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:




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.

Tycho & the Mayans

The best of the best of pre-telescopic or pre-instrument star charters: Tycho Brahe, the epic personality, and the Mayans, those clever Mesoamerican engineers.

My bicycle, lashed to the still-useful horse hitch outside Tycho’s church on the isle of Hven (like “Vain”).  It rises from the narrow sea channel between Denmark and Sweden, 50 meter chalk and sand cliffs (called “backafall“) rising to a level plateau.  On the southeast cliffs, an enterprising local has imported alpaca llamas to graze the cliff faces.  He’s planning on doing guided llama rides someday, too, although it only takes about 90 minutes to bike around the entire perimeter, so he’ll probably just stick with wool.

The beneficent, munificent, and scientifically curious King Frederick II (1534 – 1588) offered the island to Tycho in 1575.  Frederick had incidentally been saved from drowning (probably while drunk, as he was a famous soaker) by Tycho’s uncle Jørgen (who died of pnemonia later, as a result).  But Tycho had also been elevated by his accomplishments with fashioning new instruments, publishing De Stella Nova, and catching the eye of some wealthy landed gentry in Germany/Pomerania who shared an interest in astronomy.  The competition for great science pushed Frederick to make an offer Tycho couldn’t refuse.

He couldn’t, and didn’t, and especially appreciated that the island afforded him the luxury of avoiding the social etiquettes and responsibilities of courtly existence: all distractions – in his mind – from doing good work: staring at the night sky and writing everything down.

His sour relationship with the locals has become a persistent bitter history.  Although the requirements of the peasants – content in their half-timbered villages and golden fields – to serve their noble lord with two days every week of manual labor was not unusual for the rest of Denmark at the time, it was epochal change as far as they were concerned.  The island of about 50 families and some 300 people hadn’t had a lord for over 300 years.

Tycho, the hyper-systematic and obsessive control freak, with his census and surveys and measurments, built his utopian Uraniborg smack dab in the middle of the best arable land and disrupted their universe.  Complaints to the crown are consistent throughout his 20+ year presence, and when he finally did lose the island, the locals tore all his buildings down by hand.  Fortunately, a great museum now exists, and inside the grounds is the island’s elementary and middle school.

It is his meticulous attention to detail that makes Tycho’s mark in history.  He is also often remembered for his flaboyant character, his golden nose (he usually wore one of copper or bronze, though), his unusual death*, and the rich and lordly lifestyle he enjoyed.  True enough, silks and spices and all manner of  expensive items were shipped to Hven, and many stories of his ostentatious feasts remain, with detailed herbs and plants painted on the ceiling tiles (as above, so below).

But with his wealth and patronage, he could afford to construct the finest measuring instruments in the world.  And for Tycho, bigger was better.  His sextant took four people to move, his quadrans maximus was twenty feet high, his celestial globe of wood may have been even grander, though it was abandoned when his father fell ill.  Not only this, but he recruited and became patron to a variety of mathematicians, alchemists, engineers, blacksmiths and more who rotated in and out of his properties.  He turned Hven into the first research institute in the western scientific tradition.

The precision and consistency of his records are what enabled Johannes Kepler to distill his three laws of planetary motion: a crucial starting point for Isaac Newton to utilize new mathematic methods (calculus) in an attempt to prove his theory of gravity.

About four years ago I was in Tulum, ancient Maya territory.  The Maya are 4th dimensional thinkers, or we can say they have a quadripartite cosmic philosophy.  A classic example of this thinking:

“Your plane takes two hours to fly from your home to here.  It takes me two hours to drive to here.  In two hours, our cousin can walk from his home to here.  We all live the same distance from here.”

Time is the undifferentiated past, present and future.  And it is cyclical.  They could, “remember the future to anticipate the past.”  Observation of astral motion became witnessing a narrative.  They invented a base-20 mathematics to accommodate for large array numbers (for instance, representing numbers in the hundreds of trillions with three symbols) about 1,100 years before European mathematicians.

the Maya calculated the length of the solar year to be 365.242 days; modern astronomers calculate the solar year to be 365.242198 days. This is only a difference of 0.000198 days per year. The Dresden Codex tracks the moon over a period of 405 lunar months or 11,960 days. These calculations produce an accurate period of 29.5302 days for a lunar month. Modern calculations yield a period for a lunar month equal to 29.53059 days. This a minute difference of 0.00039 days. Their calculations of the synodical period of Venus were calculated as 583.92027 days, compared to 583.93 days by modern calculations. Their uncanny capabilities also included the synodical period of Mars, which was calculated by the Maya to be 780 days compared to modern calculations of 779.94 days.

O’Kon, James A. The Lost Secrets of Maya Technology.

(Was the end of the Mayan calendar meant to indicate apocalypse?  Of course not.  It was merely the end of one of the recurring cycles.  But astrology always sells better than astronomy.  Astrology is what kept the Mayans and Tycho in business, of course.)

I could on and on about Tycho and the Mayans, particularly the similarity in their concept of “levels” or “crystal spheres,” but there are better sources out there.  Not X-Files out there, either, but right here, seated in human ingenuity.  Tycho may have had a research institute unique for its time, but the quadripartite Mayans had an entire hierarchy of society dedicated to astral observation.  They both designed buildings with features expressly for celestial survey.

And they both loved astrology.  As above, so below.

* = the fun part first.  My Austrian high school calculus teacher – brilliant and unique and deserving of his own dedicated attention – told us that Tycho’s death started with self experimentation.  He claimed that Tycho, well-known to be a strong Melanchthonion adherent and therefore believer in God’s ultimate harmonies, thought that consumption and excretion would be an interesting area of study.

That is to say, if we consume only those things that deliver the proper nutritional value, we will not need to defecate or urinate.  So, using himself as a test case, Tycho began refusing to use the facilities.  Extended discipline resulted in him being unable to do so altogether, and he died when his bladder burst during a nobleman’s dinner where it was inappropriate to excuse himself.

Conspiracy theorists (probably astrologists, too, in fact) think Tycho was poisoned, perhaps even by Kepler himself.  An exhumation of his body in Prague in the early 20th century revealed levels of arsenic and mercury, but a subsequent exhumation in 2010 debunked this theory: the levels were not fatal nor unusual.

On October 13, 1601 Tycho attended dinner at the palace of Peter Vok Ursinus Rozmberk, where it is true that it was discourteous to rise from your seat if your host has not.

Holding his urine longer than was his habit, Brahe remained seated. Although he drank a little overgenerously and experienced pressure on his bladder, he felt less concern for the state of his health than for etiquette. By the time he returned home, he could not urinate any more. [Kepler here noted down the positions of the Moon, Saturn, and Mars on the night of the banquet.]

Finally, [after five days of rest] with the most excruciating pain, he barely passed some urine. But, yet, it was blocked. Uninterrupted insomnia followed; intestinal fever; and little by little, delirium. His poor condition was made worse by his way of eating, from which he could not be deterred. On 24 October, when his delirium had subsided for a few hours, amid the prayers, tears, and efforts of his family to console him, his strength failed and he passed away very peacefully. At this time, then, his series of heavenly observations was interrupted, and the observations of thirty-eight years came to an end. During his last night, through the delirium in which everything was very pleasant, like a composer creating a song, Brahe repeated these words over and over: “Let me not seem to have lived in vain.”

Ferguson, Kitty (2013-01-31). Tycho and Kepler: The Unlikely Partnership that Forever Changed our Understanding of the Heavens

Qua-, metrics, a golden nose

“You manage what you measure.”  Poppycock.  Misattributed, misquoted, missed chaff for short attention spans.  The Godzilla zone of management, of information dispersal.  The expectation of immediate satisfaction.

(While I’m skeptical, in general, of anyone who tries to convince me of anything, I did agree with Ellen DeGeneres when she spoke about the 140-character limit and said, “‘The British are coming!’  Did he need to say anything more?  No.  No, he didn’t.”  But short form narratives and explanations still give me pause.)

I’m fascinated with our obsession… our need to measure.  Why measure?  To delineate, categorize, bifurcate, distinguish.  My friend, the philosopher Kyoo Lee, helped me begin to think about the homo sapien brain as an engine of compensation.  We see it in maintaining homeostasis (physical).  I think we overlook it in psychological homeostatic mechanisms.

(Kyoo has a presentation here (PPT) on “Desiderius Erasmus” and speaks about it here (MP3, about 32 minutes) on June 6, 2014 in a lecture on “Philosophy and Documentary Poetics“.)

Some of those mechanisms are poorly understood.  Some research has been discovering unsuspected connections between the brain and the nervous system via the lymphatic system.  This means that some social behavior, even some conditions (think: autism, depression, even schizophrenia), are triggered by the immune system.

Looking to the stars.  Early humans found innumerable meanings in the innumerable stars.  We were measuring.  Sometimes not just quantitatively, but qualitatively.  (If Tycho and Kepler did not produce horoscopes, they could not have funded their research.)

Of these four images (my recreations), one is from a Greek papyrus scroll, one from a carving inside a 莫高窟 (“Mogao cave,” pinyin: Mògāo kū), one a Pawnee etching on a buffalo hide, and one Sumerian on a clay tablet.  Can you place them?

Our brains categorize.  They do it, unbidden.  Gestalt’s isomorphs (sign stimulus, releaser) activate ISMs.  And they are demonstrably subject to catastrophe theory.

W. Edwards Deming and Peter Drucker are both invoked when these variants appear; e.g.: “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”  Quantitative goals / measures / metrics.  But what about when you measure the wrong thing?  What consequences… Some say, “That’s exactly what Deming was getting at!”


When I studied for a Six Sigma blackbelt, I was reminded of a story – probably apocryphal, so let’s call it a myth: A certain airline company wanted to perform a six sigma analysis on their baggage handling efficiency.  It turns out their numbers were quite good: nothing statistically unusual or anomalous.  Deeper analysis showed that they received more complaints on Monday mornings.  But once again, the data didn’t reveal anything unusual about Monday performance of baggage delivery.

One cherubic employee opined: “Monday morning business travellers are in a rush to get to their destination.  Perhaps their expectations are higher, skewing their perspective on the timeliness of bag arrival.”

A shrewd manipulator pondered: “Why cherubic?  That adjective doesn’t fit at all… But I see an opportunity here regardless.  If we land Monday morning planes at the farthest terminals of the airport, it will take the travellers longer to reach baggage claim.  Our bags will arrive statistically on par, but their sensitivity to lateness will be reduced.”

Proposed maneuvers enacted, and the complaints reduced to the mean.  The metrics only mattered when considering the context of perception / expectation.  The quant, empty without the qual.


(By user:cleonis in the english wikipedia –, CC BY-SA 2.5,
Known, among other things, as the greatest astronomical measurer, Tycho Brahe produced meticulous records; esp. of Mars.  He was looking for a parallax: it would prove that Mars was farther away from Earth than the moon, and closer than Sol.  It would shatter the theory of celestial spheres – the concept, the belief, the faith – of harmonic resonance.  That everything is ordered, and neat, and of course everything works in perfect circles.  He’d aleady done this, in fact, with his observations of both a supernova in 1572 (the “fixed stars” are in fact not fixed) and of a comet in 1577 (celestial objects do not move in spheres).  Not that he was the first… but he was among the most exact.

(Of course, the Mayans were so demanding that they invented a base-20 mathematics just to measure what they observed.  Our story, however, zooms us back to the Euros.)

Tycho’s massive instruments produced highly precise quants.  But it took Kepler’s focus on causality to make them efficacious and revolutionary.  The geometric models above are identical from the perspective of an observer on terra firma.  Tugged between tidal forces of celestial harmony and remaining true to the data, Kepler cultivated a pluralistic mindset (also influenced by his lifelong experience at the northern battlegrounds of Catholicism / Lutheranism / Calvinism, for some an existential argument, but in which Kepler reconciled everyone).  He wrestled with Tycho’s rigorous records to reconcile the meandering planets (Greek: planētēs ‘wanderer, planet,’ from planan ‘wander’).

Like twin ends of the same vibrating string, the quant and the qual particles appear different depending on the dimensionality in which they are perceived.


Some things are the same.  “Tragedy transmutes suffering into rapture by altering the focus of the mind,” writes Joseph Campbell.  Suffering = Rapture.  Two qualitative assessments of a condition that may appear quantitatively the same.  The difference in experience is interdependent.

Pratītyasamutpāda (Sanskrit: प्रतीत्यसमुत्पाद).  Something to which I will (must) return.