an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

more on macho thuggery and a world turned upside-down

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WPL – female political leaders past and present

 

Jacinta: So here’s the thing – after the horrible cannon-fodder event of 1914-18 that became known as the Great War, and subsequently WW1, the League of Nations came into being, to try to ensure that no futher war of such magnitude, such destruction, would occur. It would be a forum for the negotiation of grievances, a move towards a more civilised behaviour between nations.

Canto: Yes there must’ve been a sense of urgency as the death toll and the suffering came to light. But then it all happened again – so it failed?

Jacinta: Well of course I’m talking about this as the world watches a piece of obvious butchery in Ukraine, over a hundred years after that ‘war to end all wars’. The League of Nations, the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, these institutions have been, IMHO, vitally important 20th century developments, but they haven’t effectively prevented wars and invasions in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and so on. And war is hell, especially for those who’ve made the mistake of being born in those fought-over lands.

Canto: Yes, the ICC is massively hamstrung by the fact that the most militarily powerful countries, the USA, Russia and China, won’t join it, for the obvious reason that they don’t want to be held accountable. What’s the point of being massively powerful if you don’t get to throw your weight around with impunity?

Jacinta: Yes, and to be bonoboesque about it, none of those countries have come close to having female leadership in recent times. Okay, the USA has at last celebrated it first Vice-President, but it’s not really an elected position. There have been 45 male US Presidents, and zero female Presidents so far. Not bad for a group that represents just under half the population. China hasn’t had a woman on top since the much under-rated Empress Dowager Cixi died in 1908. The CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee, a kind of divinely elected inner Cabinet, which has been operational, more or less, since the 1950s, has had fifty-four members, of which zero have been women.

Canto: Wow – not even a female impersonator? But then, during the one child policy, something miraculous happened. Almost all the kids born turned out to be male. You can hardly blame the CCP for that.

Jacinta: And as for Putinland’s mighty ruler, he’s an unabashed misogynist and he plans to rule his namesake for the next 200 years or so, so the chances of any of those countries allowing themselves to be accountable to the rest of humanity are close to zero for the foreseeable.

Canto: Yes, and it’s funny how the nations most likely to be naughty to the tunes of their national anthems are the ones least willing to defend themselves in open court. I’ve found that there are some other interesting countries that aren’t interested in the ICC – Israel, Libya, Iraq – nations with a very spotty recent history.

Jacinta: And nothing much in the way of female leadership. Israel did have Golda Meir, described in Encyclopedia Brittanica as the country’s first female Prime Minister, as if there were others.

Canto: And then there are nations where women are barely allowed to hold down a job never mind boss others around. So what is to be done?

Jacinta: Well, all we can do is try to lay down foundations. And there’s a groundswell of interest in women’s empowerment, it’s been happening for decades. When we compare women’s wages with those of men, and grumble about a gap that never seems to narrow, we need to remember that it wasn’t so long ago, in the long arc of human history, that women weren’t considered a part of the paid work-force at all. Now they own businesses, run science labs and occasionally help to govern nations. And I should mention that here in little old South Australia – where we’ve never had a female Premier, our newly elected Labor Premier Peter Malinauskas celebrated his victory with a press chit-chat flanked by five new female MPs as well as Deputy Premier Susan Close. A sixth new female Labor candidate looks set to win her seat.

Canto: So how do we promote the empowerment of women in Australia, before taking over the world?

Jacinta: Well the government occasionally brings out policy documents, such as the ‘Gender equality and women’s empowerment strategy’, published by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in early 2016. It recognises that ‘nowhere in the world have women and men achieved equality’, and points out, in its global analysis, that GDPs would rise everywhere if such equality could be realised, or approached. It points out the obvious benefits of female education, for women, their children and the community, and the greater stability and peace that comes with female empowerment (no mention of bonobos however). As was pointed out in the military document I read some months ago, a greater female presence in the military leads to better peace-keeping. This DFAT document repeats the point:

Greater gender equality contributes to stability and peace. Women are often instrumental in brokering ceasefires in conflict situations, and peacekeeping operations involving women as soldiers, police and civilian personnel are more effective. Greater equality can prevent disputes escalating to armed conflict.

Canto: That must be why Putin and his Patriarch aren’t into gender equality so much. And just to change the subject, I’ve heard that, since their invasion isn’t going so well – possibly because the billions spent on the military have been largely siphoned off by the luxury yacht-loving kleptocrats in his inner circle – they’re now trying to pretend that they’ve been largely successful in their main aim, which is to gain complete control of the Donbas and Crimean regions, and this is really all they wanted in the first place, etc etc.

Jacinta: Well, I’ll believe that when I hear something from Putin himself, but that’s highly unlikely. They’re basically fucked, though Putin will never admit it. Hoist by his own macho petard, I’d say. Anyway, this document from six years ago talks the talk convincingly enough, and with a likely change of Federal government in the next few months, the talk will continue. It promotes a three-pronged approach to its aid, trade and foreign relations programs – 1) Enhancing women’s voice in decision-making, leadership and peace-building. 2) Promoting women’s economic empowerment. 3) Ending violence against women and girls. Which all sounds great, though all this needs to start at home. Also the document argues that ‘at least 80 per cent of investments [presumably by DFAT], regardless of their objectives, should effectively address gender equality issues in their implementation’. What about the other 20 per cent? Where did the 80 per cent come from?

Canto: Well, 80%, 90%, 60%, it’s all just talk, who’s going to be doing the measurements? Surely the important thing is that they’re pushing for a much better situation than pertains at the moment. And meanwhile on the world stage there’s an organisation, probably quite informal, called Women Political Leaders (WPL), consisting of former and some current national Prime Ministers and such, as well as heads of the European Commission, high-ups at the UN and so forth, all promoting the benefits of female leadership, benefits we’ve outlined so many times. They held a major forum last July, which seems to have garnered little attention.

Jacinta: I’m hoping that the machismo antics of Putin, Xi Jinping and others, which of course are garnering plenty of attention, might have more effect on our appreciation of female leadership than these forums, which of course are a pointer to the future. Unfortunately, our attention will always be more drawn to  the thuggery of these types than to the speeches and achievements of intelligent women. Violence, destruction and suffering are riveting because they bring to mind our own vulnerability, and often our own sheer good luck at not finding ourselves in the thick of it. And I sometimes wonder whether, if we ever achieve something like a bonobo world, many lifetimes into the future, our victory over the male hellholes of the world will render us complacent and soft…

Canto: Haha, little likelihood of that – after all, even the bonobos males have to be kept in check by what Bjork calls ‘an army of me’. So I suspect bonobos aren’t as complacent as they might look.

Jacinta: Yes, happy loving relations often need a lot of work. Hostile relations tend to come naturally – at least so it seems from within our patriarchal culture. So, nothing for it but to keep working for a world turned upside-down.

 

Written by stewart henderson

March 29, 2022 at 4:04 pm

On current thugocrazies and the slow hard road to a bonobo world

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Canto: So how will this Ukraine horror end?

Jacinta: How does any thugocracy end? I recently heard one pundit saying that most – I can’t remember if he said dictators, autocrats or some other euphemism for thugs – die violently, but this is bullshit. Stalin, Mao, Leo Victor (aka Leopold I, ‘Emperor’ of Belgium) and Suharto are just a few such thugs who died peacefully without ever having to account for their crimes. Some are still worshipped today by many.

Canto: Good point, and I was amused to hear that Putin was much exercised by Gadaffi’s ignominious death, watching several times the video of him being roughed up.

Jacinta: He could’ve added the video of the Ceausescus’ shooting, but that was before his time I suppose.

Canto: His time in power, yes, but a cautionary tale all the same. But getting back to my original question, with Putin not backing down and no nation apart from Ukraine willing to fight against his troops, he can’t realistically lose, while at the same time, he can’t realistically create a puppet state there that has any chance of surviving.

Jacinta: Yes, he’s in a bind and he surely knows it. I’m tempted to say ‘it’s clear that he miscalculated’, but that would make me sound smarter than I am. So I’ll just say it looks as if he has miscalculated badly, and surely he must be wondering what to do next, since continued bombing, shelling and slaughter will only lead to a pyrrhic victory at best, but more likely an exhausting and costly campaign for his invading force, and disastrously long-standing sanctions which will cripple the Putinland economy and looks like accelerating the European move from Putinland gas to renewables.

Canto: There are arguments that some of the attempts to isolate Putinland (for example blocking Facebook and other social media) are playing into Putin’s hands, because he doesn’t want his people to have any contact with the WEIRD world – they might get ideas above their station. But look at the companies blocking or getting out of Putinland – Ikea, Adidas, Starbucks, McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Disney, Netflix, Apple, Toyota and many more apparently. This will change middle-class life drastically.

Jacinta: But others, including many Russian dissidents and exiles, believe this is playing into Putin’s hands, as it’s reducing the WEIRD presence in the country, a source of opposition. I suppose this means that Putin and his thugocracy will have to produce effective enough local alternatives – as the CCP thugocracy has largely managed to do. But China has a much healthier economy than Putinland, and with all the economic difficulties Putin’s fellow thugs are facing, I’m not sure they’re going to be able to pump much energy into local brands.

Canto: Which raises the question of just how much all this sanctioning is affecting the Putinland economy. Many who know about the situation are trying to leave the country. Sadly, these are the relatively wealthy who have contacts overseas and know how to get their money out of the country. Those who rely on cash must surely be most affected, but I must admit that economics isn’t my strong suit. By the way, can you lend me fifty bucks?

Jacinta: What’s also interesting is that it’s bringing more attention at last to Putin’s behaviour in Syria, Georgia, Chechnya and other places. And to Putin’s putrescence in general. For example, I wasn’t entirely aware of his fear and loathing of powerful women – though of course it doesn’t surprise me. I’d vaguely heard a story of his attempt to intimidate Angela Merkel by means of a dog, because he’d heard of her having a phobia about dogs, but I didn’t connect it at the time to misogyny, and then of his loathing of Hilary Clinton, apparently for no other reason than her womanhood. He was obsessed with ensuring that she wouldn’t become US President – it seems his sabotaging campaign might’ve been more anti-Clinton than pro-Trump. Of course we’re unlikely to ever know whether his animus or his destructive activity with respect to the 2016 Presidential election was the key to her ‘loss’. In fact she won the popular vote, and I’ll never understand why that doesn’t win a democratic election. How can it be democratic otherwise?

Canto: Good question. So Al Gore won the 2000 US election. Democracy seems less democratic than it seems. Anyway, instituting the bonobo world would ensure little Vlady’s emasculation. Why’s it taking so long?

Jacinta: We’re obviously not getting the message across. And since Merkel’s retirement, there aren’t any women, unfortunately, that are bestriding the world like a colossus. New Zealand, Taiwan, Estonia, Lithuania, Moldova, Kosovo, Greece, Denmark, Finland, Slovakia, Georgia, Ethiopia and Gabon, where women hold Presidential/Prime Ministerial positions (though some of them merely honorary) are all no doubt admirable nations, but in the horrible Realpolitik world we inhabit they’re minnows, easily ignorable by the thugocracies of China, India, Russia and the macho Middle Eastern oil-o-crazies. Why wasn’t I born a bonobo?

Canto: Well, as we speak, Putin’s forces are surrounding Kiev, and the most sickening things are happening. Ukrainians are clearly putting up stiffer resistance than expected, but with little outside support other than money and best wishes, they can’t be expected to hold out against a Svengalian thug with massive cannon-fodder reinforcements at his disposal, not to mention the nuclear option.

Jacinta: So, if he manages to strangulate Kiev, and to kill Zelensky, what then?  That’s his aim, presumably, but given Zelensky’s profile, what good will it do him? He doesn’t want to believe that macho thugs are out of fashion (sort of) in the WEIRD world, but his economy is quite dependent on that world.

Canto; Well, worse things are happening elsewhere in Ukraine. The people of Mariupol, in the south, are trapped and under heavy fire from Putin’s forces. It’s been the most bombarded city in Ukraine, apparently. In the east, Kharkiv is holding out pretty well, even though war crime-type activities have been carried out there by Putin.

Jacinta: Yes Mr Pudding has a lot to answer for, and if we could bring him to justice, what a shock it would be to the Xi Jinpings, the Ramzan Kadyrovs, the Lukashenkos, the Orbáns, the Mohammed bin Scumbags and so on, in a world that will become, I fervently believe, increasingly bonoboesque. And when it does, we will look back on Putinland, the CCP, the Middle Eastern thugocrazies and so on and so forth, and think, ‘how could we have sunk so low? How could we have reached such a level of stupidity as to let these male apes run roughshod over our children and our future, when it’s screamingly obvious that we, women, should be the leaders?’ And history will be written from a bonobo-influenced female prospective, inevitably, a future perspective, pointing out the pointless male thuggeries of the past, remembering the victims, female, male and children yet to decide, yet to have much of a life. I’m sorry, I’m imagining a future almost beyond nations, beyond nationalist brutalism, and beyond maleness. Women are our future – we have to grasp the nettle.

Canto: I think you’re right, but perhaps you’re just before your time. We have to play out the last gasp of male ascendancy – and I’m not suggesting that Putin’s last breath, which hopefully happens soon, will be that last gasp – far from it unfortunately. But we have a long, hard battle to fight against misogyny. Look at the Taliban. Look at Iran. Look at the CCP – their politburo has never had a female member in the seventy years of its existence. Even the USA has never had a female President, and women have a horribly hard road to hoe in the male province of politics even in democratic countries. Australia has had one female Prime Minister, and she was subjected to more vitriol than any male PM in Australian history – I would have no hesitation in claiming that to be a fact.

Jacinta: Slowly but surely wins the race. Sadly for me, it’ll more likely take centuries rather than decades, but think of the progress made in a relatively short time. We couldn’t become university professors a century ago, never mind major political or business identities. Obviously our fantastical leadership qualities are likely to shine within democracies rather than the thugocratic alternatives – which are the only real alternatives to the WEIRD world, and they’re always male. The Chinese people – and I’ve met so many of them – deserve far better than this horrific CCP thugocrazy. Clearly the dictator Xi can’t last forever, and the Chinese people will hopefully not tolerate the country bumbling from thug to thug, and if we keep moving in a bonoboeque direction elsewhere, Chinese women will make themselves heard more and more within the country, before it’s too late for the already-decimated Uyghurs and other proud minorities.

Canto: Yes it amuses me that their oligarchy is called the Chinese Communist Party, an exquisitely meaningless name. They may as well be called the Soggy Bottom Boys Party, but humour has never been their strong suit. That’s thugs for you.

Jacinta: Yes, talking of humour, I’ve not yet heard from Mr Pudding about Elon Musk’s demand for Mano-a-mano combat. He’s such a coward, when it comes down to it….

References

https://ussromantics.com/tag/putin/

https://ussromantics.com/category/bonobos/

Written by stewart henderson

March 19, 2022 at 7:51 pm

some stuff on super-grids and smart grids

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In a recent New Scientist article, ‘The rise of supergrids’, I learned that Australia is among 80 countries backing a project, or perhaps an idea for a project, launched at COP26 in Glasgow, called One Sun One World One Grid, ‘a plan to massively expand the reach of solar power by joining up the electricity grids of countries and even entire continents’. My first reaction was cynicism – Australia’s successive governments have never managed to come up with a credible policy to combat global warming or to develop renewable energy, but they love to save face by cheering on other countries’ initiatives, at no cost to themselves.

Our state government (South Australia) did invest in the construction of a giant lithium ion battery, the biggest of its kind at the time (2017), built by Tesla to firm up our sometimes dodgy electricity supply, and, to be fair, there’s been a lot of state investment here in wind and solar, but there’s been very little at the national level. 

At the global level, the Chinese thugocracy has been talking up the idea of a ‘global energy internet’ for some years – but let’s face it, the WEIRD world has good reason not to trust the CCP. Apparently China is a world leader in the manufacture and development of UHVDC (ultra-high voltage direct current) transmission lines, and is no doubt hoping to spread the algorithms of Chinese technological and political superiority through a globe-wrapped electrical belt-and-road. 

But back in the WEIRD world, it’s the EU that’s looking to spearhead the supergrid system. It already has the most developed international system for trading electricity, according to the Financial Review. And of course, we’re talking about renewable energy here, though an important ancillary effect would be trade connections within an increasingly global energy system. There’s also an interest, at least among some, in creating a transcontinental supergrid in the US. 

Renewable sources such as solar and wind tend to be generated in isolated, low-demand locations, so long-distance transmission is a major problem, especially when carried out across national boundaries. Currently the growth has been in local microgrids and battery storage, but there are arguments about meshing the small-scale with the large scale. One positive feature of a global energy network is that it might just have a uniting effect, regardless of economic considerations. 

But of course economics will be a major factor in enticing investment. Economists use an acronym, LCOE, the levelized cost of electricity, when analysing costs and benefits of an electrical grid system. This is a measure of the lifetime cost of a system divided by the energy it produces. The Lappeenranta University of Technology in Finland used this and other measures to analyse the ‘techno-economic benefits of a globally interconnected world’, and found that they would be fewer than those of a national and subnational grid system, which seems counter-intuitive to me. However the analysts did admit that a more holistic approach to the supergrid concept might be in order. In short, more research is needed. 

Another concept to consider is the smart grid, which generally starts small and local but can be built up over time and space. These grids are largely computerised, of course, which raises security concerns, but it would be hard to over-estimate the transformative nature of such energy systems.

Our current grid system was pretty well finalised in the mid-twentieth century. It was of course based on fossil fuels – coal, gas and oil – with some hydro. The first nuclear power plant – small in scale – commenced operations in the Soviet Union in 1954. With massive population growth and massive increases in energy demand (as well as a demand for reliability of services) more and more power plants were built, mostly based on fossil fuels. Over time, it was realised that there were particular periods of high and low demand, which led to using ‘peaking power generators’ that were often switched off. The cost of maintaining these generators was passed on to consumers in the form of increased tariffs. The use of ‘smart technology’ by individuals and companies to control usage was a more or less inevitable response. 

Moving into the 21st century, smart technology has led to something of a battle and an accommodation with energy providers. Moreover, combined with a growing concern about the fossil fuel industry and its contribution to global warming, and the rapid development of variable solar and wind power generation, some consumers have become increasingly interested in alternatives to ‘traditional’ grid systems, and large power stations, which can, in some regions, be rendered unnecessary for those with photovoltaics and battery storage. The potential for a more decentralised system of mini-grids for individual homes and neighbourhoods has become increasingly clear.   

Wikipedia’s article on smart grids, which I’m relying on, is impressively fulsome. It provides, inter alia, this definition of a smart grid from the European Union:

“A Smart Grid is an electricity network that can cost efficiently integrate the behaviour and actions of all users connected to it – generators, consumers and those that do both – in order to ensure economically efficient, sustainable power system with low losses and high levels of quality and security of supply and safety. A smart grid employs innovative products and services together with intelligent monitoring, control, communication, and self-healing technologies in order to:

  1. Better facilitate the connection and operation of generators of all sizes and technologies.
  2. Allow consumers to play a part in optimising the operation of the system.
  3. Provide consumers with greater information and options for how they use their supply.
  4. Significantly reduce the environmental impact of the whole electricity supply system.
  5. Maintain or even improve the existing high levels of system reliability, quality and security of supply.
  6. Maintain and improve the existing services efficiently.”

So, with the continued growth of innovative renewable energy technologies, for domestic and industrial use, and in particular with respect to transport (the development of vehicle-to-grid [V2G] systems), we’re going to have, I suspect, something of a technocratic divide between early adopters and those who are not so much traditionalists as confused about or overwhelmed by the pace of developments – remembering that most WEIRD countries have an increasingly ageing population. 

I’m speaking for myself here. Being not only somewhat long in the tooth but also dirt poor, I’m simply a bystander with respect to this stuff, but I hope to to get more integrated, smart and energetic about it over time. 

References

https://www.afr.com/companies/energy/the-future-of-power-is-transcontinental-submarine-supergrids-20210622-p5837a

Global supergrid vs. regional supergrids

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smart_grid

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vehicle-to-grid

Written by stewart henderson

March 15, 2022 at 7:33 pm

17th century perspectives, 21st century slaughter

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Vlady the Thug – returning us all to the glories of centuries-old slaughter

Canto: So much is happening, so much is being learned, so much of my ignorance is being brought home to me, and so much of my good luck is also being brought home, in that I’ve never had to live in or be brought down by a thugocracy. Then again, if you’ve come to this ‘lucky country’ be means of a leaky boat, trying to escape a foreign thugocracy by any means possible, you’ll likely have a very different perspective.

Jacinta: Haha yes it’s Writer’s Week here in Adelaide, and we’ve been sampling, generally by sometimes dodgy internet links, the thoughts of former refugees writers, investigative journalists on even more dodgy pharmaceutical companies, and words of wisdom from our intellectual elders. And of course many of these conversations have been clouded by the invasion of Ukraine by Vlady the Thug, and the consequent carnage.

Canto: Yes, it seems he’s trying to channel Peter the Great, but he’s 300 years behind the times, and hasn’t been told that warlordism just doesn’t fit with 21st century fashion. But Vlady the Thug, that’s good, it would definitely be helpful if all world leaders, including and especially Zelensky, started  addressing him as such. Vlady is extremely small-minded, with a narrow understanding of nationalism and glory, and with a huge sense of his own grandeur. The WEIRD world may not be able to unite to destroy him, given the protection racket around him and the vast nuclear arsenal he and his predecessors have been allowed to assemble, but I think that worldwide mockery, difficult though it might seem at this awful time, might unhinge him just enough for a rethink, or alternatively, might be enough to turn his thug underlings against him.

Jacinta: True, but I don’t think Vlady the Thug is punchy enough…

Canto: It’s a good start, certainly a far cry from Peter the Great (who was a bit of a thug himself of course). And don’t forget, world leaders have never been too good at comedy, they’re generally too full of their Serious Destiny. I doubt if they would come at Vlady the Thug, never mind Vlad the Tame Impala or Mr Pudding.

Jacinta: True, but Zelensky is apparently a former comedian, and he’s absolutely Mister Popularity on the world stage at the moment. If he went with this mockery, and encouraged his new-found fans to follow his example, it might be the best, and certainly the cheapest form of attack available at present. Though it’s true that I can’t imagine Sco-Mo or Scummo, our PM, managing to deliver any comedy line with the requisite aplomb.

Canto: Well, it’s an interesting idea, if only we could get Zelensky’s minders to take it up. Unfortunately he seems to have caught the Man with a Serious Destiny disease recently – for which I don’t blame him at all. And anyway, I have to check the internet on a regular basis currently to see if he’s still alive.

Jacinta: Yes, I thought the imitation of Churchill in his address to the British Parliament was a bit cringeworthy, but I agree that it’s hardly a time to criticise Zelensky when Vlady the Thug is on the loose. Anyway, the WEIRD world is stuck in dealing with little Vlady. I listened to a long-form interview with Julia Ioffe on PBS today – she’s a Russian-born US journalist who has reported from that country for some years, and her depiction of Vlady was spot-on – that’s to say, it chimed exactly with mine. She feels that he will never withdraw or change his mind about Ukraine. He has stated often in communication with other leaders that Ukraine is not a ‘real country’.

Canto: Yes, unlike Afghanistan, Israel, Pakistan and all those African countries. Russia on the other hand is a real country thanks to the wars of Ivan , Peter, Catherine and the rest. Thanks to all the slaughter, rape and suppression of alternative languages and cultures. Just like Australia and the USA are real countries thanks to the removal of previous cultures from their land – with associated slaughter, rape, and ‘white man’s disease’.

Jacinta: Yes, few countries – or maybe there are no countries whose national ‘development’ hasn’t involved a fair amount of bloody repression. Ukrainians, as Ioffe pointed out, have made it abundantly clear in recent times that they reject Vlady’s thugocracy, and their resolve has hardened as a result of the 2014 events. But Ioffe’s view is also quite bleak – due to Vlady’s complete inability to back down, in her view. And I’m pretty sure she’s right about that. And, according to her, his ‘inner circle’ has contracted considerably in recent times, and they’re all as crazy as himself, maybe even crazier. So this may mean the invasion will continue, until he becomes master of an almost uninhabited wasteland. Nobody wants to provoke him to take the nuclear option, which he’s quite capable of.

Canto: So the only real option would be to kill him. And he’s no doubt been guarding himself against that option for years.

Jacinta: It would most likely have to be an inside job. I’m sure there are negotiations under way, but Putin is very much a survivor. At the moment he’s cracking down on dissent like never before. But the world is seeing it, and this will ultimately be a victory for democracy. In the short term though, it’s a terrible tragedy.

Canto: If there is a silver lining, it’s the winning of the propaganda war, the worldwide condemnation will give the CCP thugocracy something to think about vis-a-vis Taiwan. At the moment they’re trying to blame NATO for the invasion, and of course they have blanket control over the media there, but people have ways of getting reliable information, for example from the massive Chinese diaspora.

Jacinta: So I’ve been listening to Julia Ioffe, Masha Gessen, Fiona Hill and others, but of course no amount of analysis is going to improve the situation, and even our concern seems more debilitating than anything. I imagine holding Vlady prisoner and then pointing out some home truths…

Canto: Very useful. But here’s a few arguments. As you say, he’s been fond of claimng over the years that Ukraine isn’t a real country. But what makes Russia a real country? What make Australia a real country? What make the USA a real country?  Presumably Vlady thinks that Russia’s a real country because the slaughter, rape and suppression of ‘minority’ languages and cultures occurred earlier.

Jacinta: Well, we don’t know what he would say. What if we didn’t tell him why he’s wrong, but allowed him to explain why he’s right? What would he say?

Canto: Well, we know that he’s a very ardent nationalist, so to suggest to him that all nations are artificial in an important sense would just incense him. But once he calms down (and we’ve got him all tied up and hanging upside-down so he can’t escape, and we’ve promised him that if he provides really cogent arguments according to a panel of independent experts, he’ll be given his freedom, with his thugocracy completely returned to him), what will be his arguments?

Jacinta: Well, we don’t have his views on the legitimacy of Russia as a nation, and I suspect he would scoff at the very idea of having to justify Russian nationhood, because I’m sure he believes that if Russia didn’t exist his life would have no meaning – which is about as far from our understanding of our humanity as one could possibly get – but we do have his essay from last year about why Ukraine isn’t and can never be a legitimate nation.

Canto: Yes, he harps on about Ukrainians and Russians being ‘a single people’, who shouldn’t have a border between them, but the very idea of any nations being a ‘single people’ is a fantasy. It’s of course where the terms ‘unAustralian’ and ‘unAmerican’ get their supposed bite from – the fantasy of individuals being united by their ‘nationhood’.

Jacinta: More importantly, he seems completely unaware, or prefers to be unaware, of the extremely repressive state he’s created, and that few people in their right minds, whether Ukrainian, Russian or Icelandic, would want to live under a jackboot when they have the opportunity to choose and criticise their own government.

Canto: Yes, he talks in the vaguest, most soporific terms of Ukrainians and Russians occupying ‘the same historical and spiritual space’, and  being ‘a single people’, and with ‘affinities’ created by Vladimir the Great, the ruler of Kievan Rus over a thousand years ago. As if.

Jacinta: Yes, the fact is that Ukrainian pro-European and anti-Russian sentiment has obviously grown since Vlady’s bloody adventurism in 2014. Ukrainians are wanting to survive and thrive in the here and now. I mean, it’s good, sort of, that Vlady takes an interest in history, as we do, but from a vastly different perspective. His potted history, like many, is about rulers – earthly or spiritual, and territories won and lost between the Poles, the Lithuanians, the Russians and so on. But these battles for territories from centuries ago bear little relation to the lives and thoughts of individual people today, people whom Vlady is completely disconnected from, just as Xi Jinping  and his fellow thugs are completely disconnected from the everyday freedoms of Hong Kongers.

Canto: The point to make here is that no amount of tendentious historical description will conceal the fact that Ukrainians, like Hong-Kongers, see that their best future lies in the arms of the WEIRD world, with all its messiness. Here’s a banner epigram – fuck our history, what abut our future?

Jacinta: Good one. Yes, Vlady doesn’t like that not-so top-down messiness. He prefers stasis and control, especially by himself. And if it means wholesale slaughter to obtain it, so be it. Mind you, I strongly suspect he was misguided in his perception of Ukrainian sentiment, for whatever reason. And the people who are paying for this misguidedness, by and large, (and horrifically) are the Ukrainians.

References

Putin’s new Ukraine essay reveals imperial ambitions

 

http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/66181

 

Written by stewart henderson

March 12, 2022 at 7:59 pm

not Russia, Putin

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The world’s fledgling democracies, or non-democracies, are prone to instability, just as monarchies were in the past, because they were so subject to the vagaries of fate, and of particular individuals and their circumstances. When England’s Henry V died of dysentery near Paris just shy of his 36th birthday he had, in less than a decade, stabilised his English estate and inflicted mortal blows on the old enemy across the channel. Had Henry survived his illness, he would almost certainly have been crowned King of France, and the ‘Hundred Years’ War’ between the two kingdoms would have been reduced to just under seventy. As it was, England was in its most powerful position, arguably, since William of Normandy dispossessed or killed off the Saxon nobility and established his vast fiefdom.

But with Henry’s death it all fell apart. His successor was a nine-month old child, who grew up to be extremely timid and completely ineffectual as a ruler. Though he was briefly crowned King of France (at age 10), England was plunged into the chaos of the Wars of the Roses, and soon lost all its French territories apart from Calais.

Democracy, for all its flaws – due largely to the crooked timber of humanity – is the only form of government that allows for, indeed guarantees, at least in theory, the peaceful transfer of power between successive ‘regimes’. Post-Soviet Russia has of course, no succession system in place. North Korea is essentially a monarchy. As to China, the succession will be up for grabs, fought out within a tiny, absurdly corrupt clique. Other tyrannies face their own unique uncertainties. And the people will be forced to suffer the outcome in virtual silence.

As a member of ‘the people’, the canaille, the peasantry, the great unwashed, the proles, the rabble, the riffraff, the parasitic masses, I feel fortunate to live in a democracy, because there’s just no realistic alternative for people who don’t want to be unexpectedly interfered with for no apparent reason. Democratic governments don’t generally go to war, and certainly don’t start wars, if they think it’ll lose them the next election, and since it’s obvious that most people want a peaceful, unchanging life, that tends to settle the matter.

Which brings me to Russia and its suffering people. For centuries they were subject to a succession of dynastic emperors or Tzars, much like those in the rest of the vast Eurasian continent. Interestingly, the best of them was the Empress Catherine, a ring-in from Germany, who had to get rid of her nogoodnik husband (by an arranged marriage), a dissolute sadist, before she could establish her right to the throne – to which she had no ‘right’ – since rights were essentially based on primogeniture after initial warlordy slaughter.

But allow me to digress again to Western Europe et al. The principles of government began to change over time in the proto-WEIRD world, with its beginnings going back, arguably, as far as Magna Carta and the first English parliament in 1215, and boosted by the English Civil War in the mid-seventeenth century, with its indecisive victory for the parliamentarian faction. A half-century later King James II was forced into exile, and the first ever constitutional monarchy came into being. Over time, British governments gained ascendency as the power of the monarch waned, the concept of Prime Ministership evolved, and the voting franchise widened. Across the Atlantic, a new experiment in democratic government was undertaken, and of course in France a revolution went haywire, resulting in a new despotism under Napoleon, followed by a stumbling and backsliding course that eventually led to democracy by the end of the 19th century. Other European countries also experienced traumatic periods following the end of traditional monarchical or quasi-monarchical systems. Spain’s long monarchical period was often turbulent, but it looked like it had come to an abrupt end when Napoleon forced King Ferdinand VII to abdicate in 1808. After this the Bourbon monarchy-in-exile became a focus of resistance, but it soon lost support after the fall of Napoleon, due its extreme conservatism. Spain became a constitutional monarchy in the 1830s, but there were ongoing battles between political factions until the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1868 led to the ousting of Queen Isabella, the first truly reformist government in the country, and the creation of a Constitution promoting citizens’ rights. However, there was still plenty of political strife, and a coup d’état in 1874 restored the Bourbon monarchy. However, the new Constitution created an alternating system of conservative and liberal prime ministerships, which was innovative, though not exactly democratic. The relatively liberal constitutional monarchy limped on until Spain erupted in civil war, followed by the long, lost years of the Franco dictatorship. ‘Permanent’ democracy wasn’t established until the early 1980s.

I could go on with a fulsome account of the slow emergence of something like full democracy in Germany, Italy, the Baltic States and so on, but the overall point is clear – the old absolute power systems were not easily killed off and democracy struggled to get a foothold and should by no means be taken for granted as an established feature of the political landscape.

Now to return to Russia. Their absolute monarchy began, always arguably, with the murderous warlord now known, aptly enough, as Ivan the Terrible. Of course, warfare was a way of life in those days, but some took this way of life to ridiculous extremes. Ivan won some of his wars and lost others, as is the way, and the expansion and contraction of territories generally continued under his successors. So are nations arbitrarily founded (and losted) under absolute rulers. One of the features of Ivan’s rule was a 24-year Livonian War – Livonia being the territory now covered by the Baltic States, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Successful at first, Ivan failed as various surrounding forces rallied against him and the war severely depleted his military forces. Still, these and and other adventures no doubt have convinced Russia’s latest Tsar that these territories are an eternal part of Sweet Mother Russia, soon to be renamed Putinland.

Which brings me to Ukraine – but it would require a half-dozen books to do justice to the messy history of that country and region, even if only going back to the ancient Scythian kingdom, which covered not only modern Ukraine but much of south-western Russia. I’ll briefly mention the kingdoms, duchies, khanates, empires, republics and assorted noms de guerre associated with the region. After Scythia, there were the Slavic hordes, the Kievan Rus, the Golden Horde (mainly Mongols, at least at first), the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the kingdom of Poland, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Crimean Khanate, the Ottoman Empire, the Cossacks, the Tsardom of Muscovy, the Hetmanate, the Russian Empire, the Austrian Empire, the Free Territory of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (fighting both the Nazis and the Soviets), and, in 1991, independence from (then semi-Soviet) Russia.

So from 1991 on, Ukraine has been what might be called a proto- or wannabe-democracy (but aren’t they all?), rife with corruption – no doubt a hangover from the long Soviet years (imagine how long Putinland would last under a free press tightly protected by law). It reached its nadir under the grotesquely corrupt Pupin puppet, Viktor Yanukovych, who was chased out of the country in the heroic Maidan Revolution, aka the Revolution of Dignity, in 2014, no doubt to the nappy-wetting fury of our Vlad. It was this humiliation dealt out to Putin’s pal in Ukraine that led to the attack on the country later that year, and continued aggression leading to the current invasion.

So why has Putin gone so ‘overboard’ as to invade a country that has become increasingly uninterested in its ties with Russia and increasingly hopeful of joining the European Union and even, possibly, NATO, an organisation whose raison d’être is arguably the containment of Putin’s imperialist ambitions?

Well, to me, the NATO issue is a red herring. More important for Putin is the horror of Ukraine’s increasing democratisation, and its increasing indifference to Russia. There may be economic motives that I don’t know about (economics isn’t my strong suit, which is why I don’t own any suits), but the fact is that Putin is fanatically anti-democratic, and loves to surround himself with puppet thugocracies, as can be found in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Chechnya, North Korea and even China – obviously not a puppet regime, but just as thuggish.

And of course, Ukraine has a special importance to this wannabe Tsar, as a nation or region that has been in Russia’s sphere of influence for some centuries. But Putin has miscalculated majorly with this old-fashioned offensive. Ukrainians are a proud and fighting people, as the Maidan Revolution proved, and the vast majority have zero interest in kowtowing to the new Putinland. It’s already clear that the Ukrainians will not be cowed by this attack, and will not negotiate in any way with the aggressors. Most international observers are at a loss as to how Putin could have made such a monumental miscalculation, as he is generally a smarter thug than most. If Putin has a victory here at all, it will be a Pyrrhic victory. He will not be able to install a Yanakovich-style leader, as nobody of any credibility, inside or outside of the country, will support him. And many men, women and children will die because of this folly. Basically, Putin has already lost this one. And, due to all the sanctions, which I don’t particularly support, he will face plenty of unrest on the home front.

How this will now play out is anyone’s guess. Putin seems to me like a usually astute gambler who has suffered a brainsnap and gambled much of his political reputation away. He can’t now back out, and he can’t win. No reputable nation is backing him, sanctions will make him increasingly unpopular domestically, and he actually now looks foolish. The worry of course is that he’ll play his hand to the bitter end, and lash out with maximum force at everyone who opposes him. It would be nice to think that we’re seeing the tragi-comic end of the era of naked despotism, but of course there’s nothing comic about Putin’s antics and their horrific consequences, and let’s face it, the timber of humanity is extremely crooked in some instances, and that has its appeal to an alarming number of people. But at least with democracy, the consequences of such crookedness aren’t quite so devastating. In Putinland, that’s another story. We’re all hoping this will be Putin’s last stand, but on the domestic front, he’s far more familiar with the terrain. We, the international community, must make every effort to keep him in his box, and to support those in the former and hopefully future nation of Russia, whose hope and ambition is to deliver the fatal blow.

Written by stewart henderson

March 1, 2022 at 11:33 pm

resetting the electrical agenda

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the all-electric la jamais contente, first car to break the 100 kph barrier, in 1899

In his book Clearing the air, Tim Smedley reminds us of the terrible errors we made in abandoning electric vehicles in the early 20th century. Smedley’s focus was on air pollution, and how the problem was exacerbated, and in fact largely caused, by emissions from car exhausts in increasingly car-dependent cities like Beijing, Delhi, Los Angeles and London. In the process he briefly mentioned the electric tram systems that were scrapped in so many cities worldwide in favour of the infernal combustion engine. It’s a story I’ve heard before of course, but it really is worth taking a deeper dive into the mess of mistakes we made back then, and the lessons we need to learn. 

A major lesson, unsurprisingly, is to be suspicious of vested interests. Today, the fossil fuel industry is still active in denying the facts about global warming and minimising the impact of air pollution on our health. Solar and wind power, and the rise of the EV industry – which, unfortunately, doesn’t exist in Australia – are still subject to ridiculous attacks by the heavily subsidised fossil fuel giants, though at least their employees don’t go around smashing wind turbines and solar panels. The website Car and Driver tells a ‘funny story’ about the very earliest days of EVs: 

… Robert Davidson of Aberdeen, built a prototype electric locomotive in 1837. A bigger, better version, demonstrated in 1841, could go 1.5 miles at 4 mph towing six tons. Then it needed new batteries. This impressive performance so alarmed railway workers (who saw it as a threat to their jobs tending steam engines) that they destroyed Davidson’s devil machine, which he’d named Galvani.

If only this achievement by Davidson, before the days of rechargeable batteries, had been greeted with more excitement and wonder. But by the time rechargeable batteries were introduced in the 1860s, steam locomotives were an established and indeed revolutionary form of transport. They began to be challenged, though, in the 1880s and 90s as battery technology, and other features such as lightweight construction materials and pneumatic tyres, started to make electric transport a more promising investment. What followed, of course, with the development of and continual improvements to the internal combustion engine in the 1870s and 80s, first using gas and then petrol – the 1870s into the 90s and beyond was a period of intense innovation for vehicular transport – was a serious and nasty battle for control of the future of private road transport. Electricity wasn’t widely available in the early twentieth century, but rich industrialists were able to create a network of filling stations, which, combined with the wider availability of cheap oil, and the mass production and marketing capabilities of industrialists like Henry Ford – who had earlier considered electric vehicles the best future option – made petrol-driven vehicles the eventual winner, in the short term. Of course, little thought was given in those days to fuel emissions. A US website describes a likely turning point: 

… it was Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T that dealt a blow to the electric car. Introduced in 1908, the Model T made gasoline [petrol]-powered cars widely available and affordable. By 1912, the gasoline car cost only $650, while an electric roadster sold for $1,750. That same year, Charles Kettering introduced the electric starter, eliminating the need for the hand crank and giving rise to more gasoline-powered vehicle sales.

Electrically-powered vehicles quickly became ‘quaint’ and unfashionable, leading to to the trashing of electric trams worldwide. 

The high point of the internal combustion engine may not have arrived yet, as numbers continue to climb. Some appear to be addicted to the noise they make (I hear them roaring by nearly every night!). But surely their days are numbered. What shocks me, frankly, is how slow the public is to abandon them, when the fossil fuel industry is so clearly in retreat, and when EVs are becoming so ‘cool’. Of course conservative governments spend a fortune in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry –  Australia’s government  provided over $10 billion in the 2020-21 financial year, and the industry in its turn has given very generously to the government (over $1.5 million in FY2020, according to the Market Forces website).

But Australia is an outlier, with one of the worst climate policies in the WEIRD world. There will be a federal election here soon, and a change of government is very much on the cards, but the current labor opposition appears afraid to unveil a climate policy before the election. The move towards electrification of vehicles in many European countries, in China and elsewhere, will eventually have a knock-on effect here, but the immediate future doesn’t look promising. EV sales have risen markedly in the past twelve months, but from a very low base, with battery and hybrids rising to 1.95% of market share – still a paltry amount (compare Norway with 54% EVs in 2020). Interestingly, Japan is another WEIRD country that is lagging behind. China continues to be the world leader in terms of sheer numbers. 

The countries that will lead the field of course, will be those that invest in infrastructure for the transition. Our current government announced an infrastructure plan at the beginning of the year, but with little detail. There are issues, for example, about the type of charging infrastructure to fund, though fast-charging DC seems most likely.

In general, I’ve become pessimistic about Australians switching en masse to EVs over the next ten years or so – I’ve read too many ‘just around the corner’ articles with too little actual change in the past five years. But perhaps a new government with a solid, detailed plan will emerge in the near future, leading to a burst of new investment…. 

References

Tim Smedley, Clearing the air, 2019

https://www.caranddriver.com/features/g15378765/worth-the-watt-a-brief-history-of-the-electric-car-1830-to-present/

https://www.energy.gov/articles/history-electric-car

https://www.marketforces.org.au/politicaldonations2021/

 

Written by stewart henderson

February 27, 2022 at 1:07 pm

the world’s greatest democracy?

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forget about the kid, just get the t-shirt

 

Over the last 5-6 years, since Trump, to my great bemusement, began to emerge as a serious candidate for the US Presidency, I’ve been following US politics more than ever before, and more than I’ve ever felt inclined to. I try not to be prejudiced against the USA as a nation, and of course I’ve met individual United Staters who are as varied as individuals from other nations, but just as I’ve always had a special loathing for bullies and thuggish individuals, sometimes known, when they’re invested with some sort of official or tacitly accepted power, as ‘authoritarians’, I’ve also tended to harbour ill-feelings towards nations that like to throw their weight around on the international stage, or governments that do the same vis-a-vis the general citizenry.

Interestingly, as I observe myself, I find that my anti-authoritarian attitude has never led me to embrace libertarianism, as I’m too much aware of the hyper-social nature of humanity, and of many other species. So when I think of social evolution, I think of the social side above all, and of promoting awareness of this social side, and of enhancing the social situation for the individuals linked into it, which of course means all of us. And that ‘all’ needs to be as comprehensive as possible, not species-specific.

We humans have – at least most of us – organised ourselves (or have been organised) socially into political units known as nations, in recent centuries. And of course there have been up-sides and down-sides to this development. It surprises me, for example, how quickly nationalist fervour can be stirred up within these relatively recent entities – good for sporting competitions, but not always so good for those who want to leave the nation they find themselves in for a richer or safer one. ‘They don’t belong here’ is a chant I’ve heard more than once. And there are other, more subtle nationalistic tropes. Here in Australia, we poo-poo bad behaviour by calling it ‘unAustralian’, just as United Staters use ‘unAmerican’ (I suspect this is because the terms have a nice flow to them, whereas ‘unBritish’ sounds too clunky), as if Aussies or Yanks are generally better than other humans.

Which brings me to ‘American exceptionalism’, the idea that what they call ‘the American experiment’ is unique in human history. That’s to say, unique in some positively extraordinary way, for of course the formation of every nation or political system is unique. Since paying more attention to US politics, and the media that reports on it, I’ve heard a number of pundits – Maggie Haberman, Chuck Rosenberg, Adam Schiff and Joe Scarborough to name a few – mouthing terms such as ‘the American experiment’, ‘the world’s greatest democracy’ and ‘the leader of the free world’, either with virtual puffed-out chests or a mantra-like blandness, as if they might’ve had such platitudes drummed into them back in kindergarten.

So, to pick out one of these clichés, the USA as ‘the world’s greatest democracy’, let me explore its meaning and its truthiness. The term can be taken to mean two different things – that the USA is the world’s greatest country (militarily, economically or otherwise), which also happens to be a democracy, or that the USA has the world’s greatest (democratic) political system.

So let me take the first meaning first. Does ‘the greatest’ mean ‘the most powerful’ or ‘the best’? Or both, or neither? Or does it mean the greatest in terms of opportunity or well-being for its members? Whichever way you look at it, there are problems. A nation may be ‘great’ – that’s to say, full of well-fed, time-rich, intellectually productive members, because, through a whole set of complex circumstances, it has managed to exploit or even enslave its neighbours, or regions with resources that this nation knows how to profit from – as occurred in the ‘Belgian’ Congo under Leo Victor. That’s to say, look behind the self-aggrandising term ‘great’ and you’re likely to find exploitation – of resources and also of people. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans created profoundly hierarchical or slave states. The centuries-long feudal era was a period of massive intellectual and physical exploitation, often of women, nameless and forgotten.

Returning to the USA, its people have fallen for the same fallacy that the Egyptians, the Persians, the Romans, the Brits and the Japanese fell for – that their economic and military power entailed some sort of moral superiority. Often they learn their lesson too late. The term ‘savage’ was used to refer to African, American and Australian cultures by late arrivals from Europe, most of whom only came to understand the complexity and profound rootedness of their culture after it had been uprooted. And some are still clueless about these cultures. I spent some years teaching English to people newly arrived from Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, whose experience of indigenous Australians was of drunken cadgers and brawlers in the heart of the city – their traditional meeting place for thousands of years before the British usurped them. How to even begin to explain, in a foreign language, the cultural devastation these people had experienced?

In the USA the problems of colonial expropriation are compounded by those of abduction and slavery, which, very obviously, are far from being solved. The ‘greatest’ in terms of GDP means little to the majority when the gap between the rich minority and the poor has widened massively in recent decades, and poverty levels for African-Americans and Hispanics have hit record lows. US ‘freedoms’ allow for workers to be paid lower wages than anywhere else in the WEIRD world, leading to obvious poverty traps. Australia’s minimum wage is almost three times that of the USA (though we have our own failings in other areas, such as the treatment of refugees). Joe Scarborough has more than once cited the USA’s top universities as proof of the nation’s greatness, but the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of United Staters have zero chance of attending these institutions.

So how do we measure a nation’s ‘greatness’ if we disregard GDP, or at least treat its status as a measure with skepticism? The answer, of course, is that there’s no objective measure. If science is your consuming passion, there are a number of countries that are world leaders in the field, depending on the precise field. If you’re deeply religious you’ll find a country to suit your spirituality, within reason. If money-making is your life’s purpose, there are a few nations that might fit the bill. Others might be better for a simple community life. Of course, not all of these countries will be democracies, but that’s a problem with democracies, they change from election to election. If you want to live in a democracy, you’re going to have to cope with these changes.

This brings me to the second meaning. Does the USA have the world’s best democratic system? I’m more confident about answering that one, and the answer is definitely ‘no’. But I’ve already given my reasons in previous posts – for example, here, here and here. To my mind great democracies don’t have to have nuclear weapons, a roll-call of billionaires, or super-guy Presidents with numbers attached. They don’t need to rabbit on about individual freedom as the be-all and end-all of human striving, when in fact no individuals have ever existed for long without a social network, into which they’re born and within which they will have to operate until the day they die.

Of course there are worse countries, and probably worse democracies, than the USA – and I do agree that democracy is the worst political system apart from all the others, but it seems to me that one of the keys to an effective political system is an ongoing recognition of its weaknesses and failings, and an ongoing effort to bring about improvement. Rabbiting on about being ‘the greatest’ and the world’s natural leader has the opposite effect. Brilliant people are rarely big-heads. They just behave brilliantly. And are judged as brilliant by others, not by themselves.

Not that United Staters are ever going to listen to me!

 

Written by stewart henderson

February 24, 2022 at 10:27 pm

what is electricity? part 10 – it’s some kind of energy

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je ne sais pas

Canto: We’ve done nine posts on electricity and it still seems to me like magic. I mean it’s some kind of energy produced by ionisation, which we’ve been able to harness into a continuous flow, which we call current. And the flow can alternate directionally or not, and there are advantages to each, apparently.

Jacinta: And energy is heat, or heat is energy, and can be used to do work, and a lot of work has been done on energy, and how it works – for example there’s a law of conservation of energy, though I’m not sure how that works.

Canto: Yes maybe if we dwell on that concept, something or other will become clearer. Apparently energy can’t be created or destroyed, only converted from one form to another. And there are many forms of energy – electrical, gravitational, mechanical, chemical, thermal, whatever.

Jacinta: Muscular, intellectual, sexual?

Canto: Nuclear energy, mass energy, kinetic energy, potential energy, dark energy, light energy…

Jacinta: Psychic energy… Anyway, it’s stuff that we use to do work, like proteinaceous foodstuff to provide us with the energy to get ourselves more proteinaceous foodstuff. But let’s not stray too far from electricity. Electricity from the get-go was seen as a force, as was gravity, which Newton famously explained mathematically with his inverse square law.

Canto: ‘Every object or entity attracts every other object or entity with a force directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centres’, but he of course didn’t know how much those objects, like ourselves, were made up of a ginormous number of particles or molecules, of all shapes and sizes and centres of mass.

Jacinta: But the inverse square law, in which a force dissipates with distance, captured the mathematical imagination of many scientists and explorers of the world’s forces over the following generations. Take, for example, magnetism. It seemed to reduce with distance. Could that reduction be expressed in an inverse square law? And what about heat? And of course electrical energy, our supposed topic?

Canto: Well, some quick net-research tells me that magnetism does indeed reduce with the square of distance, as does heat, all under the umbrella term that ‘intensity’ of any force, if you can call thermal energy a force, reduces in an inverse square ratio from the point source in any direction. As to why, I’m not sure if that’s a scientific question.

Jacinta: A Khan Academy essay tackles the question scientifically, pointing out that intuition sort of tells us that a force like, say magnetism, reduces with distance, as does the ‘force’ of a bonfire, and that these reductions with distance might all be connected, and therefore quantified in the same way. The key is in the way the force spreads out in straight lines in every direction from the source. That’s how it dissipates. When you’re close to the source it hasn’t had a chance to spread out.

Canto: So when you’re measuring the gravitational force upon you of the earth, you have to remember that attractive force is pulling you to the earth’s centre of mass. That attractive force is radiating out in all directions. So if you’re at a height that’s twice the distance between the earth’s surface and its centre of mass, the force is reduced by a particular mathematical formula which has to do with the surface of a sphere which is much larger than the earth’s sphere (though the earth isn’t quite a sphere), but can be mathematically related to that sphere quite precisely, or to a smaller or larger sphere. The surface of a sphere increases with the square of the radius.

Jacinta: Yes, and this inverse square law works for light intensity too, though it’s not intuitively obvious, perhaps. Or electromagnetic radiation, which I think is the technical term. And the keyword is radiation – it radiates out in every direction. Think of spheres again. But we need to focus on electricity. The question here is – how does the distance between two electrically charged objects affect the force of attraction or repulsion between them?

Canto: Well, we know that increasing the distance doesn’t increase the force. In fact we know – we observe – that increasing the distance decreases the force. And likely in a precise mathematical way.

Jacinta: Well thought. And here we’re talking about electrostatic forces. And evidence has shown, unsurprisingly, that the decreased or increased force is an inverse square relationship. To spell it out, double the distance between two electrostatically charged ‘points’ decreases the  force (of attraction or repulsion) by two squared, or four. And so on. So distance really matters.

Canto: Double the distance and you reduce the force to a quarter of what it was. Triple the distance and you reduce it to a ninth.

Jacinta: This is Coulomb’s law for electrostatic force. Force is inversely proportional to the square of the distance –     F = k \frac{q_1q_2}{r^2}. Where F is the electric force, q are the two charges and r is the distance of separation. K is Coulomb’s constant.

Canto: Which needs explaining.

Jacinta: It’s a proportionality constant. This is where we have to understand something of the mathematics of variables and constants. So, Coulomb’s law was published by the brilliant Charles Augustin de Coulomb, who despite what you might think from his name, was no aristocrat and had to battle to get a decent education, in 1785. And as can be seen in his law, it features a constant similar to Newton’s gravitational constant.

Canto: So how is this constant worked out?

Jacinta: Well, think of the most famous equation in physics, E=mc2, which involves a constant, c, the speed of light in a vacuum. This speed can be measured in various ways. At first it was thought to be infinite, which is crazy but understandable. It would mean that that we were seeing the sun and stars as they actually are right now, which I’m sure is what every kid thinks. Descartes was one intellectual who favoured this view. It was ‘common sense’ after all. But a Danish astronomer, Ole Roemer, became the first person to calculate an actual value, when he recognised that there was a discrepancy between his calculation of the eclipse of Io, Jupiter’s innermost moon, and the actual eclipse as seen from earth. He theorised correctly that the discrepancy was due to the speed of light. Later the figure he arrived at was successively revised, by Christiaan Huygens among others, but Roemer was definitely on the right track…

Canto: Okay, I understand – and I understand that the calculation of the gravitational force exerted at the earth’s surface, about 9.8 metres per sec per sec, helps us to calculate the gravitational constant, I think. Anyway, Henry Cavendish was the first to come up with a pretty good approximation in 1798. But what about Coulomb’s constant?

Jacinta: Well I could state it – that’s to say, quote it from a science website – in SI units (the International System of units), but how that was arrived at precisely, I don’t know. It wasn’t worked out mathematically by Coulomb, I don’t think, but he worked out the inverse proportionality. There are explanations online, which invoke Gauss, Faraday, Lagrange and Maxwell, but the maths is way beyond me. Constants are tricky to state clearly because they invoke methods of measurements, and those measures are only human. For example the speed of light is measured in metres per second, but metres and seconds are actually human constructions for measuring stuff. What’s the measure of those measures? We have to use conventions.

Canto: Yes, this has gone on too long, and I feel my electric light is fading. I think we both need to do some mathematical training, or is it too late for us?

Jacinta: Well, I’m sure it’s all available online – the training. Brilliant.org might be a good start, or you could spend the rest of your life playing canasta – chess has been ruined by AI.

Canto: So many choices…

 

Written by stewart henderson

February 20, 2022 at 2:34 pm

the anti-bonobo world 2: Putinland

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So what is the opposite of a ‘bonobo world’ in human terms? I’d describe it as a macho thugocracy. The chimp world, from my research, isn’t anywhere near the kind of macho thugocracy that we find in some places in the human world, in which the concentration of male power is extreme. The chimp world is certainly more aggressive and more hierarchical than the bonobo world, but alliances are constantly shifting, and females make alliances with both males and other females, to protect their young and sometimes themselves against growing males who are constantly challenging the current hierarchy.

With humans, organisation and power became more institutional, but with democracy, power tends to be more fleeting and more dependent on collaboration, promise-keeping, popularity and the like. So a more democratic region tends to lend itself to a more bonobo-like culture. There used to be a claim that democracies never make war with each other, but one should never say never. Nevertheless, with the advent of modern democracy, the WEIRD world has clearly settled down into less violent forms of exploitation. And in terms of female power and influence, the door is slowly creaking open.

Some of us are more impatient than others. I need to recall that, 100 years ago, in 1920 to be precise, women were awarded their first degrees at Oxford University. In that same year, women in the USA were granted the right to vote, after years of struggle and vitriolic resistance. Social evolution has been increasingly rapid, but it’s still too slow for many of us to bear, as the sands of one lifetime start to run out.

And there are frustrating reversals. In Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, written in the late forties, she described the gains made by women in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, influenced by the feminist principles of Engels and Marx as well as the mostly British suffragette movement, followed by a backlash in the 30s and 40s as Stalin established his stranglehold on power. She ended her analysis on a grim note:

… today the demands of repopulation have given rise to a different family policy: the family has become the elementary social cell and woman is both worker and housekeeper. Sexual morality is at its strictest; since the law of June 1936, reinforced by that of June 1941, abortion has been banned and divorce almost suppressed; adultery is condemned by moral standards. Strictly subordinated to the state like all workers, strictly bound to the home, but with access to political life and the dignity that productive work gives, the Russian woman is in a singular situation that would be worth studying in its singularity; circumstances unfortunately prevent me from doing this.

Stalinist Russia and its profoundly corrupt and terrorising state control heavily impeded feminine and general freedoms, a situation that largely persisted until the advent of Gorbachev in the 1980s. What followed, according to the political science academic Brian Grodsky, was an unprincipled mess of grab-bag opportunism under Boris Yeltsin and his cronies:

…. Russians watched as Yeltsin clumsily dragged the country through a decade of lawlessness, poverty and humility, all in the name of American-supported democracy. The economy plummeted while a new tiny class of ostentatious “haves” made their fortune frequently by plundering what people had built during Soviet times.

Putin, the acme of the smart, devious, unprincipled KGB operative, was able to take advantage of the situation, quite likely by contributing to the murderous chaos before presenting himself as ministering angel to the country’s plummeting economy. He used Stalin’s tactics of sowing suspicion everywhere, while managing to sell himself as a friend of the ‘common people’, a skill that was never in Stalin’s make-up.

There is no doubt, though, that Putin is a ruthless, murderous thug who hates democracy with a passion. He’s clearly obsessed with his eastern border and the democratisation of any of Russia’s neighbours or economic ‘partners’. He’s much more comfortable among fellow macho thugs, as long as he can manipulate them. Within the country he’s intent on maintaining a conservative, masculinised culture. More than any other leader before him, certainly throughout the Soviet era, he has fostered close ties with the Russian Orthodox Church, the leader of which, their equivalent of the Catholic Pope, is called the Patriarch. If only this was a parody.

But the promotion of patriarchal values via conservative Christianity is only one piece of the attack on feminism. Like the Chinese thugocracy, which chortles under the exquisitely meaningless title, the Chinese Communist Party, Putinland decries feminism – a campaign to promote equal rights, opportunities and respect for women – as liberal-democratic decadence. In her 2018 essay, ‘Russian politics of masculinity and the decay of feminism’, Alexandra Orlova describes the state propagandising of opposition figures and even dissenting nations like Ukraine as weak and ‘feminine’, even resorting to video campaigns dressing such figures up as transvestites and ‘fairies’. Traditional, unchanging values are continuously promoted in an unrelenting propaganda war, which unsurprisingly connects feminism with gay freedoms under the ‘banner’ of degeneracy. State-funded video ads for the already-rigged 2018 elections presented the alternative to the status quo as an enforced de-masculinisation of Russian society presented in absurdist comic terms.

Much of this disastrous absurdity springs from the failures of the Soviet era, which, as Beauvoir and Orlova make clear, began very promisingly for feminism. Why such a failure? The answer lies, it seems to me, in the moral congealing of a top-down, anti-democratic system, as existed under patriarchal catholicism for centuries in Europe. Communist ‘values’ have never been particularly coherent, but they were soon replaced by a ‘we know best’ authoritarianism which divided the rulers from the ruled and sought to promulgate rules that would maintain a status quo which would benefit the empowered. A promotion of stasis – of traditional or eternal values. For example, as Orlova puts it, ‘by the 1930s the Soviet government claimed that women’s issues were largely solved.’ Compare this to the Beauvoir statement above, which Orlova would surely endorse. Under Putin, nothing has changed, which essentially means that Russia has gone backward compared to the WEIRD world, in which progress has been slow enough to be extremely frustrating for some.

There was, of course, a window of opportunity in the nineties before Putin consolidated his power at the end of that decade. During this period, WEIRD organisations were active in promoting feminism and other progressive values in a nation whose immediate future was uncertain. All of these initiatives have been quashed with the advent of Putinland.

Putin is, as of this writing, 69 years and 4 months old. He has dispensed with the charade of rigged elections, and so has managed, by fiat, to avoid the skirmishes that alpha male chimps and gorillas have to face in order to maintain a hegemony that nature determines will pass on to someone else, usually through further violent confrontation. He’ll leave behind a nation that’s left behind, considering how globally connected the world – especially the WEIRD  world – has become. The Russian people, though, are better than this. Its beleaguered women will bounce back. Already they can see through the propagandist bullshit of Putin’s thugocracy. Like a coiled spring, they’re waiting for release. Any day now.

Evidence of a more positive future is clear enough. Orlova focuses in her essay on two issues that exercised the Russian court system, which, like the Duma, is stacked with ‘traditional values’ conservatives, and highlighted its absurdity vis-a-vis the rest of the WEIRD world. Firstly, the Pussy Riot débâcle, and secondly the Markin v Russia case regarding military leave, which was finally taken to the European Court of Human Rights.

To take the second case first, Konstantin Markin, a single father of three children, was employed by the military as a radio operator. His request for parental leave in 2010 was rejected, due to the fact that, under Russian law, such leave could only be granted to women. Two levels of appeal under the Russian justice system were rejected, and the judicial reasoning in these cases, and in response to the European Court, which found in favour of Markin, reveal how problematic the Russian judiciary’s attitude was in the face of obvious reality. The chairman of the Russian Constitutional Court, Valery Zorkin, claimed that the special role of women in the raising of children was supported by contemporary psychology. Presumably, he considered this ‘fact’ to be sufficient to prohibit a male who happened to be raising children from being provided the support given to women. The children don’t appear to have been given very much consideration in the matter. What Zorkin and his ilk proposed should be done about the children in these circumstances is unknown. I would also presume that Russia, like the USA, doesn’t feel itself bound by judicial bodies beyond its boundaries. I’ve been unable to ascertain whether Markin ever got his leave, but I would agree with the Strasbourg observers, linked below, that the well-being of the children in the case should have been front and centre, the first and virtually only focus of the courts in all cases.

The Pussy Riot events are, of course, better known, and the humour and deliberate outrageousness of their activities were bound to endear them to the WEIRD world that Putinland pretends to despise. Tellingly the Russian courts were most ‘outraged’ by the group’s takeover of a particularly male section of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to stage a feminist performance. One section of the court’s decision indicates their attitude:

While following the ideology of feminism does not constitute a crime or another type of an offence in the Russian Federation, a number of religions, such as Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Islam, cannot be reconciled with the ideas of feminism. While feminism does not represent a religious ideology, the followers of feminism are interfering with such public spheres as public morals, norms of propriety, family relations, and sexual relations, all of which have been historically built on the basis of religious principles.

This is essentially the dictate of a religious institution rather than a secular one. The religious organisations mentioned have, of course, been opposed to the equal treatment of women for centuries, and are obvious and necessary targets for feminist and human rights organisations.

As of this moment of writing, the forces of Putinland are about to invade Ukraine, a sovereign democratic nation. Whether or not Putin wins this battle, he has no chance of winning the war of values. Meanwhile, horrors will be inflicted and needless suffering will occur. Fighting the anti-bonobo world is going to be difficult for an increasingly bonoboesque WEIRD world that prefers to make love. I’ve no idea how we can overcome this macho push, at least in the short term, but long-term victory will definitely involve women, in vast numbers.

References

Simone de Beauvoir, The second sex, 1949

https://scholarship.law.wm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1486&context=wmjowl

https://www.equalrightstrust.org/news/refusal-grant-serviceman-parental-leave-constitutes-sex-discrimination

https://strasbourgobservers.com/category/cases/konstantin-markin-v-russia/

Written by stewart henderson

February 19, 2022 at 5:17 pm

On free will and libertarianism 3: freedom and politics

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Canto: So I’ve tried to establish my claim that free will just doesn’t exist, which will of course be rejected by those who are obsessed with the notion, who go on at length about freedom from government, the ‘system’, conformism, gender norms, religion, taxation, and so on. Of course, it would be highly unusual to hear any humans asserting their freedom from being human. We all seem to recognise that we’re stuck with that constraint. So, what is it, to be human?

Jacinta: Well I’m not sure if you’ve succeeded in convincing me about a complete lack of free will. It may be a product of complexity – that’s to say, we just don’t know what all the determining factors are, they’re so mind-bogglingly complex that the sense that we’ve made a particular positive or negative decision through the processes of unconstrained thought is probably the best explanation we can make in many circumstances. Isn’t that more or less the compatibilist argument?

Canto: Well, maybe, but I don’t think we’re the best judges of our own decision-making processes, just as, evidence shows, we’re not the best judges of our own abilities, our sex appeal, and so forth. For obvious evolutionary reasons, we’re inclined to think better of ourselves than others think of us. It helps us to keep afloat. But let’s turn now, for a while, to political libertarianism. First, it’s based, it seems to me, on the concept of rights, which is rather recent, though undoubtedly useful in trying to outline for individuals the needed conditions for a fruitful life. 

Jacinta: Inauspicious beginnings, as we’ve discussed before, but perhaps coming of age as a useful guide with the Universal Declaration. But there’s an obvious problem with basing our ethical and political values on individual liberty when we’re clearly the most hypersocial species on the planet. 

Canto: Yes, and that hypersociality has involved the development of somewhat coercive hierarchical state systems such as the feudal system in its various forms throughout Eurasia. These dominance systems, however, have been phenomenally successful for the spread of our species and for our own overall dominance of the biosphere. 

Jacinta: And a domination based on control of land has since morphed into a dominance based on markets. But it’s much more complicated than that. State control has integrated people in terms of language, customs, religion and so forth. As we’ve already pointed out, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the houses we live in, our jobs, our education, we didn’t create any of these as individuals but acquired them as part of an organisational structure that existed long before we came into being and will continue long after we pass. Isn’t all this rather problematic for libertarians?

Canto: Yes, I’ve pointed out before that libertarianism is really a product of the success of the state system, of hypersocial civilisation. The individual, who is in many respects the product of all this social construction, has been so benefitted by it that she feels she owes it all to her own striving, somewhat like the ungrateful offspring of an all-giving mother. 

Jacinta: Who’s she, the cat’s mother? But it’s interesting that a lot of disadvantaged people, really quite poor people, are stridently anti-government. Look at so many Trumpet types. His buffoonish incompetence predictably led to dysfunction in every sector of government, to the total delight of his supporters. Would you call these people libertarians?

Canto: Well I doubt if they would call themselves libertarians or have much idea of what the term meant, but I’m sure many of them would be in the category of those who rarely or ever vote, who would see, and suffer from, the inequities of society, which are of such a complex nature that one of the easiest targets for their ire would be government. After all, those in government aren’t poor by their standards.

Jacinta: “Don’t vote, it just encourages them”. Yes, these are people without easy connections to big business, higher education, or political clout. Constraints on free will, you might say?

Canto: The politics of resentment, as you realise that particular avenues don’t seem to be open to you, and you might not have even known those avenues existed until it was too late. So these people shouldn’t be labelled as libertarians – their plight is too complex to be pigeon-holed in such a way. The ‘real’ libertarians base their position on the evolution, over the past few centuries, of the concept of rights. They’ve taken the Universal Declaration, based squarely on the individual…

Jacinta: Having at last, in the 20th century, expanded on the ‘man’ part.

Canto: Yes, and they’ve run with it, especially with regard to restraints on individual freedom which affect others, from freedom from taxation to freedom to drive dangerously crappy cars, own hand-guns or go about unmasked and unvaccinated during a pandemic.

Jacinta: Not to mention freedom to exploit others in employment. Doesn’t the USA have about the lowest minimum wage rates in the WEIRD world? Not to mention low rates of what they call ‘unemployment insurance’, which is taxable and of limited duration. “Stop scrounging off the government, get out there and get exploited like us…”

Canto: Yes, we love USA-bashing. But of course libertarianism is far from an exclusively US ideology, anyone can indulge in it. But it does seem to rely heavily on individual freedom as a right, and since free will is a myth, IMHO, that’s a bit of a non-starter. But here I want to talk about rights. I think the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a great advance, not because of its promotion of rights particularly, but because it was a first attempt to be fully global about the conditions for human flourishing. These conditions will always need to be tweaked, because humanity is evolving. Rights are a useful human construct but we need to be aware of their fundamental artificiality. This artificiality can hopefully be more easily uncovered when we note that they’re based on the individual, an entity that simply doesn’t exist outside of the society or culture that brought it into being. You can, of course, isolate a human being, just as you can isolate a chimp, a bonobo, an elephant, a dolphin or a crow, but you cannot understand or explain or define any of these creatures without understanding the species, sub-species, culture or community they belong to. If we were to talk about the ‘rights’ of a crow, for example, we would have to talk about the conditions required for a crow’s flourishing. And it’s those conditions that really matter, not the crow’s ‘rights’. So ‘rights’ talk is really a way of talking about something else, something much more important. 

Jacinta: So… let me be clear about this. Have you just demolished rights as a fundamental concept?

Canto: Haha, well I’ve just tried to establish, or promote, a more fundamental concept, which goes back in history well before the concept of rights. Aristotle used the term eudaimonia, though whether it was his invention, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter really. Think of it as the conditions for flourishing – whether for a human, a guppy or a tardigrade. They all need their own species to keep on keeping on, as a species. 

Jacinta: Ah, but group selection is a myth isn’t it?

Canto: No, not group selection. The individual, being part of a group, or species, seeks to mate with other members of that species, which is not a sacrifice for the group, far from it. The individual is in some very strong sense motivated to replicate itself through reproduction, which indirectly benefits the species.

Jacinta: So these conditions for flourishing take into account individuals as individual members of something larger, a culture, a species, etc? 

Canto: Yes precisely, that membership of a larger whole, which for humanity has become a more global, hypersocial whole than ever, due to our capacity for destruction – nuclear arsenals, destruction of habitats, greenhouse gas emissions, the production of waste and so forth – makes a mockery of the individual’s claim to freedom of action, when they simply can’t and don’t exist outside of that hypersocial, productive and destructive community. We just need to understand what has made us human, and it’s not what libertarians seem to think it is. And that’s really fundamental. 

Jacinta: Well that’s interesting. Libertarianism really seems to stand and fall on rights, unless there are some types of libertarianism that take a different tack. 

Canto: Yes I’m not really sure if I want to explore the topic any further.

Jacinta: Haha well then that’s all for now. 

References

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/libertarianism/

the anti-bonobo world 1: the BHT

 

Written by stewart henderson

February 14, 2022 at 8:09 pm