The Push-Me-Pull-You Conundrum

I've faced some tough questions in my time, but none tougher than this one from my younger daughter...

How does a Push-Me-Pull-You go to the toilet?


After GoodReads sold out to Amazon, in more ways than one, I cast about for alternative book sites and came across an interesting one, still in beta at the time, called   One of the things I like about it is it has more of an international flavour, which is not surprising because the people who created it are in fact all Polish!  Despite which, they're very much centered on English language books and link through to B&N, Amazon, and Powell's.

Creating an account not only creates a GoodReads-like bookshelf and follower system, but also creates your own blog under their domain, that's accessible by the whole world.  So if you want a free blog that's book-oriented, then it's sort of a natural.  I don't use it that way because I have my own very lovely blog, but I can see where someone might find that useful.

Proxenos: a job both ancient and modern

It's not every day you get email from a US Consul.  But such was the case a week ago when I received a lovely email from Mr Mark Mohr.  Mr Mohr's a retired US diplomat and a mystery reader.  And very glad I am that he emailed, because he mentioned something interesting to do with The Ionia Sanction.

In The Ionia Sanction there's a character named Thorion.  Thorion has a special job: he's a proxenos.

Proxenos was one of the most interesting official jobs a man could have in Classical Greece.  The pro means for, the xenos means foreigner.  Hence proxenos means someone who acted on behalf of foreigners.

The system worked like this:  cities didn't have a diplomatic service back then, so what they did was find men among the other cities who were well-disposed toward them, and then ask those foreign men to act on their behalf.

Thorion is a citizen of Athens, and always has been.  But he married a woman from Ephesus and he has intricate trade connections to Ephesus.  Thorion therefore acts as the proxenos for Ephesus in Athens.  He officially represents them.

If someone from Ephesus is in Athens and in trouble, he can go to Thorion for help.  If a merchant in Ephesus wants to trade in Athens, he could ask Thorion for advice and introductions to Athenian traders.  If Athens was considering passing some trade law that would disadvantage Ephesus, then Thorion -- even though he was a citizen of Athens -- might reasonably stand up to argue against it, and his fellow citizens would expect him to do just that.

The proxenoi appear to have been at least as effective as the consulates of modern times.  With the hundreds of Greek city-states, and their intricate political and trade alliances, the proxenoi must have formed a complex and fascinating network of men.

I thought the proxenoi were no more, replaced by modern consuls.  But to my delight, I was wrong.  Mark mentioned:
"Actually, there is such a system in modern diplomacy; they are known as honorary consuls. For example, when I was [US Consul] in Brisbane, a prominent Greek-Australian attorney was the honorary consul for Greece. At the time I was in Brisbane, only eight consuls were citizens of the sending country, whereas more than twenty honorary consuls, all Australian citizens, represented foreign interests. So apparently the Greek gift of the proxenoi system continues into present times."
Not only do the proxenoi still exist, but they're in my own country.  And one of them is proxenos for Greece!

The NSA Line Eater

With all the excitement at the moment about the NSA watching your internet traffic, I can't resist adding a bit of folklore from the early days of the internet.

Back in the good old days before web pages, the standard system of community chatter were newsgroups.  In fact newsgroups still exist.  The newsgroup for mystery novels for example is rec.arts.mystery.

There was a bug in the original newsgroup system, so that sometimes one or two lines from a posting might randomly disappear.

This instantly gave rise to the belief that a creature lived inside the internet, and that it survived by eating random lines of text.  The creature was dubbed the Line Eater.  People even added what was called Line Eater Food into their posts to make sure the creature had enough to eat.

I first became aware of the Line Eater in the mid-eighties (I'm showing my age here); the Line Eater lived for a few more years, until it was finally extinguished when someone found the bug.  I'm stretching my memory, but I think it was that if a line was exactly 80 characters long and began with whitespace then the newsgroup software overwrote the buffer and simply dropped that line.

RIP the Line Eater.

The Line Eater inspired another theory: that the NSA was reading all the  posts in every single newsgroup, and that the missing lines were the proof.  This became known as the NSA Line Eater and was much more sinister.  The anarchy-oriented denizens of the internet began adding what they called NSA Food  to the signatures of all their posts.  They added words like KGB, bomb, assassin, and, of course, NSA, all designed to tweak the interest of the eavesdroppers.  This was all very silly, but since the early netizens were uni students, that's par for the course.

Except that as it turned out, the NSA really was reading all the posts.  It was part of a massive traffic analysis system called ECHELON.  Traffic analysis means keeping an eye on who's talking to whom without necessarily reading the messages.  ECHELON was a Cold War construct run by the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  I wouldn't be at all surprised if this Prism thingy turns out to be merely a subset of Echelon, which has been running for at least fifty years.

Casting Sacred Games

Third in Marshal's book blogs is My Book, The Movie, in which authors have a go at casting actors for their characters (without the inconvenience of needing the actors to agree...).

It's surprising how difficult this can be!  Each time I have a go at it, I come up with a different answer.  It's not so much that the characters have changed, but that perception of the actors changes over even a few years.  Though looking back on it, I find I've cast Russell Crowe for Pythax in The Pericles Commission, and then used him for King Pleistarchus in Sacred Games.

For Diotima I had Rachel Weisz in The Pericles Commission, my wife Helen as Diotima in The Ionia Sanction, and now with Sacred Games I think I might have hit on the perfect Diotima.  I'm rather pleased with my idea for Nico too.

Writers Read

The second of Marshal Zeringue's book blogs is Writers Read, where he asks various writers what they're currently reading.  I confess I have fun reading the answers of other writers, since it amounts to recommendations from people who should, in theory, know something about books.

I've answered this question for him three times now, and looking back on my past answers, I'm struck by how totally inconsistent I am.  But I do appear to move in themes.

Right now, I seem to be having a retro period.

The Page 69 Test

In what's become something of a tradition, I've written an entry for Sacred Games at the Page 69 Test.

The idea is for an author to discuss page 69 of his book.  Is it representative?  How does it progress the story?   What, when you get down to it, is really the point of page 69?  Is it merely some halfway point between 68 and a better life on 70?

If you want to see what happens on my page 69, and why it matters (I hope), then click on through!

The Page 69 Test and two other book sites are run by Marshal  Zeringue, someone who cares very much about reading and goes out of his way to encourage the habit.  Thanks Marshal!