Saturday, August 27, 2016

On Presentism

n. uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.

 I saw this mosaic in the Haga Sophia. I had taken my copy of the ‘Alexiad’ with me so I could wave it about enthusiastically and mis-identify Anna Comnena’s nephew as her grandfather. I was feeling kind of drunk on history. This mosaic was made, I am informed by the interwebz, between 1118 and 1122. At that time, if you were someone old enough to have seen the Battle of Manzikert – the event we think of as the beginning of the end of the Eastern Empire - you would be pushing seventy.

When Constaninople fell to the Turks, this mosaic would have been older than James Watt’s first steam engine is to us. It would have been older than the Liberty Bell. It would have been older than the gardens planted by William of Orange to remind him of home when he reluctantly came across the Channel to be king of England. The making of that mural was separated about as far in time from Constantine XI as people living today are from the people who hung, drew, and quartered an octogenarian Catholic priest in Herefordshire with the full blessing of the government.

All of Whig history, from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 until now – the whole reign of the cult of progress – could fit into the time between when this mosaic was made and the fall of Constantinople.

I am not sure exactly where to go from here. 

I could just mention that all that span of time that suddenly awed me was occupied by a struggle to keep Islam out of Europe, a struggle that had begun an awfully long time before – since the first siege of Constaninople by the Arabs was in 674  – and would extend an awfully long time into the future. And I could say how incredible the presumption of our present day seem to me, that a conflict so deep and ancient, suddenly exacerbated and supercharged by the shrinking of the world by technology, is all the fault of Thomas Herzl or George W. Bush and would not have happened if we mayfly moderns had done something differently.  That it was, more broadly perhaps, all the fault of ‘Western Imperialism’ and that everyone would just get along if it wasn’t for perfidious us.

Or, I could try to enunciate the deeper and more inchoate lesson I felt this sense of awe had for me. For I am sure that there were big differences between the society John II Comnenos lived in and the society Constantine XI Paleologos lived in: they would have sounded funny to one another, no doubt, and dressed oddly in each other’s eyes. But those differences would be negligible, really, compared to things that united them. I doubt there was more change in the liturgy when they worshipped, 300 years apart, than I have seen in my lifetime. It is very easy for us to find fault with their philosophy and the way their society was organised: but these things endured.  While all our mad utopian experiments and fads and this Liberal Democracy that was supposed to be the end of history fit into this span of time that is not so very long. Maybe we are not as smart as we think we are. Maybe we should be a bit humbler before our ancestors. Maybe we should think twice before tearing down institutions that have endured for millennia. Maybe we should not dismiss out of hand the possibility that ‘sovereignty derives from the people’ is what almost all of both sides of Christo-Islamic civilisation considered it for thousands of years: a heresy that leads to ruin.
These guys. YES.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Further Adventures of a Geography Pedant

I was reading this perfectly dandy little article about one of the flashpoints of maritime contention between the Renegade Mainland Provinces and everybody else, when I came across this picture and caption.

The caption is correct: Uotsuri Jima or Diaoyu Dao is the biggest island in the disputed Senkaku Islands or Diaoyu Islands. However, the picture is not of Uotsuri Jima or Diaoyu Dao. It is of Minami Kojima or Nan Xiaodao, a very much smaller island in the Senkaku/Diaoyu archipelago. I discovered this in about thirty seconds using an obscure research tool called 'Google Earth'. 

Here is a picture of the real Uotsuri Jima or Diaoyu Dao. It is about ten times as big as the island in the first picture. It has its own endemic species of mole. It was inhabited between 1900 and 1940 when there was a fish processing plant there. Unlike the first island, it is not an uninhabitable lump. It looks like a pretty nice place to build a resort.

I know, I know, is not a site known for being particularly good at anything. But this error irritated me. Of course any geographical error irritates me, as a pedant. But this irritated me more than that map I saw in the Sydney Morning Herald once where they had inundated Sindh and moved Karachi into Punjab. Or that map in the Absolut vodka advert that showed my birthplace in Alta California instead of Sonora. 

I think I know why I am particularly irritated by this mistake. Because this is the sort of mistake it is natural to make if you have a particular narrative running in your mind. This is a narrative where these foreigners are arguing about tiny, useless scraps of rock; where the historical claims on both sides are all air and moonshine; where we should just keep our heads down and not get involved.  Maybe all of those things are true. I don't like the thought of anyone dying for the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. I don't like to think that our treaty obligations might under some terrible set of circumstances lead to Australians dying for the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. But, if it were to come to that, I think I would be fractionally happier if they were dying for the real Uotsuri Jima instead of the fake one. And the image of the fake Uotsuri Jima makes it fractionally more likely that, if it were to come to that, public opinion would be for us welching on our treaty obligations to our allies.

Monday, July 25, 2016


You might recognise that as the ratio of 'Leave' to 'Remain' votes in the Brexit plebiscite. It is also the share of the vote obtained by Erdogan in Turkey's 2015 presidential election.

I think all my posts should have election maps from now on

Consider the following thought experiments.

(1) If you were a resident  of the United Kingdom who voted 'stay', and a conspiracy of unelected unrepresentative persons tried to overturn the Brexit vote, would you take to the streets to oppose them and support democracy?

(2) If, once the conspiracy was defeated, signs like the one below appeared *absolutely everywhere* and Theresa May started purging institutions up and down the country of 'undemocratic forces', just how pissed off would you be?


The first few nights after the attempted coup had a real uplifting party-like atmosphere. I was really impressed by the many Turkish citizens who had done just what I mentioned in Thought Experimeint #1 - people who had a strong aversion to Erdogan but had gone out to defend the democratic ideal.
I thought at first my misgivings were just an Australian aversion to overt displays of nationalism.Car after car with people hanging out the windows waving flags, honking horns. Streets full of happy flag-waving people of all ages. But by Thursday night I was truly starting to get creeped out. Every day more flags hanging from windows, shops, public buildings. Every day more of these signs: the government seemed to have bought up every available billboard in Istanbul.

And every night the cars going by with their horns and flags in the middle of the night. About 11:40 Thursday night I heard the horns starting up underneath my window. A bus was going by, horn blaring, lights flashing, carrying supporters of the government toward Taksim Square from the Old City. I counted the buses like this going by over the next minute or so. There were twenty. It was more than a little intimidating.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Federal Election 2016 Post

Obviously I don't care who wins the Federal Election. On the one hand, the positions of the ALP and Malcolm Turnbull are pretty much exactly the same on everything I care about, and pretty much all wrong. On the other hand, both Bill Shorten and the current government are so far ahead of the current leaders in most of the rest of the Anglosphere in every measure of competence and probity that I am really, really, really cheerful and grateful that we've got them.

I was, however, very emotionally invested in my own electorate, as I was looking forward tremendously to putting the traitor of 2010 dead last, after the Flat Earthers and the Exterminate All Humans Party*.

Here's a rough map of the New England electorate by two-party preferred vote for Barnaby Joyce, broken down by booth. I've made no effort to calculate in the postal vote, which ran  4-10% more Joycean in all the prepoll voting centres.
The red bit at the top right is Drake, where they may be cranky since Barnaby seemed less than all-in in the effort to keep the pub from closing. The red bit at bottom left is Werris Creek, which in a disturbingly Iraqi-style turn for Australian politics appears to have turned out to vote for Tony Windsor (74.2% to 25.8%) because he's from around there. The reddest bit in Armidale is the polling booth at the university, where Barnaby only got 39.2% of the two-party preferred vote, and the reddest bit in Tamworth is Coledale, where Barnaby only got 27.5% of the two-party preferred vote. Um, here are the first ten results in my Google Image search for Coledale:

The very greenest bit of the map, at bottom right, is Nowendoc, centre of the hunt for Malcom Naden, where Barnaby got 96.7% of the two-party preferred vote.

*: Neither of these actually fielded candidates in our electorate.

Best Review So Far

I am very sorry, irate reviewer, that I have upset you so. But at the same time I am quietly satisfied. You see:

I wanted you to like that character.

I wanted you to find what happened to that character shocking and unforgiveable. And,

I wanted you to blame God for it.

Those three aims have clearly been achieved. I was just not imaginative enough to consider the possibility that you would ignore God-in-the-story and (logically) blame the omnipotent entity that really controls events in the character's world.

Sunday, June 19, 2016


Kasparov told me again and again in his book, but it didn’t really hit me until I googled the performers in this song. 

The weakness of Putin’s regime is the indispensability of the party cities of the West as gangster chic accessories. 

Which got me thinking about Brexit. I think on the balance it would be a good thing. But... there is a hopeful vein of commentary on the ‘right’ in the Rebel Colonies that a United Kingdom no longer in the European Union would naturally orientate towards the ‘United States’ to a greater degree.  It occurred to me there is another possibility that is equally likely. Like Israel, that other independent nuclear power resolved not be absorbed into Eurabia, the United Kingdom could move closer to Russia. It is the only nearby alternative to the feckless and unreliable nation across the Atlantic: for whatever happens in November, the leader of the ‘United States’ will be more dangerously incompetent and uninterested in foreign policy than any previous President in the history of the Republic.

And I wonder – I am sure that the rank and file supporters of Brexit are sincere – but how many of the influential high-profile converts will turn out to be covered in Russian pocket lint, when the last trump sounds or the next big tranche of secret files is leaked by Anonymous?
Here’s the original version of that song.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Easter Monday Update

How Arguing About the Nature of Inquiry in the Historical Sciences has Brought me Back to the Faith

You will recall my strong and often repeated affirmation of the quote attributed to Max Planck: ‘Experiments are the only means of knowledge at our disposal. Everything else is poetry, imagnination.’

For some time I have been having a discussion with Marco and Andy Cooper about what qualifies as science in the historical sciences-  in disciplines like biology, geology, astronomy, where you cannot do an experiment, how exactly do we obtain knowledge? Knowledge, that is, of the how, as opposed to the what; for it is very easy to catalogue stars or beetles. [‘All science is either physics or stamp collecting’ (Ernest Rutherford)]

We are agreed that basically what we do is rely on experiments that have been done for us. We postulate a model for how something occurs that suggests that we should never observe a particular phenomena in nature, and if we do observe that particular phenomena, that model is falsified, in the same way as a model that suggests we will not obtain a particular result in an experiment will be falsified if we do the experiment and obtain that result. We are agreed on the additional proviso that the model does not contradict any of the physical laws we have determined with the experiments we can do in the here and now; and where I differ from Marco is on an insistence that this lack of contradiction be made explicit in terms of a mechanism: a story that is not entirely implausible that explains exactly how this observation distant in space or time can be explained using the physics and chemistry we have nutted out here on Earth. 

A distinction that we have come up with is between primary and secondary utility. If our model predicts that we should observe something that we have not yet observed, and we look for it, and find it, then it is scientifically useful. It has primary utility. Everything else our model is good for is its secondary utility. If it provides us with a good job, or helps maintain the stability of the Overlord’s rule, or makes us feel comfortable and happy, or is a great plot element in action adventure films, it has some secondary utility. The realisation that Marco has had for a long time and has dawned on me more slowly is that a great deal of what we teach as science in the historical sciences is taught for its secondary utility rather than it primary utility.

The models of anthropogenic global warming make terrible predictions; but there is a lot of money in it, and it dovetails beautifully with the statist agendas of all kinds of powerful lobbies, so it trundles along unstoppably. The models of abiogenesis we have are laughable and have predicted nothing, but the alternative of special creation is anathema, so we defend to the death our ‘science of the gaps’ against the ‘God of the gaps’. In the tiny and specialised hothouse of cometary science where Marco and Andrew live and breathe and have their being, the ‘contact binary’ model for the formation of bilobed comets, incredibly implausible to begin with, becomes less plausible with every example that is observed; but it allows the valuable fiction that comets are unchanged relics of the cloud from which the Solar System formed to continue, so its flaws are excused or ignored.

This realisation of the narrow limits of primary utility threw me back on my resolution a few years ago to only believe what I could not disbelieve. Quoting myself: 

“What do I mean by ‘believe’ or ‘disbelieve’? I favour the definition provided by the 19th century American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce: ‘A belief is a habit, i.e., a readiness or disposition to respond in certain kind of ways on certain kinds of occasions.’
With this definition, it should become evident that there are some things that cannot be disbelieved. We cannot disbelieve F = GMm/r2, in that we cannot habitually behave as if it were not true: each time we behave as if it were not true, we are likely to injure ourselves, and if we attempt to make it a habit we are sure to break before the universe does.
In the same time as we cannot disbelieve F = GMm/r2, we cannot disbelieve that life is better than death. Believing this, which means acting upon it, we cease to exist.
I think the idea that death is better than life is one of a small number of beliefs that, believed in a Peircean way, will destroy any functioning society, and so collectively cannot be believed. The antithesis of these beliefs is what C. S. Lewis called the “Tao”: the nugget of ethics common to every ethical system we know about.”
Outside the narrow limits of primary utility there is a vast sea of habits that are necessary for individuals and societies to stick to the ‘Tao’. These habits cannot be justified by experiment; they have predictive value only over a scale of millennia in terms of the fitness of the societies that practice them. I had argued before that Max Planck’s quote leaves us free to choose our own poetry: the facts of science do not force us to pick the pessimism of Housman over the joy of Manley Hopkins.  I have been feeling useless, adrift in idea space, for some time, and I looked up from the realisation of the narrow limits of primary utility brought about by this discussion to realise that my intellectual quarrels with the Catholic Faith had somehow evaporated while I was not trying to be Catholic anymore. I recalled the quote ‘truth cannot contradict truth’ and remembered again that the Church teaches nowhere anything in contradiction to the certain knowledge of the experimental sciences,  And I realised that I did not really have a free choice of poetry: I had a duty to chose the poetry that could best serve the overwhelming secondary utility of protecting and advancing the ‘Tao’. Against the abyss of relativism, against the apocalyptic rage convulsing Dar-al-Islam, I see only one thing standing firm in the world. So I am resolved, by the grace of God, to display consistently a readiness or disposition to respond in Catholic ways on as many occasions as possible.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Paralipomena Ispanika

Despite or as a belated consequence of having Spanish skills in the lowest quartile of mi nacimiento, I ended up spending most of my Christmas Holiday time immersing myself in Hispanic culture, working my way through poems of Borges and plays of Lope de Vega and listening to a lot of Andean pop music.

I also changed my 'Twitter trends' thingy to follow 'Hermosillo' because the Australian Twitter trends, like most Twitter things, were irritating me.

No es ley

No es ley la que no alcanza del plebeyo al principal.

That is a Polonius-style bit of good advice from a bad character in El laberinto de creta.


My mum has pointed out that '2016' looks like 'dIOS' spelled backwards. Our new car is an 'ix35', which of course looks like 'SEx!' when you look at the name printed on the inside of the doorframe upside down.


From time to time - though less since I wrote and asked them to stop sending me dead tree mail - theagressive proselytising efforts of the American Chemical Society have prompted me, in my contrary fashion as a native of occupied Sonora Norte, to look up what it takes to join the Mexican Chemical Society. They have exactly the opposite tack and demand proof that applicants practice, or intend to practice, a chemical profession in Mexico.


I've thought for a long time that the United States makes most sense as a Latin American country where most people happen to speak English, and this has never seemed truer to me than this Presidential Election cycle. The blancos have a mendacious Cristina Kirchner riding her husband's coat-tails, with a spittle-flecked Hugo Chavez in the wings; meanwhile the colorados have an El Presidente type from central casting, complete with cult of personality, who would fit perfectly well in a line up with Somoza, Stroessner, Trujillo, etc.; as for the viable candidates with some remaining commitment to the ideals of the republic, they have Spanish names and Cuban parents.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

... .-

Sometimes I am pedantic for the sake of being pedantic, but I don't think this is one of those times. Probably. 

I have seen in the newspapers in the past little while more than once that the recent attacks in Paris were the ‘worst attacks on French soil since World War II’, ‘the deadliest violence to strike France since World War II’, etc

Unless these statements are very narrowly and pedantically qualified, they are not true.

On August 20th, 1955, the non-Saharan bits of Algeria were départements of France. This means they were not colonies or protectorates, like Vietnam or Djibouti, but were formally just as much ‘French soil’ or ‘France’ as Martinique, La Réunion, or Corsica are today. On that day occurred a number of separate murderous attacks on civilians for political reasons - that is, terrorist attacks - in the neighbourhood of the city of Constantine. If you have a mind to, go and google ‘Philippeville Massacre’.  I won’t blame you if you don’t; what you will find will be really ghastly and make you turn to the modern news with a sigh of relief. English Wikipedia only has the death toll in Philippeville itself, where 123 Europeans and loyalist Arabs were killed, but states that 37 Europeans were killed in the nearby town of El-Halla. French Wikipedia suggests a total death toll of about 170. Thus in aggregate these attacks caused more deaths than the aggregate death toll of the recent co-ordinated attacks in Paris.

But those attacks aren’t what I’m talking about. The worst acts of terrorism since World War II on French soil were not those massacres, but the reprisals afterwards, extra-judicial executions carried out over the next few days of August 1955 by French military, paramilitary, and civilian vigilantes, in which something between 1200 and 20,000 Arabs were killed. Feel free to google them as well if you aren’t sickened enough. The tiresome warnings about an ‘islamophobic backlash’ are a bit less tiresome in the context of these things that happened within living memory on French soil.

As for political violence in mainland France, it is true that there are no single incidents as bad since World War II. But the ‘cafe wars’ – the struggle between rival Algerian rebel groups among Algerian expatriates in France – killed at least 3975 people during the years of Algerian War. That might not sound so bad to readers from Juarez or Baghdad, but that is a pretty serious level of violence for Western Europe. But it was beur on beur, so who remembers?

I remember being struck, back when I was an undergraduate, on how the modern history section of my university had shelves and shelves about the Vietnam War, but only one book on the Algerian War. ‘What anglocentrism!’ I thought. ‘What a parochial country we are! I bet it would be very different in France.’ A few years ago I brought this up with a French colleague – how nobody in the English-speaking world seemed to remember or care about the Algerian War – and he said it was actually much the same in France. De Gaulle wanted to forget about it; the establishment wanted to forget about it; and for many years afterward journalists were actively discouraged from mentioning it.

So we forget. Not that long ago Algiers, Oran, and Constantine were cities with Arab minorities. A million people fled in 1962, to France and Spain and Israel. The vibrant cosmopolitan cultural mix of Marseilles, say, has been tried before, on the other side of the Mediterranean.

So maybe this isn’t one of those times I am being pedantic for the sake of being pedantic. I dunno.

From the 1911 Encylopaedia Brittanica, BTW:

CONSTANTINE, a city of Algeria, capital of the department of the same name, 54 m. by railway S. by W. of the port of Philippeville, in 36°22′ N., 6° 36′ E. Constantine is the residence of a general commanding a division, of a prefect and other high officials, is the seat of a bishop, and had a population in 1906 of 46,806, of whom 25,312 were Europeans.

...In 1906 the population of the commune of Algiers was 154,049; the population municipale, which excludes the garrison, prisoners, &c., was 145,280. Of this total 138,240 were living in the city proper or in Mustapha. Of the inhabitants 105,908 were Europeans. French residents numbered 50,996, naturalized Frenchmen 23,305, Spaniards 12,354, Italians 7368, Maltese 865, and other Europeans (chiefly British and Germans) 1652, besides 12,490 Jews. The remainder of the population—all Mahommedans—are Moors, Arabs, Berbers, Negroes, with a few Turks.

...In 1832 a census of the town showed that it had but 3800 inhabitants, of whom more than two-thirds were Jews. Under French rule Oran has regained its ancient commercial activity and has become the second city in Algeria. The population of the city in 1906 was 100,499, of whom 21,906 were French, and 23,071 Spanish. There were also 27,570 naturalized Frenchmen, mostly of Spanish origin. There is a negro colony in the city, numbering about 3000, included in the census in the native population of 16,296. Including the garrison and naval forces the total population of the commune was 106,517.