Sunday, September 28, 2014

12-18, The Age of Discovery

 Number 5 in a series on Countries Named after Peeps

12. Ali Musa Mbiki (Musa Al Big), c.1500
The story goes that there was an island which named after its sultan, Ali Musa Mbiki, who was probably one of the Omani Arabs who were enthusiastic traders in that part of the Indian Ocean. Or, it may be that when Vasco de Gama’s expedition came through there and bombarded the island and kidnapped a couple of Arab pilots as guides, they got the name of the sultan and the name of the island confused. This is what the island looks like nowadays:
It is called ‘Mozambique’, and being about the first place taken by the Portuguese on the east coast of Africa, it gave its name to their whole colony there.

13. Cristoforo Colombo, 1451-1506
You’ve probably heard of him. A Genoan navigator, the second of the two peeps born in Italy to have countries named after them, after St Lucy. (St Marinus was supposedly born in what is now Croatia). It does not appear that his voyages in the Caribbean ever brought him within sight of the country named after him. It seems to have been a near thing whether he would have a country named after him, as none of the constituent parts of the first Republic of Colombia (1819-1831) kept that name on its disintegration. Modern Colombia was called a couple of other names before becoming the United States of Colombia in 1863.

14.  Amerigo Vespucci 1454-1512
The third Italian to have a country named after him, from Florence, was sent by the Medicis to look after a branch office of their mercantile empire in Spain, and ended up going on some indeterminate number of expeditions to the New World. Being one of the first to cotton on to the fact that the New World was a continent (or two) and not just islands off the coast of Asia, or the first to popularise this fact, he scored the enviable distinction of having two continents named after him. (Continents have to be female, and named in classical languages, so it is the latinised feminine form of his first name that has been preserved). As such his name features in the most populous country named after a peep, the United States of America.

15. Afonso, Prince of Portugal 1475-1491
Even younger at his death than the martyrs of the Diocletion persecution, the only legitimate son of King John the Second of Portugal had been married in childhood to Isabella, heir to the thrones of Castille and Aragon. His death in a horse-riding accident is sometimes attributed to the malign influence of his in-laws - the patrons of #13 and #14 on the list.
An island off the west coast of Africa, originally named after Saint Anthony by its Portuguese discoverers, was renamed after the Prince, and the taxes levied on the sugar produced on the island were made over to the use of the heir-apparent to the Portuguese throne. According to Wikipedia the renaming was actually done in 1502, so the Prince the island is named after may instead have been the future King John the Third of Portugal, Afonso’s second cousin once removed, who was the only extant Prince of Portugal in that year. Complicating the question further, Afonso’s father John II was said to perfectly embody in his life the principles outlined by Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ and was known as ‘the Perfect Prince’, o Príncipe Perfeito.
But Principe was definitely named after one of these Portuguese royals, and today is the junior island in Africa’s second smallest nation, which we have already seen because its larger island is also named after a peep.

16. Philip II 1527 –1598)
While their most Catholic majesties Ferdinand and Isabella are hanging around in the background of the lives of #13-15, their great-grandson Phillip the Prudent was the first member of their family to end up with a country named after him.
While he was still only Prince of Asturias (he later became King of Ireland, King of Jerusalem, Count of Friesland, Duke of Milan, and all manner of other things) the Spanish explorer Ruy López de Villalobos named the islands of Leyte and Samar ‘Islas Felipinas’ after him, and over time this name was extended to the whole archipelago which Magellan had originally named after Saint Lazarus.

17. Maurits van Oranje 1567-1625
Phillip II was of course the arch-nemesis of William the Silent, founder of the royal house of the Netherlands. And William’s son Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange, also ended up with a country named after him: the island of Mauritius, named in his honour by Dutch explorers.He is the first Protestant on the list, and the only (ahem) German, having been born in what is now the German state of Hesse.

18. Jean Moreau de Séchelles 1690-1761
The only Frenchman to have a country named after him, and the only Minister of Finance.
He scored the smallest country ‘in Africa’, an archipelago which might have ended up being named after Vasco de Gama instead: but it seems like de Gama only spotted some of the smaller outlying islands of what is now the Seychelles and his naming them after himself only stuck with those.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Playing with Maps

I came across this map of the rebel colonies divided into fifty states of equal population, and thought of doing one for Australia, but realised most of the fifty states would be too small to see on the map. then I thought I would divide Australia into fifty states with the same relative populations as the existing states of the rebel colonies, but that didn't look very pretty either, as even a California-sized proportional chunk of the Australian population is too small to cover Sydney or Melbourne. So I did the more logical thing, and divided Australia into six states of equal population with the aid of the Australian Electoral Commission's map of electoral districts, leaving the territories as they are.

The only benefit of this cockamamie proposal is that it puts the AFL-playing areas of NSW into a majority AFL state, giving three AFL and three League states, which would make for a more interesting State of Origin Competition. We could have a meta-Grand Final where the winners of the two State of Origin Competitions played each other at soccer. I guess there is one other benefit in that it puts the ACT in between two states instead of entirely surrounded by one, which is tidy. Other than that there is not much to recommend this proposal.

The other thing I thought of doing was inverting my first idea. Instead of dividing Australia into fifty states with the same relative populations as the American states, I would divide the rebel colonies into pieces of the same relative population as the Australian states. With the aid of the wikipedia commons map of the county boundaries, I got this.

I wanted to make Alaska and Hawaii the Northern Territory, but they don't have enough people, and dividing it into three pieces seemed ugly, so I did the next best thing and slotted it appropriately between Queensland, Western Australia, and South Australia. The main bits of Hawaii and Alaska I have therefore associated with New South Wales, as grossly inflated cloned analogues of Lord Howe Island. I probably should have dragged in the more farflung Pacific and Carribean possessions of the rebel colonies to map our territories onto, but my calculations were already dreadfully far along by the time I thought of it. 

Cui Bono?

Warning: Contains greater than 1000% of the RDA of crackpot conspiracy theories. Maybe much greater. 

Marco has avowed recently that he no longer believes anything he reads in the media, and is of the opinion that the freedom of the press in the West is about as great, in real terms, as the freedom of the press in the renegade mainland provinces of the Republic of China. It is clear to him that much of what passes for news and news analysis is simply “off the wall out and out lies”. He says he is close to believing all left-wing conspiracy theories about the media, and he cites this article from the Economist about Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine as an example of Western journalism starting from a basis of pure propaganda, and professes a generally pro-Russian view of the situation in Ukraine.

While sharing Marco’s distrust of the media, I replied that on the contrary, I am close to believing all right-wing conspiracy theories about the media. Rather than the Western media being manipulated to defame Russia, I think it is much more likely that it is a puppet dancing on Russian strings. This was after all the case for the left-wing Western media throughout the entire history of the Soviet Union. In the twenties Western journalists reported things that were later found to be untrue; in the thirties Western journalists reported things that were later found to be untrue; in the forties Western journalists enthusiastically participated in creating propaganda for ‘Uncle Joe’; throughout the Cold War the Western Media was infected with defeatism; up to the very last moment of August 1991 a false moral-equivalence and exaggerated respect for the solidity and effectiveness of the Soviet Union permeated the Western media. They did not produce much in the Soviet Union that was better than the West: Energiya rockets, certainly; but besides that, lies. They were masters at generating every kind of lie for every kind of purpose. Brash, unsubtle big lies that worked through their sheer audacity; little lies that slowly wore away resistance by constant repetition; subtle lies that were almost the truth. The Cold War was a war of disinformation.  And Putin, former KGB man, is an heir to this tradition.  I think that he has taken up the dusty levers for steering western public opinion that were left untended in 1991-1999, and that the Western media has to a large extent been reporting exactly what he wants it to during the 21st century. I think he is a master both of the brash unsubtle lie for domestic consumption and the insidious byzantine lie for foreign consumption. I think if negative press about Putin gets traction in the West, it is because he no longer cares what we think.
I am now going to consider three cases, two big ones and one almost trivial one, where the narrative of the Western media has made no sense, asking the question: who benefits from this narrative? 

Exhibit A: Kosovo cf. Iraq
Kuwait was to Iraq as Crimea is to Russia. They both should be back where they belong. (Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Times, 21st December 1993)

In 1999 the government of Serbia and Montenegro, the rump of Yugoslavia, fought to maintain the territorial integrity of their country against an secessionist ethnic minority, in much the same way that NATO members the United Kingdom, Spain, and Turkey have acted against their own secessionist ethnic minorities. Serbia and Montenegro had never shown any territorial ambitions outside the boundaries of the former Yugoslavia. All of their aggression had been in an attempt to prevent the disintegration of a country that had been a solid member of the community of nations for seventy years: the communist state that had been best integrated into the rest of Europe. They had never attacked anyone outside the borders of Yugoslavia. Since 1995 they had accepted with good grace peace agreements negotiated in Bosnia and Hercegovina and in Croatia. They were not causing trouble to anyone outside their own country. They were trying their best to rebuild from the damage (largely self-inflicted) they had suffered during the break of Yugoslavia.

NATO bombed them and set up an unviable kleptocratic state of Kosovo. There was no basis in international law for the attack. The government of Serbia and Montenegro was not a threat to anyone outside of Serbia and Montenegro.A few people protested. In Sydney, I remember, they all seemed to be Serbs. The Western media yawned. Western public opinion applauded.

The dictator of Iraq had launched the worst war of the 1980s in an unprovoked attack on one of his neighbours; at the beginning of the 1990s he annexed another of his neighbours, and in the course of the war fought to liberate this neighbour, he mounted a ground invasion of a third neighbour and bombed a fourth country. He was a clear menace to the neighbourhood. He was not removed from power in 1991, only because he was in the Soviet orbit, and the lingering Cold War mentality of the West shrank from pushing so far. Internally, he had pursued policies against ethnic minorities and political opponents that were vastly worse than anything done in Serbia and Montenegro. In 2003 he had been in breach of United Nations resolutions for twelve years. But it was the war to get rid of him – a war with a justification in international law, fought with a coalition much broader than NATO - that brought out protesters in tens of thousands in every capital city of the West. It was the war against him that we argued about for years, the war that is still excoriated by the entire left and repudiated by a plurality of the right. Why? 

Sure, party politics inside the United States might lead the media in that country to reflexively support Clinton in 1999 but not Bush in 2003, but why should this solipsistic madness infect the rest of the world? I never understood.

Who benefits from keeping a genocidal, aggressive dictator in the heart of the Middle East? Not his neighbours, four of which he waged war on. Not Europe or Japan, who want the region that is the source of a large fraction of their fossil fuels to be calm and reliable. Not China: it doesn’t have global ambitions, and has an interest in cheap fuel. Not the United States: it has no ticker for being the world’s policeman, and wishes it could sit securely behind its oceans and ignore the rest of the world like it did in the 19th century.

I have just finished re-reading ’Zhirinovksy: The Little Black Book’, a collection of quotes cobbled together back in 1994 from the speeches and writings of Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky. A probable KGB-stooge, renowned sayer of crazy things and vile misogynist, he was deputy speaker of the Russian parliament for more than a decade. To compare him to members of the Australian parliament who are renowned for saying crazy things - to Bob Katter or Christine Milne, f’rinstance – is to involuntarily fall to one’s knees and thank God for Australia.

One thing that struck me on rereading the book is a recurring theme in the quotes made by the early Zhirinovsky: the importance to Russia of the countries immediately to the south of the old Soviet Union. He wants Russian soldiers to wash their boots in the Indian Ocean. He does not have global ambitions, but he wants the near abroad back, and he wants Russia to be the hegemon of the Middle East. He wants Iran; he wants Turkey. This was an old tsarist ambition, and the kind of thing Bob Santamaria used to endlessly warn us about on television. I think it is still there. Russia cannot expand into a Middle East that is peaceful and stable and secure under the umbrella of the Pax Americana. If it is too weak at the moment to act against it now, it is in its interests to keep it weak and divided until it can. Russia is also a major exporter of fossil fuels. It is in its interests to keep other major exporters of fossil fuels insecure, to push up prices and to increase its comparative advantage as a stable, reliable source. Russia is the one nation whose long-term interests clearly align with continued chaos in the Middle East.

So consider this difference between 1999 and 2003 as one possible explanation for the bizarre difference between the public reaction to these two wars: Putin was in charge of the old Soviet propaganda mill in 2003, but not in 1999. He was horrified at how badly the propaganda machine had been mismanaged in aid of his slavic brethren in Kosovo, and swore ‘never again’.  Correlation is not causation; but I respectfully submit that this is less batshit insane than most other explanations I can come up with. It’s just a theory. 

Exhibit B: Climate Change

The observational evidence for anthropogenic global warming was strong in the 1990s. The evidence since then has been weak, but the media frenzy has been much greater in the 2000s, peaking in 2007.
I have argued about this ad nauseam, so I won’t bore you now. Much. It has just been always blindingly obvious to me that Bjorn Lomberg is right. The cost-benefit analysis of taking action to stop emission of carbon dioxide now, to such an extent that it might actually reduce warming, shows that it is almost the dumbest possible thing we could do. Why should the media interest increase, and continue to increase, as the observational evidence gets weaker and weaker? This is another thing I could never understand.

Who benefits from the West hobbling its economy in a precipitous rush to head off a crisis that is a media beat-up? Not the West itself. Not any country that is integrated into the global economy and earns it living selling us stuff; or that aspires to such a position. Not the poorer Third World, whose restive urban populations need cheap food from the fossil-fuel-dependent farms of the West. No, only a country that is poorly integrated with the global economy, with long-term ambitions to autarky, that knows it is at a competitive disadvantage and needs time to catch up, could benefit from ill-thought out climate change action by the West. Did I mention it is a major supplier of a fuel that can give a large immediate impact on reducing greenhouse emissions by replacing coal? And there’s this. I would be willing to bet that Russian involvement in the anti-fracking movement is deeper and broader than anyone imagines.

Again, this is just a theory. Please don’t send anyone around to put polonium in my coffee.

Exhibit C: Assassination of Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh

You might recall the assassination of a top Hamas official in Dubai in 2010, attributed to Mossad. It was carried out by a ridiculously large number of agents, all travelling on forged Western passports. The faces of the assassins were captured on camera; the details of their forged passports were recorded; the whole operation seemed rather amateurish.  Yet none of the assassins has ever been identified publicly. It struck me as strange that all the passports used were from European countries or Australia and all the agents could pass for Western Europeans or Australians, when there are many more people in the pool of potential Mossad agents who are fluent speakers of Arabic and Russian than of Western European languages, and could pass for nationals of those countries who are common travellers in the UAE: but this may well be because the passports are all from countries that don’t need visas to enter the UAE (and Russia and the Arab countries aren’t).

But, why haven’t any of these people been identified? Israel is a fairly open society with a population about the same as New South Wales. There is a free press. There is a big Israeli emigre population all over the world. How come nobody has come out in London or Berkeley and given an interview to one of the many rabidly anti-Zionist papers out there, saying ‘I recognise that guy, that’s X, we used to play volleyball together in high school in Petah Tikvah’? Where are all the acquaintances of these 11 suspects? I don’t understand. And I think, where are you going to find 11 educated white people who don’t have any acquaintances who are going to show up in the Western media? Russia, that’s where I think. And maybe Western European and Australian passports were just to avoid having to get a visa, and Mossad didn’t mind limiting their pool of potential agents in this way; or maybe instead, someone with a background in byzantine spycraft wanted to pin the blame for the assassination of Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh on Israel, and at the same time sow trouble between Israel and its near-allies in the West. Two birds with one stone: get rid of a Hamas loose cannon who is about to (f’rinstance) spill the beans on the extent of Russian involvement in the Iranian nuclear program, and cause trouble for Israel.

Just a wacky conspiracy theory, again. If true, an amazingly successful piece of FSB disinformation. I am in awe. But I don’t have any evidence, so there’s no need to hunt me down. Thanks!

Parenthetically consider this: A weak and disorderly Middle-East is good for Russia. A demonised Israel is a good way to ensure a weak and disorderly Middle East. The first intifada stopped about the time the Soviet Union collapsed.  The Al-Aqsa intifada started up in 2000, shortly after Putin came to power.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Inclusive Ideologies

‘Freedom, free thought, and science will lead them into such straits and will bring them face to face with such marvels and insoluble mysteries, that some of them, the fierce and rebellious, will destroy themselves, others, rebellious but weak, will destroy one another, while the rest, weak and unhappy, will crawl fawning to our feet and whine to us: "Yes, you were right, you alone possess His mystery, and we come back to you, save us from ourselves!" 
(The Grand Inquisitor, Fyodor Dostoevsky)

There was a spirited discussion going on until recently over at winstoninabox’s atheism blog which centred, I think, around the extent to which an ideology is responsible for unsavoury actions that are implied by that ideology. Winstoninabox disclaims any connection between atheism per se and the actions of atheist regimes, even actions taken with the stated aim of suppressing religion.  Talking heads mouth platitudes about Islam as a ‘religion of peace’, ignoring the copious statements made by Muslim radicals, impeccably supported by Qur’anic quotations exhorting violence. 

I can understand the motivation, I think, for trying to construe your vision of the universe, such that your ideology is lily-white and blameless of any negative consequences, but I think such an effort is doomed, and I have never ever been tempted to it myself. This is probably a historical accident arising from the fact that the ideologies I have most closely associated myself with since before I was consciously aware there were ideologies were the ideologies associated with the Roman Catholic Church and the United States of America. Those are things that are too large, too complicated, to avoid throwing up countless examples of people doing bad things and logically justifying them by the ideology. You cannot pretend that the Inquisition was not logically connected to Catholicism; you cannot pretend that Sherman’s march through Georgia was an aberration unconnected to the principles of republican federalism. You have to say, ‘yes, but’ and accept your ideology as the flawed thing striving towards perfection that it is. In a more fundamental way, this is also the Catholic way of looking at everything, so is very deep in my bones. I don’t expect my ideology to be faultless any more than I expect myself to be faultless.

Anyhow, my point, and where I am hoping to turn the discussion on vex cathedra eventually, is this:
Let’s say I have been convinced, like Tim Minchin, that life is meaningless. However, I am not just an individual, but part of a society. The implications of what I believe affect my whole society. When my belief is competing in idea space, I need to consider those implications with the same ruthless honesty that I employed in coming to my stark realisation that life is meaningless. And one of those implications arises from the fact that people do not like to believe that life is meaningless. Let us say my belief steamrolls through my society, overcoming weak and divided ideologies that assert life has a meaning. And then someone else comes along and says, speaking with authority, not like the scribes and pharisees: of course life has a meaning. And it is this meaning, here (points). Join us! They will have a pretty good run of it. Because if someone doesn’t have a very strong intellectual structure supporting their belief that life is meaningless, it will just collapse like a house of cards when exposed to a sufficiently confident assertion that life has a meaning. To the extent that I am successful in propagating my belief, I am softening up society for a belief that might be might be diametrically opposed to mine. So, isn’t it better, in any true sense of the word, for me to behave like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor? To stare into the abyss of meaninglessness, realise that it is too much for people to bear, and turn back. Never forgetting the abyss, and the hole it leaves in my own soul, but devoting myself for the good of others to supporting a belief system I don’t believe in. Because  I have seen that  the society that is implied by that belief system will work, if the belief system is confidently asserted, and the people of that society will be happy and healthy, like the people of Utah are happy and healthy, and they will not be seduced into madness and death by prophets bearing strange faiths out of the desert.

 I have probably written here before of a conversation I had in August 2001, with one of the principal figures of a conservative Catholic student group, where he asserted that the principal conflict of the 21st century would be the same as the principal conflict of the 12th century: a struggle between Christianity and Islam. I thought he was right then. Thirteen years later, I still think he was right, and his assertion seems less contrarian with each passing year.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

10-11, The Middle Ages

Number 4 in a Series on Countries Named After Peeps

We have had a lot of countries named after Jews, and a lot of countries named after citizens of the Roman Empire, with a fair amount of overlap between the two. There have also been quite a few peeps compressed into a relatively short period of time. Now there is a long stretch of time, approximately from the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity until the Age of Exploration, where only two people lived whose names feature in the names of countries today.

10. Hashim ibn 'Abd Manaf ?- 511

The only peep on the list who was never a formal member of any of the Judeao-Christo-Islamic religions, Hashim was a popular leader of the Quraysh tribe in Mecca who is said to have saved the city from famine by sending a hundred of his camels to collect grain in Syria, which he distributed freely to his fellow Meccans (the name ‘Hashim’ is related to a root meaning ‘starving’). His descendants proudly took his name, and his great-grandson founded a religion you may have heard of. The ‘Hashimi’ family name is taken now to refer to descendants of Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah, and the royal families of Morocco and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan can trace their ancestry back to her.

Hashim is anecdotally said to be buried in Gaza, making him the only person a country is named after whose remains are not in an officially recognised country.

11. Domingo Félix de Guzmán 1170 –1221

A young man from a wealthy family in Old Castille, Domingo’s first recorded act of any importance was also feeding the hungry: as a student, he is said to have sold all of his possessions to buy food for the poor at a time of famine. In 1215 he founded the Order of Preachers, more commonly known as the Dominican Order – one of the two big orders of ‘friars’, distinguished from ‘monks’ in that they did not sit still in one place praying and working, but wandered about the countryside doing things. His career was the basis for one of the big pop hits of 1963-1964

Long before then, the first permanent European settlement inthe Americas was (re)named after him, in 1495 or 1496. The name of this city became an alternative designation for the island it was located on, which in English we call ‘Hispaniola’. The western half of the island was taken by the French, but Saint Domingue had a population that was 90% slaves which turned out to be an unviable arrangement for the colonizers, and the rebellious slaves gave their half a non-European name derived from the original Taino inhabitants . The eastern half of the island, which remained in Spanish hands most of the time until independence, is now the Dominican Republic.