Review of “The Treasure of Rennes le Chateau” by Bill Putnam and John Edwin Wood

There’s a chapter of my life, that began when I played Gabriel Knight 3 and read Holy Blood, Holy Grail, that ended when I read this book. That game — and from that game, that book — were gateways too so much. My love of Dark Ages history (including great books of real history, like Before France and Germany, Mohammad and Charlemagne, and The Long-Haired Kings, an affection for the idea of the Mediterranean (I stayed in Italy for several weeks after high school), a consideration of how a conspiracy would actually have to be structured (my dream of secret war and a a book, and so on.

The part of my life ended with reading The Treasure of Rennes le Chateau.

But that’s the end. Here’s the beginning.

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The facts as we know them: Around a hundred years ago, Father Berenger Sauniere in rural southern France became suspiciously wealthy, with a cumulative lifetime income estimated at a few million dollars (after accounting for inflation). He had a number of visitors at his house, was investigated by the local Bishop, and eventually lost his power to lead Mass at the local Church. He died before the ecclesiastical trial reached a resolution.

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The story is much more interesting, because its also inarguable that there’s an actual conspiracy with actual forged documents, layered on top of this. Whether or not there is a treasure, there are documents that contain cyphers, references to ancient societies, and bizarre false clues and dead-ends.

What the world knows about Rennes le Chateau was primarily filtered thru Henry Lincoln, who encountered a real group (albeiet with a fraudulent history) that called itself the “Priory of Sion,” and which has an unusual fixation on the Merovingian Dynasty and King St. Dagobert II (feast day December 23) — a sainted boy king

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Henry Lincoln also added a new layer to the mystery, much (apparently) to the bemusement of the actual conspiracy he nearly uncovered. Dusting off his early French, he translates “Sangraal” not as “San Graal” (Holy Grail) but “Sang Raal” (Royal Blood), and from there reconstructs an improbable chronology where the Dagobert II was a blood-descendent of Jesus Chrst, and that secrets to this extent were buried in southern rural France — the discovery of which by Priest Berenger Sauniere led to his millions. Lincoln also added some geometric interpretations, which lead themselves to a reconstruction of the history of the mile (among even less probably claims)

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This stuff later spawned a pretty good video game…

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And a film series you may have heard of. (Lincoln’s co-authors lost their lawsuit on The DaVinci Code.)

Putnam’s and Wood’s book is an exhaustive, well researched, extremely well document demolition of nearly every conspiracy theory associated with Rennes le Chateau, and the persuasive presentation of evidence of a more mundane conspiracy (Sauniere was illicitly selling masses, and may have engaged in some light grave-robbing.) Even elements which struck me as probable enough (such as the location of certain church-sites) are addressed, with everything from first-person research, to cryptographic analysis, to computer simulations of the probability of certain features appearing by chance.

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The number of myths the authors systematically demolish is impressive. Rennes-le-Chateau wasn’t the Visigothic cty of Rhedae. The placing of churches around Rennes doesn’t fit any sort of pattern, mundane or not. Berenger Sauniere supported his (real) generosity by scamming those seeking prayers for the dead. The inflection point of the entire story seems to have been a small remodeling task, which made the priest as power mad as one who is content in a small, remote town can be.

The Treasure of Rennes le Chateau is certainly not the first book you should read about this maze of facts and secrets. But if you’ve encountered any of it, and you are interested in any bit of bit, The Treasure of Rennes le Chateau is a must read.

No Freedom in the Ghetto

The academic ghetto (composed of the humanities, International Relations, sociology, and so on) is a place of low-employment and low-wages. There are four types of people in the academic ghetto:

  • Pimps who run the game. They are the professors.
  • Escapees who are about to get out. They are (graduates who leave the field but use their skills.
  • Losers, who those sucked into the system until their time, youth, and money desert them. They are non-tenure track instructors.
  • Disaster tourists, who get a thrill out of the place. They are students or others who for whatever reason don’t need the degree for employment.

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Pimps are in zero-sum competition with each other. This conflict leads all pimps to give up freedom in exchange for safety.

Pimps act tough, but only because they are in a dangerous environment.  They are prisoners of the lack of jobs and opportunities.  There is no freedom in the ghetto.

A pimp may lord it over losers and strut for disaster tourists, but his life is essentially one of fear. Signs of weakness are pounced on. The only safe approach is to stay within your square block, not venture outside, and avoid conflict (while appearing not to). Original thinkers are weeded out, punished, or otherwise compelled to keep their heads down.

A sad example of this occurred this year at the formerly interesting group blog, Duck of Minerva. As I described it in a post from August

An example of this was at The Duck of Minerva, a blog dedicated to celebrating one alley in the academic ghetto (International Relations). A humorous post on identifying and infiltrating old boys networks by a professor at a research university, Brian Rathburn, entitled “Intellectual Jailbait: Networking at APSA” was taken down, all comments on that post were deleted ,Brian was forced to issue a self-criticism, Brian’s post became a non-entity (substantively replaced by Steve Saideman‘s post “Networking is Hard Work“), and two thinly veiled attacks on Brian were posted, (Daniel Nexon‘s “Sexual Harassment in Political Science and International Studies and Laura Sjoberg’s Let’s talk about sex). .

To go back to the analogy, Brian, Daniel, and Laura were pimps who engaged in a turf war. Steve instead gave in to the system, avoiding conflict with the most generic post possible.

The results?

But Steve — who wrote a generic and grey post, who kept his head down — he’s still there. He even said he likes his job. Brave stuff.

If you are young and thinking of entering the humanities ghetto — don’t. If you’re already there — run.

Review of “The Sciences of the Artificial,” by Herbert Simon

It is perhaps the curse of the successful explorer that, after new lands have been found and the surveys made, his own writings become collections of obvious cliches and bizarre assertions. Surely Christopher Columbus felt this. In 1492 you are a visionary and a hero. But by 1505 everyone knows there is a large land mass west of Europe, and no one believes it is China.

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Herbert Simon’s The Sciences of the Artificial is, objectively, one of the worst books I have ever read.
There is some obvious discussion of local maxima and satisficing (picking the best solution you can find, rather than holding out for the perfect one), some more-or-less obvious if somewhat simplistic speculations about how business functions (it might be modeled as a problem-solving entity), and an incredibly tedious discussion of “standard social sciences model” (SSSM) psychology, in which a the interpretation of some early psychology studies is tortuously interpreted to imply that the human mind runs on a relatively small number of simple algorithms, albeit in a complex environment.

(If you read the Wikipedia page on SSSM , you will find criticisms that the SSSM is a ridiculous straw-man, and that it was “comical” to assert anyone believed it. But Herbert Simon, very definitely pushes such a view in his book.)

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Indeed, Simon’s discussion of psychology is so dangerously wrong-headed I will spend a paragraph here refuting it. Simon describes the human memory system, and describes two systems long-term memory (which he is generally accurate about) and “short term memory” (which appears to be a confused mix of working memory, associated with general intelligence, and sensory memory, which provides the awareness of taste, etc). In mainstream psychology, long-term-memory and working-term memory as associated with the automatic, highly parallel, intuitive, and effortless “System 1″ cognition system, and the manual, serial, logical, and painfully slow “System 2″ cognition system. In academia these two systems are often studied under “dual process theory,” and in the military they are described as part of the OODA loop.”

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While Simon does not use the “System” nomenclature, his description of it is oddly incomplete, basically missing the most important studies of the last few decades to provide an oddly limited view of human thinking. The only mental processes he implies occurs in System 1 is the passive maintenance of memories. And while he cites such famous studies as “The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two” (a measure of the range of working memory) and B.F. Skinner,” influential System 2 studies simply do not occur.

Now…. the reason for this is that Simon wrote The Sciences of the Artificial in 1969, and the last edition was published in 1996, perhaps the last year that his view on psychology could be taken seriously. Simon is a Nobel prize winner and, even more prestigious, a Turning Award winner. The reason for his digressions into “satisficing” and “organizational behavior” is he coined the term satisficing, and is a founding father of organizational behavior. The Sciences of the Artificial is like a letter from Columbus in 1505, describing his views on geography: Cliched, tired, ridiculous, and an artifact of a pathfinder.

I read The Sciences of the Artificial in the Nook edition.

Interactive Fiction: Depression Quest

After reading about The Vanishing of Ethan Carter from Game Informer, I came across “Depression Quest.”

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“Depression Quest” is a hypertext-based depression simulator. Unlike the interaction fiction I recently reviewed, there’s no graphics engine: the “game” is a series of pages with a sound-track.

But it’s quite moving. The game shares themes with both Dear Esther and Gone Home, but by firmly placing the events in the real world the themes of sadness and loss are reinforced by an alarming veracity.

Depression Quest” is free, but you can pay what you want, and any funds go to a mental health charity.

Review of “American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company,” by Bryce G. Hoffman

I’ve read some books on disaster tourism and the collapse of Detroit — Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDeuff and Sixty to Zero by Alex Tayler III are examples of the form.

But there is life, hope, and economic success in Detroit too. There are some who are alive. Who fight, and who want money.

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Bryce Hoffman’s American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company is not an objective book. And Hoffman is not an objective author. Icon is clearly written with the cooperation of Alan Mulally and Ford. It is a pean to a genius CEO who notes obvious issues (executives don’t like to say bad things about themselves), implements industry-standard decisions that are de rigeur in many industries (tracking systems that can identify which worker but a specific faulty part in a specific product), and deceives his way to the stop (thru treatment of certain underlines, as well as the entire United Auto Workers).

But my point isn’t to drag Mulally thru the mud. It’s a fact that while Mulally’s American competitors were going bankrupt, Ford was able to ride out the financial storm. Indeed, the only competition that Alan Mullaly’s Ford has for the most innovative, most successful American auto company is certainly Elon Musks’s Tesla. Ford isn’t the leader in hybrids. But it is #2. And like Tesla, it’s building on successes.

It’s unlikely that Mulally will ever be the recipient of a cult like Steve Jobs. But nor is American Icon simply paid publicity, like Who says elephants can’t dance?. Rather, American Icon is like Dean Barrett‘s travel knowledge: proof that the writer is alive, the subject is alive, and all the faults of joys of human struggle are playing out on a healthy subject.

American Icon is a well written book, and Ford seems like a well managed company. In most cities and most industries, this would not be remarkable. But given the collapse of Detroit and the death of General Motors and Chrysler it is a celebration of life.

I read American Icon: Alan Mullaly and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company in the Nook Edition.

Reviews of Interactive Fiction

Reviewed in this post:
Dear Esther
The Stanley Parable
Gone Home

I had the three best days of computer gaming in my life.

I used Steam (an app store, mostly used for Windows games) for the first time when it was required to use Half Life 2. My experience was so bad I’ve not touched it again for a decade.

But in ten years, a lot have changed.

Steam is now an awesome app store for computer games of all sorts, including interactive fiction. Unlike game which focus on fighting, shooting, or twitching, Modern interactive fiction focuses on telling a story thru the interface of a computer game.

Each of these “games” took between 2 to 5 to play. All were haunting.

The Most Haunting: Dear Esther

Dear Esther, a gorgeous video game that takes place outdoors on the Hebrides, revolves around three texts. The first appear to be written by the protagonist to a woman, Esther. The second is a fictitious history of the island, written by Donnelly. (A similar device is used in The Third Policeman, which constantly refers to works by the imaginary de Selby). The third is a passage from the Acts of the Apostles

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.g

After finishing Dear Esther I felt much older, and much sadder. The feeling stayed with me for some time.

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The game has a beautiful soundtrack, that you can listen to for free on Spotifiy.

The Most Thought-Provoking: The Stanley Parable


(note the trailer above starts like a typical review. It’s not. It’s made by the people who created the game itself)

It’s extremely hard to describe The Stanley Parable without giving it away. The game is subversive in that word’s best sense — the best description I have heard is “Stanley is game that knows it is a game being played by those who know they are playing a game that knows it is playing a game.”

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Fortunately, Stanley Parable also has an amazing and free demo, which teases the meaning of the game without giving it away. You can play the free Stanley Parable Demo on Steam.

The Most Political: Gone Home

If I had not played The Stanley Parable and Dear Esther the day before and after I played Gone Home, Home would be one of the top games I’ve played in years. As it is Home is a fine game, and the story stays with you.

You begin Gone Home on your parents front porch after a trip abroad. A note from your sister tells you that she has left, and not to follow her. The dor is locked, and no one is home. While walking through the house you gradually discover what has happened — both in the last year and the last decades — with the artifacts left behind by the overlapping stories of your father, mother, and sister.

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As the pieces fit together, Gone Home takes on an increasingly strident tone, and you’re left with a very clear impression of which politicians and issues the authors support, and which they despise. The focus on issues that matter a great deal to many now — and will be largely irrelevant to those in the future — limits the appeal of Gone Home both to those who are around now (effectively excluding those of different voices) and in the future (who simply won’t care).

Conclusion

Interactive fiction is a beautiful, moving, and even controversial form of art.

The first video game was made in 1947. That means video games are 66 years old. By comparison, the first moving pictures were shot in 1841. 66 years later was 1907.

We are in the 1900s of video games.

The future is going to be incredible.

Travels to the Far East

Several years ago on Coming Anarchy, “Curzon” jounred across Far East, including the cities of Tokyo, city of Nanjing, Shanghai, and Suzhou.


Sun Yatsen Mausoleum

I just got back from a month long trip, in which I visited these cities as well as a few new ones, such as Phnom Penh and Ubud. The journey was remarkable, and the admiration I had for the writers over at Coming Anarchy played a big role in keeping me interested in traveling.

Thanks, guys!

Impressions of “Sixty to Zero: An Inside Look at the Collapse of General Motors–and the Detroit Auto Industry,” by Alex Taylor III

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To understand what went wrong in the American auto industry, one book and four videos will get you a long way

Who killed Vincent Chin? is narrowly a story of racism and murder, but broadly its a depiction of the unionized, schlerotic, and dead-end workforce that Detroit had bred even by the early 1980s. Who killed the electric car? veers toward conspiracy at times, but is really a story of the incompetence of the management and workers — of GM and the AW — when it came to adopting new technology.

This theme of incompetence is emphasized by Sixty to Zero. It’s written by what is known as a “friendly” or “captive” journalist, basically an a shill paid in access by the industry and in dollars by a periodical. There are plenty of shills across many industries, and this shill’s (Alex Taylor’s) Zhou Enlai-level debasement before the great and powerful allowed him much greater access to Detroit management than he would have otherwise had.

No individual leader, no specific reform initiative, seems that bad in retrospect. But they all were either defensive (reacting to change instead of making it), treating changing economic-political conditions (the market share popularity of small cars, and the political popularity of efficient cars) as irritants to be managed rather than as opportunities to drive profits in other areas.

The Tesla has a non-unionized workforce, outsells comparably priced BMW and Mercedes models, and has received political largess from both political parties. This more than a decade after GM’s bewildering attempt with the EV1. Instead of building up a business and reaping political benefits, GM’s bad management and political unpopularity led it into bankruptcy and now being shut out of the electric vehicle luxury market.

The importance on internal corporate politics, and the inability to recognize new markets, is not unique to GM or the American auto industry. Even generally lauditory books such as histories of Google, Apple, and IBM reveal these issues below the surface. But in GM, you had a company so captured by these problems that progress required waiting for the company ( and union) to burn down financial and regulatory until bankruptcy, to allow new competitors to be born.

Without the context of the films and videos Sixty to Zero is a list of names, dates, and personalities. But Sixty provides a context for these films and videos, a skeleton for the flesh, a reason for America’s auto industry’s descent into the ashes and (in Silicon Valley) a promise of rebirth.

I read Sixth to Zero in the Nook edition. You can read an excerpt at NPR.

What should a Political Science PhD student do? Should she blog?

tdaxp’s Note: Once in a while I use the platform of this blog to give personal advise. Recently a blogger, who also comments at Duck of Minerva, asked if blogging was a sensible choice in today’s world. This post is an attempt to answer that question.

Over at Duck of Minerva, Anita Kellogg also asked recently if she should blog while preparing for a career in academic International Relations. The full text of her question, posted at Duck of Minerva after the defenestration of Brian Rathburn, was:

I am an IR scholar who in the last couple of weeks decided to try blogging in earnest as a counterbalance to the isolation of dissertation writing. When I read Brian’s post yesterday, I definitely started to have second thoughts. I know I will make mistakes. I am still trying to find my voice and focus. I would like to write about politics more broadly, but should I only write about issues where my qualifications are stronger? Even if I stick to IR, do the potential negatives for job searches in the future outweigh the more immediate benefits now? I am really unsure of my answers to these questions at present

The short answer is:

Drop out of International Relations immediately

The long answer is below…

But first, some context…

Actually, Anita’s choice whether or not to blog first depends on why she is in the academic ghetto.

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As I’ve said many times, there are four types of people in that land of few jobs and low wags:

1. Pimps who run the racket
2. Losers who are exploited by the pimps
3. Escapees who are preparing to leave
4. Disaster tourists who get a kick out of the whole thing

Average salaries for political science PhDs are not pretty, implying that successfully pimping (teaching at a research-one university) with that degree is as unlikely as ascending to the top of the Black Gangsta Disciples.

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Assuming that Anita is not actively trying to leave Political Science, that leaves being a Loser or a Disaster tourists. Disaster tourists come in three shades

1. Those with income from parents such that they do not need to work to support themselves
2. Those with income from spouses such that they do not need to work to support themselves
3. Those with sufficient personal capital (financial, skill-based, etc) that the years in graduate school can be seen as an extended “finding yourself” vacation

Assuming she’s not a disaster tourist, the best advise for Anita is to run.

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But let’s assume that Anita’s goal is to be a pimp — to land a job at a research-one university — and she doesn’t mind that she will be exploiting others to do so. (The countless students who will take on student loans, work hard for years, and leave with few jobs and low wages). Then the answer is still obvious

Don’t blog if you need a job in the humanities ghetto

The reason is that there are two sorts of job markets

1. Job markets where few individuals have veto power over hiring
2. Job markets where many individuals have veto power over hiring

In the first kind of job market, an individual needs to impress a superior in some many: ideological bias, pleasant personality, research skill, whatever. While hiring here in such an environment is idiosyncratic and arbitrary, it’s attack surface area is relatively small. Only one individual must be assuaged, meaning at worst you’re dealing with the idiosyncratic and arbitrary prejudices of one person. One might, however, get a job because one’s odd beliefs somehow flatter the hiring manager.

The second kind of job market describes political science, as well as the rest of the humanities ghetto. A hiring committee is more idiosyncratic and arbitrary than a hiring manager, because in a hiring committee the disqualifying attributes are the sum (set union) of the disqualifying attributes as decided by all of the hiring committee members. The hiring committee process, further, is set up to avoid anyone receiving a job because one’s beliefs somehow flatter a specific member.

You can think of the possibility of not getting a job as a result of an idiosyncratic bias as a series of draws. One hiring manager means one draw per thing associated with you. Two means two draws. And so on.

To use Anita as an example, recently on her blog she’s gone out of her way to attack (or discuss) conservatives, a Christian evangelist (on the subject of charity) anti-vaccination activists (who, admittedly, are nutcases — though some have PhDs), a sitting Senator (who I’ve also attacked), public radio (albeit humorously), and St. Thomas Aquinas (albeit indirectly).

The possibility of being interviewed by a conservative, or an anti-vaccine nut, or a fan of St. Thomas Aquinas is relatively small. But the more members of the committee, the greater the chance. The more posts you have written, the greater the chance.

The only students in the humanities ghetto I know of, whose careers were helped by blogging, were escapees leaving the ghetto.

If you want to blog, run.

The tDAxp eXPerience