Snuff

It was during second dessert — a euphemistic term for booze, chocolates, and conversation away from the dining hall — when the snuff box arrived. I had been listening to a philosopher convince me that certain metaphysical questions were interesting. While I declined a sniff of the stuff, he took a pinch between his finger and thumb, raised it to his nostril and inhaled. To my admiration he did this as if this were a perfectly normal and natural thing to do. Which it really wasn’t, at least as far as I was concerned. You can be attending an alumni dinner in the middle of Hillary term, passing around the dessert wines, and the whole business will still feel like fancy dress and pretend. Maybe the point at which you accept the snuff is the same point at which everything else seems completely natural as well.

Anyone following the ongoing controversy around the relative health benefits and dangers of vaping over cigarette smoking, should know that there have always been other means of ingesting tobacco and obtaining the nicotine hit. Just so that everyone is on the same page let me give the briefest of background. Snuff, which goes back as far as tobacco itself, is the product of pulverizing tobacco leaves down to a powder fine enough to inhale. It has had varying degrees of popularity, but never held the iconic status that the cigarette enjoyed through the 20th century. You can still buy it, and some use it.

The obscurity has led to many faux pas. I’ve been informed that guests, at past Oxford dinners, unfamiliar with the usual customs have laid out lines of the brown powder so as to hoover it up their snout like coke. Of course you can’t jump to too many conclusions; lines of coke have been rendered iconic by TV and cinema, and even individuals as sheltered as myself are aware of it.

The Wikipedia does reveal that a certain crevice in the hand, under a tendon leading to your thumb, is often referred to as the “anatomical snuffbox“. The French even have a word for it: the tabatière. So if you feel inclined to partake when the snuff box arrives, you can deposit a little pile there and show off a little vocabulary.

You can also go ahead and buy your own snuff box to impress/intimidate your house guests. Etsy offers an impressive range. They can get pretty pricey though. A snuff box bequeathed to Magdalen was considered valuable enough to be stolen a couple of decades ago. The controversy around the culprit apparently lingers on.

You can also find quite striking snuff boxes featuring hand painted Victorian erotic vignettes. For what it’s worth.

Oxford, Hearties, and Clever-Sillys.

I’m now halfway through Michaelmas term (that’s Fall semester to Americans, and Autumn term to almost everyone else in the UK) so I’ve been able to settle into a routine here at Oxford. I’ve been having a whale of a time cycling backwards and forwards across town, while my experience with the university has been wonderful, but also quite obscene.

Most of my academic life these days is spent in the Andrew Wiles building — an ultra modern mathematics facility that is just over five years old now. There is a chapel right outside the main entrance however, so you won’t be forgetting where you are in a hurry. Then for lunch I head over to Magdalen College to eat at high table with the other fellows.

The college is more in line with what you might expect from watching Inspector Morse or Harry Potter. Describing it as a 19th Century Gentleman’s private club only goes so far, because you have to explain that it also has it’s own chapel, and extensive grounds which includes a deer park. All that aside, the most refreshing thing about the college system is that I’m sitting down to eat with other academics in the college, who come from all across the sciences and humanities. The last time I was regularly encountering anyone outside the mathematics department socially was during my undergraduate degree, and I’ve badly missed it.

Between the mathematics building and the college you are caught between two extremes of academic opulence.

After arriving I wanted to read something that would give me a good feel for the history of the place, but at the same time I wasn’t very excited about any of the worthy door-stoppers that I was being pointed towards. I really wanted something salacious. As luck would have it I found just the thing.

Look Back in Laughter: Oxford’s Postwar Golden Age by R.W. Johnson is the 2015 memoir of former Oxford don, Rhodes scholar, and Magdalen College Bursar (at a particularly precarious time in the college’s history). I should say that I mentioned this book with some of my more senior college colleagues, and they assured me that the book was either completely sensationalized or a complete pack of lies.

There are actually several strands going through the memoir. I certainly began to get the immediate feel for the world of dons, the Senior Commonroom, hearties (what Americans would call jocks), and clever-sillys (a certain kind of academic). Johnson arrives at Magdalen as a Rhodes scholar, narrowly escaping trouble in South Africa where he had been involved in anti-apartheid activism, and soon found himself a fellow at the tender age of 25. The decades he spent there covered many seismic shifts: the admission of women into the college, the opening up of Oxford to the wider academic world, and the increasing influence of the PPE course on public policy, politics, and journalism. This last strand is particularly striking; the last insert photos is a group shot of the Lib-Dem/Conservative coalition government, signed by three of Johnson’s former students. Two other ministers were also Magdalen alumni. Johnson also describes how the Economist became increasingly dependent on him to pass on gifted undergraduates for exciting jobs at the magazine (which inevitably led to swift success and promotion). Previous generations of Oxford graduates would have had to slog for years at local newspapers under the barely concealed contempt of their editors.

The idea that many of us may have of Oxbridge as being some engine of meritocracy, excellence, and academic success only arrived in the 20th Century when the “Red dean”, Harry Weldon, decided that they should start admitting students on merit, rather than the pedigree of their boarding school. This was somewhat controversial at the time with many dons (C.S. Lewis is cited) as being unashamed snobs. Indeed, world class academics only began to be hired around this time as well. Johnson goes so far as to describe most of Magdalen’s history as “disgraceful”.

Like just about everyone else, I think, I knew that Magdalen was intellectually extremely distinguished and we all assumed that that his had always been so.

This was in fact quite wrong. Only much later did I learn that for a great deal of its history Magdalen’s dons had been undistinguished and slothful. The college had not long been founded when, in 1520, many of the fellows had to be summoned to answer charges of gambling, hunting, frequenting taverns, misbehaving in Chapel, and the like. But again in 1584 it was reported that all these vices were common, that both President and Bursars were corrupt and that all discipline had broken down, forcing the Visitor, the Bishop of Winchester, to intervene to insist that the founder’s statutes be upheld.

Look Back in Laughter; Chapter 4

The most stunning details come from the chapter covering the three years Johnson spent as Bursar, in which he uncovered extensive financial impropriety, and what I believe can only be accurately described as outright corruption. In short, the college’s once extensive resources were being plundered while the buildings and grounds were being neglected to a dangerous and illegal extent (portions of the college being listed buildings and protected under law). The following passage concerns what happened when he started reviewing the properties that the college was leasing (often at below market rates, and left unreviewed for decades).

Another was someone whom everyone seemed afraid of. I called in Strutt, the Head Porter, and asked him what he know of this case. The man was a major international criminal, he said, specializing in child pornography. Even in Amsterdam he had come across his traces. The police were frightened of him for he was extremely careful and sophisticated in his dealings so nothing could ever be finally be pinned on him and any who approached him would be hounded by the best lawyers money could buy. In addition he had bought several city councilors who could be relied on to make a lot of trouble if their patron was seriously bothered.

From Strutt I got the name of a private detective and asked him to investigate. Rather breathtakingly, he reported soon thereafter that he had broken into the man’s flat, opened his mail and tapped his phone. he had also followed the man round Oxford and said he never took the same road home twice a week. it was the same with all his other dealings — his letters and phone calls were all in code. There were, he said, the marks of a top-class professional criminal with very large assets at risk. Next he traced the man to a large meeting held at a manor house outside Oxford attended by two-dozen men arriving in chauffeured limousines. The detective noted all the number plates but was himself seen while doing so. The meeting immediately broke up. Using his contacts in the police, the detective was able to ascertain that everyone at the meeting hat left the country within 12 hours — a sign that our man was part of a sophisticated international syndicate. At which point I realized that the whole thing was simply beyond me. I was looking at an investigation on which a proper police force might deploy many men for over a year. But the police wouldn’t touch the case and I couldn’t do much with a solitary private detective. I had to let it go.

Look Back in Laughter, RW Johnson, Chapter 12

I don’t think I will think about the difference between an academic and an administrative role in the University quite the same way again.

The Radcliffe Camera
The Natural History Museum.

Hoodoo what you won’t do.

The past month has been packed. In fact, my life has literally been packed up into boxes, as the first thing I did this month was leave Israel and move back to England, where I am starting a postdoc at Oxford. It has been seven years since I last lived in England, but I haven’t had much time to really take it all in because no sooner had I arrived, set up all my new passwords and bought a bike, I was flying off again to Montreal, Utah, and Chicago to give talks and finish a paper. Most of my life is still packed up in those boxes, but hopefully not for too much longer.

I was in Utah two weekends, so we managed to spend one of those weekends down in the south of the state, visiting the national parks and hiking around Bryce Canyon — a “natural amphitheater” carved into the valley by millions of years worth of rain and wind. These natural forces have sculpted a landscape of striking red rock formations featuring stone spires known as Hoodoos. The Paiute native Americans who lived and roamed these valleys, before the arrival of Europeans, were as taken by the Hoodoos as the camera-toting tourists pulling up in their cars today. The Paiute had a mythology that these formations were the magically petrified remains of “Legend People”, victims of a trickster Coyote god. Who exactly such Legend People might have been remains unclear, but European settlers managed to identify one rock formation as having an uncanny resemblance to Queen Victoria:

The almost central rock formation has an uncanny resemblance to the iconic full profile of the illustrious British monarch.

The Canyon today takes its name from the Mormon homesteaders who settled in the area in 1874. Ebenezer Bryce was a Scottish ship’s carpenter born in 1830, who converted into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and, after being disowned by his father, moved out across the Atlantic to Utah. At the age of 17. After marrying a Mary Park in Salt Lake City he did what many of the Church’s faithful were encouraged to do: homestead. And homestead they did — not only in multiple locations in Utah, but also then in Arizona as well. All while having a fantastic number of children.

Before we made the trip I found I had to supplement my limited supply of clothing (most of my clothes being boxed away at some unknown location) if I was going to survive the weekend. So off we went to the Deseret Industries (an LDS equivalent of the Salvation Army thrift store), where aside from picking up some suitable synthetic fabrics, I found a book that took me back to high-school.

Back in 2017 my AS English Literature teacher, Alan Currie, passed away. He had covered Hamlet and Keats — if only I had such lessons to guide me through all of the English canon. But perhaps more interesting and formative for me than the examined syllabus, was the month or so we had after the AS exams had been completed. In principal, we were supposed to use that time to start preparing for the second year — which I had dropped out of (unfortunately and completely unnecessarily). In practice it seemed like the teachers took the opportunity to expose us to the breadth and variety of all English literature offered. Although these classes were redundant in terms of my final grade, I was engrossed enough to go to every one of them.

I remember one class Mr Currie came in with large A3 photocopies from the Times Literary supplement. It contained the shortlist for the TLS/Foyles (2007) poetry competition. Held every year, and now called the Mick Imlah prize, this is was an open competition and all the poems were featured anonymously; readers were provided with a coupon they could cut out and submit a vote on the winner. We spent the class poring over the poems like they were the football pools, trying to work out which was the best, and which ones could possibly be the work of a celebrated poet. Not that I think any of us aside from Mr Currie could have named a contemporary poet outside of those featured in the GCSE anthology. I remember being excited by the sense that literature was a thing going on right now, and not only was I invited to judge, but it was clear that I could also have been submitting poems (were I so inclined).

Now thanks to the Oxford libraries online archive access I’ve been able to go back and find out who actually won (The Mauve Tam-o’-Shanter by Paul Groves).

It was around this time that I set myself the challenge of reading the 1001 Book to Read Before You Die. I can’t remember exactly when I gave up on this. I think it was the moment I decided it was OK to read at a book that was not on the list. At that point the challenge took a far less definite form.

Possibly picking up on my sudden inclination to read as much of the canon as quickly as possible, Mr Currie began suggesting books to me. Usually these books were taken from the dog-eared copies of former set texts that had been retired to a supply cupboard. I remember Mr Currie showing me one classic of American literature, told from multiple viewpoints. It stuck in my mind because Mr Currie was amused to show me one unusual chapter in the middle of the text:

Mr Currie was amused.

I was unable to recall which book this had been. Until I found myself lying in a tent within Dixie national forest, flipping through the copy of As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner I’d bought the day before from Deseret Industries, and discovered that this was in fact the book Mr Currie had suggested to me. Two chapters into the book I discovered that I remembered reading it — or at least those initial chapters. I hadn’t read any further than those first chapters, but had set it aside for some unknown reason — possibly I simply hadn’t known what to make of it.

It is strange to try and imagine what you might have made of a book when you were a decade younger. It would be nice to imagine my capacity as a reader has improved — although there is a thriving industry of commentators reporting that our attention spans have been dramatically reduced. I found myself having to reread the first sixty pages to get my head around what was going on. I’m not sure I would have been up for that in high school. Mr Currie would certainly have approved of my perseverence. I imagine he would have laughed and admitted he had done likewise. And trouble understanding half of the characters were saying.

Cycling around Munster, (long) after the siege.

Back in May I was visiting Giles in Munster. Aside from meditating on what exactly a symmetry restricted group should be, and going to see Detective Pikachu, we did a fair amount of cycling back and forth across the city. Munster enjoys a reputation (perhaps self-proclaimed) of being the cycling capital of Germany, and with all the cycle paths and low levels of automobile use it is not hard to fall in love with the place and wonder why we aren’t all living is such a fashion.

If you are observant enough while wandering around the city, you will notice three metal cages hanging from the steeple of St Lambert’s church. Those cages once held the mutilated remains of religious radicals who had been so jazzed up by the Reformation that they had declared Munster the New Jerusalem and announced the imminent apocalypse, Jesus’s return, and all the rest of it. So deplorable was their rule of the city (and embarrassing) that both Catholics and Lutherans united to lay siege to the Munster to bring an end to New Jerusalem.

This photo of Muenster Cathedral (St. Paulus Dom) St Lambert’s Church is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Giles was good enough to lend me his copy of New Jerusalem: The short life and terrible death of Christendom’s most defiant sect, by Paul Ham. (A good alternative source is this episode of In Our Time on the Siege of Munster, although the reintroduction polygamy is not even given a mention). It makes for quite remarkable reading. To a contemporary reader the most obvious parallel is to ISIS. I would go so far as to say that everything you could find in the rise and fall of ISIS you can also find in the history of New Jerusalem. Down to the beheadings.

The founding of New Jerusalem was the culmination of the work of many personalities. They were all united in the Anabaptist cause: abandoning infant baptism as a perversion of the “true” gospel by the church in Rome. While the followers of Luther took a more pragmatic, and even conservative, approach to religious reform, these “re-baptisers” were revolutionaries outside any kind of religious establishment who were provocative to the point of inciting violence. (Baptism is no small point; you will still find many protestant churches today which require adult baptism for membership.)

Melchior Hoffman, an Anabaptist preacher, prefigured the events in Munster when he declared Strasbourg to be the New Jerusalem, and the site of the apocalypse the following year, 1533. The authorities back then took such rantings seriously enough that they threw him in a dungeon, where he could safely be forgotten. Then came John Matthais, a self proclaimed prophet, who received the divine revelation (or simply decided, depending on your point of view) that Hoffman had got the time and place wrong, and that Munster was in fact the right location. Initially it seemed that this prophesy was realized, as in February 1534 the city was taken into Anabaptist control. This turn of events was seen as an embarrassment, nuisance, and danger to the various authorities involved. Ultimately it fell to Bishop Waldeck — more a nobleman or prince than an actual religious leader — to marshal an army and lay siege to the city. Due to the commitment and tenacity of those under siege, Munster’s excellent fortifications, and the drunkenness of the mercenaries that Waldeck employed, the whole sorry business lasted a year and a half.

John Matthais would go on to have himself cut to pieces by the armies of Bishop Waldec in possibly the most ill advised cavalry charge in history. It is Matthais’ second in command, John of Leiden, who takes over control of New Jerusalem and ruled it through most of the rebellion. Leiden’s rule quickly becomes a tyranny marked with the reintroduction of polygamy and summary executions by decapitation. The whole episode was marked with a strange combination of farce and grim horror.

While ISIS is the most obvious modern parallel, with its explicitly apocalyptic mission, reading the accounts of meetings between radical preachers and Luther calls to mind the general dangers of political radicalism.

Instead, Rothman set off on the well-worn pilgrimage to Wittenberg, as reform-minded novitiates tended to. There, Luther and Melanchthon deigned to meet this impassioned young man, as they had met Hoffman and so many other zealous young preachers. They noted his intelligence and eloquence, yet something about Rothmann troubled them. His passions were unguarded, and untutored. His self-righteousness lacked the grace of humility. They concluded that he was probably mentally unfit for the job. As Melanchthon observed, Rothmann might turn out to be exceptionally good or exceptionally bad.

New Jerusalem, Chapter 7 — Paul Ham

I find the reformation, or at least what little I understand about it, deeply fascinating. It is on the list of subjects that, once you understand a little of what it meant and continues to mean, you are staggered by the degree with which you misunderstood so much of what is going on in the world today.

(For whatever it is worth, Detective Pikachu was fun but completely disposable.)

Petra – the Treasury building was not a treasury.

I will be leaving Haifa in August this year and returning to the UK. After three years living in Israel, and being in no particular rush to do and see everything, we suddenly realized that if there was anything we still wanted to see or do, then we had better get on with it. There remain a bunch of museums in Jerusalem I’d still like to visit, but there was one major thing we had conspicuously failed to do: visit the ancient city of Petra in neighboring Jordan.

Due to its appearance at the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the treasury building is Petra’s most iconic sight . The entire ediface is cut out of the rock face and is as impressive in reality as it appears on film. Despite the name, the building is not a treasury — in fact it is believed to have been a mausoleum for the Nabatean King Aretas IV. The name derives from the Arabic name Al Khazneh which is rooted in folk tales of treasures hidden inside.

But before we could admire the Treasury Building, we actually had to get to Petra. Due to relatively healthy relations between the Kingdom of Jordan and Israel, it is possible to cross the border between the two countries, albeit at one of a handful of crossing points. Most tourists book with a tour group, but it is entirely possible to go solo, so we opted to plan our own adventure. This meant an early start in Haifa to catch one of the sporadically scheduled buses that run from Nazareth into Amman, the capital of Jordan.

Amman is far less tourism oriented than Petra (or Aqaba where we would exit Jordan after visiting Petra), but it was worth visiting just to see the huge Roman amphitheater which dominates the downtown area.

Although I do not have any similar photographs to document the experience, eating the local kanafeh in Amman was a similarly worthwhile experience. In case you don’t know what kanafeh is, allow me to explain. Imagine a cheese cake. Now make that cheesecake thinner and serve it hot and upside down. And instead of shortcrust pastry you have a base (now a lid since you turned it upside down) of shredded filo pastry with pistachio nuts sprinkled over it. And the cheese is a local Palestinian variety — a cross between something like mozzarella and ricotta. It is served with hot, sweet, sugary rosewater is poured over it. Kanafeh is a killer desert. Even as I type this I’m grieving the fact that I haven’t eaten more of it. I may have to try making some after I have left. I won’t be the first person to have tried, as this youtube video I stumbled over bears witness:

From Amman it was another early start and long bus journey to arrive at Petra where we were disgorged from our bus into the throng of tourists. Tourism is a major part of the Jordanian economy and Petra is a central to that. But until 1812 the capital of the Nabataean Kingdom, once a major regional trade center, was essentially lost to the world, the location a secret known only to Bedouin tribesmen intent on preventing the remains of the city from being plundered.

Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, was born in 1817 to a Swiss family of merchants. After studying Arabic at Cambridge, and was tasked by the African Association with finding the source of the Niger River, but instead decided to improve his Arabic first by traveling around the Middle East. Soon he was adopting the persona of Sheikh Ibrahim ibn Abdallah an Indian Muslim whose strange accent could easily be explained away so long as he wasn’t actually in India. After hearing talk of what he realized must be the ruins of a city known to classicists only through passages of ancient text, he convinced a Bedouin to guide him there on the pretense of completing a pilgrimage.

I hired a guide at Eldjy, to conduct me to Harouns tomb, and paid him with a pair of old horse-shoes. He carried the goat, and gave me a skin of water to carry, as he knew that there was no water in the Wady below.

In following the rivulet of Eldjy westwards the valley soon narrows again; and it is here that the antiquities of Wady Mousa begin. Of these I regret that I am not able to give a very complete account: but I knew well the character of the people around me; I was without protection in the midst of a desert where no traveller had ever before been seen; and a close examination of these works of the infidels, as they are called, would have excited suspicions that I was a magician in search of treasures; I should at least have been detained and prevented from prosecuting my journey to Egypt, and in all probability should have been stripped of the little money which I possessed, and what was infinitely more valuable to me, of my journal book. Future travellers may visit the spot under the protection of an armed force; the inhabitants will become more accustomed to the researches of strangers; and the antiquities of Wady Mousa will then be found to rank amongst the most curious remains of ancient art.

Travels in Syria and the Holy Land, by John Burckhardt

At the time you could easily imagine Burckhardt fancying himself a brave and impetuous explorer. I think most of us today would, at the very least, would consider betraying the trust of your guide a major ethical lapse. Not that Burckhardt had long to reflect on the choices he made. He died five years later of dysentery.

Visiting Petra today is hazard free, to an extent Burckhardt himself could have imagined. There is still some legwork involved, however. Walking through the entire site is a good 8K hike. But it is an amazing 8K. You start by wandering through the outer limits of the city where you can still see graves cut into the rock face of the sounding valley. Then you hike through the Siq — a norrow passage between two rockfaces that legend tells was originally formed by the water that gushed from the stone that Moses struck with his staff. Eventually you arrive at the Treasury building, and then into the valley where you find the rest of the city.

The length of the hike combined with the heat seemed to take plenty of visitors by surprise. There is a brisk trade in camel, horse, and donkey rides to take the overwhelmed back and forth. You can be forgiven for not anticipating how much there is to see (there is an entire city) if all you were expecting was the Treasury Building. There is a huge amphitheater, temple, and — if you are ready to go to the site’s furthest extent — the impressive Monastery which easily matches the Treasury for grandeur:

We also made a friend on the way up to the Monastery.

Finally, after spending 24 hours in Petra we took a taxi down to Aqaba where we were able to enjoy more kanafe before leaving Jordan and crossing into Eilat the next morning.

The view from Aqaba into Eilat.

The Hula valley, scarecrows, and malaria.

In December we took a trip to the Hula valley, a wetland reserve located in northern Israel and a few hours out from Haifa by bus. The site is a major destination for ornithologists as it lies in the intersection of two major migration flyways. An estimated 500 million birds of over 400 different species pass through the valley each year, although I imagine that current environmental situation may mean those figures are out of date. Climate change notwithstanding we were able to see an awful lot of birds — mostly Cranes — taking a break from the long a perilous journey between breeding and wintering.

If we had visited the valley a hundred years earlier, it would have been a very different experience. We would have run the serious risk of catching Malaria for one thing, because the entire valley was swampland. Only in the 1950s was the process of draining these swamps undertaken. Canals were dug out canals and the river Jordan was deepened. The project was ostensibly a successful; the swamp was gone and the land could be used for agricultural purposes. As is often the case with such human enterprises, however, there were some unintended consequences. These swamps were full of peat — semi-decomposed vegetable matter — that when dried out tends to be seriously combustible. Sure enough the drained Hula valley was struck disastrous underground peat fires.

Unlike the forest fires that were sweeping California last year, which caught headlines and could be seen by satellites in orbit, peat fires can be incredibly hard to detect. They are a deeper, smoldering, slow burning kind of fire that takes place underground. They also happen on enormous scales. If they aren’t caught early enough the only thing that can put them out is torrential rain. Peat fires are, globally speaking, the largest fires on earth and are estimated to make up 15% of mankind’s contribution to greenhouse gases.

In the Hula valley the damage caused by the peat fires was extensive. In some places the damaged caused to the soil caused depressions as deep as 6-7 meters. This would go on to cause environmental damage to the Sea of Galilee and deterred migrating birds from stopping in the valley. In the 90s the decision was made to flood the Hula valley again. The idea was to develop a nature reserve by controlling the underground water levels. While the valley would remain drained during the winter, it wouldn’t dry out during the summer. And as they restored the valley, the birds began return.

The summer in Israel, for me at least, are months of enduring the ordeal of endless mosquito bites. I am however grateful that I’m not running the risk of malaria, a disease that thrives in the swamps such as the one that existed in the Hula valley. So I can’t say I disapprove of the original desire to transform the land. The individual who we can really credit of the elimination of the disease from Israel however is Gideon Mer. Visiting Rosh Pina a number of years ago during Passover I was taken to his old house and told that this was the man who had cured Malaria. Given that most diseases aren’t eradicated by the miracle drug or vaccine, but rather through public health policy, I think it is fair to say this is close enough to the truth, in Israel at least. Here is his obit in the British Medical Journal:

On the bus back to the Technion, we could see the fields still used for agriculture, less than a kilometer away from the wetland reserve. It seems amazing that you could maintain a bird sanctuary while growing crops next door. If birds like to do anything, or so I’ve been led to believe, it is to fly into a farmers field and gobble up all the seeds. Indeed, we could see guards on patrol, circling the fields in what looked like little golf carts, ready to scare off any hungry cranes.

It was enough to make me wonder: do scarecrows actually work? I’m more familiar with scarecrows as a trope in popular culture. And bizarrely scarecrows are usually depicted as being almost entirely ineffective in repelling birds, while being a very scary staple of the horror genre. If you visit the Wikipedia page for scarecrows, you’ll find there is far more page space devoted to scarecrows in fiction than to their alleged real world function.

I’m certainly not the first person to wonder this, or indeed to take to the internet to find an answer. Steve Coll in his New Yorker Diary back in 2009 describes being struck by the same question, but finds nothing helpful in his search results. It is a good example of an area of knowledge where the internet feels incredibly non-definitive. Since Coll’s own inter-quest for an answer something closer to a definitive answer appears close to the top of googles listings: a Mental Floss article linking to scientific studies, government webpages, and the Daily Mail. If you are also beginning to wonder if the ostensible legitimacy of areas of the web are giving way to a wave of jankiness then this article — the most informative survey of they literature on scarecrow efficacy I could find — is only going to stoke your fears.

Confronting the Kugelmugel.

Whatever Christmas spirit I may have lacked for being in Israel, I was able to suitably redress by spending the first week of December in Vienna. The whole city feels like it was built to be decorated with gaudy winter lights.

I arrived on a Sunday afternoon, and after finding my hotel and getting dinner I decided I needed to go off on a bloody long walk. Walking is my principal source of exercise when I am taking these short trips, and I certainly wasn’t going to let the inclement weather get the better of me.

Rain will eventually threaten to get the best of you if your waterproof jacket doesn’t live up to it’s name so finding hot chocolate became a pressing concern. Vienna is world renowned for its cafe culture, but this led google maps to send me towards fancy coffee houses with startlingly long queues for admission. Whatever chain outlets existed weren’t open on a cold and wet Sunday evening. Fortunately, while most of the Christmas market had packed up and left, there was still one stall left open offering hot punch (spiced wine and rum) that was able to fortify me until I got back to the hotel.

Vienna is renowned for it’s cultural history and visitors can behold the incredible architecture, visit one of the many museums, or experience the live music the city’s many music conservatories cultivate. I was only around for a week and most of the day time I was busy hallucinating about line patterns inside the free group. I did manage to spend one morning walking across the city. Given my limited window of opportunity I had to prioritize. So that meant the Museum of Art Fakes, and then the Republic of Kugelmugel.

In 1971 the Austrian artist Edwin Lipburger, with help from his son, built a spherical house for himself out of wood. As you can see from the picture above, the house isn’t just vaguely spherical. It is literally a sphere. Lipburger was apparently obsessed with the “cosmic harmony” of spheres. He christened his new home the Kugelmugel. The municipality of Vienna was less enamored with ball shaped houses, and as it turned out they had some kind of rule or regulation forbidding the construction of such a dwelling. This was the beginning of an ongoing dispute between Lipburger and the city that led to him declaring the Kugelmugel an independent state and would escalate to Lipburger going to jail for ten weeks — specifically for erecting unauthorized street signs.

Eventually, some kind of arrangement was reached when in 1982 the Kugelmugel was moved to Prater park, where it can today be found by the fun fair. Lipburger was apparently induced with the promise of electricity and running water, neither of which were ultimately provided. He was the Republic of Kugelmugel’s only citizen, and after his death in 2015, the Kugelmugel remains in Prader park as a strange tourist attraction.

Today the Kugelmugel stands among the growing ranks of the worlds micronations — the outsider artists in the world of statecraft. There have been many motivations for claiming your own independent ministate. In the UK the Principality of Sealand existed as a platform for pirate radio in the 60s and 70s. Lipburger’s own declaration of independence was made partly in protest but also as some kind of artistic statement. Although stamps and passports were issued, it is hard not to read his endeavor as a means of challenging the idea of a modern state, rather than a credible attempt to create one.

Whatever Lipburger’s intention, the impression it gave to this curious visitor was perhaps far from what he would have wanted. It is surrounded by an eight foot fence with barbed wire running across the top, and a sign above the gate give the impression of a former Soviet bloc country that doesn’t care for visitors. The sign marking the street Antifaschismus-Platz rings with an irony similar to the likes of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Feral Cats and Cyprus

Last month we decided to take advantage of the off-season and spent a long weekend in Cyprus; one night in Nicosia and then two in the Troodos mountains. The flight is an hour, so if you forget about the hassle of getting to and from the airport it is the perfect short getaway from Israel.

Cyprus and Israel share a number of striking similarities: while Cyrpus is an island, Israel certainly seems like one metaphorically; both are stuck on protracted disputes over sovereignty and the status of certain minorities. But a more immediate similarity was finding ourselves surrounded by large numbers of feral cats. We had only to go as far as the airport bus stop before we encountered a cluster of skittish felines just off the grassy verge. It would be the first of many we’d encounter.

Cyprus now has around 1.5 million stray cats — that exceeds the human population of Cyprus of just under 1.2 million. For perspective, the UK has a population of 66 million, and the latest cat census puts the total stray and feral population at 10 million. (Israel has roughly 2 million cats out there and a population of 8 million.) Both Israel and Cyprus have half-hearted spay and neuter programs that attempt to curb the population growth. According to one article I found Cyprus and Israel share a public perception problem:

She added that the most important thing to do to reduce cat numbers is to educate owners on the benefits of spaying and neutering.


“Unfortunately, a lot of animal owners don’t use this service,” Foote said. Some even cite religious beliefs, that animals should be left “as God intended them to be”.

More cats than humans: population out of control – Cyprus mail.

Back in 2015, Uri Ariel, the Israeli minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, proposed deporting either all male or female cats from Israel as an alternative to having them spayed or neutered. His objection to the otherwise effective program was that it violated Jewish law, in particular the injunction to “be fruitful and multiply.” His suggestion was met with widespread scorn in many quarters.

The cats of Cyprus, however, have a claim to a special place in history. All the cat-themed relics that archeologists had been digging up in Egypt, had many to assume that cats were first domesticated under the dynastic rule of the pharaohs. But a cat grave has been found in Cyprus, dated to be roughly 9500 years old, predating the Egyptian claim. Since cats are not native to the island, it can be presumed they were first brought over to Cyprus by Turkish farmers along with all their other domesticated animals when they settled on the island.

There is also the later story of Saint Helena of Constantine (mother of the Emperor Constantine) sending over a boat load of cats from Egypt or Palestine to deal with a snake problem at Saint Nicolas’ monastery. We actually took a minor detour to check out the monastery of the cats, knowing nothing about the history, but vaguely hoping, based on the name in the guidebook, that we could find a feline-themed monastic order. Maybe little cats dressed up as monks. Or a painting somewhere of Saint Nicholas being led to the site by the Holy Spirit in the form of a cat. I was to be disappointed: aside from the presence of a fair number of strays, there was nothing evident in the monastery itself to earn the title. Cyprus is covered with a great many Greek orthodox churches, but even during our brief stop I noticed this particular monastery was picking up an unusual amount of traffic — presumably curious cat lovers enticed by the name.

A Greek orthodox church in the Troodos mountains.

Cyprus is a divided island. It was divided by a British army officer in 1964 who drew a line in a map with a green chinagraph pencil. While the situation in Israel/Palestine sits atop of the list of contentious, intractable ethno-national impasses, the situation in Cyprus is not so far behind. While the island sits just off the coast of Turkey, it is demographically dominated by Greek-Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots remain a minority. Historically, the island passed through many hands: the Venetians, Ottomans, and then the British being the most recent. It was during the British rule that the cause of Enosis — unification with Greece — came to the fore, with the Greek orthodox church being a major agitator for the cause.

In 1950, in the face of British refusal to hold a referendum, the church organized their own. It is hard to take the 95.71% approval on face value as only Greek Cypriots could vote, and those votes had to be publicly registered with signatures in books provided by the Greek orthodox church. Dissenters would effectively mark themselves out for later reprisals. I’ve been looking through the internet to see if I could find an image of one of these ledgers from the referendum. The following image appears to be attached in some way to the associated Wikipedia page, but I cannot vouch for its authenticity:

I’ve just finished reading Lawrence Durrell’s memoir Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, which recounts three years he spent on the island in the 50s when the situation boiled over into protests, riots, and terrorism. He arrived as a sometime civil servant hoping to be able to live cheaply while starting a full-time writing career. He acquired a cottage in the north of Cyprus after a comic/alarming/farcical property deal with a local family, and settled down into village life. His ability to speak Greek allowed him to befriend the locals and enjoy their goodwill, but he soon becomes increasingly aware that the British administration is blind to the building desire for independence and the potential for unrest.

The perspective Durrell offers is an interesting one. While the Cypriots have no autonomy over their own affairs, he maintains that there was a great deal of goodwill, or “amity”, between the locals and the British. He notes that he never once heard accusations of corruption against any governing officials. At the same time he understands that the Greek Cypriots desire to be taken seriously and have their right to self determination respected. But the British are in a bind: declaring Cyprus an independent state is certainly a reasonable demand, but an immediate rush to unify with Greece, subsequent to independence, would alarm the Turkish Cypriots and possibly Turkey itself. Durrell also notes that a Cyprus unified with Greece might not actually be so great for Cypriots. A delicate situation, but the real problem, as Durrell recalls it, was that the British administration didn’t really believe that the Cypriots ever had it in them to fight, and thus ignored the issue.

Durrell meanwhile runs short of money and starts teaching in a Nicosia high school before taking a job as a British civil servant on the island. When the troubles begin he sees first hand how badly prepared the administration are to deal with rapid developments, both conceptually and practically. He also witnesses many of his former student enlist in EOKA and their guerilla campaign. In the following passage he confronts one of his former students, caught in the act of bomb-throwing:

He was not far from tears, but the face that he turned to me tried to be composed, impassive. He did not speak but stared at me with a look of furious anguish – as if indeed a wolf were gnawing at his vitals. ‘He had a bomb too,’ said Foster wearily. ‘Bloody little fools! What do they think they gain by it? He threw it in the churchyard by the cross-roads. I suppose he thought he’d scare us all out of our wits.’

‘Are you in EOKA?’ I asked.

‘We are all EOKA. All Cyprus,’ he said in a low controlled voice. ‘If he wants to know why I threw it in the churchyard tell him because I was a coward. I am unworthy. But the others are not like me. They are not afraid.’ I saw suddenly that what I had mistaken for hatred of my presence, my person, was really something else – shame. ‘Why are you a coward?’ He moved a whole step nearer to tears and swallowed quickly. ‘I was supposed to throw it in a house but there were small children playing in the garden. I could not. I threw it in the churchyard.’

Superb egotism of youth! He had been worried about his own inability to obey orders. It is, of course, not easy for youths raised in a Christian society, to turn themselves into terrorists overnight – and in a sense his problem was the problem of all the Cypriot Greeks. If Frangos had been given a pistol to shoot me I am convinced that he would not have been able to pull the trigger. ‘So you are sorry because you didn’t kill two children?’ I said. ‘What a twisted brain, what a twisted stick you must be as well as a fool!’ He winced and his eyes flashed. ‘War is war,’ he said. I left him without another word.”

“Bitter Lemons of Cyprus” by Lawrence Durrell

In 1960 Cyprus finally became an independent state. In 1974 after a coup backed by Greece’s military junta, Turkey intervened, invading northern Cyprus. The coup failed, but so did negotiations between Cyprus and Turkey and after the violent displacement of both Greek and Turkish Cypriots, the north of the island was captured.

We crossed the green line in Nicosia into the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (as of the moment, only recognized by Turkey). While the green line was once impassable after the Turkish invasion, today the most you have to worry about is the queues. We didn’t hang around for long, but if we had, we might have seen a whirling Dervishes performance.

My surprise highlight of the weekend was visiting one of the ten painted churches in the Troodos mountains. These are small Byzantine churches with vivid murals on the inside (and recognized UNESCO world heritage sites). I’ve been in a bunch of churches, and seen many cathedrals with impressive architecture, but something about the interior of the church Pedoulas was impressive in a different way. I recommend checking out the Wikipedia page.

On finite covers of surfaces with boundary…

I have a new preprint on the arxiv, joint with Emily Stark. We provide the first known examples of one-ended hyperbolic groups which are not abstractly coHopfian. That means that there is a one ended hyperbolic group \(G\) which contains a finite index subgroup \(G’ \leq G \) that embeds \( G’ \rightarrow G\) as an infinite index subgroup. I encourage you to look at the paper for details. The main example and proof can be drawn out on a single side of A4 — it’s a simple surface amalgam and we exploit the tremendous flexibility you have when you take a finite cover of a surface with boundary.

We use the following Lemma extensively. It’s from Walter Neumann’s 2001 paper Immersed and virtually embedded \(\pi_1\)-injective surfaces in 3-manifolds, although, as he says, it is apparently “well known”.

The utility of this Lemma is that it reassures you that if you can imagine your desired cover — such as the following I’ve drawn below — and it satisfies a basic necessary Euler characteristic computations, then the cover does in fact exist.

The surface \(F’\) is a degree 5 cover. The collection of degrees in this example are 1+3+1=5. Note that if the 3 was replaced with a 2 and I tried to find a degree 4 cover with the specified boundary it would be impossible.

For our main example you can compute your desired covers by hand, but it is worth knowing what kind of covers of a surface with boundary you can take. This lemma tells you exactly how much control you have. And mathematical research, like all forms of insecurity, is really all about control.

The proof given above is brief, to say the least, so I think it is worth expanding on the details.

First, we remind ourselves how you might construct such a cover by hand. Take a surface with genus one and a single boundary component. From a group theoretic point of view this is just the free group generated by two element \( \mathbb{F}_2 = \langle x, y \rangle \) bundled together with the conjugacy class of the commutator \( [x,y] \). For me at least, finding finite index subgroups of the free group boils down to futzing around with graphs. Thus, we let \(X\) be a bouquet of two circles and let \(\langle x,y \rangle = \pi_1X\).

I actually drew it by hand.

On the right I drew the surfaces with boundary and on the left I drew the corresponding graphs with the loop corresponding to the boundary. Once you have drawn the graphs out it’s easy to verify that you have the boundary components you want. The trick is knowing you can find the desired finite covers. The key insight is that \(\alpha\)-sheeted covers of a graph \(X\) are in a correspondence with representations into the permutation group on \(n\) elements: \( \pi_1 X \rightarrow \textrm{Sym}(\alpha) \)

We can see how this correspondence works in practice in the example I just drew:

Giving each of vertex a number we can see that the edges labelled by a given generator of our free group gives a permutation. In this example the generator \(x\) gives the permutation \((1,2)(3)\) (see the red edges on the right), while the generator \(y\) gives the permutation \((1,2,3)\) (see the blue edges on the left). Thus we have a homomorphism determined by mapping the generators to the corresponding permutation.

At this point we need to be careful because there are some left-right issues hidden here. When I multiply group elements \(xy\) I am composing paths in the fundamental group. That means I concatenate the corresponding paths, starting with the \(x\) path and then following it with the \(y\) path. I’m reading the composition from left to right. In contrast, when I usually compose a pair of permutations \(\sigma_1 \sigma_2\) I compute the composition by reading them from right to left. But in order to be able to interpret my homomorphism correctly I’m going to have to compose my permutations in reverse order, from left to right.

Now we can compute the image of the element corresponding to the boundary curve: $$ xyx^{-1}y^{-1} \mapsto (1,2) \circ (1,2,3) \circ (1,2) \circ (3,2,1) = (1,2,3).$$ Tracing out how the boundary curve lifts is equivalent to computing this permutation element. This makes it clear that there is a single boundary component covering the previous with degree 3. (In this example it doesn’t matter in which direction we composed the permutations).

Conversely, choosing pair of permutions, say, $$(1,2)(3,4)\textrm{, and } (2,4,3) \in \textrm{Sym(4)}$$ to be the images of \(x\) and \(y\) we can construct a corresponding cover by taking 4 vertices and adding the appropriate labelled edges:

Now when we compute (remembering to compose our permutations from left to right) the image of our commutator element we get $$ xyx^{-1}y^{-1} \mapsto (1,2)(3,4) \circ (2,4,3) \circ (1,2)(3,4) \circ (3,4,2) = (1,4)(2,3).$$ Thus the surface has two boundary components, each covering the boundary in the base surface with degree two.

The take away from this discussion is that finding suitable covers corresponds to finding a suitable homomorphism $$\phi : \pi_1 X \rightarrow \textrm{Sym($\alpha$)}$$ such that the image of the elements corresponding to boundary curves are permutaions with the desired decomposition into cycles. Our weapon of choice is the fact that any even permutation can be written as the commutator of an \(\alpha\)-cycle and an involution:

Un résultat extrémal en théorie des permutations. Jacques, Alain; Lenormand, Claude; Lentin, André; Perrot, Jean-François, C. R. Acad. Sci. Paris Sér. A-B 266 1968 A446–A448

First we consider the case where \(\Sigma\) has a single boundary component. So \(\Sigma\) is a surface with genus \(g\), Euler characteristic $$ \chi(\Sigma) =  2 – 2g – |\partial \Sigma | $$ and a single boundary component, so \(|\partial \Sigma | = 1\). This corresponds to the free group generated by \(2g\) elements and the group element corresponding to the boundary, which is the product of commutators: $$( \langle x_1, y_1, \ldots x_g, y_g \rangle, [x_1,y_1]\cdots [x_g, y_g] ).$$

Suppose we wish to construct a cover of degree \(\alpha\) with the boundary components of degrees \(\alpha_1, \ldots, \alpha_k\). Then apply the above Theorem to the permutation $$\sigma = (1, \ldots, \alpha_1)(\alpha_1 +1, \ldots, \alpha_1 + \alpha_2) \cdots (\alpha_1 + \cdots + \alpha_{k-1} +1, \ldots, \alpha).$$ The theorem only applies if \(\sigma\) is an even permutation, which we compute to be equivalent to $$ \sum_i (\alpha_i -1) = \alpha – k$$ being even. As \(\chi(\Sigma) = 1-2g\) this is equivalent to \(k\) having the same parity as \(\alpha\chi(\Sigma)\), the sufficient condition given in the statement of our theorem.

Thus there exists permutations \( \sigma_x, \sigma_y \in \textrm{Sym}(\alpha)\) such that \( [\sigma_x, \sigma_y] = \sigma \). The homomorphism $$ \phi: \pi_1 \Sigma \rightarrow \textrm{Sym($\alpha$)}$$ given by mapping \(x\) to \(\sigma_x\) and \(y\) to \(\sigma_y\) therefore corresponds to a cover with the desired boundary.

Now we consider the slightly trickier general case where we have multiple boundary components, which is to say \(|\partial \Sigma| = b\). In which case the pair \((\Sigma, \partial \Sigma)\) corresponds to $$ (\langle x_1, y_1, \ldots, x_g, y_g, t_1, \ldots t_{b-1} \rangle , \{t_1,\ldots, t_{b-1}, t_{b-1}\cdots t_{1}[x_1,y_1] \cdots[x_n,y_n] \} ).$$

Now suppose we desire that the \(i\)-th boundary component is covered with degrees \(\alpha_1^i, \ldots, \alpha_{k_i}^i\), then let $$ \sigma_i = (1, \ldots, \alpha_1^i)(\alpha_1^i +1, \ldots, \alpha_1^i + \alpha_2^i) \cdots (\alpha_1^i + \cdots + \alpha_{k_i-1}^i +1, \ldots, \alpha)$$ for \(1 \leq i \leq b\). Now we wish to find \(\sigma_x, \sigma_y\) such that $$[\sigma_x, \sigma_y] = \sigma_1 \cdots \sigma_b.$$ This requires that the product of the \(\sigma_i\) is even. This means that the sum $$ \sum_i \sum_j (\alpha_j^i – 1) = \sum_i (\alpha – k_i) =\alpha b – \sum_i k_i = \alpha (\chi(\Sigma) -2 + 2g) – \sum_i k_i$$ should be even, which is true precisely when the total number of prescribed boundary components \(\sum_i k_i\) has the same parity as \(\alpha \chi(\Sigma)\).

Given that our parity condition is satisfied, we define our homormorphism \(\pi_1 \Sigma \rightarrow \textrm{Sym}(\alpha)\) as follows:

$$\begin{align} x_1 \mapsto & \sigma_x  \\ y_1 \mapsto & \sigma_y \\ x_2 \mapsto & 1 \\ \vdots \\ y_g \mapsto & 1 \\ t_1 \mapsto & \sigma_1^{-1} \\ t_2 \mapsto & \sigma_2^{-1} \\ \vdots \\ t_{b-1} \mapsto & \sigma_{b-1}^{-1} \end{align} $$

Then it only remains to verify that $$ t_{b-1}\cdots t_{1} [x_1,x_2] \cdots [x_g, y_g] \mapsto \sigma_{b-1}^{-1} \cdots \sigma_1^{-1} [\sigma_x, \sigma_y] =  \sigma_{b-1}^{-1} \cdots \sigma_1^{-1} \sigma_1 \cdots \sigma_{b-1} \sigma_b = \sigma_b $$ and conclude this gives us our desired cover.

QED.

(I’d like to thank Emily for informing me about Neumann’s Lemma, and Nir for various discussions related to this.)

Chicago and back to Haifa

I finally managed to capture the chalkboard on camera. The diagram is the central focus and remains up through the entire talk, with various additions and modifications made along the way.

I like to commit to the diagram.

Giving the same talk several times over the space of a month allows you to appreciate a few things. Minor adjustments can make a big difference, especially to pacing. Having already given a talk once really boosts your confidence. Having given a talk four times already doesn’t give you complete confidence. Responses can vary dramatically as audiences latch onto different aspects of what you are doing, and as you invariably emphasize specific things. At Boston College they wanted to hear more about special cube complexes, something many of them had heard about but had little exposure to, while at UIC I had audience members who had themselves considered the specific conjecture I am working on and were curious to hear about the obstructions I had encountered.

After roaming all over Manhattan I had a far more limited Chicago experience. I don’t think I strayed any further than a mile from the hotel and campus and most of my time was spent talking mathematics.

Now I’m back in Haifa, recovering from jet-lag. Despite the rain that marked my departure a month ago, I’ve returned to amazing weather.