Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Boy who Cried Wolf: A Bayesian Drama in One Act


The story of the boy who cried wolf too many times is a good way to illustrate our attitude toward the people who try to warn us about dangers ahead. Be it about a wolf or about climate change, the result is always the same: prophets of doom are not believed (and, sometimes, they are hanged). Here is a version of the story of the boy and the wolf told using Bayesian statistics where I assume, unlike in Aesop's version, that the boy was simply trying to do his best (if you are not familiar with the Bayesian approach, try this link where the story is very well explained). This post, anyway, doesn't pretend to use the Bayesian theory in its full version, it is a "montypythonesque" story to illustrate how politicians and the public alike can't understand statistics. (Image from the witch scene in the Monty Python "Holy Grail" movie)


The Boy who Cried Wolf: A Bayesian Drama in one act


Characters


The Villagers
The Village Chief
The Village Master Statistician
The Boy



Village Chief: Fellow villagers, we have collected here today to discuss about the boy who acts as a lookout for wolves in order to protect our sheep. I know that several of you have been complaining because the boy has been crying wolf at night several times this year, and every time we woke up and went to the village fence to protect our sheep armed with clubs and pitchforks and carrying lighted torches. But we seem to have a problem with that.

Villager: Yeah, yeah, we go there and there is no wolf to be seen!

Another villager: The boy calls us for nothing!

Another villager: We must hang him!

Village chief. CALM DOWN, fellow villagers. You know that a few times we did see a creature that seemed to be a wolf in the light of our torches – although we couldn't be sure.

Villager: It was not a wolf. It was a black sheep!

Another villager: It was a wild boar!

Another villager: Nothing like that. It was just a shadow!

Another villager. The boy works for the wolf! He does!

Other villagers: Hang the boy, hang the boy!!

Village chief. Fellow villagers, PLEASE, be quiet. It is true that sometimes we didn’t see anything: no wolf appearing the light of our torches. And, worse than that, a few times the wolf came, snatched away a sheep or two, and the boy didn't alert us in advance.

Villager: The boy is playing tricks with us!

Another Villager: Yeah, the boy just enjoys seeing us running!

Another Villager. There are no wolves when he calls! The boy is cheating us.

More villagers. Hang him high! Hang him! Yeah! Yeah!

Village Chief. Calm down, fellow villagers, CALM DOWN! This is not the way to discuss this serious matter because it may well be that the boy is doing his best, but the night is dark and the wolf is cunning, so it is not easy to be the village lookout . . .

Villagers, Hang him, hang him!

Other villagers. Yeah, he is paid by the wolf. Hang him!

Village Chief. And I say BE QUIET! Because I called the village’s Master Statistician to help us and he will tell us whether the boy is doing us a good service according to his Art of which every one of us knows he is a good and respected practitioner.


– Enters the Village Statistician –


Village Statistician. Fellow villagers, lend me your ear because I heard your plight and I am a master of an Art that can help you in this difficult matter.

Villagers: Yeah, let’s listen to the statistician, let’s listen to him!


Statistician: Fellow villagers, the problem you have here is that you don’t know for sure whether there is a wolf or not when the boy calls. And, of course, you don’t like to rush to the fence at night and find that there is no wolf there – at least no wolf that you can see. But thanks to my Art, I will be able to tell you things that that you wouldn’t otherwise know. And this Art is the work of a great master statistician whose name is Bayes and who is respected for this all over the world.

Villager: Yes, yes, master, tell us!

Another Villager: Yeah, master. We trust you. Tell us!

Statistician. Fellow villagers, first of all, let me summarize the situation. If there is no alert before the wolf attacks, the villagers usually arrive too late to save their sheep: the wolf is quick and cunning and he is able to snatch a sheep or two and run away. Hence, we need to be alerted well in advance. That's why the boy keeps watch of the village fence.

Villagers. Yeah, master, yeah. What you say is right.

Statistician. Now, being the village statistician, I keep a record of the wolf attacks and this record I have kept for the years when there was no lookout and so this number tells us how many times the wolf comes, on the average. And I can tell you, fellow villagers, that during the past years there was a chance of a little less than 3% per day of a wolf attack.

Villager. Yes, Master, yes. That’s great.


Another Villager. But what does that mean, Master?

Statisticians. It means, fellow villagers, that the wolf comes about 10 times per year.

Villager. Yeah, yeah, master. We understand that.

Statistician. Very good, fellow villagers. And we shall call that number, 3%, the PRIOR, according to my Art as taught by master Bayes. Remember that carefully!

Villagers: yeah, yeah, master. We remember that!

Statistician. Now, I need the boy who acts as a lookout to help me. Come in, boy!


- Enters the boy -


Boy: Master, I am here at your bidding.

Villagers. Hang him, hang him!

Other villagers. Yeah, yeah, hang him!

Village chief. BE QUIET, I say.

Statistician. Boy, let me ask you, how many times did you see the wolf coming this year?

Boy. Master, Every time I thought I saw a wolf I marked a sign with my knife on the bark of the tree on which I stand at night. And I counted these signs, and there were 20 of them.

Statistician. Very good, my boy. So, dividing this number by the number of days in a year, we see that every day there is a chance of 6% that the boy calls. Therefore, according to my Art, we call this number the EVIDENCE.

Villagers. Master, does that mean we should hang the boy?

Village Chief. QUIET, I say.

Statistician. Fellow villagers, the art of master Bayes is going to help you, but I need some more work. Now I need to know how many times the wolf came unannounced this year. That is, the boy didn’t call, but the wolf came. And you told me that it appeared 4 times. With that, I can calculate the LIKELIHOOD according to my Art. And this likelihood is the number of times the wolf is announced when it comes, divided by the number of times when the beast comes, no matter whether unannounced or announced. So, my data tell me that the wolf comes 10 times per year, whereas it came unannounced 4 times this year. It means its venue was correctly announced six times. In this case, the likelihood will be 6/10, which is 0.6.

Villager. Yeah, yeah, that’s right. That’s right. It means we should hang the boy, right?

Another villager.  Hang the boy! Hang him! The Wolf will be very unhappy!!

Village chief. QUIET, fellow villagers. Statistician, what can you tell to us, now?

Statistician. (takes out a charcoal stick and rolls open a tanned sheepskin, starting to write on it). I can now use the formula that the Master of the Art, the much esteemed Thomas Bayes developed. So, the formula tells me that I have to multiply the PRIOR by the LIKELIHOOD and divide by the EVIDENCE. And the final result is .03/.06*.60= 0.3 or 30%


--- silence  --


Villager. Shouldn’t we just hang the boy?

Village Chief. KEEP QUIET. Master Statistician, please explain to us what you just said.

Statistician. Fellow villagers, it means that when the boy calls, the wolf will be there once every three times, approximately.

Village Chief: But that means, Master, that many times we rush to the fence for nothing, right?

Statistician: That's true. Two times out of three.

Villagers. It is what we said! The Boy is tricking us

Other Villagers. Hang the boy, hang him!

Other Villagers. Yeah, yeah. The boy works for the wolf!

Other villagers: Yeah, yeah, let's hang him!!


- The villagers take hold of the boy and take him away. The boy screams.


Statistician. Chief, this is not good. You should explain to the people of the village that they shouldn't behave like the members of the evil sect we call the Frequentists. Without the boy, every day the probability for the wolf to be there would be only 3%. With the boy, you have 30% when he calls. And it is much better.

Village Chief. Dear Statistician, I think the villagers are right. The boy should be hanged: he might be working for the wolf, after all!


– Exeunt –



NOTE 

The Bayesian analysis is a powerful tool and it can be used to study climate change. It is especially powerful when it is used to correlate the rise of carbon dioxide with temperature increases, as it is done, for instance, in this paper. Just as an example, think of the concept of abrupt climate change and the correlated mass extinctions. We know that there have been five major mass extinctions during the past 500 million years or so. Then, from a "frequentist" viewpoint, you could say that the probability that a new mass extinction during the next century has a probability of about 100/100,000,000, that is one in a million and you would feel safe. But if you take into account the correlation with the CO2 rise during the mass extinctions, then the Bayesian analysis tells you a completely different story when you compare with the current CO2 spike. I think the data available are not good enough so far for a complete quantitative analysis, but that gives you some idea of the power of the method. The problem is that neither the public nor politicians understand it.


Sunday, June 9, 2019

"The Seneca Strategy" -- Asking for Suggestions from my Readers





About Amelia the Amoeba, she is a pedigreed Naegleria Fowleri, a species known for her habit of eating human brains - an interesting case of a Seneca Collapse for the owner of the brain. But Amelia is a good girl and she won't do that to you if you are nice to her.



My second book on the concept of "Seneca Collapse" (or Cliff, or Ruin, or the like) is nearly completed and it should be available from Springer before the end of the year. It is a sequel to my first book, "The Seneca Effect", but this second one is thought as more easily readable "trade" book. It will be sold at a reasonable price, unlike the first one that was supposed to be a specialized, scientific book.

You see above a first attempt at a title and a cover for this book. Of course, the publisher will devise a better cover illustration, but the real issue is the title, still provisional. I used "The Seneca Strategy" as a title because the book focuses on how to deal with collapses rather than on the physics of collapses. It proposes a strategy that's based on the Stoic view of the world revisited under the lens of system dynamics. It is the idea that you don't try to force systems to do what you want them to do, a concept that Jay Forrester termed "pushing the levers in the wrong direction."

But, as it stands, the title is no good. My editor told me that, "“collapse” is not a friendly, or familiar, word to most readers. It seems to apply only to extreme events that don’t affect most people. " That is, people won't understand what the book is about. I think he is correct and that I need a better title -- a title that explains what's inside the book.

So, dear readers, could you focus your creative skills on this task and suggest a few titles for me? I think the title should contain the words "collapse" and "Seneca," but then there are many possibilities, for instance, I am toying with "Paths to Ruin" but creativity often consists in trying many different ideas and I am sure many of you could suggest something good. Hoping that not all of my readers are bots, I'll sure appreciate your efforts! (Amelia will also be grateful)

Here is the index of the book, to give you some idea of what it is about.


  1. Table of Contents
1. Preface 4
1.1 A quick glossary of the terms you’ll find in this book. 5
2. Summary: Six Things You Should Know About Collapse 6
3. Plan of the Book (not necessarily to be published) 8
4. Collapse: An Introduction 9
5. Models of Collapse 14
5.2 The Limits of Models. Nightfall on Lagash 23
5.3 Why Models are not Believed: The Croesus Syndrome 29
6. The Science of Collapse 36
6.1 Complex Systems: The Goddess’ Wrath 36
6.2 The Power of Networks: The Ghost in the Shell 42
6.3 Living and Dying in a Complex Universe. The Story of Amelia the Amoeba. 52
7. The Practice of Collapse 76
7.1 The Collapse of Engineered Structures: For Dust you are and to Dust you Will Return 76
7.2 Financial Collapses: Blockbuster goes bust. 84
7.3 Natural Disasters: Florence’s Great Flood 94
7.4 Mineral Collapses: The Coming Oil Crisis? 103
7.5 The Seneca Cliff and Human Violence: Fatal Quarrels. 111
7.6 Famines, Epidemics, and Depopulation: The Zombie Apocalypse 117
7.7 The Big One: Societal Collapse 125
7.8 Apocalypse: the collapse of the Earth’s ecosystem 132
8. Strategies for Managing Collapse 138
8.1 Technological Progress against Collapse. The Cold Fusion Miracle that Wasn’t. 138
8.2 Avoiding Overexploitation. Drill, Baby, Drill! 148
8.3 Leadership Against Collapse: The Last Roman Empress. 155
8.4 Collapse as a Weapon: The Iago Strategy 164
8.5 Deception as a Strategy: the Camper’s Dilemma 174
8.6 Life After Collapse: The Seneca Rebound 181
9. Conclusion: The Seneca Strategy 189
11. Acknowledgment 195
12. REFERENCES 196








Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The Second Babel Tower: Symphonic Music and the Collapse of the European Cultural Unity


This is Europe


This is not Europe




This is a reflection on how the breakdown of the Medieval cultural unity in Europe resulted in many different effects, from witch hunts to classical music. It came to me from putting together various elements of various talks heard at the excellent meeting "Colloqui di Martina Franca" held in Apulia in May 2019. H/t Boian Videnoff and Giovanni Semeraro.




The study of the patterns of world conflicts leads to fascinating results, showing the statistical patterns that make wars a sort of natural phenomenon, beyond human control. But there is something in the data that defies statistical analysis. Look at this figure, showing fatalities normalized to the world's population: (data from Martelloni, Di Patti and Bardi, 2019)


Note how there seem to exist two sections in this graph: one is relatively quiet, from 1400 to ca. 1600, the other is stormy: a series of terrible wars starting with the 30-years war that remained the largest in history, in relative terms, until it was surpassed by the 2nd world war. And not only the age of wars started in the mid-17th century, it was also the start of a wave of violence against women: tens of thousands of them, typically poor and illiterate, were tortured and burned alive under the accusation of witchcraft. The data are strongly euro-centered, so there was some kind of a radical change in Europe around mid-1600s. But what was it? And why did it happen?

It is a long story that can be seen in many ways and that shows many facets. In this post, I thought I could focus on how the great transition of the mid 17th century was reflected in a specific area of European culture: music. When Europe lost Latin as a shared communication tool, it was a new Babel Tower: Europeans couldn't understand each other any longer except within the boundaries of their national states. Not surprisingly, people who don't understand each other tend to resort to war to sort out conflicts. But Europeans also tried to replace Latin with some non-verbal tools: one was music. It is a long story that needs to be told from the beginning.

Did you ever realize how strange is the existence of symphonic (or "classical") music? Purely instrumental music is very rare in history and in geographical regions other than Western Europe and its cultural offspring. In most cases, music is purely vocal and instruments are only an optional tool to accompany and enhance the human voice. Instrumental music is even considered sinful in itself by many Islamic scholars.

That's indeed the rule for what we know about the history of European Music. During the Middle Ages, the main genre was Gregorian music: purely vocal. Note how a Gregorian chant is focused on words: listeners are supposed to understand what's being said. Then, the Renaissance came and it was the age of polyphony where the harmony takes precedence -- it is beautiful, but words overlap and the sense of the text is soon lost.

The trend toward polyphony continued in the 1700s when instrumental music became more and more common. It became the norm during the 1800s with the golden age of classical music: Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and many others. Symphonic music continued to be popular well in the 1900s, think of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" (1924). But, in time, it faded away. Today, orchestral symphonies are still written and performed, but they are not anymore a popular form of art. We seem to have gone back to a kind of music that focuses on voice and words: the rap. (for a nice version of a rap relevant to the title of this blog and also sung by a physicist, see this link)

What generated this cycle? Mainly, it was the Babel of languages that Europe had become that pushed Europeans to try to develop new forms of communication. Music is a language, not the same kind of language that uses words, it is a tool used mainly to convey emotions rather than facts and data. It can be used to create social bonds or to intimidate an adversary (in the latter case, it is termed AVID - audio-visual intimidating display).

Actually, as argued by Joseph Jordania, music may be the origin of language and polyphonic music is much older than the monophonic kind we are used to, nowadays. Gradually, with the development of word-based languages, monophonic music became prevalent. But, in some peculiar conditions, when the word-based communication breaks down, the Babel Tower effect takes place: to understand each other we must revert to different tools. Polyphonic music, classical symphonies, the haka, they are all forms of emotion-based forms of communication. They are not necessarily inferior to the word-based kind, they bypass words to reach directly the heart of people. And there is no doubt that the haka was conceived as a way to reduce violence as much as possible. But music can't convey the same richness of meaning that words can provide.

So, Beethoven's third symphony is commonly termed the "Heroic." It is hard to pin down what exactly that means, but most people would agree that there is something heroic in that music. There is no Moon in Beethoven's "moonlight sonata" but somehow the music seems to evoke the moonlight. And Beethoven's fifth symphony is the one perhaps closest to the Maori's haka, even though there is much more in Beethoven's fifth than pure intimidation (that's true also for the haka, which is a sophisticated art form in itself -- not polyphonic, though! H/t Elena Piani) (*).

The evolution of Western European culture makes a lot of sense on the basis of these considerations. The Middle Ages were a period of cultural unity in Western Europe. Latin was gradually lost with the Renaissance and this generated new forms of music-based communication. In time, these forms were made unnecessary by the triumph of English as worldwide lingua franca. It may be the reason for the relative lull in the frequency and the intensity of wars during the past 50 years or so, as noted by Steven Pinker in his "The Better Angels of Our Nature:" (2011). It is also the reason for the age of the Rap, in which we are living.

Today, the evolution continues. Maybe English itself will be made obsolete by tools such as Google translate. Maybe we'll use only emojis :-). Maybe we'll develop new methods of communication which, today, we can't even imagine. But there remains a basic fascination in singing together, especially for polyphonic music. It is an art that has been mostly abandoned, today, except in some special religious contexts. But it won't die so easily and if you ever had a chance to sing in a polyphonic choir you understand what I mean. It is music that bypasses your brain to touch your heart. An example, below, the Benedictus as performed by singers of the Taizé Community.





This post was generated by a meeting in Martina Franca that I attended last week. I heard first a talk by the AI scientist Giovanni Semeraro. It made me think of how words are the fundamental unit of communication in languages, but also made me wonder if it were possible to communicate without words. Then, it was the turn of Boian Videnoff's talk on complexity in music and - bang! - a hit of serendipity. European wars, symphonic music, polyphonic music, and Gregorian chants, everything clicked together -- there was a meaning in the gradual evolution of different musical genres! A final point: why did Europe lose Latin? I think there are reasons, but that's a discussion for another post. 


Upon rethinking the matter over, I think the haka IS polyphonic. It is an integrated mix of words, gestures, facial expressions, and dance. A stunningly sophisticated art form. 

 

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Europe, Europe! The Dream Doesn't Die.


This video exemplifies the problems the European Union has in managing its own image. It was produced in 2012 and then recalled after being widely labeled as "racist." In some senses, it was, but it was also one of the very few attempts the Union made to present itself in ways that go beyond the dull image of a bunch of bureaucrats acting in the name of the global financial powers. Without the ability to project a positive image of itself, the Union may be doomed. But it is also true that in the recent European elections the separatist parties didn't gain as much as they had hoped to. Good dreams never die, they bide their time. And, who knows? One day, the dream of a truly United Europe might come true. 


There was a time, long ago, when the term "Europe" was a vague definition for the lands north of the Mediterranean Sea, a vast regions of fog and swamps, inhabited by hairy Barbarians. In time, the Roman Empire came to dominate the area we call today "Western Europe" but nobody would even dream to call him or herself "European." For more than a millennium, the inhabitants of this region would proudly call themselves "Romans," even though they might never have seen the city of Rome in their lives.

After that Rome fell, in the 5th century CE, the European population declined and, by 650 CE, it is estimated that it had shrunk to some 18 million people. Europe was an immense forest punctuated by castles and villages here and there, and, occasionally, by the ruins of great cities. It was the start of what we call the "dark ages," that weren't dark at all.

It was at that time that Europe arose. Not that Europe was anything like a recognized entity -- people would call themselves "Christians," but never, ever "Europeans."  But Europe had become a recognizable cultural entity. It was the result of two powerful communication tools that Europeans had inherited from the Roman Empire: the Latin language and the codices that replaced the old rolls.

Latin was the language of the Roman Legions. Then, when the legions were gone, it became the sacred language of Christianity and, at the same time, the language of commerce and of politics. Few Europeans could speak Latin, most were limited to their vernacular languages, but if rulers and merchants wanted to speak other they had to use Latin. And the Western European intellectuals couldn't even imagine to express themselves in any other language.

The other tool that created the European cultural unity was the codex. A remarkable invention: it was what we call today "book," a number of sheets of paper, vellum, papyrus, or similar materials, bound together. The existence of books looks obvious to us, but, at the time, it was a major revolution. It allowed to store and access information in a much more efficient and rapid way than with the old rolls.

With Latin and codices, the Middle Ages became a sophisticated cultural entity that kept alive the classical literature and added much more to it. One of its features was the return of women as authors. They had been silent during Roman times, but now we hear again their voices: Hildegard Von Bingen, Marguerite Porete, Heloise, and many others. The Middle Ages were not "dark" -- they were, by all means, bookish.

By the 9th century, King Charlemagne attempted to make Europe not just a cultural entity, but a political one with his Holy Roman Empire. It was only partially successful, but with the start of the 2nd millennium, Europe had become powerful enough that it could expand out of its borders: it was the time of the crusades. There was no central European government at the time, but Europeans acted together as if there were one. The crusades saw the birth of entities that prefigured modern multinational companies: the Templar Knights were at the same time a monastic order, a military force, and a bank.

The crusades were only partially successful. The European economy peaked with the beginning of the 14th century and then collapsed with the Great Plague of mid 14th century, when Europe lost perhaps 30% of its population. Then, there came the time of the great rebound and this time Europeans engaged in the great overseas adventure that in a few centuries would lead them to dominate most of the world.

But something had gone wrong in the meantime. The process of European integration that had started in the Middle Ages ground to a halt with the "Renaissance." During the 17th century, the 30-years war saw Europeans fighting each other in what was perhaps the most destructive war ever waged in human history up to that moment. Europeans even waged a war against women: the Renaissance was the time of the great witch hunts that saw innumerable innocent women burned alive at the stake.

Over the centuries that followed, Europe never knew a moment of quiet and it disintegrated into a constellation of nation states. Enclosed within rigid and impermeable borders, these creatures were proud, touchy, and aggressive. With the 20th century, they started behaving like drunken gunmen engaged in a tavern brawl. The result was the disaster of the two world wars.

It was only in the second half of the 20th centuries that Europeans seemed to recover some of their mental sanity and started wondering what they had been doing. Was there a way to avoid new internecine wars? That was the origin of the idea of the European Community, later renamed the European Union. A movement of ideas of people genuinely convinced that Europe was a good thing that would prevent new wars. It was the first time in history when the people living in Europe would start seeing themselves as "European Citizens."

In some ways, the European Union was a success, but today it shows the problems that were not solved when it was created. States can be kept together only in two ways: by military force or by cultural bonds. Europe had known both ways in its history: during the Roman Empire, it had been turned into a single political entity by the mighty Roman Legions. Later on, it had been bound together by the common ties of the Christian culture and religion. Within some limits, the United Europe of the second half of the 20th century was the result of the might of the American legions. But legions are expensive commodities and if the American ones leave (and they will), what will keep the European states together?

Here, we see how the European Union was built on weak foundations. The European nation states had consistently refused to cede even an inch of what they saw as their divine right: that of using their national language and only that language in all occasions. The result is that Babel was reincarnated in the city of Brussels, where every statement, every document, every speech, needs to be issued in multiple versions in different languages.

National languages are much more important than colored flags, they are the essence of the concept of nation states. The failure of the founders of the European Union has been that of not pushing a European Language that would have united Europe. Perhaps it would have been possible to resurrect Latin or, more e simply, to adopt English, the de-facto international language of our times. But, instead, the founders thought that it was easier to pay the salary of a legion of interpreters who collected in Brussels like vultures on a fresh kill.

The result was a Europe of the banks rather than a Europe of Europeans. It was never loved, but accepted as long as it seemed to be able to keep the economy going. But, with the economic downturn, feelings changed. Most people tend to reason on the basis of the simplest and most schematic inferences. If the economy was going better before the European Union came, there follows that if we get rid of those ugly bureaucrats (and of the interpreters) in Brussels, things will go back to the good times and everything will be well in the best of worlds. One result was the Brexit disaster and it is a minor miracle and also a good illustration of the power of the European dream that the recent elections saw the separatists win only in some marginal regions of the Union. Overall, most Europeans still see themselves as Europeans.

But for how long can the European Union survive in its current form? Will it collapse and then bounce back? Will it become just a minor peninsula of the great Eurasian co-prosperity zone? Maybe a remote terminal station for the new silk road? And, with its mineral resources badly depleted by millennia of exploitation, can Europeans survive at all in a future where they are threatened by climate change and ecosystem collapse?

We cannot say. The only certainty is that good dreams never really die -- they bide their time. And the dream of a united Europe is not dead. It will come back, one day.




Monday, May 20, 2019

Getting rid of Debt: How About Replacing Money with Social Credit?


Mark Twain had a genial idea with his story "The One Million Pound Bank Note" published in 1853. It was such a huge amount of money that it couldn't be exchanged, yet it gave its owner all sorts of perks and goods. It was, in a certain way, an anticipation of what we call today the "social credit score" obtained on the various social media services on the Web. It is a form of money that can be owned, but cannot be exchanged -- in most cases, you can't even go negative with your social credit. So, no debt, no bankruptcy. Would it be possible to build a financial system based on this concept? Not easy, but also an idea being examined nowadays, especially in China with their state-owned social credit system (shèhuì xìnyòng tǐxì). The text below is derived from the chapter on financial collapses of my new book "The Seneca Strategy," to be published in later 2019.



The whole problem of financial collapses is the result of the existence of money. But what is money exactly? Without going into the various theories of money that economists are still discussing, we can say that once, money was something that everybody agreed on: a weight of precious metals. After all, the British currency is still defined in units of weight, even though one pound (in monetary terms) does not weigh a pound (in physical terms). Still, up to not too long ago, money was simply a token representing a physical entity, typically a certain weight of gold and silver. But things changed a lot with time and, with the 20th century, the convertibility of the dollar into precious metals was more theoretical than real. In 1971 president Nixon formally canceled it. From then on, money has been a purely virtual entity created by central banks out of thin air. How people accept to be paid for their work by something that doesn’t exist is a little strange, if you think about that. But that doesn’t change the fact that money is the backbone of society: it is exchanged, lent, borrowed, distributed, spent, and more. And, with money, there comes debt, and with debt there comes insolvency and, with it, bankruptcy.

Could we think of going a step beyond the institution of bankruptcy laws and imagine a financial system where people can’t go bankrupt? This is an idea that floats nowadays in the world’s global consciousness. Perhaps the first proposal in this sense was made by Cory Doctorow in 2003 (during the pre-Facebook age) in his novel “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” where he proposed a kind of “merit money,” called “Whuffie,” that people could accumulate on the good deeds that they performed. This money was a form of credit, but it couldn’t be spent – it just produced perks and advantages for its owner. It was something that pre-figured the “credit score” that Facebook and other social media would later develop. Maybe Doctorow was inspired by Mark Twain’s story "The Million Pound Bank Note" (1903), where the protagonist finds that the mere possession of this banknote of enormous value entitles him with honors and goods, without the need of exchanging it. But Doctorow may have been thinking of the concept of personal honor, fashionable in less monetized times than ours. As an honorable man you were entitled to some privileges, but enjoying them didn’t mean that your honor would be reduced as a consequence.

Later on, the concept of on-line credit score was developed by social media sites such as Facebook, taking the Web by storm starting in 2004. It had been preceded by what was perhaps the first modern social media system, “Friendster” which appeared in 2002 and went bust in 2015. The variety of these sites is large today and most of them use some kind of “credit scoring” for their users. In Facebook, there is no such a thing as a negative scoring, but the possibility of rating users down exists in other social media, for instance in Reddit, where your “karma points” can go negative if you happen to utter an especially ill-thought comment.

The idea of using the social media on the Web as a form of money was proposed perhaps for the first time by Solitaire Townsend in 2013. The Chinese government seems to have taken the idea seriously and they are implementing a statewide system of social credit (shèhuì xìnyòng tǐxì) that's supposed to “grade” Chinese citizens on a merit score. You get positive points for being a good citizen: helping an old lady crossing the street will bring you points from the lady and from the people who witnessed the good deed you performed. You get negative points when you do something bad, like getting a traffic ticket or just a bad report from someone who felt hurt by something you did.

The Chinese social credit system can be seen as a form of money, in the sense that it is based on the yin-yang opposition of debt and credit. Having a sufficiently high social credit score is a prerequisite for being able to purchase certain things which, in the West, are not for everybody anyway, plane tickets for instance. Something similar had been developed in earlier times in the Soviet Union, where the members of the Soviet Communist Party were considered as having a higher “credit score” than the others and they enjoyed non-monetary perks and services that were denied to the normal Soviet citizens. It was the “nomenklatura” system, not so much different from what we call the “establishment” in the West.

The idea of a universal social credit score is being experimented in various forms, but in the West, it is regarded with suspicion, at the very least considered as an invasion of people’s privacy and the denial of personal freedom. There exists a site called “people” (peeple.com) trying to assign a merit score to everyone – it doesn’t seem to have been very successful, so far. But even in the proud West, there exist smaller scale credit rating systems. For decades scientists have been using “academic credits” designed to establish a pecking order among the scientists working in the same fields. Initially, the system was based just on the number of scientific publications (“papers”) that a scientist could produce. That led to the concept of “publish or perish” and to the multiplication of both papers and scientific journals in a gigantic jumble of low-quality publications. Attempts to remedy the disaster led to various schemes to grade both journals and publications. The latest, currently the most popular, version of scientific grading is called the “h-index” and it provides individual scores depending on how many times a paper published by a scientist has been cited by other scientists. The h-index system, just like all the other scoring systems in science, is based on peer evaluation, therefore it is a kind of social credit system.

The common element of these social merit systems is that points cannot be exchanged among owners. We could imagine a society fully based on a credit system where you obtain goods and services just on the basis of your credit rating. So, suppose you want a coffee, you pay for it by adding a number of credit points to the coffee shop owner/waiters, but you don’t detract these point from your score. Things get a little more complicated if you want something expensive. So, suppose you want a fancy car: you can have, say, a Ferrari if your credit score is sufficiently high. Again, the fact of “buying” a Ferrari in this way doesn’t reduce your credit score but, of course, there has to be some kind of record keeping that prevents high-score people from accumulating Ferraris as if they were toy cars. There is some similarity, here, with the way the Soviet Union market system worked. In order to have a car, you had to register on a list and wait for your turn. Years later, you could see that car delivered to you and you were erased from the list and prevented from re-enlisting from a certain time. That made sure that you wouldn’t waste the products of the people’s factories by having more than one car. But Nomenklatura members didn’t need to wait, being high in the credit score list.

So, a “reputation currency” could work, at least in a certain way. An advantage of such a system is that it may be rigged in such a way to create no negative credit (no debt). Could we eliminate the bad consequences of insolvency in this way? And, in a single sweep, we would eliminate such things as theft, robbery, corruption, swindles, and all the crimes related to money. We can imagine ways to swindle the system, but nobody ever could steal your credit rating at gunpoint!

But, obviously, there are problems with the idea. Doctorow says about his creation, the “Whuffie” money, “Reputation is a terrible currency” and that’s very true for those who are at the wrong end of the scale. Have you ever been bullied as a teen? If it happened to you, you know how hard it can be to be the boy at the lowest rung of the ladder. And the only way to move away from the bottom is to behave in the most abject way with the leaders of the group: flattering them and obeying their orders. Doing so, eventually ensures that another hapless person will eventually occupy the bottom place in the pecking order. Then, if you are a scientist, you surely know how powerful a merit score can be as a factor pushing you to conformism. If you are a young scientist, you know that your career depends on never-ever criticizing or disparaging your senior colleagues. That’s a privilege you’ll gain only after getting your tenure and even then you’ll have to be careful about displeasing the powerful dons who control the financing of research.

Doctorow understands this point very well when he says in his book

Whuffie has all the problems of money, and then a bunch more that are unique to it. In Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, we see how Whuffie – despite its claims to being ‘‘meritocratic’’ – ends up pooling up around sociopathic jerks who know how to flatter, cajole, or terrorize their way to the top. Once you have a lot of Whuffie – once a lot of people hold you to be reputable – other people bend over backwards to give you opportunities to do things that make you even more reputable, putting you in a position where you can speechify, lead, drive the golden spike, and generally take credit for everything that goes well, while blaming all the screw-ups on lesser mortals.

This is similar to the situation in science nowadays. There is no “scientific bankruptcy” for scientists: their h-index, as it is now, can’t go negative. So, no matter how bad a scientist can be, there is no direct way to hit him or her with a bankruptcy sentence and remove it from the pool of the recognized scientists. This is probably the reason why it is often said that “science progresses one funeral at a time.” (a quote attributed to the German scientist Max Planck). It means that old scientists tend to block scientific progress until the natural phenomenon of biological collapse removes them from the system. It would be an interesting reform to introduce “negative points” in science and fire the scientists who manage to go negative because of one or more truly bad papers. But, before that happens, the “Whuffie trap” that Doctorow described would play its role to push scientists toward the most abject conformism. For a scientist, avoiding to be being the target of the wrath of the scientific powers that be (SPTB) could only mean that they should be extremely careful to avoid to publish or voice anything that goes against the current consensus. And that would destroy that spark of creativity that, despite all odds, science still manages to maintain, so far.

So, switching to an always positive form of money would have some advantages in the sense that it would eliminate debt and, with it, insolvency and all the related problems and traumas. But it wouldn’t in itself, change the fact that currency is just a proxy for something real, the entities we call “goods” or “commodities.” Social credit money wouldn’t do much to solve problems such as resource depletion and pollution: people would still want to consume and waste resources and those who have a high social credit would do that just in the same way as those who are rich in terms of conventional money.

In the end, money may be a virtual entity and you may also define it as the devil’s dung. But we are addicted to it and we keep playing the money game. Money is so deeply intertwined with the way our society works that we can’t even imagine how it could work without it. What could happen to us if a large financial collapse were to destroy the value of our mighty dollar? We can’t say for sure, but the mighty Globalized Empire might crumble like a house of cards in a single, huge, Seneca collapse.




Sunday, May 12, 2019

Human Extinction: An Idea Whose Time had to Come.






A few years ago, a political movement taking the name of "extinction rebellion" would have been wholly unthinkable. On the other hand, after more than forty years of warnings on climate change and ecosystem collapse from the world's best scientists, the message had to start going through, somehow. And it does.

One consequence is the appearance on the social media of a crowd of deranged, depressed, misanthropic, and generally nasty people who have decided that the extinction of humankind is what's going to happen, no matter what we do, and they even seem to like the idea. Others, fortunately, seem to think that we can still do something to avoid this manifest destiny and the consequence is the birth of the extinction rebellion movement. Can it accomplish anything? Hard to say, it sounds a little like an "asteroid rebellion" movement that dinosaurs could have created just before the end of the Cretaceous era.

These openly declared attitudes may be just the tip of the iceberg, others may well have decided that, if overpopulation is the problem, then there are quick and very dirty ways to solve it. They may be concocting dark and dire things and they won't care too much about who thinks exactly what about the likelyhood of a coming human extinction. Their only concern would be that THEY won't go extinct. But, as usual, we see the future darkly, as in a mirror, and the time when we'll see it face to face has not come, yet. 

Below, a text by "Reverse Engineer" of the Doomstead Diner who examines the question and, at the linked page, you'll find also a longer video. (U.B.)



Guest post by R.E. (Reverse Engineer).



Extinction has moved from the dark corners of the Collapse Blogosphere into the consciousness of the mainstream.  Just a few short years ago the discussion of human extinction was relegated to a few fringe websites, but not so anymore.  Now it has become Topic #1 in the discussions on many websites that concern themselves with topics of collapse.  Sometimes this comes to the exclusion of many other collapse related topics in economics, geopolitics, energy and social psychology that are impacting more directly right now.

Generally, my focus over the years has been on the economics and energy end of the spin down we are immersed in, and I don't dwell too much on the issues of extinction.  However, here on the Diner we have treated the subject to analysis on a few occasions, most notably the Human Extinction Survey, which we ran a couple of years ago.  It garnered the most respondents of any survey we have run at around 350 submissions until recently, when our Collapse Projections Survey brought in responses from over 600 Kollapsniks.  The extinction survey also inspired a month long email stream between various bloggers and pundits which was quite interesting.

I generally tend to avoid extinction discussions though for a few reasons.  First, I have discovered over the years that it attracts a certain type of reader/commenter who is often nihilistic, misanthropic and sometimes suicidally depressed.  The blog becomes consumed with the discussion of the topic while more proximal problems get ignored.  Who cares if the monetary system is going to crash if we're all gonna die anyhow, right?  It also sometimes inspires people toward counter-productive behaviors.  If we're all destined to inevitable death here no matter what, let's just Party like it's 1999!  It leads to inaction on problems we still can have an effect on as we move forward in collapse.

The timeline question becomes very important here, because if extinction is indeed going to happen, when will it actually occur?  If it's in the next 5 years say, that has one set of problems and responses, if it's going to happen in 50 there's another set.  Nobody can really finger this accurately, it's all speculation but some true believers hammer down on anyone who doesn't buy the whole ball of wax on Near Term Human Extinction (NTHE) is in denial and shooting up too much Hopium.  Amongst this crowd, hope is a bad thing to have.

Recent events however compelled me to discuss this subject in detail, which I do in today's Collapse Morning Wake-Up Call.  The first is the rise of the Extinction Rebellion movement, which recently held a week long series of often very theatrical demonstrations in London to raise consciousness and hopefully get some real ACTION out of governments to combat this problem, which looms larger each day as more climate related calamities strike in more places with incresing ferocity and frequency.all over the globe.  The second is a corollary issue of Population Overshoot, and the fact that many Millenials are now choosing to remain childless, for one reason or another.  What kind of difference will this make to our society as time marches on here?

All in all, Extinction is a difficult conundrum to deal with, a Wicked Problem.  Hopefully, I clarify some issues with this discussion, or at least lay out my position on where I stand on these issues.

Save As Many As You Can

Video
 

Monday, May 6, 2019

Are the Martyrs Coming Back? Julian Assange and the Fall of the Global Empire




And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand (Matthew. 12:25)


The more the current world drama unfolds, the more I am amazed by how closely we are following the path that the ancient Roman Empire followed toward its final collapse. Dmitry Orlov, another student of civilization collapse, seem to think in the same way. In a post on his blog, he notes how Julian Assange could be the first martyr for truth of modern times, he calls him "St. Julian." Says Orlov:

If all goes well, he (Julian Assange) will be released and reestablish himself as a media personality of great stature. And if everything goes badly and the Americans do get their hands on him and torture him to death, he will die as a martyr and live in public memory forever.

I don’t know whether Assange has been baptized, but a proper choice of saint for him would be St. Julian of Antioch, who was martyred during Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians between 303 and 313 AD. Julian was stuffed into a sack filled with sand, vipers and scorpions and dumped in the sea. Diocletian’s initiative was a failure: the son of one of his lieutenants, Constantine, not only canceled the persecution of Christians but made Christianity into Roman Empire’s state religion. He then moved its capital to New Rome (Constantinople), abandoning Old Rome to languish in the Dark Ages while his New Rome went on for a thousand glorious years.

Should Julian Assange end up martyred by the Americans, we can expect a vaguely similar result: future generations of Americans will say: “There once was a great journalist by the name of Julian. He died as a martyr for the truth. It was a long time ago, and we don’t know what’s been happening to us since then, because all we have been hearing ever since have been nothing but lies…”


I think this post by Orlov goes to the heart of the matter. A civilization collapse is, in the end, a collapse of trust. An empire, a state, a family, any social structure, can be rich or poor, powerful or weak, new or old, happy or sad, but if there is no trust keeping it together it cannot exist for long, it is like a solid turning into a gas when the chemical bonds keeping the atoms together are not strong enough. It is what happened to the Roman Empire, it is what's happening to us. As Matthew says, "Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand" (12:25).

Ultimately, trust is based on truth. Without truth, there cannot be trust. In Roman times, the fight of Christianity against the Empire of Lies was more than everything else a fight to rebuild trust by establishing a new truth, the revealed one. I wrote in a previous post that:

Augustine and other early Christian fathers were engaged, first of all, in an epistemological revolution. Paulus of Tarsus had already understood this point when he had written: "now we see as in a mirror, darkly, then we'll see face to face." It was the problem of truth; how to see it? How to determine it? In the traditional view, truth was reported by a witness who could be trusted. The Christian epistemology started from that, to build up the concept of truth as the result divine revelation. The Christians were calling God himself as witness.
In the name of truth, the Christian martyrs (a Greek term meaning "witness") were willing to give their life, to die vilified and tortured in the most gruesome manners. It was the courage of the early martyrs that eventually brought down the zombie creature that the once great Roman Empire had become.

And now? We are rapidly entering a phase when the lies told to us by our governments and our elites are so huge, so pervasive, so blatant to qualify as diabolical. But in the great confusion of our times even the good among us are confused, they can't discern the truth anymore. And the time may have come when we need a new generation of Martyrs for truth is needed.




Thursday, May 2, 2019

Climate Science Deniers Start Feeling the Heat. Now it is Foot-Dragging Time!


Greta Thunberg is both a cause and an effect in the great shift that's ongoing in the public opinion about climate change. Climate science deniers are feeling the pressure and they are preparing to change their strategy. No more denying that AGW exists and that it is a danger for all of us. It is time to move to foot-dragging for profit. 



A post by Tim Ball on the despicable WUWT blog is well worth reading because it summarizes the plight of climate science deniers in the current debate. Ball says that he calls it quits because:

"you are asking people to believe that a small group of people managed to deceive the world into believing that a trace gas (0.04% of the total atmosphere) was changing the entire climate because of humans. In addition, that group convinced many others to participate in the deception. The public view is that deceiving so many is just not possible. "
Stark clear: Ball perfectly summarizes the problem for him and his band of science-deniers: how could anyone believe what they are saying? With Greta Thunberg bursting into the debate, their position is rapidly becoming untenable. So, they are shifting away from discussing whether AGW exists or not. Ball says,
"I decided to stop trying to educate people about the global deception that is AGW. ... The challenge now is to help people understand the differences between deceptively derived policies, and what is the best, most adaptive, most profitable, and most rewarding strategy for survival of the individual, business, or industry. "
And I couldn't have said it more clearly. Ball and his ilk are preparing for a war of attrition against the attempt to do something to save humankind before it is too late, all in the name of the "most profitable" strategy. 


(I know, I know, I shouldn't link to anti-science blogs, but this one is a must read -- anyway I put a no-follow clause on it. Note also a recent post by Michael Barnard on Medium that notes the same thing as I did)


Monday, April 29, 2019

The Great Fossil Cycle and the Story of a Family

Last week, I published a post on how the economic decline of Italy led me to move to a smaller house, abandoning the mansion that my parents had built during better times. Complementing that post, I thought I could repropose a post I had published in 2017, reproduced here with some minor modifications. You can find more data about the story of the Bardi family on the "Chimeras" blog.



My great-great grandfather, Ferdinando Bardi. The story of the branch of the Bardi family to which I belong is inextricably linked to the great world cycle of the fossil fuels. (this painting was made by Ferdinando's son, Antonio)


There was a time, long ago, when the Bardis of Florence were rich and powerful, but that branch of the family disappeared with the end of the Renaissance. The most remote ancestors of mine that I can track were living during the early 19th century and they were all poor, probably very poor. But their life was to change with the great fossil revolution that had started in England in the 18th century. The consequences were to spill over to Italy in the centuries that followed.

My great-great grandfather Ferdinando (born in 1822) lived in an age when coal was just starting to become commonplace and people would still use whale oil to light up their homes. He was a soldier in the infantry of the Grand-Duke of Tuscany and then of the King of Italy, when Tuscany merged into the newly formed Kingdom of Italy, in 1861. The family lore says that Ferdinando fought with Garibaldi in Southern Italy, but there is no trace of him in the records as a volunteer of Garibaldi's army. He may have fought there with the regular army, though. In his portrait, we can see the medals that he gained. Today, I still have the ribbons, the medals were lost during the 2nd world war when they were given to "the country" to support the war effort.

Despite the medals, there is little doubt that Ferdinando was poor; his condition is described as "dire poverty" in some documents we still have. But things were changing and the conditions of the Bardi family would change, too. The coal revolution had made Northern Europe rich. England had built a World Empire using coal, France had its revolution and Napoleon, and the industrial age had started. Italy had no significant coal resources but coal could be imported from England and that changed many things. Tuscany was slowly building up a certain degree of prosperity based on a rapidly developing industry and on a flow of tourism from Northern Europe that, already at that time, had Florence as a favorite destination.

That had consequences on the life of Florentines. Antonio Bardi (1862 - 1924), Ferdinando's son and my great-grandfather, was little more than a street urchin when he was befriended by a "gentleman in the service of the Emperor of Brazil," then visiting Florence. It may have happened in 1877 and some of the newspapers of that time report the story of how this gentleman, whose name was "Pedro Americo," paid for the studies of this boy in whom he had somehow noticed a special artistic talent. The papers of that time don't seem to have considered the implications (obvious for us, today) involved in the story of a mature and rich gentleman befriending a poor boy, but those were different times. In any case, Antonio started a career as a painter.

That such a career was possible for Antonio was due to tourism becoming more and more common in Florence. Tourism had not just brought there the Emperor of Brazil, but a continuous flow of foreign tourists interested in ancient paintings and works of art. Color photography didn't exist at that time and this led to a brisk market of hand-made reproduction of ancient masterpieces. These reproductions were especially prized if they were made by Florentine artists, in some ways supposed to maintain the genetic imprint of the people who had created the originals. So, the main art galleries of Florence would allow local artists to set up their easels in their rooms and they would later provide them with a stamp on their canvases guaranteeing that it was "painted from the original". It seems to have been a rather diffuse occupation and, already at that time, Florentines were adapting to the opportunities that the world changes were offering to them. My aunt Renza, grand-daughter of Antonio, was still doing the same job -- making copies of paintings from the originals -- in the 1930s.

Some of the paintings of Antonio Bardi are still kept by his descendants and, for what I can say, he seems to have been a skilled painter with a special ability with portraits. But he never was very successful in this career: Florence was not Paris, it was a backwater of Europe and there were little chances for artists to become rich and famous there. As he got old, Antonio developed health problems with his eyes and he couldn't paint anymore, so he moved to a job as a guardsman. Still, he had escaped the poverty trap that had affected his ancestors. Many other Florentines of that time were doing the same, although in different ways. From our viewpoint, Tuscany in the 19th century was still a desperately poor place, but its economy was rapidly growing as a result of the ongoing coal age. That opened up opportunities that had never existed before.

My grandfather, Raffaello Bardi, was born in 1892. His instruction was limited but he could read and write and perhaps he attended a professional school. When he was drafted for the Great War, he had a hard time with the defeat of the Italian Army at Caporetto, in 1917, but he managed to get back home, all in one piece. There, he married Rita, a Florentine seamstress, and he found a job in a Swiss company that had established a branch in Florence and that manufactured straw hats, exporting them all over the world.

There were reasons for that Swiss company to exist and to be located in Florence. One was the tradition of making straw hats in Tuscany: it had started already during the 18th century. Another was that the Italian economy in the 20th century was rapidly growing. Many Italian regions were playing the role that today is played by Eastern European countries or South-Asian ones. They were being colonized by North European companies as sources of cheap labor. Tuscany had a well developed hydroelectric energy system and could offer a skilled workforce. Swiss, German, and British companies were flocking there to establish profitable branches for their businesses.

That was the opportunity that my grandfather exploited. He was only a modest employee in the company where he worked but he could afford a lifestyle that his ancestors couldn't even have dreamed of. In 1922, he bought a nice home for his family in the suburbs. It was no mansion, but a step forward in comparison to the small apartments where the Bardi family had been living before. It had a garden, three bedrooms, a modern bathroom, and it could lodge my grandparents, their four children, and the additional son they had adopted: a nephew who had been orphaned when his parents had died because of the Spanish flu, in 1919.  Raffaello could also afford to take his family on vacations at the seaside for about one month every summer. He could send his sons to college, although not his daughters; women were still not supposed to study in those times.

There came the Fascist government, the great crash of 1929, and the 2nd world war. Hard times for everyone but this branch of the Bardi family suffered no casualties nor great disasters. Raffaello's home also survived the allied bombing raids, even though a few steel splinters hit the outer walls. With the end of the war, the Italian economy experienced a period of growth so rapid that it was termed the "economic miracle". It was no miracle but the consequence of crude oil being cheap and easily available. The Italian industry boomed, and with it tourism.

During this period, the Italian labor was not anymore so cheap as it had been in earlier times. The activity of manufacturing straw hats was taken over by Chinese firms and the Swiss company in which my grandfather had worked closed down. Still, there was a brisk business in importing Chinese-made hats in Florence, adding to them some hand-made decoration and selling the result as "Florentine hats."  One of my aunts, Renza, continued to manage a cottage industry that did exactly that. My other aunt, Anna, the youngest of the family, tried to follow the footprints of her grandfather, Antonio, and to work as a painter but she was not very successful. Tourism was booming, but people were not anymore interested in hand-made reproductions of ancient masterpieces.

For my father, Giuliano, and my uncle, Antonio, both graduated in architecture, the booming Italian economy offered good opportunities. The period from the 1950s to the early 1970s was probably the richest period enjoyed by Italy in modern times and the moment of highest prosperity for the members of the Bardi family in Florence. All my relatives of that generation were rather well-off as employees or professionals. Their families were mostly organized according to the breadwinner/housewife model: even a single salary was sufficient for a comfortable life, with my mother being an exception, like my father she had graduated in architecture and worked as a high-school teacher. Most of them could afford to own their homes and, in most cases, also a vacation home in the mountains or on the seaside (also here, my family was somewhat an exception, preferring a single home on the hills). They also owned at least one car, often two when their wives learned how to drive. On the average, the education level had progressed: some of the wives attended college. Few of the people of that generation could speak any language but Italian and very few had traveled outside Italy, even though some of my uncles had fought in North Africa.

Then, there came the crisis of the 1970s. In Italy, it was normally defined as the "congiuntura economica" a term that indicated that it was just something temporary, a hiccup that was soon to be forgotten as growth were to restart. It never did. It was the start of the great oil crisis that had started with the peaking of the US oil production. The consequences were reverberating all over the world. It was in this condition that my generation came of age.

Our generation was perhaps the most schooled one in the history of Italy. Many of us had acceded to high university education; we traveled abroad, we all studied English, even though we were not all necessarily proficient in it. But, when we tried to sell our skills in the labor market, it was a tough time. We were clearly overskilled for the kind of jobs that were available in Italy and many of us had to use again the strategy of our ancestors of old, emigrating toward foreign countries. It was the start of what we call today the "brain drain".

I moved to the US for a while. I could have stayed there, but I found a decent position with the University of Florence and I came back. Maybe I did well, maybe not, it is hard to say. Some people of my age followed the same path. Some moved to foreign countries and stayed there, others came back to Italy. Some worked as employees, set up their own companies, opened up shops, they tried what they could with various degrees of success. One thing was sure: our life was way more difficult than it had been for our fathers and grandfathers. Of course, we were not as poor as our ancestors had been in the early 19th century, but supporting a family on a single salary had become nearly unthinkable. None of us could have afforded to own a home, hadn't we inherited the homes of our parents. Fortunately, families were now much smaller and we didn't have to divide these properties among too many heirs.

There came the end of the 20th century and of the 2nd millennium as well. Another generation came of age and they faced difficult times again. They were badly overskilled, as we had been, perhaps even more internationalized than we were; perfect candidates for the brain drain trend. My son followed my example, moving to a foreign country to work; maybe he'll come back as I did, maybe not. It will have to be seen. My daughter still has to find a decent job. The oil crisis faded, then returned. The global peak of oil production ("peak oil") was closer and closer. The Italian economy went up and down but, on the average, down. It was a system that could grow only with low oil prices and the period of high prices that started in the early 2000s was a hard blow for Italy, causing the start of a de-industrialization trend that's still ongoing.

Only agriculture and tourism are still doing well in Italy. That's especially true for Florence, a town that went through a long-term cycle that transformed it from a sleepy provincial town into a sort of giant food court. Tourists are still flocking to Florence in ever-increasing numbers, but they don't seem to be so much interested in art anymore; their focus today seems to be food. It is for this reason that, today, almost everyone I know who is under 30 is either unemployed or working in restaurants, bars, or hotels.

People in Italy keep adapting to changing times as they have always done, everywhere in the world. It is hard to say what the future will bring to us, but one thing is certain: the great cycle of the fossil fuels is waning. The hard times are coming back.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Who is Cassandra?



A wonderful interpretation of the ancient Trojan prophetess in a performance by the theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder on her always interesting blog "Backreaction."  You can find more of her songs at her youtube page.

But who was Cassandra? I can tell you that from personal experience. She appeared to me in person -- well, as a ghost, actually. Let me reproduce the relation of that encounter as I published it in 2015 on my other blog "Chimeras."



The prophetess Cassandra was cursed to be always right in her prophecies, but never to be believed. That places her on a par with modern climate scientists. (image: Cassandra as interpreted by Marvel comics)

I don't have to tell you that this story is a work of fantasy, but several details are taken from modern historiography, for instance the character of the Hittite king Mutawalli, the possible contemporary events of the battle of Kadesh and the fall of Troy, the habits of the Babylonian temple priestesses, and more, including the fact that Hittite is a language vaguely related to English and an attempt of inventing a Sumerian root for the name "Cassandra", whose etymology is unknown. You may also like to know that this story came to my mind, nearly complete, while I was mounting some bookshelves at home; maybe I have to consider it as a gift from the Goddess Ikea.
____________________________________

After that I had googled "summoning spells" on the web, I found one that I liked. I needed some peculiar stuff to perform it, including crocodile liver, platypus' whiskers, bat's earwax and more. But once I got all that (via Amazon.com), I thought I could try. And, immediately, there materialized in front of me, right in my office, a translucent image of a dark haired lady wearing gold jewels and a curious dress. No less than the ghost of Cassandra, the Trojan prophetess. And I could interview her!


Ahem..... Lady Cassandra, I humbly welcome you here....

Oh.... Where am I?

I summoned you, Lady Cassandra.... you are far in the future. More than three thousand years.

Three thousand years in the future, you say? You must have some really powerful magic, here. Where did you learn it?

Well, we have something we call the "Internet"

A library? Plenty of scrolls you must have in there.

Not exactly scrolls, lady Cassandra, but you can find a lot of things in it. But I must say that I am not a great expert at summoning ghosts; it is the first time I try.

You have to be careful with these spells, you know? It is dangerous stuff. You could have summoned some Galla demons of the underworld and they would have shred you to pieces. You are lucky that you summoned me in your first try. But the Gods of the underworld must like you - really! They even granted me the gift of being able to speak your language. A curious language, by the way; it sounds a little like Hittite, you know?

We call it 'English', lady. But you say it sounds like Hittite? I am not sure I understand....

Well, Hittite is a language that I came to learn. But never mind that; evidently the Gods like me to speak this.... this "English". But enough with this "Lady Cassandra". Why do you call me like that?

Well, after all, you are the daughter of King Priam.


The daughter of King Priam? You believe that story?

Well, it is what is said about you. Are you that Cassandra.... ?

Oh, yes, I am that Cassandra - the one they say was the daughter of King Priam of Troy. A lot of things have been said about me, I know; some are even true. But the daughter of King Priam? No, no.... It is just a legend, one of the many. Actually, I came to know Priam very well; and I was in Troy when the Achaeans destroyed it. But I am not Priam's daughter. You see, I was born in Babylon.....

Born in Babylon? Really? Lady Cassandra, this is surprising!

Well, Babylon is where I was born. And I was born as Kashanna before those silly Greeks mangled my name turning it into "Cassandra". But I wasn't born as Cassandra. Besides, I have been in the underworld long enough that I can drop all those silly titles. But, if you really like to call me Lady Cassandra, it is fine for me. So, who are you, by the way?

Oh.. you see, I am nobody of any importance. I was just reading about you, and I was curious.


Enough that you risked being shred to pieces by a Galla demon? You have to be a very curious person.

It is my job to be curious. I am called, well.... we say, "scientist"

Something like a priest? You make prophecies?

Sometimes I make prophecies..... you know, for instance how climate will change in the future.

And are you believed?

Oh... well, that's a big problem.

I know, I know! It happens all the time. Anyway, if you are so curious, I figure I could tell you a few things about me. I don't think that the demons of the underworld will leave me chatting with you for a long time. But as long as the spell lasts, why not?

Thank you, Lady Cassandra. It is an honor to be told this story

Let me see.... I have to start from the beginning. As I told you, I was born in Babylon. And I became a shamhatu of the temple of Ishtar. You probably don't know what a shamhatu is; well, in the old language she would be called a Karkid, or also a Harimtu the way we used to say. But in the end she is a hierodule of the temple. A temple girl, just that. It was my job. The job of the temple girls is to celebrate the goddess of love, Ishtar. We also call her "Inanna" in the old language, in Sumerian, that is. Actually, the work of the temple girl is not so sophisticated, normally. You do what you have to do as a service to the temple; people pay, and they go away happy. But I was, well, it seems that my Ensi,  the high priestess of the temple, thought that I was especially smart; a little more than the average girl; at least. So, I was studying to become a priestess. That meant I had to learn the old language of the Sumerians, to recite the hymns, to perform the sacrifices. It is a complicated job, you know? You have to study a lot and then, when it is time to perform the sacred marriage rite, well, as a priestess it means to have sex with the king, celebrate the sacred marriage of Tammuz and Ishtar - or, as they said in the times of our Sumerian ancestors, Dummuzi and Inanna. So, you have to look all coquettish with the king, wear jewels, sexy clothes, all that..... Ouf.... Not all kings are nice... But all kings like a lot to play the role of Dummuzi in the sacred marriage rite. And a priestess plays the role of Inanna, the goddess. In a way, it is fun.

Now, in my times, the big man, the king, was someone called Muwatalli the second, an Hittite. His father had conquered Babylon earlier on and, at that time, in Babylon we were part of the Hittite Empire. So, the king of the Hittites would come to Babylon once in a while, just to make sure that everything was quiet and that everybody pays their taxes to him. So, he came to Babylon from the capital of the Empire, from Tarhuntassa. Quite a retinue he carried with him. Soldiers, slaves, concubines, servants, cooks, all the rest. And he arrived in time for the rite of the sacred marriage. And you can imagine who was the hierodule who had the task of performing the rite that year. Just the modest me; Cassandra - or rather, the way they called me in Babylon, Kashanna.

So, I performed this rite with King Mutawalli. Not a bad guy, I'd say, although he had this idea that everyone should call him Nergal, which means the God of War, but kings have these bizarre ideas. Anyway, he must have been impressed by our rituals. You know, in Babylon, at that time, we knew how to impress people! Fancy dresses, songs, harps playing, all the rest. But I think he was more impressed by the way the priestesses could perform divinations. Kings are always interested in divinations - they must feel very insecure all the time. Or so I think.

Anyway, King Muwatalli was impressed enough by the whole circus that he wanted to take me to Tarhuntassa. People used to say that I was a nice looking girl at that time, but I am not sure that he wanted me for my looks. I think he was thrilled by the idea of having a personal Babylonian priestess at his court - available anytime. Whatever, I had no choice. I remember that my Ensi, told me that I had to be careful, because I had learned a lot of things in the temple, even how to make prophecies, but that of prophetizing is not an easy job and that I had not learned yet how to make myself believed, and so I risked to be misunderstood all the time. She was right, of course. But I was young and I must say that I was excited at the idea to go with king Muwatalli. You know, I could have given a son to the king, then he would have married me and I would have become Queen, or Empress, or something like that. I knew that it wasn't likely that it would happen; and it didn't happen. But - you know - a girl can always dream!

So, let me keep going. I went with King Muwatalli to Tarhuntassa and I became one of his concubines; he had a lot of them, as kings use to have. He also had a wife, or perhaps more than one - I am not sure. Anyway, I was not to be his wife, just a concubine. Which is fine, after all; you know, the job of the concubine is not very difficult. You just have to be ready when the king wants you, which is not so often, because the king has a lot of concubines. It was a little boring, sure, but after a while you get used to that. After that I had learned some of the local language, Hittite, I spent my time chatting with the other concubines, eating, drinking, and laughing. So, that could have been all of my story; to get old in the king's harem; it is the lot of concubines, But, instead, my destiny was to be completely different.

As a concubine, I was a little special, because I was from Babylon, and I had been a hierodule of the temple of Ishtar and the priests and the priestesses of Babylon have this fame of being able to make prophecies. So, one day, the king summoned me, and I went to see him all dressed up nice, kohl on my eyes, good perfume all over, and gold bracelets on my wrists and my ankles. But that day I found that he didn't want to play Dummuzi and Inanna with me. I saw right away that he was worried, very worried. So, he told me that messengers had come from Egypt and had told him that the Egyptian army was marching North in full strength, toward the lands of the Hittites, led by the young Pharaoh Ramses. And, of course, he had to stop them. So, he asked me to make a prophecy for him. A prophecy about the coming battle.

What could I do? When a king asks you something, you can't refuse. So, I wore the dress of the prophetess, had a liver from a freshly killed goat brought to me and I made this prophecy for him. And it was not a good prophecy. I saw a lot of dead people, plenty of smashed chariots, and the remains of the Hittite army retreating. I told him that, and he got angry at me. He said that he was going to lick these Egyptians as they deserved. And that he would teach this stupid Ramses a good lesson. And that he didn't believe a word of my prophecy. It was what my Ensi had said. That nobody would believe my prophecies; actually she had said it was a curse, and maybe it was true. But what could I do about that? King Muwatalli assembled the army; all the chariots and the infantry, and off he went, marching south.

A few months later, we saw the king coming back. But half of the army was not there anymore. Of course, the king told everyone that it had been a big victory for him, at the city of Kadesh. But the survivors told different stories; people being hacked to pieces and drowning while trying to swim across the Orontes river, pursued by the Egyptians. Later on, there came messengers from Egypt; they said that king Ramses had come back home telling of the great victory he had won against the Hittites.

So, you can understand how things were at the court of Tarhuntassa at that time. The king was worried that the Egyptians would attack again, that the provinces would rebel, that the nobles would try to overthrow him... a mess. And about me.... ow... you can imagine that. It is no good having been right about a king's disgrace. I was afraid that King Mutawalli would kill me; he didn't, but for sure he didn't care any more for me to play Inanna and Dummuzi with him. But at this point there happened something else.

Not that I was supposed to be told about these political things, I was just a concubine. But everything becomes known in court after a while, and so I learned that there had come a messenger from the West, from king Alaksandu of Wilusa. You probably never heard these names, but you can surely understand if I say, instead, "King Priam of Troy". So let me call him Priam, even though the Hittites called him in a different way.

Now, this messenger arrived, and he said that King Priam was in trouble because there was this king Akagamunash, ruler of the Ahhiyawa, who was planning to attack the city of Troy. Even these names, you probably never heard of, unless you speak Hittite. But they are also known as king Agamemnon and the Achaeans; people living across the sea from Anatolia. So, this messenger said that King Priam had always been a faithful vassal of king Mutawalli, and that he would remain a faithful servant forever, and that his sons would be forever faithful servants of King Muwatalli, too, and he kept going like that for quite a long time. Then, while still paying homage to the victorious king of the Hittites, he - king Priam - said that he badly needed some help from King Muwatalli and that the great Hittite ruler was surely able to chase away these barbarian Achaeans with his powerful army as if they were ants pushed away by fire.

That message made king Mutawalli even angrier and more worried than before. He had no army that he could send West to defend Troy. And if he tried to defend Troy, he would have to leave the Eastern provinces unguarded, and that could have been truly the end of him. But if he did nothing, he risked the whole left flank of the Hittite Empire. So, he had this idea: to send me to king Priam.

I don't know if that was to be taken as a joke or if he really thought I could help the Trojans - maybe yes, you know, these Babylonian priestesses have strange powers. Anyway, the king had his scribes write a pompous letter to Priam, saying that because of his faithful service he wanted to reward him with a precious gift, a gift of great value. And he was sending him this wise woman, Kashanna from Babylon, prophetess of renown, and that he - king Muwatalli - was sure that King Priam would appreciate the gift for what it was worth.

All that I came to know later. What happened is that the king summoned me in front of him and he told me "Kashanna, you are going to Wilusa." And I knew nothing of that story and I said, "What?" And he laughed and he said, "Aren't you a prophetess, Kashanna? You should know!" Silly humor of kings. But let me say nothing about that.

One month later, I was there, in front of the walls of Troy, with a caravan that had traveled all the way from Tarhuntassa. And I was in front of King Priam, who came out of the door of the city to meet me. I still remember his face. He was expecting an army to help him, and all what he got was a dressed up concubine escorted by eunuchs and slaves. Oh, that he was disappointed!! But he put on a brave face, and he took me into the city with all the pomp of the occasion.

Now, King Priam was too old to be interested in playing Dummuzi and Inanna with me. But his sons were young enough, and I was the new girl in town, and I think that Priam didn't want anyone to quarrel because of me. There was a war that was going to start, and he didn't want Trojans to kill each other because they were quarreling for me. So, he placed me in the temple of the goddess with the other hierodules. In Troy, things were much different than in Babylon and the hierodules were all supposed to be virgins. Now, it is a bit strange for a hierodule of Isthar to be said to be a virgin. Curious uses they had, there. It would be like saying that Nergal, the God of War, fears blood! And, about those girls being really virgins, well, let me say nothing. But, anyway, the king placed me there, and there I had to stay. And not just that. He adopted me, telling everyone that from then on I was supposed to be his daughter and that any offense against me, any attempt to jeopardize my virginity, would be seen as an insult to the king and to the whole royal family. Well, what could I say? At least I didn't have to worry about too many things.

So, while staying in the temple, I learned a little of the local language - not so different than Hittite. It was then at that time that they started calling me "Cassandra" instead of Kashanna, apparently Cassandra sounded better in their language. Then, I learned about the city and all the buzz there was about this woman, Helen. One of the sons of King Priam, Paris, had snatched her away from her husband, a big Achaean boss called Menelaus. This Helen was supposed to be extremely beautiful, but I can tell you that she was kind of overrated. Anyway, it was none of my business whether this Paris and Helen were playing Dummuzi and Inanna together. But it didn't seem to me that it had been such a good idea to steal this woman from her husband, who was a powerful Achaean King. Now the Achaeans were buzzing like angry bees and that was the reason why Priam was expecting an invasion.

Sure enough, not long after I had arrived, there appeared on the sea a big fleet of those Achaeans, right in front of the city of Troy. They landed, and out of the ships they came with their chariots, swords, lances, and all what is needed for war. And the Trojans, including the hierodules of the temple, went up the walls and looked down to the plain in front of the city and - by the sacred name of the Goddess - there was a huge band of those Achaeans there. Truly an awful lot of them.

Later on, that day, King Priam summoned me and he asked me to perform a divination for him. And I told him, "King, I don't need to make a prophecy for you; haven't you seen how many of these Achaeans there are, out there?" And he told me not to be silly and to make this divination. So, what could I do? I got myself a goat liver and I performed the ritual and I told him what I saw. Which was a lot of blood and the city in flames. And, of course, he wasn't happy. He got angry at me and he started screaming things I didn't understand. So, I told him, "king, don't you think it was a silly idea that your son, Paris, snatched away this girl, this Helen, from her husband? Now he is here with all his friends and he wants her back. So, why don't you give her back to him, and so you save the city?" But he muttered something like "the Trojans' honor is not negotiable!" And he left, angry, saying that he didn't believe a word of my prophecies. As if that was new.

Not that King Priam was stupid, not at all. One problem was that he was old, he couldn't really tell to his people what to do. But there was this idea in Troy that the honor of the city was at stake and that they had to fight, even though they understood that they had done something wrong and that the Achaeans, after all, were right at being angry at them. I know this because I spoke with other people of the city, including one of Priam's sons, a guy called Hector. He seemed to be smarter than the average, but still he didn't budge from that position: they were fighting for the honor of Troy and that was it. So, what could I do about that? I even made a divination for him, and you can imagine what came out: more blood and disasters. And he started looking at me askance as if I was a traitor or a spy; after all I was a foreigner. Don't misunderstand me; these Trojans were not bad people - actually I liked them. But they had this idea that there is no other way to solve problems than hacking at each other with swords. I told them that swords create problems, don't solve them, but they looked at me as if I had been a Galla demon from the underworld, just materialized in front of them. Nothing to do about that.

So, there started the war. In the temple, with the other hierodules, we couldn't see anything of what was going on, out there, but, every evening, the warriors came back to the city and told stories of the battle. We heard of this guy having killed that guy, and of another guy coming up and killing the first in revenge. I figure this is the way wars are; not very interesting for a hierodule. Anyhow, I must say that the Trojans put up quite a good fight, though badly outnumbered. And they trusted their walls, they thought they were safe behind them.

There is a legend that says that the siege of Troy lasted for ten years, but it is not true, it lasted just for a season - what do you think those Achaeans would have eaten if they had to stay in the plain for ten years? But never mind that. One day, someone came up to the temple and he told me, "Cassandra, come! The Achaeans have gone!" So, they told me that the Achaeans had left in a hurry and that it was a big victory for the glorious city of Troy. Everyone was happy about that, but they were also perplexed, because the Achaeans had left something weird in front of the city walls. So, I walked up the battlements and I saw a big wooden thing right in front of the walls. And everyone was wondering about what the hell that was and they asked me because they knew I was a priestess and I had seen a lot of things. And, of course, I knew what it was, I had read about those things; not for nothing we have a big library in the temple of Babylon. So, I told them, "it is a siege engine!" And they looked at me with bovine eyes and they said, "what?" And I told them, "it is made to smash down the city walls!" They looked at each other, shaking their heads. They didn't believe me. What's so new about that?

So, they kept discussing about that big wooden thing and someone came up with this brilliant idea that it was a horse and that it was a votive offering for the God Apollon. And I told them, "Look, you idiots, you must set that thing on fire before it is too late." I was trying to do my best to help them, after all. But they just looked at me, askance and again, they started muttering that I am a foreigner and that I could be a spy and that I should not be trusted. What could I do about that?

So, I went back to the temple, and night came, and I went to sleep and I woke up when I heard a lot of noise, people screaming, and the smell of things burning. I understood immediately what was going on but, again, there was nothing I could do about that. I could only note how silly these people were. And, again, I was sorry for them, they were not bad people, these Trojans. Then, at some moment, the door of the temple was smashed open from the outside and there came inside a hirsute idiot wearing armor and carrying a sword. You can imagine that I was afraid, so I clung to the statue of the Goddess, but the idiot tried to pull me away - I mean, so stupid: if he had wanted to play Dummuzi and Inanna with me, he could have asked in the proper manner, after all I was a temple girl from Babylon, it is my job! Instead, he tried to force me away, I got even more scared and I clung to the statue more, and in the end I got a dislocated shoulder, quite some bruises, and the hirsute idiot carried me away.

You can imagine how angry I was, in addition to the dislocated shoulder, this idiot had managed to desecrate the temple of the Goddess. So I cursed him for good, using some curses that my Ensi had taught me; while telling me that I should never use them, but I did. So, the Goddess had his ship sink at sea, and he drowned. When I came to know that, I was sorry for him, but that was how things went.

So, while Troy was burning, I ended up playing Inanna and Dummuzi with the king of the Achaeans, someone called Agamemnon. I said that I was a good looking girl at that time, so he took me with him on his ship, when he sailed back to his city, Mycenae. Before leaving, he asked me to make a divination for him; which I did - the usual work with a goat's liver. I told him that I saw blood and murder at his home, and he just laughed and he said that his loving wife was waiting for him and that everything would be fine. He didn't believe me. Nothing unusual.

So, we arrived in Mycenae, and Agamemnon took me with him to his palace. His wife, Clytemnestra, didn't like that -- not so much because of me, but because she had a lover, and she didn't want her obnoxious husband back. So she killed Agamemnon by stabbing him while he was taking a bath - loving wife, yes! - and then she ran after me with an axe. She almost got me, but I managed to run away. Later on, the legend spread that said that she had killed me. That was not true, but I was perfectly happy with that. I had had enough troubles with all those stories and I much preferred if people thought I was dead.

That was not the end of the story, but I'll skip several details of what happened after I ran away from Mycenae, chased by a madwoman yielding a battle axe. Let me just say that I managed to meet another Achaean who was also getting back home - Odysseus his name. He took me on board of his ship and he played a little Dummuzi and Inanna with me, then he asked me a prophecy for his return home. I don't have to tell you that I saw bad things there, but he didn't believe me - of course. But this Odysseus was nice enough to land me in Byblos, in Lebanon. There, I found a ride on a caravan that was bringing cedar wood to Babylon.

And there I was, a few years had gone by, but in the meantime my Ensi priestess had died and now they recognized me, and they wanted me to become the new Ensi of the temple. But I didn't want to - I had had enough of prophecies. I stopped being a hierodule, I stopped being a prophetess. I married a tavern keeper in Babylon, I had children and grandchildren, and I died very old. I had a happy life and now I am a ghost. And that's the end of the story of Cassandra - known as Kashanna in Babylon.

Just one more detail; I think it may interest you. One day there came someone to the tavern, an old Greek. He was blind and he had no silver to pay for his beer, but he said he could sing for me in exchange. So, I served him some good beer, and he sang for me the story of the war of Troy. It was nice, but I told him that it was wrong in many details. I tried to tell him that Cassandra was not the real daughter of King Priam, he didn't believe me - imagine that! So, I told him that he could have his beer for free, and might the Goddess bless him. And that's truly the end of this story.

..... Lady Cassandra, it is a nice story to hear. Thank you very much. So, you even meet Homer...

Yes, I remember that Homer was the name of that blind Greek. I think he became famous.

But, Lady Cassandra.. You said that your name in Babylon was.... how did you say?

My name? Kashanna.... it was my name in Babylon.

What does it mean?

Oh... it is an old Sumerian name. Kash is beer and Anna is heaven. So, Kashanna means "heavenly beer."

A very nice name.

Thank you. Do you like beer?

I do. Although sometimes it gives me headaches.

Not the beer I served in my tavern, in Babylon. I am sure that it didn't give headaches to anyone.

I don't think they make that kind of beer any more.... unfortunately. Do you like beer Lady Cassanra?

Well, I used to. But, you know, as a ghost......

Oh.... sorry, I didn't mean...

No, it is all right. It is the way the Gods have arranged things to be. Everyone has to become a ghost. Sooner or later.

But, Lady Cassandra, I was thinking that I might ask you something.....


You want a divination, don't you?

Well, if possible.... I am not sure I can find a goat liver for you, but.....

Oh... don't worry about that. As a ghost I can make divinations even without a goat liver. No problem. And what would you like the divination to be about?

That's very nice of you, Lady Cassandra. So, you know, we have plenty of problems, here. But there is this one we call "climate change".... I am not sure you are familiar with this concept.

Ghosts have special powers, you know? So, I know what you are talking about. It is very dangerous, indeed. More dangerous than having the whole Achaean army lined up in front of the city doors. So, let me make this divination for you.

Well, maybe it takes time...

No.... as I said, we ghosts have special powers. I just have to think about the matter, and the prophecy comes. And, you know, I am sorry, I am really sorry.....

Why?

It is not a good prophecy. It is even worse than for Troy. Everything on fire. People dying, blood everywhere. But many, many more.

But am I not supposed to disbelieve you?

Oh... no, that curse was for when I was alive. Now that I am a ghost, not anymore..... I think you believe me. I can see that.

Not that I am happy about that, but....

It seems that people in your time are even more stupid than the Trojans. They just had to give back Helen to the Achaeans to save the city, and they didn't want to do that. And or you, all what you have to do is to stop burning that awful black stuff you keep burning. Is it so difficult?

Apparently, yes. It seems to be very difficult.


I see..... I am sorry that I upset you.

It is all right. I should have expected that.

I am really sorry. I see that you are very upset. I should really go back to the underworld....

No, no... there is no hurry. But, Lady Cassandra, do you really think your prophecies.... I mean, do they always come true?

The Gods send them to me.

Ah......

See, I was sorry for the people of Troy, and I am sorry for your people, too. You see, maybe you should pray to the Goddess Inanna, maybe she can help you.

I think we should try that, yes.....

Really, I guess it is time for me to go...... Ghosts are not supposed to chat with the living for such a long time. And good luck, you really need it.

Thank you, Lady Cassandra.

Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017)