Au nom de quoi?

in-the-name-of-what_cropA fair question. But it’s not hard to answer. ISIS or ISIL or Daesh – Obama has settled on the last, and we might as well follow him – is quite clear about its goal: to establish by force of arms, starting now, a universal Sunni Islamic caliphate. This will be ruled by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as caliph according to an extreme Salafist version of shariah which even Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia think is over the top. What is more, unlike bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, the imperialist agenda is connected to apocalyptic prophecy. According to Graeme Wood, whose Atlantic article is basic reading on the movement:

Baghdadi has spoken on camera only once. But his address, and the Islamic State’s countless other propaganda videos and encyclicals, are online, and the caliphate’s supporters have toiled mightily to make their project knowable. We can gather that their state rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival; and that it considers itself a harbinger of—and headline player in—the imminent end of the world.
…Now that it has taken Dabiq [in northern Syria], the Islamic State awaits the arrival of an enemy army there, whose defeat will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse.

An Australian convert expanded on the scenario to Wood:

After its battle in Dabiq, Cerantonio said, the caliphate will expand and sack Istanbul. Some believe it will then cover the entire Earth, but Cerantonio suggested its tide may never reach beyond the Bosporus. An anti-Messiah, known in Muslim apocalyptic literature as Dajjal, will come from the Khorasan region of eastern Iran and kill a vast number of the caliphate’s fighters, until just 5,000 remain, cornered in Jerusalem. Just as Dajjal prepares to finish them off, Jesus—the second-most-revered prophet in Islam—will return to Earth, spear Dajjal, and lead the Muslims to victory.

The fact that this is nuts – and mainstream Sunni and Shia leaders all concur in the assessment – does not make it unclear, any more than Mein Kampf was. Nor is it without precedent, in several religions. Continue Reading…

The Gran Torino problem

What’s the matter with middle-aged working class white Americans?

06114132_Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino hasn’t yet made it into Keith and Johann’s film selections, but no doubt will. It’s a witty and moving, if formulaic, exploration of the psyche of the American white working class, represented by Eastwood’s character Walt Kowalski, a retired car worker in industrial Michigan.

The film has a happy ending. Not so real life. The health of middle-aged white American men with no college education has been deteriorating to a surprising and shocking extent. RBC readers deserve for the weekend a comment thread on this now famous chart:


Continue Reading…

HSR in France

A video, taken from a helicopter in early September, of the construction site of a short stretch of high-speed rail line in France. (Source: the contractor’s website.)

The existing LGV-Méditerranée line line runs from Paris to Avignon, where it forks. One branch runs SE to Marseille. The SW branch will eventually go to the Spanish border, linking up to the Spanish line to Madrid, but it currently stops at Nîmes. (French TGV trainsets run perfectly well on electrified legacy track, at under half the top speed.) The extension under construction will take it to Montpellier.

The line consists of 60km of high-speed track, plus 20 km of cheaper ordinary links. It will cost €1.8bn, or €22m a kilometre. You can spend that much on a road, but only in mountains. The Nîmes-Montpellier bypass is on flat land. The cost does not include a new railway station outside Montpellier. It is driven up by the many roads and watercourses to be crossed in the densely populated coastal strip between the Massif Central and the sea. It is also raised by the decision to make the line dual use, for fast freight as well as passenger traffic, requiring wider spacing between tracks and heavier-duty foundations. Freight also calls for flatter gradients, which doesn’t apply here, and wider curve radii as freight trains can’t tilt.

Would the cost have been lower under under direct public financing rather than a build-and-operate contract? Yes. Governments pay a lower rate of interest: interim financing costs are €230m of the total, and the contractors will get a rent when it’s finished that is presumably higher than servicing a state loan would have been. The German-drafted EU Stability Pact probably ruled this out.

The video is impressive, but should also be sobering for Californians. Construction has started on the HS rail line in the Central Valley, the easy bit, but far away from the conurbations the line is intended to serve. There is no proper financing plan for the whole thing, or even a fixed route. This is a recipe for exploding costs as communities near LA and San Francisco will demand ever more expensive amenity fixes like trenches and tunnels.

The $25 trillion free lunch of the Dwarfs

There is a disturbing passage towards the end of the final book in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia septet:

Aslan raised his head and shook his mane. Instantly a glorious feast appeared on the Dwarfs’ knees: pies and tongues and pigeons and trifles and ices, and each Dwarf had a goblet of good wine in his right hand. But it wasn’t much use. They began eating and drinking greedily enough, but it was clear that they couldn’t taste it properly. They thought they were eating and drinking only the sort of things you might find in a Stable. One said he was trying to eat hay and another said he had got a bit of an old turnip and a third said he’d found a raw cabbage leaf. And they raised golden goblets of rich red wine to their lips and said, ‘Ugh! Fancy drinking dirty water out of a trough that a donkey’s been at! Never thought we’d come to this.’ But very soon every Dwarf began suspecting that every other Dwarf had found something nicer than he had, and they started grabbing and snatching, and went on to quarreling, till in a few minutes there was a free fight and all the good food was smeared on their faces and clothes or trodden under foot. But when at last they sat down to nurse their black eyes and their bleeding noses, they all said: ‘Well, at any rate, there’s no Humbug here. We haven’t let anyone take us in. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs!’

‘You see,’ said Aslan. ‘They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they can not be taken out.’

Never mind Lewis’ peccably orthodox theology of hell, rejecting the universalism of his inspiration George D. Macdonald and of the Cappadocian Fathers. The Dwarfs’ banquet is a pretty good allegory of the mess we are in over climate change.

Paolo Veronese, The Wedding at Cana

Paolo Veronese, The Wedding at Cana

High-res image link. You will need a big cinema screen to see it life-size, the original is 6.7m x 9.9m.
Continue Reading…

God, sex and violence: Bernini special!

I finally got to see Bernini’s famous shocker The Ecstasy of St Teresa in Rome. I’ve written about it before, in the context of the Olympics. I’ll haul the bastard into service again to make a different point.

Pope Francis’ generally fine encyclical Laudato Si’  descends into incoherent mumbling on the subject of population. You can find a couple of sentences indexed under population, control, indifference to. It all goes back to the Vatican’s wrongheaded view of sex. It’s for reproduction, said Aristotle and Aquinas. To quote A.P. Herbert:

And what my father used to say / Is good enough for me.

Now you and I know from experience and modern science that this is rot. Human sex, unlike that of most animals, is designed for repetitive fun as well as reproduction. The point of the fun is to cement social relationships, whether peace-making and stress relief as with the promiscuous bonobos, or bonding a human couple for childrearing. There are even specific physiological adaptations for non-reproductive pleasure: concealed ovulation and menopause in women, large penis size in men. According to Jared Diamond, the average erect gorilla penis is 1.5 inches: quite enough for a species that lives in isolated harem troops. Conflict between males takes place independently of female oestrus, so when a female gorilla is receptive, there is only one male around. Contrast well-hung chimpanzees and humans, who live in bands with multiple males competing for the available females. The well-hung part is entirely for the entertainment of both.

This won’t convince the Vatican, shaky both on experience and science. Of course, priests do learn a lot about sex through the confessional; but as with psychotherapists, they are asked to deal with a sample that is spectacularly biased towards the dysfunctional and aberrant, entirely leaving out the modal type of mutually satisfying sexual relations within stable couples. I guess that Catholic wives have stopped confessing the use of contraceptives, and Catholic husbands their indulgences in oral sex.

So let me ask the Curia a different question. What do you make of the sex in Bernini’s great sculpture, above a side altar in the minor Baroque church of Sta. Maria de la Victoria up by the Rome railway station?
Adults only image below the fold Continue Reading…

“The odds are approximately 3,720 to 1″

It’s been our trendsetting exoplanet week at the RBC. After the heavy stuff from Mike on tenured stargropers with too much immunity and from me on Renaissance cranks with not enough, here is something lighter for a rainy Sunday.

Fan image of Niven's puppeteer

Fan image of Niven’s puppeteer

We love Bruno-style speculations about intelligent aliens fron other stars. Thrint, tnuctipun, puppeteere, kzin, kdatlyno, grogs, pak, moties, and outsiders – and that’s just from Larry Niven’s imagination. But they all come up against Enrico Fermi’s famous question, made in a Chicago cafeteria in 1950:

Where are they?

I had a nice explanation for the non-appearance of intelligent aliens. No, not the one that intelligent life does not exist on earth either. Human history indicates that contact between societies at different levels of culture and technology is normally disastrous for the weaker. Any ethical civilization would minimize it, except to prevent disaster. Now any civilization capable of building interstellar ships must be ethical, or it would have destroyed itself by ecocide or the genocidal warfare enabled by the weapons available well before that technological level. Ergo, any alien civilization surviving long enough to launch interstellar ships would refrain from doing so on ethical grounds. QED.

Cute, isn’t it. The weakness is the disaster cop-out. Iain Bank’s SF novels about the very ethical and advanced Culture depend on this loophole, in the adventures of agents of the embarrassing spook agency Special Circumstances. This is set up to carry out deniable interventions in murderous lesser civilizations, for their own good of course. Closer to home, when European colonialists reached Easter Island in 1722, weren’t they justified in intervening to halt the self-destruction of the Easter Islanders described by Jared Diamond? Their population had crashed 80% to at most 3,000. It might have been – only in fact the colonialists made the situation much worse by disease and slave-raiding, reducing the native population to 111 by 1877.  Non-interference looks the better course.

I now have a much more prosaic explanation. Space is full of junk.

Continue Reading…

Giordano Bruno

Giordano Bruno 2
The Campo dei Fiori piazza in Rome holds a tony street-market: funghi porcini, ecological olive oil, and not a Chinese T-shirt or fake Vuitton bag in sight. In the middle of the bustle stands a sombre statue of a hooded monk, put up by anticlericals in 1889. It commemorates Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar who was burnt alive there on 17 February 1600 for multiple counts of heresy. These included a belief that the stars were suns floating in infinite space, surrounded by their own planets and life. Following the technical recommendations of the 14th-century Catalan inquisitor Nicholas Eymerich, Bruno was fittingly gagged to prevent unseemly outbursts.

The execution was a far worse crime than the trial of Galileo. That ended in a forced and formal abjuration, and fairly open house arrest for the rest of his life. His books were banned, but they had done their work. It’s become a nice symbol: Scientific Truth versus clerical obscurantism. The Truth wins in the end, so it’s a more or less happy ending.

That tidy narrative does not fit Giordano Bruno, a brilliant crank. He wrote about two books a year, moving around Europe, from Geneva to Oxford to Wittenberg to Venice, until his welcome ran out in one city after another. A few of the ideas he fired off turned out right, like the floating stars. But he had no evidence for this speculation, and like all his mediaeval predecessors relied on a priori intuitions. (Corrections from experts welcome as always.) Galileo’s attack on Aristotelian physics and cosmology was modern, specific and based on experiments like the falling weights at Pisa, and his observations of sunspots and Jupiter’s moons though his new telescope. The first evidence against the sphere like a planetarium with the fixed stars stuck to the inside was the discovery of a variable star (Mira Ceti) in 1596, when Bruno had been in the cells of the Inquisition for three years. Sunspots followed in 1611, a little after Jupiter’s moons. By Newton’s time, stars as floating suns had become a common view among cosmologists. It wasn’t until 1838 that any star (61 Cygni ) had its distance measured by parallax, finally disproving the planetarium theory, abandoned long before by scientists. The first exoplanet orbiting Gamma Cephei A was discovered in 1988;  and no life has been detected yet on any.

Giordano wrote fast on everything else as well. His heretical views included metempsychosis, the transmigration of souls, magic and divination, as well as unorthodox positions on the Trinity, the Incarnation, the virginity of Mary, and transubstantiation. We’ve met people like him on the Internet: characters who have never met a flashy contrarian idea they didn’t immediately fall for. They are not the dangerous radicals authority need worry about, men like Galileo with a big idea they use as a lever to crack open orthodoxy on some previously hidden fault line.

Galileo is far too easy a test case for freedom of speech, because he happened to be demonstrably right on a matter of scientific fact. We should not try to defend Giordano Bruno on the grounds that he was right by chance on one thing, but simply that he was entitled to express opinions that were his own and not those of approved authorities. It it’s for real, freedom of conscience and speech holds for crackpots, blasphemers, racists, xenophobes, revolutionaries, and heretics.

The Inquisition’s investigation and trial of Giordano Bruno involved no less than eight cardinals: Bellarmine, Madruzzi, Borghese (later Pope Paul V), Pinelli, Arrigoni, Sfondrati, Manuel, and Santorio. We can imagine the earnest discussions among these cultivated and worldly princes of the Counter-Reformation Church, a far cry from the provincial fanaticism of a Tomás de Torquemada.

 - He doesn’t seem to have any followers, so you could say that the threat is minimal.

- We don’t know how many impressionable young men have read his books, so the rot may have spread further than we know.

- Our mistake with Luther was not coming down hard on him while we still had the chance.

- Can’t we send him to a quiet monastery in the Alps?

- We need to send a strong message.

With the Torquemadas and Hitlers of this world, you can make a case if you really try for diminished responsibility. Hitler’s biographers disagree on the question whether he can be held morally responsible for his actions. Did he know that what he was doing was wrong? The alternative proposition, that these men were as insane as rabid dogs, should lead to very similar action, so the problem has limited practical interest. You clearly cannot make this argument for Bellarmine and the others. Their atrocity was quite deliberate.

The Vatican defended the execution of Bruno till recently. Wikipedia:

In 1942, Cardinal Giovanni Mercati, who discovered a number of lost documents relating to Bruno’s trial, stated that the Church was perfectly justified in condemning him. On the 400th anniversary of Bruno’s death, in 2000, Cardinal Angelo Sodano declared Bruno’s death to be a “sad episode” but, despite his regret, he defended Bruno’s prosecutors, maintaining that the Inquisitors “had the desire to serve freedom and promote the common good and did everything possible to save his life.”

This mealy-mouthed half-apology will not do. If Pope Francis wishes to make amends for the many cruelties his Church (like mine, on a much lesser scale: Erastianism has its benefits) has inflicted in the name of orthodox faith, he knows how to do it properly. The Vatican has a busful of cardinals. On 17 February next, he can send eight of them to the Campo de Fiori to celebrate a penitential Mass in the rain for all prisoners and martyrs of conscience, in apology to that hooded and brooding statue.

Competition: diasyrms for Trump

Donald Trump said this about Ben Carson, a rival for the Republican nomination :

He was a doctor, perhaps an OK doctor, by the way.

The trope usually goes by Pope’s phrase “damning with faint praise”, but I’m sure RBC readers do not need reminding that its technical Greek name in rhetoric is diasyrm.

The put-down is feeble. You can’t take away from Dr. Ben Carson his outstanding medical qualifications and stellar career. He headed the department of paediatric neurosurgery at the teaching hospital of Johns Hopkins, which likes to think of itself as the best medical school in the world, possibly with reason. It is a great tragedy that in his very last operation in Baltimore before leaving medicine for politics, Dr. Carson heroically donated to his patient half the grey cells in his cerebral cortex.

It is Donald Trump‘s pathological vanity – he is in textbooks  as an example of narcissism – that makes him far more vulnerable to diasyrm. Readers are invited to supply examples. To get you going, a better jibe from Lloyd George:

[Neville Chamberlain] would make a good Lord Mayor of Birmingham in a lean year.

My suggestions:

  • Donald Trump has demonstrated far greater acumen as an investor than Bernie Madoff.
  • Donald Trump is magnetically attractive to women, for six months.
  • Trump’s dramatic hairdo would assure him a future as a hairstyling model for the leading trade magazine in North Korea.
  • Trump regularly demonstrates his superior people-management skills in firing no-hopers on reality TV shows.
  • Donald has never, ever had sex with a pig.

Entrants please remember the praise part. Straight insults do not count, however ingenious and deserved. Example: at Oxford, I once heard the young Quentin Hogg described as “a shining wit, as Dr. Spooner might have said”.




To make the punishment fit the crime

A wrinkle on the VW scandal. How does criminal justice achieve this goal? It’s often very difficult, but not here. VW’s environmental crime (forgetting about the deception of regulators and fraud of customers for a moment) was to cause the emission of a large volume of toxic NOx gas: 237,000 to 949,000 tonnes worldwide, estimated the Guardian. The number can be firmed up, and should be.

Reparation for this part of the misdeeds (and only this) is fairly simple:

require VW to secure at its own expense an equal reduction of the same emissions from vehicles, over the same timeframe as its offence, and on a permanent basis.

It’s not necessary to go into much detail on how. VW employs excellent engine emissions engineers: some of them are crooks to be sure, but they all know their stuff. (At risk of a Godwin violation, I can’t resist a reminder of  this guy.) The most efficient method is very probably not to take VW’s own modern car diesels off the road, but ancient trucks, buses and vans. The “permanent” condition means that the replacements wil have to be full or hybrid evs. If necessary the implication could be made explicit.

This should be only part of the sanctions. It would surely pay the VW board to offer it at once.


What is the Catalan for magic pony?

??Yesterday Catalonia held elections for the regional government. Since Madrid frustrated their hopes of an independence referendum, the tactic of the secessionists has been to try to turn every election from rat-catcher up into an independence plebiscite. From that perspective, yesterday was not a win. Pro-independence parties narrowly failed to get a majority of votes. They did together win a narrow majority of seats, and will continue to control the Generalitat. That does not look a basis for UDI.

The circumstances in the last few years could not have been more favourable to their cause: a disastrous boom-and-bust cycle in property, leading to bank rescues that doubled Spain’s national debt; mass unemployment from austerity dictated by Brussels and Berlin; and a governing party in Madrid mired in scandal. The economy has now started to improve, not dramatically but steadily, which should erode support.

The pedestrian Mariano Rajoy (no pigs, no bribes) has opposed the separatists by standing pat on the constitution. This has given him institutional wins through the Constitutional Court, but has done nothing to win Catalan hearts and minds. There has been no counterpart to Gordon Brown’s spirited defence of the Union in Scotland on emotional grounds: shared battlefields and war cemeteries, and the NHS. (Imagine an American politician defending US healthcare as a glorious achievement. On second thoughts …) Can you make such a case in Catalonia? Sure. Catalans died in 1714 and 1812 and 1936 in defence of a particular vision of Spain, not just Catalonia. Bringing up the Civil War is dangerous stuff of course, precisely because the memories are high voltage. If the stakes are the unity of your country, you have to take a few risks.

How serious is the independence project? I looked up the programme of Junts pel Si, the main separatist coalition in the election. Website, programme Continue Reading…