Brian Micklethwait's Blog

In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

Home

www.google.co.uk


Recent Comments


Monthly Archives


Most recent entries


Search


Advanced Search


Other Blogs I write for

Brian Micklethwait's Education Blog

CNE Competition
CNE Intellectual Property
Samizdata
Transport Blog


Blogroll

2 Blowhards
6000 Miles from Civilisation
A Decent Muesli
Adloyada
Adventures in Capitalism
Alan Little
Albion's Seedling
Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise
Alex Singleton
AngloAustria
Another Food Blog
Antoine Clarke
Antoine Clarke's Election Watch
Armed and Dangerous
Art Of The State Blog
Biased BBC
Bishop Hill
BLDG BLOG
Bloggers Blog
Blognor Regis
Blowing Smoke
Boatang & Demetriou
Boing Boing
Boris Johnson
Brazen Careerist
Bryan Appleyard
Burning Our Money
Cafe Hayek
Cato@Liberty
Charlie's Diary
Chase me ladies, I'm in the cavalry
Chicago Boyz
China Law Blog
Cicero's Songs
City Comforts
Civilian Gun Self-Defense Blog
Clay Shirky
Climate Resistance
Climate Skeptic
Coffee & Complexity
Coffee House
Communities Dominate Brands
Confused of Calcutta
Conservative Party Reptile
Contra Niche
Contrary Brin
Counting Cats in Zanzibar
Скрипучая беседка
CrozierVision
Dave Barry
Davids Medienkritik
David Thompson
Deleted by tomorrow
deputydog
diamond geezer
Dilbert.Blog
Dizzy Thinks
Dodgeblogium
Don't Hold Your Breath
Douglas Carswell Blog
dropsafe
Dr Robert Lefever
Dr. Weevil
ecomyths
engadget
Englands Freedome, Souldiers Rights
English Cut
English Russia
EU Referendum
Ezra Levant
Everything I Say is Right
Fat Man on a Keyboard
Ferraris for all
Flickr blog
Freeborn John
Freedom and Whisky
From The Barrel of a Gun
ft.com/maverecon
Fugitive Ink
Future Perfect
FuturePundit
Gaping Void
Garnerblog
Gates of Vienna
Gizmodo
Global Warming Politics
Greg Mankiw's Blog
Guido Fawkes' blog
HE&OS
Here Comes Everybody
Hit & Run
House of Dumb
Iain Dale's Diary
Ideas
Idiot Toys
IMAO
Indexed
India Uncut
Instapundit
Intermezzo
Jackie Danicki
James Delingpole
James Fallows
Jeffrey Archer's Official Blog
Jessica Duchen's classical music blog
Jihad Watch
Joanne Jacobs
Johan Norberg
John Redwood
Jonathan's Photoblog
Kristine Lowe
Laissez Faire Books
Languagehat
Last of the Few
Lessig Blog
Libertarian Alliance: Blog
Liberty Alone
Liberty Dad - a World Without Dictators
Lib on the United Kingdom
Little Man, What Now?
listen missy
Loic Le Meur Blog
L'Ombre de l'Olivier
London Daily Photo
Londonist
Mad Housewife
Mangan's Miscellany
Marginal Revolution
Mark Wadsworth
Media Influencer
Melanie Phillips
Metamagician and the Hellfire Club
Michael Jennings
Michael J. Totten's Middle East Journal
Mick Hartley
More Than Mind Games
mr eugenides
Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism
My Boyfriend Is A Twat
My Other Stuff
Natalie Solent
Nation of Shopkeepers
Neatorama
neo-neocon
Never Trust a Hippy
NO2ID NewsBlog
Non Diet Weight Loss
Normblog
Nurses for Reform blog
Obnoxio The Clown
Oddity Central
Oliver Kamm
On an Overgrown Path
One Man & His Blog
Owlthoughts of a peripatetic pedant
Oxford Libertarian Society /blog
Patri's Peripatetic Peregrinations
phosita
Picking Losers
Pigeon Blog
Police Inspector Blog
PooterGeek
Power Line
Private Sector Development blog
Public Interest.co.uk
Publius Pundit
Quotulatiousness
Rachel Lucas
RealClimate
Remember I'm the Bloody Architect
Rob's Blog
Sandow
Scrappleface
Setting The World To Rights
Shane Greer
Shanghaiist
SimonHewittJones.com The Violin Blog
Sinclair's Musings
Slipped Disc
Sky Watching My World
Social Affairs Unit
Squander Two Blog
Stephen Fry
Stuff White People Like
Stumbling and Mumbling
Style Bubble
Sunset Gun
Survival Arts
Susan Hill
Teblog
Techdirt
Technology Liberation Front
The Adam Smith Institute Blog
The Agitator
The AntRant
The Becker-Posner Blog
The Belgravia Dispatch
The Belmont Club
The Big Blog Company
The Big Picture
the blog of dave cole
The Corridor of Uncertainty (a Cricket blog)
The Croydonian
The Daily Ablution
The Devil's Advocate
The Devil's Kitchen
The Dissident Frogman
The Distributed Republic
The Early Days of a Better Nation
The Examined Life
The Filter^
The Fly Bottle
The Freeway to Serfdom
The Future of Music
The Futurist
The Happiness Project
The Jarndyce Blog
The London Fog
The Long Tail
The Lumber Room
The Online Photographer
The Only Winning Move
The Policeman's Blog
The Road to Surfdom
The Sharpener
The Speculist
The Surfer
The Wedding Photography Blog
The Welfare State We're In
things magazine
TigerHawk
Tim Blair
Tim Harford
Tim Worstall
tomgpalmer.com
tompeters!
Transterrestrial Musings
UK Commentators - Laban Tall's Blog
UK Libertarian Party
Unqualified Offerings
Violins and Starships
Virginia Postrel
Vodkapundit
WebUrbanist
we make money not art
What Do I Know?
What's Up With That?
Where the grass is greener
White Sun of the Desert
Why Evolution Is True
Your Freedom and Ours


Websites


Mainstream Media

BBC
Guardian
Economist
Independent
MSNBC
Telegraph
The Sun
This is London
Times


Syndicate

RSS 1.0
RSS 2.0
Atom
Feedburner
Podcasts


Categories

Advertising
Africa
Anglosphere
Architecture
Art
Asia
Atheism
Australasia
Billion Monkeys
Bits from books
Bloggers and blogging
Books
Brian Micklethwait podcasts
Brians
Bridges
Business
Career counselling
Cartoons
Cats and kittens
China
Civil liberties
Classical music
Comedy
Comments
Computer graphics
Cranes
Crime
Current events
Democracy
Design
Digital photographers
Drones
Economics
Education
Emmanuel Todd
Environment
Europe
Expression Engine
Family
Food and drink
France
Friends
Getting old
Globalisation
Healthcare
History
How the mind works
India
Intellectual property
Japan
Kevin Dowd
Language
Latin America
Law
Libertarianism
Links
Literature
London
Media and journalism
Middle East and Islam
Movies
Music
My blog ruins
My photographs
Open Source
Opera
Other creatures
Painting
Photography
Podcasting
Poetry
Politics
Pop music
Propaganda
Quote unquote
Radio
Religion
Roof clutter
Russia
Scaffolding
Science
Science fiction
Sculpture
Signs and notices
Social Media
Society
Software
South America
Space
Sport
Technology
Television
The internet
The Micklethwait Clock
Theatre
This and that
This blog
Transport
Travel
USA
Video
War


Category archive: Religion

Sunday June 04 2017

This morning I went looking for any copies of the Koran that I might have downloaded, to do some more reading of it, in order to confirm that it is indeed as disgusting a piece of writing as I recall it being last time I tried to read all through it.  I did not find any Koran, but I did find the piece of writing below.

I started writing what follows in November 2006, but then stopped writing it, for some reason.  It still reads quite well, but I probably stopped because I found myself trying to say too many things, most of them somewhat more complicated than how I described them.  But I think this piece, which I reproduce here with no alterations from what I wrote over a decade ago, is a lot more right than wrong.  For all its first-draft-itis, it serves today as my response to yesterday’s terrorism in London, which I wasn’t far away from as I wandered about in London, as recounted in the previous post.  Only a bit more transport confusion and I might have got more directly involved in that.

The thing starts with seven subheadings, but as you will discover, I only got as far as elaborating on the first four.  But the others, still pack quite a punch, as single words.

Anyway, here it is:

Engage – notice – think – define – isolate - surround – destroy

What I mean by the West

I do not have in mind a mere geographical area, even though what I do have in mind definitely has its origins in a geographical area.  What I mean is a style of government, a style of political culture, composed of constitutionally divided political power, rather than despotism, and all the habits of political debate and political turbulence that go with that.  And, divided economic power, and all the habits of competitive trade and inventiveness that go with that.  And, the way that these two things feed off each other.

1. Engage

The West engages its enemies without even trying to.  This is because it is supremely powerful and supremely productive.  Without even knowing it, it outrages ancient pieties, entices primitive youths into involvement with it, starting with jeans etc., but only starting with that.  It smashes temples and turns them into supermarkets and car parks.  It commits sacrileges of every sort.  It paves paradise.  It turns objects of religious worship into priceless (i.e. very pricey indeed) antiques for the antiques market.  It will be many decades yet before it has no external enemies, probably centuries, and it will always have internal enemies, disgusted by its failures and successes.

That last point is particularly important.  The West doesn’t just make enemies in the regular sense, it helps to make them in the literal sense.  Communism, Fascism, and now Islamo-fascism all had tremendous input from the West itself.  In a way, you could say, the world is already entirely Westernised, but is, Western style, quarrelling.  One team wants the West to stop being the West, in the sense I have defined it, to stop quarrelling and to take its orders from some particular permanent despot or permanent elite.  The rest of the West wants the West to remain the West, and to continue quarrelling for ever.

2. Notice

So, contentedly, selfishly, complacently, the West is beset with enemies, and every few years or decades, one of these enemies persuades the West that it might be a serious threat, or at the very least a serious nuisance.  The recent enemies of the West have been Despotic Germany, in due course Hitler’s Germany.  Then the USSR.  Now there is Islam, Islamism, or whatever we call it.  (See below.  The confusion is a lot of what this posting is all about.) And maybe, also China.  Or maybe neither of the above, and we ought still to be at peace, contentedly, selfishly, complacently, and Clintonian contentment should still reign.  We are now quarrelling about that.

9/11 may or may not have been the latest moment when the West became aware of its next great enemy, but it certainly feels like one of those moments to me.

3. Think

9/11 certainly got a lot of people in the West thinking, and this, I suggest, is the stage we are now at when it comes to confronting Islam, Islamism, etc..  But, there is fierce disagreement about what, if anything much at all, should be done about this apparent new enemy.

The reason I didn’t put “disagree” in that list above is because the West always disagrees with itself, at all times.  It always argues.  None of the processes described here are unanimous, and wanting them to be is an un-Western way of thinking, I suggest.  I repeat, at no point in the process I describe is the West ever united.  Even the victory stage is hotly contested, with victory often being achieved by a minority which merely worked out how to do it.

President Bush, the by-default (and much contested and resented) leader of the West just now, has made a brave (or stupid according to taste) stab at defining, isolating, surrounding and destroying the Islam(ist) enemy, and although it is hard to see this now, I believe that his effort might yet prove sufficiently successful to sort that problem.  I can easily imagine a world, in about ten or twenty years time, say, in which we occasionally say, in among fussing about the Chinese or the South American Union of Bastards or whoever is next on the eternal list of enemies: Remember that 9/11 thing?  Yeah, whatever happened to those guys?  Well, well, history eh?  Talk about a dog that stopped barking.  I know, that doesn’t now seem likely, but

Many of the enemies of the West never get past the being noticed stage.  Think of rock and roll.  Some said that was an enemy of the West.  Now, it is the West, along with everything else we like, such as Hellman’s Mayonnaise, cricket on Sky TV, motorised Zimmer frames, the internet, etc. etc.  Rock and roll got noticed as a potential enemy, and then . . . well, that was pretty much it.  By and by, the people who had become agitated about it just relaxed and went on to fussing about something else.  Or just died.

Back to that thinking stage.  In a way, this is rather like “disagree” in that of course we think.  We in the West think, all the time.  It’s what we do.  So, why do I still award it a separate category of its own in this progression.  Well, because I think it is important to understand the bull session, thinking outside the box, anything-is-allowed nature of the process.

Take the Islam(ist) confrontation we are now thinking about so furiously.  Is there a problem?  Many say no.  Others say yes, there’s a huge problem, and we’re getting stuck into it, and why the hell don’t you stop bitching?  (I haven’t heard anyone say that yes there is a huge problem but it is now being taken care of and soon it will all be over, but, what the hell, you just heard me say that things could be like that, in this, only a few paragraphs ago.) If there is a problem, what kind of problem is it?  Is it religious of secular?  Ancient or modern?  Religious, political, economic or social?  Is the USA the real problem here?  Is the only problem that the damn USA is built for launching itself at problems, and if it doesn’t face a real problem it will launch itself at a fantasy problem, just for the fun and the profit of it?  Is the answer for all the religions to get along, by forming a kind of anti-modern religious cartel, and then for the relatively modern bits of the cartel to civilise the more primitive bits?  Is it All About Oil?  (And is the answer therefore to invent an oil substitute?)

Define

Define the enemy.  This is the argument which, historians may well decide, is the one the West is now having.  This is the particular object of the thinking.

For whatever it may be worth, and just to give you an example of the kind of argument this process involves, there is now a huge argument going on in the West right now about the nature of the Islamist threat.  Is it a threat from “extreme Islamists”, terrorists, people who are betraying Islam?  And is the answer to isolate these extreme Islamists terrorist, etc., from the rest of the Muslim world, by persuading “moderate” Muslims to suppress the extremity in their midst?  Or is Islam as a whole the problem?

My answer is a hybrid.  I think it highly unlikely that Islam as such will be totally defeated in the nearish future.  But I do think that it makes more sense to say that Islam is the problem, rather than mere Islamic extremism.  My understanding of the contents of the Koran, based on some reading of English translations and on a lot of hearsay and opinion from those (of all state of pro- to anti-Islamic opinion) who have read it a lot more than me, is that the Koran is a manual for conquest of the world by Islam.  Violence and savagery are definitely recommended, but so is making nice, when that will work better.  But, conquest – submission – is the objective.  The idea, to put it in terms of the West as I am defining the West, is for the West to be shut down.  Stop quarrelling.  Submit.  So, Islam itself is a mortal enemy of the West.  They can’t both win.  Either the West is shut down, or Islam is castrated into a bizarre group of people who believe their bizarre things but never actually do any of it, and spend their time unanimously explaining that it is all only metaphorical, and that Holy War really only means studying harder for your exams and doing your work better, and generally being nice and civilised.  Islam is absolutely not like this now, and is accordingly the West’s enemy.  The West faces the task, I would say, of destroying Islam.

In practice, what this means for the time being is for Islam to be sufficiently subjugated by the West for it not to be any kind of immediate problem.  Western victory would mean not Islam ceasing to exist, but Islam ceasing to exist as even a minor nuisance to the West.  Any excitable adolescent who read the Koran and wanted to act as if it means what it says would be suppressed at once, by other Muslims.  The rest of us wouldn’t need to be much involved.

So, how to do this?  Well, I am doing what I now recommend, which is to think about the problem, and to define the enemy.  And I now define the enemy as Islam.  Not Islamic extremism, or people betraying Islam, but: Islam.  What it is.  What is says.  Islam must now either be either destroyed, or, and in practice this amounts to something very similar, transformed into something completely different.

To the so-called Muslim majority moderates, I have this to say.  Get real.  You insist on your right to your religious beliefs.  Fine.  And we Westerners are going to insist on acquainting ourselves with your beliefs, now that you have our attention, and we are now doing this.  And the conclusion we are reaching is that your beliefs are a huge problem for us.  Even if you do not take them seriously, what if your crazy children do?  Ideas have consequences.  So if you repeat ad nauseam that the Koran is the unchallengeable word of God and must be followed, even if you do not follow it yourself, then in our eyes you, and not just the crazy kid suicide bombers etc., are doing something wicked.  You are spreading ideas that are hostile to the West, and we now blame you for this process.  Not just the crazy kids who take the ideas that you are spreading seriously.  We blame you for spreading these ideas.  You, as you now behave and now think, are the problem.

I often hear “moderate Muslims” say that “we are being blamed for things we didn’t do”.  But I am blaming you for things that you are doing.  You are spreading beliefs that you say under cross-examination that you do not really believe.  Then stop spreading them.  Stop worshipping the Koran.  Stop declaring it to be the word of God.  You say “we are under attack”.  So far as I am concerned, you are under attack.  You say that you are frightened.  You should be.

We Westerners are now quarrelling about whether we should allow ourselves the right to say that we hate Islam.  Well, while it remains legal to say it, I say it now: I hate Islam.  It is a vile and disgusting religion.  Its purpose is to ruin my life and to terrorise me into believing things that are the opposite of what I now believe, into living in an opposite way to how I now live.  Of course I hate it.

How, to digress a little, does this square with me being, as I am, a libertarian?  Well, I do not think that Islam should be illegal.  But nor do I think that me saying I hate Islam should be illegal.  And since this is an argument about ideas and the spread of ideas, the way that my side will win this argument is by arguing, not by passing laws which will suppress the public expression of ideas, but which will not argue them into no longer being believed in.

My team won a crushing ideological victory in the West over Soviet Communism.  We did this without, on the whole, ever making it illegal for Westerners to be Communists.  We just denounced all Communists for the idiot, evil freaks that they were, until eventually they were so demoralised by our contempt for them that they just shut up, and switched to things like Greenism.  They continue to spread many of their separate little Communist ideas, but they have mostly now stopped spreading the idea of Communism itself, and in fact this defeat predated the collapse of the USSR.  It left my team free to proceed with the destruction of Soviet Communism itself, pretty much ideologically unimpeded by Western Communists.

As I say, no laws against believing evil nonsense were necessary to win this ideological victory, and in fact such laws would have got in the way.  Illegal ideas are much harder to engage with and destroy, if only because they are so much harder to find, and because the temptation is to declare them already defeated when in fact they have only been forbidden and are still in rude health.

Wednesday May 31 2017

Lincoln Paine, The Sea and Civilization (p. 130):

Octavian’s victory in Egypt brought the entire Mediterranean basin under the command of a single imperial rule. To guarantee the safety of the empire and its sea trade, Augustus (as Octavian styled himself) established Rome’s first standing navy, with bases at Misenum just south of Portus ]ulius, and at Ravenna in the northern Adriatic. These fleets comprised a variety of ships from liburnians to triremes, “fours,” and “fives.” As the empire expanded, provincial fleets were established in Egypt, Syria, and North Africa; on the Black Sea; on the Danube and Rhine Rivers, which more or less defined the northern border of the empire; and on the English Channel. Over the next two centuries there was nearly constant fighting on the empire’s northern and eastern borders, but the Mediterranean experienced a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity during which Greco-Roman culture circulated easily around what everyone was entitled to call Mare Nostrum - Our Sea. It was the only time that the Mediterranean has ever been under the aegis of a single power, with profound results for all the cultures that subsequently emerged on its shores.

There follows (p. 132) a description of the sort of commercial culture that resulted.  Here is some of what Paine says about Ostia:

The remains of the city, which rival those of Pompeii, reveal a town of ordinary citizens rather than wealthy estate owners and their retinues. The essentially rectilinear streets were lined with three- and four-story apartment houses, many with street-level stores and offices. ...

But then, concerning religion in Ostia, Paine addes this:

… In addition to houses, offices, workshops, and laundries, the city boasted an astonishing array of religious buildings that reflect the inhabitants’ strong ties to the Roman east. Side-by-side with temples to the gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon and the imperial cults stand Christian baptisteries, a Jewish synagogue, and a host of temples to Near Eastern deities, including a dozen dedicated to the Zoroastrian divinity Mithras, the god of contracts and thus revered by merchants. ...

Mithras was the god of contracts?  Revered by merchants?  I knew about how the Roman Empire took off economically (and degenerated politically) by surrounding the Mediterranean, but I did not know that Mithras was the god of contracts and was revered by merchants.  So, it would appear that proto-libertarianism in the ancient world missed a big chance when Christianity conquered the Roman Empire and prevailed over Zoroastrianism.  Although, a little preliminary googling tells me that some reckon Christianity to have been “borrowed” from Zoroastrianism.  Whatever.  I like the sound of it, and will investigate it more.  By which I mean I will do some investigating of it, instead of the zero investigating of it that I have done so far in my life.

Saturday May 13 2017

I can’t remember how I came across the blog Sleepless in Barcelona.  But I did, and was intrigued that, like London, it seems that Barcelona likes to advertise itself with an assemblage of its most recognisable buildings:

image

I visited Barcelona in 2005 (I got the date from this posting), and I remember thinking then that, like London, Barcelona was an obvious candidate for this sort of graphic promotion.  Like London, it used to have an upper limit to the height of its buildings - caused by religiously motivated legal restrictions, perhaps?  But now, whatever those height limitations were, they had been overcome or set aside, and the occasional bigger building was sprouting up, in the new “recognisable”, “iconic” style.  Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia used to dominate the city in splendid isolation, the way St Paul’s Cathedral used to dominate the City of London, but for a while now, other, secular Big Things have being permitted.

More Barcelona graphic assemblages here, and in lots of other www spots too, if google images ("Barcelona skyline") is anything to go by.

Here is another such piece of graphic promotion, this time more colourful:

image

Just as with London, and with quite a lot of other cities, two of the key breakthrough modern Big Things were telecoms towers.  Montjuïc Communications Tower and the Torre de Collserola.  Both are to be seen on the left side of the above graphic.  I remember noticing both of those very dramatic buildings when I was there, but I also vaguely remember failing to photo them at all successfully.  My camera didn’t have anything like the zoom that my current one does.

Maybe I should pay Barcelona another visit.

Telecoms towers have a typically rather unacknowledged place in the history of modern architecture.  Dating as many of them do from the concrete monstrosity era, they proved, with their popularity and their popularity in particular with picture postcard sellers, that the public vastly preferred amusingly shaped buildings to the usual concrete monstrosities of the boringly rectangular sort.  This caused the Big Thing style to erupt quite a bit earlier than it might otherwise have done.

Wednesday May 03 2017

I have begun reading Lincoln Paine’s very big book of maritime history, and it is heavy going, by which I mean that it is heavy.  My eyesight is deteriorating, and I now have to hold books with quite small print, such as this one is, close to my face, and holding this very big book is rather exhausting.

The first chapter concerned Pacific canoeists, whose navigational achievements were stupendous, and pre-USA Americans.  It was no fault of Paine’s, but I wasn’t that gripped, because I had no questions about such things hat I wanted answered.  But then Paine moved to ancient Egypt, and things started livening up (pages 37-38):

In the spring of 1954, employees of the Egyptian Antiquities Service were removing debris from around the base of the Great Pyramid at Giza. The effort was a routine bit of housekeeping and there was little expectation of uncovering anything of significance in a place that had been worked over by tomb robbers, treasure seekers, and archaeologists for forty-five hundred years. As they cleared the rubble, workers came across the remains of the southern boundary wall. This was hardly extraordinary; boundary walls had been identified on the north and west sides of the pyramid as well. What was unusual was that this one was closer to the pyramid than the others. Because the archaeological record had long since revealed the Egyptians’ fastidious attention to precise measurements and symmetries, archaeologist Kamal el-Mallakh suspected that the wall covered a pit holding a boat connected with the funeral rites of the pharaoh Khufu - or Cheops, as he was known to ancient Greek writers living about midway between his time and ours. Archaeologists had found such pits around various pyramid complexes, including that of Khufu, although all were empty at the time of their modern discovery. Further excavation revealed a row of forty-one limestone blocks with mortared seams. El-Mallakh chiseled a test hole in one of the stones and peered into the impenetrable darkness of a rectangular pit hewn from the bedrock. As he could not see, he closed his eyes.  “And then with my eyes closed, I smelt incense, a very holy, holy, holy smell. I smelt time ... I smelt centuries .... I smelt history. And then I was sure that the boat was there.” Such was the discovery of the royal ship of Khufu.

The forty-four-meter-long disassembled vessel had been superbly preserved in its airtight tomb for approximately four and a half thousand years. According to one investigator, the boat’s timbers “looked as hard and as new as if they had been placed there but a year ago.” The boat was almost certainly built for Khufu, the second pharaoh of the Fourth Dynasty. The Great Pyramid was his tomb, and the cartouche of his son, Khafre, was found on several of the blocks sealing the pit. More than twelve hundred pieces of wood were recovered, ranging in size from pegs a few centimeters long to timbers of more than twenty meters. About 95 percent of the material was cedar, imported by sea from Lebanon; the remainder included domestic acacia, sidder, and sycamore. After the pieces had been documented and conserved, the complex work of reconstruction began. The pieces had been arranged logically in the pit: prow at the west end, stern to the east, starboard timbers on the north side, port timbers on the south, hull pieces at the bottom and sides of the pit, and superstructure elements on top of the pile. Carpenters’ marks in the form of symbols in the ancient hieratic Egyptian script gave additional clues about how the pieces fit together. Even so, it took thirteen years before the reconstruction was complete; and it was not until 1982, almost three decades after its discovery, that the Khufu ship was opened to the public in a specially built museum alongside the pyramid.

By any measure, the Khufu ship was an astonishing discovery. The largest and best-preserved ship from antiquity or any other period for the next four thousand years, it reveals the technological sophistication of the ancient Egyptians on a far more intimate and accessible scale than do the pyramids or the more arcane arts of embalming and mummification. Like these practices, the burial of the Khufu ship was clearly linked to death rituals in some way, and there is no clearer indication of the central place of boats and ships in Egypt of the third millennium BCE than their honored place in the sacraments of the afterlife. Together with the other twenty-one Egyptian vessels thus far discovered by archaeologists, to say nothing of the hundreds of models, tomb paintings, and written descriptions of ships and boats, as well as records of river and sea transport, the Khufu ship forcefully highlights the importance of watercraft to a civilization that flourished along a fertile ribbon drawn through an African desert.

Friday April 14 2017

As related last Wednesday, I heard GodDaughter 2 (and others) perform this:

image

What a strange piece it is.  To an atheist like me, the plot is very simple and wholly disastrous.  Mother watches her only son being tortured to death.  Yet Rossini makes a lot of it sound rather up-beat, even jolly, despite it mostly being in a minor key.  This effect was strengthened in this performance by the fact that instead of the orchestra that Rossini specified, they made do with two pianists playing one piano.  Don’t get me wrong, these guys did fine.  But the inevitable emphasis that a piano places, unlike wind and orchestral stringed instruments, on the beginnings of notes, especially when two pianists need to keep in time with each other, created a mood not unlike a rather jolly brass band, of the sort manned by men in leather shorts.  Put on top of that singing that was more operatic in manner than traditionally ecclesiastical, and you can see why (I just learned this (blog and learn)) Heinrich Heine described the work as “too worldly, sensuous, too playful for the religious subject”.  Playful is exactly the word.  The tenor solo aria, early on, sounded like he’d just got married.

But then again, it’s not for atheistical me to be telling nineteenth century Italians how they should feel about the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  If they want to treat this as a cause for something close to celebration, which I suppose is what Christianity as a whole does, in among all the lamentation, I’m not going to tell them otherwise.  Besides which, I enjoyed it, once I had got over the surprise of how it sounded. Playful is a good sound.

If you like the sound of playfully ecclesiastical Rossini, I also recommend his Petite Messe Solomnelle.  That’s long been a favourite of mine.

There’s something about young-and-still-studying classical music voices that is often lacking with more famous, better paid and older classical singers.  Basically, their voices are still pristine, not yet having suffered from the habit of belting everything out to the far corners of opera houses.  Provided the students you are hearing are in command of what they are singing and don’t sing out of tune (these were and didn’t), they can create a sort of musical magic that you often miss on bigger and grander occasions.  There is also something appropriate about how none of them are stars, or not yet.  That way God, the Virgin Mary and her Son get to be the stars of the evening.

That said, towards the end, GodDaughter 2 had her big solo moment, doing a very difficult number with some scarily low notes.  As I already reported she did very well, in other opinions besides mine, Other than that, the highlight for me was the performance of Michael Ronan, who brought gravitas to the occasion of a sort that I was expecting rather more of.  I say “performance” because he accomplished this effect as much with his restrained and perfectly pitched body language as with his fine singing.

It was a shame that more people were not persuaded to attend this event.  I’m guessing we were mostly friends and family.  We had the performers outnumbered, but not by much.

I earlier linked to the Scherzo facebook page.  This was then still plugging last Wednesday’s performance, but as of now it features a photo of all the singers and their conductor Matthew O’Keeffe, taken after the performance.  I’m tempted to show you the photo of the photographer taking this photo that I photoed, but have resisted.  I also resisted taking photos of the performance during the performance, but she showed no such restraint, sometimes being almost in the singers’ faces.  Afterwards, I heard grumbles, but presumably she had permission.  If her efforts help Scherzo to get the bigger audiences they deserve in the future, then I forgive her.

Friday February 24 2017

Here via here (Ephemeraren’t?).

My favourite (scroll down here) is this one, a Buddha under construction in Thailand:

image

Sculpture that’s of something.  Scaffolding.  A magnificent crane.

Excellent.

Thursday November 10 2016

A few days ago, the weather was gorgeous, in the early morning.  Forewarned by a typically omniscient short-term weather forecast, I got up early and went up to the roof of my block of flats.  I particularly wanted to photo the progress of the building work opposite, and more distantly, the progress of the new US Embassy over towards Battersea, which happens to be very visible from this spot.  But I also photoed roof clutter, near and far:

imageimageimageimageimageimage

1.1 That building, on the far side of Victoria Street from me, used to be New Scotland Yard, but the Metropolitan Police are moving (to a building right next to the original Scotland Yard), and it seems that one of London’s finer roof clutter clusters will soon be no more, to be replaced by these new towers.  Blog and learn. 

1.2 Some of the scaffolding opposite, mingling with aerials, and with an older kind of aerial for tuning in to messages from the heavens, otherwise known as a church spire.

2.1 Clutter at its most cluttered close up.  Is that stuff in the foreground maybe something to do with mobile phones?  In the distance, Battersea Power Sation, with one of its chimneys yet to be completely reconstructed.

2.2 Me photoing a satellite dish, and my shadow photoing the shadow of the satellite dish.

Tomorrow’s weather is also due to be gorgeous.

Saturday October 15 2016

I’ve already given you Rod Green’s Dangereuse.  Here’s another, longer bit from his book about Magna Carta, a bit which he entitled “Boys and Men” (pp. 61-66) I was especially struck by the part near the end, about people who could pronounce Latin words but who didn’t know what they meant.  Sounds horribly familiar:

Not so long ago, it was widely assumed that the concept of “childhood” simply didn’t exist in the Middle Ages. The view was that the kind of life led by a modern child - where good health, play and education experienced as part of a loving family environment is seen as the norm - was in stark contrast to the lives of children 800 years ago, who were treated as a burden to be tolerated until they were old enough to be of some use.

Recent research, however, shows that this may not have been entirely the case. Studies of toys from the period have shown that children were encouraged to play. The toys may have been homemade in many cases, but models of mounted knights made out of metal would have been bought or specially commissioned, showing that some parents cared enough about their children’s play time to lavish gifts on them.

Children do not feature prominently in illustrated manuscripts, paintings or tapestries doing anything more than emulating their parents, but in some cases they can be seen playing games like tag or “king of the castle” and riding on hobby-horses. They were, it seems, encouraged to play and enjoy an active childhood, although their lives were set on a predetermined course at an early age.

In the early thirteenth century, a child surviving the first year of life had a reasonable chance of fighting off disease long enough to acquire the strength needed to survive in the harsh and unhygienic medieval world. In fact, 25 per cent of those born to wealthy parents and up to 50 per cent of those born to the poor did not. A whole host of infectious
diseases for which we now have myriad names would then simply have been classed as “fever” or “food poisoning”.  Life expectancy was only around 30 years, although anyone from the ruling classes who made it, strong and healthy, to the age of 21, might well have had another 40 years to look forward to.  In the fourteenth century, the Black Death was to reduce life expectancy dramatically.

In the days of King John, however, a fit young boy born into a noble family could expect to live in his parents’ grand house or castle until he was about seven years old.  He would then be sent off to live in another castle, most likely in the house of a nobleman a rung or two up the feudal ladder from his own parents, perhaps even in one of the king’s
own residences.

Here he would serve first as a page, running errands and generally waiting on the lords and ladies of the household.  However, he would also learn how a large house functioned and how people interacted with one another, as well as learning about customs and proper manners. He might also be taught how to read and understand Latin and, if it were not already his native tongue, the version of French spoken by the Norman nobility.

A young boy would also learn how to ride and, if he showed promise, he might, when he was around 14 years old, become apprenticed to a knight as a squire. They had to train hard to learn the art of combat, which included lifting heavy stones to build muscle, throwing the javelin, fighting with a quarterstaff, archery, wrestling, acrobatics and sword fighting.  Swordsmanship was taught using a blunted sword and a buckler, a small shield the size of a pot lid. This trained the would-be knight how to parry sword thrusts and how to use his shield as an offensive weapon without the novice having to start off with a full-sized, cumbersome shield. Similarly, the blunted sword was used against heavily padded protective layers, although the dull blade could still inflict painful wounds.

The squire would learn how to clean and prepare the knight’s armour and weapons, although major repairs had to be undertaken by a blacksmith or armourer.  He would also need to help his knight put on his armour, which meant more than simply helping him to dress - the various elements of the heavy steel all had to be strapped into place in the correct sequence to make sure that they overlapped and allowed for movement in the right way.

This, of course, meant that the squire went with his knight to compete in tournaments. He would eventually get the chance to compete in his own right, even before he became a knight, as there were special contests organized solely for squires.

Whether a squire lived in his knight’s house, or whether he lived in a baron’s castle where landless knights also lived as part of the baron’s permanent military force, he would have regular chores to perform, which would include acting as a servant when his masters sat down to eat.  Squires were expected, for example, to learn the correct way to carve meat at the table.

The squire’s apprenticeship would last until he was around 21 years of age, at which point he might expect to be knighted himself. However, he might want to avoid that happening - a squire could be made a knight either by his local lord or by the king, but it wasn’t an honour that everyone could afford. The squire’s family, whom he may have visited only a couple of times a year since he was sent away as a seven-year-old, would have to pay for the costly armour, weapons and warhorse that a knight required, as well as funding any forays he might make to tournaments far and wide. Being a knight could be prohibitively expensive, especially if a second, third or fourth son, who might not inherit any part of his father’s estate when he died (the bulk of property often being bequeathed to the first-born).

Around the beginning of the thirteenth century, there was a growing “middle class” of merchants, tradesmen and professionals, particularly in the new cities and busy ports.  Trade with continental Europe had expanded enormously since the Norman Conquest, although Anglo-Saxon entrepreneurs are known to have traded extensively with partners as far away as Russia. Clauses 41 and 42 of Magna Carta make special mention of such merchants.

The son of a merchant would live an entirely different life from that of a boy born into the nobility. From a very young age, he would learn about the family business, in order to play a full part as soon as he was old enough. A boy might also become apprenticed to another merchant or tradesman, a privilege for which his family would have to pay, and be sent away from home to live with his new master.

Merchants, especially those dealing in foreign trade, had to be able to speak and read Latin, which was the international language of commerce, the legal profession and the Church. The sons of the middle classes learned Latin either through private tuition or at one of the new schools that were beginning to appear.

Merchants donated money to set up schools in the most important trading towns and boys would be sent to school to learn arithmetic and Latin grammar, the institutions becoming known as grammar schools. The schools were allied to a particular trade, making them private schools, although fee-paying schools would later be established that were open to anyone who could pay, such establishments being termed “public” schools.

There would have been few if any books in schools.  These were hugely expensive, hand-written items - the first printed books didn’t begin appearing until the mid-fifteenth century. Boys learned their lessons verbally, repeating their Latin phrases time and time again, and earning themselves a beating if they got anything wrong.

Some might learn mathematics or become proficient in the use of an abacus, but few would continue their formal education beyond a basic level or contemplate attending one of the new universities.

As the oldest university in the English-speaking world, Oxford University had been growing in stature since the latter part of the eleventh century and the colleges of Cambridge University can trace their history back to around the same time.

Peasants, still by far and away the largest portion of the population, could not afford to send their sons to school.  A peasant boy was expected to do chores as soon as he was old enough to learn how to feed chickens or help to herd livestock. When he was strong enough, he would help with the back-breaking work in the fields and perhaps spend some time working in the local landowner’s house or castle, if such was required by the terms of his family’s tenure.

The Church played a major role in everyone’s lives and even the most lowly peasants attended church on a regular basis.  However, all services were conducted in Latin, so most people couldn’t understand what was being said - sometimes not even the priest.  Despite being the most educated man in the village, while the priest might be able to pronounce written Latin, the chances are he did not understand it.  For a lucky few, a well-educated priest might teach boys how to read, but even as late as the fourteenth century it has been estimated that 8 out of 10 adults in England were unable even to spell their own names.

Monday May 23 2016

I keep wanting to write about music, but (a) it isn’t easy, unless both you and your readers know all the technical terms of your preferred sort of music.  And (b) whereas words go fine with music, words about music, especially if they are attempting to be descriptive of a particular piece of music, can be devilishly hard to contrive in a way that is comprehensible without being banal and superficial and generalised.

A specialist blog or website devoted to a particular sort of music, with musical illustrations supplied to click on rather than only descriptive verbiage, whose writer(s) and readers are united by their taste in that particular sort of music, that makes perfect sense to me.  I don’t read any such blogs, but it makes sense.  I do read old school paper magazines (I see that there is a new one of those out that I’ve not yet seen) exactly like this. But a blog about other things which from time to time goes musical, not so much.  I have no problem at all with my favourite bloggers (6k and Mick Hartley spring to mind) doing postings every so often about music that they happen particularly to like.  Their gaffs, their rules.  But I mostly skip such postings.  I possess a lifetime and more of music in the form of a vast CD collection that I already want to listen to.

So, I do not wish myself merely to do postings about bits of music that I happen to like, hoping - implicitly or explicitly - that others will be infected with my tastes.  I love Western classical music more than life itself, often a lot more.  But most people don’t these days, and that’s fine with me.  If I thought that western classical music was about to be completely expunged from the earth any time soon, I might feel differently about trying to infect others with the love of it, but it isn’t.  Meanwhile, this music is, for me, mostly a personal thing.  It is not an evangelical religion.  If I meet a fellow devotee, we exchange enthusiastic exclamations of love for this or that piece or performance, but I mostly refrain from inflicting such True Believer talk on non-believers.

I am evangelical and anti-evangelical about some things.  If you are not a libertarian, I want that to change.  You should become a libertarian forthwith.  If you are a Muslim, I want you to know, now, that I think you should stop being a Muslim, now.  But if you hate Beethoven and adore hip-hop, that’s fine with me, so long as you have no plans forcibly to stop me listening to Beethoven or to force me to listen to hip-hop.  If you merely want me to adore hip-hop, or even to stop adoring Beethoven, again, fine.  Just so long as you don’t recommend the use of sticks or stones to make those points.  Insofar as you do, then shame on you. But exactly the same point applies to people who force Beethoven upon those who resist Beethoven’s charms.  I am evangelical about that sort of behaviour also.  Are you threatening others with Beethoven?  Stop doing that, now.  Do you favour such behaviour by others.  Don’t even think that.

However, more general postings about music (this one being an example) about the different ways we listen to it and enjoy it, how love of music spreads or should spread (that is what this posting has partly been about), about how those who contrive it contrive it, and so on, of the sort that all music lovers can read and tune into, even as they are hearing in their own heads quite distinct musical illustrations concerning whatever is being said, that makes more sense to me, and - memo to self - I want to do more of such postings here.

Monday April 11 2016

The rise and (I now fondly hope) fall of Donald Trump continues to fascinate.

This bloke says it very well, I think:

Trump is powerfully illustrating the fraud at the core of his case for the nomination. He claims that because he is a successful businessman he would be much more adept than conventional politicians at mastering the intricacies of problems and processes. He will, he brags, figure out how to deal with challenges in a way that maximizes American interests, assembling the best, most competent people to execute his plans of action. As a result, we are told, American will “win, win, win” with such numbing regularity that we will be bored to tears by all the success.

But look what is happening. The process of choosing a Republican nominee for president, while far from simple, is not as complicated as many of the challenges that cross an American president’s desk. There are, moreover, countless experienced hands who know how the process works and how to build an organization nimble enough to navigate the array of primaries (open and closed), caucuses, party meetings, varying delegate-allocation formulas, etc., exploiting or mitigating the advantages and disadvantages these present for different kinds of candidates. Yet, Trump has been out-organized, out-smarted, and out-worked by the competition – in particular, Ted Cruz, whom I support.

Trump is not being cheated. Everyone is playing by the same rules, which were available to every campaign well in advance. Trump simply is not as good at converting knowledge into success – notwithstanding the centrality of this talent to his candidacy. Perhaps this is because he is singularly good at generating free publicity (and consequently minimizing the publicity available to his rivals). Maybe he underestimated the importance of building a competent, experienced campaign organization. But he can hardly acknowledge this because it is a colossal error of judgment – and his purportedly peerless judgment is the selling point of his campaign.

My first reaction to Trump was guilty pleasure, and the belief that he would win.  Now it looks like he won’t win.  Now it looks as though he has done America the huge favour of (a) destroying everyone in the Republican race except the man I support, Cruz, and then (b) showing himself to be unfit to run for President, let alone win, which means that Cruz could now be President, if he can beat Hillary Clinton (or whoever).  Would Cruz now have such a good chance of becoming President without Trump having flailed about like a wrecking ball, wrecking everyone except Cruz?

It is said that Cruz is a Bible Thumper.  (Trump worships only himself.) But for me, frankly, Bible thumping just now is a feature rather than a bug.  I reckon the Western World could damn well do with a bit more Bible thumping than it has been doing of late.

Yes, I’m talking about Islam.  The rich Christians right now are turning poorer Christian’s cheeks a hell of a lot too much at the moment.

On that subject, I also recommend this posting at Mick Hartley’s, where MH has this to say:

What I’d like to see is more robust criticism of Islam itself. Given the role Islam now plays globally in ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda; its insistence that the Koran is the immutable word of Allah; its general refusal to accommodate to the modern liberal scientific world; its misogyny; its violence, this shouldn’t prove to be that difficult. What stands in the way - apart from lack of courage - is that this comes at a particular post-colonial moment in history when we in the West seem to have lost confidence in our own liberal secular tradition.

There is also, perhaps more importantly, a general confusion about a belief and the people who hold that belief, which is perfectly exemplified in the term “Islamophobia”.

It’s a key part of our secular culture that we distinguish between the person and their opinions and beliefs. I think we inherit this to some extent from our Christian tradition - freedom of conscience, “love the sinner, hate the sin”, and all that - but however it was arrived at, it’s a key enlightenment concept that underpins our sense of justice and our sense of democracy. So we should be quite comfortable criticising Islam while maintaining a proper respect for individual Muslims. ...

The word is that Cruz has dared to criticise Islam.  Is that true?  It would appear so.  Good.  The anti-anti-Islam tendency is not happy.  Good again.

Sunday March 27 2016

Or: Spoughts thoughts?  You choose.

Sport (spought) has been good to me of late.  Last summer, England won the Ashes.  My local cricket team, Surrey, got promoted to division one, and also got to the final of the fifty overs county knock-out tournament.  England then defeated South Africa in South Africa.  England (a different England but still England) won the Six Nations rugby Grand Slam.  And now (back to cricket again) England have got to the last four of the twenty overs slog competition, alongside the Windies, India and New Zealand.  Few expect England to win this.  But then, few expected England to get to the last four.  No South Africa (beaten amazingly by England).  No Australia (beaten today by India (aka Virat Kholi)).  No Pakistan or Sri Lanka.  But: England still involved.

Concerning the Grand Slam, the best thing about it was England winning all its games, but otherwise it was … a bit crap.  The recently concluded World Cup, in which England did rather less well loomed too large over it.  The World Cup featured no Six Nations sides in its last four, and when watching our local lads stressing and straining against each other you couldn’t help (a) thinking that the Southern Hemispherians would murder them, and (b) that a lot of the best Six Nations players seemed to be Southern Hemispherians themselves.  I mean, what kind of rugby world are we living in when the most threatening French back is called Scott Spedding and was born in Krugersdorp, South Africa?

The Six Nations was worth it just to hear Jonathan Davies, a man whose commentating I have had reason to criticise in the past, say that a certain game is “crucial”, and that Wales have “matured”:

curry-yoosh-ull

mat-yoo-ard

As for the twenty-twenty slogfest now in full slog, well, I have been rooting for England (England’s best batsman being a bloke called Root), but also for Afghanistan.  You might think that as a devout anti-Islamist, which I definitely am, I would be rooting for the Muslim teams to lose.  But actually, I think sport is one of the leading antidotes to Islamo-nuttery, and it is my understanding that the Islamo-nutters regard sport and sports-nuttery not as an expression of Islamo-nuttery, but rather, as a threat to it.  Sports nuttery ultimately causes fellowship with the infidels rather than hatred of them, underneath all the youthful antagonisms which it does indeed inflame.  It’s hard not to get pally with people when you play or follow games with them and against them, especially as you get older, and remember previous hostilities with fondness rather than anger.

So, in short: go Afghanistan!  The Afghanistan twenty-twenty cricket team, I mean.  Afghanistan gave England a hell of a fright and nearly beat them.  And yesterday, they actually did beat the West Indies, even though it didn’t count for so much because the Windies had already got through to the semis and the Afghans would be going home now no matter what.  But, even so, beating the Windies was a big deal, and the cricket world will have noticed, big time.

Here is Cricinfo, at the moment of Afghan triumph:

image

I love it when a T20 game really boils up, and they put “dot ball” in bold letters, the way they usually only write “OUT” and “FOUR” and “SIX” and “dropped”, or, as in this case, “an amazing, brave, brilliant running catch!”

And soon after that climax to the game, came this:

image

Chris Gayle is quite a character.  Having scored a brilliant century against England that won the Windies that match and put England in the position of having to win everything from then on, his commitment to the West Indian cause is not in doubt, as it might have been had he celebrated like this with the Afghans without having done any other notable things in this tournament.  He has quarrelled with West Indian cricket bureaucrats over the years, and has definitely seemed to have like playing for the Bangalore Royal Challengers more than for the West Indies.

His demeanour after today’s Afghan game is in sharp contrast to his lordly impassivity after taking the wicket of David Miller of South Africa, which reduced South Africa to 47-5, a predicament from which they failed to recover

image

One of the delights of virtually following this tournament is that it has been possible to watch little videos of dramatic moments, like the one of Gayle taking this wicket and then not celebrating very much.  The graphic additions to this posting are merely screen captures.  Clicking on them accomplishes nothing.  But if you go to the original commentary from which I took my graphics, you can click on the little black video prompts, and get a little video of the drama just described.

Also: Happy Easter.

Sunday February 21 2016

imageI have been reading Martin Geck’s biography of Bach (translated into English by Anthea Bell).

The question I now bring to Bach is: What did he think he was doing?  Worshipping God?  Being Beethoven before Beethoven?  More the latter than I had realised, it would seem.

Here is an excerpt not from the book itself, but from my English paperback edition’s introduction, by John Butt:

One idea that immediately emerges from his biography is that Bach’s relatively provincial Eisenach background was something that he never fully relinquished. In other words, he plumbed the greatest depth of experience from a relatively modest environment.  Ironically, this gave his music much value in later centuries.  Had this music been truly fashionable or cosmopolitan in its own age, over- filled with local relevance, it would surely have sounded dated in later years.  But Bach’s strikingly profound exploration of a limited world somehow translates well to subsequent eras.  The historical material is relatively easily assimilated by any to whom it is alien, yet Bach’s treatment of it is the most penetrating and challenging imaginable.

Another point that rendered him such a ‘hardy traveller’ in later ages is that he did not cultivate a deliberately idiosyncratic personality.  This biography shows us that his principal means of learning was the traditional one: study and improving exemplars. As Geck observes, Bach spent many years working on the same few works, and the exact beginning and ending of the process cannot (and should not) necessarily be traced. It is as if the composer is aiming for a perfection that is not humanly achievable.  The very openness of these works, coupled with their intense perfection, somehow gives them a momentum that carries them into the future.

Idiosyncratic his compositional personality may not have been, but there is no doubt that Bach’s personality was extremely strong.  Geck reveals an extravagant, ‘virtuoso’ character in Bach’s fiery encounters with the council of Arnstadt.  As a virtuoso, Bach seems to wish to say as much as possible all in one moment, and this develops into a more mature dialectic, between the cultivation of the greatest intensity of expression and the greatest degree of order in his music.  Geck discerns Bach’s search for ultimate truth in his basic compositional philosophy of ‘all-in-one’ and ‘all-from-one’ (his deriving of the entire composition from as small a number of elements as possible).  Once again, this relates to Bach’s development of the most intense musical vision from a straitened environment.

Did Bach thus cultivate a sense of individuality, a sense of autonomous art, within the context of what was basically a traditional craft-like activity?  Geck suggests that there was a real sense in which Bach’s music performed a covert social function somehow sublimating, his professional problems and the various contradictions of his age, such as between church and art.  In this way, Bach’s music does indeed relate to the German tradition of the following century, not least the art of Beethoven, which similarly articulates a special kind of humanity by transcending the difficulties of life.

Art as social climbing.  Discuss.

It certainly worked for Bach.  (And Beethoven.)

Sunday November 29 2015

I have begun reading Matt Ridley’s latest book, The Evolution of Everything.  Early signs: brilliant.  I especially liked this bit (pp. 7-10), about modern ideas in the ancient world:

A ‘skyhook’ is an imaginary device for hanging an object from the sky.  The word originated in a sarcastic remark by a frustrated pilot of a reconnaissance plane in the First World War, when told to stay in the same place for an hour: ‘This machine is not fitted with skyhooks,’ he replied.  The philosopher Daniel Dennett used the skyhook as a metaphor for the argument that life shows evidence of an intelligent designer.  He contrasted skyhooks with cranes - the first impose a solution, explanation or plan on the world from on high; the second allow solutions, explanations or patterns to emerge from the ground up, as natural selection does.

The history of Western thought is dominated by skyhooks, by devices for explaining the world as the outcome of design and planning.  Plato said that society worked by imitating a designed cosmic order, a belief in which should be coercively enforced.  Aristotle said that you should look for inherent principles of intentionality and development - souls - within matter. Homer said gods decided the outcome of battles. St Paul said that you should behave morally because Jesus told you so. Mohamed said you should obey God’s word as transmitted through the Koran.  Luther said that your fate was in God’s hands.  Hobbes said that social order came from a monarch, or what he called ‘Leviathan’ - the state. Kant said morality transcended human experience.  Nietzsche said that strong leaders made for good societies.  Marx said that the state was the means of delivering economic and social progress. Again and again, we have told ourselves that there is a top-down description of the world, and a top-down prescription by which we should live.

But there is another stream of thought that has tried and usually failed to break through. Perhaps its earliest exponent was Epicurus, a Greek philosopher about whom we know very little.  From what later writers said about his writings, we know that he was born in 341 BC and thought (as far as we can tell) that the physical world, the living world, human society and the morality by which we live all emerged as spontaneous phenomena, requiring no divine intervention nor a benign monarch or nanny state to explain them.  As interpreted by his followers, Epicurus believed, following another Greek philosopher, Dernocritus, that the world consisted not of lots of special substances including spirits and humours, but simply of two kinds of thing: voids and atoms.  Everything, said Epicurus, is made of invisibly small and indestructible atoms, separated by voids; the atoms obey the laws of nature and every phenomenon is the result of natural causes.  This was a startlingly prescient conclusion for the fourth century BC.

Unfortunately Epicurus’s writings did not survive.  But three hundred years later, his ideas were revived and explored in a lengthy, eloquent and unfinished poem, De Rerum Natura (Of the Nature of Things), by the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus, who probably died in mid-stanza around 49 BC, just as dictatorship was looming in Rome.  Around this time, in Gustave Flaubert’s words, ‘when the gods had ceased to be, and Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius when man stood alone’.  Exaggerated maybe, but free thinking was at least more possible then than before or after.  Lucretius was more subversive, open-minded and far-seeing than either of those politicians (Cicero admired, but disagreed with, him).  His poem rejects all magic, mysticism, superstition, religion and myth.  It sticks to an unalloyed empiricism.

As the Harvard historian Stephen Greenblatt has documented, a bald list of the propositions Lucretius advances in the unfinished 7,400 hexameters of De Rerum Natura could serve as an agenda for modernity.  He anticipated modern physics by arguing that everything is made of different combinations of a limited set of invisible particles, moving in a void. He grasped the current idea that the universe has no creator, Providence is a fantasy and there is no end or purpose to existence, only ceaseless creation and destruction, governed entirely by chance.  He foreshadowed Darwin in suggesting that nature ceaselessly experiments, and those creatures that can adapt and reproduce will thrive.  He was with modern philosophers and historians in suggesting that the universe was not created for or about human beings, that we are not special, and there was no Golden Age of tranquillity and plenty in the distant past, but only a primitive battle for survival.  He was like modern atheists in arguing that the soul dies, there is no afterlife, all organised religions are superstitious delusions and invariably cruel, and angels, demons or ghosts do not exist.  In his ethics he thought the highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.

Thanks largely to Greenblatt’s marvellous book The Swerve, I have only recently come to know Lucretius, and to appreciate the extent to which I am, and always have been without knowing it, a Lucretian/Epicurean.  Reading his poem in A.E. Stallings’s beautiful translation in my sixth decade is to be left fuming at my educators.  How could they have made me waste all those years at school plodding through the tedious platitudes and pedestrian prose of Jesus Christ or Julius Caesar, when they could have been telling me about Lucretius instead, or as well?  Even Virgil was writing partly in reaction to Lucretius, keen to re-establish respect for gods, rulers and top-down ideas in general. Lucretius’s notion of the ceaseless mutation of forms composed of indestructible substances - which the Spanish-born philosopher George Santayana called the greatest thought that mankind has ever hit upon - has been one of the persistent themes of my own writing.  It is the central idea behind not just physics and chemistry, but evolution, ecology and economics too.  Had the Christians not suppressed Lucretius, we would surely have discovered Darwinism centuries before we did.

Monday November 23 2015

I have been reading Peter Foster’s book, Why We Bite the Invisible Hand: The Psychology of Anti-Capitalism.  And very good it is.  Here are some of the things Foster says about Robert Owen (pp. 86-69, pp 92-95:

After he built Cromford, Arkwright became involved in the development of another even more spectacular water-driven venture, at New Lanark in Scotland. The fast-flowing river below the beautiful Falls of Clyde made the site ideal.  Arkwright’s partner there was David Dale, a respected Glasgow merchant. The notoriously prickly Arkwright fell out with Dale, reportedly over a triviality, and withdrew. Dale took control and continued to expand, but the reason New Lanark is so well preserved today is not that it is seen as a monument to capitalism.  Quite the contrary. Dale’s son-in-law, Robert Owen, turned New Lanark into the promotional centre for a Utopian dream, where he nurtured anti-capitalist sentiment. A fair amount of anti-capitalist sentiment still seems to pervade the site today.

Owen’s New Lanark was very far from being an experiment in socialism understood as collective ownership and control.  Workers had neither shares in the mill nor much - if any - say in how it was run.  Nor was Owen a political revolutionary.  What he did share in common with more radical socialists was opposition to religion; belief that human nature was an indeterminate clay ("blank slate"), there to be moulded by men such as himself; distaste for the “individual selfish” competitive system and private property (even though they enabled him to promote his muddled ideas); demonization of money; and a generally woolly notion of how economies - as opposed to individual businesses - work.  Owen rejected Adam Smith’s idea of gradual improvement under a system of “natural liberty.” For him, cotton masters, the men who owned and ran the mills, were (except for himself) greedy and selfish, while workers were oppressed sheep to be led, with himself as the Good Shepherd.

Adam Smith had shrewdly noted that people by nature give far more deference to the ideas of the wealthy than they deserve.  Of few people was this more true than Robert Owen.

Owen was born on May 14, 1771, in Newtown in Wales, five years before the publication of The Wealth of Nations. He received only a rudimentary education before being shipped off by his parents to work in the drapery business. He proved an assiduous employee and developed a keen interest in the then-booming textile industry. He started his own business but soon returned to employment as a mill manager in Manchester.  Close to his 20th birthday, he was reportedly managing 500 workers, at the then substantial salary of £300 a year.  Owen soon found investors to help him start his own mill.  He also became interested in education and social reform (which was the rule rather than the exception for industrialists of the time).  However, when he visited New Lanark he saw a place where he might indulge a nascent vision of industrial harmony, a New Jerusalem in which he would be the secular Messiah.

Owen courted David Dale’s daughter, Anne Caroline, married her on September 30, 1799, and took over New Lanark early in 1800 on what seemed generous terms, essentially promising to pay Dale out of the mill’s future profits.  New Lanark was the basis for the fortune and reputation that enabled Robert Owen to indulge his ideas. The scale of New Lanark seems extraordinary even today, but to visitors from the present, if they could travel back to Owen’s time, the most arresting feature of the place would be that most of its employees were children, supplied by orphanages in Glasgow and Edinburgh.  Child labour has become one of the great fixed images of the Industrial Revolution, but it is inappropriate to take our modern sensitivities back to earlier times. Child labour was common - as it still is in many poor countries - because it was, and is, necessary for the survival of both the children and their families.  It was most necessary for orphans.  Indeed, orphanages paid cotton manufacturers to take their charges off their hands.  David Dale reportedly treated his young employees well.  By 1796 he was employing 16 teachers at the site.

Owen’s desire to prevent children under 10 from working appears wholly admirable, until we remember that this might have led them to starve. His desire to educate children and provide an early equivalent of daycare was worthy but ultimately self-interested in business terms, since these measures increased the skills and contentment - and thus productivity - of the workforce, as did his organization of medical insurance, savings opportunities, food and other provisions. There was no conflict between good business and morality. Indeed, Owen himself constantly, at least in the early days, stressed the importance of these measures for increasing profitability.

The village shop that Owen set up at New Lanark was reportedly an inspiration for the modern cooperative movement, which was founded in the town of Rochdale in Lancashire.  According to a potted history at the New Lanark site, when Owen arrived, there were lots of small traders in the village, “selling poor quality goods at high prices.” He was able to buy in bulk, lower the prices and still make a profit.  But of course this is exactly what supermarkets and big-box stores do today, even as they are castigated for putting the “little guy” … out of business.

Robert Owen put the little guy out of business too. He also made sure that no other traders could survive in the village, by paying his workers with “tickets for wages,” which they could spend only at his village shop.  Elsewhere such enforced commitment to the company store would be cited as evidence of corporate villainy, but Owen declared that his own motives weren’t “selfish.” The important thing was not what was good for him, but what was good for mankind, although he clearly expected a little kudos for showing mankind the way.

At New Lanark, Owen in fact displayed more of the enlightened capitalist than of the Utopian dreamer.  One might not doubt his good intentions when it came to spreading education and advocating factory reform, but he seemed eager to bury the fact that many other cottom masters, and businessmen of the time more generally, were enlightened and reform-minded.

As the Napoleonic Wars drew to a close, both mill owners and authorities were disturbed by Luddite riots that resulted in the breaking of new machinery, which was seen as destroying jobs. Robert Owen claimed that what had brought about these awful, and worsening, conditions was economic liberalism and the competitive system, which, he declared, was based on “deception.” He came forward with a series of bold proposals for “villages of unity and co-operation,” which struck many as workhouses by a more glorified name.

Although the great and the good expressed polite interest in Owen’s solutions to what were, after all, pressing problems, many were profoundly skeptical.  John Quincy Adams, then U.S. ambassador to Britain, described Owen in his memoirs as “crafty crazy ... a speculative, scheming, mischievous man.”

Owen managed to draw the ire of both radical reformers, the political economist heirs of Adam Smith, groups that rarely saw eye to eye. The radicals saw Owen’s communities as oppressive, while the economists viewed them as impractical and counterproductive. The reformer William Cobbett described them as “parallelograms of paupers.” The political economist Robert Torrens said it ws difficult to decide whether Owen was a “knave” or an enthusiast “in whose brain a copulation between vanity and benevolence has engendered madness.”

Owen welcomed a steady stream of “philanthropic tourists” at New Lanark. Their number included Grand Duke Nicholas, future czar of Russia.  Some - although presumably not the grand duke - found disquieting authoritarian overtones to Owen’s operation. After watching Owen’s child labourers drill like little soldiers at the mill’s Institution for the Formation of Character (which has been lovingly restored with taxpayers’ money from the European Union), the poet Robert Southey compared the place to a slave plantation.

Parliament ultimately rejected Owen’s scheme. One member suggested that “this visionary plan, if adopted, would destroy the very roots of society.” Owen responded to criticism by making his schemes more grandiose.  Undaunted, he set off to proselytize in the New World, and not merely to lecture but at last to put into effect his grand plan.  He bought an existing cooperative community in Indiana, which he renamed New Harmony.

Owen attracted a large number of settlers, described by one of Owen’s sons, Robert Dale Owen, as a “heterogenous collection of radicals, enthusiastic devotees to principle ... and lazy theorists, with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in.” Owen Sr. soon went back to Britain to spread the word of his success.  Another son, William, confided dolefully to his diary, “The enjoyment of a reformer, I would say, is much more in contemplation, than in reality.”

New Harmony soon started to fall apart.  Skilled labour did not feel inclined to have its income, under Owen’s plan, “equalized” with the unskilled or, worse, with those who did not wish to work at all.  A collectivist scheme such as Owen’s could in effect work only if powered by either religious conviction or forced labour, a lesson that would not be lost on Owen’s more revolutionary successors.

The abolition of money led to a bureaucratic nightmare.  When even lettuce had to pass through the company store, it inevitably wilted before it reached the plate.  (Moscow McDonald’s would encounter analogous problems in trying to get supplies through the collapsing Soviet system almost 200 years later.)

After an absence of two months, Owen returned to New Harmony, arriving by river with intellectual reinforcements dubbed the “boatload of knowledge.” He forced the community through numerous reorganizations, all the while churning out portentous exhortations such as the “Declaration of Mental Independence:’ which promised to free man from the “slavery” of private property, religion and marriage.

One visitor, the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, wrote, “He looks forward to nothing else than to remodel the world entirely; to root out all crime; to abolish punishment; to create similar views and similar wants, and in this manner to abolish all dissension and warfare ... He was too unalterably convinced of the result to admit the slightest room for doubt!’ Every other member of the community to whom the duke spoke acknowledged that Owen was “deceived in his expectations!’ The final blow to the community was a falling-out between Owen and William Maclure, a wealthy emigre Scotsman, which led to the two men suing each other over property, the concept New Harmony was meant to transcend.

The one undoubted benefit Owen did bestow upon the former colonies was his children, who turned out to be a good deal more level-headed than their father and who would become prominent in American affairs. Owen then set off on an even more quixotic scheme: to persuade the government of Mexico to grant him a huge swath of land on which to test his theories.  He required Mexico first to abandon Catholicism.  Mexico demurred.  Owen returned to London and embarked upon expansive new ventures.  He became the first president of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, an organization that lasted a year.  Seeking to trump both the pecuniary root of all evil and “unnecessary” middlemen, he set up “labour exchanges,” whereby merchandise was exchanged for “labour notes,” whose value was meant to be calculated according to the hours of sweat embodied in each product.  The administrators found that they could not possibly calculate values this way and were forced to copy market prices.  The labour exchanges collapsed too.

Owen staunchly opposed the “superstition” of religion, and yet his own views were at root profoundly religious, based on a “New Moral World” set up in opposition to a demonic set of greedy capitalists. He founded the Rational Society, complete with Halls of Science instead of churches, and “social hymns.” Sample verse:

Outcasts in your native soil,
Doom’d to poverty and toil,
Strangers in your native land;
Come, and join the social band.

Owen’s acolytes founded another Utopian community, at an estate called Queenwood in Hampshire, whose collapse Owen hastened by spending it into the ground.  One of his more clear-sighted disciples noted that “Mr. Owen was no financier, and had no idea of money.” Queenwood, like New Harmony, imploded amid lawsuits, yet again over property.

Robert Owen represented a psychological type that would persist throughout the business world.  Although such businessmen have a good grasp of their own business, they fail to understand the nature of markets more generally and believe themselves to be morally exceptional in a world marked by short-sighted greed.

Friday November 20 2015

On Friday November 27th (i.e. exactly one week from now), my friend from way back, Antoine Clarke, will be giving a talk at my place entitled “Herding cats, or lessons from drunks about organising anarchy”.

These talks happen every last Friday of the month, and before they give one of them, I ask each speaker to supply a paragraph or two about what they’ll be saying, so I can email my list of potential attenders.  Antoine has just supplied me with ten paragraphs on his talk:

It would be hard to imagine any more dysfunctional organisation than a leaderless group of drunks promising among themselves to quit drinking and to help other drunks to quit.

And then I realized that there is a similar organisation for narcotics addicts, one for cocaine addicts, crystal meth addicts and even “sex and love addicts” - whatever that may mean.

Alcoholics Anonymous has been described as a “benign anarchy” by one of its founders and manages to organize over 100,000 groups worldwide with between 1.5 million and 2 million members. Its power structure has been described as an “inverted pyramid”.

AA operates by having almost completely autonomous branches, no publicity, no professional class of “charity workers” and no set fees.  It has a “12-step program” and “12 traditions” which have been described respectively as “rules for not killing yourself” and “rules for not killing other people”.

The effectiveness of AA at curing or controlling alcohol addiction is not clear cut. Because of anonymity, self-selection and the difficulty of known if someone who stops attending meetings has relapsed or simply found he can lead a functional lifestyle. The fact that over a dozen other organisations have copied AA’s 12-step and 12 tradition system suggests at least some level of success, unlike, say the UK’s National Health Service which has fewer imitators.

One particular problem for AA is that any 12-step program will only really work if it is voluntary, but in the USA especially, courts mandate that convicted criminals attend AA meetings as a parole condition.  I think this reduces recidivism among the criminals (compared with them NOT following a program), but it surely dilutes the effectiveness of AA groups (more disruptive attendees, people going through the motions, possible discouragement of others).

I shall be looking at the elements of AA’s structure and organisational culture to see what lessons can be learned about the possibility of anarchic institutions especially at handling social problems.

What interests me is the “anarchy with table manners” aspect of AA and the contrast with truly dysfunctional libertarian organisations, like the Libertarian Alliance.

I’m also interested in the issue of government interference and the ways in which well-meaning interventions make matters worse. I shall also take a look at the spiritual element of AA’s 12-step program, noting that it claims to work for atheists and agnostics as well as for theists.

Hopefully, this is an attractive alternative to binge drinking on a Friday night in central London.

Indeed.  There will be no binge drinking at the meeting.