as a detachment from the Golden Horde or the Huns. Variation, daring, rather than staid replication of the standard tropes, would have breathed even more life into the event. Instead, the same safe themes and memes were stamped out again and again.

There is a Wondermark comic that I quite like, purporting to show next year’s internet memes. Instead of ninjas and pirates it shows deep-sea divers and gendarmes, among others. I appreciate it greatly, because it shows the arbitrariness of fads and crazes, and posits that deep sea divers are just as potentially meme-worthy as, say, ninjas. It’s a nice wake-up call to anyone who has been immersing themselves in the cozy repetitions of the internet and popular culture. The fad that you see as so whimsical may indeed be, but it is not apogee of quirk or fun. There is plenty of other stuff out there to gawk at- plenty of the world that can be mined in the name of oddness.

I’ll definitely go to an event again (I like camping, and I like drinking, and they tend to be mainly that) but I think that the participants could learn a thing or two from that Wondermark comic. Remixing the same song over and over again does not make for a good party. Yes, pirates are kind of neat. Even the Hollywood sort. But c’mon- branch out, reach out. It’s not like anything is historically accurate right now, so you might as well go fuck-wild and be awesome about it. I think these last guys were onto something: Pirate motor cycles. Purple, chrome, and ahistorical in a gleeful, badass way.

You Know What’s A Pretty Good Movie? Ran!

After seeing King Lear last week and still eager to shovel dollops of culture into my brain, I rented a movie that I’ve been meaning to see for a while: Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, an adaptation of Lear that resets the story in Edo-era Japan. I’ve liked the other Kurosawa movies that I’ve seen, and I saw little reason why this one wouldn’t be awesome. It does, after all, take a crushingly dark tale of crushing darkness and then amp up the kickassitude by adding samurai. It had to be awesome, right?

Short review: Ran is awesome!

Longer review: Ran is fucking awesome!!!

Somewhat more thorough review: Ran is a remarkably clean and direct movie. I can see how that could be taken as something of a backhanded compliment, but I don’t mean anything of the sort. When I say that it’s “clean and direct” I mean that it takes a story of intrigue, betrayal, shifting alliances, and high emotion and presents it all in a remarkably non-messy way. There are a lot of things going on, and a lot of really dramatic shit happening, and I kept thinking while I was watching it that there was a lot of potential for the story to get muddled. There was no muddle, though. That’s a big, big deal, that kind of clarity and directness.

I also had a great deal of appreciation for how it was all shot. Most of the scenes had several people in the frame at once, and they tended to react to each other, not the camera. I also don’t remember seeing any close-up shots. Close ups, I think, are somewhat overused. Directors seem to have this attitude of “How should I show the audience that there is emotion going on? Am I going to trust the strength of the narrative? No! I’m going to zoom in uncomfortably close on someone’s face!” Most of the time, though, closeups are really not that compelling. Unless you’ve got an actor who can really pull it off, I don’t think most directors should bother with them.

Oftentimes, I got the impression that I was watching a play that had been filmed, and I mean that in a good way. The actors were all in the frame together, reacting to each other, and even if they were just sitting at attention they didn’t vanish from the action- the director was thinking about the whole scene, not just what happened to be moving about at the time. That’s not something you see very often, and I was impressed by the weird and wonderful stylistic difference between Ran and, well, most everything else.

So it’s well made. Very well made. It’s emotionally compelling, and I was more than a little emotionally effected at the end. It’s great. In and of itself, it’s utterly phenomenal.

But how does it compare to King Lear? Obviously, this must be scored and quantified.

A Few Ways in Which Ran is Totally Better Than King Lear

1. The Cordelia character is actually interesting. Cordelia is one of the weakest bits about Lear. She’s basically Pretty Princess Perfectpants and about as compelling as a Hallmark card. Ran‘s equivalent of Cordelia, Saburo, is someone who actively calls out his dad on his bs, and is somewhat of a swaggering, mouthy guy. Totally better than a stupid little princess.

2. The Fool doesn’t weirdly disappear. One thing that’s always bugged me about Lear: Where the hell is the Fool at the end of the play? Did he get lost in the storm? Wander off? What? I’ve always thought that he got eaten by the bear from The Winter’s Tale, but my theory is not widely subscribed to. In Ran, he’s actually around until the very end, which is more consistent.

3. Evil femme-fatale! Sure, Lear has Goneril and Regan, but they’re not quite this dark. Lady Kaede, a manipulative superbitch who bends men to her will by pouring honeyed words into their ears and also having sex with them, may not exactly be a paragon of feminism, but she was fun to watch. She’s eeeeeeeeevil!

4. Samurai doing the wave!
Really. I’m not kidding. It just sort of comes out of nowhere.

A Few Ways in which Ran is Not as Good as King Lear


1. Not enough eye gouging!
When I saw King Lear with my friend L, she mentioned that her favorite line in all of Shakespeare was “Out, vile jelly!” spoken triumphantly by Cornwall as he gouges out Glouster’s eyes. Ran does not have an eye-removal scene, which sort of made me sad. There is a guy who’s had his eyes gouged out, but it’s just not the same.

2. No Edmund! Edmund is awesome. I think he’s one of Shakespeare’s more fun villains, a clever, conniving charismatic evildoer who, in some productions, gets to make out with Goneril and Regan. Plotting complicated, scheming webs of evil while doing the deed of darkness with a pair of very naughty girls sounds like a fun time to me, and I was disappointed that he wasn’t around. Lady Kaede sort of made up for it, though.

3. No clever disguises!
One of the reason why the storm scene is so awesome is that everyone’s either in disguise or insane except for the Fool, a bit of dramatic irony that has fueled thousands of high school English papers. Edgar was pretty much excised, though, and the Kent character in Ran spent barely a scene in his disguise. Working in alternate identities may have bogged down Ran a bit, but I still missed them a little.

4. No Fool banter! Sure, the Fool is in the movie, but he doesn’t have nearly the sort of weirdly omniscient commentary that he has in King Lear. He is, though, quite the spry and jumpy little fellow, and fun to watch. Still, though… I like his stuff that almost breaks the fourth wall.

All in all, though, a great movie. If you like Shakespeare and/or samurai, you should see it. Quite possibly the best Shakespeare movie I’ve ever seen. Well, maybe not the best Shakespeare movie. That would be Ten Things I Hate About You. That movie rocks.

In Which I Go Camping Whilst Wearing Funny Clothes

“Come to mass!” said the scantily-clad man with a drum, “stripping nuns!” He left it at that, running away to spread the word to other campsites. I was sitting below a fair amount of archaic ship’s rigging when I heard this, wearing a frilly shirt and a sash about my waist. A friend of mine, also dressed as a pirate, said “sounds interesting.” We decided that stripping nuns could make for an amusing evening.

For years in Eugene, I knew several people involved with the Society for Creative Anachronism, the historical reenactment group wherein people go camping whilst dressed as people from the late Middle Ages or Renaissance. Because of my work schedule I never went to an event, and it was only until this past Memorial Day weekend, years later, that I finally was able to join some of my Eugene friends in their camp that was set up, rather impressively, to look like an old ship.

“It’s basically camping,” said most people, “but with funny clothes.” That much was true. For much of the event, we did normal camping-type activities, but dressed in historical costumes. After a bit, my self-consciousness about my appearance left, and I just took in the experience of it all- the experience of being surrounded by people in sashes, tunics, bustiers, boots, and an assortment of impressive hats. Tents were set up with flags and banners announcing the names of the households and such, and a the guy who went around collecting the trash bags in a wagon shouted “bring out your dead!” as he made his rounds.

In the center of the campground was a merchant’s pavilion with a variety of vendors selling mostly clothing. There was the normal kind of silvery jewelry that you would expect to find from street vendors, a very large tent selling historical garb, a guy selling swords and other implements of destruction, belly dancing supplies, pirate-themed flags, pottery, and stickers that you could put on your car that said things like “I believe in dragons” and such. Celtic knots and pirate flags were everywhere, and in the center of it all, several people were fencing.

Having fenced in college, this was really the most impressive bit for me. I spent most of my time as a sword groupie, watching lots of rather impressively armed dudes stabbing each other. It’s been a while since I did any kind of martial art or sparred with anyone, so watching the simulated violence very much made me want to pile on a bunch of gear and stab someone. If I go to one of these things again, I’m hoping to con someone into loaning me a spare set of stuff so that I can I fence.

This fencing, though, was very different from what I was used to. At the U of O, my instructor was very much a classical foil fencer, and we spent most of our time with the standard French foil. This stuff, though, was much less formalized. For one thing, it was in the round rather than on a line, and most of the fencers held something in their off hand, be it a dagger, additional sword, or buckler. About the only person I saw who didn’t have a parrying tool was my friend, the self-styled “Captain” of our ship camp. He just had a foil, which is probably how I’d fight.

Anyway, I want do something combative again in the near future. On a totally unrelated note, an acquaintance of mine who was a former amateur wrestler showed me a rather amusing throw the other day, and that was fun.

Oh yeah! Stripping nuns! See, I opened with that bit because it was catchy and such, what with the “stripping” and all.

Quite some time after dark me and few friends made our way to campsite set up by a “religious” group. When we got there, a guy dressed up as a cardinal was exhorting the crowd from a pulpit, while several dudes in miters looked on. Someone had a rather dramatic ram’s skull on a staff, and it loomed over the crowd in nicely spooky/ironic way.

“I think there’s a fifty/fifty chance,” said one of my friends, “that the stripping nun is a dude in drag.”

“I think it’s greater than that,” I said, “an ordinary strip show wouldn’t be weird enough.”

The cardinal got the crowd good and worked up with a comedy routine, and soon enough he announced the coming of the stripping nun. Sure enough, it was a rather sizable (but spry) dude removing bits of a nun costume to reveal rather un-nunlike lingerie beneath. Of course the crowd went wild. It’s a simple formula, really. It goes like this:

Sex + The Catholic Church + Homoeroticism = Pure Comedy Gold

After the stripping nun, a guy dressed up as cardinal/pimp did a comedic sermon, and later on there were songs with filthy lyrics. All in all, a good, bawdy time at the expense of one of the world’s most prominent religions.

So, I quite liked my first experience dressing in historical garb. It seems to be the sort of thing that attracts the sort of quirky, odd, creative people that I like to associate with. It may very well also attract socially dysfunctional mouth-breathers as per stereotype, but on the whole I enjoyed myself. Most of it seems to have a “Hey guys, look what I did!” sort of feel, with people showing off their garb/artwork/martial prowess/crafts/performance skills/general oddness.

Quite nifty, all of it. Ridiculous, yes, but also awesome, which is no contradiction, as far as I’m concerned.

I Just Can’t Finish 1421

I rarely put down books. Even if something is not going very well, I want to see if the author can redeem themselves with a good ending. Occasionally this happens. Today, though, I tossed aside 1421: The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies.

Menzies’ thesis is that Imperial China’s treasure fleet sailed not only throughout the eastern Pacific and Indian oceans, but also went to the Americas, mapped the coast of Antarctica, sailed around western Africa, established colonies all over the world, and left maps that were put to use by later European explorers. I’d heard of the book before, and was suspicious of it from the outset, but it had been recommended to me enough times that I finally picked up my roommate’s copy. As bad as I feel, I can’t finish it.

My first red flag was that Menzies, early on in the book, talks about how the Yongle Emperor received a collection of heads of state at his new capital in Beijing. He notes the absence of the Europeans, though, because he said that the Europeans were “too primitive.”

Now hold on a second. If the Emperor was willing to entertain guests from, say, Mongolia, a place full of nomads who lived in Yurts, then surely he’d also accept the company of someone from, say, France. Menzies doesn’t for a moment entertain the idea that the Chinese were either ignorant of Europe or unable to establish connections with it. He just takes it for granted that the Europeans were too savage to be invited to Beijing. Sloppy.

His map of the world also shows the Chinese fleet going everywhere except Europe. I find this highly suspicious. The treasure fleet was an entity that was all about extracting tribute from foreign lands, hence the name. If the Chinese were willing to accept tribute from, say Africa (where they famously brought home a giraffe), then they’d probably also want to do the same thing with Europe, which had much more in the way of stuff. So why didn’t they show up in Europe and demand tribute and recognition? Oh yeah- because they probably didn’t know what Europe was or how to get there.

I also found the bits about Chinese foreign colonies to be highly dubious. Wouldn’t we have heard of these before? Shouldn’t someone have fond some pictographs on a rock or something? Really. You’d think that would be a pretty big deal, and someone else would have found something.

Reading the book, though, I felt sort of sorry for Menzies. He obviously has a love for history and things nautical, and seems very much to want to say something interesting. Personally, I find the whole history of the treasure fleet fascinating, and would love to read a more credible history about it.

That story is good enough without making it world-spanning. The Chinese built huge ships, sailed around the Pacific and Indian oceans, and almost bankrupted their empire doing it because the voyages could not pay for themselves. Then, in a fit of reactionary fury, the government banned sailing and went isolationist. That’s an incredible bit of history right there, and I’d love to know the details of it. Menzies, though, reminds me of one of my favorite Douglas Adams quotes: “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it, too?”

I want to learn more about the garden, but Menzies is just looking for fairies.