Thursday, December 31, 2015

The First Of Human Qualities

Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others.

Winston Churchill

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Strabo's World



The Greek geographer Strabo (63 BC - 24 AD) was born in modern-day Turkey, then the Roman province of Pontus, an area inhabited by migrating Greeks since the 6th century BC (and which would continue to house a large Greek population until the expulsions of the early 1920s).  His most famous work is Geographica, which describes the world's peoples and places.  During his lifetime, Strabo traveled throughout the eastern provinces of Rome from Asia Minor to Egypt as well as to Italy.  The map below is a representation of the world he described.  Strabo also wrote Historica hypomnemata (Historical Sketches), a history of the known world, but unfortunately it is mostly lost except for a small segment preserved on a scrap of papyrus now in the possession of the University of Milan.

Geographica consists of 17 books and based upon internal evidence it is thought that it began to be written no earlier than 20 BC with a first edition published around 7 AD and with further additions being made until 23 AD, placing most of it within the reign of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome (31 BC - 14 AD).

As can be seen, Strabo's world consisted of three linked continents, Europe, Asia and Africa, surrounded by a global ocean.  Africa is truncated, ending at the Sahara Desert while Asia is missing China and Southeast Asia. The farthest reaches of Europe are Iberia (Spain), Celtica (France), Germania and Britannia.

Also note that the Caspian Sea is depicted as open to the northern great ocean instead of being a closed inland sea.  India is shown with roughly the same shape as it actually has although the orientation is southeast instead of east.  The island denoted as Taprobane off India's coast is known today as Sri Lanka.

Strabo's map also gives us a graphic description of how awe-inspiring the campaign of Alexander the Great still looked three centuries later.  In the first century AD, the Roman Empire, as great as it was, only extended in the east to Cappadocia and part of Armenia in Asia Minor and to Syria in the Middle East.  During his eleven year campaign (334-323 BC), Alexander conquered Ariana (Iran) and crossed the five branches of the Indus River to enter India only turning back when his troops refused to follow him any further.east.  Earlier, Alexander had advanced north of Ariana into the lands of the Scythians, crossing the Oxartes, the northernmost river shown on the map.


Monday, December 28, 2015

Tell Me Something Good

Institute for Justice(The federal government tried to seize this motel worth $1.3 million even though its owner was not accused of breaking the law).  Photo from Institute for Justice.

Okay . . . The recently passed Omnibus Spending Bill, which funded the more than a trillion dollars in federal spending not devoted to entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security was a disaster for anyone interested in sane spending policy and control of a constantly growing federal bureaucracy.  And it was made possible by an ostensibly fiscally responsible Republican Party giving up the successful sequestration process that had imposed some semblance of fiscal discipline over the past two years.  As THC mentioned in a recent post, the Congressional GOP leadership's enabling of this farce could not have been better suited to promoting Donald Trump's candidacy.

However, as more details of the contents of the Omnibus have leaked out there is a positive note!  You may first inquire as to why we have had to wait for leaks.  It's because the Democratic and GOP leaderships kept the negotiations secret from their own members as well as the general public; after all what possible interest could the average citizen have in the details of how their government is spending more than a trillion dollars?

Where was I?  Oh yes, the good news - with support from both sides of the aisle, Congress has finally put a damper on the outrageous practice of Civil Asset Forfeiture (CAF).

CAF allows federal and state enforcement agencies to seize cash and other assets from people even if they have not been charged with a crime, but are merely suspected or if the authorities assert that their assets were derived directly or indirectly from suspected criminal behavior.  Your first reaction upon learning about CAF is how can it be constitutional but both state and federal statutes have been upheld by numerous courts.

Knowing what we know about human behavior and the Iron Law of Bureaucracy, it should be no surprise that if you give agencies the authority to seize assets without proof of criminal behavior and those agencies are able to retain most of the seized assets to supplement their own budgets that the result will be massive abuse of statutory authority and it is precisely what has happened with assets being seized from citizens who are not only not guilty of a crime but demonstrably innocent!  For details read this, this, this, this and this.

The outrageous abuse of CAF has, in recent years, led several states to put constraints on its use.  However, the United States Department of Justice, which operates its own awful CAF program under a federal statute, had instituted an Equitable Sharing Program (for more details read this piece) which effectively allowed local police departments to bypass state restrictions on the amounts seized which could be retained locally for budget purposes as well as state-level procedural protections for those victimized by this racket.

Here's an example of how equitable sharing works from the case of a Massachusetts motel owner in which a federal court eventually found in his favor.
Caswell, whose father built the motel in 1955, has not been accused of any wrongdoing, and the local Motel 6, Fairfield Inn, Walmart, and Home Depot have had similar problems with drug activity. But the government argues that Caswell was "willfully blind" to drug dealing and could have done more to prevent it.

Caswell, who has been running the motel since 1983, says he has no way of knowing what his customers are doing behind closed doors. He has always cooperated with the police, calling them to report suspicious activity and offering them free rooms for surveillance and sting operations.
In 2009 he got his reward: a forfeiture notice. Police had never suggested additional steps he could take to discourage crime or warned him that the motel—which supports him, his mother, his wife, their son, their daughter-in-law, and their granddaughter—could be at risk.

This cruel surprise was engineered by Vincent Kelley, a forfeiture specialist at the Drug Enforcement Administration who said he read about the Motel Caswell in a news report and found that the property, which the Caswells own free and clear, had an assessed value of $1.3 million. So Kelley approached the Tewksbury Police Department with an "equitable sharing" deal: The feds would seize the property and sell it, and the cops would get up to 80 percent of the proceeds.

Under Massachusetts law, by contrast, police would have received only half the loot, and forfeiture may have been harder. State law says a seized property has to be used not just to "facilitate" a drug crime but "in and for the business of unlawfully manufacturing, dispensing, or distributing controlled substances," which suggests a stronger connection.
The new Congressional spending agreement cut the DOJ funds for the program in 2016 forcing the Department to announce the ending of the Equitable Sharing Program which will force local police departments to act in compliance with state law.  Next step: reform the Federal program and additional state action.

So that's THC's good news for the day.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Let's Face The Music And Dance

What a pleasure to watch.  Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers from Follow The Fleet (1936).  The song was composed by Irving Berlin for the film.  The clip below supplies the full set up and context for the song and dance which THC found quite surprising.  It's worth watching the whole thing (and you'll see young Lucille Ball looking over Fred's right shoulder in the opening sequence) but if you want to start when Ginger Rogers makes her first appearance go to 2:30.  THC doesn't know much about dancing technique but thinks anyone with a heart will find the nearly three minute sequence with no cuts to be breathtaking, beautiful and moving.  Along with Fred & Ginger notice the third character, Ginger's dress and the legs it encases.  How did they do that?

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Model Acceptance Speech

By Alex Lifeson of Rush at the band's 2013 induction into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.  His bandmates, Geddie Lee and Neil Peart, had already given their speeches when Alex stepped up to the podium.  His speech should serve as a model for every music, film and theater award winner.

THC stumbled across this while on a YouTube binge in which he eventually found himself watching an interview with Geddie Lee in which he was asked about this speech (which THC had never heard of).  Geddie said that Alex had a normal speech written and on the teleprompter when he unexpectedly launched into what you hear in the video below.  You can see the surprise on his bandmates faces.  Alex seems to be channeling a little William Shatner along the way.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Preparing For The Holidays

As we plan family get togethers over the holiday, let's give thanks that Harvard's Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion has prepared this Holiday Placemat for Social Justice that can be used as part of your table settings and will undoubtedly prompt healthy dialogue* among your guests about the most pressing issues in our society.  We are sure that after your thoughtful dinner discussion all will be well equipped to address the injustices that permeate our country as well as creating a welcome decree of harmony, albeit enforced, among us all.

* Dialogue = sitting in a room and being instructed what to think about a particular topic.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Sophisticated Trump

Not much to add other than to say if this election ends up as Trump v Clinton it will be a continuation of the downward spiral from the dismal, dispiriting Bush years to the bizarro world of the current administration, culminating with this debacle in which the blowhard and the grifter face off.   The grifter is certain to be on the ballot in November and with the passage of the awful omnibus spending bill by the GOP controlled Congress, the Republican leadership seems to be doing its best to ensure the nomination of the blowhard.

Friday, December 18, 2015

A Coat Of Many Colors

Something new to THC.  A song from Israel Nash, the stage name of singer-composer Israel Nash Gripka.  Haunting and reminds THC of Neil Young's Expecting To Fly ("there you stood on the edge of your feather, expecting to fly") period from his time with Buffalo Springfield.  Still can't figure out the lyrics but love the sound and mood it creates.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Mulberry Street

It's 1900 and this is Mulberry Street in Manhattan, the heart of the Italian community which had recently immigrated to the United States.  The photo appears to be colorized.  The photographer must be standing on some vehicle or structure and you can see the people in the foreground staring at him.  This is the street on which some of the scenes in The Godfather I and II are set.  In fact, young Vito Corleone appears to be in the picture, just above the right shoulder of the woman with the yellow shawl in the center front.  He's behind another child just behind her.  Also note that the street is paved.  For that, you can thank Edmund de Smedt and Nathan B Abbott.  (from Twisted Sifter).

NYC_Mulberry_Street_color-1900

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Creed

Getting a movie sequel right is difficult.  Most times they are failures (see, for example, the very funny film The Hangover and then its two sour, laugh-deficient sequels).  It's even more difficult when it's the seventh, and probably last, in a series that began almost 40 years ago.

THC enjoyed the first Rocky (1976).  It was also the last he'd seen in a theater though he'd caught parts of most of the sequels on cable.  Having read a couple of favorable reviews he decided to see Creed.  He can report back that it is a very fine film, providing a satisfying conclusion to the series.

It turns out that the late Apollo Creed, Rocky's rival and then friend, had an illegitimate son, born after Apollo's death in Rocky IV (1985).  Bounced among foster homes the troubled Adonis is tracked down while in juvenile detention by Apollo's widow (Phylicia Rashad) and raised by her in a comfortable house in Los Angeles.  Though doing well in business, the young adult Adonis Creed is still full of anger and takes amateur fights across the border in Tijuana to work off his aggression.  Announcing to his mother his dissatisfaction with the business career path, he quits his job and heads off to Philadelphia to become a professional boxer and to meet the now nearly 70-year old Rocky who is still running the restaurant named after his late wife.

Are there predictable elements in the movie?  Yes, but everyone involved made some very smart choices in both the casting and the path of the story.  Michael B Jordan is excellent as Adonis, struggling with his emotions.  Tessa Thompson plays his girl friend but it is not just a role as "the girl"; she's an interesting character in her own right, portrayed with an interesting mix of strength and tenderness.  We stuck around to watch the credits so we could catch the name of the actress who so impressed us. And, of course, we have Sylvester Stallone who, after all these years, simply inhabits the character of Rocky.  It's a wonderful performance stripped of the cartoonish mannerisms which marred some the middle Rocky films.

The story carefully navigates the treacherous waters of all sequels and avoids going maudlin.  When there are choices in plot direction the film often avoids the obvious while still hitting all the right notes consistent with the best aspects of the series.  And it successfully gets to port with an ending that is perfect and will touch anyone who saw the original film so long ago.

Oh, and the fight scenes?  Among the best THC has ever seen.  You can feel the blows.   The cinematography and editing are excellent.  The film looks great.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Sinatrapalooza

It's a quarter to three . . .

Originally, THC had planned one Sinatra post.  Well, it grew into two with Angel Eyes and today we have the fruits of one of those YouTube explorations where you start with what you were initially looking for (which is not in any of the three posts!) and then venture into the unknown . . .  or at least the suggestions to the right.

Herewith is a little gem from the Bing Crosby Show featuring Bing, Sinatra, Louis Armstrong and Peggy Lee.  The song isn't much but it's a joy just to see the four of them together.

We'll close with two video of Don Rickles with Sinatra.  Frank was notoriously thin-skinned, hypersensitive about criticism, hated being made fun of and carried a grudge forever.  Somehow, Don Rickles (still touring at age 89) was exempt from all of that.  The first clip is from the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  The funniest part is at the end when Sinatra tells a story about Rickles.
The second clip is from the Dean Martin Celebrity Roast in which the roastee is Sinatra.  Present on the dais along with Sinatra, Martin and Rickles are George Burns, Gene Kelly, Jimmy Stewart, Redd Foxx, Orson Welles, Flip Wilson, Peter Falk and Ronald Reagan.  Make sure you catch Rickles imitating Marlon Brando from The Godfather.  THC does not think you could get away with this humor today.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Angel Eyes

It's a quarter to three . . . 

http://assets.nydailynews.com/polopoly_fs/1.2461652!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/article_635/coolest-american-celebrities.jpg(From NY Daily News)

As we enter the second Sinatra century here's a song THC has featured before - his Sinatra favorite, Angel Eyes.

Composed by Earl Brent and Matt Dennis.  Mark Steyn (who is a marvelous music writer, particularly on the Great American Songbook, even if you don't like his politics) describes why its structure is so unusual:
For a pop song, the tune is consciously bluesy in the way of "Harlem Nocturne" or "You Don't Know What Love Is", but the words go beyond, and the vocabulary and phrasing are very unusual:
Try to think
That love's not around
Still it's uncomf'tably near
My old heart
Ain't gainin' no ground
Because my Angel Eyes ain't here...
Dennis' music is memorable because of the arresting flat nine in Bar Three, and big leaps when the tune's going up, followed by small slips back down. It's a tune that's made for saloons - those up-leaps of anger and passion, and the slip-downs into dejection and despair. But that third bar could easily trip up a lyricist or at least put a speed-bump in his text. Instead, Earl Brent gets around it with a four-syllable word that, on those notes, is rendered onomatopoeic: When the singer sings "uncomf'tably near", you hear his discomfort. Even more remarkably, Dennis and Brent match it when the moment recurs in the next eight bars and again at the end:
Angel Eyes
That ol' devil sent
They glow unbearably bright...
And again in that word on that interval - "unbearably" - the singer sounds as if he truly can't bear it, not much longer. In theory, the melody sounds as if it ought to be an instrumental - one of those things like "Sophisticated Lady" or "Prelude To A Kiss" that sounds less like a song than a tune that someone's stuck words on - but Brent not only finds words that fit perfectly, but four-syllable ones at that:
Pardon me
But I gotta run
The fact's uncommonly clear...
The tune is so bluesy that, in the musicologist Ted Gioia's words, it "invites a soloist to pull out every stale minor blues cliche". Which happens rather a lot on instrumental versions. But the lyric makes it dark and strange and raw: a great ache of a melody with an oddly self-aware tale to tell. Dennis wrote his composition in D minor, which suits it perfectly, but the middle section is major in character and almost an inversion of the main theme: now the music leaps down and then climbs small steps back up. Lyric-wise, if the main section is like eavesdropping on someone's private pain, the release is an invitation to gather round and listen to him tell his story:
So drink up, all you people
Order anything you see...
According to Steyn, it's due to Ella Fitzgerald that the song gained its cache.  After catching Matt Dennis play it in a Reno nightclub, she decided to record the song (and recording four different versions over the years).  It was only years later, in 1957, that Sinatra recorded it.

It's instructive to listen to both Ella and Frank's versions to see the difference.  Ella's is lovely, but Frank is simply the guy - as a singer he acts the role - and it's bundled up with the gorgeous arrangement by Nelson Riddle (catch the bit with the harp at the very end).  Sinatra also takes the middle section and starts the song with it (he repeats in later as it was written) making for a much better and dramatic opening.

When Sinatra did his first retirement show in 1971 he used Angel Eyes to close, slowly disappearing into the darkness as he sang the last line: "scuse me, while I disappear".




And you can watch his dramatic live performance of Angel Eyes here.
Hey drink up all you people
Order anything you see
And have fun you happy people
The laugh and the drinks on me

Try to think that loves not around
Still it's uncomfortably near
My poor old heart aint gaining any ground
Because my angel eyes aint here

Angel eyes, that old devil sent
They glow unbearably bright
Need I say that my loves mispent
Mispent with angel eyes tonight

So drink up all of you people
Order anything you see
And have fun you happy people
The drink and the laughs on me

Pardon me but I got to run
The facts uncommonly clear
I got to find who's now the number one
And why my angel eyes aint here

Scuse me while I disappear 

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Just One Of Those Things

It's a quarter to three
There's no one in the place except you and me
So set em up, Joe
I got a little story you ought to know


It was just one of those things . . .

A classic Frank Sinatra lonely guy in a bar at 3am song, written by Cole Porter.  Today is the 100th anniversary of Sinatra's birth.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Belisarius Enters Rome

Figure thought to be Belisarius, mosaic from Basilica San Vitale, Ravenna

He entered the city through the Porta Asinaria on the southeast part of the Aurelian Wall.  The Byzantine General Belisarius and his small army were reconquering the city of Rome for the Roman Empire, now based in Constantinople.  Rome had not had a Roman Emperor in sixty years.  It was December 9, 536 AD.

At its peak in the 2nd and 3rd centuries Rome was the largest city in the world with a population estimated at one million.  Even with the slow decline and end of the Roman Empire, the city remained prosperous (at least relative to much of the rest of the West) into the early 6th century with perhaps 200,000 inhabitants as late as 500 AD.

Yet a decade after Belisarius' entry Rome went through a brief period when it was virtually depopulated and a decade after that the population was still no more than 30,000.  Indeed, for a thousand years, Rome's population did not exceed 50 or 60,000 (except for brief periods when refugees from various wars crammed inside its walls) and did not match its peak 2nd century population until the 1930s.  What happened?

At the beginning of the fourth century Rome covered about 3400 acres within the Aurelian Walls, constructed near the end of the prior century, and its total urbanized area may have been 6,000 acres.  The city contained 28 libraries, 1,352 street fountains and 856 local baths with a capacity of 63,000.  To supply the city with 200,000 tons of grain annually and other vital supplies, seventeen ships arrived each day during the sailing season at the city's ports at Ostia.  More than 300,000 amphorae containing olive oil also arrived each year which when empty were discarded into a huge landfill that still exists today called Monte Testaccio containing the rubble of an estimated 53 million amphorae rising 30 meters high and a kilometer in circumference. (Statistics from Rome: A Living Portrait Of An Ancient City, Stephen L Dyson (2010)).

And what would a visitor see in the heart of the city?
The great streets . . . all ended in the same general area, marked by the Capitoline Hill, Forum, Palatine, and Colosseum.  Over the centuries this area had grown into a grand display of state architecture  . . . There, Romans, provincials, and foreigners gawked at temples, basilicas, theatres, porticos; heaps of marbles . . . gilded capitals, triumphal arches, honorific statues . . . all this was the grand show that reflected the glory of Rome and her empire (Rome: Profile of a City, 312-1308Richard Krautheimer (1980))(Interior of Pantheon)
Below, Circus Maximus, seating capacity of 200,000.  Imperial palace on the Palatine Hill to the left.  On the other side of the Palatine were the forums and the Colosseum.  (From Roman History Facebook Page)


During the 4th century the population began to slowly decline as Rome was no longer the political capital of the Empire; the Emperors in the east resided in Constantinople while those in the West kept their residences in cities such as Trier and Milan which were closer to the frontiers threatened by the barbarians across the Rhine and Danube.  Even so at the dawn of the 5th century it still appeared the city and its empire would go on eternally.

Things quickly changed.  In 402 the Goths made their first appearance in northern Italy triggering a convulsive series of events (for more see Adrianople) that would lead to the sack of Rome in 410 while at the same time barbarians temporarily overran Gaul and Spain and Britain was abandoned forever.  While some semblance of order was restored in Italy after the Goths moved into Gaul in 414 the province had been devastated.  Despite occasional brief periods of stability the Empire in the west continued its decline.  In 455 Rome was subject to a second, and more brutal, sacking at the hands of the Vandals who had conquered Roman Africa in 439.  The Emperors were more and more figureheads and by 476 the Romanized barbarians who controlled the real power got tired of the charade overthrowing the last emperor (Romulus Augustus) and sending the imperial regalia to the eastern Emperor in Constantinople.

In 493 Theodoric the Ostrogoth seized control of Italy, restoring order and stability until his death in 526.   While Theodoric's capital was Ravenna during his regime attempts were made to maintain the city but it was slowly deteriorating.  Krautheimer describes the efforts of Cassiodorus, Theodoric's chancellor:
Try as Cassiodorus might, his efforts to halt the erosion were in vain.  Sewers were in need of repairs. So were aqueducts . . . The public granaries had 'collapsed through old age'. . . Bronze statues all over were being looted '. .  nor are they mute; the ringing sound they give forth under the blows of thieves . . . wakes the dozing watchman.'  Marble, lead, and brass were looted from public buildings . . . Temples, Cassiodorus complains, 'have been handed over to spoliation and ruin' . . . Many of the great mansions, too, had been abandoned . . .  
The tenements and apartment houses suffered even more.  Theodoric the Great has a positive historical reputation for what is seen as his relatively enlightened rule.  Of course, "enlightened" is a relative term.  He became sole ruler of Italy in 493 when, at a celebration banquet marking the end of a four year war with his predecessor and future co-ruler Odoacer, he terminated the peace agreement by coming up behind Odoacer and, with one swipe of his giant sword sliced him from the shoulder down to his waist.  He was also responsible for the arrest and execution in 525 of the man often referred to as "the last Roman", the philosopher Boethius, who served as his chief of staff.
http://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/deadliestfiction/images/1/1b/Sdfgrfgrarg.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20110902011003(Theodoric, without sword)

With Theodoric's death a succession struggle ensued over the next decade.  Amidst the chaos, eastern Roman Emperor Justinian (527-65) saw an opportunity to fulfill his ambition to reestablish the empire in the west.  In 533 the emperor sent Belisarius, who had achieved great success fighting the Persians, on an expedition against the Vandals and their capital Carthage, located in modern-day Tunisia.  With only a small army of 10,000 men, the general gained a quick and stunning victory leading to the collapse of the century old barbarian kingdom in 534.  The next year Belisarius seized Sicily and then in the fall of 536 landed his force in Italy taking Naples in November and Rome the following month.  Outmaneuvering his Gothic enemies he occupied Rome without a fight.  It seemed that this war would be ended as quickly and triumphantly as the one against the Vandals.

But instead, the reconquest of Italy turned into a long drawn out affair as the Goths rallied and fought fiercely until finally being defeated in 554.  It was the Gothic War, not the fall of the western empire in the prior century, which brought the definitive end of classical Rome and Italy.   Byzantine and Goth armies marched up and down the peninsula leaving a path of devastation and impoverishment.  Maintenance and upkeep of the cities declined and populations fled for more rural areas only to find many of the villas and smaller towns had been pillaged.  Some of the aqueducts supplying water to Rome (which changed hands five times during the war) were wrecked and never repaired leaving parts of the city unable to support a dense population.  And little more than a decade after the final triumph over the Goths, Italy was invaded from the north by the Lombards initiating more years of warfare and redividing the province.

The map below covers only the first phase of the Gothic Wars.

It was during the Gothic Wars that the symbols of the power of the Roman Empire ceased to be used.  The last record we have of the huge edifice of the Baths of Caracalla operating is in 537 and both the Coliseum and the Circus Maximus saw their final shows.

The Rome that emerged from the wreckage of the Gothic Wars in the later 6th century was transformed.  The population was much smaller and concentrated along the Tiber River, particularly in the former Campus Martius on the east bank and in the Travestere and the area that later became the Vatican on the west bank, where water was more readily available (referred to as the abitato).  Large tracts of the ancient city, including the Forums, the hills, including the Palatine, and the area around the Colosseum were mostly abandoned except for the farms and vineyards that had sprung up among the ruins and for the churches and monasteries scattered among the ruins, most prominently the Lateran in the far southeast of the walled city, which until the 15th century was the seat of the Papacy; known as the disabitato

The city that emerged from the Gothic Wars was also different in another way, it was Christian, a transformation started as early as the 4th century.  Although nominally ruled by the Byzantines until the mid-8th century, the city was governed by the popes, and, indeed, without their presence it is conceivable the city could have been completely abandoned.  There were still occasional visits by dignitaries.  In 608 the Byzantine Emperor Phocas came and a column was set up in his honor in the Forum, the last such monument to be placed there.  The Emperor Constans II came in 667 and one of his retinue carved the emperor's name inside the Column of Trajan.

Almost all new construction during this period was religious related - churches, monasteries, convents.  It was a year after the visit of Phocas that for the first time a temple was Christianized becoming the church of S. Maria Rotunda - the Pantheon built during the reign of Hadrian (117-138) - and it is thanks to that act that this building with its remarkable architectural and structural aspects was preserved relatively intact into the modern era.  Likewise, the Column of Trajan, was preserved for posterity when in 1162 it was placed under the protection of the Senate to ensure the column would "remain whole and undiminished as long as the world lasts" which it has except for the substitution of the figure of St Peter in place of Trajan at the top of the column.

Below, the Pantheon, flooded in 1800, drainage in the city was still not as good as during the Roman empire.  From Krautheimer  

Column of Trajan and ruins of Trajan's Forum.  The monstrosity to the right and behind is the Victor Emmanuel monument, built in the early 20th century to in honor of Italy's first king after reunification in 1870.  (Photo from National Geographic)

During the papacy of Gregory the Great (590-604) the first systematic steps towards recovery in the city occurred.  Some repairs were undertaken, the major streets and plazas were kept open and a few of the aqueducts and baths still functioned.  The Forum of Trajan still saw some use and the former imperial palaces on the Palatine kept in some semblance of repair, though unused.
Image of Pope Saint Gregory the Great(Pope Gregory)

It was probably Gregory who restarted a scaled down version of the old imperial welfare offices in the city where foodstuffs were doled out at the start of each month.  These centers known as diaconiae, were scattered throughout the city with financial support coming from landholding set aside by the Church or from wealthy donors.  The diaconie also served another audience, providing shelter and hospital services to the increasing number of religious pilgrims who visited the city beginning in the latter part of the 6th century and vastly increasing during the 7th and 8th centuries.  Krautheimer describes them:
The largest number came from among the peoples recently converted in the West.  Franks, Irish and English, joined in the eighth century by Frisians and South Germans, struggled over the Alpine passes on foot or horseback . . . Hostels were set up in Provence and North Italy to shelter them on the road . . . 
The pilgrims consisted of bishops, clergy, monks and nuns, nobles and "ordinary folks in large numbers" making the perilous journey.  Most only made the journey once.  During the mid-9th century one of the child pilgrims was the young boy who became Alfred the Great, King of Wessex and victor over the Vikings.

The Basilica of Constantine & Maxentius, Giovanni Piranesi, 18th century.  Ruins of the last large structure built in the Forum (4th century).  From Indianapolis Museum of Art.
While becoming a religious center, the city remained a poor and struggling place.  Even as the Byzantine Empire was losing its eastern and North African provinces to the followers of Muhammed in the 7th century it was attempting to increase its control of Rome and its remaining Italian possessions.  The city saw an influx of Greek refugees from the lost eastern provinces and for a century an almost unbroken line of Greeks and Syrians served as popes.

At the same time, tensions rose.  A new class of local Rome landholders arose who objected to increasing Byzantine taxation and on the religious side an enormous rift opened between Rome and Constantinople over the abolition of images, iconoclasm, which had been decreed in the East.  The final element was the renewal of efforts by the Lombards to crush the Byzantines.  In 751 the Lombards captured Ravenna, the Byzantine capital of Italy and in 753 laid seige to Rome.  Realizing the enfeebled eastern empire could not rescue the city, Pope Stephen II appealed to Pepin the Short, King of the Franks, who intervened and saved the city.   Twenty years later, when the Lombards tried once again to attack Rome, Pope Hadrian I sought help from Pepin's son, Charlemagne, who in 774 invaded Italy and crushed the Lombards, ending their kingdom.  In 800, the Pope crowned Charlemage as Emperor of the West and of what became known as the Holy Roman Empire.  For the next three centuries there ensued a constant struggle for control of Rome between the Holy Roman emperors, the popes and the most powerful families within the city.

The wars of the late eighth century caused additional damage to Rome and its environs.
Once again, estates outside the walls, private and Church property, were looted and burned, country folk and monastic congregations were driven into the city . . . The aqueducts, neglected and partly destroyed in the Lombard sieges, functioned badly or not at all . . . time and again the Tiber flooded the town and the fields across the river [the flood control structures of the Roman empire had long ago decayed] . . . buildings were in poor repair.
A new threat arose in the early 9th century.  The Arabs had conquered the area of modern-day Tunisia by the end of the 7th century and early in the 9th embarked on the conquest of Sicily.  At the same time they began raiding the Italian mainland and in 846 looted the churches of Saints Peter and Paul, which at that time lay outside the walls of Rome and the raids continued into the early 9th century.

What was it like to be in Rome during those centuries?  As Krautheimer notes, after the Gothic War "Rome had become a rural town, dependent on agricultural produce close at hand" and whenever the Tiber flooded, famine would break out and the breakdown in the ancient drainage systems led to malaria becoming endemic.  The populace huddled against the river while the crumbling edifice of the imperial city surrounded them.  Some ancient structures like the Theaters of Pompey and Marcellus were converted into crowded housing or small market stalls, others were dismantled for their valuable exteriors, marble or bronze, stripped for other construction (Emperor Constans had offended Romans when during his visit in 667 he stripped the bronze tiles from the Pantheon and shipped them to Constantinople).

Theatre of Marcellus with shops in 1880.  From Krautheimer
  
Farther afield in the disabitato, loomed more monuments and buildings from the ancients.  Rome had:
no need to search for the remains of antiquity.  They were ever present: the Pantheon, the Colosseum . . . the ruins of the great thermae and of the palaces of the Palatine; the remains of the temples on the forum and the Campus Martius, the forums themselves, those of Nerva, Augustus, Trajan; the triumphal arches and the monumental columns of Marcus Aurelius and Trajan, the mausolea of Hadrian and Augusuts, the obelisks . . . Ancient sculpture, too, was plentiful: the reliefs on the triumphal columns and arches  . . . Wall paintings, mosaics, and stucco decoration must have been accessible in the ruins of the Golden House, on the Palatine, in the vaults of the Colosseum - many lost to us but surviving in their medieval reflections.

The hoi polloi of Romans and visitors, especially pilgrims, would be overwhelmed by the sheer size of a building or a colossal statue surviving in fragments and spin strange yarns about it . . .  
After further turmoil in the 9th and 10th centuries, large scale building activity resumed in the 11th.  As Krautheimer points out, while not a commercial center, Rome:

had developed resources of a different kind: the vast income of the Church . . . the swollen bureaucracy of the Curia; the city's place as the foremost legal center of Europe with lawyers, clerks, and scribes attracting business; the flux of pilgrims . . . the banking operations of and connected with the Church
This revival, unlike the earlier ones, was sustained for centuries and by 1527, when the first real census was undertaken, the population had risen to 55,000.  And it was in the centuries after the millennium that most of the damage to the structures of ancient Rome occurred.  Krautheimer describes the city of those centuries as:
. . . not so much as a coherent unit, but as a conglomerate of built-up clusters separated by large ruins, gardens, and stretches of wasteland, with only scattered houses linking the clusters.
Settlement in 13th century Rome.  You can see how little of the area within the walls is urbanized. (From the Mendicant Revolution)
https://nesolicitisitis.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/composite1.jpg

The accelerated pace of building took place within the established clusters of settlement and created increased demand for building materials.  It was during those centuries that the remaining marble cladding was removed from the old buildings and building disassembled to provide materials for new construction.  By that time some structures had almost completely disappeared.  The vast Circus Maximus, pictured near the beginning of this post in all its glory, lay in a valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills.  Once the drainage systems failed to be maintained it became vulnerable to flooding from the Tiber and repeated inundations over the centuries left a thick layer of mud over the entire structure, which even today remains 20 to 30 feet below the surface.

Flooding affected the Forum area which was also in a low lying area.  The tens of feet of mud eventually became a grazing area for cattle with only the tops of some of the monuments peaking above ground until excavation of the area began in the 19th century.
Below, Arch of Septimius Severus in the Forum showing inundation by Claudio Lorense (1650)

The same area in 1575 with a defensive tower built on top of the arch.  The Roman senate house is to the right.  From Krautheimer.

Below, the disabitato south of the Colosseum still existed in 1870.  Today this area is entirely urbanized. From Krautheimer.

What would have it been like for us to walk around the city in the year 1000?  We'd see some structures already in ruins, or, if in low lying areas, mostly covered in mud.  Other building would still have their incredible marble cladding.  Many of the statues, now damaged or lost, were still relatively intact.  The Stadium of Domitian (built in the 1st century) still existed though crumbling and its racing area remained open land.  It was not till the 17th century that a large church was built and the open area converted into the grand piazza that we see today.  From an aerial view (below) you can still see the layout of the ancient stadium and track.
stadiodomiziano(from capitolivm.it)

The Colosseum was not the partly dismantled wreck it is today; the arena floor had been converted into a cemetery and the arcades under the seating had been converted into workshops and housing.  It was not until after an earthquake 1349 that parts of the massive structure were removed for use elsewhere in the city.  Even then it was only saved from further use as a quarry by order of Pope Benedict XIV who in 1749 designated it as a sacred site because of the martyrdom of early Christians in its arena.  For us, seeing these building, statues and monuments would evoke a sense of wonder and of what had been lost - what did those who lived there day to day think?


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Master Of Comedy/Action

http://images.sodahead.com/polls/002740449/5931354853_Jackie_Chan_jackie_chan_5478077_400_557_answer_1_xlarge.jpeg

Combining the comedy chops of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd with martial arts and acrobatics skills learned at the China Drama Academy, Jackie Chan is the finest practitioner of action and comedy in film.  THC has been a huge fan ever since seeing Rumble In The Bronx many years ago which prompted him to go back and watch the catalogue of Jackie's China-made films.

While he's enjoyed Jackie's more recent American-made films, particularly his partnerships with Owen Wilson (Shanghai Noon) and Chris Tucker (Rush Hour), they felt less satisfying than his China movies because of the truncated action scenes.

Now thanks to this primer (brought to his attention by the THC Son) we can understand better from a technical perspective how Jackie combines comedy and action and why his American films are so different from Hong Kong-made classics like the Police Story series and Legend Of Drunken Master.  Jackie himself appears in the video to explain.  The key differences; camera placement, editing and the extraordinarily long time he is allowed to take perfecting action and comedy sequences for the China films.  Plus, one factor not mentioned - insurance coverage in the U.S. will simply not allow him to take the same risks as in China.

The video also features some of his best action/comedy sequences including, at 7:27, the climax of the first Police Story movie featuring one of Jackie's craziest stunts, sliding down a pole festooned with lightbulbs and the electricity on (yes, he was injured)!

Monday, December 7, 2015

Apollo 17

Forty three years ago today, the last of the Apollo moon missions lifted off.
Apollo 17-insignia.pngApollo 17 Mission Insignia

The crew consisted of Eugene Cernan (Commander), Ronald Evans (Command Module Pilot) and Harrison Schmitt (Lunar Module Pilot).  Cernan and Schmitt landed on the moon on December 11 and lifted off at 5:55 EST December 14.  They were the last humans to walk the moon.  In fact, the three crew members were the last humans to fly higher than low-Earth orbit.  If you had told THC in 1972 that by 2015 humans would not have returned to the moon or ventured further into space he would not have believed you.  Hope we return in my lifetime.
(Eugene Cernan, December 13, 1972)
(Harrison Schmitt)

Apollo 17 was the only night launch of the moon missions and it was spectacular.

Apollo 17 Launch


The Saturn V which took the astronauts into space remains the tallest (363 feet) and heaviest (6.5 million pounds) rocket ever launched.  Think of it as launching a 35 story tall building into space gives a sense of the technical accomplishment.

In tribute to all of those who flew on the moon missions it's appropriate to end this with William Shatner's immortal version of Rocket Man, written by Bernie Taupin and Elton John.  This mind-blowing performance is from the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards.  Best of the YouTube comments: "There should be a cult centered around this video".  When the third Shatner enters around 4:00 it elevates the whole thing to another level.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Visiting Petra

Located in Jordan, south of the Dead Sea, Petra is one of those archaelogical wonders THC would very much like to see but is confident he will never visit.  Founded by the Nabataean tribe in the 4th century BC it served as a important point for caravans traveling the desert and the tribe was skilled in managing the meager rainfall through dams, conduits, cisterns and irrigation.

The approach to the city was guarded by a narrow approach through a gorge which brought a traveler to the famous structure called (incorrectly) the Treasury and best known to most of us as the setting for the final scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.http://www.bazaarplanet.com/images/med_mideast/jordan/9480_treasury_petra_jordan.JPG(from bazaarplanet)

What is less well known is the full extent of the ancient city which reached its peak between 100 BC and 200 AD.  In 106 AD, Petra came under direct Roman rule.  As trade routes changed the city underwent a long period of decline marked by a large earthquake in 363 and was finally abandoned in the 7th century.  The European "rediscovery" of the site occurred in 1812.

Now, thanks to Google Map & Treks we can visit Petra and get a much better appreciation of the size and scale of the city and observe areas usually only seen by tourists.  You can find the link to the guided tour here.  Enjoy.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

What Is The Iran Deal?

We've discussed the Iran deal on two occasions (The Iran Deal: It Was Never About Nuclear Weapons and Let's Not Forget About the Iran Deal), but what is the legal effect of the deal for the United States?

The position of those opposing the deal was that because it was not a treaty, it was not binding and a future President could revoke the agreement.  Back in September, liberal law professors Bruce Ackerman and David Golove took Senator Marco Rubio to task in The Atlantic for making this claim, stating flatly, "Rubio is wrong".  Their view was that this is a Congressional approved Executive Agreement and thus the Senator's position was nothing more than:
an unprecedented pledge to inaugurate his term by repudiating the constitutional command to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” There has already been too much lawlessness from the presidency since September 11th; Rubio’s celebratory anticipation of further illegalities represents a new low.
What irresponsible ignorance from the Senator!   We are shocked!

Of course, one thing to keep in mind about any statements from law professors about the state of the law is that they are very prone to describing the current state of the law according to what they think it ought to be rather than what it is.  Since the legal academy leans left most such assertions lean in that direction (see for instance, the embarrassing performance of law professors when predicting outcome of the commerce clause arguments around the Affordable Care Act).

Thankfully, the matter has now been clarified and the Obama Administration has made it clear it agrees with Senator Rubio and not with the distinguished professors.  In response to a letter from Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) regarding the status of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or "the deal" in which he noted that none of the parties to the JCPOA had actually signed it, the State Department responded on November 19 stating that the JCPOA is:
Not a treaty
Not an Executive Agreement
Not a signed document
Not legally binding
According to the State Department the JCPOA is merely a "political commitment".
We are not making this up, read it for yourself.


Thursday, December 3, 2015

Roman Theater, Taormina

The French artist Louise Josephine Sarazin de Belmont (1790-1870) painted two versions of the ruins of the Roman theater at Taormina in Sicily during the 1820s.  Little known today, Sarazin, was born in Versailles and studied under Pierre Henri Valenciennes, who was attempting to revive classical French landscape painting.  Lacking a patron, Sarazin lived by auctioning her paintings to finance her travels becoming the first female artist to have her works sold at a solo auction (for more on her background and career see the Master's Thesis by Alexandria Samantha Guillory (Louisiana State University, 2014).

http://art.alafoto.com/albums/museums/Metropolitan-EuropeanPaintings/josephine_sarazin_de_belmont_-_the_roman_theater-_taormina__-1825.jpg
From alafoto.com.  That's Mount Etna in the background.

(from flickr)
In this version we have different figures in the foreground, two of them apparently monks, and Mount Etna seems more active.

Taormina was founded in the 8th century BC by immigrants from the Greek island of Naxos.  By the late third century it had fallen under the rule of the Roman Republic and thereafter was part of the Empire (both the one centered in Rome and then part of the Byzantine) for most of the next 1100 years until it fell to Arab invaders in 902 AD.

Theaters were an essential element of Roman cities and can be found from Spain and Morocco to Syria.  The haunting ruins remind us of the scale of classical civilization.

The modern Taormina is a popular higher end resort.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

U.S. Climate Policy

THC sure hopes President Obama resolves the contradictions in our climate policy as part of the ongoing climate summit:

President Obama:  We need to stop the Keystone pipeline project of our ally and neighbor Canada because “America’s now a global leader when it comes to taking action on climate change. Frankly, approving this project would have undercut that global leadership. That’s the biggest risk we face.  Not acting. Today we’re continuing to lead by example. ‘Cause ultimately if we’re gonna prevent large parts of this earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we’re gonna have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them.”

President Obama:  We need to lift the sanctions on the “Death To America” regime in Iran to enable them to pump and sell oil in order to rebuild their infrastructure and economy.

Just sayin'.

Dream, Dream, Dream

Dreamt I was at Pete Townsend's house.  Pete and I were sitting around the table chatting when Carl Yazstremski dropped by to talk with us.  Woke up refreshed.

http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/About/General/2013/3/4/1362397204288/Pete-Townshend-on-stage-i-008.jpg(Townsend, The Guardian)

http://www.sikids.com/sites/default/files/multimedia/photo_gallery/0910/this.day.sports.history.oct1/images/carl-yastrzemski-1967.jpg(Yaz, SIKids)

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Don't Dream It's Over

New Zealander Neil Finn is one of the best pop singer-songwriters in recent decades.  His band, Crowded House, was responsible for a lot of melodic and lyrically strong tunes in the 1980s.

Don't Dream It's Over is one of THC's favorite songs.  This version is from the last concert of Crowded House in 1996 (they reformed in 2007) and Don't Dream It's Over is the closing song.  The setting is Sydney Harbor.


There is freedom within,
There is freedom without,
Try to catch the deluge in a paper cup

There's a battle ahead,
Many battles are lost,
But you'll never see the end of the road
While you're travelling with me

Hey now, hey now
Don't dream it's over
Hey now, hey now
When the world comes in

They come, they come
To build a wall between us
We know they won't win
Now I'm walking again to the beat of a drum
And I'm counting the steps to the door of your heart
Only the shadows ahead barely clearing the roof
Get to know the feeling of liberation and release

Hey now, hey now
Don't dream it's over
Hey now, hey now
When the world comes in

They come, they come
To build a wall between us
Don't ever let them win.
The song was the Crowded House's biggest hit in the U.S.  Their follow up album Temple Of Low Men contained several gems but didn't sell well.  Here are three to sample:

Never Be The Same
Don't stand around
Like friends at a funeral
Eyes to the ground
It could have been you

We might still survive
And rise up through the mess
If you could change your life
And never be the same 
The countrified Better Be Home Soon


"People are strange
God only knows
I Feel Possessed
when you come round"
The video for I Feel Possessed shows a live performance but the album soundtrack is overdubbed



Monday, November 30, 2015

Climate Scorecard

Yet another Climate Summit is about to occur, this time in Paris.   Thousands will jet from all over the world to attend.  Undoubtedly it will end with announcements of significant "commitments" by the participants.  To determine whether these are photo op announcements or something meaningful  keep an eye out on whether anyone makes an enforceable commitment on actual CO2 reductions and look at the timing.  An announcement that  X country will start making reductions in 2030 means nothing.

Climate change is not one of THC's top tier issues but if it is for you here is the basic data to keep in mind when assessing the success of the summit.  Do any of the announced agreements or commitments make a significant dent in the current emissions and emissions trends?  THC is using 1997 as the baseline since that is the year the Kyoto Protocol was signed.  Keep in mind that something in the range of a 50% reduction globally from 2005 levels by 2050 is required to have a meaningful impact on temperature if you accept the validity of the IPCC calculations.  Anything less is meaningless hand-waving.  The chart shows the top 4 CO2 emitters and the rest of the world.


1997
2005
2010
2014
U.S.
5.6
5.9
5.5
5.3
E.U.
4.1
4.2
3.9
3.4
China
3.5
7.4
9.1
10.6
India
1.0
1.3
1.8
2.3
Rest of World
10.3
11.4
13.3
14.1
Total
24.5
30.2
33.6
35.7
Unit:  Billion Tons CO2
 SourceTrends in Global CO2 Emissions: 2015 Report, Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency & European Commission Joint Research Centre

For more background on the data read this.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Nature's Way

It's Nature's Way of telling you something's wrong . . . 

From Spirit (1970)

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Going For A Walk

THC was thinking of doing this walk tomorrow but decided to spend Thanksgiving eating all day with family and friends.
ACROSS THE SKY - a world record slackline in the utah desert from Camp 4 Collective on Vimeo.

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Cruel And Shocking Act (Part 2)

A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History Of The Kennedy Assassination
by Philip Shenon (2013)
WHAT WENT WRONG . . .
(For Part 1 go here)

http://www.adweek.com/fishbowlny/files/original/amazon.jpg

Warren Commission Members

Earl Warren (Chairman) - Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (1953-69)
Hale Boggs (D-La) - House Minority Whip
John Sherman Cooper (R-Ky) - Senator
Allen Dulles - CIA Director (1953-61)
Appointed by Eisenhower, fired by Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

Gerald Ford (R-Michigan) - House Minority Leader.
According to Shenon, Ford was "perhaps the most hardworking apart from Warren himself. . . [he] made a point of being present to hear the testimony of almost all important witnesses.  His questions were consistently well thought-out and reflected his close reading of the evidence".  The most thorough reviewer and commenter on the draft report of the commission.
John McCloy
One of the "Wise Men" who dominated the American foreign policy establishment from the end of World War Two until the mid-1960s.  McCloy served as High Commissioner of Germany (1947-49), President of the World Bank, Chairman of Chase Manhattan and Chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Richard Russell (D-Ga) Senator.
Perhaps the most intelligent member of the commission, a friend of LBJ's and his opponent in the fight over what became the 1964 Civil Rights Act which was debated while the Warren Commission was underway.  Responsible for appointing the only woman investigator on the commission staff.  He and Warren despised each other. 
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
http://www.wnd.com/files/2013/09/JFK_assassination.jpg(from wnd.com)

Philip Shenon's assessment:
The commission made grievous errors.  It failed to pursue important evidence and witnesses because of limitations imposed on the investigation by the man who ran it, Chief Justice Warren.  Often, Warren seemed more interested in protecting the legacy of his beloved friend President Kennedy, and of the Kennedy family, than in getting to the full facts about the president's murder.

. . . much of the evidence about the president's murder was covered up or destroyed - shredded, incinerated, or erased - before it could reach the commission.  Senior officials at both the CIA and the FBI hid information from the panel, apparently in hopes of concealing just how much they had known about Lee Harvey Oswald and the threat that he posed.
Overriding everything were the suspicions of President Lyndon Johnson that the Soviets or Cubans may have been behind the murder, even though he was not to learn the full extent of JFK's attempts to kill Castro until 1967 (see below).  If true, Johnson believed that public outrage would force the United States to respond in a way which could trigger events leading to a possible nuclear war which he wanted to avoid at all costs.  This concern led the White House to put limits on the investigation, pressuring to wind up its work as quickly as possible, and declare Oswald the sole gunman and calm public fears of a larger conspiracy.

In later years, LBJ spoke openly of his views.   In October 1968, after announcing he would not run for reelection, Johnson gave an interview to Howard K Smith of ABC News.  Off camera, LBJ told Smith something he could not use for broadcast:
"I''ll tell you something that will rock you.  Kennedy was trying to get to Castro, but Castro got to him first".
http://static1.1.sqspcdn.com/static/f/357927/12370963/1306262028880/LBJ+before+and+after.jpg?token=O%2FckeTGuQcHc4a3V4hINZIO%2B2Oo%3D(LBJ, 1964 & 1972)

The July 1973 issue of The Atlantic contained an article by Leo Janos, who spent time with the retired president before his death in January.  Janos recounts one conversation:
"During coffee, the talk turned to President Kennedy, and Johnson expressed his belief that the assassination in Dallas had been part of a conspiracy. 'I never believed that Oswald acted alone, although I can accept that he pulled the trigger.' Johnson said that when he had taken office he found that 'we had been operating a damned Murder Inc. in the Caribbean.' A year or so before Kennedy's death a CIA-backed assassination team had been picked up in Havana.  Johnson speculated that Dallas had been a retaliation for this thwarted attempt, although he couldn't prove it. " (from The Last Days Of The President, by Leo Janos, The Atlantic, July 1973)  
LBJ was not the only one with suspicions about a conspiracy;  Robert Kennedy also suspected it.  Shenon writes of Kennedy's political associates that
"They would admit years later that Kennedy had never stopped suspecting that there had been a conspiracy to kill his brother . . . Kennedy appeared worried, in particular, about the possibility that Castro or the Mafia was behind the assassination."
This suspicion weighed heavily on Bobby Kennedy who felt guilt that his involvement (RFK was the operational link between his brother and the CIA in the plots) in the attempts to kill Castro may have backfired and led to the death of his brother, a worry that haunted him until his death in 1968, according to some of his close associates.  In a final twist on the relationship between the Castro plots and the president's death, a CIA Inspector General reviewing the history years later:
"would determine years later that on November 22, 1963 . . . a CIA officer was meeting in Paris with a Cuban agent [who later turned out to be a double agent for the Castro regime] to hand him a poison pen".  The IG concluded "it is likely that at the very moment President Kennedy was shot, a CIA officer was meeting with a Cuban agent . . . and giving him an assassination device for use against Castro."
Testifying in front of Congress during the 1970s Richard Helms, who had personally approved the Castro plots and by then was CIA Director, said that he had determined, in his own mind, that the CIA's Castro plots had nothing to do with Kennedy's assassination, and therefore there was no reason to tell the commission about them.  "Besides, Helms asked later, why had it been his responsibility to tell the commission about the Castro plots, since he was certain that one of the commissioners - Dulles - knew all about them, as had Robert Kennedy?"
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/a1/Richard_Helms.jpg/200px-Richard_Helms.jpg(Helms, from wikipedia)

The Kennedy connection went on to taint the famous Church Committee investigation of the CIA in the mid-1970s, which publicly exposed many of its secrets, including the Castro plots.  The portrait painted by the committee's chairman, Frank Church (D-Idaho) was of a "rogue" agency and played down the directive role of President Kennedy and Attorney General Kennedy in the Castro matter.  This framing may not have been an innocent error, as Senator Church was a close friend of Senator Edward Kennedy, and the Kennedy family has been very protective of its legacy, being much more comfortable with the image of JFK as "the civil rights president" than as "the cold war president".

Chief Justice Warren had his own pressures.  An admirer of John F Kennedy and the family, he understandably wanted to spare his widow and brother as much pain as possible during the investigation process.  One of his most controversial decisions was to forbid the commission staff from seeing the autopsy photos and x-rays of President Kennedy, because of the horrible wounds suffered by the president, and the risk that they might end up part of the public record.  The staff was forced to rely upon sketches of the wounds made by doctors during the autopsy.  When the photos and x-rays were made available decades later it was realized that the sketches had major errors in the placement of the entry and exit wounds (the photos can be found on the internet; they are very disturbing and wish I had not seen them).  The discrepancies in the erroneous sketches fueled the critics and help kindle theories of more than one gunman being involved, whether the fatal shot came from the back or front, and about the supposed implausibility of the single bullet theory, all of which were debunked once the photos and x-rays became available.
http://www.michaelariens.com/ConLaw/justices/ewarren.gif(Earl Warren from michaelariens)

In addition to the White House pressure to quickly complete the commission's work, Warren may also have been asked to limit the look at possible Soviet or Cuban involvement.  According to the staffers Shenon interviewed, he proved particularly reluctant to pursue questions around Oswald's visit to Mexico City, in one instance refusing permission for a staffer to interview Silvia Duran, a young Mexican communist employed by the Cuban embassy who, it was alleged, had been seen with Oswald on several occasions, telling staffer David Slawson:
"You just can't believe a communist.  We don't talk to communists.  You cannot trust a dedicated communist to tell us the truth, so what's the point?"
Shenon reports:
"In light of what he later learned about the CIA, Slawson suspected - but could not prove - that Warren had been asked by the spy agency not to interview Duran."
Warren also exhibited a surprising naivete about the operations of government.  In an early meeting of the commissioners, John McCloy asked:
"Had the chief justice or anyone else been in touch with the CIA to determine what it knew about the assassination - and about Oswald and his travels in Russia and Mexico?"

"No, I have not" Warren replied, "for the simple reason that I have never been informed that the CIA had any knowledge about this."
From the beginning, Senator Russell had his own suspicions about what was going on with the investigation, writing a note to himself after the first commission meeting in December "Something strange is happening", referring to the CIA and FBI investigation of Oswald's visit to Mexico, and to him there seemed to be a rush to demonstrate that Oswald was the lone assassin of which he wrote "This to me is an untenable conclusion."
http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/active_learning/explorations/vietnam/johnson_russell.jpg(LBJ & Senator Russell, December 1963 from digital history)

Which brings us to the final problem - the obstruction of the investigation by the FBI and CIA.  There were dual motives.  The first was avoiding bureaucratic embarrassment.  Both agencies, the CIA through its monitoring of the embassies in Mexico City, and the FBI, through its access to some of that information which was routinely forwarded to it by the CIA, had good reason to be concerned about Oswald.  Their failure to act on that information may have cost the president's life.  The second was the likely directive from the White House to both agencies to play down any possible Cuban or Soviet connection.  Both motives provided incentives to carefully manage the information flow to the Warren Commission, and the presidential directive provided a convenient excuse for the agencies to cover up their mistakes.

More mundane concerns also led to evidence destruction.  On November 24, 1963,  FBI Special Agent James Hosty (who handled the Oswald file prior to the assassination - as a returned defector the FBI kept an eye on him) was called to the office of Gordon Shanklin, his boss in Dallas.  Shanklin showed Hosty a note that Oswald had delivered personally to the FBI office in early November complaining of FBI harassment, writing "If you don't cease bothering my wife, I will take appropriate action" according to Hosty, who had contacted Marina Oswald in an attempt to interview her.  Shanklin said "Oswald is dead now,  There can be no trial" and told Hosty to get rid of the note which he shredded and flushed down a toilet.  Months later, a commission investigator decided to cross check the FBI's typewritten summary of Oswald's address book, provided to the commission as a courtesy since the agency said Oswald's handwriting could be difficult to read, against the original address book and was surprised to find that the FBI summary was missing Oswald's entry of Agent James Hasty (an obvious misspelling of Hosty) which included Hosty's office address, license plate number of his FBI car and was dated November 1, 1963.  Hosty later said that his name had been left off the summary prepared by another agent in the Dallas office in order to save him from Hoover's wrath.http://ak-cache.legacy.net/legacy/Images/Cobrands/DignityMemorial/Photos/fb31a73f-27f6-454d-94f2-91bfcf929d80.jpg(Hosty)

From the start, commission staff viewed J Edgar Hoover as uncooperative.  He blatantly tried to preempt the commission by producing his own report on December 9, 1963 which concluded that Oswald was the lone killer, which he then arranged to have selectively leaked to the press.  The report was shoddily done with obvious gaps, and the commission members who read it thought it made no sense.

Hoover later testified to the commission under oath that "There was nothing up to the time of the assassination that gave any indication that this man was a dangerous character who might do harm to the president" but, as Shenon notes, "Behind closed doors at the FBI, however, Hoover's views, shared with his deputies, was precisely the opposite. Within days of the assassination, he determined that the FBI had, in fact, bungled its investigation of Oswald before the assassination . . . "

Hoover went on to discipline 17 employees for "shortcomings in connection with the investigation of Oswald", including the decision not to place Oswald on the FBI's internal Security Index, a roster that would have been shared with the Secret Service ahead of Kennedy's visit to Dallas saying the failure to do so "could not have been more stupid".  The commission was never informed of his actions nor that the FBI knew of Oswald's visit to Mexico City and the embassies weeks before the assassination.

And it is the events in Mexico City that are at the center of the FBI and CIA obstruction.  Commission staffers knew that Oswald had visited Mexico City for five days at the end of September and beginning of October, entering the Cuban and Soviet embassies and unsuccessfully trying to obtain visas.  They had fragmentary reports about what Oswald was up to and who he might have seen.  They knew the CIA in Mexico City had both embassies under surveillance but when interviewed, CIA station chief Winston "Win" Scott insisted it had neither photographs nor any audiotapes of Oswald.
http://jfkfacts.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Win-Scott-cropped.png(Win Scott from jfkfacts)

Perhaps one of the most intriguing leads was that Oswald had attended a party with Silvia Duran "attended by Cuban diplomats and spies, as well as Mexican supporters of Castro's government" at which "some of the guests had spoken openly of their hope that someone would assassinate President John F Kennedy, if only to ensure the survival of the revolution in Cuba that Kennedy had been so desperate to crush".  Win Scott poured cold water on these allegations and went out of his way to discredit those making them, and probably made efforts to avoid having some of the witnesses interviewed by commission staffers.

While commission staff realized as early as December 1963 that they were being played by the FBI, their view of the CIA was initially different.  It was only in February 1964 that they realized the CIA was also withholding information, including on Oswald's trip to Mexico City, which it justified by saying the commission "did not fully understand the implications of forcing the CIA to share everything it had on Oswald".  Yet it proved impossible for the staff to penetrate the agency's layers of obfuscation and, as Shenon reveals, many staffers were unaware of how badly they were misled until the declassification of many documents in the 1990s or in some cases, until Shenon in his interviews shared documents they had never seen.

Our ambassador in Mexico, Thomas Mann, was convinced early on that Cuba had something to do with the assassination and urged a thorough FBI and CIA investigation.  The FBI bureau chief reported Mann's conviction that the Soviet Union was "much too sophisticated" to be involved but that Castro was "stupid enough to have participated".  After much resistance Hoover sent an agent to investigate but, as that agent told Shenon "he came to understand years later that he had been part of a charade to avoid discovering the full truth about Oswald in Mexico".
http://www.lbjlib.utexas.edu/johnson/archives.hom/oralhistory.hom/images/mann_oh.jpg(Ambassador Mann & LBJ from U. Texas)

In 1977, Ambassador Mann was interviewed by investigators during the House of Representatives investigation into the JFK, RFK and King assassinations.  In the interview, which remained classified for years, Mann claimed he had been personally ordered by Secretary of State Dean Rusk days after the assassination to shut down any investigation in Mexico that would "confirm or refute rumours of Cuban involvement in the assassination" and that he believed the same "incredible" order was given to Winston Scott and the embassy's FBI legal attache by their superiors.

Shenon also reveals the existence of a mystery letter that turned up in the CIA files declassified in the 1990s.  On June 17, 1964 Hoover prepared a letter to the Warren Commission with explosive information.  It allegedly came directly from a conversation Fidel Castro had with a U.S. Communist Party member and confidential FBI informant Jack Childs, who was in Cuba that month.  Along with his old brother Morris, who was a senior official in the American Communist Party, Jack became an FBI informant in the early 1950s.  Because of their party connections, the Childs brothers received unusual access to international party leaders meeting with, among others, Nikita Khrushchev and Mao Tse-Tung.  Their information proved "remarkably accurate" according to Shenon and in 1987 the brothers received the Presidential Medal Of Freedom from Ronald Reagan.

According to Hoover's letter, Castro was quoted as saying "Oswald stormed into the embassy, demanded the visa, and, when it was refused to him, headed out saying, 'I'm going to kill Kennedy for this'".   Castro went on to say that Cuban diplomats did not take this seriously, believing Oswald might be some type of CIA provocateur and insisted that the Cuban government had nothing to do with the assassination.

The letter never reached the commission but a copy somehow ended up in the possession of the CIA.

In 1971 Win Scott died and CIA officials visited both his office and home in Mexico City to remove files.  Among his papers was a draft memoir declassified in the 1990 which stated:
"Above all, Oswald's visits at both the Communist Cuban Embassy and the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City during his brief five-day stay in September-October 1963 are, together, with what is known of what took place during these visits, sufficient to make him a suspect agent, acting on behalf of the Soviets, in several things, possibly, including the assassination of President Kennedy."

Despite his insistence to the commission that the CIA had no surveillance photos of Oswald, [Scott wrote that] the CIA had photos of him outside both embassies.  He also said that despite denials at the time, the CIA had audiotapes with Oswald's voice in his phone calls to the embassies writing that "His conversations with personnel of these embassies were studied in detail".
After the death of Hoover in 1972, his successors spent years cleaning up the mess he left behind and attempting to restore the agency's reputation.  In 1975, FBI Director Clarence Kelly met with reporters from the Dallas Times Herald who informed him they would be running a story about the letter from Oswald that FBI Agent James Hosty destroyed two days after the assassination.  It was the first Kelly had heard of the incident and, after internal inquiries, he told the paper the FBI had no objection to its running the story because it was true.
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/15/Clarence_M._Kelley.jpg/220px-Clarence_M._Kelley.jpg(Director Kelly, wikipedia)

The incident prompted Kelly to undertake his own investigation of the agency's action before and after the assassination and I'll quote at length from the book because of the significance of the Director's findings:
He found Hoover's undelivered June 1964 letter and other materials and became very troubled about the entire Mexico City visit of Oswald and the handling of evidence, including that one of the people he met with in the Soviet embassy was Valeriy Kostikov, a KGB agent known to be a specialist in assassinations.

Kelly concluded that in Washington the FBI and CIA "had enough combined information on Oswald's trek to Mexico City to put his name in lights on a presidential security list of threats" but that Agent Hosty in Dallas was kept in the dark.  Kelly found that the two missing memos of the Dallas file [dated October 18, 1963 about what the bureau knew of the CIA surveillance of Oswald in Mexio City and dated November 19, 1963 about contents of a letter written by Oswald to the Soviet embassy in Washington about his Mexico City trip] were removed days after the assassination in the hope Hosty had not yet read them.  Kelly believed the order to remove the memo came from the #3 man in the FBI, William Sullivan, and that he appeared to be working on orders from the White House which "seemingly considered the risk of a confrontation with the Soviet Union over the Kennedy assassination as too great".   Kelly's final conclusion was that if the information had been given to the Dallas office the President's death could have been easily prevented.
Shenon also reports that while doing his research he went to Mexico City and was able to interview Silvia Duran, several of her relatives and other people involved in the events of 1963 and is convinced that Oswald was at the party mentioned above despite the CIA insistence otherwise.
https://stevenhager420.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/duran.jpg(Duran, from stevenhager)

Finally, and most startling, is something Shenon claims was not known before his research, which is that, by January 1964, James Angleton had inserted himself as the person at the CIA controlling the flow of information to the Warren Commission.  I don't know enough about the literature around the assassination to judge whether Shenon is the first to discover this but, if he is correct, Angleton's presence in the middle of the investigation raises alarm bells.
http://spartacus-educational.com/00angleton8.jpg(Angleton)

Forty years after being fired by CIA Director William Colby, James Jesus Angleton remains the most controversial figure in the history of the agency.  Born in 1917 to a U.S. cavalry officer father and Mexican mother who met during General Pershing's 1916 expedition to punish Pancho Villa, Angleton spent most of his childhood in Milan, Italy.  He attended Yale where, as an aspiring poet, he was editor of the literary magazine Furioso and, according to Wikipedia, corresponded extensively with Ezra Pound, EE Cummings and TS Eliot.

Entering the American secret service during WWII, Angleton became friends with British intelligence agent Kim Philby while serving in London.  Philby was a Soviet double agent who did immeasurable damage to American and British intelligence efforts in the years immediately following the war, constantly promoted by the British and serving from 1949 to 1951 in Washington as British intelligence liaison with the CIA, where he continued his friendship with Angleton.  Suspicions about Philby's activities forced the British to recall him in 1951, and though in 1955 Foreign Secretary Harold MacMillan told the House of Commons there was no evidence Philby was a spy, in January 1963 he disappeared from Beirut, Lebanon, reappearing on July 30, 1963, when the Soviets triumphantly announced his presence in Moscow where he lived for the rest of his life.

Many believe that Philby's betrayal explains Angleton's own increasingly mysterious, complex, conspiratorial and suspicious attitude in his next role as CIA's Chief of Counterintelligence from 1954 until he left the agency twenty years later.  Over those decades, Angleton became increasingly convinced that the CIA had been penetrated by Soviet moles, and though he was never able to conclusively identify anyone, he ruined the careers of a number of CIA officers who became the target of his suspicions. His ongoing investigations served to tie the agency up in knots.

Informed opinions on Angleton differ widely which would probably please him.  CIA Director Helms held him in high regard, as does Edward Jay Epstein, himself a highly regarded author on intelligence matters.  Other experienced intelligence professionals and authors regard him as an incompetent alcoholic who paralyzed the agency and destroyed the effectiveness of the CIA operations directorate, an opinion shared by Director Colby, who forced him to retire.

Angleton's presence in the information stream to the commission adds yet another layer of obfuscation, since it was his nature to complicate things.  Everyone who has written of their interactions with him speaks about his obsession with nothing being as it seemed and of always seeing complicated and well-planned deceptions piled upon deceptions in any type of activity.  A  conversation with him was like entering a hall of mirrors.  Shenon suspects it was Angleton who prevented Hoover's June 1964 letter (a copy of which ended up in CIA files) from reaching the commission.  If Angleton was the culprit, my guess is that he thought Castro's statement was disinformation designed to deflect blame from Cuba, to which you might respond "but isn't that what the White House wanted?" and the answer being yes, but that is not necessarily what Angleton wanted and he knew best in his own mind.

It was also James Angleton who personally visited Win Scott's office and home in 1971 to collect his files, including the memoir declassified two decades later.  On top of a White House already interested in minimizing information on Mexico City, who knows what additional confusion and misdirection may have been sowed by Angelton's involvement?

I'd tell you about Angleton and the battle around the Soviet defectors Golitysn and Nosenko which also bears on the assassination but if we enter that hall of mirrors we would likely never find a way out.
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What are we to make of all this?

The lack of access to the autopsy photos and x-rays led the commission to botch the analysis of the president's wounds and raise unneeded questions about the trajectory of the bullets.  If Justice Warren had allowed access it would have avoided errors and lessened the credibility of conspiracy theorists.

The pressure to speed things along led to gaps and mistakes that became an easy target for skeptics and should have been easily correctable with a little more time and a more experienced staff.

The Mexico City aspect is trickier.  The desire of the White House to avoid a nuclear confrontation is certainly understandable.  Perhaps the right course of action depends on what you think really happened there.  It is certainly possible that Oswald attended the party with Silvia Duran and heard comments about what a good thing it would be if President Kennedy was killed.  He may very well, as Castro supposedly claimed, made threats about killing the president while at the Cuban embassy.  Neither of these implicate Cuban officials, though if the CIA were aware of any of this, and failed to inform the FBI, it would have been an enormous failure on its part.

Even Oswald's meeting with KGB "wet work" specialist Kostikov at the Soviet Embassy that so bothered FBI Director Kelly can be explained.  Kostikov also had regular consular duties as part of his cover and, as the senior KGB man in the agency, it is understandable why he might meet with a U.S. citizen, a former defector to the Soviet Union who was now seeking to return there.  Moreover there was no clear motive for the Soviet Union to kill the president in the wake of the resolution of the Missile Crisis and the signing earlier in the year of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; the reaction of Soviet leaders to the news of his death was panic that they would be blamed for the assassination.

Cuba is another matter.  As information has dribbled out over the decades we now know that the Castro demonstrated some erratic personal behavior during the 1962 crisis, including urging a first strike nuclear attack on the U.S., and the Soviets took steps to limit his control of their weapons in Cuba.  He also had a motivation since the Kennedy brothers were trying to kill him, had issued a threat of retaliation, and we can assume he was aware of the meeting scheduled in Paris on November 22, 1963 between the CIA and the Cuban double agent.  Yet there is still no direct or even indirect link indicating that the Cubans were willing to place the future of their country in the hands of the unpredictable Lee Harvey Oswald who, at the time he was in Mexico City seemed to have no realistic path to carrying out such a task.  That's why, while a Cuban role is possible, I still think it highly unlikely.
 http://jfkfacts.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Castro-speaks.jpg(Castro, from jfkfacts)

However, Kelly was right about Kostikov and Mexico City in the key respect.  In 1963, the process for a presidential visit involved the local FBI reviewing its files for potential security risks and forwarding those to the Secret Service which would examine each individual.   The CIA knew of Oswald's visits to the embassies and their purpose.  They may have had even more detailed and revealing information on his activities and conversations.  We know that some form of that information reached the CIA and FBI in Washington, but did not make it in usable form to the FBI Dallas Office (unless the still unexplained October 18 memo was sufficient).   If the local FBI knew that there was a Dallas resident, a former Marine who defected to the Soviet Union and returned to the U.S., engaged in pro-Castro activities in New Orleans in September, and then visited the Soviet and Cuban embassies seeking visas and meeting with a KGB assassination specialist, Oswald should have been placed on the security list and simple inquiries would have revealed he was working along the route of the presidential motorcade.  As Hoover concluded, the failure was "stupid" and as Kelly realized a decade later, proper handling of the information would have averted the tragedy.

Instead, geopolitical concerns provided a wonderful opportunity for both agencies to cover their blunders.  There is one constant about bureaucracies both inside and outside government.  Their priority is to protect themselves.