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Red mercury as scam and symbol

Friday, November 20th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — CJ Chivers, nuclear nonsense, faux chemistry, and the alchemical imagination, with hat-tip to Cheryl Rofer ]

CJ Chivers, conflict journalist extraordinaire and author of a book about the Kalashnikov assault rifle, The Gun, today posted a remarkable account of what he terms The Doomsday Scam, with the subtitle “For decades, aspiring bomb makers — including ISIS — have desperately tried to get their hands on a lethal substance called red mercury. There’s a reason that they never have.”

A taste:

The Islamic State, he said, was shopping for red mercury.

Abu Omar knew what this meant. Red mercury — precious and rare, exceptionally dangerous and exorbitantly expensive, its properties unmatched by any compound known to science — was the stuff of doomsday daydreams. According to well-traveled tales of its potency, when detonated in combination with conventional high explosives, red mercury could create the city-flattening blast of a nuclear bomb. In another application, a famous nuclear scientist once suggested it could be used as a component in a neutron bomb small enough to fit in a sandwich-size paper bag.


To approach the subject of red mercury is to journey into a comic-book universe, a zone where the stubborn facts of science give way to unverifiable claims, fantasy and outright magic, and where villains pursuing the dark promise of a mysterious weapon could be rushing headlong to the end of the world. This is all the more remarkable given the broad agreement among nonproliferation specialists that red mercury, at least as a chemical compound with explosive pop, does not exist.

Indeed, there’s a sidebar in Chivers’ post which sums the topic up nicely:

The shadowy weaponeer’s little helper, red mercury was the unobtainium of the post-Soviet world.

There’s much more, of course — with red mercury rumored to be found in old Singer sewing machines, which briefly raised the price of such machines in Saudi Arabia a thousandfold to $50,000 — and the whole extraordinary piece is more than worthy of your attention. It is also about a concrete, if counter-factual, reading of the term “red mercury.”

Cinnabar, aka mercury sulphide, anyone?


A centuries-old debate concerning alchemy has concerned the literal and metaphorical interpretations of alchemical texts.

Scholars up to and including Isaac Newton theorized about and practiced alchemy in their aptly named lab-oratories, at a time when literal and metaphorical “readings” were much less easily considered separately than is the case today. Alchemy was then for a while widely ridiculed as proto- and indeed pseudo-science — a tendency still prevalent in many circles today. And more recently, alchemy has been explored by Carl Jung and followers (and his predecessor, Silberer) as a field of imaginative, metaphorical inquiry illuminating spirituality, psychology and literature.

  • BJT Dobbs, The Foundations of Newton’s Alchemy
  • BJT Dobbs, The Janus Faces of Genius
  • Herbert Silberer, Problems of Mysticism and its Symbolism
  • CG Jung, Psychology and Alchemy
  • CG Jung, Alchemical Studies
  • CG Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis
  • Marie-Louise von Franz, Aurora Consurgens
  • Titus Burckhardt, Alchemy
  • Jung’s reading of alchemical texts is a symbolic reading — in accordance with the principle “the stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief corner stone” (Psalm 118.22, cf Acts 411), he has taken precisely those materials in the alchemical tradition which modern chemistry rejected as ridiculous, and reclaimed them as symbolic, richly metaphorical expressions of psychological truth.


    It is in that spirit that I turned from Chivers’ fascinating treatment of “red mercury” as an allegedly physical, albeit spurious, substance, with its intriguing narratives of scams from the Cold War to the present day and IS, to take a look at what I might find via a brief search in the Jungian literature. I say “quick” because I have neither the appropriate library nor the time for a more intensive search, but here’s what little I found:

    There’s a “red mercury” reference in Stanton Marlan, The Black Sun: The Alchemy and Art of Darkness, on p. 22:

    The idea is that the raw solar energy must darken and undergo a mortificatio process that reduces it to its prime matter. Only then can the creative energies produce a purified product. In this image the sperm of gold refers not to the ordinary seminal fluid of man but rather to “a semi-material principle,” or aura seminales, the fertile potentiality that prepares the Sun for the sacred marriage with his counterpart, darkness, which is thought to produce a philosophical child or stone and is nourished by the mercurial blood that flows from the wounding encounter of the Lion and the Sun. The blood — called red mercury — is considered a great solvent.

    Marlan then gives us what is effectively a translation of the paragraph above into contemporary therapeutic language:

    Psychologically, there is nourishment in wounding. When psychological blood flows, it can dissolve hardened defenses. This then can be the beginning of true productivity. In dreams the imagery of blood often connotes moments when real feeling and change are possible. The theme of the wound can also suggest a hidden innocence, which is also a subject of mortification. The green color of the lion, which is referred to as “green gold,” suggests something that is immature, unripe, or innocent, as well as growth and fertility. The alchemist imagined this innocence, sometimes called virgin’s milk, as a primary condition, something without Earth and not yet blackened. Typical virgin-milk fantasies are often maintained emotionally in otherwise intellectually sophisticated and developed people.


    And then there’s what Jung would term synchronicity..

  • CG Jung & Wolfgang Pauli, The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche
  • In my twitter stream within 3 minutes of my posting my first tweet re Chivers’ piece, & before I’d tweeted my follow up, I ran across this tweet containing the phrase “Drawing Blood will eat the sun”:

    Drawing Blood will eat the sun — just how synchronistically alchemical can Molly Crabapple and Twitter get?

    Must Beethoven really roll over?

    Wednesday, October 21st, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — time, like an ever rolling stream, bears all its sons away ]

    I’m more than a little proud of these two tweets from my nephew, the conductor Daniel Harding, who was in Japan at the time of the March 2011 quake:

    SPEC Daniel Harding Tokyo quake

    I remembered them today while reading Anna Goldsworthy‘s The Lost Art of Listening — subtitled Has classical music become irrelevant?


    Goldsworthy’s central theme is this:

    Reports of the death of classical music are not new. There are those who have made a career out of eulogising it, such as the English journalist Norman Lebrecht, who has written the same book on the subject several times; the late pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen quipped that “the death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition”. Classical music has absorbed a number of deaths already – the death of patronage, of the composer-virtuoso, of tonality. Clearly it is made of stern stuff, but can it survive the death of its audience?

    It was this sentence, however, that reminded me so vividly of Daniel’s tweets:

    Might there be a concert a few decades hence in which – God willing – my trio is still performing, but only to an audience of one? And if that listener were to perish mid performance, would we keep playing?


    I’m wondering whether Goldsworthy’s question — Has classical music become irrelevant? — may not parallel a similar concern about poetry.

    Language shifts. Eliot caught it nicely:

                                      Words strain,
    Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
    Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
    Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
    Will not stay still.

    The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has announced its plan to “provide translated texts in contemporary modern English as performable companion pieces for Shakespeare’s original texts..” The OSF comments:

    We have asked the writers to limit their efforts to updating the more antiquated language in the plays. Shakespeare’s works are all written in modern English; it’s just that in the last 400 years, many of the words, phrases and references have fallen out of use. So our focus is squarely on translating this antiquated language to increase understanding, while maintaining the vibrancy of the original.

    So there you have it: Shakespeare’s works are all written in modern English; it’s just that..

    And so the wheel turns.


    When I was researching 4chan clues to the recent Umpqa shooting, I had to avail myself of the Urban Dictionary to learn the meanings of such terms as sperg out, pepe, normie, edgelord


    A poster on an Internet forum, (particularly 4chan) who expresses opinions which are either strongly nihilistic, (“life has no meaning,” or Tyler Durden’s special snowflake speech from the film Fight Club being probably the two main examples) or contain references to Hitler, Nazism, fascism, or other taboo topics which are deliberately intended to shock or offend readers

    — and there isn’t even a definition for libcucks as yet. Hey, I’m an Ancient. It’s what happens to the young.

    So I get the feeling Shakespeare may have now reached the point of obscurity that Chaucer had reached in 1951, when I was yet a child and Penguin published Neville Coghill‘s verse translation of The Canterbury Tales.


    One of many notable comments in Goldsworthy’s piece was this:

    In 1942 starving musicians performed Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 in Leningrad while the city was under siege. The musicians were given an hour-long ovation, and the concert was broadcast to German forces as a form of psychological warfare.

    Pablo Neruda, Andrei Voznesensky: I’ve seen it suggested that poetry has urgency — and the large audiences to prove it — in those times and places where poets also risk imprisonment, perhaps torture, and even death.

    Irina Ratushinskaya described her writing habits while in the Soviet Gulag:

    In defiant prose, she tells of her refusal to cower in the camp “like a frightened mouse.” Determined to continue writing poetry, she would scratch verses onto bars of soap with the burnt end of a matchstick. One poem described “the first beauty which I saw in this captivity: a window in the frost!” Another confided: “We live stubbornly/like a small beast who’s gnawed off his paw/ to get out of a trap on three.” After memorizing her words she would wash the evidence away. Later she copied the poems, in minute handwriting, onto four-centimeter—wide strips of cigarette paper and smuggled them out to Igor, who passed them on to Western journalists. “All poets should have such a school,” she says now, with a laugh. “It taught me to be very spare and concise.”


    Daniel’s tweets:

  • Daniel Harding, Wonderful atmosphere on strangest of days
  • Daniel Harding, Would have played just for the 69 year old
  • Oregon Shakespeare Festival announcements:

  • News Release, OSF Launches Three-Year Shakespeare Translation Commissioning Project
  • Play On FAQ, 36 playwrights translate Shakespeare
  • Next year, Daniel takes up the post of music director of the Orchestre de Paris.

    Paintful humor in wake of Ankara bombing

    Thursday, October 15th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — in which 359 turns out to be just a degree closer to zero than 358 is ]


    For those Zenpundit readers no more fluent in Turkish than I am, Acting Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu‘s interview above was reported by Today’s Zaman:

    During the interview on Wednesday night Davutoglu also commented on the Ankara bombings on Saturday which left nearly 100 people dead in a suspected Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) attack. “There is a 360-degree, not 180 degrees, difference between the Islam we defend and daesh has in its mind,” the acting prime minister said in an apparent gaffe that sparked a series of tweets mocking his statements which meant the government and ISIL are on the same page on their interpretation of Islam. Daesh is the Arabic acronym for ISIL.

    “Davutoglu said there is a 360-degree difference between ISIL and them. They would sue others who would say that,” academic Koray Çaliskan said.

    “Professor Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, a closed disc has 360 degrees,” Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) leader Cem Toker tweeted, recalling that Davutoglu is a professor.


    Today’s Zaman also quoted the “famous Turkish geometry teacher” whose classes on YouTube have garnered him an impressive following, Mustafa Mete Ekolan aka Ekol Hoca. Ekol tweeted the following graphic illustration today:


    It’s worth noting that Today’s Zaman Editor-in-Chief Bulent Kenes was released pending trial today. A fine legal point made by his defense lawyer:

    Gunaydin said in the petition to the court there is no crime in the Turkish Penal Code (TCK) for “sending tweets.”

    Our ZP blog-friends on the Iran deal

    Wednesday, August 19th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — waiting for the other shoe to drop — or be thrown, i suppose — or if a sandal, for the sand to be shaken off it if need be ]


    Which leaves us with:

    AP Exclusive: UN to let Iran inspect alleged nuke work site

    Iran will be allowed to use its own inspectors to investigate a site it has been accused of using to develop nuclear arms, operating under a secret agreement with the U.N. agency that normally carries out such work, according to a document seen by The Associated Press. [ .. ]

    The Parchin agreement was worked out between the IAEA and Iran. The United States and the five other world powers were not party to it but were briefed by the IAEA and endorsed it as part of the larger package.

    On Wednesday, White House National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said the Obama administration was “confident in the agency’s technical plans for investigating the possible military dimensions of Iran’s former program. … The IAEA has separately developed the most robust inspection regime ever peacefully negotiated.”

    All IAEA member countries must give the agency some insight into their nuclear programs. Some are required to do no more than give a yearly accounting of the nuclear material they possess. But nations- like Iran – suspected of possible proliferation are under greater scrutiny that can include stringent inspections.

    The agreement in question diverges from normal procedures by allowing Tehran to employ its own experts and equipment in the search for evidence of activities it has consistently denied – trying to develop nuclear weapons.

    Olli Heinonen, who was in charge of the Iran probe as deputy IAEA director general from 2005 to 2010, said he could think of no similar concession with any other country.

    The White House has repeatedly denied claims of a secret side deal favorable to Tehran. IAEA chief Yukiya Amano told Republican senators last week that he was obligated to keep the document confidential.


    IAEA Director General’s Statement and Road-map for the Clarification of Past & Present Outstanding Issues regarding Iran’s Nuclear Program

    IAEA Director General’s Statement:

    I have just signed the Road-map between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the IAEA for the clarification of past and present outstanding issues regarding Iran’s nuclear programme. The text has been signed on behalf of Iran by the country’s Vice-President, and President of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Mr Ali Akbar Salehi. This is a significant step forward towards clarifying outstanding issues regarding Iran’s nuclear programme. [ .. ]

    Joint Statement

    by the IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano and the Vice-President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, President of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi [ .. ]

    Road-map for the clarification of past and present outstanding issues regarding Iran’s nuclear program
    The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Islamic Republic of Iran (Iran) agree, in continuation of their cooperation under the Framework for Cooperation, to accelerate and strengthen their cooperation and dialogue aimed at the resolution, by the end of 2015, of all past and present outstanding issues that have not already been resolved by the IAEA and Iran.

    In this context, Iran and the Agency agreed on the following: [ .. ]

    5. Iran and the IAEA agreed on another separate arrangement regarding the issue of Parchin.

    It appears to me that the other shoe is still up in the air — and must feel much the same way Schrödinger’s Cat feels.

    No man’s land, one man’s real estate, everyone’s dream?

    Monday, August 17th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — borders and distinctions from Trump to Revelation, plus one ]

    Donald Trump‘s “three core principles of real immigration reform”:

    1. A nation without borders is not a nation.


    G Spencer-Brown wrote of his book. Laws of Form, “The theme of this book is that a universe comes into being when a space is severed or taken apart” — or as Heinz Von Foerster rephrased him, “Draw a distinction and a universe comes into being”. Indeed, his book opens with the words:

    We take as given the idea of distinction and the idea of indication, and that we cannot make an indication without drawing a distinction.

    He writes:

    Distinction is perfect continence.

    That is to say, a distinction is drawn by arranging a boundary with separate sides so that a point on one side cannot reach the other side without crossing the boundary. For example in a plane a circle draws a distinction.

    Similarly, Gregory Bateson defines an idea as “A difference or distinction or news of differences”.


    Borders are both physical and metaphysical: the border between the physical and the metaphysical passes through human beings, who are themselves both metaphysical and physical.

    Borders may thus be heeded or ignored.

    Smugglers don’t necessarily ignore them, they may take them very seriously, as do those who police them. Birds, however, ignore them, fishes, lizards, languages..

    There are would-be states that straddle national borders, as the Basque peoples straddle the border between France and Spain:

    Basque France Spain 600

    There are also would-be states that literally erase national borders, as in the case of IS bulldozing thw border between Iraq and Syria:

    Iraq Syria Border 600

    Thus while borders may be tidy in separating one from a second, they are also untidy in straddling them, neither one nor two, yet (like Janus) both.. They are, in short, thresholds, limina. And so wahat we know of liminality applies to them. I have discussed tthis previosuly on Zenpundit in Liminality II: the serious part — suffice it to say here that limiality is a condition that exacerbates, intensifies.


    The anthropologist Mary Douglas, in her book Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, quotes Leviticus 19.19:

    You shall keep my statutes. You shall not let your cattle breed with a different kind; you shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed; nor shall there come upon you a garment of cloth made of two kinds of stuff.

    Why these disjunctions? Dougles notes the repeated refrain in just such contexts:

    Ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy

    and points out that Ronald Knox correctly — if “rather thinly” — translates this:

    I am set apart and you must be set apart like me

    She then tells us:

    Holiness means keeping distinct the categories of creation. It therefore involves correct definition, discrimination and order.

    noting that:

    The word ‘perversion’ is a significant mistranslation of the rare Hebrew word tebhel, which has as its meaning mixing or confusion.

    and concludes

    ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience. It is only by exaggerating the difference between within and without, above and below, male and female, with and against, that a semblance of order is created.


    The upper image, below, is taken from my recent post on Matrioshka cartography, and waas taken in turn from Say goodbye to the weirdest border dispute in the world in the Washington on August 1st..

    SPEC DQ maps

    … while the lower image is from Welcome to Liberland, the World’s Newest Country (Maybe) in the New York Times Magazine, dated Aug 11


    Lydia Kiesling, in her post Letter of Recommendation: Uzbek in the NYT magazine today, writes:

    National borders can be risibly at odds with reality, especially in Central Asia, where Turks, Mongols, Persians and others roved and mingled, where ‘‘Uzbek’’ was, for a time, more of a descriptive antonym of ‘‘Tajik’’ — no­­madic versus settled — than an ethnic classification.

    And why not?

    They are, after all, distinctions drawn in the mind, lines drawn on paper. Thus the Sykes-Picot map:

    Sykes_Picot_Agreement_Map_signed_8_May_1916 600

    Sykes was quite clear about the “lines dorawn on paper” part. He is reported to have said:

    I should like to draw a line from the e in Acre to the last k in Kirkuk

    The map, in other words, is not the territory: the map is a map.

    To take another instance of importance in today’s world, the Durand Line:

    Durand_Line_Border_Between_Afghanistan_And_Pakistan 600

    Not only is the map not the territory in this case — it can be seen, as one-time Afghan president Hamid Karzai said, as “a line of hatred that raised a wall between the two brothers” — Afghanistan and Pakistan.


    Sympathies which exist across borders can be potent forces for their dissolution. In a poem titled “Their Eyes Confer Fire” written in the 1980s about Basque country, I wrote

    We have
    little time,
    Marie explained,
    for those
    who, because
    it is hard
    to draw
    across actual
    carve up
    this earth on

    France, Spain:
    we disdain
    boundaries, borders,
    and border guards.

    A canny reader noted that the entire poem could be read not as a description of the Basques as they exist in reality, but as a paean to the corpus callosum joining the two hemispheres of the brain — and thus the two modes of cognition of which I so recently wrote.


    Returning to Lieberland, or Gornja Siga as the locals call it, we learn:

    Gornja Siga has come, over the last few months, to assume an outsize role in the imagination of many — not only in Europe, but also in the Middle East and in the United States. Its mere existence as a land unburdened by deed or ruler has become cause for great jubilation. There are few things more uplifting than the promise that we might start over, that we might live in the early days of a better nation. All the most recent states — South Sudan, East Timor, Eritrea — were carved from existing sovereignties in the wake of bitter civil wars. Here, by contrast, is a truly empty parcel. What novel society might be accomplished in a place like this, with no national claim or tenant?

    Consider one sentence alone as the key to that “outsize role in the imagination”:

    There are few things more uplifting than the promise that we might start over, that we might live in the early days of a better nation.

    The apocalyptic yearning here and its kinship with the Amrican dream are hard to miss — it is like a conflation of Matthew 5.14:

    A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.

    with Revelation 21.1-2:

    And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.



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