Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Britain loses control

... and here's Part 2 of why I think Brexit is worse than Trump.

In Part 1, I made the obvious point that a one-time plebiscite takes control away from voters. If the government you voted for turns out to be a disaster, you get the chance vote it out at the next election. If Brexit is a disaster, but there's no second referendum, you just have to live with the consequences for ever.

But Brexit also takes control away from the executive. If an administration finds that one of its policies isn't working, it can usually think again - tweak the policy, quietly kick it into the long grass, even do a U-turn.

But with Brexit, the government loses that control. Once Article 50 is triggered, it's committed. The course of action and the timetable have been set elsewhere. The executive isn't in charge any more. It just has to run alongside, desperately trying to keep up. When it all goes pear-shaped, there's no opportunity to think again, to change course, to do something less damaging. All the government can do is brace itself against the cab of the runaway train and hope that the crash won't be too bad.

Britain - whether by "Britain" you mean the British electorate, or the British government - hasn't "taken back control." It's lost it - big time.

Monday, 16 January 2017

A dog's breakfast is is for life, not just for Christmas

At the American Historical Association annual meeting this year, I ended a pleasant conversation with a UK-resident friend of mine, who said in parting he’d be happy enough to trade Brexit for Trump. I hadn’t time to inquire after his logic, so I leave it to you to decide whether you would do likewise.
Maybe it's not as obvious as I'd thought but, to me, the logic is quite straightforward:
  • failing a Trumpist one-party coup, Americans are stuck with Trump for four years max, before getting their chance to fire the bum
  • if Mrs May isn't stopped from going through with Brexit, it's just going to stick around, like an unflushable turd. However bad it gets, we Brits are stuck with it for ever.*

Some poor choices are hard to reverse...

 *OK, nothing's "for ever", but a generation-long omnishambles with no bearable alternative is quite bad enough.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Lasso lazyblogging

Here's a new maxim for the bone idle. No matter how obscure the question, somebody on the Internet has already researched it first, so you don't have to.

When I guessed that the flamboyant wings strapped to the back of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth's "winged hussars" weren't there to stop the enemy from lassoing the hussars in battle, as some people had theorised, this was an educated guess, based on zero research. I simply reasoned that if people had successfully used lassos to defeat cavalry in warfare:
  1. the existence of war lassos would be far more widely known, to the point of being general knowledge, and 
  2. the "wings" themselves wouldn't have been unique to the winged hussars, because other cavalry would have had to use similar countermeasures to defeat a common lasso threat.
Well, it turns out that somebody else took a look at the extraordinary winged hussars and actually spent some time looking up references to the use of lassos on the battlefield. Namely, Lars-Peter Otzen, who blogged until recently* as "Neo Survivalist" (but who doesn't actually seem to be any kind of far-right gun nut - in fact, just an interesting guy - despite the stereotypical survivalist/prepper profile).

Otzen cites several instances of people using lassos as weapons of war. I hadn't read most of his sources, except for a passage in Herodotus' Histories, in which I'd overlooked/forgotten about:
There are also certain nomads called Sagartian; they are Persian in speech, and the fashion of their equipment is somewhat between the Persian and the Pactyan; they furnished eight thousand horsemen. It is their custom to carry no armor of bronze or iron, except only daggers, and to use ropes of twisted leather.

They go to battle relying on these. This is the manner of fighting of these men: when they are at close quarters with their enemy, they throw their ropes, which have a noose at the end; whatever he catches, horse or man, each man drags to himself, and the enemy is entangled in the coils and slain. Such is their manner of fighting; they were marshalled with the Persians.
I'm not particularly surprised or ashamed that I forgot, or skimmed over that bit - it comes at a point in Book 7 when Herodotus is exhaustively cataloguing the contingents forming the multi-national task force Xerxes deployed against the Greeks who opposed him and it's easy to forget some specific details in that huge list of allies (Parthians and Caspians and Lydians and Thracians and Paphlagonians and Cappadocians and Asiatic Dorians and so on and so on) and which of them brought cavalry, or camels, or triremes, or whatever, to the party. Most readers probably find their attention wandering at this point, just as it tends to do in the begetting and begatting bits of the Bible.

Apart from Herodotus, Otzen dug up references to lassos as weapons in the works of the Greek geographer Pausanias, in the Persian epic poem The Book of Kings by Ferdowsi, and, in pictorial form, in a 15th Century Ottoman miniature painting of the Battle of Kosovo.

Quite interesting, although that's still quite a sparse list of examples to be dredged up from the extensive history of humans and the ingenious ways they've devised to kill one another over the millennia. Otzen concludes that, even if a few people over the years did adopt the lasso as a weapon, that doesn't explain those wings, which he reckons would have been a feature, not a bug, for enemy lassoers:**
Personally I do not believe in this theory: Two large vertical appendages attached to your body is an open invitation to be roped and dragged off your horse.
I could do a bit more research of my own but, frankly, I'm not that bothered, so I'm grateful to Mr Otzen for satisfying my microdose of idle curiosity.

*He now blogs at Dreaming Of Sunsets Over Ochre Dunes.

** As the self-descibed "best Lariat thrower in Europe", I expect Mr Otzen has some idea what he's talking about here...

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Tiny hands in the cookie jar

I don't want to get sucked in to the celebrity president-elect's endless tweet-feuds with his fellow celebs, but the latest one was kind of illuminating. To recap - Meryl Steep mentioned that famous clip we've all seen of the world's number one jackass mocking a disabled reporter.

It's the opening words of the customary retaliatory tweet that are most interesting here:
"For the 100th time, I never "mocked" a disabled reporter..."
It's like a badly-written version of something an exasperated parent might say to a child ("If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times...") ... except that most real parents quickly learn not talk like that, because it's just asking to get diverted into that inevitable, diversionary argument with a literal-minded child about the exact number of times he or she has been told about whatever it was.

And this bad impersonation of what an adult authority figure sounds like comes from somebody who's lying like a five year old with no grasp of plausibility. Because there is no doubt at all that he did what she said he did. The video is out there, and if you want a bit of easy muti-tasking you can just watch him doing it while you read him saying he never did it:

"Donny, nobody else has been in the kitchen and the cookie jar was full when I left. Now the jar is empty and there are crumbs all over the floor."
"But, Mom, I keep telling you, I never did it!
If this was just about Trump being a horrible, immature, dishonest person, this wouldn't be much of a story. What depresses me is the unspoken ideology which has normalised this sort of thing. Specifically, the public relations mindset:
“I’m a brand,” she said, every minute or so. “I’m always thinking of ways to promote my brand.” It was all brand, brand, brand, brand, brand...

...“Get your message and repeat it OVER AND OVER. Just keep saying your message OVER AND OVER in the same way. Just tweet it and put it out on Facebook OVER AND OVER.”
Our modern mantra. It starts with trying to promote your product* by ditching tedious facts and argument in favour of incessant repetition. It ends with a guy who's days away from becoming the most powerful human on the planet behaving like a child who's been caught red-handed stealing from the cookie jar, but who sincerely believes that if he denies it loudly and often enough, he'll get away with it, as if mommy's inconvenient knowledge can simply be wished away.

Shame on liars like Trump for trying it on, but more shame on the alleged adults who keep giving in to the pester power of incessant repetition, even when it obviously contradicts the evidence of their own eyes and ears.

*If you're busy self-branding (heaven help you), then you are the product.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Angels on horseback

Stick some bacon round your sausages and you've got pigs in blankets. If you've got more cash to splash, you can stick your bacon round some oysters and amuse your bouche with angels on horseback. If you're more diabolically inclined, you can substitute prunes for oysters and snack on devils on horseback.

Stick a pair of angel wings from a child's Nativity play onto the back of a strapping great calvalryman, however, and you get something like this:
This isn't artistic license, or a picture of horsemen dressed up for some sort of parade or pageant. Apparently, there were real people who actually charged into battle kitted out like this. Specifically, the "winged hussars", who formed the elite cavalry force of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between the 16th and 18th centuries. This is what Wikipedia has to say about those wings:
The Hussars were famous for their huge "wings", a wooden frame carrying eagle, ostrich, swan or goose feathers. In the 16th century, characteristic painted wings or winged claws began to appear on cavalry shields. The most common theory is that the hussars wore the wings because they made a loud, clattering noise which made it seem like the cavalry was much larger than in reality and frightened the enemy's horses. Other possibilities included the wings being made to defend the backs of the men against swords and lassos, or that they were worn to make their own horses deaf to the wooden noise-makers used by the Ottomans and the Crimean Tatars.
I'm not convinced by the theory that the wings were some kind of anti-lasso countermeasure - I'm no expert on the history of warfare, but I do know that cavalry's been around for a very long time and I've never heard about any battle where the attacking cavalry were thwarted by lassos, or of any other example of cavalry equipment being developed to defeat a specific lasso threat. If this had happened, you'd think that the lassoers would be as well-known as, say, the Agincourt archers.

As for swords, well, those were around on the battlefield for a long time, too - if they were a serious threat to cavalry, and if big sticky-out wings neutralised that threat, why didn't any other cavalry sport protective wings (at least in the pre-firearms period)?

The idea that these were a form of psychological warfare, intended to intimidate and impress, sounds more plausible to me - it would also fit in very neatly with warrior elites' typical love of extravagant display and generally showing off. The idea of getting the horses used to, or drowning out, alarming noises on the battlefield also sounds as if it might work.

Bizarre though they look to modern eyes, the winged hussars seem to have been effective in their day, most notably when they scattered the Swedish forces at the Battle of Kircholm in 1605.

These days they look as bonkers as Batman going off to fight crime in a mask, tights and a big black cape. At least to most people - if you're a follower of the aptly-named Mad Monarchist site, you probably think the world's gone to hell in a handcart now that a chap can no longer charge about on his horse, wearing dirty great angel wings and administer a jolly good thrashing to any commoner disrespectful enough to find it funny.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Batman! Worst. Philanthropist. Ever.

Scott Alexander, on Batman as a triumph of personal branding over effectiveness, here:
There’s an old joke about Batman. Suppose you’re a hypercompetent billionaire in a decaying city, and you want to do something about the crime problem. What’s your best option? Maybe you could to donate money to law-enforcement, or after-school programs for at-risk teens, or urban renewal. Or you could urge your company full of engineering geniuses to invent new police tactics and better security systems. Or you could use your influence as a beloved celebrity to petition the government to pass laws which improve efficiency of the justice system.

Bruce Wayne decided to dress up in a bat costume and personally punch criminals. And we love him for it.
So true, although I'm guessing that a comic strip about a socially-responsble philanthropist who doesn't wear moody fancy dress, drive a fast car and biff crims probably wouldn't have fulfilled nearly enough adolescent male fantasies to launch the franchise in the first place.


Thursday, 5 January 2017

The new normal

From​ 2016's seemingly inexhaustible back catalogue of weirdness, here's one local news story that I inexplicably missed at the time:
A young woman has told how she had food shoved into her mouth by a mystery ‘feeder’ on the train home to Milton Keynes.

The stranger grabbed Victoria Adam’s scarf and started pushing his takeaway meal into her mouth.

The strange passenger then upset other people on the London Midlands train from Euston, causing a brawl to break out.

Parliamentary research assistant Victoria, 22, said the man sat down next to her after boarding the train just before 6pm on Saturday.

“I decided to put my headphones on as he was getting a bit annoying.

“He was getting annoyed that I didn’t want to interact so I decided to pretend to go to sleep.

“A few minutes later he started shoving food in my mouth and then began pulling at my scarf.”

Passengers huddled together in the next carriage after a brawl broke out with Victoria’s ‘feeder’. 
Milton Keynes Citizen, October 2016

Given the way 2016's creeptastic political celebrities have been busy recalibrating normal standards of public behaviour to way below what what was previously considered rock bottom, I wouldn't be surprised if shoving your carton of fries into an unwilling stranger's gob has become everybody's default way of saying "Hi" by October 2017.

God help us.