Warum gibt es etwas und nicht nichts? (Why is there something rather than nothing?) - Leibniz

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Julius Caesar, mass murderer

Robert Harris' novel, "Dictator" depicts Julius Caesar as a cold psychopath:

"A vast but peaceful German migration of 430,000 members of the Usipetes and Tencteri tribes crossed the Rhine and was lulled by Caesar into a false sense of security when he pretended to agree a truce; then he annihilated them."

The Ancient Origins website gives a different figure (150,000) but notes his ruthlessness, killing the women and children first:

“I sent the cavalry behind to them.
“The Germans heard screams behind them, and when they saw that their wives and children were slain, they threw down their weapons and ran headlong away from the camp.
“When they had come to the point where the Meuse and Rhine rivers flow together, they saw no good in further flights.
“A large number of them were slain, and the rest fell into the river, where they died overwhelmed by anxiety, fatigue and strength of the current.” —  Caesar, De Bello Gallico Book 4, 14-15

Naturally, Caesar puts a different slant on the migrating tribes, telling how they killed members of another tribe in their way on the far side of the Rhine, and claiming that the requested truce was only a ruse to make time for the Germans' cavalry to return to their horde.

Caesar also alleges that they attacked an advance party  of the Romans, so his genocidal massacre was merely a pre-emptive (or preventive) strike to save losses to his legions. Coincidentally, I read today a review of a book about American neoconservatives who took this line with Iraq's Saddam Hussein:

"Saddam was not seen as a rational actor that could be deterred. Therefore a pre-emptive war was necessary to remove him from power. Fukuyama argues that America actually carried out a preventive war. Pre-emption is to stop an imminent attack, which was not the case in Iraq. Preventive is to stop a long term threat, which was what the administration thought Iraq was."

In Caesar's case, the use of the sword was not to spread democracy - he was soon to subvert the half-thousand-year-old democratic Republic of Rome itself - but to get greater power and the glory of a "triumph", which was only awarded to those who extended Rome's territory.

Frankly, I think the Senate couldn't have stabbed him soon enough.

Friday, April 20, 2018

FRIDAY MUSIC: Ry Cooder, by JD

This evening, Friday, BBC4 will be showing the Wim Wenders film "Buena Vista Social Club". Ry Cooder was responsible for bringing all of those venerable Cuban musicians together and getting them into Carnegie Hall and he performs alongside them in the concerts.

Cooder also wrote and played the music for another Wenders film, "Paris, Texas" and most people will be familiar with the haunting sound of that soundtrack and his other music is well worth exploring.

 After nearly sixty years of performing with a wide variety of musicians he is about to release another album next month and from what I have heard of it he still has that spark of creative energy!


Saturday, April 14, 2018

Hooray for evil!

Robert Harris' "Imperium" describes Cicero's prosecution of Gaius Verres for what the latter did during his reign as Governor of Sicily: theft, extortion, collusion with pirates, and the judicial murders of many including two Roman citizens.

Verres is confident of beating the rap, since he has powerful friends and bribees among the jury; but against the odds, Cicero damns him so overwhelmingly that Verres' aristocrats are forced to abandon their support for him.

Is Verres summarily beheaded, like one of his Roman victims? Or is he flogged, branded and crucified, like the other? Not a bit of it: he is exiled to Marseilles and fined less than a tenth of what he stole.

I had to look up what happened next. Was Verres' life cut short, in misery? No. He lived on for another 27 years, as a multi-millionaire in the South of France.

It would never do for a powerful man to face justice like an ordinary citizen. Where should we be then?

Give in, whispers a voice. Give up hope. You will be so relieved when you stop struggling.

Blair will get away with it forever. So will the supposedly stupid George W Bush, who played the needy Brit like a fish - pretending to accept Blair's am-dram advice on how to walk like a bigger man, jollying him along in a phone call ("cojones!").

Nothing changes. The war between good and evil is endless, and most of the battles seem lost.

And yet.

Friday, April 13, 2018

FRIDAY MUSIC: Ryuichi Sakamoto, by JD

You may not know the name Ryuichi Sakamoto but you will almost certainly be familiar with the music in the first video. And I hope you will enjoy the others also.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Railing against rail, by JD

In 1829 Robert Stephenson entered his steam locomotive, called the Rocket, in a competition called the Rainhill Trials. It was to be held east of Liverpool and the winner would receive £500. There were 10 other locomotives entered in the contest and Stephenson had to transport his engine and equipment there, by horse and cart, from Newcastle. This is a folk song about this famous competition.

Read all about the event here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rainhill_Trials

The thing that caught my attention was the fact that Stephenson and his team took The Rocket by horse and cart to Lancashire. Now that must have been quite an adventure in itself. Remember this was long before there was a network of roads or railways. The first macadamised roads in this country were laid in the 1820s although whether the road between Newcastle and Liverpool was one of them is unclear. To get to the Trials it would have been necessary to disassemble their machine, load it onto the carts, arrange overnight stabling and feed for the horses (and themselves) travel the 150 miles or so to their destination. Then would come the job of reassembly and testing and other preparations for the contest.

Stephenson won and this is what 'state of the art' locomotive engineering looked like in 1829; the video is of a replica of the Rocket (not quite) full steam ahead -

I have the greatest admiration for Robert and his father, George Stephenson, the pioneers of the railway age. Their artistry and engineering skills were outstanding.

Having said that, I am not a fan of rail travel and never have been. In the early 19th century the railways were a wonderful alternative to the stagecoach; more comfortable, faster and much safer. But they declined in the 20th century and not entirely because of Dr. Beeching. They were superseded by the growth of personal transportation in the form of the motor car.

Now, in the 21st century they have long outlived their usefulness and the idea of building more of them in the form of the high speed rail link should be abandoned. They are a very inefficient way to move people around. I live very close to the main east coast line which connects London to Edinburgh. This is a 400 mile transport corridor between two capital cities and it is empty for most of the day. For the majority of the time there are no people being transported along it. Occasionally there is a train and for maybe 10 or 15 seconds once every hour our little stretch of line is doing its job.

Scrap the railways and put the land to better use. The Stephensons would approve, they were forward looking engineers of vision. Modern transport problems will not be solved by 19th century thinking.

Friday, April 06, 2018

FRIDAY MUSIC: Foy Vance, by JD

Foy Vance is a singer songwriter from Belfast. He is not well known to the public at large but he has quietly built up a great reputation for himself both in the UK and in America. One of the videos here features Martha Wainwright and Pete Townshend and you do not share a stage with artists of that calibre unless you are very, very good.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

A River in Darkness

If you have a Kindle and £1.00 to spare, Masaji Ishikawa’s A River in Darkness: One Man's Escape from North Korea is well worth reading. It is fairly short but covers an interesting aspect of North Korean history – the repatriation of Koreans from Japan. From Amazon -

Half-Korean, half-Japanese, Masaji Ishikawa has spent his whole life feeling like a man without a country. This feeling only deepened when his family moved from Japan to North Korea when Ishikawa was just thirteen years old, and unwittingly became members of the lowest social caste. His father, himself a Korean national, was lured to the new Communist country by promises of abundant work, education for his children, and a higher station in society. But the reality of their new life was far from utopian.

Mr Ishikawa escaped back to Japan during the nineties famine after Kim Il-sung died. Here are a couple of quotes, the first being a recipe for pine bark cakes.

First, boil the pine bark for as long as possible to get rid of all the toxins. (Many people botched this stage and died in agony as a result.) Next, add some cornstarch and steam the evil brew. Then cool it, form it into cakes, and eat it. This was easier said than done. The pine oil stinks to high heaven and makes it almost impossible to consume it. But if you wanted to live, you choked it down. That’s when the real fun began. Crippling gut pain that brought us to our knees; constipation that you wouldn’t believe. When the pain became unbearable—there’s no delicate way of putting this—you had to shove your finger up your anus and scoop out your concrete shit. I’m sorry. You didn’t need to know that. Except you did. It’s the only thing that shows how desperate we were.

The second quote sounds almost familiar.

People in North Korea spend so much time in study meetings and calculating the number of hours they’ve worked that there’s no time to do the actual work. The result? Raw materials don’t arrive in factories, the electricity doesn’t work, and farms are overrun with weeds.

Mr Ishikawa has a grim story to tell and he tells it well. To my mind he brings out the corruption, the crazy lies and the bureaucratic insanity Kim Il-sung implemented.