Cathedrals, Mosques, Synagogues, oh my! (Part 2)

The last time I was in Seville, around 1986, I was visiting the Alcázar.  Among us, 5 high school students and two chaperones.  We plucky teenagers pranced around with our daypacks, stuffed with caribeeners, compasses, flashlights, dry matches and a copy of “501 Spanish Verbs” (from Barron’s Educational Series) – what do you expect from an outdoorsy curriculum?

Pretty sure we all came packing Swiss Army knives, too, as you could travel with them back then.  (Note that Victorinox lost ~40% of their business after 9/11 – they used to be a featured item in Duty Free airport shops – but they didn’t fire a single employee: fun read if you want to look it up.)  We also had a change of clothes as we were on an overnighter.

In the Plaza de España, Mr. Gaul offered to sit and watch our bags as we traipsed about the cobblestone streets, past cafés with hanging legs of drying jamón, steaming cups of café con leche, and decorative Moorish tiles.  When I walked into the plaza a couple hours later, I saw Mr. Gaul bent over the edge of the fountain.  A large map splayed out before him, he was examining it while an unfamiliar man in a ratty white linen shirt gesticulated, pointing and asking questions.

I couldn’t understand what the man was saying.  It didn’t sound like Spanish.  It might have been Arabic, but I couldn’t distinguish those sounds well at that age.  To this day, I’m not sure what he was speaking, though I’m rather confident it was complete gibberish.

The man made eye contact with me, and in a flustered huff like a suddenly shamed rooster, he scooped all edges of the crinkley paper map into his arms, waved at Mr. Gaul as if to say, “So sorry for the trouble, thanks for trying to help,” spluttered out some more nonsense words, and beat a hasty retreat into the crowds of the city.

“Who was that?” I started to ask, as Mr. Gaul turned around, looking at me while taking his seat.  His head swiveled this way and that.  “Oh crap,” he said, eyes shifting and arms spreading wide.  “One of our bags is gone.”

Sevilla para herir.

Córdoba para morir.

¡Siempre Sevilla para herir!

– Francisco Lorca

A crossroads city where the Tartessians, Cathaginians, Iberians, Romans, Visigoths, and Moors set roots.  Where Jews, Muslims, Christians settled.  Where Christopher Colombus embarked (along with Amerigo Vespucci, and de Gama, and Cortéz, …).  Where a monopoly was granted for “trade” with the Americas.  Where the gitanos danced and wooed and… yes, a few shucksters aspired to perfecting the art of the grift.

Such a rich confluence, this city that periodically washed away in the alluvial soil on the banks of the Guadalquivir, also experienced dramatic intermixing of culture, thought, religion, practice, music, architecture, plagues, iconoclasm, iconography… I can’t help put try to peer through the layers of interwoven blending.

Pagan sites became churches, churches became mosques, mosques became repositories of Hebraic knowledge, then became churches again, then became institutions of state government, then became trading houses, then became gardens, became tourist attractions, became graffitied, sighed and lamented and rejoiced all together.

This city founded a Universidad de Mareantes (of the Mariners) around 1500 with faculty teaching piloting, sailing, cosmography, mathematics, astronomy, artillery tactics, military history, navigation, cartography.  These three pictures are details from a massive tapestry hanging in the Alcázar (roughly 40 feet by 25 feet) with the Mediterranean sea at the top and the Atlantic to the east.  Zooming in reveals lots of interesting tidbits.  It may be representative of the jealously guarded Padrón Real.

My favorite place – probably the old Moorish baths underneath the palace:




Anyone have this issue?  Speaking in one language and then changing to another without realizing?  “Code switching” they call it.

Although that is descriptive, not explanatory.  I have a working theory… well, perhaps not fleshed out enough to be a theory.  So, I have a hypothesis – or maybe I should call it a hunch.  I think aural similarity in vowels greases the rails.  Consider:

Japanese Spanish Pronunciation
a a Ah (like “Aha”)
e e Eh (like “egg”)
i i Ee (like “Eek”)
o o Oh (like “Oh sh**”)
u u Ew (like “Ewe”)

There’s virtually (not literally) no difference in short vowel sounds between these two languages.  Also, since Spanish has gendered nouns (and, like biolgical entities, not just male and female, but Spanish distinguishes masculine, feminine, neutered, common, epicene, and ambiguous), many words end in vowel sounds ‘o’ or ‘a.’  Japanese similarly ends most words in vowel sounds.  Hmm…

When I first returned to the USA after a long stay in Japan, old college buddy Jeremy let me sublet a room.  I hadn’t had decent guacamole or tequila in years, and we were headed out one night to reacquaint myself with these Mexican delights.  I said something like…

¡Vámonos, quiero las margaritas!

…What was that?


What you said.

I was speaking Spanish.

No you weren’t.

I wasn’t?

No, that was like…. Banzai Spanish.

Then Jeremy mimicked a sword slice á la John Belushi in Samurai Delicatessen.


Over the past couple of weeks here’s a few things I’ve caught myself saying (italics are Japanese):


Me: Tiene un… cómo se dice en Espaõl no sé, shikashi es para abrir kono botella de vino.

Do you have a …. I don’t know how you say it in Spanish, but it is to open this bottle of wine.


Me: Quiere beber Jerez.

A museum guard: Vivir en Jerez?

Me: Iiechigao, bebir.

Guard: A, para allá…

He wants to drink some sherry.

To live in Jerez?  (The fault is my pronunciation of “beber” sounded like “vivir,” “to live.”  And Jerez, the source of the name for the alcoholic drink “sherry,” is based on the town name it comes from, “Jerez.”  She thought I was asking about a place to live in town, not a place to drink some sherry.)

No, that’s not right.  To drink.

Ah, go that direction…


I met a Japanese woman eating tapas at a cafe in Sevilla with a woman from the UK.  I told her I used to lived in the Kansai region, and it turns out she’s from Kobe.  We spoke in Japanese a bit, and she actually teared up for a moment.

Her: It has been so long since I’ve been able to speak any Japanese.  I feel so… relieved.

Me: Jitsu wa, Hanshin Daishinsai no toki yo vivó en Kansai.

Her:  Daijoubu deshita?

Me:  Hai.  Pero estaba preocupado por mis amigos.

In fact, I lived in Kansai at the time of the Great Hanshin Earthquake.

Were you ok?

Yes.  But I was worried about my friends.


This probably doesn’t seem interesting or funny to most people.  But to those of you who code switch, you’re going to laugh.

Cathedrals, Mosques, Synagogues, oh my! (Part 1)

I read up on a lot of Spanish history in December.  One area of especial interest is from about 700 CE to 1500 CE.  That time span is bracketed at the low end by the Visigoths (who were nominally Christian), and at the high by the Reconquista, when the houses of Ferdinand and Isabel were joined and re-took Granada from the Moors, sparking a new age of Christian hegemony.  The Inquisition, what a show…

During this in-between time, adherents of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all resided in the Iberian peninsula.  The Moors basically controlled southern Spain, and though some would say they had control of all Iberia in toto, they never really challenged the old Visigothic Christian cities up north in Aragon, or in the northwest.

The Moors brought with them a great deal of ancient knowledge.  Besides introducing oranges, almonds, olive trees, and other staples that would come to re-define Iberia, they brought the accumulated wisdom of the “classical” world – primarily encoded in Arabic.  And some fantastic architectural techniques.

Some photos of “La Alhambra”:

The power of the Moors fluctuated as families split and attention wavered between northern Iberia and the Berbers in North Africa.  But in general, the rule of law treated Jews and Christians as “people of the Book” (“dhimmi,” or in Arabic: ذمي‎‎ (ḏimmī)).  Basically, this meant they had freedom to worship, but also had to pay a tax (“jizyah” (Arabic: جزية‎‎ ǧizyah)).  (Speaking of which, I’m wondering if this historic practice of “tolerance via payments” is rooted in Persian precedent…I need to listen through the new Hardcore History episodes.)

Now this theoretical concept of la convivencia, as some have speculated, is rife with controvery and floundering in rhetoric.  No “diachronic” comparative analysis of systems of law (over time) which we attach to a major “religion” will ever produce a winner.  It is not a zero-sum game.  And there is no ultimate truth to be found.  Whoever claims that one religion is more peaceful or rational than another based on evidence x, y and z is standing on shifting sand.

I read one review on Amazon of a text that disputes the idea that “Christians, Jews and Muslims lived in relative harmony” during this period in Spain.  The text elaborates all the horrific treatment that Christians and Jews suffered under Muslim rule, and essentially demonstrates there was never any real peace; the idea that they had it better under Muslim rule than the converse is poppycock.  The reviewer praised the book for breaking the “politically correct” theory of convivencia.  Well, this won’t be very politically correct for me to say, but all religions are flawed and a waste of time.

All governments are, too.  And so are all corporations.

(I’m not trying to go all Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett here.)  But all of these things – governments, religions, companies – share one great corrupter in common.  Us.  I’m as equally suspicious of two religious adherents meeting together as I am of two government officials or two businesspeople brokering a deal.  (And let’s not get started with the lawyers.)

We’re flawed.  We make mistakes.  We’re subject to neurochemistry we do not control nor yet understand.  Our nervous systems react to perceived realities as veridically as they do to actual ones.

Yet there remains beauty in the intermeshing of existences.  Sometimes violent, sometimes empathetic.  The myriad con-glomming.  Interspersed and overlapping keyhole arches, geometric repetition betraying a harmonic theory, hyper-attentive detail.  This book is an interesting read [Amazon link] on all of the above.

White Villages: los Pueblos Blancos

Through the winding and precipitous passages just north of the Costa del Sol, over hill and dale, you will find los Pueblos Blancos.  With their backs against the rocks, or up high on the cliffs, where the people can only ever see the tops of the birds, these whitewashed-in-the-Moorish-tradition compact little towns stand vigilantly.


When I was 16, I came from the north into this fractured basin, the variegated outcroppings of the Cordilleras Béticas (The Baetic System).  Not climbing quite as high as the Sierra Nevadas to the east – towards Granada – but sharp and rocky and steep, just the same.  Tired, fetched by the wind and under spring drizzles, forever the first white city would be imprinted in my memory.  To the right is what I recall, and to the left is what it really looks like.

I’ve had cycling dreams to visit the missions in California, spaced about a day’s horseride apart.  And also to go around the Grand Canyon.  But touring this region of the Pueblos Blancos goes right up to the top of the list.

The roads are well-maintained and clear, but also very narrow with sharps turns through the copses of cork and olive trees.  Nothing beats the cycling network in the Netherlands, of couse: that’s the gold standard.  So while I can’t vouch for the safety of southern Spanish roads, the vistas are definitely worth the risk.  Given the opportunity, I can’t imagine anything would be better than horseback on those famed Andalusian steeds.

Some of the cave paintings discovered in this area are the oldest found in Europe.  Given that there are paintings in Australia from a similar time period, it seems only a matter a time before we find older samples in Africa.  Given cranial development timelines, I find it only the remotest of possibilities that abstract art depictions developed in parallel.

The eastern edge of the interregnum between Béticas and the Sierra Nevadas, not far from Antequera, is covered with the otherwordly landscape of El Torcal.  This is today a 17 square km national park, including some of the most unique and unusual limestone formations in Europe.  When I made it up the zig-zaggy slopes, a sleety squall arrived.  You can see in one of the photos above the quick dusting, completely obscuring the view toward the southern coast.  It dissipated almost as quiclly as it arrived.  The porous formations would certainly have offered favorable terrain for cave bears and other mega-fauna.  Not to mention the 30+ varieties of orchid.

Ronda is (almost certainly) the largest of the white villages.  Here where the bulls are on display, where Hemingway practiced being an aficionado, as is Jake in The Sun Also Rises.  A thoroughly exhilirating landscape of low stone fences, sheepherds, wet grey rocks, bending asphalt, steep cliffs, and compact blanco towns over pale green hills and, here and there, a distinguished Andalusian gentleman in his sweater and discerning hat.  Here, apart from the corsairs and the highwaymen.  High in the pocked hills.



Para comer, para bebir: cómo comer, cómo bebir – cómo vivir!

How to make “garum”:

Throw into a vessel and salt: the intestines of fish, especially small fish, such as atherinae, small mullets, maenaelycostomi,… really any small fish.  Salt them all.  Season them in the sunlight, turning frequently.  Filter through baskets and yum, you have your “garum.”

Recipe adapted from a 10th Century Byzantine manual.  Like soy sauce, this fermented product is rich in MSG: as in, umami-heavy.  It widely spread across the Roman empire.

The Phoenecians probably settled Malaka in the 7th Century BCE.  Found deep beneath the site of the Museo Picasso Málaga were amphora containing garum.  Even deeper were the Phoenecian walls and a bath, and a ramp for wagons.  Pictured here are the street outside the current museum, the garden inside with a shallow pool for doves and pigeons, and the amphora.

The moutains and hills of Andalucía are covered with immaculately spaced, precisely ordered olive trees.  Interspersed throughout are almond trees, now in late January starting to bloom in their lovely pink.  Some rockier hills have groves of cork trees, most of them with stripped trunks.  In every city there sprout rows and rows of orange trees, some lemons, and some persimmons.  Most of the ravens and crows seem to favor the persimmons.

The Mercado Central de Atarazanas in downtown Málaga is a food market mecca at any time of year.  Try to imagine the smell of the freshly plucked oranges, almonds, olives, the salted cod and jámon, the piping pastries.  I especially love the fishmonger’s photos of his two rowdy boys.  And oh, those Iberian spices.

Would that our Walmarts, seemingly off every interstate highway exit, would function as stalls for local producers in this way.  Rather than palettes of RFID-tracked and hyper-efficienctly supply chain-optimized row after row of the industrialized, subsidized commodity food products, I lean toward the basket of hand-plucked and vinegared olives.

Efficiency certainly has its benefits, but it also results in great brutality.

Find me under the re-approrpiated whitewashed Moorish arched vaults with a glass of fino jeréz (“sherry”).

Borders, Barriers, Walls: Identity

To the Phoenecians and the Romans, the Straits of Hercules marked the boundary of the known world.  Not so much for the Basque fishermen who had already sailed up the coast of Portugal, around the British Isles, through the Faroes, past Iceland, and (possibly) into Greenland and Newfoundland.  Nor for the plucky North Africans who sailed across to the Canary Islands and perpetuated there until some Spaniards discovered them in a neolithic-like existence in the 15th Century.

Mons calpe (the Phoenecian name for the 1,400 foot high limestone promontory) is the northern pillar, and Mons abyle (or Jebel Musa) is the southern.  About 8 miles of water separates them.

Jabal Ṭāriq (جبل طارق) (“The Mountain of Tariq”), when españiol-ized, then Anglicized, becomes Gibraltar.

When the Hapsburg dynasty was in its death throes, succession battles flared across the Old Country (as you might expect).  A Dutch-Anglo army went for the rock, and took it for the Queen in the early 18th C.  Leveraging the Spanish War of Succession (1702-15), Gibraltar was granted to the UK “in perpetuity.”

The myth remains that if ever the macaques leave Gibraltar, then so will the British.  Winston Churchill during WWII imported a mass of them from Morocco when their population dwindled to a few inbred mangy curs.

Alfred Lord Tennyson spun a poem in blank verse, widely considered a dramatic soliloquoy in the vein of Robert Barrett Browning, called “Ulysses.”  In this speculative fantasy, Ulysses has returned from his wayward voyages and gotten – as you might expect – bored.

So he rouses his men to action, proposing they sail beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, into the great unknown.  A final venture.  A last plunge.

I expect neither Tennyson nor Ulysses would have ever expected over 50 miles of tunnels to have been bored through that limestone promontory.  Never expected a massive data center and a server farm and three hospitals and a power station and a conert hall to be housed within.  Probably never even realized this is the last stand of the Neanderthals.

Regardless, the establishment of a border, of a boundary, or an end, a red line, a last straw… the act invites an investigation into the rationale behind the decision.  Often, the act is proven to be not rational at all, but highly emotional.

When we delineate the other (this is Spain, this is the UK; this is the known world, this is the unknown; this is Africa, this is Europe; these are Catholics, these are Protestants; these are Moors, these are Christians; these are Neanderthals, these are homo sapiens), we’re really defining ourselves.  Without an other, we wouldn’t know who we are.

It is a very egotistical act, usually born of fear.  Also dangerously galvanizing.  For ever cross the walls.  That’s the only way to make sure you don’t trap yourself in someone else’s definition of you.  Though the more intransigent are the walls you build yourself.  Always seek to broach those: better yourself.  Better to find yourself.  Better to be with your fear.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.

“Stained,” “Drained”: La Mancha

La Mancha – (Arabic: المنشا (al-mansha)) “barren; dry land; inhospitable arid region”

La Mancha – (Spanish) “stain; splotch; blotch”

Chosen by Miguel de Cervantes as the cradle of Don Quixote.  ¿Porque?  The answer to this is a bit quixotic.

A friend of mine pronounces this, “Key-HOE-tic.”  Actually, a little more like, “kwee-HOE-tic.”  I have always said, “quick-SAH-tic.”  I wonder what you say?

Cervantes plants his anachronistic knight in the soil of “the Stain,” a literary device to increase the irony of the character.  How could a paragon of virtue (delusional as he may be) grow from such sterile ground?

Flat, dusty, criss-crossed with shallow arroyos and sticky clods, the countryside of La Mancha doesn’t make it difficult to decipher its moniker.  It is a long, wide, and flat plateau around 2,000 feet above sea level.  But this is also the land of queso manchego [Facebook page]: a sheep cheese with a protected denominación de origen.

The manchega sheep breed probably migrated across the Pyrenees millennia ago.  They eventually settled in La Mancha and got themselves domesticated by the local Iberians.  The queso is traditionally prepped in baskets woven of esparto grass, which creates the unique signature pattern on the rind.  The Spanish call this grass, native to the areas around the western Mediterranean, “atocha,” which appears to be a name that pre-dates the Romans in Iberia.

But back to finding wonderful things in incongruous places… Don Quixote has persisted like few other characters.  He has transcended archetypes themselves, becoming his own.

In Book V of the Prelude, William Wordsworth includes a passage where he is reading Cervantes, and he falls into a sleep.  Tumbles further into a dream.  On these twin perplexing and vexatious parallels he had been ruminating: intellect and creativity.  Words and sound(shape)s.  Ration and irrationality.  Science and art.  “Poetry and geometric truth.”

How do we humans merge these competitive forces?  How do we re-integrate what we seem to have distinguished?  Should we have?  Did we mean to?

In his dream, an “arab of the Bedouin tribes” appears to him, riding a dromedary, as he materializes in a wide desert.  He carries a lance under his arm.  In one hand a stone.  In the other, a shell of “surpassing brightness.”

The stone, he learns, is “Euclid’s Elements.”  The shell, when held to the ear, whispers poetry.  Imagine the stone as a prism, like the one held in the hand of the statue of Isaac Newton at Westminster Abbey.  Holding the shell to the ear, one can hear an apocalyptic prediction of a great flood.  Told in verse, of course.

The rider is Don Quixote.  Holding in one hand art, and the other, science.  With one stone, he reveals the truths of natural objects we cannot otherwise see.  With the shell, we hear of the inevitability of death.  Notice that the stone is a natural object.  The shell is a crafted abode.

A professor of mine, back in the early 1990s, Jeffrey Robinson, once talked about this with me in his office hours.  We wondered, why has Don Quixote persisted in our imaginations? Few people can quote passages of Cervantes.  We don’t quip from those texts like we do with Shakespeare.  But he is universally recognized.

Who among you looks at any of these images and does not immediately think, “Aha!  The Man of La Mancha!”?!?  Not think.  But know.

Professor Robinson gave me his idea.  It has something to do with the struggle.  Despite all odds.  Despite us knowing he is mad.  Despite not fitting in his proper time and place.  There’s a part of all of us that roots for him.  We want to see that evil giant/windmill face its comeuppance at the end of a well-thrusted lance.

So… anyone else out there who still tilts at your own windmills?

To gyre and gimble in the Main: of Spain, where it chiefly rains…

I’ve “gyred” back to Toledo.  I rode into this town on a Miyata touring bike with an elliptical sprokcet in 1986.  The theory is in this copied image (and explained very well for enthusiasts here): you are meant to gain more momentum in your stroke.  My bike had the Shimano variant marketed as “biopace,” which is slightly different than this image.  Although there were theories that this wasn’t really good for your knees, I never got to that stage because the bike was stolen sometime in 1990 when I took it to college.


But back to “gyre.”  Humpty Dumpty said:

When I use a word… it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less

Alice reads through the lines of the Jabberwocky poem, and HD tries to explain the words to her:

To “gyre” is to go round and round like a gyroscope.  To “gimble is to make holes like a gimlet.

When I was here before, I was terribly excited to visit “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz” in the Iglesia de Santo Tomé.  It is extremely large: more than 15 feet high.  The snippet of an image I’ve included is only a pittance of the whole.


We were also excited to try and find some switchblades to buy.  Now, as then, the city abounds in swords.  My high school history teacher Mr. Gaul taught us that Toledo was famous for swordsmithery.  He also told us that some people named the Vandals, notorious for their sacking, looting, pillaging and despoiling acumen, gave popularity to the term “vandalism” following their 5th C escapades across southern Europe, into the Iberian penninsula and north Africa.  We didn’t believe him at the time.

We had elliptical sprockets, but no pervasive cell towers allowing us to fact-check our teachers at a moment’s notice: something my friends today do with reckless abandon.  (Once or twice a year I reminisce with Jimmy Wales in 2005.)

Memory is self-serving and imperfect.  Having experienced very disturbing memory loss in recent years, I look forward to re-experiencing the countryside I once toured.

I recalled Toledo as being magnificently dark, covered in cobblestones, high medieval walls and narrow streets.  I was partly correct.  The streets are as I recall, but perhaps I was looking down too often back then: the city is rather ruddy in complexion, almost sandstoney in tone: brighter than I recall.

I’m also now better able to recognize the Muslim influences in the architecture.  A superb example of the overlapping “horseshoe arch” I’ve cribbed from Córdoba:


There’s plenty of similar textures in some photos I took inside the cathedral (Catedral Primada Santa María de Toledo).  There’s a kind of nested fractal regularity that meshes Indra’s Net with Jackson Pollack with a Harmonic Theory of Everything at work.

I wonder how much of this patterning resulted from the early 8th C edict of Leo III the Isaurian, Byzantine Emperor, banning the use of imagery or iconography in religious worship.  (Not to deny that aniconism exists in many forms of religious worship and seems to develop organically: I’m reminded of reactionary artistic explosions, like the Caves at Mogao (莫高窟).)


Over the next two weeks I’ll gyre my way south, and I look forward to my re-imagining of Gibraltar, the Costa del Sol, and Al Andalus.

Hanseatic League, Epipens, Bottlenecks & Gunboats

Of course what I’m really talking about is markets.  And access.  And heterarchies.  And manipulations/contortions…

Access to the Baltic Sea from the Atlantic is restricted to three primary passages (prior to the Kiel Canal completed by Kaiser Wilhelm in 1895): the Lillebelt, the Storebelt, and the Øresund.

Travelling by boat from the town of Skagen on the northern end of the Jutland penninsula to the Baltic differs as follows:

Passage Distance Time Fuel Cost
Øresund 362 km 19.5 hours $487.45
Storebelt 537 km 29 hours $724.39
Lillebelt 604 km 32.6 hours $814.31

(Assuming modern day fuel prices in Europe for diesel, averaged across Scandinavia, and a speed of 10 nautical miles per hour, burning roughly 15-20 gallons of fuel per engine per hour.)

Travelling via the Øresund is roughly 40% cheaper than the Lillebelt, 33% cheaper than the Storebelt.  Additionally, both Belts are relatively shallow.  Not to mention you would be wending your way throughout the island homes of former Vikings (the etymology of the word itself is probably derived from Old Norse: “creek, inlet, bay” & Old English: “settlement, camp,” although it came to mean piracy – Old Norse: fara í viking means “to go on a viking,” “to go about pirating”).

A fort existed at Helsingør (derived from hals, “neck, narrow strait”) as early as 1200.  King Eric of Pomerania institued the “Sound Dues”(Øresundstolden) in 1429.  Every ship passing through had to pay, and that money went straight to the Danish royal family.  In 1567 the clever King Frederick II changed the tax to 2% of the cargo value (which tripled the income to the throne).  Shrewd Frederick reserved the right to purchase the entire cargo at cost, which tended to keep captains from undervaluing their merchandise.

All that money went into constructing the Kronborg castle, and to funding the King’s militaries to patrol for pirates and guarantee safe passage.  Restrict access (output).  Inflate prices.  The Sound Dues account for two-thirds of Denmark’s state income in the 16th and 17th Centuries.

After the age of the Vikings, the Hanseatic League came to dominate trade and markets across northern Europe for over 400 years.  These merchants spread all around the coasts of the Baltic, stretching to Brugge and London in the west.


The Hansa had no flag.  No seal.  No king.  No real laws or regulations.  But it acted en masse like a cartel.  Hansa towns (mostly ports) dealt in bulk.  Grain from the east.  Herring and cod from the seas and oceans.  Timber, pitch and tar from the north.  Cloth from Flanders and England.  All items with low profit margins.  So to make money, they had to establish a monopoly on shipping.  Control of the flow of goods, and therefore price.

A fascinating economic analysis of the “Hansa” inspired by Network Theory models posits:

Compared to hierarchical forms of enterprise, a network features a horizontal, little formalized and constantly changing structure.  It is often a self-organizing form of cooperation and develops around one or more hubs or nodes, be it in the sense of an ego-network or a heterarchical network.  In the first case, the actor is at the center of the anlysis, whereas the second case resembles a neural network with multiple nodes of varying density.  Unlike the market, the relationship between the actors are not solely regulated according to competition and price or supply and demand.  Instead, the reciprocal transactions are determined by a web of social factors such as obligations, trust, solidarity and reciprocity.

The cohesion of the network is thus produced less through formal rules and contracts than through the presence of a common culture and common goals.

Control of a resource or a product – such as a shipping channel, or a shipping network, or a life-saving shot of epinephrine to counter anaphylactic shock – enables a means of manipulating normal price elasticity.

Control or dominance of “information shipping lanes” resulted in the massive increase in marketing departments in the 20th Century; a trend that the “information superhighway” invented by Al Gore only exacerbated.  The explosion of information repositories has experienced an unusual and mostly unanticipated consolidation to relatively few platforms of social media, many of which serve as the primary source of news content consumed by users.


Mylan’s “EpiPen” is an interesting example of a product whose history demonstrates the kinds of information market control efforts undertaken by the holder(s) of its (copy)rights.

In 2014, the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development updated their 2003 estimates for the cost of developing a pharmaceutical product to market approval (the FDA bottleneck) to: 10 years development, $2.9B investment.  In the USA our regulatory agency is responsible for:

… protecting the public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, and medical devices; and by ensuring the safety of our nation’s food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation.

(Whether you believe that the role of a government is to attend to the needs of the people, as in a constitution that is “of,” “by,” and “for the people,” is up to you.  But governments interfere with markets: that’s unquestionable.)

A feature of this market is an approval bottleneck.  A feature of 21st Century markets in particular is the (social) “network effects” (also called network externality or demand-side economies of scale: the effect that one user of a good or service has on the value of that product to other people).  Combine the two and you have a unique regulatory & policy framework that, when leveraged cleverly, tips markets to a particular winner.  

Exempli gratia: Mylan acquired the rights to the EpiPen in 2007 when it produced $200M in annual sales and controlled 90% of the market.  The company spearheaded initiatives to “raise public awareness” (to increase demand) by enabling patient sponsors and lobbying the federal government to mandate that epinephrine autoinjector devices are stocked in public schools (and also, ideally, in restaurants, hotels, and any other public spaces (much like defibrilators have been – Mylan hired the same marketing consultants who generated this advocacy).  With few competitors approved through the FDA (bottleneck) process, essentially a de facto market dominator, you now create a de jure market winner: mandated public institutions, compelled by law, will pass on the (C.Y.A.) responsibility to the parents of at-risk children.  (Id est: “you must buy this epinephrine auto-injector product, and no other” – many parents face this prerequisite condition, or their kids don’t go to school.)

Result: 2007, sales are $200M and 90% market dominance.  In 2015, sales are $1.5B and still 90% market dominance.  As a single product it accounts for about 40% of Mylan’s profit.  The device delivers about $1 worth of drug, and costs around $35 to manufacture.

But I’m not trying to paint Mylan as a company motivated by nefarious intent: they are a for-profit entity who has invested in creating demand (manipulating the market) by the means available to them (and for which they are facing regulatory and public backlash).

This is not a free market.  As the examples of the Sound Dues and the Hanseatic League modus operandi demonstrate, rarely are markets ever truly free.  And conditions for a “perfect market” are unobtainable.

Neither am I apologizing for Mylan’s business model.  I’m rather fascinated by accumulating information: much of this tends to bolster my belief that certain products are not best served by the market structures we create for them.  Particularly those where we weigh the balance as such:

“Lives are at stake” vs. “Lifestyles are at stake.”

The Sound Dues ended in 1857.  The Copenhagen Convention which turned the three “belts” into “international waterways” (free to all commercial and military ships) was precipitated by a US merchant vessel refusing to pay.  They were backed by the declaration from the US government.

In 1853 the US Navy, ordered by President Fillmore, sailed four gunships into Uraga Bay outside Tokyo and threatened to open fire.  Their demands: to open Japanese ports to American trade.


These aren’t “invisible hands.”

Why the Sea is Salty, or, Hamlet (Amlo∂i)

A Scandinavian saga.

Once, such a long, long time ago, a rich brother and poor brother lived, not far from one another.  As the winter solstice and the time of Jól (“Yule”) approached, the poor brother had not a thing to eat, not even the crumbs of a stale loaf of bread.  He went to his rich brother to beg for meat or fish or berries or beetroot – anything to keep the Jòl, for the offerings to Thor that he might protect us from the powers of Hel during the dark days of the 13 weeks of winter. 

Not for the first time did the poor brother find himself relying upon his rich sibling, and the rich brother, honestly, started to tire of this dependence.  Enough being enough, but family still being family, the rich brother did not find himself happy to see the poor, but he let him in.  Then he said, “I’ll give you one of my goats and a barrel of mead, but you must do what I ask you to do.”

Full of thanks and happiness along with his hunger pangs, the poor brother said, “Anything, I’ll do anything!”

They walked through the household and out to the barn, where the rich brother selected a portly goat.  “Take this one,” he said, and handed him a leash.  Then he rolled out a barrel of mead, and they loaded it across the poor brother’s shoulders.  “Now, go to Hel.”

“I gave my word,” said the poor brother, and he nodded and blinked, swallowing hard.  So he walked all day with his goat and his barrel, headed for home, wondering how he could follow through. 

When the sun dipped low and the clouds thickened, and the night began to gather, he saw a bright light coming through the spruce.  “Perhaps that is for me,” he thought, shoulders aching.  So he turned off the road and went for the light. 

He was afraid in the woods, because it was the time of year when the souls of the dead ride through the winter skies.  The days grow ever shorter, and the difference between the world of the living and that of the dead is so slight that it is difficult for the Jòl Riders to tell where they are going.  Above him he saw black shapes shooting in and out of the clouds, and he heard the braying of wolves through the forest.  He shivered, but he focused on the light, and carried on with his goat. 


He soon came upon a clearing, in the middle of a windless glade of pine trees.  A large bonfire burned nearby, the ground littered with fresh cut stacks of wood.  But the light was not coming from the fire.  In the clearing stood a long and narrow hall with three windows and a curved roof covered with sod.  A golden chain hung around it, under the eaves.  The light shined through a hammer carved into the door.  Leaning next to the cabin stood a wizened old graybeard.  He had a hefty axe in his gnarled hands, as he had been chopping wood for his solstice bonfire. 

“Good evening,” called the poor brother.

“Same to you.  Nice goat.”  He wiped a paw-like hand over his brow.  “Why are you passing by this Hof, so late in the day, when the nisser and the gnomes, the dark elves and the dead men roam? ”

“Well, actually,” he hedged a moment.  But he felt tired, and simply said,  “I’m going to Hel.  If I can find my way.”

The graybeard sniffed, then scratched at a fuzzy ear.  “You’re not far off.  This is the way,” he said, pointing toward the door.  “When you get there, you’ll be the talk of the place.  Goats and mead are scarce in Hel.”  He smiled a toothy grin.  “But don’t sell it to anyone unless you get the little grindstone, which sets behind the door, as part of the bargain.  When you come back, I’ll show you how to use it.  It can grind just about anything.”


Thanking the graybeard for his advice, the poor brother adjusted his barrel, and gave a great knocking to the longhouse door.

It creaked open.  He passed inside, and just as the old man had said, all manner of dead men, skin as dark as jet and eyes to match, swarmed around him like ants on a hill, like flies on a carcass.  They stretched their bony fingers out to the goat, licking their skinless lips and begging for some meat, and a horn of mead.  He grasped the goat and the barrel and his knuckles shined white. 

In the center of the room he saw the source of the light: a young girl, golden-haired and gleaming, lying still on a table, eyes closed and not moving at all.  Around her swirled nine tall women, each faintly glowing white.  Some leaned over the girl, caressing her.  Some leaned over the dead men, consoling them.  Sometimes they would touch a dead man, motherly and tender.  His twisted black body would jerk and spasm, transforming into golden light, and it would slowly rise into the air, drifting above the golden girl and into the rafters, out of sight.


“By rights, this goat is mine,” he said, “for me and my wife, for our solstice, and for Thor.  I feel sorry for you all, though, so I suppose we can make a deal.  I’ll give it to you for the grindstone behind the door there.”

The frantic host wailed and screeched, refusing the preposterous offer.  But the poor brother stuck firm, and despite the haggling and waggling and chin-waving and cursing, they finally parted with the stones.  He handed over the goat and the mead to one of the tall women, who said to him, “One of the stones is Fire, and the other is Ice.  What do you plan on doing with them?”

“The graybeard outside told me they can grind almost anything.  He promised to show me how to use them.”

She smiled at him, and said, “Whatever that old hound tells you, remember that whatever you grind, give an offering to the alfar.”  Then she turned and carried the goat to an altar, and poured the mead into horns for the gleeful dead.

Back outside the longhouse door, he showed it to the graybeard.  His sharp white teeth glowed as he smiled and taught him how to use it.  Thanking the man, the poor brother hurried home.  But it was a long way, and he didn’t make it before the solstice had passed.

“I’ve waited hour after hour, watching and worrying, without even two sticks to rub together, wondering where you’ve been,” his wife said.  His son clung to her skirts, eyes red and wet.

“Well, I had to go a long way for one thing, and then after that something else followed, and then something more, you know how it goes,” he shrugged.  “But,” he grinned, “now you will see what you will see.”  And he ruffled the boy’s hair, who wiped his nose with his finger.

He set the grindstones on the table, his wife rolling her eyes and rubbing her growling belly.  He whispered to the stones, then ground them together.  Candles appeared, all aflame, and a tablecloth with a fancy brocade.  A whole roast with turnips and parsnips, beets and carrots filled the table, and horns of mead and shining silverware, silk napkins, all the nice things you’d love to have on a winter solstice.  Whatever he whispered, he ground from the stones.  His wife gaped and cawed, and clapped her hands to the stars.  His son shouted and laughed, asking him again and again where he found such a wondrous thing. 

“Don’t worry yourself with where I got it, little Amlo∂i.  It works, its wonderful, that’s all fine and good.  That’s all you need to worry about.  That and let’s hope the stream doesn’t freeze over.”

After wife and son had eaten their fill, he put them to bed.  He snuck out of the house, and walked into the woods to a clearing of low, flat rocks.  On the rocks he placed one copy of everything he’d made with the grindstones.

Over the next few days he ground out meat and drink and delicacies and cakes and fur coats and dresses and toys and candies.  He thought about how poor he had been, and how hungry he had caused his wife and son to be through all their troubles.  So with the Jólablót (“Yule Sacrifice”) ceremonies coming up, he invited all his neighbors for a great feast.  Because they lived near the village where his wife came from, all of the attendees were his in-laws.  So he also invited his brother, to thank him for his past help. 


When his rich brother arrived and witnessed the sumptuousness of his poor brother’s household, he got a wild look in his eye.  “It was only a couple weeks ago when this cretin was in such dire straits that he begged me for scraps for Jól, in the name of the gods.  And now he is living like a King!”  He turned to his brother and asked, “Where in Hel’s name did you get all this?”

“From behind the door,” he said, picking at his nails and arching an eyebrow.  Which of course made his brother throw a fit.  But later in the evening, after a bit too much mead, he started to let things spill.  He showed everyone the grindstones and said, “This, this is what has given me all this wealth.”  Everyone scoffed, and he felt insulted, so he began to grind out all kinds of things: hat pins and snuff bottles, bone combs and toothpicks, amber and jet amulets, feather quills and inkpots. 

Amidst all the spirited guests and the simmering rich brother, the young son reminded his father of the Braggaful ritual, always performed on the first night of the Jólablót.  So his father ground out a massive but docile boar, and everyone gathered around.  They put their hands on the boar, one by one, and each person in turn spoke about their promise for the next year. 

“I will build a new boat,” “I will visit my father in the mountains,” “I will finish preparing the new field,” “I will take my family to Uppsala.”  “I will become even richer,” boasted his brother.  Then they took the boar outside and slaughtered it, and the boar’s spirit would carry their promises to the gods.  The poor brother ground out more mead, and everyone drank deeply.

The rich brother seethed over with jealousy, and begged his brother for the stones.  After much coaxing and more drinking, he finally agreed to lend it to him.  “You did keep me fed, more times than I can remember.  And many times lent me money when I was in need.  Plus, you’re my brother.  So, you can keep it until the equinox.”

The rich brother clapped and laughed, and reasoned that he could grind out plenty of food and things by the equinox.  However, the poor brother, too drunk to remember, never bothered to teach him how to use it properly.

When he got home, the rich brother told his wife to go outside, take a walk, a constitutional, a rest, play games with your shuttlecock or walk the dogs, whatever!  “You deserve some time off.  The mowers are working our fields, and I will take care of everything for dinner.”  She left in a huff, perplexed and disoriented by his odd behavior.

He set the grindstone on the table and thought that he’d impress everyone in his household by preparing all their dinners. “Herrings and broth, onions and ramps, grind them all out, quickly and fast!”  So the grindstone churned out herrings and broth, onions and ramps.  He went into the parlor and spent most of the day dreaming about what he’d do with the fabulous stones. 

As he idly dreamed, in the kitchen the stones were filling the bowls, then the plates, then the table, then the floor.  The rich brother heard the crashing, and dashed in.  He grabbed at the stones, twisting and shouting, but they went on spouting more food until the broth was so deep he thought he’d drown.  He fumbled for the door, and spilled out into the parlor.  Soon the entire house ran over, and he dashed off down the road, a waterfall of herrings and broth, onions and ramps crashing behind him.

Out in the fields, his wife grew bored with her leisure.  “Well, he hasn’t called me in, but it is nearing time for dinner,”  she thought.  “He probably can’t figure out how to boil the water,” she sighed, and decided to march on home.

She and the mowers started on their way back, but the roadway seemed oddly wet, and fragrantly so.  The rich brother hurtled past them, screaming out for them to run.  “Unless you can swallow all the herrings in the sea, run away!  Run away!”  Right behind him over the hill gushed the herrings and broth, onions and ramps.

They ran as fast as they could, all the way to the poor brother’s house. 

“You must stop the stones!” the rich brother begged.  “Soon everything will be buried in herrings and broth, onions and ramps.”

The poor brother leapt to action, scooping up some herrings, some broth, some onions and some ramps into a bowl and tearing through the woods to the flat rocks.  Once he left his gifts for the alfar, the grindstones stopped, and everyone was relieved.

The rich brother now divined the secret to making the grindstones stop, and he lusted over all the things he could make.  “Let’s celebrate,” he urged, so they ground out more mead, and they drank.  But the rich brother could not take his mind off all the things he wanted, and he resented his poor brother for showing him up.  So while everyone drank themselves silly, he poisoned his brother’s horn.  And so ended the second night of the Jólablót.


In the morning the poor brother’s wife couldn’t wake him, and she moaned and cried, and little Amlo∂i wailed and bawled.  The rich brother took her home to be his second wife, and adopted Amlo∂i as his son, and of course he took the grindstones with him.

In no time at all he lived in a finer household than anyone around.  He had more land and more fields, more mowers and more grass.  He ground out so much gold that he stored it in golden warehouses.  It spilled down the hillsides toward the sea, and every ship that passed by saw the glinting of the sunlight on the rivers of gold. 

But the days never grew longer after the Jólablót had passed.  He had quite forgotten to sacrifice a goat, and the winter persisted.  The short, dark days went on and on, a tired old sun barely dragging herself across the sky.  Everyone grieved for the seasons except the rich brother, who smiled and smiled at his piles of gold.

Twelve years later, little Amlo∂i had become a tall young man, and he ventured farther and farther from the household of his rich uncle.  One day during the Jól, he saw a dark figure step out of the woods, and beckon to him, then re-enter the thick trees.  Thinking it looked like his dead father, he followed it.  He called to it, but received no answer.  He could only hear a shivering, whispering sound like many voices speaking at once, far in the distance. 

It led him to the Hof where his father went to Hel, and the wind ceased.  He wondered at the graybeard chopping pine outside.  The light coming through the hammer shone, but it was very dim, no brighter than the dim light from the sun.  The graybeard snarled at the young man, but continued with his chopping.  The shadowy figure looked at him, then entered the hall.  Amlo∂i knocked on the door, and it flung wide open.

He came inside, and saw it packed with countless dead, inky men.  They moaned and whimpered, but barely lifted their heads.  They sat drooped over long tables, piled atop one another, wheezing and farting and drooling.  Nine tall women sat around a young girl, who lay prone and unmoving.  “Tell me, what is happening here?” he asked.

One of the women opened her eyes, and said, “We cannot wake her.  We cannot remember the words to the Sólarjód (“The Song of the Sun”).  The world is filling with the dead, and we cannot move them on.  There is no difference between Hel and your world any longer.”

Amlo∂i felt great sorrow.  He begged them to tell him what to do.  They told him to grind together Ice and Fire, to re-begin all things.  “Give me two jotunn women who are bound to help me, and I will,” he promised.

When he returned to his rich uncle’s home, he presented the two women as gifts.  He said to his father, “These women have a touch of magic, and they are bound to you.  Give them the task of grinding the stones, to relieve yourself of the responsibility.  I ask only that you tell me how my father died.”

“He died of drinking, the poor man.  He drank you and your mother out of house and home.  He drank because he was poor, and he was poor because he drank too much.  Luckily, that will never happen to me.”  The uncle thanked him for the gift, and thought it a wonderful idea.  He set the women to work immediately, never letting them rest.  All day long they ground out gold and hauled it into his warehouses. 

The rich uncle feared Amlo∂i and his new curiosity, and especially the odd practice he had begun of wearing a goat mask every day.  So he hatched a plan to kill him, too.  He told his second wife that he had exchanged proposals with a King across the western sea, who had agreed to marrying Amlo∂i to his daughter.


He drafted a letter for the King, and in it he wrote that Amlo∂i was a pirate who boasted of stealing from the King’s ships.  And because the uncle felt it was only right for the young man to be dealt with accordingly by the King himself, he was sending him along with the happy suggestion that he be hanged upon arrival.  He sealed it and gave the letter to Amlo∂i, saying it was his new marriage contract, and he should deliver it unopened.  Amlo∂i bowed in his goat mask, took the letter, and said, “May your hawks never become handsaws.”

When he came before the King across the western sea, Amlo∂i gave him an altered letter, one that explained how his rich uncle used the grindstones to manufacture gold, and this was the source of his wealth.  The King desired to see them, of course, and asked Amlo∂i to return and entreat him to visit.

Return he did, but before coming back to his rich uncle, he visited the Hof.  He captured a boar, swore to re-begin all things, then killed it on an alter of stone.  He went into the longhouse and collected an army of the dead.  He propped them all along the shore outside his uncle’s home, and then ran inside.  “The King knows about the grindstone, and he demands you bring it to him,” he said.  “He has sent a great army to kill you if you do not comply – see them gathered on the beach!”

His uncle saw the army, and became seized with fear.  “What can we do, what can we do?” he cried.

“Send him the grindstone with the two women bound to you.  They cannot break their commitment to do what you command.  But have them grind out something simple, like salt, and sand, and water.  The King will see that it cannot grind gold and he will send it back to you.”

This the uncle thought a sound idea, so he commanded it right away.  The two jotunn women were loaded on a ship with Ice and Fire, and in the hold they ground away, making salt, and sand, and water.  This being Twelfth Night, Amlo∂i sacrificed a goat and drained its blood into a horn of mead, taking one drink for himself and giving the rest to Thor.

Great piles of salt poured over the gunwales until the ship sank beneath the waves, spinning into the deep.  Surges of sand and water carved out the skerries, and drowned the rich uncle and his home beneath the waves.

In the Hof, the nine women sang, and the young girl woke.  The dark dead tuned gold at the touch of the women and slowly raised into the sky.  The girl, ablaze in light, rose with them, where she made love to all the gods.  Outside the longhouse, the graybeard sniffed, and threw aside his axe.  He fell onto all fours, howled and brayed, and then set off to chase the bright Sun, rising in the east.

So the grindstone continues to spin, whirling out salt, and sand, and water, even to this day, under the Swelki, just north of Orkney.