Monthly Archives: April 2015

Technical Blunder: Hollywood’s Persistent Failures Portraying Fire Sprinklers

As some of you know, my last real job before I went back to school in 2010 was designing fire sprinkler systems for commercial buildings.  Now, even though I haven’t drawn a piping plan or run a hydraulic calc in five years, I still habitually look at the ceiling of every building I enter.  I also tend to stop in parking garages to read the gauges and data plates on the sprinkler risers.  It’s hard not to notice sprinklers after you’ve spent several years thinking about them for eight hours a day.  Sometimes this makes it very hard to enjoy TV and movies.

Screenwriters love fire sprinklers.  Unfortunately, none of them ever seem to have bothered to learn how they work.  I have never seen a technically accurate fire sprinkler scene onscreen.

I’ve been watching the new Daredevil show on Netflix.  Like all of Marvel’s recent screen adaptations, it has turned out pretty well and I’ve been enjoying it.  They managed to get to Episode 11 without committing a fire sprinkler blunder, but when it happened it snapped my suspension of disbelief like a dry twig and took me completely out of the story.

(MINOR SPOILER ALERT)
Daredevil is fighting some goons in a drug lab when one of them accidentally fires his sub machine gun into a stack of nasty looking chemicals, which burst into flame.  The flames burn merrily along until Daredevil wrests the gun from the bad guy and shoots holes in the overhead sprinkler pipe.  Clean water runs out and good and bad guys alike escape to safety.  There are at least four things completely wrong with this scene.

  1. Except for a few highly specialized applications like restaurant grill hoods, sprinkler heads are designed to open automatically, usually at 165°F.  Shortly after the fire started, the nearest head would have automatically opened as the heat rose and was trapped against the ceiling.  This would probably put the fire out.  Around 85% of fires in sprinkled buildings are extinguished by a single sprinkler head.  If not, other nearby heads would open as the fire spread.
  2. Sprinkler pipe is made out of thick steel.  If you shot it with a small caliber, high velocity gun, more bullets would ricochet off of it than go through. Plus you’d likely hit yourself in the process.  But Daredevil is a super hero and the gun might have had armor piercing bullets, so we can let this one slide.
  3. The water in sprinkler pipe doesn’t circulate and is black and disgusting.  Always.  Even brand new systems don’t have clean clear water in them because of the mill scale inside the pipes and the cutting oil used on the threads.  The water in an existing system is the color of gas station coffee.
  4. All sprinkler systems, by law, have at least one alarm bell that rings any time water is going through the system.  Shooting a sprinkler pipe would set off the alarm and it wouldn’t stop until the city water ran out or the fire department turned it off.
Fair use justification:  these low-res stills from a TV show are being used for purposes of criticisim and/or education.  No public domain substitute is available.  There is no forseeable impact on Netflix's future profits.

a. Daredevil stands and talks while fire burns without setting off sprinklers. b) Daredevil shoots the sprinkler pipe. c) Clean water comes out. Somehow, most of the holes are on top of the pipe and the ceiling is somehow undamaged. [Copyright 2015 by Netflix]

This is just one scene from a television show.  At other times I have seen fire sprinklers in elevators (where does the water come from?), fire sprinklers that go off when the fire alarm button is pressed (they don’t) and hackers who somehow set off fire sprinklers remotely (they aren’t connected to the internet).  Almost always, when the sprinklers do go off, every head is shown opening at once, which never happens in a building system.  Now, I’m sure you can see how this might annoy me, but what does it have to do with writing?

The problem is that screenwriters don’t bother to do research outside of watching productions written by other screenwriters, who don’t know any more than they do.  Hollywood is an intellectual ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail.  There is no pressure, from producers or viewers, to get things right.  Nor is the problem unique to those who write for the screen.  Many fiction writers, especially genre writers, are just as bad.

If I was going to write a story about a Hollywood screenwriter, I would go and talk to one to make sure I got my facts straight.  Actually, since I live in LA, I probably already know more about the entertainment industry than the average sprinkler engineer.  I have a several friends who are actual screenwriters, and many of the sprinkler systems I worked on were on the campuses of movie studios and production companies.  I would still do my homework.  Writers who don’t do their research make stupid mistakes and cause people like me to dismiss their work.  Writers who do more research than they need create believable, interesting stories.

A very common type of fire sprinkler.  The red color-code means that the bulb will break at exactly 155 degrees, letting the water out.

A very common type of fire sprinkler. The red color-code means that the bulb will break at exactly 155 degrees, letting the water out.

Most fire sprinkler designers I know would be delighted to talk to a writer.  On any of the days I spent walking around Paramount, Warner Brothers, or ABC sketching their fire protection systems, I would have been thrilled if someone had come up to me and asked an intelligent question.  I’m sure that other technical specialists are the same.

So writers, if you are writing about something you don’t understand, reach out and ask someone who does.  If you’re writing a fire sprinkler scene, ask me.  I’d much rather help you than watch one more person get it wrong.

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Thucydides Book IV: The Boethian Flamethrower

Military history is a see-saw between fixed defensive technology and mobile offensive technology. Sometimes offensive technology leaps ahead, as at the close of the middle ages when improved cannons suddenly rendered every castle in Europe obsolete. At other time defenses gain the advantage, such as on the Western Front of the Great War, when armies became deadlocked for years in their trenches. Reading Thucydides, there can be no doubt that in the era of the Peloponnesian War defensive technology was ascendant. A fourth century Greek army had little chance of storming the stone walls of a fortified city, even with a significant advantage in numbers. The main land force of the Peloponnesian League, with the best infantry in the world, was afraid to directly attack the Long Walls of Athens. We read of lesser cities withstanding sieges for months or years, before finally yielding through starvation or treachery. In the years leading up to the war, a city deciding to build fortifications was considered a reasonable pretense for declaring war, to preemptively attack before the walls made them impregnable.

Thucydides alludes several times to “engines” used to attack walls, but these seem to have been simple battering rams which had to be pushed right up to the wall to work. An alert garrison was often able to destroy them before they could do damage. During the siege of Platea, for example, the defenders were able to break apart a Spartan ram with lassos and logs. Other siege engineering techniques were even cruder, such as piling earthen ramps against the walls or trying to light fires.

In Book IV, however, we read about a new device: the first recorded flamethrower. First used by the Boethians at the siege of Delium, this device could incinerate wooden walls and gates and even crack stones. Like the first tanks deployed at the Somme, this device signaled that the balance between defense and offense was about to shift again.

Thucydides gives a fairly detailed description of the Boetian flamethrower,

Meanwhile the Boeotians … marched against Delium, and attacked the fort, and after divers efforts finally succeeded in taking it by an engine of the following description. They sawed in two and scooped out a great beam from end to end, and fitting it nicely together again like a pipe, hung by chains a cauldron at one extremity, with which communicated an iron tube projecting from the beam, which was itself in great part plated with iron. This they brought up from a distance upon carts to the part of the wall principally composed of vines and timber, and when it was near, inserted huge bellows into their end of the beam and blew with them. The blast passing closely confined into the cauldron, which was filled with lighted coals, sulphur and pitch, made a great blaze, and set fire to the wall, which soon became untenable for its defenders, who left it and fled; and in this way the fort was taken. Of the garrison some were killed and two hundred made prisoners; most of the rest got on board their ships and returned home.

For all we know, he may also have included a drawing. If so, though, it has long since been lost to history. A quick search on the web yields many modern day artists’ conceptions, but I couldn’t resist sketching my own.

The Boethian Flamethrower, as described in Thucydides [Copyright 2015 by Kevin A. Straight, CC BY-SA]

The Boethian Flamethrower, as described in Thucydides [Copyright 2015 by Kevin A. Straight, CC BY-SA]

There is debate about what substance was burned in the “cauldron” at the end. A number of flammable substances were available in the ancient world, including naphtha, animal fat, and various vegetable oils. I’m inclined to believe that actual pitch–a simple wood tar–was used. Wood tar is easy to make and was already used by the Greeks to waterproof their ships, buckets, ropes, and other items. The besieging army might well have brought a supply with them for general maintenance. Wood tar is sticky and flammable. While it is possible to put it out with water, it takes a great deal of water to do it. Furthermore, since it is only mildly water soluble, water tends to spread the burning pitch, which makes it even harder to put out.

Sulfur from several locations around the Mediterranean and was a common household item for the Greeks, used to fumigate buildings and as a component of medical preparations. Sulfur has particular characteristics which make it useful in incendiaries: it lights easily and fast, yet burns long enough to light other things. The first matches were chips of wood soaked in sulfur that could be lit with a flint and steel then used to light fires. Modern military manuals still include several sulfur based recipes for “igniters” that can be used to set off hard to light compounds. The sulfur added to the pitch in the Boethian flamethrower would have helped insure that most of the pitch caught fire when the air blast hit it, instead of just being squirted out of the cauldron.  Burning sulfur also produces nasty fumes which would have further hampered fire fighting efforts.

How well would this have worked? Lets assume that the “kettle” held about five gallons of burning pitch, about the size of a large paint bucket. Wood tar contains several chemical compounds but the most common and representative is a ketone with the formula C19H22N2O2. Based on its entry in the database PubChem, five gallons of it would mass about 43.3 lbs. The Boethians didn’t know modern chemical stoichiometry (for that matter, it has been a decade and a half since I took a chemistry class) but lets assume that, through trial and error, they made the bellows big enough to fully combust the pitch in one puff. The net combustion equation for C19H22N2O2 is probably something like:

C19H22N2O2 + O2 –> CO2 + N2 + H2O + HEAT

It would therefore take 0.07 lbs of Oxygen to fully combust the pitch. This would require a bellows that held 34.3 gallons of air at one atmosphere, plus as much more as would be required to oxidize the sulfur. A 50 gallon bellows would probably be safe, erring on the side of extra oxygen. How much heat would be released by this setup?

The combustion properties of wood products have long been of some interest to the US Forest Service, and they have released a number of pamphlets on the subject. Using the heat of combustion of pine tar from one of the tables from this study, 12,195 BTU/lb I calculate that each puff would release about 528,044 BTUs of heat energy on the enemy’s walls. Not too shabby.

The flash point of dry oak is about 900degF and its specific heat is 0.48 BTU/lb*degF. Assuming a paltry 20% efficiency, this would be enough heat in one shot to instantly ignite 244 lbs of wood, and the flames would spread rapidly. While this is scarcely as destructive as a modern napalm bomb, it is still probably no accident that wooden fortifications fell out of favor rather rapidly around this time.

A New Trailer for My Side Project

As I have mentioned before, I host a how-to show on YouTube.  I’m not in the habit of publicizing it on this site, mainly because it has its own dedicated blog.  The new teaser for next season dropped over the weekend, though, and I’m too excited not to share it.

Handyman Kevin started life nearly two years ago as a low risk way for my publisher and I to learn about video production and play with some transmedia techniques.  It has since taken on a bit of a life of its own.  If you enjoy my other writing, you may also want to subscribe to the Handyman Kevin blog, YouTube channel, or both.

Thucydides Book III: Class Conflict and Politics

The main war that Thucydides describes is between the Athenian Empire and the Peloponnesian League, but there is another, even larger conflict that rages throughout:  a class war between the aristocratic class and the new class of plutocrats.

In democratic Athens the plutocrats, wealthy commercial men like Cleon the leather merchant and Nicias the silver mine magnate, are in charge.  There is a direct relationship between wealth and political power.  The Athenians have found democracy so much to their liking that they have forced most of their colonies and client states to adopt democracy on the Athenian model.

Paulus voor de leden van de Areopagus in Athene, Jan Luyken, 1712 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

The Aeropagus in Athens, Jan Luyken, 1712 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

In Sparta the situation is very different.  The old military class, the Hómoioi or “Peers”, has relaxed a bit from the iron discipline handed down from Lycurgus, but they still rule.  Sparta is an oligopoly and her leaders are born into a life devoted to the service of the state.  When they speak of their fight for “freedom” they are generally referring to the freedom to no be forced into the Athenian system.

In the rest of the Hellenic world, there is still open conflict between the forces of democracy and oligopoly.  In many cities, the two factions are perpetually on the verge of civil war–a situation which both the Athenians and Spartans happily exploit.  In the smoldering trouble-spot of Corcyra, for example, the democratic faction has recently seized control and a group exiled aristocrats have been waging a guerrilla war on their own people, becoming little better than pirates.  Now, in Book III, the Corcyran situation reaches a moment of crises and a chaotic revolution breaks out.  The democratic faction called for help and Athens sends ships.  However, a nearby Spartan force also hears of the chaos and sails to Corcyra to aid their own partisans.  A confusing battle results in which the Spartans come our somewhat ahead but decide to withdraw.  The democratic faction uses the confusion of the battle to slaughter all of the remaining aristocrats and the city briefly descended into anarchy as men grasped the opportunity to eliminate private enemies.

According to Thucydides, the Corcyran revolt is the first of many over the next few years,

So bloody was the march of the revolution, and the impression which it made was the greater as it was one of the first to occur. Later on, one may say, the whole Hellenic world was convulsed; struggles being every where made by the popular chiefs to bring in the Athenians, and by the oligarchs to introduce the Lacedaemonians. In peace there would have been neither the pretext nor the wish to make such an invitation; but in war, with an alliance always at the command of either faction for the hurt of their adversaries and their own corresponding advantage, opportunities for bringing in the foreigner were never wanting to the revolutionary parties.

Revolution thus ran its course from city to city, and the places which it arrived at last, from having heard what had been done before, carried to a still greater excess the refinement of their inventions, as manifested in the cunning of their enterprises and the atrocity of their reprisals.

Political affiliations become even more important than ties of blood, but politics are based on a desire to cease power that could not have been satisfied if the whole ecumene were not in the grips of war.  While the various revolutionary leaders might espouse the causes of either democracy or oligarchy, all are mainly motivated by personal greed and ambition.

Class warfare was hardly a new phenomenon in Greece.  The Athenian democracy itself had been born from the reforms of Solon, a compromise intended to restore order after a massive wealth imbalance had created intolerable tensions between the commoners and aristocrats,

The poor, finding their situation worse with each year–the government and the army in the hands of their masters, and the corrupt courts deciding against them–began to talk of a violent revolt, and a thoroughgoing redistribution of wealth.  The rich, unable any longer to collect the debts legally due them, and angry at the challenges to their savings and property, invoked ancient laws and prepared to defend themselves by force against a mob that seemed to threaten not only property but all established order, all religion, and all civilization.” Durant, The Life of Greece p. 112

Jacob de Gheyn III, 1616 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

Solon van Athene, Jacob de Gheyn III, 1616 [public domain via Rijksmuseum]

Now, in the 4th century, there is no compromise.  The plutocrats and oligarchs fight it out.  Eventually, the oligarchs win, but only after impoverishing themselves so much in wealth and numbers that the whole country is easy prey for the Macedonian conquest a few generations later.  The first great age of democracy ends with the Peloponnesian war and the world will not see another true democracy until the Renaissance.

Class conflict never truly stopped, however, rising to the forefront of history whenever real or perceived inequalities became too extreme.  As I continue these notes on the Great Books, we will see that many of the Great Thinkers wrote about social class, class consciousness, and class warfare; these concepts seem critical to any understanding of civilization itself.

Nowadays, as has periodically been the case, Western society is again under extreme social tension because of wealth inequality between plutocrats and proletarians, to say nothing of the reactionary flailings of a bourgeoisie feeling a marked decrease in its size and influence.  Perhaps studying history in the form of the Great Books will hold the key to finding a wise compromise like the reforms of Solon, rather than plunging our society into decades of internecine warfare and revolution like the Peloponnesian Wars.

Heads of Aristocrats on Pikes [public domain via Wikimedia]

Heads of Aristocrats on Pikes [public domain via Wikimedia]

Book Review: The Vintage Mencken

Cover image of The Vintage Mencken

My partner and I just returned from a rather lovely holiday up the Oregon coast. While I was gone, this website was migrated from the WordPress.com server to a self hosted server. If you are a subscriber, the transition should have been nearly seamless. My first day and half back was spent fixing bad links and tweaking my setup (I’m a writer, not a web master, so I’m slow at that sort thing). It seems like I have things in order now, but if you run into any missing pages or bad links, please let me know in the comments or by sending a quick email to longhunt at yahoo dot com.

During the part of my holiday when I wasn’t birdwatching or eating sea food, I had time to get some reading in. One of the books that I finished was The Vintage Mencken, which is a collection of essays from H.L. Mencken’s newspaper columns and books. Mencken (1880-1956) was a prolific journalist and author throughout the first half of the 20th century. He is particularly known for deflating the literary and political figures of his day with stiletto-like wit and criticism. In his later career he also translated Nietzsche and wrote books on philology. Many of his works are now available either from Project Gutenberg or in various online archives. For those who have never read him, however, The Vintage Mencken, edited by Alistair Cooke, is an excellent sampling of the best pieces over his entire writing career.

Mencken came up in the golden age of newspaper journalism, when print was nearly the only form of mass media. In his later writings he evidences a distaste for radio and motion pictures, which he obviously felt were hopelessly low-brow. Had he lived a century later, however (which would, coincidentally have made him about my age) he would surely have been a blogger. His mature style would have been perfect for it–compact, yet thoughtful, incisive, and relentlessly snarky. I think that any modern blogger could learn a great deal from reading his columns and essays. While doing so, however, it is hard not to be struck by how many issues have changed little in a century: education is still going down hill, Americans are still boorish when it comes to culture, letters, and foreign policy, and politicians are still far too influenced by money and lobbying groups. As bloggers in the 21st century we tend to assume that we are breaking new ground and that the issues we confront are new an unique. It does us well to remember that, while the names and media have changed, the nature of our work really hasn’t.

H.L. Mencken, Oliver Richard Reid [public domain via Wikimedia]

H.L. Mencken, Oliver Richard Reid [public domain via Wikimedia]

Nothing and no one were safe from Mencken’s iconoclasty. His favorite targets were populism, plutocracy, modern art, religious fundamentalism, and especially the bourgeoisie. Mencken himself came from a comfortable upper-middle-class background, he decided early to pursue the unpredictable life of a writer. While he never hesitated to poke fun at artists, there is no question that he considered himself one of their number. Like most of us who reject the comfort and stability of our bourgeois roots, he had little or no respect for the middle class. His true admiration was for an aristocracy that did not exist in the United States. He repeatedly warns against confusing plutocrats with true aristocrats,

…[P]lutocracy, in a democratic state, tends inevitably, despite its theoretical infamy, to take the place of the missing aristocracy, and even be mistaken for it.  It is, of course, something quite different.

Bourgeoisie of “the country club and interior decorator stage of culture”  have no understanding of art, fear new ideas, and are hopelessly conformist. True aristocrats, on the other hand, protect culture and tradition, yet are willing to accept eccentricity. Most importantly of all, according to Mencken, the bourgeoisie are cowardly. Personal courage is the highest virtue to an aristocrat but the middle class idolizes stability and security,

The one permanent emotion of inferior man, as of all the simpler mammals, is fear–fear of the unknown, the complex, the inexplicable.  What he wants beyond anything else is safety.  His instincts incline him toward a society so organized that it will protect him from all hazards, and not only against perils to his hide but also against assaults upon his mind–against the need to grapple with unaccustomed problems, to weigh ideas, to think things out for himself, to scrutinize the platitudes upon which his everyday thinking is based. (p. 105)

Me may or may not agree with Mencken’s views. Those of you who have been reading my blog know that I tend to agree with him. Even if you don’t buy into his platform, this book is a delightful view into the events and idiosyncrasies if early twentieth century life, and an excellent all-around example of expository writing.

Hiatus

Dear Followers and Visitors,

I’m on my way up the coast for a holiday and will be away from my blog for approximately the next ten days.  When I return (around 20-April) I will be finishing up Thucydides then moving on into Aristophanes and Plato.

Cheers,

Kevin A. Straight

Thucydides Book II: The Plague

One of the defining tropes of Greek Tragedy is man’s ultimate inability to fight his fate. All purely human ambitions and conflicts are dwarfed by the central conflict between the humans and the gods, and the gods always win. The Peloponnesian War, as interpreted by Thucydides, was a real-life Greek Tragedy. The various people and factions described all had their own motivations but, ultimately, Athens and Sparta were fated to go to war and destroy each other and there was nothing that humans could do to stop it. In this respect, Thucydides’ worldview had evolved remarkably little from that of Homer, several centuries earlier, who had cast the Trojan war as an event decreed by the gods. The heroes of the Iliad could choose how to meet their fates, but they could not avoid them.

In Book II we meet another deus ex machina which no human can control: the plague. Prior to the plague, the war has been largely indecisive. The Spartans march into Athenian territory for a few weeks at a time and destroy things, but are unable to lure the Athenians from their heavily fortified city for a major battle. Meanwhile the Athenians, with sea-superiority, pursue similar tactics along the coast. It seems likely that this state of affairs will continue for years. Then the plague hits Athens, and a significant shift in power occurs.

The Plague at Ashdod, Nicolas Poussin [public domain via Wikimedia]

The Plague at Ashdod, Nicolas Poussin [public domain via Wikimedia]

We don’t know know what disease actually hit Athens, any more than the Athenian doctors did. Various historians have interpreted the Thucydides’ gruesomely vivid description of symptoms as malaria, bubonic plague, cholera, or even Ebola,

…people in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath. These symptoms were followed by sneezing and hoarseness, after which the pain soon reached the chest, and produced a hard cough. When it fixed in the stomach, it upset it; and discharges of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued, accompanied by very great distress. In most cases also an ineffectual retching followed, producing violent spasms, which in some cases ceased soon after, in others much later. Externally the body was not very hot to the touch, nor pale in its appearance, but reddish, livid, and breaking out into small pustules and ulcers. But internally it burned so that the patient could not bear to have on him clothing or linen even of the very lightest description; or indeed to be otherwise than stark naked. What they would have liked best would have been to throw themselves into cold water; as indeed was done by some of the neglected sick, who plunged into the rain-tanks in their agonies of unquenchable thirst; though it made no difference whether they drank little or much. Besides this, the miserable feeling of not being able to rest or sleep never ceased to torment them. The body meanwhile did not waste away so long as the distemper was at its height, but held out to a marvel against its ravages; so that when they succumbed, as in most cases, on the seventh or eighth day to the internal inflammation, they had still some strength in them. But if they passed this stage, and the disease descended further into the bowels, inducing a violent ulceration there accompanied by severe diarrhoea, this brought on a weakness which was generally fatal. For the disorder first settled in the head, ran its course from thence through the whole of the body, and, even where it did not prove mortal, it still left its mark on the extremities; for it settled in the privy parts, the fingers and the toes, and many escaped with the loss of these, some too with that of their eyes. Others again were seized with an entire loss of memory on their first recovery, and did not know either themselves or their friends.

Given the amount of time which has passed, it might have been a virus which is now extinct, or has since evolved into a very different form. Whatever it was, it was deadly. It swept rapidly through Athens and the surrounding towns, badly overpopulated by refuges from the countryside. As the death toll mounted, Athens descended into nearly complete lawlessness. People who were sure they were going to die anyway rejected all custom and decency. The only bright spot was that the Spartans, afraid of catching the plague themselves, decided to avoid Athens and go home early that summer.

Descriptions of plagues, and people’s behavior during plagues abound in fiction. Ken Follet, in his Pillars of the Earth books, and Connie Willis, in Doomsday Book, wrote particularly effective treatments of the medieval Black Death, and other examples abound. However, the matter-or-fact prose in Thucydides’ vivid first-hand account captures the phenomenon better than any fictional narrative I’ve read. I would recommend that any author who his about to write about a plague start their research by downloading and reading book II of Thucydides.

Thucydides implies that, even thought he war went on for decades longer, it was the Plague that truly lead to Athens losing. It devastating to their moral, economy, and population. One casualty hurt them more than any other, however. Pericles, the leader who had been the architect of the Athenian empire, succumbed that year. No other leader could unify the various Athenian factions or had the discipline to fight a long war of attrition, in which the richer Athenians were sure to eventually grind down the Spartan war machine. After the plague lesser leaders vied for power and, when they got it, lead the Athenians on one risky adventure after another in search of a quick and decisive victory that never quite materialized.

Death of Pericles, Alonzo Chappel [public domain via Wikimedia]

Death of Pericles, Alonzo Chappel [public domain via Wikimedia]

Just as if they were caught in a play in which one of the gods announces divine retribution in the first scene, Athens after the plague spends the rest of the story being dragged inexorably to their fate. The audience knows how the story will end and the remaining books of the history describe how the actors choose to deal with the tragedy.

Thucydides Book 2: The Plague

One of the defining tropes of Greek Tragedy is man’s ultimate inability to fight his fate. All purely human ambitions and conflicts are dwarfed by the central conflict between the humans and the gods, and the gods always win. The Peloponnesian War, as interpreted by Thucydides, was a real-life Greek Tragedy. The various people and factions described all had their own motivations but, ultimately, Athens and Sparta were fated to go to war and destroy each other and there was nothing that humans could do to stop it. In this respect, Thucydides’ worldview had evolved remarkably little from that of Homer, several centuries earlier, who had cast the Trojan war as an event decreed by the gods. The heroes of the Iliad could choose how to meet their fates, but they could not avoid them.

In Book II we meet another deus ex machina which no human can control: the plague. Prior to the plague, the war has been largely indecisive. The Spartans march into Athenian territory for a few weeks at a time and destroy things, but are unable to lure the Athenians from their heavily fortified city for a major battle. Meanwhile the Athenians, with sea-superiority, pursue similar tactics along the coast. It seems likely that this state of affairs will continue for years. Then the plague hits Athens, and a significant shift in power occurs.

The Plague at Ashdod, Nicolas Poussin [public domain via Wikimedia]

The Plague at Ashdod, Nicolas Poussin [public domain via Wikimedia]

We don’t know know what disease actually hit Athens, any more than the Athenian doctors did. Various historians have interpreted the Thucydides’ gruesomely vivid description of symptoms as malaria, bubonic plague, cholera, or even Ebola,

…people in good health were all of a sudden attacked by violent heats in the head, and redness and inflammation in the eyes, the inward parts, such as the throat or tongue, becoming bloody and emitting an unnatural and fetid breath. These symptoms were followed by sneezing and hoarseness, after which the pain soon reached the chest, and produced a hard cough. When it fixed in the stomach, it upset it; and discharges of bile of every kind named by physicians ensued, accompanied by very great distress. In most cases also an ineffectual retching followed, producing violent spasms, which in some cases ceased soon after, in others much later. Externally the body was not very hot to the touch, nor pale in its appearance, but reddish, livid, and breaking out into small pustules and ulcers. But internally it burned so that the patient could not bear to have on him clothing or linen even of the very lightest description; or indeed to be otherwise than stark naked. What they would have liked best would have been to throw themselves into cold water; as indeed was done by some of the neglected sick, who plunged into the rain-tanks in their agonies of unquenchable thirst; though it made no difference whether they drank little or much. Besides this, the miserable feeling of not being able to rest or sleep never ceased to torment them. The body meanwhile did not waste away so long as the distemper was at its height, but held out to a marvel against its ravages; so that when they succumbed, as in most cases, on the seventh or eighth day to the internal inflammation, they had still some strength in them. But if they passed this stage, and the disease descended further into the bowels, inducing a violent ulceration there accompanied by severe diarrhoea, this brought on a weakness which was generally fatal. For the disorder first settled in the head, ran its course from thence through the whole of the body, and, even where it did not prove mortal, it still left its mark on the extremities; for it settled in the privy parts, the fingers and the toes, and many escaped with the loss of these, some too with that of their eyes. Others again were seized with an entire loss of memory on their first recovery, and did not know either themselves or their friends.

Given the amount of time which has passed, it might have been a virus which is now extinct, or has since evolved into a very different form. Whatever it was, it was deadly. It swept rapidly through Athens and the surrounding towns, badly overpopulated by refuges from the countryside. As the death toll mounted, Athens descended into nearly complete lawlessness. People who were sure they were going to die anyway rejected all custom and decency. The only bright spot was that the Spartans, afraid of catching the plague themselves, decided to avoid Athens and go home early that summer.

Descriptions of plagues, and people’s behavior during plagues abound in fiction. Ken Follet, in his Pillars of the Earth books, and Connie Willis, in Doomsday Book, wrote particularly effective treatments of the medieval Black Death, and other examples abound. However, the matter-or-fact prose in Thucydides’ vivid first-hand account captures the phenomenon better than any fictional narrative I’ve read. I would recommend that any author who his about to write about a plague start their research by downloading and reading book II of Thucydides.

Thucydides implies that, even thought he war went on for decades longer, it was the Plague that truly lead to Athens losing. It devastating to their moral, economy, and population. One casualty hurt them more than any other, however. Pericles, the leader who had been the architect of the Athenian empire, succumbed that year. No other leader could unify the various Athenian factions or had the discipline to fight a long war of attrition, in which the richer Athenians were sure to eventually grind down the Spartan war machine. After the plague lesser leaders vied for power and, when they got it, lead the Athenians on one risky adventure after another in search of a quick and decisive victory that never quite materialized.

Death of Pericles, Alonzo Chappel [public domain via Wikimedia]

Death of Pericles, Alonzo Chappel [public domain via Wikimedia]

Just as if they were caught in a play in which one of the gods announces divine retribution in the first scene, Athens after the plague spends the rest of the story being dragged inexorably to their fate. The audience knows how the story will end and the remaining books of the history describe how the actors choose to deal with the tragedy.

Book Review: At The End of An Age

Lukacs, At The End of An Age, cover picture

At the End of an Age is a small book, and John Lukacs’ elegant yet simple prose could easily lull you into thinking it is an easy read.  It doesn’t take many pages, though, to realize that every paragraph in this book (or rather, book-length essay) is laden with complex ideas and meaning.  I found myself rereading whole pages to make sure I understood, and I suspect that I would need to read the whole book two or three times to pick up on all of his points.  That being said, the book is worth it.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the ostensible thesis of the book is that the modern age, which Lukacs calls the “bourgeoisie age” is nearing its end.  He offers cogent arguments and examples in support and, in general, makes a strong case.  As it happens, I agree with him; I wrote something very similar on this blog a couple weeks ago, before I had ever read Lukacs.  I think that anyone with some level of historical awareness can see that our civilization is gearing up for a drastic change.  Other historians I have read would have spent the entire book (or 12, in the case of Toynbee) expanding on their particular theory.  Lukacs, having laid out his arguments, then moves up to a higher, more meta-historical level.  Lukacs is interested not just in how history works, but in the epistemology and metaphysics of history and its relationship to the other sciences.  These are deep waters indeed.  Only Lukac’s strong voice and skill as a writer keep the reader from sinking.  Since I lack his mastery, I will not attempt to explain his points here, but will merely mention a couple of his main themes.

Lukacs believes that in history, as in quantum physics, the phenomena is ultimately inseparable from the observer.  The historian does not just record history but, in the act of writing it, actually influences and creates it.  This means that true objectivity is impossible for the historian, and that a purely deterministic conception of history is as obsolete as deterministic physics was after Heisenberg.  This matches up with comments I have occasionally made about history as a narrative.  History is based on fact but, ultimately, is a literary discipline.  This historian doesn’t just tell the story, he creates it.

Another major theme in the book is the role of the human mind in creating history.  Lukacs asserts that “the inclinations of men’s minds” and their beliefs are more important than their competence or any material factor.  “Mind” in this sense means consciousness or soul, separate from brain and body.  Lukacs believes in the power of the mind to influence reality and manifest different potentialities.  Comparative metaphysics is far from my specialty.  However, this sounds very similar to the writings of various New Thought philosophers,  particularly Earnest Holmes and his Science of Mind disciples.  I wonder to what extent the young John Lukacs was influenced by these metaphysical systems.  Regardless, the take away is that if a historian wants to understand a person or group he needs to go beyond studying their situation and strive to understand their minds.

Overall, I found many ideas in this book which I could agree with, or at least try on for size.  There were a few arguments, however, with which I did take minor issue.  In an early section of the book, as part of an overview of various ways the social structures of the current age are breaking down, he discusses the trend towards women’s equality in the workplace and announces that,

Women thought (or, rather, convinced themselves) that they were reacting against the age-old and often senseless categories and assertions  of male authority; yet their dissatisfaction often arose not because of the oppressive strength but because of the weakness of males.  The rising tide of divorces and abortions, the acceptance of sexual liberties, including pre-marital (and sometimes post-marital) habits of frequent copulation and other forms of cohabitation, the increasing numbers of unmarried women and single mothers, the dropping birth rate–thus the decline of the so-called “nuclear” family–were, especially after 1955, grave symptoms suggesting vast social changes.  They included the perhaps seldom wholly conscious, but more and more evident, tendency of many young women to desire any kind of male companionship, even of a strong and brutal kind, if need be at the cost of their self-respect. (pp. 23-24)

He offers no support for this complex, arguable, and potentially inflammatory claim.  This is not the sort of paragraph you just casually slip into a book without offering evidence to back it up.  This is the sort of thing which would have caused me, when I was still a teaching assistant grading papers, to circle the whole paragraph with red pen and write “BURDEN OF PROOF” in the margin.

Lukacs is also universally deprecatory of post-modernism in all of its forms, seeing it as a basically vague and degenerate direction for scholarship and culture.  That is a legitimate, if somewhat reactionary stance.  However, Lukacs, who escaped communist Hungary as a young man, is also blatantly anti-Marxist.  Since, as a historian, Lukacs could not help but be aware of the many contributions that Marxism has made to post-modern analysis and art, I have to question whether he might not be biased on the whole subject of post-modernism.

Finally, Lukacs is dismissive of any value in mathematics for the study of history.  As a “quant”, I feel compelled to respond.  As evidence, he cites his own non-deterministic, non-objectivist view of history as well as Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, which say that 1) Any non-trivial mathematical system contains some postulates which can not be proven without going beyond the system.  2) No mathematical system is capable of proving its own consistency.  Personally, I have been fascinated by Gödel’s theorems since I first studied them in an Abstract Algebra class that I took as a college junior.   As an illustration of what they mean, consider Euclid’s geometrical system, as set down in the Elements.  Euclid begins “A point is that which has position but no dimension.”  The entire system doesn’t work without this axiom, yet there is no way to prove that a point has no dimension using only Euclidean geometry.  You would need to introduce propositions from topology and/or calculus–which are themselves systems which contain propositions which can not be proven without introducing even more complex systems of mathematics.

Kurt Gödel in 1925 [public domain via Wikimedia]

Kurt Gödel in 1925 [public domain via Wikimedia]

And yet, geometry works quite well enough for most purposes, as do topology and calculus.  Granted, the incompleteness theorems seem to imply that a grand-unified theory of history, in the sense of of a closed form solution (plug all the variables into the equation, predict what will happen next) is impossible.  But applied math and statistics are about approximations, empirical formulas, noisy data, and models that work “well enough”, with a quantifiable margin of error.  The incredible advances over the past fifty years in fields like data mining, complexity theory, machine learning, and signal processing have paved the way for a useful discipline of mathematical history, probably within our own lifetimes.  Such a system will only be one more tool for the historian to use, and the results must not be allowed to dominate the historical narrative itself.  But to dismiss all mathematical history out of hand because it will not be an internally provable system seems like a major error.  Even in a non-deterministic universe, mathematical modeling can still provide startling and useful insights.

Despite these minor qualms, I truly enjoyed this book and would recommend it.  Overall, in fact, it is the kind of book I would like to write myself some day.  I will absolutely be reading (and probably reviewing) more of Lukacs’ works in the future.