Thursday, December 25, 2014

On Christmas trees and the Garden of Eden


Titian imagines Adam dissuading Eve from plucking another apple.
1570, Prado Museum, Madrid
I've retold the Adam and Eve tale as one of my children's stories.  
At a Christmas Eve night mass, where Martha was the little drummer boy in a nativity pageant, my eye was caught by a parish leaflet featuring a "prayer round the Christmas tree".  Having recently become curious about the history of Christmas trees, I read on, and was informed that the Christmas tree should remind us of the tree in the garden of paradise, a tree of wisdom and knowledge laden with every good thing, and god's gift to all human beings.

Huh?  What sort of theology is this?

Unless my memory deceives me, Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat from the tree of knowledge, and when they did, were slung out on their ear.  How is that god's gift to all human beings? Whoever wrote this church leaflet is trying a bit too hard methinks. Striving to gloss over the Christmas tree's history as a pre-existing pagan tradition sitting uneasily within Christianity  ...

… and warming to my theme, I could have written a nice little blog in this vein, but for the fact that some googling has revealed there's more to the history of Christmas trees than I knew.   I assumed them to have been part of Northern European culture for generations before the missionaries arrived, but it seems it's not as simple as that. So far as I can tell they're much more recent, around 1500, and come from Germany, in one region of which they used to be hung upside down.  Scandinavia not mentioned to my surprise. And Martin Luther seems to have had a hand in the matter.  I must get my ducks in a row (the first time I've used that expression
and dare I hope the last) and write something more considered this time next year.

And lastly why are Christmas trees shaped like Christmas trees? They’ve evolved that way to let the snow slide off. More on Earthsky.org.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Monkeying with the clocks


Here in Cork we get half an hour extra daylight in the evening, though our mornings are dark. That’s because we use the same time zone as Britain whilst lying half an hour west of Greenwich. So the gloom and darkness complaint that arises at this time of year affects us less acutely. Here's a sample, in The Observer’s editorial last Sunday:-

For the next five months, the nation can again anticipate evenings marked by their gloom and darkness, thanks to Greenwich Mean Time, which was reintroduced early this morning.

Few welcome the abandonment of British Summer Time, one of the least appetising events of the calendar, and opinion polls in England and Wales make it clear there is a healthy support for the halting the practice of putting clocks back in autumn so that we have earlier sunrises and sunsets and darker evenings.


The editorial goes on to suggest that retaining British Summer Time in the winter, with the addition of an extra hour to clocks in March (Double Summer Time), would save money and lives. Lives on the roads because the evening rush hour wouldn't be so dark, and money because there would be less need for electric light in the early evening.  This kind of scheme is always referred to as daylight saving.

Greenwich Observatory. Where midday really is midday.
And it's said every year at this time when the clocks go back.  But the point I'm coming to is this: how have we got ourselves into this back to front way of running a society?  When The Observer talks of “gloom and darkness, thanks to Greenwich Mean Time”, they make Greenwich Mean Time sound like a perverse invention designed as a kind of torment.   But hey, all it means is that the Sun is at its highest in the sky at midday (in Greenwich that is). Which is exactly as it should be.  (In York too; in Bradford the Sun doesn't reach the zenith till almost 7 minutes past midday; here in Mitchelstown Co Cork, 32 minutes past.)

If we feel so strongly about dark evenings, the answer is clear. Bed at 8. Up at 4. Standard working day from 7 am to 3 pm, which even in midwinter finishes in full daylight. Outlandish? Of course. But only because sometime between the 16th and 18th centuries our forebears did something called nocturnalisation.  Staying up half the night and sleeping till half way through the morning. The daylight saving that The Observer is calling for amounts to this:  to monkey with the clocks so as to wind this nocturnalisation back, nearer to the way things once used to be. 

Jiggery pokery

I'm not really against monkeying with the clocks. I just want to get it off my chest that the whole thing’s mad.  We’ve nocturnalised our society and now we want to unnocturnalise it. Just why nocturnalisation occurred is a puzzle I wrestle with from time to time.  I touched on the history of it a couple of years ago in a piece called How we colonised the night.

As a postscript I should add that the foregoing is entirely a parochial mid-latitude issue. In Scotland monkeying with the clocks probably wouldn't work. And in Luleå no amount of jiggery pokery is going to stretch out the three or four hours of watery light that’s the midwinter ration. In the tropics on the other hand, the Sun never rises and sets far from 6 o’clock.  I remember when I was in Trinidad in my youth observing that the earliest sunset was 5:45, and the latest sunset was 6:15. Here's a flavour of the conversation you would have sitting on the porch sipping rum and coke and the crickets chirping. “You noticed the sun’s setting much later now?” ... “Yes,
tonight it was 7 minutes past. Two weeks ago it was 4 minutes past.”

Finally, here's a useful short history of daylight saving measures. Double Summer Time was first used in Germany in the First World War, quickly followed by Britain and many other countries.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Of the Irish Constitution and half a red beard


1924 portrait of Darrell Figgis. The beard is red.
This is about a red beard and knives, but you'll need to bear with me while first I give a bit of context. In University College Cork's library yesterday I picked up the American Journal of Legal History and found an article on the Irish Free State Constitution. It's by Laura Cahillane who used to be at UCC, and as I narrowly missed a seminar she gave on this very topic a couple of years ago, I was delighted to find it. What I was actually looking for was something on the law of outer space but that’s another story.

The Irish Free State Constitution was the first Constitution of independent Ireland. Drawn up after the close of the Irish War of Independence, it was born in the midst of the Civil War, which broke out over disagreements as to the status of the embryonic Irish State and the continuing ties with the British Empire. The Free State Constitution was in force from 1922 until 1937, when it was replaced with a new constitution: Bunreacht na htireann.  However Cahillane’s point is that the 1937 constitution was not a completely new document; on the contrary, it contains (with certain additions and subtractions) most of the Free State Constitution, which still forms the spine of Ireland’s current constitution (now widely recognised as out of date).

She intends to rescue the Free State Constitution from undeserved obscurity, claiming that because of its Civil War birth pangs, it has been the subject of controversy and misinformation, and indeed the butt contempt and derision; as a result of which it is (she says) one of the most misunderstood aspects of the Irish legal system, neglected by legal and historical scholars.

That’s the preamble. Now we're getting nearer to the beard. It belonged to Darrell Figgis, known as an fear fēasōgach, the bearded one, and deputy chairman of the 1922 constitution drafting committee.  Michael Collins appointed himself chairman of the committee but whilst chairman in name, he did not have time to become actively involved in the drafting process. Apart from the initial meeting, he attended only one other, but he did keep in regular contact with some of the members and his instructions guided the committee in its work.

The Constitution Committee meeting at the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin. Figgis is seated fourth from the left.
Darrell Figgis was a renowned literary figure in Ireland. He had also been an active member of the Irish Volunteers and Sinn Fein. Cahillane thinks that in many ways, Figgis was a curious choice as he was very unpopular.  Despite this, he was highly talented and a major influence on the shaping of the Free Sate Constitution, both in his daily attendance at the committee and in the subsequent debate in the Constituent Assembly.  Figgis applied himself to the study of constitutions and developed specific ideas on how the new constitution should be structured. He was the author of one of the three eventual drafts submitted by the committee to the Provisional Government.

Half of his beard

He was moreover famous for his red beard, of which he was immensely proud. In a footnote - and here we come to the nub of the matter - Cahillane relates a strange incident in June 1922. Three men broke into Figgis’s house in the middle of the night with knives and cut half of his beard off. Details of the attack remained vague until one of those responsible broke his silence 36 years later. He was the future Lord Mayor of Dublin, Robert Briscoe, who explained that Figgis had been attacked because of disobliging remarks about the IRA.

You can find an account of the incident and an extract from Robert Briscoe’s memoir in the Wikipedia article on Figgis.  It specifies a glittering razor rather than knives, and there is no mention of only half the beard being cut off.  So here we have a discrepancy, which after some soul-searching, I've decided I don't have the time to resolve.

The constitution had to be approved by the British government as well as the Irish parliament. This was by virtue of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. And because the draft sounded too republican, and didn't say enough about being part of the British Empire, the British government threatened to go to war with Ireland again. But I won’t say any more on that as I really just wanted to tell you about the beard, and let you know that if the only reading material in front of you happens to be a journal of legal history, that may not be as dull as it sounds. 


Friday, September 19, 2014

On being British


The day of the Scottish referendum is a good time to say a few words about being British. Which is something I'm not.  I sometimes say I'm English, and sometimes half English and half Swedish. But never British.  Half English and half Swedish is an ungainly expression, so I think in future I'll say “both English and Swedish”.  The other day I caught myself calling Luleå my home town.  A surprising thing to say, perhaps, seeing as the longest I have ever spent there is six weeks when I was 17. But though I was brought up in the south of England, there's no one place we lived more than a few years. Consequently no place in England I can think of as my home town.  I spent more than half my life in York. But you can't call a place your home town if you didn't get there till you were 23. Whereas Luleå is the one place that has been in my life ever since I can remember. I still have my mother’s sister Kerstin there and my cousin Tolle, and we visit every other year or so.  By contrast, when I go to either Bristol or Brighton (which I haven't done for a long time, and maybe never again) I don't feel as if I'm going home, and I have no connections there. 

Luleå: my home town in the north of Sweden
But I've drifted from the Scottish referendum. I just need to comment that it was a disappointing result.  A vote for an independent Scotland would have shaken politics up a bit. Whether it would have shaken English politics up in a good way is a question worth pondering. Maybe it would have boosted English nationalism which has always been a right wing phenomenon. Unlike Scottish nationalism which has a wholesome social democratic flavour. Taken all in all, nationalism has been and remains the bane of world politics and if I could abolish it I would. A foolish and unhistorical thing to say, but there I've said it.

But back to Scotland. The question has to be asked, and would have been asked loudly had the vote been for independence: independence from whom and from what? Who would have governed Scotland, the government in Edinburgh or the multinational corporations? Escaping from under the neoliberal Tory yoke suggests a hopeful answer to that question; but the soon to resign Alex Salmond’s support for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the European Union and the United States (TTIP) suggests a bad answer. 

The TTIP deal hands sovereignty to multinationals, but according to Salmond “For Scotland, given that the United States is our largest individual trading partner outside the UK, this agreement will be especially good news”. 


Feeling English


This essay, I am beginning to see, is a ramshackle affair. Because now I am going to tack back to the beginning and say something about feeling English and not British. And I just want to address those who, for fear of being suspected of Ukippery or racism, would be shy of saying they feel English.  Whilst England is a place, Britain and British to me are political expressions and suggest the Empire.  My father was a big believer in the British Empire and its unique civilising mission in world history, and was always intensely proud to call himself British. But that’s not for me. English is Shakespeare, Milton, the Lollards, the Levellers, William Blake’s Jerusalem (which requires a separate essay but I'll spare you it on this occasion), Thomas Paine, the Luddites (another essay), the Tolpuddle Martyrs.  When I say I'm English, that’s what I associate myself with.

Finally, these ramblings have been an exercise in displacement activity, since what's really important, and what's stopped me writing on this blog for the past month, is the Islamic State. I still haven’t yet worked out what to say about it - and until I do, I don't really feel like writing about anything else. But the Scottish referendum handed me an excuse for this riff on Britishness.


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Will Ireland defy tobacco giants?



Were this image from a 1930’s film poster it would suggest cool and sophisticated (though perhaps in the 1930’s cool didn't mean sophisticated). Be that as it may, the image is actually from the Irish Examiner website where it's meant to suggest sinister and harmful, and it heads a story that Irish prime minister Enda Kenny has got a letter encouraging him to scrap plans to become the second country in the world after Australia to impose plain packaging regulations on cigarette companies.

The letter is signed by 27 members of the European parliament, nearly half of them members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party. They say plain packaging legislation could threaten Ireland’s financial recovery, and according to an Irish Examiner editorial of 12th August,  the letter is a thinly-veiled threat.  Which is good news in a way as it confirms that existing tobacco controls in Ireland, and plain packaging already introduced in Australia, are working. The Australian regulations came into effect in December 2012. Clearly, tobacco companies fear that these measures might be replicated across an ever-more health conscious European Union.

The Irish Examiner’s main leader last Tuesday flew under the heading “Fighting the tobacco giants - Government should defy lobbyists”, and began “Tobacco conglomerates spent decades challenging the science that proved nicotine was addictive. They dishonestly spent decades rubbishing the science that identified their products as cancerous and the root cause of fatal diseases.”

Read it in full to be reminded of the issues. It concludes by urging the Irish government to press ahead with their plans to make it ever more difficult to sell tobacco in this country and to tell the German lobbyists where to get off.


Other links
 

Irish Examiner analysis piece, by their political reporter, 12th August
Wikipedia, for a history of plain packaging around the world, evidence, criticisms, opposition
 
From this blog
 

January 2013: Irish cancer report gives the lie to Big Tobacco 
September 2011: Australian plans to force tobacco companies to use plain packaging carrying graphic health warnings


Monday, August 11, 2014

Of fundamental particles and logs



This is a plug for the Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast. In fact for Guardian podcasts overall. I reckon that were the Guardian a radio station it would be up there with BBC Radio 4 as one of the world’s best. The episode of Monday 28 July featured British physicist Professor Jon Butterworth discussing his work at the Large Hadron Collider.  Just a lot of quite ordinary people getting on with their jobs in a building with shabby corridors, he says, yet they're unlocking the laws of nature and the secrets of the universe.

The whole episode lasts 44 minutes and the Jon Butterworth interview takes up the second half, starting at minute 22:40.  If you have time for just a three minute snippet, try from minute 36:30 to 39:36. Listen to the professor’s thoughts on finding that the Higgs particle is really there, and seeing confirmation of the Z-boson.  By the way don't worry, there's no need to understand exactly what the Higgs or the Z are, other than to know that they are fundamental particles that it takes expensive equipment to detect ... and upon their existence or non-existence rests our whole conception of the laws of nature.

Hear Jon Butterworth say “The fact that we understand nature so well, that when we turn on the Large Hadron Colider for the first time, we see the Z-boson, and it's where it should be, still impresses me, I still get goosebumps even talking about it now.” 


A bicycling engineer leans on a magnet in the 27km-long tunnel of the Large Hadron Collider
(Image: Cern/Maximilien Brice)
The thought he's expressing here isn't new, but when I hear a scientist say it gives them goosebumps, I get goosebumps myself.  I'm put in mind of another physics professor Frank Close, commenting on Dirac’s achievement in predicting the particle known as the positron (a positive electron). Dirac predicted the positron using maths alone, four years before the particle was actually discovered by experiment in 1932. 

“To me it’s remarkable, in a strange way I find it quite uncomfortable, that Dirac is writing things on paper, and the equations say: you can’t just have an electron, you must have a positive version as well.  And it turns out the equations know about nature; for then we go out and do an experiment, and we find that’s how it is.  It’s a very profound, in some way, a disturbing thing.” 

Prof Close was speaking on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time in 2007. His words made such an impression that I included them in my personal collection of quotes from scientists talking about science.

To conclude about that episode of Science Weekly, Prof Butterworth was invited into the studio to talk about his new book Smashing Physics, his insider's account of the discovery of the Higgs boson. And the first half of the episode is a report from a symposium on the origins of life - did life begin on Earth or elsewhere, and how likely is it that we are alone. Science Weekly is presented by Guardian journalist Ian Sample. The episode of 4th August is another must-listen-to: “How AI could be the end of us”, in which Nick Bostrom believes if we're not careful, the creation of a super-intelligent computer could be our last invention. 

I listen to Science Weekly through my headphones as I go about my morning yard duties, and here's a picture to prove it:-


The log carrier by the way is a little thing of my own invention, loosely based on a traditional Swedish carrier made of birch bark.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Pride and Prejudice below stairs


I've heard it said that the market is saturated with Pride and Prejudice sequels, most of them poor to dreadful. But there are three I recommend, and I'll review one of them here: Jo Baker’s Longbourn. The others which I hope to return to some day are P D James’s Death Comes to Pemberley and Maya Slater’s The Private Diary of Mr. Darcy.

Longbourn has been described as a distant cousin to Pride and Prejudice, one that interacts with its relative rarely. But where it does interact, it does so in unsettling ways. 

Whereas Jane Austen left the Bennet servants as faceless ciphers, in Longbourn they are the central characters, and in particular Sarah whose romantic life mirrors Elizabeth's from Pride and Prejudice, and is equally predictable.

“If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats,  Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them”. Baker gives details more sordid than this, which I won't go into here, of the range of menial tasks needed to maintain an upper class Regency household. The workload is excessive for the four thinly-stretched servants, and when a new footman is added, this provides welcome relief.  Nonetheless at first Sarah is suspicious of James, and suspicion hardens into dislike, as she finds herself drawn toward the charming footman at neighbouring Netherfield, who is also the first black man Sarah has ever seen ...

That’s the romance.

But you could say that Longbourn’s main subject is the life of the lower classes in Regency England, the deprivation and suffering that produced the gilded world through which Austen's characters moved, with several hints at suppressed class conflict.

"A private had been flogged"

I've more to say about this book, but if you haven't read Pride and Prejudice you may not find my thoughts entirely riveting, so I'll put them in a separate page.  What I want to dwell on now is a pivotal episode in Longbourn when Sarah, while on an errand in Meryton, is traumatised by unintentionally witnessing a soldier being flogged.

Here's the peg it hangs from, the final sentence of Chapter 12 in Pride and Prejudice:-

"Catherine and Lydia had information for them of a different sort. Much had been done and much had been said in the regiment since the preceding Wednesday: several of the officers had dined lately with their uncle, a private had been flogged, and it had actually been hinted that Colonel Forster was going to be married."

William Cobbett (1763-1835)
opposed flogging
Catherine and Lydia, two silly teenage girls, are the younger sisters of the heroine Lizzy Bennet.  England is at war with Napoleon and a militia regiment has been stationed locally; it appears though to have little to do with the defence of the realm. In the foregoing passage Austen reveals military life as a routine of trivial social engagements and gossip, whilst exposing the vacuity of the sisters and their indiscriminate admiration of the militia officers.

And what of the flogging of the private? It's shocking that this unspeakably brutal event should be mixed in amongst trivialities; but the question arises, is it shocking to modern readers only? Or did Jane Austen expect her readers to find it shocking too?  This is something that has bothered me for a while.

I found the answer at a class I attended last autumn.  It's in a 2002 essay on Jane Austen and the military, which convincingly argues that when Austen has the sisters relate the whipping of an ordinary soldier in the same breath as polite dinners and gossip, she does so to expose their moral sense as sadly lacking.  And a significant fact revealed in the essay is that several members of Austen’s social circle signed a motion objecting to flogging.  (The motion was advocated by William Cobbett, someone I've crossed swords with over irregular verbs, so I welcome this opportunity to rehabilitate him.)

Returning to Jo Baker’s book, when we learn James’s backstory, we find he was flogged for desertion in Portugal.  The charge was false. But James recovers from the ordeal and subsequently really does desert, living the rest of his life in fear of discovery, which gives the narrative its shape.  Sarah, who due to her previous accidental encounter with a flogging knows what it entails, discovers the scars on James’s back and understands what he has endured. It's a gripping read.  I wonder whether it matters if you're not familiar with Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps not but it's hard for me to say.


Monday, July 28, 2014

Some belated and incomplete thoughts on Gaza


Someone I once worked with and if you're reading this you know who you are, used to accuse me of displacement activity, devoting my time to congenial tasks as an excuse for putting off difficult ones. This I vigorously denied but though it may have been damnably false then it perhaps fits better now: as for most of this month, whenever I've put pen to paper, it's been about anything except what's important, namely Gaza. I've been fiddling about with Jane Austen, Columbus, lopsided arches in churches, and some more pictures of Portuguese chimneys.  I haven't posted any of this stuff, because ever since 6th July when Operation Protective Edge began, it seemed frivolous.  As to Gaza I'm still trying to shape my thoughts into some sort of order.  And so I've been silent, but the trouble with silence is that no-one else can tell whether you’re thinking hard or you just can't be arsed. 

A couple of letters in today’s Irish Independent are part of the story. One refers to the Jews as a race of people who were systematically tortured and killed in the biggest ethnic cleansing horror of our history.   Barry Mulligan of Co Sligo says they have not learnt the lessons of the past, and are inflicting a similar torture on the Palestinians, a people who have the right to live life with some kind of dignity. “Weak, poor, living in awful conditions in such a small compressed area. Does this ring a bell? Reminiscent of the Jewish ghettos of World War II.” I could take issue with some of this, especially referring to the Jews a race, and also equating the state of Israel with Jewishness. But there's an important germ of truth here. It calls to mind the finding that child abusers are themselves often the victims of child abuse.

Another correspondent says that both the Israelis and Palestinians are condemned to fight for control of a small area of the Middle East because European powers in two world wars ordained it so.  A Leavy of Dublin 13 says Europeans should reflect on this and display a bit more introspection in the debate.  This prompts the thought that Zionism was born at the end of the 19th century when colonialism was fashionable, but only came to fruition in 1948 when colonialism was deeply unfashionable, so why did the world connive at it?  Holocaust guilt will be the answer there. I'm not suggesting that’s the reason the state of Israel was established, which had a lot do to with American imperialism, but perhaps it's the reason this colonial enterp
rise was connived at.  So skipping over a few steps, we now have Palestinians confined in what is habitually referred to as the world’s largest open air prison in Gaza for the crime of having been expelled from their land.  Much more needs to be said – my thoughts on the Guardian cartoon (21st July), Hamas and the Talibanisation of Gaza, how can I justify being so exercised about Israel as opposed to for example Sri Lanka, why the state of Israel should be dissolved, what's the point of holding such an unrealistic opinion, and how it differs from Hamas.


As a final instance of displacement activity, I'll just praise Barry Mulligan of Co Sligo for using the verb form “learnt” as distinct from “learned” in his letter. This is now regrettably rare, in both spoken and written English, but for how long it's been rare I'm not sure. I intend to find out, and when I do I'll let you know. But Barry earns a brickbat as well as a bouquet. "World War II" is a dreadful expression which should be banned. The name of the war, in English, is the Second World War. 


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Of mosques and chimneys in the Algarve



We spent last week in Albufeira on the Algarve.  Not the place to go, according to the Rough Guide, if you're looking for unspoilt Portugal, but it has an archaeological museum of which more below. The image on the left is an ornament in the garden of our apartment block. It's a typical Algarve chimney, and if you look closely at the image on the right, the view from our balcony, you'll see several more, all inspired by Moorish design. Probably not in use, as none of them are sooted. 

But used or not, a remark by our tour guide Carlos led me enquire into the history of Jews and Muslims under Christian rule in Portugal. Pointing out these distinctive Algarve chimneys, Carlos told us they are descended from minarets which Muslims erected on their houses after the Christian reconquest when all the mosques were abolished. And their Christian neighbours were so impressed with these domestic minarets that they copied them, and over the course of time the minarets became chimneys. This tale had a dubious ring to it, and I checked it out with the archaeologist at the local museum, a helpful lad called Luís, who flatly contradicted it. It's a story favoured by anthropologists he told me, for which there is no archaeological evidence.  These Moorish chimneys first appear in the 18th century.

Nonetheless, all this set me wondering about the lives of Muslims immediately following the reconquest. Reconquest by the way is a highly loaded term but it's the cornerstone of Iberian historiography and usually capitalised as “Reconquista”.

My reason for disbelieving the story about minarets and chimneys was the implausibility of Muslims wishing to advertise their presence when their religion was banned and inquisitors were prowling around. But since coming home I've done a bit of digging and discovered that my reasoning was quite mistaken.

Iberia in 1147 (Wikipedia). No-one in 1147 would have predicted that by the 16th century Muslim rule would be finished and all the Christian kingdoms except for Portugal would be merged and called Espania. In this map The Algarve is still part of Almohad territory. It was conquered by the king of Portugal in 1250.
Because for at least 250 years there were no inquisitors. Religious pluralism was the rule. After the reconquest, Jewish and Muslim minorities of various sizes cohabited more or less peacefully alongside a dominant Christian population. Jews and Muslims were permitted to practise their faiths and live in autonomous communities under royal protection, provided that they paid discriminatory taxes and did not challenge the Catholic religion. All this I got from Google Books: The persecution of the Jews and Muslims of Portugal: King Manuel I and the end of religious tolerance (1496-7) by François Soyer, 2007.

This history of religious toleration under Christian rule was quite new to me and it set me wondering, during this time, where did the Muslims pray? Because the way I've heard it, as soon as the Christians conquered a city they converted all the mosques to churches.  

I've had a long email from François dealing with that question, but as I've probably gone on long enough, I'm going to put all that in a separate file so you can follow it up if you're interested. Other questions I've looked at are: how did they view mosque to church conversions, what distinctions were made during the period of religious pluralism between Jews and Muslims, and how did the regime compare to Christians and Jews under the previous Muslim rulers?

A final note about those chimneys. I've heard that identical chimneys, though perhaps less elaborate, exist in North Africa and Spain. And by the way if despite the Rough Guide you decide on Albufeira I can highly recommend the apartment - we'll probably go back next year. Look up Apartamentos Rainha D. Leonor.

Friday, May 30, 2014

A statue of a king with horse's ears, perhaps



On a trip to Armagh with Cork Astronomy Club I missed the tour of Armagh Observatory but in the crypt of Armagh protestant cathedral I was delighted to find this statue. The photo, I fear, is unprepossessing, but it's the best I could do. It's either of Lowry Lynch or Queen Macha.  I hope it's Lowry Lynch, because I like his story, which I'll outline in a minute.

The protestant (Church of Ireland) cathedral is built on Ard Macha – the Hill of Macha, which gives Armagh its name.  It is this hilltop enclosure which St Patrick is said to have acquired and within which he built his first ‘Great Stone Church’.  If that story is true, there's been a church on this site since the 5th century.

Armagh Church of Ireland Cathedral
As to Macha, she was an ancient goddess, or a warrior queen, a key figure in the Ulster Cycle, a series of pre-Christian tales that have deep historical significance for Armagh. These tales are the spiritual account of the early Celtic people of Ulster and tell of legendary warrior heroes and heroines who fought great battles against Queen Maeve and the warriors of Connaught. 

Horse’s ears

The statue is medieval and eroded and stands between two and three feet high.  It was found somewhere on the site, but I couldn’t find out much more about it; perhaps not much more is known. The cathedral guide, a very helpful fellow who took me on a personal conducted tour of the crypt, told me the statue is either a bare-breasted Queen Macha holding her bow aloft, or else King Lowry Lynch holding out his horse’s ears.  Lowry Lynch was ashamed of his horse’s ears and each time he had his hair cut he put the barber to death so he couldn’t tell. But at length his shameful secret was told by a singing harp, and Lowry Lynch repented of all the barbers he had put to death and admitted his shameful secret.

And maybe, the cathedral guide told me, this statue is him doing just that, in an it's-a-fair-cop gesture.

For the full Lowry Lynch tale and the Greek myth of King Midas on which it is based, you can read a children’s story I've written.


Monday, May 26, 2014

In which I keep bad company and rant


I know otherwise sensible people who share in Farage's celebration of what the Guardian agrees is a political earthquake - 28% on the national poll in European elections last week
This is scarily reminiscent of the 1930’s. We have rampant capitalism imposing austerity on the population, huge numbers of whom – in Britain, France, Greece and elsewhere - reach entirely the wrong conclusion and vote for far right parties. And we have a right-wing European dictator pretending to be a left-wing dictator gobbling up pieces of other countries claiming that "his people" are being maltreated, to cement nationalistic sentiment at home and distract attention from him cosseting billionaires. Not for the first time Prince Charles is right though I seem to be in bad company because when I google this proposition all I get is Fox News and other undesirables.  I read a comment piece in The Guardian trying to convince me that I'm wrong about the Putin/Hitler analogy. I forget where and when I read it but it didn't succeed in its purpose because I remain unconvinced.

I regret the foregoing is a bit of a rant and falls short of the standards I normally aspire to but it will have to do for now.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Reflecting on arrest of Gerry Adams


I'm bringing you the thoughts of two columnists in today’s Irish newspapers.  Writing in The Irish Times, Fintan O'Toole says there are two ways of dealing with the legacy of the atrocities: all or nothing. And the McConville case signals a pressing need for an independent commission of inquiry.

He is reflecting on the 1972 abduction, murder and disappearing of Jean McConville, about which Sinn Fein [1] leader Gerry Adams has been interviewed by the Northern Ireland police, and though released on Sunday, may still be charged. It's an atrocity that cries out for accountability, says O’Toole (and if you want to be persuaded of this, listen to a BBC interview with her son, age 11 at the time – he says he knows but daren’t say).

But O'Toole goes on to list numerous other killings – “murder after bloody murder” – about which the same can be said.

No special victims and no special perpetrators

His conclusion: if Gerry Adams had anything to do with the killing of Jean McConville, he should answer for his actions. But it would be far better if he gave those answers to an open, independent commission with a remit to investigate all unsolved killings by state forces or by paramilitary organisations. If, by design or accident, Adams seems to be singled out, while other crimes are ignored, the cycle of selective memory and selective amnesia will go on. There are no special victims and there must be no special perpetrators.

I simply don’t believe him

Also worth reading is a piece by another of my favourite columnists, Fergus Finlay in today’s Irish Examiner, under the headline Adams’ arrest a grim reminder of how fragile the peace process truly is.

“Like thousands of others” says Finlay “I simply don’t believe him when he says he was never in a leadership position in the IRA. But I also believe that without him, the process of ending the violence in Northern Ireland would not have succeeded …  he did succeed in bringing a largely united movement from violence to democratic participation, and that was a historic achievement.”  Finlay also suggests, probably wrongly I think, that Adams could have done this much faster had he wished. 


Left: Thousands believe only the words on that new mural about Adams — leader, peacemaker, visionary. Though the Irish Examiner’s Fergus Finlay is not numbered amongst them. Right: Michael McConville knows but dare not say.
But I want to return to Fintan O’Toole, and to quote him at length (green, with my interpolations in black). Amongst atrocities on a par with the one Gerry Adams is now accused of, O’Toole cites Ballymurphy.  Long after the British army’s parachute regiment left the west Belfast estate of Ballymurphy in September 1971, he writes, one of its members, Harry McCallion, recalled with pride that “we had over 15 confirmed kills but had claimed many more ... It was merely convenient for the IRA that most of them had not been sworn in as members.” 

These “kills” had not been sworn in because they were not members of the IRA at all; they were innocent civilians. Eleven of those killed by the Paras between August 9th and August 11th, 1971, were unarmed. Among them were a Catholic priest, Fr Hugh Mullan – who was clearly carrying an improvised white flag made from a babygro – and a mother of eight children, Joan Connolly, who was shot multiple times as she went to help a wounded boy. These events happened in the chaos of the introduction of internment, when the IRA launched concerted attacks on the British base in Ballymurphy. But the evidence strongly suggests that the victims were not caught in crossfire – they were killed by enraged soldiers in what were, at best, acts of appalling recklessness and, at worst, deliberate murders.

Last week, shortly before Gerry Adams was arrested, Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers announced there would be no independent inquiry into the Ballymurphy killings. Sinn Féin rightly pointed to the outrageous double standard implied here. But Villiers also announced that there would be no inquiry into the hideous La Mon hotel fire-bombing in 1978, when the IRA incinerated 12 members of, of all things, the Irish Collie Club. The families of the La Mon victims believe, rightly or wrongly, that transcripts of police interviews with IRA suspects relating to this disgusting crime were deliberately removed from the files in order to protect senior figures of importance for the peace process. Did Sinn Féin complain about the continuing failure to give the La Mon families the comfort of truth? Of course not – it has double standards about double standards.


To make sure the unionist UVF get a mention, he also cites the McGurk’s Bar bombing of December 1971, in which 15 people died. 

People with guns killing people without guns

While the gunmen on all sides preened themselves with talk of “kills” and “war”, the truth is that the conflict was largely about people with guns killing people without guns. So-called republican and loyalist paramilitaries lost between them 563 members. Well over three times as many defenceless civilians were murdered (1,879) – mostly by paramilitaries but in some cases by so-called security forces in or out of uniform. The slaughter of the innocents was not a byproduct of the Troubles – it was the main event.

Competitive necromancy

It was not enough, though, for these poor people to die once, to be the human fuel for a conflict that careened obscenely onwards long after it had lost any semblance of logic. Like souls in Dante’s hell, they have been given an excruciating punishment; they are recruited to fight, again and again, in the strange meta-conflict that replaced the real one – the fight over which of the perpetrators can claim the coveted status of victimhood. There is, rightly, lingering outrage about the IRA’s “disappearing” of victims like Jean McConville, the denial of a decent burial. But in a sense, most victims are still denied a decent burial. Their bodies are figuratively dug up and paraded through the streets or dumped back again into the abyss of amnesia, depending on who needs them for what political purpose. Tribal disputes are still conducted in part as a form of competitive necromancy.

There are just two decent ways of dealing with the legacy of these atrocities: all or nothing. The nothing option has a certain integrity – it at least prevents the political exploitation of the dead. But it denies to bereaved families the right to know what happened to their loved ones. The only way to counter the exploitation of the dead is to start with the most obvious thing about them – that they died horrible, untimely deaths. Death brings a terrible equality: it does not discriminate between Protestant or Catholic, uniformed policeman or masked gunman, or even between innocent and guilty. Every violent death was a rending in the fabric of the lives of spouses, children and families. Each deserves acknowledgement – not for any political purpose but for its own sake and as a condition of a civilised society.


[1] Sinn Fein is an unusual political party in that it embraces two states, Ireland and Northern Ireland, and Gerry Adams is leader of the whole party in both.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Hear Melanie Verwoerd describe the 1994 South African election



I still recall the frisson that tingled me when I bought my first bottle of South African wine, and I can tell you the wine shop in York where I bought it. That was twenty years ago today, as I was reminded this morning by RTÉ's Marian Finucane in discussion on the radio with Melanie Verwoerd, former South African Ambassador to Ireland, marking the 20th anniversary of South Africa’s first democratic elections.

It's the second item on this page.

Hear Melanie describing her emotions when she saw the silent queue to vote at 5 am, telling of a grandfather pushed in a wheelbarrow to vote coming out of the polling booth clutching his fist in the air and falling down dead, and relating how Archbishop Tutu couldn’t describe what it felt like to be voting for the first time. (He said it would be like trying to describe the colour red to someone born blind.) Much could be said and much is being said in the run-up to the current South African elections about disappointed hopes, and this was touched on in the discussion, but in the main it was a celebration of the day and there's no harm in that.

I'm not sure who the studio guest is who comments on the voting queues, I think it might be Theo Dorgan, an Irish poet (born 1953).

The South African constitution was mentioned. I like the preamble, so here it is:

South African Constitution, 1996

Preamble


We, the people of South Africa,

- Recognise the injustices of our past;
- Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;
- Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and
- Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.

We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to ­

- Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;
- Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;
- Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and
- Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.

May God protect our people.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Will Shakespeare’s 450th


Here's my contribution to Will Shakespeare’s 450th birthday.

              
            Sonnet 29


When in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
       For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
       That then I scorn to change my state with kings.


Had I chosen one speech to read, it would be Macbeth: full of sound and fury and signifying nothing. But there's a perfection in a sonnet that you don't find, can't find, in a play.   When I studied Shakespeare at Cambridge we didn't pay much attention to the sonnets, at least I didn't. For example it was only yesterday in Wikipedia that I discovered the word volta (turn). It seems this usually occurs in the ninth line. In this sonnet the volta is “Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising”. It's where the poem turns from anxiety to resolution. It's not an easy line to get right and I don't think I've achieved it. In fact I've discovered that reading a Shakespeare sonnet aloud is a good deal harder than I thought.

If you want to hear how it ought to be done, listen to the sublime Judi Dench reciting (impromptu apparently) "Let me not to the marriage of true minds". But on the Bard’s birthday we must each bring our own tribute, flatfooted though it may be.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Thankfully, infinity isn't all it's cracked up to be


According to the many worlds hypothesis, there exists an infinite number of universes, and consequently anything that can happen has happened an infinite number of times.  So there's another universe in which I went to bed early tonight and didn't get round to writing this stuff … and yet another in which I omitted the commas from the previous sentence … and so on. Actually an infinite number in which I did each of those things, but lets skip over that absurdity as the proposition is already absurd without it.  It makes my brain explode, and I refuse to accept that this is the way reality is.

So how do we account for this state of affairs? Until recently only two possibilities presented themselves. The first of which was that the many worlds hypothesis is false. There's either only one universe or a finite number of them.  Now, physicists may indeed have got it wrong, but it's hardly my place to say so, as they’ve done the equations and I haven't, nor could I.   So we must consider a second possibility.

Namely that there's something wrong with my intellect. Evolution has simply failed to equip me with a brain capable of grasping the truth about reality. Well, that may be the case; but I refuse to accept it; perhaps indeed, because I've been given the wrong sort of brain; but I refuse to accept it nonetheless.


Mary Midgley: infinity not all it's cracked up to be. And a book that’s just come down from the shelf.
Thankfully the other day in New Scientist I came across a way out of this impasse: a third possibility, that there's something wrong with the idea of infinity.

On the letters page the philosopher Mary Midgley wrote about the meaning of “an infinity” of universes, which she asserts to signify a mere absence of known bounds. Our ignorance of limits is just a negative, she claims. As such, it cannot spawn new facts. In particular it can't spawn the new fact that "everything that can happen will happen, infinitely many times". In this sentence,  infinite is used in a different sense, this time meaning a very large number. This sort of thing is not philosophy, she says, it's just muddled language.

So hurrah. The physicists may be right about an infinite number of universes, but we've misconstrued the consequences of this. There isn't another me that omits commas, and I can accept the possibility of many universes without my head exploding.

There's a book on my shelf about infinity which I've never read.  I see that from the inscription that I bought it at Oxfam in York in 2006. A Brief History of Infinity – the Quest to Think the Unthinkable, by Brian Clegg, 2003.  It's off my shelf now. Time to tackle it.

A short note on many worlds if you want it.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Mealy mouthed climate report panned



Two responses to Monday's
IPCC report worth reading. In The Guardian George Monbiot lashes out at in all directions, while Joe Romm's Climate Progress blog lashes out at the IPCC scientists for being mealy mouthed. 

We are at risk of making large parts of the planet’s currently arable and populated land virtually uninhabitable for much of the year — and irreversibly so for hundreds of years, says Joe.  He blames the scientists for wrapping this bombshell up in euphemisms and burying it deep in the text:

By 2100 for the high-emission scenario RCP8.5 [an atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide of about 936 parts per million], the combination of high temperature and humidity in some areas for parts of the year is projected to compromise normal human activities, including growing food or working outdoors.

“compromise normal human activities” ?!

Puh!  A clearer word would be “obliterate”, he says.

Follow George Monbiot and follow the climate progress blog. Its political focus is on the US but even if you don’t live there it's invaluable.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Stations - they'll miss it when it's gone


Everyone complains about the Stations. A common theme of conversation hereabouts is it's time they were abolished. I don't agree, but as a blow-in and a non-believer my views count for little. Twice a year on a weekday in March and October all the neighbours from 15 houses in this vicinity of North Cork gather at one house where the parish priest celebrates a mass, followed by sandwiches, cakes, tea and beer. This is known as a Station Mass, or more commonly, just "the stations". Three weeks ago it was our name on the rota, and consequently we spent much of the preceding month painting and cleaning. This is regarded as a huge pain and it's what gives rise to the calls for abolition. But to me it's a price worth paying. Some neighbours help with making sandwiches, some bring apple pies, and some bottles, and it's all very chummy. Mary brought the mass kit and dressed our dining table into an altar. An official church website advises that for this purpose the host family is meant to supply: a table cloth, two candles, a crucifix, holy water, and a small jug of tap water.

Clockwise from top left: making sandwiches in the utility room, dressing the altar, admiring the altar, the priest robes up, studying the prayer sheet, the priest hands out communion, an altar no more.
Thirty-two people were present including ourselves. The priest turned up at 8, and heard confessions in the parlour, though few participated in this. The mass started about fifteen minutes later and  lasted about half an hour, whereupon envelopes were collected. These envelopes contain “dues”, money for the priest. €20 is the going rate. Up to only a few years ago, everyone’s name was read out and defaulters were noted, but that has lapsed. [1] The empty envelopes were handed round in the preceding couple of weeks. As host of the stations this time round, it was Eileen’s job to attend to this. 

The final agenda item was agreeing who hosts the stations next October. Then it was on with the kettles and out with the sandwiches.

A compromise without merit

Sadly the abolitionists will get their way. And I fear all too soon. Because it's really only the over-50’s who participate in all this. The younger families absent themselves, and gradually the pool of those able and willing to host the stations dwindles. A compromise in which I see no merit whatsoever is for the station mass to be held in the local church.  When the number willing to host the stations reduces to the level where your turn comes round every two years instead of every four, then I foresee that the last hardy few will say enough’s enough and the institution will suddenly die. And then everyone will say do you remember what great times we had when we used to have the stations.

A starched white cloth

In most houses round here after the mass the priest is ushered to a table in the parlour, with a starched white cloth, and it’s considered an honour to be asked to join him, while the remaining neighbours shift for themselves in the kitchen, or have to await the priest’s convenience for a second sitting. Up to the 1970’s, it was the men who joined the priest and the women who stayed in the kitchen.  I witnessed the tail-end of this tradition. I must have attended my first stations during the 1980’s, and I can recall once, and I think only once, being ushered in to join the priest for a cold plate along with all the men. Very uncomfortable, but this was already widely deemed old-fashioned. 

Being seated next to the priest is a dubious honour for most people who don't actually know what to say to him. Eileen and I frequently manoeuvre ourselves into the hot seats, which seems to be suit everyone;  though Eileen and our neighbour Sean place me under strict interdict against “haranguing”. How I've acquired a reputation for “haranguing” priests I'm at a loss to know. But in whatever this haranguing consists, it appears to cause remarkably little offence, if I can judge by the lack of reluctance to be sitting next to me on these occasions.

I remember a station mass soon after the 2011 general election.  Fr Michael Fitzgerald (since elevated to Canon) discussed the allocation of cabinet posts in the Fine Gael-Labour coalition government, and went on to comment that Labour was a bit too radical for him. At this point, had I not been under interdict, I should have hit him with the Jesus was a socialist theme. But I dutifully let it go.

A little bit of history

The stations seem to date from the 17th century and the Penal Laws. At that time in Ireland and up to about 1750, the Catholic church was oppressed and public ceremonies involving Catholic clergy were banned. Moreover there were no Catholic churches. In this climate two new traditions emerged: the Mass Rock and the Station Mass. I think it’s a matter of debate amongst historians how energetically the penal laws were enforced, but the popular image is of the priest arriving in disguise while locals kept a look-out from vantage points in the landscape on alert for any approaching English militia.


A modern reconstruction of an 18th century open-air mass with look-outs and approaching soldiers, reproduced here on a devotional card
The Irish countryside is peppered with mass rocks which are still considered by some to be special sacred places. An alternative mass venue was in private homes. Word was put about locally that mass would be said at a given house on a given day. The neighbours would gather for what was often a rare opportunity to receive the sacrament. This mass became known as the "station mass" because the venue was only temporary, one of the early meanings of the English word station.  And for all I know, of the Irish word stáisiúnA discussion of etymology if you want it.

Lack of church buildings, as much as fear of persecution, may have driven open air and station masses.

Abolishing dinners

In the 19th century, the Catholic Church tried to regulate the stations, as well as some other aspects of popular Catholicism. A strange leap from persecution to control, which remains a puzzle to me. Some clerics thought the stations were just an excuse for partying, and would have abolished them altogether. James Doyle, Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin from 1819–1834, was influential. He saw the station dinner rather than the station itself as the main abuse, so the dinners were abolished, but stations allowed to continue. In 1843 the statutes of the Armagh diocese permitted stations but forbade the station dinner, the priest only being allowed to have a snack. [2] How far was this observed I wonder?

I understand that until the 1970’s, the station mass in our area was always held in the morning and was followed by breakfast for the priest and neighbours.

[1] Even further in the past, before my time, the actual amounts were read out. A farmer £10, a labourer £1, etc. That I understand occurred up to the 1960’s and is now recalled with disgust.  It seems priests in those days were unfamiliar with the gospel story of the widow’s mite. Witnessing temple donations made by rich men, Jesus calls attention to a poor widow contributing only two mites, and observes this was all she had, whilst the rich give only a small portion of their own wealth.  (Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4)

[2] The Religious Condition of Ireland 1770-1850, Nigel Yates, Oxford 2006. Some day I shall read the 1843 statutes for myself to see if this means the priest alone being allowed to have a snack, and everyone else nothing at all.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Is there a Moon Agreement and does it matter?


At the British Library in St Pancras y
esterday to improve my understanding of the status of the 1979 Moon Agreement.   

But I wasn’t able to stay long enough, and I'll need to wait for another visit in a few months.  Ten days ago in Galway I gave my lecture on the ethical limits to space exploration and regrettably, for lack of knowledge, I had to skate around the common heritage of mankind principle. This principle (known to insiders as CHM) is enshrined in the Moon Agreement, which hasn’t been ratified by any country of importance. Accordingly, it seems obvious that it’s a dead letter. Yet I find the Moon Agreement is frequently referred to. So is it a dead letter or isn’t it? In the BL I came across an essay explaining at some length how the Moon Agreement is indeed a dead letter [1]. And yet the very lengthiness of the essay suggested to me that the deadness of the letter is a matter of debate. In October I’ll have the chance to listen to a leading space lawyer on the subject. Perhaps I’ll have to wait till then to get a grip on this.

Staking a claim

And what, you may ask (if you’ve stayed with me thus far) has all this to do with the price of cheese?  Well it has to do with the price of minerals. There are corporations that intend to mine asteroids and the moon. This, despite my perhaps ill-chosen illustration, is a serious proposition. The CHM principle says that all minerals in space are the common heritage of mankind, and have to be shared out equitably. Moreover no-one can own asteroids or planets [2]. But the corporations that propose space mining don’t like this at all: they want private property in space.

Asteroid mining: a serious proposition (Credit: The Tech Journal)
Can any law at all apply in space? Jim Benson has something to say about this. He is now deceased and so is his Space Development Corporation, but he’s a seminal figure in space mining, and in 1997 he said he would send a spacecraft with robotic mining equipment to an asteroid. “After landing, we will ‘stake’ any mining and patent claims we believe to be possible, and then will simply declare ownership of the trillion-dollar asset. This will help draw attention to the need to establish private property rights in space.” [3]

Colonising Mars

Other topics I lump together under the ethical limits to space exploration include

•    The debate on the so-called overprotection of Mars – what are planetary protection rules for, and should they be relaxed with respect to Mars? The ultimate relaxation of planetary protection for Mars would be terraforming - is it desirable?

•    Should Mars be colonised? If so why? Are there good and bad reasons for colonising Mars? Is the Mars One project a suicide mission? Does it infringe human rights? And if so, does it matter?

•    How much invasive science should be done, such as vaporising comets?

•    What is space archaeology and is it important? What steps ought to be taken to preserve it? Is there a role for UNESCO?

The militarisation of space, which arguably dwarfs all of the above issues,  is not included. Another day’s work perhaps.

I’ve set up a dedicated website with links, which I shall add to as time and energy allow.  Also has my presentation slides.

      [1] "The 1979 Moon Agreement - where is its today?" by Carl Christol, 1999, p 273 in Space Law (part of "The Library of Essays in International Law", Francis Lyall & Paul Larsen ed., 2007)
      [2] The non-ownership principle is less contested than CHM. It's in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, Article II
      [3] Kenneth Silber, A Little Piece of Heaven, 1998


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

“Neither Washington nor Moscow but international socialism”


Confused about Ukraine.  There seems to have been a revolution without any input from the left. I suppose this is something I have to get used to; but I'm not used to it yet. Moreover most commentators agree that the far right has played a significant role in the “Euromaidan” occupation in Kiev.

Mark you, I don't think the word revolution is apposite. I prefer to reserve this word for a revolution in the classical Marxist sense of one class superseding another, as in the English revolution of the 1640’s, or the French Revolution on the 1790’s, or the ultimately unsuccessful Russian revolution of 1917.  But whatever about semantics, this movement has forced a change of regime which is rocking international politics. Out of all I've read, my bones tell me that this piece from Socialist Worker has its finger on it. Putin's imperial ambitions (and national populism) clashing with the EU extending its zone of neoliberalism. So it’s no to western military intervention and no to Russian invasion. But the Ukrainian popular movement includes some unsavoury elements ... so it's a tangled mess I certainly haven’t got to the bottom of.

One thought on Socialist Worker’s comment that the Euromaidan movement “unfortunately harbours illusions in the European Union”.  If the choice were between the EU and the mafia capitalism of Russia, I suspect I too might be inclined to harbour illusions in the EU. Be that as it may “Neither Washington nor Moscow but international socialism” is always a handy slogan, and it will do here I suppose.


Socialist Worker uses this image of Russian frigates to illustrate the crucial strategic importance to Moscow of the Crimea, which since the 18th century has served as the base of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, and thereby access to the Mediterranean.
(Pic: Russian Federation Ministry of Defence)
Worth reading are interviews with three protesters who don't sound like fascists to me, on The Guardian website, Tuesday: "We were so naive and optimistic".

In which I worry over response to concentration camp


To Berlin last week with my friend Vincent, and to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Pronounced Saxon-hausen, a common placename in Germany. I would fain have avoided this visit but Vincent was keen. I'm glad we went, and I may have more to say about it in due course. But for now I just want to relate my own feelings as I went round.  The point is, I had none.  It was as if I were visiting any other archaeological site, a castle say with medieval dungeons, or a cathedral.  I was bothered about this. Some inadequacy of sensitivity on my part.

Members of our Sachsenhausen tour group inspect a hut charred by an arson attack in 1992
Only two original huts remain. The compound has been vandalized several times by Neo-Nazis. In 1992 they set fire to a hut now used as Jewish museum. And the foundation that runs the camp, instead of restoring the burnt beams, has preserved them in their charred state. This is good. The arson attack is itself part of the site’s history.  But what is not good, is that here I am again harping on about archaeology rather than concentrating on the misery and suffering that occurred there.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Quiz: what is the oldest manmade object in space?



Answer: this copper Lincoln penny, a 1909 US one-cent coin, launched into space on November 26, 2011, aboard the Curiosity Mars rover.

American geologists have long used Lincoln pennies as scale indicators in photographs. In homage to tradition, a 1909 one-cent coin is attached to Curiosity’s camera calibration target.

The second oldest human-made object in space, and until 2011 the oldest, is Vanguard 1, a satellite launched in 1958. It functioned until 1964, and is predicted to remain orbiting the Earth until the year 2198, when its orbit will have degraded so much that it falls in. It will presumably burn up in the atmosphere. But supposing any part reaches the ground and is picked up, by whom? Someone so technologically advanced we wouldn't recognise them, or by a cave dweller?

Came across this little nugget when researching space archaeology as part of a lecture I am due to give to an astronomy club next month.

Friday, January 31, 2014

I anx over wrong response to Syria pictures


The Umayyad mosque in Aleppo dates from 11th to 14th centuries.
The minaret, disappeared on the second picture, was built in 1090.
Martin Chulov’s recent article in The Guardian “Syria's heritage in ruins: before-and-after pictures” is a must-read. The pictures reveal how the seemingly unstoppable war in Syria is laying waste to a world heritage built over 5,000 years.

But stop! The war has claimed more than 130,000 lives. Which is more important?

And here's what makes me queasy: that the pictures that impact me most are those of the Umayyad mosque in Aleppo. The same Guardian article has a before and after of a hospital, even more comprehensively destroyed than the mosque; and then what of the pictures of the dead and refugees that we have seen so many of?

So what's wrong with me, that out of all this, when I seem to most mourn is the loss of the historic buildings???