Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Lionheart: a cosmopolitan Euro elitist

There's apparently been a bit of a to-do over the statues outside the houses of Parliament, about who we should honour and who we shouldn't. When it comes to Oliver Cromwell and his record, my take is that, like some social media relationships, it's complicated, but he's an important enough figure to stay, warts and all. But what caught my eye was one particular reaction to the debate. Here's what Ukip's Gerard Batten tweeted:

"Whose statue are they going to demand goes next? First Nelson, now Cromwell, next Richard I from outside Parliament? After all he was a crusader - and a great one at that."
I can't quite believe that I'm here in 2018, still having to critique an opinion about a 12th Century monarch belched forth by the leader of a tiny single-issue party of far-right fanatics which should, by rights, have been thoroughly discredited by the chaotic implosion of their single policy. But with the mainstreaming of even their most deranged ravings, up to and including the UK's foreign secretary recycling their historically illiterate "EUSSR" trope, even their apparently obvious idiocy needs examining and taking to bits.

First, there's the obvious incongruity of the leader of a party of extreme UK nationalists, which even has "UK" in its name, latching on to Richard I. Not only was there no such thing as the UK at the time of Richard I, but Richard wasn't even that English. Born to an Anglo-French dynasty, this French and Occitan-speaking ruler spent most of his adult life in the Duchy of Aquitaine. After being crowned, he spent less than a year in the English part of the Angevin Empire. Although his territories didn't constitute a nation state in the modern sense, in geographical and cultural terms he embodied that archetypal Ukip hate-figure, a leading member of Europe's cosmopolitan elite.*

There's a paradox, or at least an irony, here. The most deeply reactionary voices in our national conversation, the ones who do nothing but harp on about past glories and promise to drag us, kicking and screaming if necessary, back in time, seem to be clueless about the supposed golden ages to which they want us to return. The ones who obsess about how everything was better in the past are the ones who seem to know least about it.

Then there's a whole new layer of irony when Batten praises Richard as "a crusader - and a great one at that." Most 21st Century politicians who praise warriors for prosecuting a holy war call them by another name - Jihadis. In their intolerance, belligerence and obsession with identity, the anti-Islamists have become the mirror-image of the Islamists they claim to stand against. Slicing even deeper into the multiple layers of historical irony, one of the unintended consequences of the Crusades was the diffusion of ideas, from technology, science and literature, to taking a bath, from the Islamic world and the Byzantine Empire. If the Crusading movement can be said to have left any positive legacy to counterbalance the slaughter, suffering and betrayal, then that legacy takes the decidedly un-Ukip-like form of an exchange of ideas between cultures.
Effigy of that Euro elitist traitor, Richard I, buried in the church of Fontevraud Abbey, somewhere in the EUSSR, because GREAT Britain obviously wasn't good enough for the half-French snowflake (image credit Adam Bishop).

*Yet more irony - Gerard claims to hate elites, yet his hero is a feudal monarch. How does that work?

Friday, 28 September 2018

A flying dog, technicolor pigeons and a pig's head

Sometimes, you come across a Wikipedia entry that's so perfect it makes for the ultimate in lazyblogging. So, without further ado, or any input from me, here are some of the things Wikipedians have to say about the life and times of the aristocratic composer, novelist, painter, aesthete and eccentric, Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners*:
Berners was born in Apley Hall, Shropshire, in 1883, son of The Honorable Hugh Tyrwhitt (1856-1907) and his wife Julia (1861-1931), daughter of William Orme Foster, Apley's owner. His father, a Royal Navy officer, was rarely home. He was brought up by a grandmother who was extremely religious and self-righteous, and a mother who had little intellect and many prejudices. His mother, a wealthy ironmaster’s daughter with a strong interest in fox hunting, ignored his musical interests and instead focused on developing his masculinity, a trait Berners found to be inherently unnatural. Berners later wrote, "My father was worldly, cynical, intolerant of any kind of inferiority, reserved and self-possessed. My mother was unworldly, naïve, impulsive and undecided, and in my father's presence she was always at her worst".

The eccentricities Berners displayed started early in life. Once, upon hearing that you could teach a dog to swim by throwing him into water, the young Gerald promptly decided that by throwing his mother's dog out the window, he could teach it to fly. The dog was unharmed, though the act earned Berners a beating.

After devising several inappropriate booby traps, Berners was sent off to the boarding school Cheam School at the age of nine. It was here that he would first explore his homosexuality; for a short time, he was romantically involved with an older pupil. The relationship was abruptly ended after Berners vomited on the other boy. ...

...In 1918, Berners became the 14th Baron Berners after inheriting the title, property, and money, from an uncle. His inheritance included Faringdon House, which he initially gave to his mother and her second husband; on their deaths in 1931 he moved into the house himself. In 1932, Berners fell in love with Robert Heber-Percy, 28 years his junior, who became his companion and moved into Faringdon House. Unexpectedly, Heber-Percy married a 21-year-old woman, Jennifer Fry, who had a baby nine months later. For a short time, she and the baby lived at Faringdon House with Heber-Percy and Berners...

Berners was notorious for his eccentricity, dyeing pigeons at his house in Faringdon in vibrant colours and at one point entertaining Penelope Betjeman's horse Moti to tea...

...His Rolls-Royce automobile contained a small clavichord keyboard which could be stored beneath the front seat. Near his house he had a 100-foot viewing tower, Faringdon Folly, constructed as a birthday present in 1935 for Heber-Percy, a notice at the entrance reading: "Members of the Public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk". Berners also drove around his estate wearing a pig's-head mask to frighten the locals.

Full Wikipedia article here

There's also a fun Berners-related anecdote over at The Dabbler:
...Berners' mother seemed blissfully unaware of her son’s homosexuality and was horrified to hear that he’d been spotted ‘stepping out’ with one of the most notorious society lesbians in London. Concerned that Berners was risking both a broken heart and his reputation, his mother pleaded with him to publicly disassociate himself from this woman.

Berners agreed and place the following announcement in the Times:

Lord Berners wishes to announce that he has left Lesbos for the Isle of Man.

* I was inspired to look him up after hearing Radio 3's introduction to a piece of music from his ballet The Triumph of Neptune (based on a story by Sacheverell Sitwell) this morning.


Thursday, 20 September 2018

Close, but no cigar...

The initial mission will therefore last for two years, and cover almost the entire sky, looking at 200,000 stars in total for exoplanets.

Given what we’ve learned about exoplanets from previous searches (like with Kepler), TESS [the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite] is expected to find anywhere from 4,500 to upwards of 20,000 such worlds. Mind you, the first exoplanet was discovered in 1992, and we’ve found roughly 4,000 more in the 26 years since then. TESS will likely double that number in just two years.

It sounds exciting, and it is. The first exoplanet wasn't discovered until 1992. Since then, astronomers have found thousands and it seems from their initial results that planets are incredibly common. This wasn't always what astronomers believed. I've got a very old guide to astronomy, The Stars In Their Courses by Sir James Jeans, first published in 1931.  

As I've blogged before, I like this book, particularly for the way it conveys something of the incomprehensible vastness of our solar system and the distances to the stars using simple language and scale comparisons with everyday objects and distances on earth.

But it is also a book of its time and it includes a number of theories which have now been superseded. Notably, Jeans supposes that the solar system came into being as the result of a close encounter between the sun and another star which passed close by in the distant past. The gravitational pull of the passing star, he thought, ripped a "long filament of hot filmy gas" shaped "rather like a cigar" from the surface of the sun. It was from this cigar of matter that he supposed the planets condensed, with tiny Mercury and Pluto (Pluto was still an official planet back then), forming at the thin ends of the cigar and Jupiter and Saturn condensing in the fat middle where there was more stuff:


If the solar system really had been the result of such a chance encounter, we might expect planets to be rare and for most stars to shine their lonely lights on planetless neighbourhoods. Our world - in fact, our whole solar system - would be a rare aberration.

But now astronomers believe that planets formed from clouds of gas and dust left over from star formation. These protoplanetary discs are thought to be a normal part of star formation, meaning that we should expect most stars to be accompanied by the planets which condense out of these discs.

Less than a century ago, many astronomers thought that most other stars were barren, companionless points of light. Less than three decades ago, they hadn't detected a single planet around another star. Now they've found thousands and expect to find as many more in the next couple of years. And that's just scratching the surface of the billions that are probably out there in our galaxy.

Contemporary readers of James Jeans' book would have been staggered, as I was, by the sheer inhuman immensity of the universe. What they didn't know about was the sheer number of worlds, scattered like dust across that vast emptiness.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Brutalism in SPAAACE!

Oh, I do like to be beside the brutalist architecture beside the seaside. The looming concrete bulk of Torquay's Riviera Centre, doing a fair impression of an angular space cruiser in low orbit around a blue planet (possibly Earth).

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

"Policy based evidence making"

Simon Wren-Lewis, on what comes out of the wrong sort of think tanks:
The Knowledge Transmission Mechanism (KTM) is how knowledge produced by academics and other researchers is translated into public policy. Evidence based policy is the result of this mechanism working...

...There are two types of think tank. The good kind can be a vital part of the KTM. There is often a genuine need for think tanks to help translate academic research into policy. Sometimes these think tanks will be very like universities (like the IFS for example). Other times they will be think tanks that have a broad left or right orientation. These think tanks are an important part of the KTM, because they can establish what the academic consensus is, translate academic ideas into practical policy, and match policy problems to evidence based solutions. The IPPR is an obvious example of this type of think tank. They are part of evidence based policy making.

The bad kind are rather different. These produce ‘research’ that conforms to a particular line or ideology, rather than conforming to evidence or existing academic knowledge. Sometimes these think tanks can even become policy entrepreneurs, selling policies to politicians. This is often called policy based evidence making. It would be nice to be able to distinguish between good and bad think tanks in an easy way. The good type seeks to foster the KTM, and ensure policy is evidence based, and the bad type seek to negate the KTM by producing evidence or policies that fit preconceived ideas or the policymaker’s ideology.

I would argue that transparency about funding sources provides a strong indicator of which type a think tank is."
As Business Insider's Ben Moshinsky wrote last year:
A group called Who Funds You? has rated think tanks based on how much information they provide on where they get their money, assigning an A, B, or C rating to those who publish details of their annual income and a lower rating for those who don't...

...And here's how they stack up:
Think tank warfare:
"There's definitely nothing dangerous being covered up here, nothing at all to see, move along..."

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

The eternal mystery of Piers Morgan

That noted public intellectual, Piers Morgan, recently posed an interesting question to Twitter.
Atheists can never say what was there before the Big Bang. They just say 'nothing' but they can't explain what 'nothing' actually is. No human brain can, which is why I believe in something that has superior powers to the human brain. 
OK, I was being sarcastic. His question itself isn't that interesting. Dara Ó Briain more or less answered it in a stand up session where he had a go at the sort of people who justify their supernatural beliefs by saying "But science doesn't know everything!" His response was something along the lines of "But science knows it doesn't know everything. That's why we still do science."

What is interesting is how Piers's statement challenges theology. Think about the logic here: "The human brain can't explain everything about the universe, so why should I accept your incomplete atheistic world view?" Yet Piers is happy to believe in a God who is supposedly beyond human understanding. So why should I believe theists who can't fully explain what "God" actually is?

At best it's a draw between two incomplete world views. I don't understand everything about the universe. You don't understand everything about God.

But the universe is the thing that we both agree exists.

The mystery of faith...

Thursday, 28 June 2018

"Because they're morons"

Mark Blyth's take on the Brexit vote is harsh, bleak and and it isn't new. But it's as true now as it ever was.

Of course, the use of the phrase "morons" will provoke the usual tedious accusations about Remainer elitists sneering at the views of ordinary people. But if you listen, this is a more nuanced explanation of what happened and the "morons" in question include the UK's political and media elite who incubated the stupidity.

As for Mark himself, he didn't get where he is today because he belongs to some privileged elite. In his own words:
I was born in Dundee, Scotland, in 1967. I grew up in relative poverty, in a very real sense a “welfare kid”. Today I’m a professor at an Ivy League university in the USA. Probabilistically speaking, I am as an extreme example of intragenerational social mobility as you can find anywhere.
Now check out the first three minutes or so of this video (if I've done this right, it should start playing about 49' 40" in):