Monday, February 28, 2011

In the end, the route I took to the answer could be described as... (Cool Things I Never Learned In School)

Why are things described as "byzantine," and what does that really mean?

Up until about two weeks ago, I'd never really given any thought to the word byzantine, even though I used it from time to time.

Using words without really knowing what they mean is how you get a reputation for being smart: most people are to impressed/embarrassed to ask you what it means or question how you're using the word, so if you're even close, you get a reputation for being very wise, at least until someone says "what does that mean?"

And, really, things being byzantine didn't come up all that often, as you'd imagine, but then I listened to an episode of This American Life in which Ira Glass talked to (or about, it's hard to tell on that show) a guy who specialized in underwater Byzantine archaeology.

Honestly: a thing that you wouldn't imagine existed, a thing so specific that you couldn't even dream it up, is a guy's whole career, a career that began when he (for some reason) went scuba diving and found what archaeologists know to be a sunken ship from the Byzantine Empire and what the rest of us would assume to be "a bunch of junk on the ocean floor" and not even all that much junk, either: just some scraps of wood that were lucky (?) enough to be buried under the sediment before they decomposed or were eaten by starfish or something.

This guy -- these guys, actually, Fred van Doorninck and George Bass -- began recreating this Byzantine ship by pinning parts of it to the ocean floor using sharpened bicycle spokes, on repeated scuba diving trips, until they were able to reconstruct the ship entirely, and then were able to actually reconstruct it the right way, after an acquaintance who actually knew something about boats pointed out to them that their first effort at recreating the boat was wrong and the boat wouldn't actually sail.

(Which really says something about how archaeologists are putting together dinosaur bones and the like, doesn't it? Completely aside from the fact that they're making up dinosaurs based on scraps of bone, two archaeologists put together what they thought was a boat, but, being unfamiliar with boats, built it wrong, so are we absolutely sure that T. Rex looked like a T.Rex?)

Anyway, aside from thinking that it was amazing that there could be such a thing as underwater archaeology, and thinking it was amazing that as a kid who at one point wanted to be an oceanographer and at another point wanted to be an archaeologist...

... my mom tried to talk me out of the latter by pointing out that it wasn't like "Indiana Jones" career, but who says it couldn't be?...

... that as such a kid, I never knew that "underwater archaeology" existed, and why not? When kids are going to grade school and high school and trying to imagine what they might be in the future, why is nobody telling them there's an Institute of Nautical Archaeology that they might want to consider?

It might have ended there, but for the fact that then I heard, on Pandora, a new song from The New Pornographers (The Best Rock Band That Isn't The Beatles, U2, or The White Stripes), the song being Sweet Talk Sweet Talk:

Which to you is just the song behind the latest Kindle ad, but to me set off a chain reaction that resulted in me going to read stuff, because I heard that song the same day I listened to This American Life, and, if you listened closely to it, you'll realize (like I did) that the first verse is:

A mistake on the part of nature, You're so fabled, so fair, just sit anywhere, I've pencil-sketched the scene, It's feeling byzantine.

And byzantine is mentioned lots in that song, which has the usual obscure New Pornographers lyrics that make me feel like it must be nonsense, something I have to believe because otherwise I'd feel like I'm stupid, and I hate feeling stupid.

Which all led me to wonder what, really, does byzantine mean and why do we use it to mean complicated or labyrinthine?

So I read up on the Byzantine Empire -- not books about it, but articles about it -- and learned that the Byzantine Empire was an offshoot of the original Roman Empire, also called the Eastern Roman Empire, and that it began, more or less, around the time of Justinian, who also helped codify the Roman laws and tried to incorporate them with Christianity...

... cue the political reference: So we have Justinian to blame for the fact that in 2010 we elected people who feel that God's okay with Britney Spears marrying on a drunken whim but not okay with two men promising to love each other forever...

...and that after that the Empire thrived, more or less (can you thrive, "more or less"?) for about 1000 years, never giving up the ambition of retaking the Western Roman Empire even though for a period of time there was no Western Roman Empire, because Italy had fallen into ruin, Rome largely abandoned, and was overrun by "Lombards," which is German (I guess) for longbeards, but also never actually retaking the West, either.

The Byzantine Empire did do some pretty amazing sounding things, like defeating some people called the Ostrogoths, and conquering North Africa, and as far as I can tell it was not the Ottoman Empire, because it lost territory during the "Byzantine-Ottoman" wars, as well.

All of which does not tell me why Byzantine = complicated.

So I kept looking, and came across one of those anonymous web pages where people with no accreditation give answers to questions, and this one talked about how "byzantine" as "complicated" arose from the way Byzantine generals solved their problems.

I then searched for stuff related to that, and came across a Wikipedia page entitled "Byzantine fault tolerance" which began with a reference to the "Byzantine Generals Problem," which itself is a kind of logic problem along the lines of that one about everyone on an island being a liar; it's apparently used to help solve programming problems and has to do with how "loyal" generals know that the command they're receiving is a valid one.

Which then led me to investigate how the Byzantine Armies were organized, and I found that they're amazingly complicated: they were set up along "themes," or thema, with generals holding civilian and military power and judges holding judicial power, and some people getting land grants to support their troops. When the large size of these "themes" led to revolts, the structure was complicated further, setting up levels and levels of divisions and groupings of men.

Scholars then say that the weakening of the themes -- and resultant complication -- led to the eventual demise of the Byzantine Emperor (or greatly contributed to it.)

Which all means that byzantine, properly understood, doesn't just mean complicated, it means complicated for specific reasons that undermine its effectiveness.

If that seems like a lot of work to understand a song from The New Pornographers, keep this in mind: I still don't understand it. But it is catchy.

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