Saturday, February 28, 2015

Signs That There's Something Seriously Wrong With Me

I had noticed that over the course of the last year or so, I had begun to harshly criticize atheists much more often than religious believers, but recently it occurred to me that I had been spending less time with time with believers, and almost no time discussing religion with believers. it may well be that

1. I criticize everybody. All the time. Excessively. Very excessively, maybe.

I started watching "The Big Bang Theory" when TBS started showing it in syndication. It took me a while to get over my annoyance at the show's laugh track -- it's the 21st century, for crying out loud -- but right away I identified strongly with the character of Sheldon Cooper, and thought: He's so wonderful, such a brilliant autistic genius.

2. It took me over 20 episodes to realize that Sheldon constantly annoys all of the other characters on the show. Severely annoys them. This annoyance, Sheldon's social dysfunction, is in fact the biggest driving force of the action of the series. And all I could think, 20 shows long if not longer, was, He's so like me and He's so wonderful. Self-absorption and lack of self-awareness calling, will I accept the charges?

3. Over the past 35 years, I've never maintained a romantic relationship for more than 3 months.

4. Over 35 years ago, when I was a teenager, I maintained a relationship for 2 1/2 years, but recently I completely forgot about that when thinking over my relationships, and considered my longest relationship to have lasted 3 months.

And so, to some up,

It seems I may be a real bastard, an extremely annoying old fart who does not even honor the best things which have happened to him. This would explain some things like why I'm so lonely.

I really don't like to think of myself as nasty old bastard -- but seriously: who does? I'm guessing: fewer than the actual number of nasty old bastards. It's not at all pleasant to think of myself in this way, but here, as always and everywhere, recognizing a problem and facing it squarely is essential to any hope of ever solving it.

Okay, I may have achieved one insight from this exercise already. Maybe not a big one, I don't know. It's just that I can keep in mind how harsh my criticism feels when I focus it on myself.

Keep that in mind when I'm talking to others.

Movement Atheism And Why I'm Done With It

Nicht geeignet zum Parteimann. – Wer viel denkt, eignet sich nicht zum Parteimann: er denkt sich zu bald durch die Partei hindurch. (Not a suitable party member. - He who thinks a lot is not a suitable political party member: he thinks his way too quickly all the way through the party.) -- Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches, aphorism 579

And while I was looking that up to make sure I quoted it word-for-word, I also noticed this, which actually applies even more to this post:

Feinde der Wahrheit. – Ueberzeugungen sind gefährlichere Feinde der Wahrheit, als Lügen. (Enemies of the truth. - Firm convictions are more dangerous enemies to the truth than lies.)-- ibid, aphorism 483

Yeah. Freddy got off some good ones.

"Movement atheism" is the same thing which I've been referring to in this blog as "New Atheism," and which unfortunately many people have come to refer to simply as "atheism" : they're the people who like Richard Dawkins (on religion, not identical with the set [which includes me] who like Dawkins' writing on biology) and Sam Harris, and put up those billboards saying, essentially, "Neener, neener, you stoopid theists!" and are gunning for the "In God We Trust" on your currency and the Ten Commandments on the walls of your courthouses. (What's next, the reproduction of a Madonna and Child by Fra Filippo Lippi taped to the wall above my computer table?) I recently heard it referred to as "movement atheism," and it occurred to me that if I used that phrase, more people might understand what I'm talking about than if I said "New Atheism." And I think that more people understanding me just might be a good thing. You be the judge. (And put whatever you want to on yr walls.)

Now, when it comes to the first of those two aphorisms by Nietzsche at the beginning of this post, I differ with Nietzsche when it comes to political parties: I don't agree with everything in the Democratic party line, but it's them or the Republicans and they're much preferable to the Republicans. The difference between the two parties makes big differences in people's lives.

But if we compare movement atheism or New Atheism to a political party, what exactly are they accomplishing, besides pissing people off? I don't care about the Ten Commandments on courthouse walls, I care about the verdicts reached within those walls. I don't give a tiny flying speck of crap about the words "In God We Trust" on US currency, I care about freedom of religion in the US, whether that freedom, including freedom from religion if that's what you want, is guarded by people who think Jesus is their close personal friend, or not.

The second aphorism, about firm convictions being more dangerous to the truth than lies, fits movement atheists/New Atheists as snugly as a straightjacket. If you haven't experienced it, you wouldn't believe how much time these yokels waste arguing that Hitler was a Catholic and that Einstein was an atheist. First and foremost -- who gives a tiny gnat's ass about either Hitler's or Einstein's religion? I'll tell you who: movement atheists/New Atheists and the Christians, observing Jews, Muslims, neo-pagans and other believers dull-witted enough to waste their lives arguing with them. Neither side wants to actually investigate Hitler's or Einstein's beliefs. The movement atheists/New Atheists are firmly convinced that Hitler was a Catholic and Einstein was an atheist, the others are firmly convinced that Hitler was an atheist and Einstein a theist or deist, no one's mind is open even a tiny crack in either side, they just want to score rhetorical points against each other, in exchanges with all of the subtlety of the opening of the Itchy & Scratchy Show. Furthermore, each side is firmly convinced that the other is stupid -- they might actually be right about that, for once -- and further than that, they very often immediately assume that anyone who has anything negative to say about anything they've said is on the opposite side of the theistic question -- if you criticize an atheist you must believe God exists, if you criticize a theist you must be an atheist. And this appallingly simplistic mindset is unfortunately displayed not just in discussions arguments verbal fights about Hitler and Einstein and other famous people and Which Side They Were On, but regarding a wide range of other subjects too. A pox on both their pinheaded houses.

These morons are why many atheists have started to refuse to call themselves atheists.

Just a few years ago, when I first stumbled over atheists groups, I had such high hopes. I assumed that atheists generally would be pretty bright.

And I might have been right about that. But you don't have to be too bright to be appalled by people who verbally abuse billions of Muslims as if they were all violent atavistic extremists and all Catholics as if they favored the sexual abuse of children, who cheer at videos of books being burned and/or soiled with human waste, and who do the Itchy & Scratchy with religious morons all the livelong cousinbumpin day. I have a feeling that maybe most of the truly bright atheists are appalled by Dawkins' so-called Brights and their ilk much more quickly than I was. In any case, the more I see of movement atheists/New Atheists, the more I like religion.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Fun Green Facts

In September 2014, Toyota passed the 7 million mark of hybrid vehicles sold worldwide. More than 4.7 million of those vehicles were Priuses and variants of the Prius. In 2001, the 5th year in which Toyota offered hybrid vehicles, they sold 36,900 of them worldwide; in their 10th year, 2006, they sold 312,500; and in 2013 they sold 1,279,200.

A hybrid-electric car was designed by Ferdinand Porsche, who later designed the Volkswagen Beetle and whose son Ferry founded the Porsche sports-car brand, and exhibited to the public in 1900, the first of several hybrid vehicles Porsche made. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, electric vehicles were fashionable among wealthy car owners but were never mass-produced.

From 2003 through 2014, 712,000 road-ready plug-in electric vehicles have been sold, and sales in 2014 alone accounted for 293,245 of that total.

A few years ago the 1st transatlantic voyage using only solar power was made.

In 2013 more than 38 gigawatts of solar electric capacity was added to grids around the world, bringing the solar electric total to 139 gigawatts. According to the WWEA, in June 2014 the global capacity of wind-generated electricity was 336 gigawatts. Denmark currently gets a third of its electricity from wind.

All that we need oil for any more is to build the stuff which will replace it. (And yes, Ozzie Zehner, it's also very good when people consume less energy. Riding a bike is better for the environment than driving a Tesla, and just walking is even better than that. You're right about all of that.))

Thursday, February 26, 2015

A 2nd Cartoon About Religion

Just as with this cartoon, you're going to have to visualize it based on my description, because I still can't draw very well.

A group of atheists are gathered in front of a TV, watching a news report about members of ISIS destroying ancient sculptures. One of them says:

What a disgusting, horrifying display of barbarity and ignorance! Well, c'mon, guys: in the name of enlightenment and rationality, let's take this 14th-century Koran and make a YouTube video of ourselves covering it in garbage, urinating on it and then setting it on fire.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Bible Doesn't Count Because Jesus Was An Illuminati Sent By Aliens --

-- to implant the Freemasons with Da Vinci DNA so that today the Vatican and the Trilateral Commission can implant listening devices in kittens!

In cute innocent-looking little kittens!!!! Those fiends! Yaaarrrghhh!!!

This book can help us. Near the beginning is a drawing full of codes of knowledge essential for our resistance of the Da Vinci DNA. We just need to decode the information left in this drawing by brave people dedicated to saving humanity. Near the top is the phrase "TU STULTUS ES." I must find out what this means. It may be a signal from the good aliens who want to help us and protect us from the evil aliens -- and I think we all know what those guys are up to, *probe probe*, enough said? No thanks, ET!

I can't venture outside right now because the Trilateral Commission has installed a mind-reading station across the street disguised to looked like a telephone pole. I've only got enough Cheetos and Ding-Dongs to hold out for another few hours, so after that I guess I'm just going to have make a desperate all-out run to Wal-Mart, unless all of you act now!

Excelsior. Your bravery, well... Excuse me, I got a little choked up there for a minute. I'll see you on the other side, or I died trying to get there. (The other side of the Wal-Mart parking lot, where all the "paranoid" [yeah right] ex-evangelicals have parked their RV's. They'll know where we need to go next.)

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Homeless In America: Ft Lauderdale Cop Slaps And Arrests Homeless Man For Trying To Use A Public Restroom

After this video went public,

the police officer involved has been suspended. But I have to wonder whether he was suspended because he did what he did, or because he got caught. You see, there are communities in the US which try to help the homeless and other poor people, and then there are places like Ft Lauderdale, where this video was made, which in 2014 made it a crime to feed homeless people. For a long time in the US, perhaps for all of our country's existence, in many communities, perhaps in most, it has been the standard practice of the police to try to make life for homeless people so uncomfortable that they will leave town. Ft Lauderdale's law against giving food to homeless people was just a little more public and flagrant than most implementations of this longtime standard policy.

If you've got a video camera in your phone, and you believe that all people are united in some way, if you believe that we're all in this together, please make sure that you know how to use that video camera and how to post videos online.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Middle Ages

To Catholic apologists, they were the good old days,

between a bloodthirsty and spiritually empty ancient Graeco-Roman world and a modern West which has "lost its way." I don't know how anyone who is not a Catholic who really believes that Jesus Christ is the salvation of the world and that the Pope is his represenative on Earth, that is to say: a particularly conservative Catholic, can have studied the Middle Ages and come to such a positive assessment of them. To these apologists, such as Thomas F Madden, the fact that ancient civilization was not yet Catholic means that it was "bloodthirsty and spiritually empty," and our world today has "lost its way" because it is no longer monolithically Catholic. And the Crusaders were knights in shining armor on white horses saving damsels from the clutches of the minions of Satan.

Perhaps the academic study of the Middle Ages has usually been dominated by such idiotic notions, and the work of Gibbon and Runciman,

with its attempt at a somewhat higher level of realism, is an anomaly amid the academic study of the Middle Ages as a whole. After all, Medieval Europe is Catholic Europe, and it shouldn't be surprising if scholar with strong pre-dispositions to regard Catholicism favorably dominate the field. It's actually hard to find people who have specialized in the study of Medieval Europe who haven't taken potshots at Gibbon and Runciman, although they generally begin by acknowledging that both of them wrote very well. If they didn't acknowledge at least that much, they'd seem even more ridiculous to even more people than they already do. If you interested in the reactions of medieval historians in general to Gibbon and Runciman, look at the indexes of volumes on subjects to do with medieval history for references to the two of them. I daresay that few of those references will completely lack some harsh criticism, but that they will almost all lack actual specific treatments of specific passages in Gibbon or Runciman; in other words, you will read that Gibbon and/or Runciman has distorted this or that aspect of the Medieval world in a way completely unfair to Catholic Christianity, but you will not be given examples of how either one of them distorted what is in the the primary texts or in other evidence. for instance, you will not be shown evidence to refute what Runciman says about Armenian and Syriac Christians saying they were better off being ruled by Muslims than by either Orthodox Greeks or Catholic Crusaders. Which is what the primary documents record them as saying. You will not be shown refutations of what Gibbon and Runciman wrote about the Crusaders often having been much less than heroes on white knights. Because the two of them wrote such things not because of anti-Catholic axes they were grinding, but because that's what the evidence shows.

AS I mentioned in a previous Wrong Monkey blog post, alternative history is not history, but fiction. So when the apologists say that the Catholic Church gave us universities and science, implying that without the Church things would have been much worse, they're not writing history, but fiction. And we would also be writing fiction if we replied that if so and so had been different, then this and that would have resulted. That's all alternative-reality fiction. If we really want to discuss history, we must stick as closely as possible to what we know.

Yes, universities sprang up in Medieval Europe beginning in the 12th century. But ancient schools, from Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum, down to the most modest of institutions, were all closed down by the Christian authorities by the 6th century. Because they were "heathen," dontcha know. So should we see the Church as an institution which promoted learning, or one which restricted literacy for six centuries almost exclusively to its clergy? Well, it did restrict literacy in exactly that way. Literacy rates went down when the Christians took over, and did not begin to rise again for hundreds of years. I think a sober and realistic study must conclude that scholarship survived in Western Europe despite Christianity, rather than flourishing with its help.

Take a specific sub-set of learning, my special favorite, the ancient Classics. Catholic apologists love to point out that almost all of the texts of the ancient Latin classics which we now possess have survived because they were copied out by Catholic monks. And they're right, we have very few manuscripts of those texts which are exception to that rule: a few very old manuscripts copied out by "pagans" before the Christians wiped out "paganism;" and then some manuscripts made by non-monks in the early Renaissance before printing replaced handwriting as the dominant means of preserving these old texts.

But in addition to the Classical texts which Catholic monks preserved, many works of Classical literature disappeared during the Middle Ages. For every Medieval Catholic clergyman who was an enthusiastic fan of the ancients, it's easy to identify several who were ignorant of the Classics or even condemned them as wicked. A very poignant and much more concrete demonstration of how Medieval Europe destroyed the ancient Classics instead of preserving them are the many palimpsests of Classical texts discovered since the 18th century: Classical texts which were scraped off of pieces of parchment and written over with Christian texts. Modern science has allowed us to recover some of these ancient texts by reading the indentations they left in the parchment. There are few leading Classical authors who didn't write works we know of only by mentions in surviving texts, which went missing in the Middle Ages. Very many of the surviving works have survived with large gaps. There are very many ancient Greek and Latin authors who were very well thought of by their contemporaries, whom we know only by the praise of those contemporaries. We have no idea how many works of classical antiquity are now lost because Church authorities ordered them to be destroyed, how many because they were scraped away to make room for other writing, or how many because worn out parchments were used as fuel in stoves or two stuff furniture or to make book bindings or for some other purpose other than preserving the ancient texts. And until and unless we learn much more about how those texts were lost, we should be reserved in our praise of the Medieval clergy for saving what they did.

But the largest reservation I have about praising the Medieval world for its promotion of culture and learning comes from how intolerant it was. In pre-Christian Europe, one could openly express skepticism of all religions. In the Medieval world one was compelled, as least as far as public statements were concerned, to reject all religions but one and to believe in that one. The ancient Greeks and Romans didn't kill people for philosophical speculations. It wasn't dangerous to assert that the Earth orbited the Sun and not vice-versa. Galileo was threatened with torture and confined to his house for the last years of his life, not for rejecting Christianity -- he didn't -- and not for questioning whether Jesus was the savior of the world -- he never did any such thing -- and not for questioning the authority of the Pope -- he didn't do that either. He was threatened with torture and confined to his house for the last years of his life for looking through a telescope and writing about what he saw. It never would have occurred to any pre-Christian Greek or Roman to punish anyone for something like that. That drastic restriction of freedom of expression is the biggest reason I have to be disinclined to think of the Medieval world as having been wonderful.

But yes, the cathedrals and the Byzantine mosaics and other Medieval artworks are very beautiful.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Politics And Idealism

There's that great scene in Wall Street where Lou Mannheim (Hal Holbrook) tells Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) that money "makes you do what you don't want to do." One of two great scenes with Holbrook and Sheen.

Well, politics also makes you do what you don't want to do. Even more so than money. There's no way to get anything done in politics without behaving in an un-idealistic manner, without compromising, without doing something you find odious in order to achieve something you consider noble -- if, that is, you're the type of politician who cares at all about doing good for other people. It seems that politicians who are not that type can thrive. And you have to deal with them.

I'm not saying this as a criticism of politics, but as a criticism of idealism. It's correct that idealism is portrayed as the opposite of realism, because idealism avoids dealing with reality.

In Germany, where the Green Party started and where it wields great power, there have long been two factions known as the Realos and the Fundis. "Realos" translates to "realists," or to "realpolitikers," and "Fundis" to "fundamentalists," or "idealists." Joschka Fischer is the most successful Realo in the history of Germany's Green Party. He was one of the 3 most powerful politicians in Germany during Gerard Schroeder's administration, from 1998 to 2005, and he has often been #1 in polls of Germany's best-liked politicians. Who are some of the leading Fundis? Screw them, I'm not going to even do them the courtesy of naming them, because, like all political idealists, they're just morons who are in the way, who never help anyone but the other side. They accused Fischer of selling out for starting to wear suits and ties when he became Germany's Foreign Minister in 1998. Namby-pamby bullshit like that. They're in the way. Joschka Fischer, Realo, realist, real politician, an effective player who gets all sorts of things done, getting Greens into a state administration for the first time in 1998 being just one of a long list of things he's gotten done, Fischer realized that if he continued, as Foreign Minister, to wear the traditional Green uniform of jeans and sneakers, the way he dressed would impair his effectiveness as he met with the most powerful politicians on Earth and brought the Green agenda of environmentalism, gay rights, military de-escalation, etc, etc, with him. Fischer continued to kick ass, and didn't seem too bothered by the Fundis wailing that wearing Armani constituted selling out.

The Green Party has been able to achieve and hold positions of power, political elected offices, because Germany, like most countries, has proportional representation. An individual doesn't have to win a majority or plurality of votes in order to take office: Germans vote for parties, and if a party has more than 5% they're in. (Germany instituted the so-called "5% hurdle" after WWII to stop the proliferation of whacko fringe parties.)

Unfortunately for us Amurrkins, we in the US have winner-takes-all elections of individuals instead of proportional elections of parties, which means that there are no Green Realos in the US. The US Green Party has only hopeless fools, Fundis, idealists, morons who are in the way. A vote for Green in the US is a vote for the GOP, because only the GOP or the Democrats are going to win any election, and if you like Green politics you should vote for the Democrats because they're much closer to to your positions than the Republicans. Yes, some Democrats are going to do things and vote for bills which offend you. But Republicans are much worse, and you are responsible for them and their racist, sexist, anti-science, pro-oil politics just as much as any Democrat if you vote Green. If you voted Green in the US you gave up the real power of your vote in favor of idealism, which is a dream world. Greens in the US like to think of themselves as fighting the Matrix,

but in the US, the Greens are a part of the Matrix.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Dream Log: Old Friends, Large Building

Often I dream I am in buildings which are unrealistically large,

and last night was no exception: I was in a university dormitory whose ground plan was a snake made of right angles, and it was about half a mile long and 40 stories high. This building was a bit more luxurious than the utilitarian rust Belt public structures which often occupy my thoughts and inhabit my dreams more than any other building type. It's the only dorm I can recall seeing, in real life or in a dream, which had communal lounges on other than the ground floor. Some old friends and I was in one of these lounges about 20 stories up. One wall of this lounge was the building's exterior wall, all glass, solid-looking and very clean. The floor was un-scuffed. The furniture was several cuts above 1950's airport.

These friends were a group of women I haven't seen in 25 years. One of them was holding a puppy which was hairless and embryonic-looking and too small, as if it were actually something like a baby squirrel. I asked if I could hold it, and as soon as my friend passed it to me, it was much larger, an actual small-breed puppy with fur.

I was mostly interested in attempting to charm these charming women, just as I had been 25 years ago, but another friend, a man, wanted me to join him in another part of the lounge, and I felt that politeness left me no choice but to go and see what he wanted. It's not as if he was particularly annoying or unpleasant. In the other part of the lounge where he was, there was a TV with a very large screen, and he wanted my help choosing a DVD to watch. I recommended a video about Vatican City I've seen on the AWE network, made for the UNESCO World Heritage Center with assistance from Sony, not a bad video in my opinion, with good cinematography and interesting music.

It turned out that this video had footage which was not included in the hour-long program on AWE. In fact, the two of us watched for quite a while before I woke up, and during that long while I didn't notice a single shot which was included in AWE's version.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Rambling Speculations About Cause And Effect

I like to look at the chronological relation of events of hundreds or thousands of years ago, and speculate about possible cause-and-effect relationships, perhaps ones which have been rather seldom thought of. I'm hardly alone in this: historians often revise and refine our perceptions of events long after the fact. For example, the spires on Gothic cathedrals existed for quite a few centuries before it occurred to many people that they imitated the shape of minarets on masques, and that the Gothic style appeared in Europe in the 12th century, soon after the Crusades had begun and made masses of Western Europeans familiar with Islamic architecture. Now it is a commonplace in some circles that Gothic spires imitate minarets, and it is even somewhat difficult to understand how people failed to see this for so long.

I'm not the first to speculate about the relationship between Columbus' voyages to the Western Hemisphere and the rush of European exploration which followed, or, to use a popular phrase, the "Age of Discovery" -- between the Age of Discovery and the Protestant Reformation. Luther, Henry VIII and Calvin weren't the first Protestants, but no Protestants before them had succeeded and survived on such a large scale. The Hussites had succeeded and survived more than a century before those other three, but on a much smaller scale, and at the cost of their leader, John Hus, being arrested, condemned and executed by the Catholic authorities. Luther, Henry and Calvin all lived to die of natural causes. Did the Age of Discovery, with its shattering of conventional ideas about the extent and variety of human civilization, lead directly to an increased readiness to accept the shattering of the Medieval ideal of the one true universal Catholic Church? (Nevermind that this Medieval conceit of one Church ignored -- as some Westerners today still ignore -- the Orthodox, Coptic, Armenian, Syriac, Ethiopic and other churches.) I can't point out a link as clear and obvious as that between minaret and Gothic spire, but there's no reason we can't wonder about it.

And of course there's the effect of printing, which began before 1440 and became widespread in Europe before 1470, on both exploration and religious quarrels.

And let's go back a little further in time, and wonder about the relationship between guns and clocks on the one hand, and printing, exploration and religious conflict on the other. Usually when someone speaks of something like the "mechanical revolution" they mean something which got underway in the 18th or 19th century, with factories and mills and trains and steamships and filthy smokestacks, but there definitely was a great revolution in the 14th century when guns became more and more important in warfare, and clocks began to appear in more and more town squares, and to ring the hours with huge bells. Both inventions turned all sorts of things upside-down, it's hard to say which one did so to the greater extent, guns or clocks.

And now is the time where perhaps you expect me to wrap up this blog post in a neat bow of a conclusion full of real or feigned wisdom and relevance for the year 2015 and beyond, and I fail to do so. At least I'm not feigning something, not presented some half-baked bullshit about what the above means. Minarets, Gothic spires, guns and clocks, then the Hussites, then printing, then Columbus, then a rush of other explorers, and European colonies, then the Reformation -- what does it all mean? Well, I don't know. But at least I'm giving you the list in correct chronological order. (And as long as I'm here, I could add: the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and extinguished the "Byzantine" Roman Empire just as printing began to spread, and for a century and more before that conquest [1453, same year the Hundred Years' War ended], Greek scholars had been fleeing to Italy before the Ottoman onslaught, helping to create what we refer to as the "Italian Renaissance.") Maybe I even gave you something interesting to think about, and maybe eventually one of you will be able to tell the rest of us what it all means. (Maybe all that it means is that I'm preoccupied with the history of Western Europe to the exclusion of the rest of the universe.) I honestly just enjoy thinking about such things, and figuring out what happened before what, just for its own sake, with no pretensions to astonishing insights.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Alternate Histories Of The 20th Century

It was Oswald Spengler who got me thinking about the things which led to this recent blog post about the Imperial election of 1519 and also to this one, about early 16th-century Europe more in general. I was flipping through the Untergang des Abendlandes when I came across, on pp 192-3 of this edition,

a passage which is silly even by Spengler's standards: first the assertion that Columbus had very nearly made his famous voyage of discovery for the French instead of for the Spanish; then, the assertion that if Columbus had sailed for the French, Francis I would, without question, have been crowned Holy Roman Emperor instead of Charles I of Spain becoming Emperor Charles V, and then some absurdly specific pronouncements of the differences in history which the different outcome of the Imperial election would have caused, such as different, French styles of diplomacy dominating the age instead of the Spanish diplomacy, and different, French wars happening instead of the Spanish wars which did happen, and that we would think of French people who had never been born instead of Philip II, Alba, Cervantes, Calderon, Cervantes and so forth; and finally, that the "inner logic" of the age, which had to find its "ultimate expression" in the French Revolution -- "or an event of analogous content" would not have been affected by any of this.

Yeah! Spengler could really talk some mess, he was a thoroughly un-profound person who managed to pass himself off, for a while at least, as one of the deepest thinkers of the 20th century. But what he wrote is interesting. It just doesn't have much to do with the original, groundbreaking study of history which Spengler claimed it was. It's alternate history, which is not a study of history, but a genre of fiction.

Sometimes the difference between a deep novelist and a silly historian is very simply that the novelist freely admits that what he is writing is fiction, and the historian doesn't admit, or, worse, doesn't even realize that he's writing fiction. I'm not saying that Spengler could have been an interesting novelist, I'm saying that he was, and that it's a real shame that his work is considered to be non-fiction. That has only added confusion to a world which already contains much too much confusion.

Many books have been written about Jesus. They're all fiction. I myself have written one of them, a novella. The less-deluded and/or more honest among those of us who have written such books have admitted that we were writing fiction. It's not just that no one knows enough for sure about Jesus to fill even a short book -- we don't know anything for sure about him yet, not even whether or not he existed.

So, I sometimes imagines alternative scenarios of the 20th century. Mostly ways in which less war might have occurred. I have no idea what, if anything, is actually to be learned from such fantasies:

I've spent quite a lot of time imagining the Allied invasion of Anzio in World War II going much differently. I imagine General Patton in charge of the invasion instead of the General Lucas who was its commander in real life, and squandered the tremendous opportunity gained by the Germans having not noticed the invasion at all and having practically no troops in the area. Instead of moving quickly from the beachhead, expanding it and taking as much territory as possible before the Germans reacted, Lucas inexplicably stayed on the beach offloading equipment for two days, until the Germans had the beach surrounded, and the Allied troops there were sitting ducks and were slaughtered.

Lucas sounds like a quartermaster to me. My alternative version of events begins with someone convincing Eisenhower, before the invasion, that Lucas is all wrong for the job -- that he's a quartermaster, not an invader. This insight allows Eisenhower to transfer Lucas without hurting his feelings: he says to Lucas: "There's been a change of plans: our warehouses and depots in Naples are in a disastrous state. It's a huge clusterfuck, supplies aren't moving at all. It's imperative that things change down there immediately, and you're just the guy to go in there and kick some ass and get everything organized. We'll have Patton or somebody do the Anzio landing." Calling it a "landing" instead of an "invasion" to stay as close as possible to Lucas' mindset and ward off any clue he might have that any of this has to do with a weakness of his.

So, Patton lands on January 22, 1944 and immediately zooms off toward Rome, 30 miles away. Instead of the Germans holding Rome until June as they did in reality, Patton takes the city in the early morning of 24 January. In reality, with the Allied troops stuck in Anzio, the abbey Monte Cassino, in a pass in the high mountains mountains to the south-east of Rome, was where the Allied advanced was held for months and tens of thousands of Allied soldiers died. In my alternate version, after Rome is taken, the Allies quickly surround Monte Cassino by occupying the width of the Italian penisula west to east to Monte Cassino's north. The abbey is completely cut off from all supplies and reinforcements on February 8, surrenders on February 14, and a domino effect of Allied momentum and German surrenders accelerates until German soldiers in Berlin rebel and kill Hitler and Germany surrenders before the D-Day invasion can even take place.

Another alternate history does away with World War II altogether, by completely changing Hitler's personality. After World War I, while Hitler is spying on radical groups for the German army, one of which groups in real life he would join and which would eventually become the Nazi party -- instead of all of that, he happens to meet a theatre troupe, falls in love with an actress, becomes an actor, shaves off the moustache ("I don't think it looks good even on Chaplin," his girlfriend and co-worker says), and the exposure to the theatre melts his icy heart, love and tenderness drive out the rage and hatred which were there, WWII never happens.

Or we could go back further and do away with both world wars: instead of assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, the Duchess Sophie, which led to World War I in real llife, Gavrilo Princip, aggrieved at Austria's domination of the Balkan Slavs, misses. Franz Ferdinand and Sophie are unharmed. Princip is not executed because Franz Ferdinand himself, after much exertion, convinces Emperor Franz Joseph to spare his life. Franz Ferdinand visits Princip in prison. Often. Princip notices that the Archduke has become thinner. "I hope it's not because you've fallen ill," he says politely. "No," Franz Ferdinand replies,"I've been exercising more and eating more sensibly. Having come so close to being killed and survived, I felt as if I'd been given another chance at life. I've given some very serious thought to what I want to do with what time I have left." "And why did you give me another chance?" Princip asks. "Because," the Archduke replies, "I felt that there was enough good in you that it would be wrong to completely give up on you. And also because I feel that the enmity between your people and mine must end. We both want life to improve for the Serbs, don't you realize that?" Princip doesn't believe anything the Archduke says for a while. But gradually he sees an earnest man grappling with monstrously huge matters of politics, where before he had only seen a monster. He's moved to much more comfortable quarters, and he and the Archduke, to the amazement of the world, become friends. Years later, after the Archduke has become the Emperor, Princip is freed. Franz Ferdinand oversees the gradual and peaceful dismantling of the Empire, letting the various Southern Slav nations become states of their own.

All the tremendous energy which was spent in the world wars in real life, and all of the ingenuity which went went into developing ever-deadlier weapons, in my fictional version goes instead into peaceful exertions in science and engineering and the arts. In real life Ferdinand Porsche made a hybrid-electric car around 1900; in my fictional version, plug-ins have largely replaced gasoline-burning cars and airplanes, and coal-and-oil burning ships, by 1920. By 1925, between wind, solar, tidal and geothermal power, there is scarcely any demand for petrochemical fuel anymore, neither for vehicles nor factories nor to heat homes. The air becomes cleaner, the climate doesn't destabilize. The Black Hills of South Dakota remain un-strip-mined. Communism spreads, peacefully. The Internet is in hundreds of millions of homes and offices by 1940. By 1960 there is no longer any need for currency, and human hunger and homelessness are no more. By 2015, some of the brighter chimpanzees and gorillas have begun to write and publish books.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Go Green

Two commercials: one is a dorky ad for BMW with Couric and Gumbel in an all-electric vehicle which was made in a wind-powered factory:

In the other a beautiful, statuesque woman with a hypnotic voice is spewing some horseshit about how wonderful fracking and offshore drilling are. How they could add hundreds of thousands of jobs to the economy. I wonder how many of those jobs would be because of increased demand for doctors and other health-care workers to cope with the more numerous cases of heart and lung disease, and skin cancer, and burn victims who lit a match in a house which was fracked under, and heat stroke, and funeral homes to commemorate those drowned in tsunamis, and so forth.

They're going to need some very beautiful actresses with extremely hypnotic voices to get me to forget that, now that we can build cars that run on electricity in factories that run on wind, we're not going to be needing so much oil and gas and coal. When the word finally gets around that plug-in electric vehicles currently have fuel costs about half those of hybrids, which in turn go about twice as far on a gallon of gasoline as their conventional counterparts, and that those costs will continue to sink as power generation becomes more efficient, and that green homes already produce more power than they use, and make money by selling their surplus to the grid, and that what goes for cars and trucks and homes is also applicable to trains and ships and planes and office buildings and factories, people simply won't want their petrochemicals so badly any more. They're going to have to truly hypnotize me, to make me completely unconscious and under their control, to get me to forget all of that.

I'm not talking about green technologies which are under development or theoretical, but technology already in use. We just need to spread the word that the new stuff is already here, and let the oil companies take their rightful place in the leper colony next to tobacco.

How many drivers right now have zero transportation fuel costs, because they live in green homes which produce a surplus even after they tank up their electric cars or trucks? Whatever the number is, one thing is certain: the number is going to grow, and word of such things will get around, and the cost of oil and gas -- compared with less than zero -- will grow less and less attractive even to those people who are just too fucking stupid to factor in the costs of petrochemicals' direct damage to people's health, and the costs of climate change.

But why take my word for any of this? Who am I? That's right: I'm nobody. Paul Krugman is somebody. Listen to him.

The only hope the petrochemical industry has left is misinformation. And so here it comes: the commercials telling us how yummy fracking is and how many jobs offshore drilling will bring. (Don't forget the jobs of the people cleaning up the spills which are actually noticed and then actually required to be cleaned up. Yes, the list of jobs created by big oil really does just go on and on.)

Monday, February 9, 2015

Dream Log: Surrounded By People Volunteering To Help Me Find Livy's Lost Books

I dreamed that some friends had invited me to their house. From outside the house looked like one of a row of not-particularly-remarkable single-family houses rowed close together in an urban residential district, with a sidewalk and small lawns in front, but inside it was filled with a surprising number of rather spacious rooms. It was also full of a large number of lively, intelligent people of all ages. This was not a party or some other special occasion; I gathered, on the contrary, that the house was usually full of the resident family's friends.

On a shelf in the living room I found a book which looked like a much-read volume from the 60's, a little worn but still intact. No dust jacket remaining. It was entitled Finding the Lost Books of Livy. I had never seen a book with a title like this, which referred to one of my favorite obsessions. More than merely referring to the search for Livy's lost texts, the title did so in a remarkably optimistic way: not just "looking for" the lost books, but "finding" them. I wondered how the book had been received by the author's colleagues, if he had been a Classicist. Whether they had laughed at him about it, to his face or behind his back.

I soon was quite absorbed in the book, which definitely had not been written for laypeople, with many long citations from Latin and Greek books, with no translations offered, the author obviously having assumed that his audience could read both Latin and Greek.

What with the lively flow of people in and out of the living room, my interest in the book had soon been noticed, and people talked to me and learned that I was especially interested in this book's topic, and soon both children and adults had volunteered to assist me in my search for Livy's lost books. I felt rather on the spot here, and I thought that I was too much of an amateur to lead an entire team on this Quixotic quest, but, as I knew of no pros actively participating in the search, I accepted the role of leader, and did my best to assign sensible tasks to my volunteers.

My leadership of the Livy team led people in the house to seek my leadership in other things as well. For example, although the weather had been conventionally pleasant when I'd arrived at the house, later that day a rainstorm with heavy winds was underway, and people were looking to me for instructions on how best to deal with things like a large, recently-transplanted tree being uprooted and moved away by the wind, its roots still contained in the transplant sack. I stood at the window in the comfort of the interior of the fine house and did my best to rise to the occasion, giving orders which were immediately carried out by all around me. It seemed that I was in charge, for better or worse.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Early 16th-Century Europe

It's often been described as a time and place crowded with great personalities, and the people meant by that include Henry VIII, Francis 1, Charles V, Suleiman the Magnificent, Luther, the "bad" Popes, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Machiavelli and Rabelais.

I don't think Henry VIII was so great. His appetite for food was great, appallingly so. Even more appalling were his treatment of his wives and his being more ready to accept religious war than a female heir. Elizabeth I turned out alright. I wonder how much that may have been due to her being neglected by Henry, since she was neither male not Henry's oldest daughter and therefore may have seemed unlikely to him to become Queen.

Many would not argue with me at all when I say that Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, who was also Charles I of Spain as well as the ruler of vast regions in the western hemisphere, was not a great statesman. He did nothing to conquer any of those regions, he merely inherited them, and one might well say that the steep decline of his huge empire began as soon as he took charge of it. He was not able to stop Luther from cracking the Western Church in half and kicking off a series of truly horrendous religious wars which lasted until 1648; he was not even in sure enough control of his own soldiers to keep them from looting Rome in 1527, in the early stages of those religious wars, when his troops were actually supposed to have been defending Rome from the Protestants. He did nothing to improve the lot of the vast numbers of natives in the Western Hemisphere who were enslaved in mines and other Spanish industries, and died from European diseases from which they had no immunity. He knew about the suffering of those natives; there were a few Spaniards brave enough to loudly complain about what was being done to them. Charles himself did not have a high opinion of his abilities as a leader. He abdicated in the 1550's, handing off the Holy Roman Empire to his brother, who became the Emperor Ferdinand I, and Spain and its huge American territories to his son, who was thus made Philip II of Spain. Ferdinand actually did a half-decent job of managing the bag of crap Charles handed him, temporarily bringing a degree of respite from the bloodshed of Catholic against Protestant within the Empire. Philip, on the other hand -- one thing you can say about Charles is that compared to Philip, he seems like a genius, a truly wonderful person, a beacon of humanity, reason and kindness. (But only compared to Philip.)

I have less bad things to say about Francis I and Suleiman the Magnificent, but that may only be because I know less about them. Suleiman expanded the Ottoman Empire as far to the north-west as it would ever grow when he besieged Vienna in 1529, an expansion they would math in 1683 when they besieged Vienna again. But I don't know how much of that expansion is due to Suleiman truly being magnificent as a general, and how much of it is due to the eastern frontier of the Holy Roman Empire having been in the hands of that klutz Charles V.

Leonardo and Michelangelo and Raphael and Machiavelli and Rabelais were impressive personalities, I admire them all, but they were only artists and engineers and writers, dependent upon the politicians, the rulers like Charles and Henry and Suleiman and Francis for their careers and for their very existences. The time and place itself, early 16th-century Europe, does have much which is exciting to the scholar, but because of things like Columbus having discovered America by accident while trying to sail west to India; and the spread of printing, which had been invented quite a while earlier. Things for which no ruler can take credit.

Luther hated the "bad" Popes for the thing for which they should be loved: for patronizing Leonardo and Michelangelo and Raphael and Machiavelli and many other creative geniuses, for participating fully in that joint which we today refer to as the Italian Renaissance, and above all, Luther hated the "bad" Popes and kicked off all that Catholic vs Protestant gore because those Popes simply weren't able to take all the religious stuff very seriously. No, I don't admire Luther, not at all. The best I can say of him is that compared to Calvin, he seems like a genius, a truly wonderful person, a beacon of humanity, reason and kindness. (But only compared to Calvin.)

And screw Erasmus too, that pious Bible-thumping twit! Take my advice: if anyone tells you they like Augustine, or Aquinas, or Erasmus: RUN!!! Drop what you're doing, turn your back and run until your legs feel like lead and your lungs are on fire, or risk being bored to death.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Often, Bill Maher Sounds Almost As Intelligent As Ben Affleck

And then there are times like last night's "Real Time," marred by Bill's ant-vax screeds. To be sure, Bill insisted that he's not anti-vax, but just a "vaccine skeptic." Well, those are the same thing. Just as criticizing people's religious beliefs is the same thing as criticizing the people who hold the beliefs..

A moron like Jenny McCarthy or Sam Harris is one thing. But Bill sounds perfectly intelligent most of the time, offering cogent and precise evaluations of morons who deny climate change and vote Republican and think that the Affordable Care Act is a tragedy. But when the topic is Islam or vaccinations, it's as if someone changed the channel to Fox News.

Bill points out that the overwhelming majority of scientists agree that climate change is happening, is caused by human activity and is big, big trouble for life on Earth, and that there is a clear fix: green energy, wind, solar, plug-in electric cars and so forth. The thing is, the very same scientists also overwhelmingly agree that vaccines have nothing whatsoever to do with autism, or kidney disease, or any of the other things the anti-vaz nuts link it to, and that not vaccinating children risks re-creating the very same plagues which vaccines eradicated a century ago. So it's quite surreal to hear Maher spouting unscientific bullshit to support his "vaccine skepticism," and concluding, "[...]and it's not like global warming, cause that's real!" and chillingly, last night Bill's audience cheered him for that, instead of booing him as any well-informed crowd would have been expected to do.

It's not just backwoods rednecks who have an anti-vax problem in the US: prosperous, liberal Hollywood has that problem too. Does Hollywood's anti-vax bullshit have something to do with Scientology, and with charlatans preying on movie stars and peddling holistic treatments and magic crystals and pyramids and other such garbage? How could it not have everything to do with those things?

(Some of you may be old enough to remember when Ben Affleck and Matt Damon suddenly became huge stars on the strength of Good Will Hunting, which they wrote and in which they starred, Damon playing a genius and Affleck a sympathetic but not particularly intelligent schlub. Maybe you remember the rumours following Damon and Affleck's spectacular Oscar win for the screenplay, rumours to the effect that Affleck, like his character in the movie, was not particularly bright, and that he owed his Oscar mainly to his good friend Damon's generosity in sharing the writing credit with him. In light of the screenplays Affleck has written since then, and the movies he's directed, those rumours now seem kind of dumb. Not that I see any reason to suspect that the rumours got it exactly backward and that Damon is dumb.)

I really hate to say it, but I see no reason to suspect that Maher is going to brighten up any time soon, either about vaccines or about Islam. I can only plead with his fans -- I'm a fan too -- to think for themselves when listening to Maher, and realize that sometimes he knows what he's talking about, and sometimes he doesn't have a clue, and that when he sounds like he's on Fox News, it doesn't mean that Fox News is sometimes right about something.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Genealogies. And The Imperial Election Of 1519

I was going to write a post about the election of the King of the Romans in 1519, which was in effect the election of the Holy Roman Emperor. Charles I of Spain was elected Emperor Charles V. Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England also competed for the Imperial crown. The question I was going to examine was: how serious a challenge was either of them to Charles? I have often heard and read that the election was very close and that both Francis and Henry had come very close to becoming Emperor. But I suspect that the closeness of the election, the uncertainty of the outcome, has been greatly exaggerated by recent historians. If we examine the Empire as a continuously-existing entity from Ad 800 until 1918, we see that every single Emperor belonged either to the Carolingian, Saxon, Salian, Supplinburg, Hohenstaufen, Welf, Luxumbourgian, Wittelsbach, or Habsburg dynasty.

One standard objection would be that I had left out the Guideschi, Bosonid and Unruoching dynasties who ruled, with one brief interruption by a Carolingian, between 894 and 924, between the main run of the Carolinginas and the beginning of the Saxon dynasty, but I'm counting the Guideschis, Bosonids and Unruochings as Carolingians. Yes, they were based in Italy, not Germany, but they all also happen to be direct descendants of Charlemagne.

In fact, ALL of the Emperors up until 1918 were direct descendants of Charlemagne.

Another objection here is that the Holy Roman Empire is said to have ceased to be in 1806, when Emperor Francis II surrendered to Napoleon and gave up the Imperial crown. I'm saying that the Austrian Empire which Francis formed in 1804, and which lasted until 1918 when Charles I abdicated, is the same Empire, with a rather minor change of status in some German territories, with the cessation of some formalities having to do with the Vatican while the close political connection between Empire and Vatican was uninterrupted, and with the open acknowledgement that the Empire was the hereditary preserve of the Habsburgs, which it had already been for centuries. Historians will say I'm mistaken. Let them say it. I'm saying that from 1440 to 1918, one family, the Habsburg, ruled the Empire, except for three years, from 1742 to 1745, when a close cousin of theirs from the house of Wittelsbach was the Emperor Charles VII.

And, let me just repeat it, all of the Emperors were directly descended from Charlemagne.

That was going to be today's blog post, but when researching the topic I can across the assertion, published in the Atlantic in 2002, that everyone in the world is descended from Nefertiti and Confucius, and everyone of European ancestry is descended from Muhammad and Charlemagne.

That kinda knocked this whole joint sideways for a while. Then I thought: Is that true?

Then I thought: if it actually is true, and every single person of European descent who was not a direct descendant of Charlemagne had died off by 2002, that would still be a very different thing than saying that every single person of European descent who was not a direct descendant of Charlemagne had died off by 1519. If it is true, it would still not mean that Henry VIII and Francis I were descendants of Charlemagne.

And even if they were descendants of Charlemagne, that still wouldn't mean that anyone knew it in 1519. Okay, apparently Francis was and knew that he was, but it had been over 500 years since his ancestors had included any rulers of Germany. Any ancestral claims Henry VIII had to Germany were even more remote. Charles' grandfather Maximilian, on the other hand, had been Holy Roman Emperor until his death earlier in 1519.

I'm saying that, in spite of the procedure of seven electors choosing each Emperor, and despite the 13th-century aberration of the very un-German Richard of Cornwall having been elected by them as King of the Romans, and the only slightly more German Alfonso X of Castile being elected as anti-King during Richard's reign -- at that time, being elected King of the Germans was still far from a guarantee that one would be crowned Emperor, and neither Richard nor Alfonso ever came close to the Imperial crown -- in spite of that aberration, and despite all the formal protestations that the Emperor's crown was not hereditary, it looks extremely hereditary to me.

And furthermore, I also think that the nice-sounding cliche about the Holy Roman Empire having been neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire, is false. It was very holy and Roman in the sense of having been very Catholic, and it always was an empire it the sense of a monarch -- practically always German -- having ruled people of foreign tongues and ethnicities, pretty much always directly against their will. Charles V wasn't German? His grandfather the Emperor Maximilian certainly was, and his brother, whom he made Emperor Ferdinand I by his abdication in 1556, is very rarely not considered German. The fact that Charles was born and raised in Burgundy and was King of Spain for three years before succeeding his grandfather as Emperor is scarcely a hiccup in the Germanness of the ruling house of the Empire. The Electors -- all German -- all knew who Charles' grandfather had been. They would have seriously considered selling the Empire to the King of France or the King of England? I suppose we can never really know what they did or didn't seriously consider, but I can't imagine them having done such a thing.

Now -- every single man, woman and child on the face of the Earth is directly descended from Nefertiti? What about the Australian aborigines?

I realize that i have a very weak grasp of the fundamentals of genealogy and of biology in general. I think I'm much stronger when it comes to European dynasties. I'd be very glad if someone wanted to weigh in on the extent of Nefertiti's, Muhammed's and Charlemagne's DNA.

PS, 8 Sep 2017: Richard Dawkins, in The Ancestor's Tale, Weidenfield & Nicolson, London, 2004, estimates that the most recent ancestor of all present-day human beings lived "probably tens of thousands of years ago, and at most hundreds of thousands." p 55. Dawkins discusses the evidence which led him to this conclusion on pp 36-55. The illustration on p 37 shows an estimate of 30,000 years ago. Nefertiti was born less than 3400 years ago.

Monday, February 2, 2015

A Cartoon About Religion

(You're going to have to imagine the drawing, because I can't draw very well at all. I'm just going to provide the caption. 2 men are sitting in a church pew as the congregation enters the church for a service. Or it could be 2 people in a mosque as people are coming in for prayer, and instead of "Bible" they say "Koran," and instead of "fundamentalists" they say "extremists.")

"You look tired."

"You have no idea. Last night I got cornered by this guy who went on and on and on about 'The Bible says this!' and 'The Bible says that!' and just wouldn't stop. You bet your ass I'm tired."

"Sounds awful. Fundamentalists can be a real pain in the ass."

"No, he wasn't a fundamentalist. Worse than that: an atheist."