Monday, 30 May 2011

'Stranger Tides' and the motives of historical actors.

I went to see the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie the other day and rather liked it. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a rating of 33% which is lower than any of the previous films. However, I thought it stripped away a lot of what I disliked about the sequels while retaining some of the charm of the original. It could have done without the unnecessary Judi Dench cameo and the flat Penelope Cruz character though. (Spoilers ahead so cover your eyes if you haven't seen the film and want to keep the ending a surprise.)

One of the things I liked best about it was the response of the Spanish fleet to the discovery of the fountain of youth. The Pirates movies have never really portrayed a single nation as the 'goodies' (The villainous East India Company representatives in the second and third films tarnished the British claim somewhat). However, it is a staple of films and other media set in this period to make the genocidal and catholic Spanish the bad guys. Throughout most of the movie I was pretty sure that 'Stranger Tides' was going to stick to this pattern by having the Spanish as the 'greatest evil' that the other factions would eventually team up against in order to stop them taking the fountain.

These expectations were confounded when, in the final scene, the Spanish arrived and calmly began the demolition of the 'pagan' fountain as a distraction from the true salvation that they believe only comes from faith in God.

This discrepancy between my expectations and the ending of the movie can be explained by the fact that the makers of 'Stranger Tides' didn't fall into one of the most tempting traps that anyone studying history must avoid. Namely the temptation to assume that every human throughout history has thought just like us.

I can't remember if the dates of the events of the movie are ever made explicit but the presence of George II of Britain and Ferdinand VI of Spain as reigning Monarchs means that it must have been between 1746 and 1759.

The legacy of Spain in this period was an inextricably religious one. One of the formative events of the united Spanish nation hade been the expelling of Jews and Muslims from the country after the brutal 'Reconquesta' war against the Moors. In the sixteenth century the Iberian peninsula had remained Catholic despite the spread of the Reformation through Northern Europe. During this period the Spanish Inquisition had actively worked to root out dangerous ideas by persecuting Spanish mystics, closely watching those who had recently converted to Christianity and even forbidding Spaniards from studying at foreign universities. During the later years of the Reformation they had aided their Habsburg cousins in their ultimately futile attempt to enforce Catholicism on the whole of Germany. The decline of the Spanish empire in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, indicated and partially caused by the Wars of the Spanish and Austrian Successions, did little to weed out this extremist vein in Spanish history or cause any reconciliation with Protestant nations such as Britain that hired privateers to prey on Spain's trading ships.

In view of this history of religious strife and suppression of dangerous ideas it makes perfect sense that the Spanish would destroy the fountain. It only seems weird to us because in our (mainly) secular society we cannot see how anyone could hold such strong beliefs that they would pass up the chance of eternal youth. This lack of understanding can cause us to flatly disbelieve historical actors when they explain the motives for their actions. 'The German princes claimed to be converted to Protestantism', we think, 'but really they just saw an opportunity to increase their power relative to the Holy Roman Emperor'. The unspoken rider on this sort of logic is always, 'because that's how I'd do it if I were in their situation'. Our unfamiliarity with the culture of the time warps our perception of events. Avoiding this error doesn't mean we have to take all historical sources at face value. Obviously people did lie about their motives in the past, just as people do today (coughTonyBlairIraqcough). However, criticism of a historical actor's stated motives needs to be more substantial than just arguing that the rationale doesn't fit in with your own world view.

Recognition that 'the past is another country' is an impressive feat of logic for a summer blockbuster and I think it made a far better ending to the film than if the Spanish had just been another faction squabbling for possession of the fountain of youth.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Fulfilling your class destiny

"The Forty-First by Lavrenyov, Boris (1924). A female sniper with [the] Red partisans misses her 41st victim (a White [Russian] officer), then winds up stranded with him on a desert island, where they fall in love. However, the White's essentially selfish, bourgeois nature becomes apparent and she shoots him, fulfilling her mission and her class destiny."
- Blurb from

Don't you just love a rom-com with a happy ending?

Sunday, 22 May 2011

16 year olds allowed to vote in Bremen

Bravo, Bremen!

"The BBC's Stephen Evans, in Berlin, says studies indicate that 16-year-olds are less likely to take the trouble than older people - and one study also seems to show that their level of ignorance about politics is much greater than 18-year-olds. "

1) You know a good way to make people less ignorant about politics? Let them engage in the politicial process!

2) Why does it matter if only a minority of sixteen year olds vote? Surely better that politically conscious people of that age (yes they do exist) are not disenfranchised arbitrarily than that we withhold the vote from them simply because not everyone of their age will make use of it.

3) I suspect that eighteen year olds are statistically less likely to cast their votes than old age pensioners. Does that mean they should have their votes taken away?

Friday, 20 May 2011

My favourite words this week ...

1) Fissiparous - As in 'The Chinese political scene was fissiparous during the early 1930s.',9171,744284-1,00.html

2) Defenestration - As in 'How weird was that newspaper story from France, last year, about people defenestrating themselves?' OR

3) Antediluvian - As in 'I've been thinking about joining the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffalo.'

4) Cerebrotonic - As in 'Sean Condon is feeling a bit cerebrotonic recently as evidenced by the increasing strangeness of his blog posts' :)

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Consequence (or 'Insert Moral Here')

[A sequel to]

There once was a girl who was the daughter of an old and wise King. She had a happy childhood as the King was beloved by his courtiers and even those who didn't really respect him saw a certain amount of diplomatic mileage in being nice to his children. She rode in the nearby forest, swam in the moat and loved to read in the Palace library, even though she wasn't educated to the same standard as her brothers.

One day she was summoned to the throne room. Her father told her that he was seeking a husband for her. The man who cleared his Kingdom of thieves would be her new Lord and Master. She had a think about this. She had vaguely noticed the rise in stories of strife and robbery in her father's lands. However, the Palace guard was notoriously effective and the banditry had never impinged upon her life. Nevertheless, she decided to do what he said out of a sense of duty and gratitude.

She watched shyly from beside her father as the first strapping adventurers arrived to take on the quest, bedecked in heavy suits of armour and holding exotic looking weapons. A few of them excited her interest briefly but she never got a chance to get to know them and as the weeks went on and the reports of their deaths came back the process began to seem simultaneously terrible and monotonous.

Over time she stopped going to see off the bold heroes. So it was that she was sitting in her room playing a board game with a friend when a messenger came in to give her further news on the fire that had ravaged the records room last night and to announce that she would be married to the man who had completed her father's task (initially there had been some complications regarding the elderly hero's act of arson and his being a weaselly cheat. However, fortunately for the old warrior he had prepared in advance a plan for reform in the police force, including greater wage incentives, harsher penalties for corruption and greater engagement with local peasant communities. The Royal advisors had declared the plan sound and the King had decided to make the best out of a bad lot).

So there was a marriage. It was a lovely day and there was a feast and everyone complimented her on her beauty and tactfully avoided mentioning the age difference. She settled down to married life and discovered that it didn't differ much from being a Princess except that it was more official when you ordered people to do things for you. However, she couldn't forgive her elderly husband for destroying her childhood library and deep down had a niggling feeling that she might be happier married to somebody a little less old and cunning. She decided to seek help.

She went to talk to her Priest and he lectured her on the evils of divorce and the need for the inferior female to perfect herself through oneness with a man. He talked of obedience to her father and the glory in the afterlife guaranteed to those who endured difficult marriages. It was a rousing sermon but she was no stoic.

She went to talk to the Royal Treasurer, weeping in the ashes of his destroyed records. He bitterly talked of character assassination, a sneak audit of her husband's financial dealings that he could guarantee would unearth wrongdoing and a fall from grace. He recommended the seeking out of others in the court who had been inconvenienced by the barbarian's coup. However, she was no conspirator.

She went to talk to a powerful warlock (or at least a fairly proficient amateur folk doctor and meteorologist). He referred to slow-acting poisons and the possibility of inserting them into innocent looking food stuffs or drinks. He hinted at certain enemies of the Kingdom that could be safely accused of such treachery without raising suspicion. Nonetheless, she was shocked and inwardly knew that she was no murderer.

So she returned to her husband in the evening, as he sat before the fire with a brandy. He was resting his sore legs and working on the details of a new tax scheme but she sat down next to him and gently teased him into narrating the story of his quest to save the Kingdom from bandits and how he had triched her father.

The next day she got up at dawn, prepared a horse for a long journey and set out through the Palace gates into the countryside. In her knapsack she had a pen, paper and a rudimentary list of people who might aid her in reconstructing a set of destroyed criminal records. She was no historian but maybe she could learn.

Pragmatism (or 'Insert Moral Here')

There once was an old and wise King who was distressed by the bands of vagrants and robbers looting and killing in his kingdom. He sent out a call for heroes, promising the reward of a tenth of his dominion and the hand in marriage of his eldest daughter to the man who succeeded in bringing the crime rate down to the lowest level in recorded history.

A succession of brave men took up his quest and set off into the hills and valleys to discover that an indubitable will and years of training were rarely enough to counter the disadvantage of being outnumbered ten to one.

So the flow of applicants slowed to a trickle as experience weeded out the more reckless young men or taught them that banditry might be a more profitable career path than bandit hunting. Finally an old hero, long retired with a pock-marked face and aching limbs stepped forward to take up the challenge. The wits of the court laughed at his rusty armour and continued with the vital activity of moving their movable assets into better policed territories.

However, the oldest hero had one advantage over his predecessors. He knew where the history books were kept (specifically those containing the Royal Treasurer's crime statistics). He walked into the Palace library and lit a match.

Monday, 16 May 2011

ICC after Gadaffi

... and it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. Pity they didn't do this weeks ago.

Also, just for the record, that objection where human rights violators say, 'look at all of the other human rights violators who don't recognise the international human rights violation court that is ruling against us. Therefore, the court has no legitimacy.' may be one of the worst arguments in human history. Just because others are being naughty and taking steps to avoid being called to account for their naughtiness doesn't mean it is morally right to do so.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

'Dupin and Holmes' Part 2 – The Mystery of Marie Roget

I've just finished 'The Mystery of Marie Roget' by Edgar Allan Poe and was surprised to discover that it was quite different from his first story about the classical detective and his anonymous narrator. In terms of the structure and realism of the story these changes were for the better. The scenario was far more credible than in 'the Murders in the Rue Morgue' and the reader was given plenty of opportunities to work out aspects of the case before Dupin revealed them. However, this gain in credibility and foreshadowing sadly came at the expense of much of the gothic atmosphere that made 'the Rue Morgue' attention grabbing despite its stylistic flaws. 

Not everything has changed between the two books. Dupin and the narrator are still just as misanthropic and disconnected from reality as in the prequel. The fictional detective makes no effort to turn his amateur efforts into a full time job and sees the pleas of the police and admirers for help as a distraction from his daily activity of “weaving the dull world around us into dreams”. He seems to carry out his investigations for his own personal amusement and (possibly) profit rather than out of any sense of duty or care for his fellow man. Thankfully, his wit also remains untarnished with the narrator comically relating his sleeping (eyes disguised behind his green-shaded spectacles) through the Prefect's briefing, after he takes on the case. Dupin obviously retains a very Holmes-like disdain for the inferences of intelligent men in the police and the media and this arrogant attitude is reinforced throughout the story. A final similarity is the way in which Poe begins both stories with an abstract conversation on analysis, coincidence and deduction before applying these principles in the narrated story that follows.

The major difference between the two stories is that the scenario presented in 'Marie Roget' is far more credible. Again we are presented with a complex crime about which we are given a large dump of information including what we would now call forensics. However, this time there are no sudden appearances by Orang-outangs to clash jarringly with the Victorian setting. The crime turns out to be fairly mundane as crime fiction set ups go and the reader is given more scope to predict the outcome before Dupin works it out. Stylistically I think this makes it a better book but in doing so the book loses some of the atmosphere of the first story. 'The Rue Morgue' for all its structural faults (as I see them) contained plenty of motion. The protagonists visit the crime scene and cunningly apprehend the man unwittingly complicit in the killing. 'Marie Roget' is a longer book but is almost entirely static. After the visit from the Prefect, the rest of the book sees Dupin and the narrator merely research newspaper articles and discuss their findings. Poe even cops out of the possibility of adding some excitement when Dupin works out who committed the crime. The intention of the original serial seems to have been to suggest that Poe had worked out the circumstances of a real murder, similar to that in the book, which had happened in America. By omitting the chase the editors may have hoped to further this impression – if 'Marie Roget' had genuinely been an account of real police procedures they might not have been allowed to write about it. However, it remains a piece of bad story telling that is totally baffling to me.

As pointed out above this lack of narrative and character motion seems to be a novel introduction in the second Dupin story rather than a universal feature of Poe's detective stories. However, it definitely highlights a weakness of this story when compared to the Sherlock Holmes novels. Arthur Conan Doyle's stories are never static. Holmes investigates crimes scenes, journeys around the country to find clues and meet significant characters and on more than one occasion ends up in life or death fights with his adversaries. This means that Holmes novels are nearly always page turners independent of the quality of the plots or characters. It is a shame that Edgar Allan Poe is not as consistent in this respect. I really like the darker, more gothic edge to his detectives and it would have been interesting to see how they could have been further developed. Unfortunately there is little character development in 'Marie Roget'. The only event of note is that Dupin accepts a large fee for his work whereas in 'the Rue Morgue' he was merely content with the satisfaction of having surpassed the bumbling policemen. Could this be an end to his penniless and miserable days?

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Alternative, Alternative Vote

Despite my personal vote and thin hopes the Alternative vote was shot down on Thursday by 70% of the British public. However, while Nick Clegg tries to extricate himself from the wreckage without losing any more dignity or major limbs to the flames, this need not be an entirely bad thing. Sure we have probably missed our last chance in the foreseeable future to reform the antique, gerrymandered-to-the-hilt voting system that we inherited from a group of inbred, semi-inebriated, sexist, racist and corrupt hereditary nobility in the nineteenth century. However, freed from the cruel restraints of reality, those of us who think there could be more to politics than choosing between two identical men in different coloured suits can abandon the grubby compromises of actual politics and go back to dreaming vastly impractical but utopian schemes for a fairer government.

With no further ado, here is my scheme for how Alternative voting could have been made into a fair and workable system if we didn't have to worry about little things like cost, vested interests and the average voter's attention span.

1) Nationalise the Internet - We'll need universal access to register and count the greater number of votes that would be cast in my envisaged scheme. This need not be too expensive as most people already have access to the internet in their homes. Set up public booths in towns and cities. The individual would still have to pay if they wanted an outlet in their house (although this could be subsidised for vulnerable people and the elderly who might find it difficult to reach public booths). Booths would be open to all for any legal purpose but voters would always have priority. Security might be a problem but this could be offset by random administrator checks and some sturdy firewalls and security settings.

2) When it is time for a regional or national election voters cast their votes in the usual way or via email (Password guarded accounts verified by registering votes in the same way they are at the moment. Hefty penalties for fraudulent use of another's account).

3) The candidate with the least votes is eliminated just as in the Alternative vote system. If one candidate gains 50% of the vote they are elected.

4) If no candidate gets 50% of the vote all of the voters in the relevant area (rather than just those who voted for the eliminated candidate) are reassembled to cast new votes without the option to vote for the candidate who has been eliminated.

5) Repeat steps 3 and 4 until a candidate gets the requisite amount of votes to win the election. If only two candidates are left and they each get 50% of the vote there will be a tiebreaker, maybe a penalty shoot out or a coin toss would do the trick ;)

This removes the only good argument against AV that I saw come out of the No to AV campaign. Namely that AV allows false proportionality as only certain people's votes are counted again after the weaker candidates are eliminated. My system (AAV?) would allow people to rethink their stance at every stage of the voting process, thus removing the need to vote tactically.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Alternative Vote

What this man says has a lot of truth. I wouldn't be surprised if Alternative Vote fails to secure the vote just because so many people have been told by the papers that it doesn't have a chance. It hasn't helped that the 'No to AV' campaign has been ridiculously well funded and the Conservatives have sold their coalition partners down the river as per usual.

Nevertheless I'm still retaining a glimmer of optimism. Polls are all very well but they will always be imprecise and selective. Hopefully the mass of voters on the day will realise that a step in the right direction is still a step in the right direction even if it isn't a flawless solution.

Anyway I'd be tempted to vote for it just because so many opponents in the news and on the television. have tried to explain how it is too complicated for me to understand and that 'noone is interested in voting reform'. Those condescending twats deserve a kick up the backside from the public if they think they can insult its intelligence so openly.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Creepy Coincidences

I'm rereading my last (jokey) post in a different light after seeing the news this morning. Osama Bin Laden has been killed by American troops in Pakistan ( I don't think many people are going to miss him. However, there are a few hanging questions about the operation, carried out by US special forces.

1) Why were there so many deaths among the targets in such a well planned operation? Apparently the Americans had a facsimile of the compound to train in and Obama could see what was going on in real time so as to better direct events. Osama Bin Laden wasn't even armed yet still him and his wife were deemed to be 'resisting' and he was killed while she was shot in the leg.

2) Does the USA even have any respect for jurisdiction any more? Apparently the Pakistanis weren't even told until the operation was over. BBC News 24 raised the interesting question of how big a fuck up might have occurred if the Pakistani army had heard the shooting and decided to get involved. Mutual recriminations ahead I suspect.

3) That burial at sea business sounds distinctly dodgy and seems to have attracted a lot of censure from the Arabic community. Maybe the Americans don't want to make a new pilgrimage site for Al-Qaeda members but that sort of unilateral, underhand solution might be part of the reason they are so unpopular in large swathes of Africa, the Middle East and Asia in the first place. It seems like a throw back to the CIA's dirty tricks in the assassination of Lumumba or the killing of Che Guevara during the disastrous Bolivian insurgency.

However, I bet Obama is still ecstatic to have such a foreign policy coup before the 2012 election and is probably hoping that Bin Laden's death might just decrease the frequency of mujahideen references in the newspaper (avoiding awkward questions about where they came from and who gave them all that training and those stinger missiles (

In other news, the release of this book ( has been exceptionally well timed in view of the development of the latest Dr Who plot line. It looks interesting and I'm seriously considering purchasing it.