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Supporting Hong Kong 1: some history

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Hong Kong has been on a rocky road since 1997, when the Brits reluctantly handed it over to China after 140 years of control. Of course it’s fair to say that the famous east/west entrepôt is largely a product of 19th century British chauvinism. I’ve never been there, though we would’ve spent a few days there later later this month if it hadn’t been for some unfortunate medical problems. So now I’m reading some history and studying maps to get at least a vague feel for the region.

The region called Hong Kong is a complex mix of islands – especially Hong Kong Island – and the mainland Kowloon Peninsula, along with ‘New Territories’ stretching northward to the city of Shenzhen in Guangdong Province. Directly east, across the Pearl River Estuary, is Macao, a former Portuguese trading post, now a massive gambling hub, and one of the most densely populated region in the world. Macao, like Hong Kong, is a ‘special administrative region’ of China, though its status doesn’t seem to be under the same kind of threat from China’s Thugburo.

A part of the extended region now known as Hong Kong – which had been Chinese for the best part of 2000 years – was ceded to Britain in the 1840s, after the first Opium War (1839-42). After a second Opium War, Britain gained other territories in the region, but the Brits, unsurprisingly, found it difficult to maintain a far-distant island outpost surrounded by Chinese territory, as well as to justify its right to the area, and in 1898 a deal was brokered in which Britain retained its territories under a 99-year lease. Hence the 1997 hand-over. So ‘British’ Hong Kong consisted of, first, the territory ceded to Britain after the ‘unequal’ treaty of Nanjing in 1842 (essentially Hong Kong Island), second, the territory of mainland Kowloon ceded in 1860 by the Convention of Peking/Beijing (the Kowloon peninsula adjacent to the island), and third the ‘New Territories’ leased to the UK for 99 years at the second Convention of Beijing in 1898 (including the mainland south of the Sham Chun River, which forms the border with Guangdong Province, and assorted islands).

But what were these Opium Wars and what was Britain doing in China in the nineteenth century?

Of course, it was all about trade, finance and power. From early in the nineteenth Britain was importing massive amounts of tea from China for its mandatory tiffins. Tea drinking, starting as an upper-class sine qua non, had trickled down to the masses during the 18th and 19th centuries, much faster than wealth does today. And, while the Brits did manage to introduce its cultivation in its Indian colony, the vast majority of this purifying medicinal leaf was Chinese, resulting in a problematic trade imbalance. The difficulty was that China wasn’t much interested in what Britain had to offer in return, apart from the odd luxury item. According to most experts, China actually had the largest economy in the world in the early 19th century (and for many centuries before), and it had healthy trade surpluses with most western nations.

So that’s where opium came in. It began to be cultivated in Britain in the eighteenth century, where it was perfectly legal and rather revered for its soothing, pain-relieving properties (Paracelsus recommended its use in the 16th century). Available from any British apothecary, its popularity increased markedly in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it was accordingly cultivated in ever greater quantities, especially in India. Britain’s East India Company began sending the stuff to China, against the wishes of the Chinese Emperor, who issued many edicts banning it from the 1720s to the 1830s. Millions of Chinese became addicted, especially in the coastal cities visited by East India Company vessels. Things came to a head when a Chinese high official, Lin Tse-hsu, sent a remarkable letter to Queen Victoria in 1839, demanding an end to the trade. Its opening salvo is pretty clear:

We find that your country is sixty or seventy thousand li [a Chinese mile, about half a kilometre] from China. The purpose of your ships in coming to China is to realize a large profit. Since this profit is realized in China and is in fact taken away from the Chinese people, how can foreigners return injury for the benefit they have received by sending this poison to harm their benefactors?

The letter received no response, and was probably never read by Queen Vic, but it gives an indication of Chinese frustration and anger. Lin Tse-hsu, implacably opposed to the trade, was placed in charge of bringing it to an end. Within a brief period, more a thousand tons of the drug were confiscated without compensation, and foreign ships were blockaded. The Brits responded as powerful countries are wont to do, and the first opium war was the result. The Qing government, riven with internal problems, was no match for its foreign adversary (assisted by other European powers) and was forced to cede the aforementioned territory as well as to pay sizeable reparations. It also had to cough up some land and trading rights to France.

And then it all happened again. Between the first and second opium wars, civil war raged in China, and a rival emperor was enthroned in Nanjing, where the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom was modestly proclaimed (in fact its aim was to slaughter all the Manchus in China), so it wasn’t a good time to provoke the rapacious Brits again. However, a new foreigner-hating administrator in Canton did just that, whipping up local support to target traders and missionaries. Again the French helped out, and Britain prevailed once more, gaining new territories, ports and trading privileges.

While these gunboat diplomacy skirmishes weren’t much compared to the slaughter and mayhem the Chinese were inflicting on each other during the Taiping rebellion, their future implications were obviously enormous for the Hong Kong region. The population grew rapidly after colonisation, and the region was gradually being transformed from an entrepôt to a manufacturing centre, with refugees from the ‘mainland’ being attracted to its relative stability as well as employment opportunities. By the 1940s, the population had grown from a few thousand a century before to over a million, but then the Japanese occupation (1941-45) rapidly reversed the trend. By the time of liberation the population had been cut by more than half. Many starved, while others managed to escape.

The post-war period saw a rise in anti-colonial sentiment (a trend bucked by the Zionists, obviously), and Britain had to make political and economic concessions to the locals to maintain its strategic colony. It was both assisted and hampered by a new influx of immigrants from mainland China, as the ’49 revolution took hold. Since that time, Hong Kong has experienced steady, rapid growth, from a population of 2.2 million in 1950 to 6.7 million in 2001. Its reputation also grew as a producer of quality goods.

So that was the situation when the 99 year lease ran out. Hong Kong was a thriving multicultural centre, and China an awakened giant, its democratic momentum crushed in Tianenmen Square. The handover had been negotiated with a ‘one country, two systems’ deal which would last for fifty years, after, which, presumably, the Thugburo would be free to dictate terms. And this thoroughly superficial and at-a-distance historical tour brings us to the present state of a fascinating, more or less accidental, but financially successful (for many), experiment in business and trade multiculturalism.

Next time I’ll look more closely at the 1997 handover and how Hong Kong has been governed over the past 20 or so years.


Written by stewart henderson

August 10, 2019 at 11:18 am

technomagic – the tellingbone

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weirdly wired – the first telephone

The telephone remains the acme of electrical marvels. No other thing does so much with so little energy. No other thing is more enswathed in the unknown.

Herbert Casson ‘The history of the telephone”, 1910. Quoted in “The Information”, J Gleick

I recently had a conversation with someone of my generation about the technology of our childhoods, and how magical they seemed to us. So let me start with the motor car, or auto-mobile. Our first family car was a Hillman Minx, which was bought in maybe 1964 or so, not too long after we arrived in Australia. The model probably dated from the early or mid-fifties – we certainly weren’t wealthy enough to buy a brand new car. But that didn’t make it any less magical. How was it that you could turn a key and bring an engine to life, and with a bit of footwork and handiwork get the beast to move backward and forward and get its engine to putter or roar? I hadn’t the foggiest.

Next in the mid-sixties came the television box, fired by electrickery. Somehow, due to wires and signals, we could see a more or less fuzzy image of grey figures from faraway, giving us news of Britain and the World Cup, and shows from the USA like Hopalong Cassidy and the Cisco Kid, all made from faraway – even one day from the moon – for our entertainment and enlightenment. Wires and signals, I mean, WTF?

Next we became the first people in the street to have our own tellingbone (or that’s what we proudly told ourselves, actually we had no idea). So people would ring us from the other side of town and then talk to us as if they were standing right next to us!! It was crazy-making, yet people seemed generally to remain as sane as they had been. I would lie in bed trying to work it out. So someone would dial a number, and more or less instantaneously a ringing sound would come out of the phone miles and miles away, and a person there would pick up this bone-shaped piece of plastic with holes in it, and they would talk into one end and listen through the other end, and they could hear this person on the ‘end of the line’ miles away far better than they could hear someone else talking in the next room, all thanks, we were informed, to those wires and signals again.

So, forward to adulthood. One of the most informative books I’ve read in recent years is titled, appropriately enough, The Information, by James Gleick. It’s a history of information processing and communication from tribal drumming to the latest algorithms, and inter alia it tells the story of how the telephone became one of the most rapidly universalised forms of information transfer in human history in the period 1870-1900, approximately. And of course it didn’t come into existence out of nowhere. It replaced the telegraph, the first electrical telecommunications system, itself only a few decades old. Previous to this there were many experiments and developments in the field by the likes of Alessandro Volta, Johann Schweigger and Pavel Schilling. Studying electricity and its potential was the hottest of scientific activities throughout the 19th century, especially the first half.

The telegraph, though, was a transmission-reception system run by experts, making it very unlike the telephone. Gleick puts it thus:

The telegraph demanded literacy; the telephone embraced orality. A message sent by telegraph had first to be written, encoded and tapped out by a trained intermediary. To employ the telephone, one just talked. A child could use it.

Nevertheless the system of poles and wires, the harnessing of electricity, and the concepts of signal and noise (both abstract and exasperatingly practical) had all been dealt with to varying degrees of success well before the telephone came along.

So now let’s get into the basic mechanics. When we talk into a phone we produce patterned sound waves, a form of mechanical energy. Behind the phone’s mouthpiece is a diaphragm of thin metal. It vibrates at various speeds according to the patterned waves striking it. The diaphragm is attached to a microphone, which in the early phones consisted simply of carbon grains in a container attached to an electric current, which were compressed to varying degrees in response to the waves vibrating the diaphragm, modulating the current. That current flows through copper wires to a box outside your home which connects with other wires and cables in a huge telecommunications system.

Of course the miracle to us, or to me, is how a sound wave signal, moving presumably more or less at the speed of sound, and distinctive for every human (not to mention dogs, birds etc), can be converted to an electrical signal, moving presumably at some substantial fraction of the speed of light, then at the end of its journey be converted back to a mechanical signal with such perfect fidelity that you can hear the unmistakeable tones of your grandmother at the other end of the line in real time. The use of terms such as analogue and digitising don’t quite work for me, especially when combined with the word ‘simply’, which is often used. In any case, the process is commonplace enough, and has been used in radio, in recorded music and so forth.

It all bears some relation to the work of the greatest physical theorist of the 19th century, James Clerk Maxwell, who recognised and provided precise relationships between electrical impulses, magnetism and light, bringing the new and future technologies together, to be amplitude-modified by engineers who needed to understand the technicalities of input, output, feedback, multiplexing, and signal preservation. But as the possibilities of the new technology expanded, so did technological expertise, and switchboards and networks became increasingly complex. They eventually required a numbering system to keep track of users and connections, and telephone directories were born, only to grow in size and number, costing acres of forestry, until in the 21st century they didn’t. I won’t go into the development of mobile and smartphones here, those little black boxes of mystery which I might one day try to peer inside, but I think I’ve had enough armchair demystifying of the technomagical for one day.

Yet something I didn’t think of as a child was that the telephone was no more technomagical than just speaking and listening to the person beside you. To speak, to make words and sentences out of sounds, first requires a sound-maker (a voice-box, to employ a criminally simplistic term), then a complex set of sound-shapers (the tongue, the soft and hard palates, the teeth and lips) into those words and sentences. Once they leave the speaker’s lips they make waves in the air – complex and variable waves which carry to the hearer’s tympanum, stimulating nerves to send electrical impulses to the auditory cortex. This thinking to speaking to listening to comprehending process is so mundane to us as to breed indifference, but no AI process comes close to matching it.


The information, James Gleick, 2011

Written by stewart henderson

March 1, 2019 at 4:31 pm

Palestine 2: more recent ancient history

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The Temple Mount, Jerusalem

Jacinta: So the so-called Kingdom of Judah, from archaeological evidence, was not a particularly developed region, from a modern perspective. Jerusalem, always regarded as its most significant city, and central to all Zionist aspirations, came into being as a small village between 5000 and 4500 years ago. From about 4000 years ago, it seems to have been a vassal state of the Egyptian empire, but there’s scant archaeological evidence from the period, though there was clearly an increase of building construction under Ramesses II a little over 3200 years ago. Some 2700 years ago, the region became a part of the Assyrian empire, and then the Babylonians conquered the region only a century or so after that, largely destroying Jerusalem.

Canto: Right, and the Babylonians brought about a diaspora of sorts, which was soon reversed when Cyrus the Great of Persia defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return and rebuild their temple. Now this temple was a symbol of Judaism, and its destruction by the Babylonians struck at the heart of their religion, suggesting that it was well established 2600 years ago…

Jacinta: Yes, we’ll get back to the actual population of the region and their religion shortly. Persia remained in control of Judea until the time of Alexander the Great 2350 years ago (we’re avoiding the BC/AD designations) and remained under the control of his Seleucid successors until a local revolt led by Judas Maccabeus gave it semi-independence for a time under the Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties. The Romans by this time were the great power, and Judea became a client state, but when the population rose in revolt 1950 years ago, Jerusalem was sacked, and, after another revolt 70 years later, the troublesome province became an increasing target of Roman authorities, leading to a major diaspora that wasn’t reversed until the 20th century.

Canto: And that’s when our story really hots up, but getting back to that temple – you know it was built on this supposedly triple-holy site called the Temple Mount, current home of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, both of which are very holy of holy to Islam. Of course it’s no accident that Moslems built this dome about 1320 years ago just where the second Jewish Temple had stood…

Jacinta: Which, by the way, is the very place where, so says fundamentalist Judaism, their god created Adam, haha.

Canto: Yes yes and where he created the World as well, for old Adam to stretch his legs in. I mean it’s typical for a new religion to set its base camp on the ruins of an older one – just as the Christians did at ‘pagan’ sites when the Roman Empire turned Christian. But let’s look briefly at the history of the temple itself, since its first construction might be said to mark the beginning of Judaism as an organised religion. It has been called Solomon’s Temple, and there’s much bullshit in the Old Testament about Solomon being the ruler of a mighty empire, but absolutely no evidence has been found of his existence outside of those texts. My uneducated guess was that he was a local chieftain grossly exaggerated in his power by Old Testament propaganda. He supposedly lived around 2900 years ago, so believers assume the temple was built around that time. It’s noteworthy that the Israelis haven’t allowed any archaeological research to be done at the site for decades. But let’s be generous and assume from their own stories that Judaism is about 3000 years old.

Jacinta: And it seems that one of the tenets of Zionism is return to an ancient homeland. But a homeland isn’t a nation, quite. Australia’s Aborigines have had a homeland here for up to 60,000 years, but they didn’t have a nation in the modern sense of a state with institutions of government etc. Some Zionists, especially the religious ones, would use their holy books to argue for having an ancient nation-state under David and Solomon etc but that doesn’t sort with any evidence. Other Zionists though would argue that the region was overwhelmingly Jewish before the diaspora caused by Roman repression. That would be the basis of their demand for the creation of Israel as a nation, right?

Canto: That and their claim to be a uniquely oppressed people in their adopted countries, which was made more cogent after the Holocaust. The problem of course is that the region, one of the oldest humanly inhabited regions in the world, has never been exclusively Jewish, or Israelite or whatever you want to call it. Was it overwhelmingly Jewish during early Roman times? Perhaps so – I’m certainly willing to concede that, but I’m not sure what that counts for. The British Isles 2000 years ago, when Romanisation began there, was predominantly made up of Celtic tribes, migrants from Europe. The USA at that time was settled by a number of highly developed regional cultures, that tend now to be grouped under the heading ‘native American culture’. The Celts don’t have a nation, nor do the native Americans, or the Kurds, the Catalans, the Rohingyas…

Jacinta: But some of them have put forward cogent arguments for their own nation-state.

Canto: Yes, but the Zionist movement and its arguments were different – not necessarily more cogent – for a number of reasons. Zionism had a more international feel, due to the diaspora. It was locally active and felt in many parts of the world, unlike say, the Catalan movement. Also, It was a call to ‘return’ of a profoundly oppressed people – and this was before the rise of Nazism, after which it was able to take advantage of western guilt big-time. And for the religious Jews there was the whole thing about Jerusalem and the temple…

Jacinta: Okay, so we’re going to switch to the modern situation, but before that let’s look to the distinction made between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewishness. Ashkenazi Jews currently represent around three quarters of the Jewish population. The Sephardim are descended from those who settled in the Iberian Peninsula from the time of the diaspora – Roman times – but were then infamously expelled from the region under the Alhambra Decree of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, and a similar decree by the Portuguese monarchy in 1496.

Canto: Not to mention the 1290 expulsion of the Jews from England under Eddie I. They all appeared to say ‘Go East, young Jew, or we’ll have your guts for garters’, or words to that effect.

beating up on Jews in 13th century England – the design on the central figures’ robes represent the twin tablets brought down by Moses – 5 commandments on each?

Jacinta: The Jews descended from those who remained in the Levant and the Middle East during the diaspora are called Mizrahi Jews. The Ashkenazim’s descent is complicated. Actually the whole story is really effing complicated. For example the Ashkenazim were also pushed eastward during the late Middle Ages due to persecution. By the early Middle Ages they had settled in Northern and Central Europe, for example in settlements along the Rhine, where they developed the Yiddish language, from German mixed with Aramaic, Hebrew and other Eastern elements.

Canto: Yes, and they were pushed eastward, but also pushed into being more integrated into local cultures. This led to a kind of modernising movement, a Jewish Enlightenment known as the Haskalah, which revived Hebrew as a literary language.

Jacinta: But the point is that the Ashkenazim were, according to some observers, at the greatest remove from the Jews of the old spiritual homeland, due to their European integration and their Enlightenment values. On the other hand, it was above all the Ashkenazim who suffered under the Holocaust. So there was this post-Holocaust tension in the west between relieving itself of its guilt by acceding to the, largely Ashkenazi, push for occupation of the Southern Levant, there to recreate the nation of Israel, and questioning the bona-fides of their claim to this land.

Canto: Yes, and as a sidebar to all that, Paul Heywood-Smith claims in The Case for Palestine that there’s ‘considerable evidence’ that the Ashkenazim are ‘substantially derived from the conversion of the Khazars to Judaism in or about 805 CE’. He goes on:

The Khazars were Turkish nomads who occupied that land between the Black and Caspian seas (called the Caucasus today), including parts of eastern Turkey, north-west Iran and Georgia. Khazaria seems the likely source of the Jewish influx into Russia, the Ukraine, Poland, and Eastern Europe – and from there, into Western Europe.

But the authors of the Wikipedia article ‘Khazar hypothesis of Ashkenazi ancestry’ claim there is ‘meagre evidence’ for the hypothesis. In any case, the controversy is an indication of how fraught the Zionist issue is. You could say the Jewish claim to the Palestinian lands is stronger than the British claim to Australia ever was, but then the eighteenth century was a lot more lawless about such things than the twentieth, and a lot more contemptuous of native claims to their own land, insofar as they ever even considered the matter. In today’s more human rights oriented world, the fact that there were non-Jewish Palestinian people living in Palestine for centuries before the Zionists started making their claims in the late nineteenth century makes what has happened in recent history to create and maintain the state of Israel a source of concern to many of us. After all, we could have been one of those Palestinian people.


Paul-Heywood-Smith, The Case for Palestine, 2014

Written by stewart henderson

January 21, 2019 at 3:06 pm

Palestine, an introductory dialogue, trying to sort out some ancient history

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Ancient Palestine/Canaan

Canto: Currently I’m reading stuff about Palestine, and wondering why it is that the Palestinian people and their plight appears to be so ignored in the west, at least by governments, and certainly by the Australian government, whether conservative or liberal. We seem to follow the USA rather religiously on this matter.

Jacinta: Yes, I believe the USA is nowadays firmly captured by the Jewish lobby, a far cry from the days when anti-semites like Henry Ford and Charles Coughlin were feted as American heroes.

Canto: Well I think you mean a certain kind of Jewish lobby – maybe better to say the Zionist lobby. But we’ll explore such terms as zionism and anti-semitism in the course of these dialogues, which given the complexity of this issue, and its rich but sad history, will probably cover several if not scores of blog posts…

Jacinta: My god.

Canto: Well I don’t know about your god but certainly the Jewish god will play his role, along with the Arabic god, but hopefully not too big a role since they’re arguably the same person, which would just confuse everyone.

Jacinta: So is Palestine considered a nation? I believe Australia is playing Palestine in the Asian Cup tonight, so doesn’t that prove that Palestine is a nation?

Canto: Maybe it proves that FIFA thinks Palestine’s a nation, so good on them for that, but certainly Israel doesn’t recognise Palestine’s nationhood. The fact is that a clear majority of UN member countries recognise Palestine as an independent state – essentially, a nation – but the situation on the ground is that this ‘state’ is broken into two unequal bits, the Gaza Strip on the Mediterranean coast to the south, and the much larger West Bank region, which sort of includes the highly contested city of Jerusalem. The West Bank is more or less completely occupied by Israel, apparently against international law, and Jewish settlements are continually being built there, again illegally, but with the clear consent of the Israeli government. The Gaza Strip is under Israeli blockade, so the people there don’t seem to be regular members of any kind of independent state that’s worthy of the name.

Jacinta: Yes, and, looking at a map of the nations that recognise Palestine, Sweden and Iceland appear to be the only Western European nations that do so. Western Europe, along with other nations with a European history such as Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Canada, are siding with Israel in opposing Palestinian nationhood. Interesting, because those are the nations that seemed most invested in setting up Israel after WW2, the nations with sizeable Jewish populations, right?

Canto: Yes, though the case of Russia is interesting. It has, or had, a large Jewish population, but anti-semitism, or anti-Jewish sentiment, to be euphemistic, has long been a feature of Russia (now officially known as Putinland). So it’s hardly surprising that Putinland supports Palestine.

Jacinta: Of course Putinland’s official policy would simply be ‘take the opposite side from the USA in all foreign affairs issues’.

Canto: That’s true too. But we need to understand the history of the Levantine region, and something of the history of the Jews, and the history of European colonialism – the tendency of powerful and ambitious nations, some of them not so ancient themselves, to draw up the boundaries of new nations – Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel etc – for more or less self-serving reasons, in order to understand what’s at stake in this conflict.

Jacinta: So the Jews go back a long way and are traditionally associated with this region, right?

Canto: Yes, but you have to try and dissociate the story the Jewish people tell about themselves, specifically in the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, and what we know of history, objectively speaking. After all, this is all about land, and who it belongs to.

Jacinta: Well, we’re both evidence junkies, so it’ll be interesting to see where the evidence takes us. But I must say that my own possibly naive take on land questions is that land in general, constantly changing over the millions of years that tectonics have operated on it, belongs to nobody but itself. We’re nowadays obsessed with private property, and land first and foremost. But in a million years who will own the land that people spill their guts over today?

Canto: Yes, but that’s taking a rather long view of things, and we humans aren’t much into that. So let’s take a slightly shorter view and go back a few thousand years. The region currently in dispute was then known as Canaan. Now of course there were no defined boundaries to this region, and it wasn’t anything like an organised state, so the term Canaanites referred to an agglomeration of peoples with a variety of gods, beliefs and practices. Generally, though, they spoke a Semitic language…

Jacinta: Right, and this is interesting, in relation to the term ‘anti-semitism’. Hebrew is a Semitic language, but so is Arabic, which is much more widely spoken today, so to call Arabic people ‘anti-semitic’ doesn’t make much sense in the proper understanding of the term, though of course many Arabic people are anti-Jewish. But the term semitic is quite recent, first coined by German historians in the late 18th century, based on the Koine Greek pronunciation of Noah’s son Shem. It’s based on the proto-alphabetic scripts used by these languages – among the oldest written languages in the world.

Canto: So the Canaanites were polytheistic, and only a few of their gods are remembered today – Baal, Moloch and El, for example. The latter was a supreme god and might have been the model for Judaic monotheism, but I don’t want to get into that. The real point is that a diverse lot of people lived in the region of the southern Levant, or ancient Canaan. So let’s start the story some 3,400 years ago when various powerful empires or civilisations converged in terms of their interest in this region – the Egyptians of north Africa, the Hittites of Anatolia (modern Turkey), the Assyrians of Mesopotamia and the Mittani of the northern Levant and southern Anatolia. Now, we can get bogged down for ages in exploring the cultures, lifestyles and languages of these Canaanites…

Jacinta: Yes, let’s do so – I want to be thorough.

Canto: Well, however intrinsically interesting it all is, I’m not sure if it helps us to understand the current disaster in the region.

Jacinta: I’m sure it will – it’s just that understanding might not solve the situation. The people with the power today don’t much care about understanding. Anyway, you’ve started at 3400 years ago, and of course the land had been inhabited for thousands of years before that. Judaism presumably didn’t exist at that time?

Canto: No, it’s generally believed to have emerged later. The Torah, the first-written of its essential texts, was written between 2600 and 2400 years ago according to most scholars, presumably based on stories handed down about Jewish history – but many of those stories, such as that the Jews were once the captives of the Egyptians and escaped to the ‘promised land’ where they proceeded to slaughter its inhabitants, aren’t backed up by much in the way of archaeological evidence.

Jacinta: I suppose what I’m trying to get at is – when, if ever, did the region known as Canaan become something like ancient Israel, or Judaea, with a population that professed Judaism, predominantly?

Canto: Well, it’s very confusing. The land of Canaan, which we might call the Levant, was more or less the same as the region called Phoenicia by the Greeks, as far back as Homer, and we’re not sure when, or whether, Homer existed. But the Greeks also used the term ‘Palestine’, at least from the time of Herodotus 2500 years ago. These different names probably derived from different local languages. The Hebrew Bible – the Old Testament – doesn’t mention Phoenicia, which appears to be more a reference to the northern Levant – perhaps modern-day Lebanon. However, it has to be remembered that the Old Testament may be a guide but can’t be relied upon as serious history.

Jacinta: So how can we test the Zionist claim that this region is their natural homeland?

Canto: Well I’m trying to get to that, but the difficulty is that Zionism tends to be an exclusivist, nationalist movement, sometimes with religious overtones, and we’re inclusivist, transnational humanist types, so I’m struggling against my biases to give a fair rendering of the history. So let’s look at Judea, or Judah – and even that is confusing because Judea is a modern or revived term for a part of southern Palestine, and Judea is a Graeco-Roman adaptation of the term Judah, which refers to a territory of one of the Israelite tribes, later called the Kingdom of Judah, associated with such names as David and Solomon. However, insofar as the Kingdom of Judah existed, it was a small, sparsely populated mountain region of the southern Levant between Samaria in the north, the Dead Sea in the east, and the ‘Phillistine States’ in the west. I should point out that the Samaritans, a tiny ethnic group still in existence today, have their own religion distinct from Judaism, though they like to think it’s the true Judaism, as is the way with religious disputes between neighbouring tribes. The Phillistines were supposedly an Aegean people who settled in the region now more or less covered by the Gaza strip a little over 3000 years ago. According to the Hebrew Bible they were constantly doing battle with the Israelites, so you could say that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is just a continuation of a tradition.

Jacinta: Haha that’s not funny. I can’t wait to hear more next time…

Written by stewart henderson

January 16, 2019 at 11:48 am

Posted in Canaan, history, judaism, Palestine

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women and warfare, part 2: humans, bonobos, coalitions and care

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bonobos, or how to be good (without gods)

Shortly before I started writing the first part of this article, I read a sad and disturbing piece in a recent New Scientist, about an Iron Age citadel in modern Iran, called Hasanlu. Its tragic fate reminded me of the smaller scale tragedies that Goodall and others recount in chimpanzee societies, in which one group can systematically slaughter another.

Hasanlu was brutally attacked and destroyed at the end of the ninth century BCE, and amazingly, the massacred people at the site remained untouched until uncovered by archeologists only a few decades ago. One archeologist, Mary Voigt, who worked the site in 1970, has described her reaction:

I come from a long line line of undertakers. Dead people are not scary to me. But when I dug that site I had screaming nightmares.

Voigt’s first discovery was of a small child ‘just lying on the pavement’, with a spear point and an empty quiver lying nearby. In her words:

The unusual thing about the site is all this action is going on and you can read it directly: somebody runs across the courtyard, kills the little kid, dumps their quiver because it’s out of ammunition. If you keep going, there are arrow points embedded in the wall.

Voigt soon found more bodies, all women, on the collapsed roof of a stable:

They were in an elite part of the city yet none of them had any jewellery. Maybe they had been stripped or maybe they were servants. Who knows? But they were certainly herded back there and systematically killed. Its very vivid. Too vivid.

Subsequent studies found that they died from cranial trauma, their skulls smashed by a blunt instrument. And research found many other atrocities at the site. Headless or handless skeletons, skeletons grasping abdomens or necks, a child’s skull with a blade sticking out of it. All providing proof of a frenzy of violence against the inhabitants. There is still much uncertainty as to the perpetrators, but for our purposes, it’s the old story; one group or clan, perhaps cruelly powerful in the past, being ‘over-killed’, in an attempt at obliteration, by a newly powerful, equally cruel group or clan.

Interestingly, while writing this on January 4 2019, I also read about another massacre, exactly ten years ago, on January 4-5 2009. The densely populated district of Zeitoun in Gaza City was attacked by Israeli forces and 48 people, mostly members of the same family, and mostly women, children and the elderly, were killed, and a number of homes were razed to the ground. This was part of the 2008-9 ‘Gaza War’, known by the Arab population as the Gaza Massacre, and by the Israelis as Operation Cast Lead. The whole conflict resulted in approximately 1200-1400 Palestinian deaths. Thirteen Israelis died, four by friendly fire. And of course I could pick out dozens of other pieces of sickening brutality going on in various benighted parts of the world today.

Attempts by one group of people to obliterate another, whether through careful planning or the frenzy of the moment, have been a part of human history, and they’re ongoing. They are traceable as far back, at least, as the ancestry we share with chimpanzees.

But we’re not chimps, or bonobos. A fascinating documentary about those apes has highlighted many similarities between them and us, some not noted before, but also some essential differences. They can hunt with spears, they can use water as a tool, they can copy humans, and collaborate with them, to solve problems. Yet they’re generally much more impulsive creatures than humans – they easily forget what they’ve learned, and they don’t pass on information or knowledge to each other in any systematic way. Some chimp or bonobo communities learn some tricks while others learn other completely different tricks – and not all members of the community learn them. Humans learn from each other instinctively and largely ‘uncomprehendingly’, as in the learning of language. They just do it, and everyone does it, barring genetic defects or other disabilities.

So it’s possible, just maybe, that we can learn from bonobos, and kick the bad habits we share with chimps, despite the long ancestry of our brutality.

Frans De Waal is probably the most high-profile and respected bonobo researcher. Here’s some of what he has to say:

The species is best characterized as female-centered and egalitarian and as one that substitutes sex for aggression. Whereas in most other species sexual behavior is a fairly distinct category, in the bonobo it is part and parcel of social relations–and not just between males and females. Bonobos engage in sex in virtually every partner combination (although such contact among close family members may be suppressed). And sexual interactions occur more often among bonobos than among other primates. Despite the frequency of sex, the bonobos rate of reproduction in the wild is about the same as that of the chimpanzee. A female gives birth to a single infant at intervals of between five and six years. So bonobos share at least one very important characteristic with our own species, namely, a partial separation between sex and reproduction.

Bonobo sex and society, Scientific American, 2006.

Now, I’m a bit reluctant to emphasise sex too much here (though I’m all for it myself), but there appears to be a direct relationship in bonobo society between sexual behaviour and many positives, including one-on-one bonding, coalitions and care and concern for more or less all members of the group. My reluctance is probably due to the fact that sexual repression is far more common in human societies worldwide than sexual permissiveness, or promiscuity – terms that are generally used pejoratively. And maybe I still have a hankering for a Freudian theory I learned about in my youth – that sexual sublimation is the basis of human creativity. You can’t paint too many masterpieces or come up with too many brilliant scientific theories when you’re constantly bonking or mutually masturbating. Having said that, we’re currently living in societies where the arts and sciences are flourishing like never before, while a large chunk of our internet time (though far from the 70% occasionally claimed) is spent watching porn. Maybe some people can walk, or rather wank, and chew over a few ideas at the same (and for some it amounts to the same thing).

So what I do want to emphasise is ‘female-centredness’ (rather than ‘matriarchy’ which is too narrow a term). I do think that a more female-centred society would be more sensual – women are more touchy-feely. I often see my female students walking arm in arm in their friendship, which rarely happens with the males, no matter their country of origin (I teach international students). Women are highly represented in the caring professions – though the fact that we no longer think of the ‘default’ nurse as female is a positive – and they tend to come together well for the best purposes, as for example the Women Wage Peace movement which brings Israeli and Palestinian women together in a more or less apolitical push to promote greater accord in their brutalised region.

October 2017 – Palestinian and Israeli women march for peace near the Dead Sea, and demand representation is any future talks

Women’s tendency to ‘get along’ and work in teams needs to be harnessed and empowered. There are, of course, obstructionist elements to be overcome – in particular some of the major religions, such as Catholic Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, all of which date back centuries or millennia and tend to congeal or ‘eternalise’ the patriarchal social mores and power structures of those distant times. However, there’s no doubt that Christianity, as the most western religion, is in permanent decline, and other religions will continue to feel the heat of our spectacular scientific developments – including our better understanding of other species and their evolved and unwritten moral codes.

The major religions tend to take male supremacy for granted as the natural order of things, but Melvin Konner, in his book Women after all, has summarised an impressive array of bird and mammal species which turn the tables on our assumptions about male hunters and female nurturers. Jacanas, hyenas, cassowaries, montane voles, El Abra pygmy swordtails (a species of fish) and rats, these are just a few of the creatures that clearly defy patriarchal stereotypes. In many fish and bird species, the females physically outweigh the males, and there’s no sense that, in the overwhelming majority of bird species – whose recently-discovered smarts I’ve written about and will continue to write about – one gender bosses the other.

Turning back to human societies, there are essentially three types of relations for continuing the species – monogamy, polyandry and polygyny. One might think that polyandry – where women can have a harem of males to bed with – would be the optimum arrangement for a female-centred society, but in fact all three arrangements can be turned to (or against) the advantage of females. Unsurprisingly, polygyny (polyandry’s opposite) is more commonly practiced in human society, both historically and at present, but in such societies, women often have a ‘career open to talents’, where they and their offspring may have high status due to their manipulative (in the best sense of the word) smarts. In any case, what I envisage for the future is a fluidity of relations, in which children are cared for by males and females regardless of parentage. This brings me back to bonobos, who develop female coalitions to keep the larger males in line. Males are uncertain of who their offspring is in a polyamorous community, but unlike in a chimp community, they can’t get away with infanticide, because the females are in control in a variety of ways. In fact, evolution has worked its magic in bonobo society in such a way that the males are more concerned to nurture offspring than to attack them. And it’s notable that, in modern human societies, this has also become the trend. The ‘feminine’ side of males is increasingly extolled, and the deference shown to females is increasing, despite the occasional throwback like Trump-Putin. It will take a long time, even in ‘advanced’ western societies, but I think the trend is clear. We will, or should, become more like bonobos, because we need to. We don’t need to use sex necessarily, because we have something that bonobos lack – language. And women are very good at language, at least so has been my experience. Talk is a valuable tool against aggression and dysfunction; think of the talking cure, peace talks, being talked down from somewhere or talked out of something. Talk is often beyond cheap, it can be priceless in its benefits. We need to empower the voices of women more and more.

This not a ‘fatalism lite’ argument; there’s nothing natural or evolutionarily binding about this trend. We have to make it happen. This includes, perhaps first off, fighting against the argument that patriarchy is in some sense a better, or more natural system. That involves examining the evidence. Konner has done a great job of attempting to summarise evidence from human societies around the world and throughout history – in a sense carrying on from Aristotle thousands of years ago when he tried to gather together the constitutions of the Greek city-states, to see which might be most effective, and so to better shape the Athenian constitution. A small-scale, synchronic plan by our standards, but by the standards of the time a breath-taking step forward in the attempt not just to understand his world, but to improve it.


Melvin Konner, Women after all, 2015

New Scientist, ‘The horror of Hasanlu’ September 15 2018

Max Blumenthal, Goliath, 2013–09)

Written by stewart henderson

January 11, 2019 at 11:25 am

downtown, uptown, upstate, downstate, qu-est-ce que c’est?

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photo taken in uptown Port Pirie, South Australia

A spot of holiday writing. The other day I was stopped in Adelaide by a foreign fellow with kids in tow, who asked ‘excuse me can you tell please where is downtown from here?’ I was momentarily discombobulated, but after translating the question, answered, ‘ahh, the city centre is thataway’, pointing towards Rundle Mall.

The point is, ‘downtown’ and its derivatives have never been a part of my vocab, because I’ve never really understood the terms, though as a kid I sang along to ‘Downtown’, a 1964 number one hit sung by Petula Clark and written by Tony Hatch. Both Clark and Hatch are English, which is interesting as I’ve long considered ‘downtown’ etc to be Americanisms. Another popular reference of course is Billy Joel’s ‘Uptown Girl’. But is there a downtown and uptown in, say, Adelaide? And if there are uptown girls (or boys) are there also downtown peoples? The terms carry no coherent meaning for me, which is why I don’t use them. I think in terms of inner city and, maybe, outer city, and certainly inner suburbs and outer suburbs. So I think in circles rather than ups and downs.

A few months ago, after listening to an American commentator talking about ‘upstate New York’, I had another head-scratching moment, powerful enough to send me to Dr Google for enlightenment. I mean, why does nobody mention downstate New York? And isn’t New York a city? I’ve always been a little confused by US geography, but now I realise that New York is a state and that New York City is down the bottom. Upstate New York represents virtually the whole of the state apart from NYC.

A little research tells me I’m not the only one who’s confused. It seems that downtown and uptown regions vary in placement from city to city, though ‘downtown’ generally refers to the CBD and also the shopping precinct, though interestingly the “Downtown” song refers to the lights being much brighter there, and listening to the music, so I tended to imagine it as a nightclubbing spot. Uptown girls, at any rate, are supposed to be sophisticates with expensive tastes so that would suggest that ‘downtown girls’ are a little more – down to earth? But there’s no such term.

It’s argued by some that these terms are as ancient as cities themselves, and that they first meant the geographical peaks and valleys. The patricians of the city lived in the heights, both for safety, so that they could look out over the threatening mob, the hoi polloi, the canaille, the low-bornand of course to symbolise their Olympian status. And in a recent conversation I was referred to Nob Hill, a mansion-strewn suburb of San Francisco, with its double entendre of a different kind, reminding us that the very term ‘nob’ means someone in a socially high position.

Of course there are other ways of distinguishing parts of cities, which always have class elements. I’ve mentioned inner and outer. The more ‘inner’ you are, the closer you are to the ‘core’, the action, the power etc. In Adelaide, and far more so in Sydney, there is eastern and western (I’ve actually met Adelaide people who shudder at the thought of venturing into our western badlands). In London they have eastenders and westenders, though I can’t remember, if I ever knew, which are the goodies and which are the baddies (the west, though, has a general tendency to be wild). And nowadays the crooked or otherwise rich like to live in gated communities, which I suspect are mostly on the rises. So, with all these ups and downs, it seems we’re all still a little obsessed with status, though with some ambiguity, as we like to get down and get with it and we don’t like to be up ourselves too much. And which is better, to be stood up, or stood down? Ca dépend…

Written by stewart henderson

December 24, 2018 at 10:52 am

Posted in cities, class, history, language

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more about ozone, and the earth’s greatest extinction event

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the Siberian Traps are layers of flood basalt covering an area of 2 million square kilometres

Ozone, or trioxygen (O3), an unstable molecule which is regularly produced and destroyed by the action of sunlight on O2, is a vital feature in our atmosphere. It protects life on earth from the harmful effects of too much UV radiation, which can contribute to skin cancers in humans, and genetic abnormalities in plant life. In a previous post I wrote about the discovery of the ozone shield, and the hole above Antarctica, which we seem to be reducing – a credit to human global co-operation. In this post I’m going to try and get my head around whether or not ozone depletion played a role in the so-called end-Permian extinction of some 250 mya. 

I first read of this theory in David Beerling’s 2009 book The emerald planet, but recent research appears to have backed up Beerling’s scientific speculations – though speculation is too weak a word. Beerling is a world-renowned geobiologist and expert on historical global climate change. He’s also a historian of science, and in ‘An ancient ozone catastrophe?’, chapter 4 of The emerald planet, he describes the discovery and understanding of ozone through the research of Robert Strutt, Christian Schönbein, Marie Alfred Cornu, Walter Hartley, George Dobson, Sidney Chapman and Paul Crutzen, among others. He goes on to describe the ozone hole discovery in the 70s and 80s, before focusing on research into the possible effects of previous events – the Tunguska asteroid strike of 1908, the Mount Pinatubo eruption of 1991 and others – on atmospheric ozone levels, and then homes in on the greatest extinction event in the history of our planet – the end-Permian mass extinction, ‘the Great Dying’, which wiped out some 95% of all species then existing.

According to Beerling, it was an international team of palaeontologists led by Henk Visscher at the University of Utrecht who first made the claim that stratospheric ozone had substantially reduced in the end-Permian. They hypothesised that, due to the greatest volcanic eruptions in Earth history, which created the Siberian Traps (layers of solidified basalt covering a huge area of northern Russia), huge deposits of coal and salt, the largest on Earth, were disrupted:

The widespread heating of these sediments and the action of hot groundwater dissolving the ancient salts, was a subterranean pressure cooker synthesising a class of halogenated compounds called organohalogens, reactive chemicals that can participate in ozone destruction. And in less than half a million years, this chemical reactor is envisaged to have synthesised and churned out sufficiently large amounts of organohalogens to damage the ozone layer worldwide to create an intense increased flux of UV radiation.

However, Beerling questions this hypothesis and considers that it may have been the eruptions themselves, which lasted 2 million years and occurred at the Permian-Triassic boundary 250-252 mya, rather than their impact on salt deposits, that did the damage. There’s evidence that many of the eruptions originated from as deep as 10 kilometres below the surface, injected explosively enough to reach the stratosphere, and that these plumes contained substantial amounts of chlorine. 

More recent research, published this year, has further substantiated Visscher’s team’s finding regarding genetic mutations in ancient conifers and lycopsids, and their probable connection with UV radiation enabled by ozone destruction. The mutations were global and dated to the same period. Laboratory experiments exposing related modern plants to bursts of UV radiation have produced more or less identical spore mutations.

The exact chain of events linking the eruptions to the ozone destruction have yet to be worked out, and naturally there’s a lot of scientific argy-bargy going on, but the whole story, even considering that it occurred so far in the past is a reminder of the fragility of that part of our planet that most concerns us – the biosphere. The eruptions clearly altered atmospheric chemistry and temperature. Isotopic measurements of oxygen in sea water suggest that equatorial waters reached more than 40°C. As can be imagined, this had killer effects on multiple species. 

So, we’re continuing to gain knowledge on the ozone shield and its importance, and fragility. I don’t know that there are too many ozone hole skeptics around (I don’t want to look too hard), but if we could only get the same kind of apparent near-unanimity with regard to anthropogenic global warming, that would be great progress. 

Written by stewart henderson

October 10, 2018 at 3:15 pm