24 Hours From Tulpa

When I was twelve, because I felt an absence of like minds around me, and I wouldn’t overemphasise that because there were some, some of whom might be reading this now so don’t take it personally please, you’re all mentschen, I decided to create a separate person who was just as real as I was to live in my head. More specifically, I wanted him, whose name was to be David, to live in the top left hand corner of my frontal lobe. I can’t remember all the details of the ritual I undertook to do this but I do remember it involved imagining the room I was seated in becoming transparent and being surrounded by interstellar space. After some time, I became sure I had created this being, that my work was done, and he became my constant companion. I allowed him to speak through me to friends at school, who described him as “lackadaisical”, and I would certainly describe him as depressive. By the time I was fourteen, he was fading although I might say he’s either fused with my own personality or that I am this person now, the old me having disappeared. However, more than that I would say he was kind of an imaginary friend and I grew out of him.

More recently, I’ve come across this concept labelled as “tulpa”. A tulpa in contemporary Western usage is a mentally created thought form who is actually a conscious being. Not an imaginary one but a real one. The word is derived from Tibetan, a word which seems to be སྤྲུལ་པ་, although I’m not sure because of how strange Tibetan script is. The actual Tibetan word transliterates as “sprul-pa”, which is more general, meaning “manifestation” or “emanation”. The idea is similar to a golem in Judaism in some ways, and has also been translated as “thought-form”. It’s also found in Bon, a more folkish spiritual tradition in Tibet. The mere fact that a Tibetan word happens to be used to refer to a thought-form means neither that this is cultural appropriation nor that the concept isn’t universal. It also has a value and a meaning whether or not it’s literally possible to create an independent conscious being psychically.

Because of the possibility that one is creating a conscious entity, creating a tulpa shouldn’t be taken lightly. I think of David as having merged with my personality, so he isn’t so much dead as part of me. I don’t know what wider views are on this. I presume that once the decision has been made, people engage in detailed planning and perceptual, well, “outreach” is what I suppose I’d call it, to form their tulpa. Once all this has been done, the tulpa can be checked for sentience by opening one’s mind to them and finding out if they say and do things one wouldn’t expect.

It won’t have escaped your attention that a tulpa is very similar to an imaginary friend, something which is usually thought of as confined to childhood. Consequently, my apparent creation of David, as seen from the outside, might look rather immature for a twelve-year old. There are various other associations possible here too. For instance, belief in an interventionist Creator has sometimes been mockingly described as being an “imaginary friend”, and to some extent this can be embraced. It would be blasphemous for many theists to attempt to create God, but the association people make between imaginary friends and immaturity or psychosis is quite stigmatising and allows that mockery to be taken seriously. In fact tulpas, real or not, perform important emotional and psychological functions. I happen not to take the existence of David seriously now as a separate person who has ever existed, but I presume his apparition had a rôle. Incidentally, just to clear this up I have also had two close friends called David. Both of those are or were incontrovertibly real, physical people, one of whom I knew from school and was part of my small circle of friends as a young adult, and the other of whom I met at university, I lived with and died of AIDS-related complications in 1994. Please don’t run away with the idea that either of these people were in any sense imaginary. The second has had his biography presented on Radio 4.

Back to the issue. There is a question of childishness as a line drawn at a certain stage in one’s life after which, as Paul put it, one “put(s) away childish things”. In Greek then:

ὅτε ἤµην νήπιος,
ἐλάλουν ὡς νήπιος, ἐφρόνουν ὡς νήπιος, ἐλογιζόµην ὡς νήπιος· ὅτε
γέγονα ἀνήρ, κατήργηκα τὰ τοῦ νηπίου.

1 Corinthians 13:11

Paul is speaking here of becoming an adult human male. The word he uses, ‘ανηρ, means that and also husband, and it refers to a rôle which arguably no longer exists because this was in a highly patriarchal society. If one really does put away childish things, one may impair one’s ability to relate to younger members of one’s own family. I don’t know what kind of rôle Greeks and Second Temple Period Jewish men played in the upbringing of their children, and I wonder about that because it may not have been as hands-off as the stereotype suggests, but my perhaps naïve assumption is that it didn’t involve much of a relationship in many cases. And I’m not saying this because of my own issues with gender identity. It’s uncontroversial to assert that fathers must be emotionally involved and empathic in their parenting. But leaving gender aside here, every adult is also a child, because they have been a child. My own experience of my life is that it’s rather homogenous in nature. When I was a child (“ὅτε ἤµην νήπιος . . .”), I was an oddly adult child, and maybe now I’m an adult I’m an oddly childish adult, but that doesn’t mean I don’t take responsibility for things, and most people feel a need to play, which has to be taken seriously. But in saying this I’m impinging on both Transwaffle and Homeedandherbs. It just needed saying here.

Two aspects of this come to mind. One is that of an author creating a fictional character, and the other is the psychological condition of dissociation. In order to be convincing, it should be impossible to sum up what a fictional character is in a short textual passage. They can’t be a talking head into whose mouth you put words. They have to have a life of their own which extends beyond the page in your imagination. Also, if other people read what you’ve written, one would hope they have a life of their own beyond what you imagine. The process of creating a fictional character is markèdly similar to that of creating a tulpa, and like some tulpas, the author has often built a world around that character for them to live in, whether it resembles ours or not. This suggests that if it’s true that psychic energy is invested in a tulpa, making them real and having a life of their own, a fictional character could also have a real existence. Conan Doyle’s annoyance at having to bring Sherlock Holmes back comes to mind, and considering his interest in the paranormal I wonder in fact if he considered the possibility that Holmes might in fact be in a sense real though incorporeal.

Dissociation is often seen as a psychiatric condition, and it does emerge as a coping mechanism for emotional trauma. This was once referred to as multiple personality disorder, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly because it does in fact often relate to unbearable experiences in early life. Dissociation is controversial as a diagnosis, as some see it as a product of the therapeutic process rather like some might see past-life regression, and it might also seem like the kind of rôle-playing which many claim takes place under hypnosis. However, there clearly are situations where people perceive events happening to them as taking place to someone else, and this can be a protective mechanism, so the question arises of why one might want to remove that simply so that the body in front of one can be considered a single personality when it may be of no advantage to them but merely be a form of conformity for the observer’s comfort. Then again, it may also cause distress for the people concerned to be in this state. The seriousness of the cause in many cases ought to lead one to proceed with caution here.

A common Christian view of the situation is that people are possessed. This is partly linked to Jesus’s saying in Matthew 12:43-45:

Ὅταν δὲ τὸ ἀκάθαρτον πνεῦµα ἐξέλθῃ
ἀπὸ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, διέρχεται διí ἀνύδρων τόπων ζητοῦν ἀνάπαυσιν,
καὶ οὐχ εὑρίσκει.

τότε λέγει, Εἰς τὸν οἶκόν µου ἐπιστρέψω ὅθεν
ἐξῆλθον· καὶ ἐλθὸν εὑρίσκει σχολάζοντα σεσαρωµένον καὶ
κεκοσµηµένον.

τότε πορεύεται καὶ παραλαµβάνει µεθí ἑαυτοῦ
ἑπτὰ ἕτερα πνεύµατα πονηρότερα ἑαυτοῦ, καὶ εἰσελθόντα κατοικεῖ
ἐκεῖ· καὶ γίνεται τὰ ἔσχατα τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐκείνου χείρονα τῶν
πρώτων. οὕτως ἔσται καὶ τῇ γενεᾷ ταύτῃ τῇ πονηρᾷ.

  • Now when the unclean spirit has left the human, it passes through arid places seeking rest and finds none. Then it says, “to my home I shall return, whence I came. And having come, it finds it unoccupied, clean and tidy. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they dwell there, and the human ends up worse off than they was in the first place. Thus will the evil be onto this generation.

So, the question arises of whether, far from creating a tulpa, I allowed myself to be possessed by doing this. This is also what many Christians think the risk is with meditation. One of the notable contrasts between the Tanakh and the New Testament is that the latter has a much stronger emphasis on possession by demons. Not being religiously Jewish, I don’t know how Judaism would view glanim (unsure of the plural here) from the viewpoint of sin. One difference between a tulpa and a golem is that the former is a physical being who can be manifested entirely from thought whereas the latter is a physical object upon which an animating principle is imposed by something like kabbalistic alchemical transmutation, so there is a sharper division between body and soul. To me, either seems like a form of hubris, and I’d feel uncomfortable about doing it nowadays, but I do recognise that they may have therapeutic or educational value.

Maybe a tulpa is like a companion animal. If they’re not conscious, they would seem to be a better choice than the practice of acquiring “pets” in many cases because nothing has the potential to do so except the creator. Or they may be like one’s child. I certainly spent a lot of mental energy creating our “phantom baby”, so maybe she was a kind of tulpa, which is disturbing as we tend not to think about her nowadays, but there was no intention to take her seriously as a real person at any point. Then there are the fictional characters I’ve created, and some of those have suffered a lot, some even killing themselves to end that suffering, so it would be extremely concerning if they were tulpas. I hope that some kind of intent would be involved. On the other hand, ethical considerations could mean that vegans are obliged to presume tulpas are conscious until proof of the contrary.

It does seem far-fetched that this could happen. However, in practical terms many people do behave as if a particular entity is real, notably deities. Certain avowèdly fictional characters can also have enormous followings and may be exceedingly realistic, and the question arises of whether there is such a thing as collective psychic energy which is able to hold such a being literally in existence. I don’t want to go too far down this road because it seems delusional but I do sometimes wonder about the existence of some kind of psychic field in sacred places and places of worship, although these would not be thought forms in the same sense. It would raise fewer issues to go into the question of their therapeutic value, which seems certain, although the question of malignant daydreaming also arises.

Two thirds of children are said to have imaginary friends at some stage in their childhood. It gives them the chance to play with someone when they’re bored or alone and on some level they do know they aren’t real, but it’s still important to respect this. It’s also supposed to be good for their language development because they talk more than they would otherwise. They help with creativity and emotional self-control. I would imagine that it could also help future authors and actors. I personally didn’t have an imaginary friend as a child, at least before I was twelve. I did, however, used to narrate my life for quite some time, which is kind of complimentary to characterisation in that it’s another aspect of writing fiction.

Speaking of which, one of the strangest things I found about NaNoWriMo when I started to do it was that participants would often talk about their protagonists as if they were separate from themselves. They would talk about them being reluctant to do things, for example. This is entirely different from how I write fiction. For me, although I do try to write fairly convincing fictional characters, they exist because they have a certain set of functions in the narrative, such as being a window onto the world, having a particular kind of character trait or constitute thought experiments, and they can’t be separated from the process of worldbuilding because they’re part of that world, or the setting if you want to think of it as mainstream. I wonder if there’s a link between this other tendency, which extends well beyond NaNo, and the recent focus on tulpas, and perhaps also between the facility to have imaginary friends as children and later creative writing. Then again, there are a lot of things about NaNo I find odd and baffling.

Adolescence is not generally considered an appropriate age at which to have an imaginary friend, so this has been the object of psychological research. Are they a sign of immaturity or something more positive? Three possibilities were investigated: whether they were a sign of a deficit, giftedness or egocentrism. Teenage diaries were read and the conclusion reached, perhaps surprisingly, was that teens with imaginary friends tended to be more socially competent than average, had good coping skills and were particularly creative. This is not at all what I would expect, and I don’t feel like it describes me at that age. What does reflect my attitude at that time is that teenage imaginary friends are not created as a substitute for real friends.

There’s clearly an at least superficial resemblance between tulpas, imaginary friends and dissociation, but dissociation tends to be pathologised. This seems similar to the way hearing voices is stigmatised. Medicalised and pathologised coping mechanisms, or simply aspects of experience and behaviour, often seem to be due to an intolerant and emotionally dismissive perspective on what it is to be human. It can also be hypocritical. For example, depending on the society it’s considered entirely acceptable by many to see theistic religion as “normal”, but leaving aside the question of the reality of either deities or tulpas, both of them involve interaction with a being who is not perceived by everyone. The difference with a tulpa is that they may be perceived by one person alone, but being in a minority of one doesn’t make someone mistaken. Looking at it from a mental health perspective, I don’t think it would be a bad thing for someone to manifest such an entity regardless of one’s views as to their reality. To use a possibly inappropriate analogy, the processes of physical pathology are usually initially an attempt to compensate for imbalance and remain in or return to a stable phase in terms of homoeostasis, and whereas inflammation and pain, for example, may be unpleasant there is usually a reason for them. Addressing the issue of a tulpa as if it’s a central part of a psychiatric issue is similarly inappropriate, even if there are other issues going on for the person involved.

Most people who generate tulpas consciously see them as psychological or neurological phenomena. I would probably fall into the second category, at least as I perceived David back then, in that as I said, I saw him as someone who took up residence in a specific part of my brain: part of my frontal lobe. However, I also feel that a tulpa is like the soul of a dead person, in the Ancient Egyptian sense of being a subjective impression of their physical presence, which is one of the aspects of the soul from that perspective. In that respect, the essence of the departed who visits one in one’s dreams or is seen around after their death does have a consciousness in my view because even if they are only “simulated” in one’s own mind, one’s mind is conscious by definition and therefore this person is conscious, tulpa or otherwise. The two are very similar. Only one person in twelve sees the tulpa associated with their consciousness as having a metaphysical explanation.

Thoughtforms are conceptually ancestral to tulpas in the current sense of the latter term. In Islam, they have been referred to as djinn, but a djinn is, as I understand it, generally conceived as a morally uncommitted spirit like an angel or demon in essence, and in fact I’m not convinced they aren’t physical. As mentioned previously on this blog, plasmas can exist in the form of charged dusts and have many of the characteristics, such as the ability to partition off areas of themselves to form protected special environments like cells, which make life possible, and they would need to avoid damp areas to do this, and for this reason I think it’s possible that the Islamic references to djinn may in fact be “life Jim, but not as we know it.” Consequently, a djinn and a thought-form could be completely different things. That said, maybe it’s possible for djinn to form through psychokinesis or perhaps a more firmly established physiological process, in which case they could be both.

The illustration which opened this post is from the Theosophist Annie Besant’s 1901 book ‘Thought-Forms’. Besant would unsurprisingly have attempted to fit the concept into Theosophy. Certainly the image above does call to mind my impression that physical churches and I presume other places of worship and special spaces have a kind of psychic energy field, which in the case of a church could be seen as an organ of the bride of Christ, to put it in Christian terms. Therefore, whereas many Christians might find that the general idea of thought-forms and tulpas is dangerous and Satanic, I would imagine that they would go along with this, and I can’t see the difference between this and the idea of a spirit-filled church. Regardless of denomination, it seems to me that some churches feel kind of “flat” and others “vibrant”, including house churches, and I can only really conclude that there really is something supernatural going on here. In fact it doesn’t even require theism to accept that this is true, and even physicalism might allow for some kind of esprit du corps.

This relates to such phenomena as the Winchester House, which is by any standard a remarkable building. It’s a large house in San José, California, owned by the heirs to the Winchester estate, i.e. the company which manufactured the rifles and hard drives. When Sarah Winchester inherited the fortune, it was the result of her father-in-law’s and husband’s deaths and when her daughter died of malnutrition, she consulted a medium who claimed to channel her husband, telling her that she must go west and continuously build a house to atone for the deaths of the victims of the company’s products. Ms Winchester receives instructions in her dreams for additions to the house which she then drew up as plans the next day, and although work was not constant on the house, there has been extensive remodelling and additions. Even new additions were sometimes demolished according to her wishes, or as she would probably have said, the wishes of the spirits haunting the house. It now has seven storeys and includes windows which open onto walls, staircases leading nowhere, stained glass windows and plentiful other odd features. This could be looked at, non-exclusively, as either a manifestation of guilt or grief, or as a kind of thought-form and a house with a spirit of its own. It’s been claimed that other haunted houses are tulpas too. I don’t think there’s any reason to doubt that Ms Winchester had this done to assuage her guilt at the deaths caused by Winchester rifles or for some other emotional reason such as bereavement just because of the claims regarding supernatural influence or thought-forms.

From a philosophical perspective, all of this relates to the idea of concepts as external to the mind, although this sense is less concrete. According to the philosopher Michael Dummett, analytical philosophy, that is, the dominant strand of academic philosophy in the English-speaking world, held that the philosophy of thought can be understood through the philosophy of language alone and completely. This doesn’t sound particularly promising from the viewpoint of tulpas or thought-forms as it would seem that their existence must therefore be reduced to linguistic fictions, but there are other aspects of analytical philosophy which are more promising. Dummett is also on record as saying that the nineteenth century philosopher Gottlob Frege, generally regarded as one of the parents of analytical philosophy and promoted by Bertrand Russell, contributed to this school of thought by separating thoughts from the mind and therefore separating philosophy of mind (such as the mind-body problem) from the philosophy of thought. Moreover, the notion of psychologism is much criticised in Western academic philosophy generally. This is the belief that psychology is central to understanding many or all non-psychological ideas. I do in fact think this is entirely plausible in some situations, for instance the interesting parallels between ego defences in Freud’s thought and Kantian categories, but the general consequence of these demarcations is that there is a realm in which concepts exist separate from consciousness. And in fact I do believe concepts are usefully thought of in this way, and that there are no inventions but rather discoveries. A concept seems to be “in the air” waiting to be grasped sometimes, and it’s common for different people to come up with the same thing independently at roughly the same time simply because the season for doing so has arrived, possible examples being SF novels about asteroid impacts in the 1970s and filament light bulbs. Hence, although it isn’t concrete in nature, something like the idea of thought-forms does exist even in respectable academia.

This hasn’t been a thorough survey of all that can be said about tulpas and thought-forms, but I have expressed certain issues in connection with them which come to mind often. One takeaway from this is that although I personally happen to believe that tulpas have a kind of independent existence, although I’m not sure about consciousness unless one is referring to the actual grey matter substrate on which their ideas depend, their utility, value and meaning to those who construct them is clear, and they should not be stigmatised according to some reductivist paradigm which equates mental and physical illness.

Cambodia

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

During yesterday’s post on monkey hate, I mentioned that many of the videos involved are made and uploaded to YouTube in Cambodia. However, merely accusing some people in that country of cruelty to monkeys without looking at it in a bit more detail is unfair. After all, England and Scotland are responsible for much of the state of the world today, invented the concentration camp and did all sorts of outrageous stuff, and still are, but that doesn’t mean that’s all there is to these countries or the people in them. It’s also simplistic and racist to think in terms of “those monkey-torturing Khmer bastards”. What actually led to this situation arising? What’s its history?

Nonetheless I am going to start from monkey hate and look at links to the state of affairs in the country, although I also want to talk about Pol Pot’s régime and the Khmer language and script. Apparently many people associate Cambodia with the Angkor Wat temple complex, but for whatever reason that isn’t what comes to mind first for me. As such, it’s easy for this to become quite negative, so I’m going to tak pains to avoid that.

Two aspects of the monkey hate situation seem to interact to make Cambodia the centre of this activity. One is the ecology of the country. Cambodia is particularly biodiverse, although it isn’t one of the seventeen megadiverse countries declared in 1988. Then again, neither is Italy and that’s a biodiversity hot spot. Tonlé Sap is a large freshwater lake which floods the surrounding area every wet season and has an associated river, a tributary of the Mekong. It has a maximum area of about 16 000 km2 and a minimum of 2 500. The name simply means “large freshwater river”.

© WWF / Zeb HOGAN, will be removed on request

It’s the home of the largest species of freshwater bony fish in the world, and in fact the Mekong has four out of ten of the largest such species, including the giant freshwater stingray, a cartilaginous fish, unusual for fresh water environments although there are a freshwater sharks in Australia.

By User:Lerdsuwa – Own photo (400D + 50/1.4), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1412948

The Giant Barb, up to three metres long and almost a third of a tonne in weight, is exceeded in size by the seven metre long Chinese paddlefish, a swordfish-like animal who may be extinct (and didn’t live in the Mekong):

The dog-eating catfish, however, does. Then again, these are also kept in a Staffordshire lake where they’ve eaten all the mink. The critically-endangered Irrawaddy dolphin also lives in the Mekong:

By Foto: Stefan Brending, Lizenz: Creative Commons by-sa-3.0 de, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29532409

As well as humans, Cambodian primates include the prosimian slow loris (three species), seven species of Old World monkey and two species of lesser ape (gibbons). Colugos and three species of tupaia are also found, all of whom are euarchonta and the colugo, or flying “lemur”, is even more closely related to primates:

By Lip Kee Yap. – Flickr: Colugo., CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7627076

There are also pitcher plants, insectivorous plants which are also detritovores and used by tupaias as toilets. Gymnures, furry hedgehogs, are found there too:

Not to mention dugongs, Asian elephants, pangolins, rhinos and a total of 162 species of mammal, along with even more reptiles. Many species are also found in Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, and there are also likely to be many species of plant and animal still unknown to science.

Gambodge, which is also the French word for “Cambodia”, is a yellow pigment used to dye robes saffron taken from latex found in trees in the same order, but not family, as St John’s Wort and Rose of Sharon. It has been used medically but is a stimulating laxative, so it belongs in the heroic rather than the physiomedical tradition. It occurs in Cambodia but not uniquely so, and also produces a fruit which is used as a dangerous weight loss supplement. In that context the word “dangerous” is redundant. Show me even a relatively safe weight loss supplement and I will be very surprised!

The country is undergoing a period of very rapid economic growth, which has led to threats to these organisms’ habitats such as deforestation, overfishing and threats to mangrove swamps. As is usual in rainforest areas, the soil is of poor quality for growing crops and unsustainable agriculture leads to soil erosion. In spite of the availability of copious fresh water, there is actually a water shortage there, and it shares with Laos the presence of a very large number of land mines. There are more amputees per capita in Cambodia than anywhere else in the world and the number is rapidly growing due to the land mines.

Getting back to the ecology, the opportunity exists for exploitation of wildlife by individuals, and there’s also a motive in the form of the economic situation. There is very little regulation of industry in Cambodia. I know I own many garments which were made there, as clothing is one of the major business sectors along with footwear, and nowadays there’s also tourism. It’s common to see people set up petrol stations on street corners consisting of little more than a pump and a barrel of petrol, and there’s a culture of entepreneurship and innovation there of necessity. Unfortunately the lack of regulation also makes the country rife with child trafficking for illegal adoption. Poor parents often sell their children for a few hundred US dollars to gangs who then forge orphan certificates, and I imagine there are also a lot of orphans in Cambodia owing to all the land mines, and the children are often adopted by wealthy Westerners, and possibly become sex slaves. In view of this practice, it’s unsurprising that monkey hate has found Cambodia a fertile source of videos.

The impression I’m left with here is of a fairly desperate and poor population which is looking for opportunities to make enough money to live on, and presumably has a low degree of empathy for monkeys, and this is the result. I don’t think they are themselves sadistic. They simply know what appeals and gets views on YouTube, so this is what they do.

There are about five dozen macaques living in Angkor Wat who are famous for taking food from human tourists. They also bite and are a rabies risk, and they’re aggressive. Therefore it is possible that human attitudes towards monkeys among the Khmer themselves are quite negative.

Angkor Wat itself used to be the centre of the largest Asian city of pre-industrial times, the capital of the Khmer Empire, also known as  យសោធរបុរៈ or Yasodharapura, which may have had a population of a million, which is the same as Imperial Rome. Almost the whole population of the country is Theravada Buddhist, at least nominally. This is also referred to as Hinayana – the lesser vehicle. I presume you’re familiar enough with Buddhism not to need further exposition, although the practice and lifestyle of people following a particular faith may not adhere particularly close to the principles involved. Not a criticism of the Khmer, just an observation about the human condition.

Anyone who has memories of the 1970s will be aware of the reputation of Pol Pot. As I’ve said before, it is important not just to be negative about a far-away country, but his era can’t really be passed over without comment. Pol Pot was the nickname of the dictator whose birth name was Saloth Sar. Born in 1925 into wealthy conditions, Saloth Sar gained a scholarship to study engineering in Paris as a student, where he met up with other Khmer radicals and attempted to read Marx but couldn’t understand him, so he read Stalin instead and found him considerably more inspiring. He failed his exams and returned to Cambodia. I think it’s fair to claim that he was not truly communist because he didn’t understand Marx. However, he was an ally of nominally Marxist régimes, mainly because Mao Zedong regarded him as a useful tool against Soviet dominance in Southeast Asia. The French Indochinese era ended under the Vichy régime during World War II, when they allowed Japan to take control in order that Japan have easier access to China. In 1945, Japan ratified the King Norom Sihanouk’s (នរោត្តម សីហនុ – the order of the words is inverted like many other personal names which don’t use the “standard” Western order) independent kingdom. He abdicated after ten years and formed a political party, Sangkum Reastr Niyum (សង្គមរាស្ត្រនិយម), whose ideology was conservative Theravada Buddhism, monarchism, nationalism and conservatism. It claimed to be socialist but this was completely groundless by any estimation. The party won the election, all opposition party having been imprisoned. I mention this to put it in context. Pol Pot’s régime didn’t just appear on its own out of a liberal democratic social order. A policy of neutrality was adopted but during the Vietnam War, North Vietnamese troops moved supplies and weapons through the north, resulting in Richard Nixon secretly bombing Cambodia, as Laos had been a few years earlier. When this became publicly known in the States, it turned opinion decisively against the war and Pol Pot’s guerilla movement referred to as the Khmer Rouge took advantage of the anti-American outrage this generated to recruit the Khmer to their cause. This is roughly the point at which he started to refer to himself as Pol Pot, which seems to be short for “Political Potential”. Sihanouk was overthrown by Lon Nol while abroad and Pol Pot entered into an alliance with the king, with the result that many of the Khmer Rouge recruits saw themselves as fighting for the King rather than for the apparent communism of the movement.

Over the next few years, the Khmer Rouge managed to take control of large areas of territory, where the farms were collectivised, very much against the will of the peasants, many of whom slaughtered the animals rather than allowing them to be shared. The movement attempted to cast the whole population in the image of the peasantry, having them wear shoes made from car tyres and dress in black with a red krama, which is a multipurpose scarf eventually used by many Khmer to hang themselves when they found the social order unbearable. Rather than seeking to equalise by levelling up, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge chose to equalise down, executing many of the more educated and the clergy and emptying the cities to have the populace work on the collective farms. Many artifacts of modern technology and Western life were destroyed or abandoned as capitalist, and there were piles of banknotes blowing around on the streets of the deserted Phnom Penh because money had been abolished. Two and a half million people are said to have been killed by the new government in the second half of the 1970s, although to Cambodia the calendar was reset to Year Zero in 1975 as part of the rejection of all culture and traditions so that a new revolutionary culture be formed. The famous Killing Fields (វាលពិឃាត – veal pikheat) were mass graves of more than a million people, and about a third of the country’s population were killed by the government. The country was also de-industrialised. Pol Pot had studied the Reign of Terror and the French Revolution thoroughly and seems to have attempted to emulate it. Life expectancy in Cambodia in 1977 was just eighteen years. Many of them were also killed through forced labour. Even the hospitals were emptied of their patients, and they were forced to march out of Phnom Penh in the sweltering conditions, and of course many of them died too. There was no intermediate stage where former bosses played a part in constructing the society, even though the Chinese had warned them not to attempt this. Thousands of teachers were executed, as were medical staff, and anyone wearing glasses or a wristwatch.

Unemployment fell to zero although with the abolition of money, and incidentally therefore banks, this doesn’t mean paid work. A democratic assembly was elected, which would’ve been for a five-year term, representing only peasants, workers and members of the armed forces. Those deemed to be “New People” did not participate. Workers’ Coöperatives had administrative control in some locations. They maintained a close relationship with China and North Korea.

I don’t want to dwell too much on this time, although it was clearly notorious and can’t be ignored. I first learned of the situation in Cambodia through the ‘Readers’ Digest’ in 1977 and of course there was a famous ‘Blue Peter’ appeal in 1979 which achieved its target in less than a week. The appeal was possible because at the beginning of 1979, Vietnamese troops had taken control of Phnom Penh and imposed a more moderate government. The Khmer Rouge retreated into the forests and holed up in Thailand. After that, something complicated happened that I didn’t understand, involving a coalition government and government in exile, linked to Chinese disquiet at Vietnamese influence over the country, until 1993 when it became a kingdom again and appeared to have a democratic government with wider suffrage than previously. There was then a coup in 1997 and an election the following year which was probably marred by violence and intimidation. Today’s situation is described as “a competitive authoritarian régime”. This kind of governmental situation arose after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and consists of apparently democratic structures agreed to be the means of gaining power but the party in power abuses that power to undermine democracy. However, opposition groups are not subject to imprisonment or the need to operate in exile. They lack at least one of the three characteristics of a level playing field, free elections or civil liberties. Clearly Trump was trying to push the US further in this direction and the situation in this country also has elements of this, although it’s hard to assess to what extent.

One of the consequences of this seems to have been the current degree of corruption and laissez-faire, hands-off approach which has allowed the child trafficking to thrive, along with the monkey hate. Hence I think there’s now a fairly clear picture of how this has happened.

The Khmer Rouge have influenced the demographics of the country considerably. Half the population is now under twenty, mainly because of the murder of a third of the country. Technically, however, this mass murder was not genocide because it wasn’t based on ethnicity or religion. Although religion was persecuted, and the Christian and Muslim minorities in the country were killed on the basis of being a Western influence (which seems strange for someone living in Western Europe as Islam seems eastern for many non-Islamic White people here and is similarly the basis for persecution), the majority of the people killed were simply Khmer and nominally Theravada Buddhists like their killers and most of the rest of the country. The killing is therefore atypical in some ways. There is a potential legal problem here because it means that definitions of the crime of genocide miss out such events and provide a defence, so it may be quite important to recognise this crime for what it is or extend the scope in order to deter the chances of this happening again. It was, in a way, a different kind of phenomenon with different causes.

I want to turn now to the Khmer language. This is in the Mon-Khmer or Austroasiatic language family, a group of languages found in Eastern India and Indochina. Although it’s in the same family as Vietnamese, the two are far from mutually comprehensible but there is some mutual intelligibility with Thai and Lao due, I imagine, to shared vocabulary, suggesting that there’s a Southeast Asian Sprachbund, where languages in close proximity acquire each others’ characteristics. Khmer is unusual in the area for not being tonal. During the French occupation, there was an attempt to romanise the language, which was, however, abandoned and therefore the script now used is the traditional Khmer script, which is a Brahmi-based abugida related to the Devanagari script used for Sanskrit and Hindi. An abugida is an alphabet-like script but with an assumed inherent vowel following each consonant which is only omitted by using a cancellation symbol or a vowel diacritic or other addition to the consonant. It looks a bit like Thai and Lao but is more “crenellated”, like it has turrets at the top. The Khmer script came to my attention in 1977 when it was mentioned in the Guinness Book Of Records as being the “longest alphabet”, with six dozen letters, although more recent claims say that it has two more and others that it has fewer. This seems to be due to the probability that some of the letters are only used to write foreign loanwords but are pronounced identically to other sounds in Khmer. In its case, the inherent vowel is the long /ɑ/ found in all spoken languages (or something very close to it is), meaning that the script may be adaptable to other tongues but it is in fact only used for Khmer itself and Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism. Some consonants have an inherent “o” instead. Every consonant but one has a subscript form used in consonant clusters. In addition, there are ten consonants used in loanwords from French and Thai.

Cambodia is unsurprisingly the only country in which Khmer is the majority language. The other languages spoken there are also Mon-Khmer, but French and English are used in education. Transliteration of Khmer into Latin script is very inaccurate, so for example “Khmer” is pronounced something like “kumai”. Unlike some other related languages, Khmer has borrowed extensively from Sanskrit and Pali and is therefore not as unfamiliar to an Indo-European language speaker than might be expected from its Austroasiatic origin. Despite considerable attempts to do so, I’ve been unable to penetrate Mon-Khmer languages and get any kind of feel for them, which is unusual for a language family originating in the Old World or Oceania, but this may be due to the absence of Mon-Khmer languages from a global stage since none of them are internationally prominent beyond the immediate region around Indochina and east India. Like many Far Eastern languages, it has levels of respect, using kinship terms to refer to non-relatives. During Pol Pot’s time, this respect language was abandoned but has now returned. It’s an analytical language, that is, there are no inflections, so in that respect it’s very easy.

Cambodian food is quite well-known and eating insects deliberately is the norm in the country. Freshwater fish is commonly eaten, and is along with insects the main source of protein in the diet. The nutritional quality of the fruit and vegetables is particularly high compared to some other parts of the world. The fruits are conceptually organised into a royal court, with queen, king, princess and so forth, which are mangosteen, durian and milkfruit respectively. There’s also a lot of rice and noodles.

That, then, goes some way towards painting a rather more complete picture of the Kingdom of Cambodia than yesterday’s post managed to do. I just didn’t want to leave it looking like I had an irredeemably stereotypical and negative view of the country. Obviously the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot had a devastatingly negative impact on it, and this is probably what most of us know about the nation, so although this can’t be ignored, it isn’t all there is to it.

Monkey Hate

Major trigger warning for cruelty to members of other closely-related species and possible connections to human child sexual abuse.

I wanted to get that in first, before even the picture credit, but to give her her due, the above image is credited thus: Photo by Rachel Claire on Pexels.com

This is about something which currently manifests as an internet phenomenon but may have existed in human nature for longer than we’ve even been human. Before I get going, I’m going to become a bit “sciency”, but the bulk of this post isn’t about that. There is a point to this outline, relevant to the subject of this post.

Cladism is the classification of organisms into groups of genetically related populations with common ancestry. This has led to some confusing descriptions of animals in particular. For instance, there’s a sense in which all mammals, reptiles and amphibia are fish, because our common ancestor is a Eusthenopteron-like species of fish, so we form a clade with bony fish, and in which birds are reptiles because they’re dinosaurs and dinosaurs are descended from reptiles. Likewise, there is a sense in which all humans and other apes are monkeys, in particular Old World monkeys. It’s like matroshka dolls. There’s a large doll called “simians” containing two smaller dolls called platyrrhines and Catarrhines. The platyrrhines are native to South and Central American only. The catarrhines originated in Afro-Eurasia and include hominoids and cercopithecids. Hominids include gibbons and their relatives, and great apes including humans. Everything is inside the big doll called simians. In other words, we’re all monkeys. This doesn’t sound right because there’s a lot of insistence on distinguishing apes from other monkeys, for instance emphasising our larger bodies, less arboreal nature, lack of long external tails and dorsoventrally compressed trunks, but we are still monkeys, and there was a time when we were all competing on a level playing field, as it were. It’s enlightening to bear this in mind in what follows.

This is where it starts to get exceedingly distasteful.

There are a very large number of channels on YouTube dedicated to torture, accidental death and serious injury to various species of simian other than ourselves, and apparently also excluding other apes and New World monkeys. I’m having to do this by hearsay because if I seek out these channels or videos myself I will be rewarding them with views and advertising revenue and thereby boosting their profile. This, in fact, is in itself a major issue because it means that if one wishes to hear from a contrary viewpoint to one’s own, one risks boosting that for the general public without foreknowledge as to the nature of the content, which encourages one to stay in one’s own reality tunnel. Nonetheless I do have secondary sources for this and so far as I can tell it is uncontroversially extremely cruel.

It’s in the YouTube creator content guidelines that causing suffering or death to animals deliberately for purposes other than food preparation or hunting (because our society perversely considers that acceptable) is not admissible content and will lead to the channel uploading it to be closed and demonetised. Closure and demonetisation of channels by regular users happens very often for apparently minor infractions, in the latter case often without informing the user. These monkey hate channels are often old and still monetised. YouTube is also aware of them, since they receive numerous complaints about them, but they simply persist, in a similar manner to how they do with Elsagate videos. This is rather baffling, since the videos don’t seem to be submitted by any of the big players, so one would expect them to be held to the same standards. This, though, is not the focus of this post.

As far as online manifestations of monkey hate are concerned, this might be traceable to a site set up in 1996 CE called http://www.ifihаdаmоnkеу.соm (obviously not that but again, I’m trying to avoid page impressions – that’s kind of a phishing link). This was just a bad-taste humour website set up in response to PETA, and although I’m vegan I’m no fan of PETA because they are no friends of animals other than humans, have an anthropocentric view of animal liberation and aren’t above rather appallingly sexist campaigns, not to mention their startlingly crass approach to publicity. For whatever motives, the person who started the site was at first rewarded by various bad-taste jokes, which however rapidly got out of hand and were hard not to believe were actually serious. The search engine result brings up the description “the Best Source for Metaphorical Violence Against The Monkey You Don’t Even Have in the Whole Wide World!”, and I’m not sure whether that description has been there since the start or not, but it was there in 2001, which is as far back as the Wayback Machine goes with it. Even back then it was hard to tell whether or not to take the submissions as jokes or not, which is of course a common online problem. It’s also hard to discern the motivation for annoying PETA, since it could be similar to mine or it could just be carnism.

You needn’t be vegan not to be disturbed by these videos though. There’s a focus on adult monkey sadness and baby monkey suffering and death, all the victims seem to be Old World monkeys, and there’s a wider context of cruelty, as with fake animal rescue channels, where YouTubers endanger or injure dogs and cats in order to film themselves “rescuing” them.

I think at this point I owe it to Cambodia to post something more general, and I hope more positive, about the country because of what I’m about to say: a large number of monkey hate videos originate from that country. Some of the channels posting them from Cambodia also post dramatised videos about underage girls being raped, which suggests a possible link between child sexual abuse and monkey hate. However, the commenters on these videos are usually either bots or apparently White Anglophone males, whose profile pictures are unique to the channels. Hence there is a hypothesis that monkey hate is a proxy for child abuse and sadistic pædophilia. There’s a further hypothesis which I don’t accept that the videos use steganography, which I shall now explain.

Steganography is a method of hiding something in plain sight. One of the rookie mistakes in using ciphers is that they are not concealed and stand out as obvious codes. Guvf, sbe rknzcyr, vf na boivbhf pvcure. It makes a lot more sense to hide the message imperceptibly in something which looks routine and ordinary, such as a jpeg or online video. This is done by altering a small portion of the data slightly, resulting in a video which is indistinguishable from the original but contains encoded data. However, I don’t think this can be done on YouTube because I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work. This was a few years ago now and things may have changed, but the videos are considerably altered by the time they’ve been uploaded, or at least they used to be, and I don’t think they could be relied upon to preserve the data. In fact I doubt they ever would. Therefore I’d reject this out of hand, and in any case it doesn’t make sense to submit videos which violate the terms of service to do this. It’d make more sense to submit innocuous videos with steganographic content, and for all I know it can be done now due to improvements in video quality. I might try it again soon on YT.

There could have been incidents of monkey hate before the internet became popular, but most people wouldn’t know about them and there wouldn’t usually have been much of an audience. As such, the phenomenon may have things in common with the Targeted Individual community, where people with a sensitive cognitive style and feelings of persecution find each other online and reinforce each other’s beliefs.

A number of hypotheses have been suggested regarding this. They include:

  • People who live in areas where monkeys are common regard them as pests and celebrate their suffering.
  • Germphobia.
  • Addiction.
  • Sadism.
  • Sublimated or encoded child sexual abuse.
  • Phobia.
  • Disgust.

The first hypothesis might explain how the videos appeared in the first place but doesn’t explain the fact that their audience largely consists of English-speaking White males. They also tend to use the kind of language employed by the American Right, such as calling people “snowflakes”. This suggests a further thought, which is that it’s sublimated or encoded racism.

Germphobia is similar to the first, and in this case one must be careful not to accuse people who are germphobic of being into this too. However, the species involved are not particularly unhygienic compared to others, such as bats for example, and although there is phobia of bats it doesn’t lend itself to sadistic videos of bats being tortured, although that might be difficult to achieve.

Regarding addiction, clearly the videos are likely to be addictive whatever the appeal is, because that’s a common happening on the internet, as with pornography for example.

Sadism is very likely to be involved in one way or another. It may also reflect a lack of legislation against cruelty of this kind in Cambodia and other countries from which these videos originate, or difficulty in enforcement if they do exist. Cultural relativism may also make the subject matter seem worse to Westerners than it does to people in Southeast Asia. Also, the chances are that the financial “reward” for getting views on such videos is a motivation for the people posting them, so they may themselves not be specifically sadist although they are likely to be sociopathic or psychopathic, and the former condition may have arisen due to their upbringing. The videos appear to divide into three categories: voyeuristic, home made and what I think of as “found footage”. Voyeuristic videos involve chance recordings of monkeys suffering from events not instigated deliberately by humans, such as predation or accidents. Home made is deliberate cruelty to captive animals, actually acquired for that purpose. This can involve attempts to instigate hostility between monkeys. Finally, found footage involves recordings made surreptitiously of humans being cruel to monkeys of other species, something which is obviously a lot easier nowadays than it used to be.

The question of encoded child sexual abuse is another matter, blending into sadism. It could be that the unacceptability of child abuse videos on the internet, not to mention the personal risk in viewing them, leads people to watch or make videos which don’t attract that kind of unwanted attention from the authorities. This is of course speciesist, and there could be popular support for clamping down on them to the same extent, but the situation may not be as black and white as it appears.

I’m going to deal with the last two together, as I think they may be the most significant. Monkey haters have been interviewed and for the ones who have come forward, these two seem to be the explanation. For some people, individuals of closely related species may occupy an uncanny valley between the utterly non-human such as cats on the one hand and humans on the other. This similarity seems to be interpreted by most people as cuteness, but for some it seems to evoke disgust and horror like the undead might do for many.

This is what was revealed, or at least reported, by monkey haters who have been interviewed. One of them recounts a visit to a zoo when he was eight. Up until that point, he’d considered monkeys to be cute and cuddly, but he found the actual experience of seeing them – he mentions mating in public as an example of what triggered him – disgusting and shocking, and this stayed with him into adulthood, eventually manifesting as monkey hate. Significantly, he not only has no urges to be cruel or watch cruelty to other animals, just monkeys. He admits he became obsessed and that it was an addiction, and he feels very guilty and disgusted with himself about it. He also specifically hates baby monkeys, the reason given being that they have tantrums, although this sounds like a rationalisation. His own theory is that it’s instinctive, and surfaces sporadically in some people, but used to be widespread, and also that it’s more common than it seems. It might, in his opinion, also be an outlet for people who have underlying violent tendencies towards humans.

I have to admit this makes a lot of sense. Back in the Miocene, our ancestors were one species of many apes, to the extent that palæontologists can’t identify who they were, but sometime between 24 million years ago in the Oligocene when the first monkeys came into existence from the tarsier-like omomyids and the emergence of Proconsul, the first known ape, 21 million years ago, we would have been monkeys surrounded by possibly competing other monkeys. Since Proconsul is close to the ancestor of all apes, not just us, this raises the question of whether other great apes, and also the various gibbons, also engage in cruelty to tailed monkeys in particular. The Gombe chimpanzee community in particular is known for its violence and this is sometimes manifested in the killing of tailed monkeys such as the red-tailed monkey, although they do eat them. Bonobos and orangutan would, at least prima facie, be considered less likely candidates but this is not scientific of course.

To most people living in European societies, the tailed monkeys are unfamiliar, unlike in the places where they’re likely to live. This unfamiliarity means there is no obvious “bridge” between them and the rest of nature, and this may lead to a sense of the uncanny to a greater extent than it would for humans who live alongside them. As such, the introduction of monkeys as a novelty may come across as an affront to their distinctive identity and might also constitute a threat if they are used to the idea of human dominion over the rest of the animal kingdom. I don’t think it can be mere coincidence that the main audience for these videos is White and English-speaking, and I wonder also if it’s a manifestation of xenophobia which extends to overt and active racism, hence the use of alt-right language. The people who live with wild monkeys from day to day might see them as an economic resource such as for food, tourists or these videos, but they don’t seem to bear them animosity. They’re just doing White people’s dirty work for them. On the other hand, I’m guessing here, but I would expect some of them to regard them as “tree rats”, as the term has it, similarly to how many people in cities see rock doves.

The interviewee thinks there are probably a few dozen hard core monkey haters, which makes it sound like a trivial matter, but there are also thousands upon thousands of casual monkey haters, who watch the videos for entertainment regularly without commenting or engaging. Some of them clearly do get sexual gratification from it, and interestingly despite their apparently homophobic attitudes are very zealous in their defence of their right to do so. There are also two kinds of target. Babies are one, and tend to mention the kind of characteristics often attributed to human babies, such as clinginess, dependence and spoiltness. The other target is the grief of the mothers who witness the death and injury of their children. The former is particularly reminiscent of child abuse and the latter, I think, gives a clue as to the possibility of it being to do with opposition to feelings of tenderness and love. Some fans go so far as to say they’d like to kill all humans who feel positively towards monkeys in any way, and a link is also made between monkey behaviour and neurodiversity as a “justification”.

I want to close by making two observations. Most of the videos are made in Cambodia in spite of the fact that non-human primates are found all across Asia and Afrika, and also in South America. Old World monkeys are more closely related to us than New World monkeys are. In fact, cladistically we are Old World monkeys. These would’ve been the monkeys, or similar ones, with whom we would’ve been in conflict in the Oligocene and Miocene, but this fails to explain why Cambodia specifically would be the source. Could it be that in that country in particular, the terrible trauma seen as inflicted by Pol Pot has brutalised the populace and led to this tendency? Or is it more a question of economic necessity: people in particularly severe hardship will seek any source at all to support their dependents and themselves? One thing this has brought home to me is how little I know of Cambodia, and I would like to explore this on here in the near future.

Esperantotago – Esperanto Day

Today is Esperanto Day, the anniversary of Zamenhof’s 1887 CE publication of ‘La Unua Libro’, the “first book”, setting out the principles of the Esperanto language. Now I’ve mentioned Esperanto rather a lot on here so I won’t be going into it in the same way as I have before, except to note that it has external history, and to a limited extent internal history too, in common with other international Jewish languages. And I use that phrase “Jewish languages” positively, as the invention of Esperanto represents the internationalism, altruism and desire for peace which is such a central part of Jewish faith and culture.

It’s been said many times that Esperanto has a Western Indo-European bias, that it’s sexist and that it’s poorly designed. One of the problems with it is that it ignores sandhi. Sandhi is the way pronunciation changes due to sounds next to each other, either inside a word (internal sandhi) or between them (external sandhi). Sandhi is originally a concept made up by Sanskrit-using linguists in South Asia, and the well-known ‘Teach Yourself Sanskrit’ book I bought back when I was twelve or so out of fascination with the apparent exoticism and complexity of the language has a fold-out table listing all of the combinations which change the sound. Esperanto is at the opposite end of the spectrum regarding grammatical complexity in many ways, making it easier to learn, but it has led to ignorance of sandhi, which makes it either difficult to pronounce or easy to pronounce but harder to understand the spoken language. For instance, the word “kvankam” – “although” – would probably be pronounced “kfangkam” by people whose first language has those sandhi rules, such as devoicing a fricative after a voiceless stop and making a nasal velar before a velar consonant, /kfaŋkam/, but the rules in other languages may be different and it could be pronounced “gvantam” for example, or a vowel could be inserted between K and V if someone isn’t used to pronouncing consonants together. Zamenhof doesn’t seem to have been aware of this issue. However, the probable consequence of this would be that people speak it with slightly different accents.

Another significant issue with Esperanto for many is that it uses no fewer than six participles. Compare this with English, which uses two – present active and past passive. I suspect that this is the result of Zamenhof being fluent in the highly inflected Polish, which divides them into adverbial and adjectival, perfective and imperfective and active and passive, which to my naïve non-Slavic speaking brain seems to multiply up to eight, that is, two by two by two categories. This is not the kind of thing you generally see in KENTUM languages such as German, Italian or Welsh. However, Zamenhof did not incorporate the perfective/imperfective aspects common to Slavic, where the imperfective sets the scene and the perfective is more like a past continuous tense, though neither are actually tenses, presumably because he knew how confusing they would be to many Western Europeans.

Zamenhof’s focus was substantially on Europe at the time. Current affairs in the region would certainly seem to concentrate the mind on the potential for achieving peace among what might be looked at as our various warring tribes whose languages differ and that this incomprehension and struggle to communicate probably would make things worse. Douglas Adams, of course, had a go at this with the Babel Fish, whose use causes terrible wars because people actually understand what aliens are saying about them. This is along the lines of Monty in ‘Withnail & I’ listening to Withnail and Marwood:

 “Perhaps it is just that the eavesdropper should leave as his trade dictates, in secrecy and in the dead of night. I do sincerely hope that you will find the happiness that has sadly always been denied me. Yours faithfully, Montague H. Withnail.”

If people are speaking secure in the belief that they will not be overheard and understood by others they don’t wish to include, there’s an argument that if they are understood, it won’t make those who understand them happy. Speaking Esperanto, ironically, is a good way of ensuring that nobody will understand what you’re saying because you can pretty much guarantee that no-one else will have learnt it, so perhaps it does actually work quite well as a way of avoiding conflict.

Rather surprisingly, the Western bias of Esperanto doesn’t seem to be perceived as a problem by native speakers of non-Indo-European languages. For instance, it’s relatively popular in the Far East. This brings up the question of evaluation of different cultural practices by outsiders. A few years ago, there was controversy online about a White American woman who wore a Chinese-style dress to a prom, as some Chinese people saw this as cultural appropriation, but others saw it as complimentary, as she had adopted part of their own culture which she admired. On my YT video about Carvaka, I’m accused of cultural appropriation for mentioning Carvaka and Samkhya, both distinctively South Asian ontologies, but I don’t see how intellectual discourse can operate if such things can’t be discussed openly. That said, it does seem inappropriate to me for a White person to have dreadlocks induced in a hair salon even though dreadlocks are part of White Western European culture and arguably sanctioned by the Tanakh. Likewise, I sometimes wonder if the idea of cultural appropriation is itself Western, and cultural imperialism conversely could be as well to some extent. I feel uncomfortable saying this, and in fact the truth is probably more nuanced, but it’s at least interesting that Westerners often seem more concerned about the idea of Esperanto’s Western bias than other groups of people are. This is not entirely true, however. Baha’i prophets in the Middle East have praised the idea of Esperanto while saying that it would still be better for a constructed international auxiliary language to have less of a KENTUM, and in fact there is a fruitful source in Arabic for such a language, since it has had such a strong influence on languages such as Indonesian, Urdu, Spanish, Swahili, Farsi and Turkish. Attempts have in fact been made to construct such a language, known as Dunia, from the Arabic word for “world”. Ironically, such a language would probably be more comprehensible to first-language Hebrew speakers than the Jewish invention of Esperanto. I actually had a go at a constructed language based on Arabic which I called Dunijaluga, without being aware that it was tried, possibly later on, by someone else, and I mention it in ‘Replicas’.

I used to think of Esperanto as a Romance language. Certainly the majority of its roots are from Romance, and it has a kind of Italian sound to it although without the double consonants and with only five vowels rather than seven. However, a quarter of its root vocabulary is Greek, which actually works quite well due to the tendency for international terms in technical vocabulary to be taken from that language along with Latin. The quality of Esperanto in design terms is kind of intermediate. Some aspects are well thought through, others are linguistically naïve and there are biasses which can be perceived more easily from today than when it was first invented, and it’s been suggested that this intermediate nature is an important element in its failure to be adopted more widely. J R R Tolkien also famously invented a culture to go around his constructed languages, and Klingon also has this advantage. Esperanto, however, isn’t entirely lacking in this respect although most of that culture is firmly in the inter-war years and was subject to persecution by the Nazis. It had a hard task being adopted in such an extremely nationalistic Europe.

The language is said to be learnt on average four times faster than other languages, although this is of course somewhat spurious because the languages already known by the learner would strongly influence that. A first-language Greek or Italian speaker would probably pick it up very quickly, but if your mother tongue was Malay or Mandarin Chinese, I would expect you to take far longer.

There are a number of associations with Esperanto which developed from its invention into the 1930s. These included two global currencies, the speso and the stelo, the Baha’i faith, pacifism, vegetarianism and the philosophy of Homaranismo. None of these are inevitable, and it’s possible that these associations reduced its appeal by making it seem less neutral, although many of these things are in a way manifestations of neutrality.

The Speso is a thousandth of a spesmilo, a currency invented in 1907 by René de Saussure which was actually accepted by some banks before the First World War. The spesmilo is the practical unit. It used the gold standard and its value is fixed at 733 milligrammes of pure gold, which at the time was around two shillings sterling, or four dozen US cents. The speso itself was deliberately made very small to avoid the use of fractional denominations like the ha’penny and farthing. It has its own symbol: ₷, which can be seen on the right of the shield on the above coin. Today the face value of a spesmilo is just under £31 or €36.14. The adoption of the speso in any form was prevented by the onset of the First World War.

In 1946, a second attempt was made with the stelo, whose price was fixed at one standard loaf of bread. This is quite difficult to comprehend today due to the diversity of consumer products nowadays, but this seems to be roughly a pound if by “standard” one means unsliced white loaf bought from a supermarket. The motivation for the issuing of the stelo was similar to that of Esperanto: to demonstrate that separate currencies caused international conflict and economic pressure. As can be seen in the flag above, the pentagram is a symbol of Esperanto. The International Esperanto League also used coupons valued in steloj for its internal activity until the 1980s. The one stelo coin on the left here was bronze, the five stelo on the right was brass and there was also a cupronickel 10 stelo coin. In 1965 a twenty-five stelo silver coin was introduced. In 1974, the connection with the price of bread was ended and it was instead pegged to the Dutch guilder at a value of two steloj to one guilder. This changed again in 1977 to a percentage of the average monthly purchases of a family, in order to avoid inflation, which was a major issue at the time. Incidentally it’s always struck me as very strange that this is not how exchange rates are defined, and I assumed for a long time that it was.

Another major connection exists between Esperanto and Baha’i. Baha’i is a religion founded in the nineteenth Christian century now based in Israel which teaches the unity of all people and the equal value of all faiths. It comes across today as being kind of nineteenth century liberal, a little like Jehovah’s Witnesses but more open. For instance, Baha’i teaches that women and men are like the two wings of a bird, without which she couldn’t fly, but this is not the same as sexual egalitarianism as most might understand it today. More problematic is its firm commitment to homophobia. The Universal House of Justice, which is their governing body, does not allow female members even though it says gender equality is fundamental to the unity of the human race. Abdu’l-Baha also bans women from military service as he saw the killing of other human beings as incompatible with the station of motherhood. For me, the surprising aspect of this is that Baha’i is not universally pacifist. Regarding homosexuality, Baha’i officially sees it as an aspect of the innate human inclination towards evil, believes sexual orientation can and should be changed and excludes practicing homosexuals from full membership of the faith on the grounds that they are not living in accordance with its principles, in a similar way to how they would exclude people who drink alcohol. Another issue is that it doesn’t impose vegetarianism on principle, although of course this isn’t unusual. What this probably illustrates is the kind of approach which the Old Left had from the century following 1850 CE or so, where it continued to be just as sexist and homophobic, and in some cases even racist, as we now expect the Hard Right to be.

Lidia Zamenhof, Ludwik’s youngest child, was born in 1904, and died in Treblinka Concentration Camp in 1942. She took over the rôle her father and mother had before of spreading Esperanto, and the secularisation of the family led her to become increasingly isolated from both the Jewish community and of course Gentiles. She lost her belief in God in 1925. Soon after, however, she became Baha’i and mixed the two. She didn’t feel like she’d given up her Jewishness either as she saw that as ethnicity and heritage. She met Shoghi Effendi, the then leader of the faith, and said in one of her talks:

“The international language is part of the Divine Plan which is given effect in the era of Bahá’u’lláh. And the creation and spread of Esperanto are proofs of the creative power of Bahá’u’lláh’s words.”

In November 1939, Lidia was arrested by the Nazis on the grounds of travelling to the United States to spread anti-Nazi propaganda and she was sent to live in the Ghetto on Ogrodowa Street. Shoghi Effendi and others attempted to get her out of Poland but failed, and in June 1942 she was sent to Treblinka and murdered.

It’s important to bear in mind that although Baha’i has major conservative and intolerant elements, Baha’is are also persecuted, and have been persecuted since the start. Lidia’s optimism about the divine plan seemed to have been refuted by the Holocaust, and even today they are oppressed in Iran, where they are the largest religious minority. There have been government land-grabs, they are seen as a political group, and the stated aim of the government is “To gain control over the misguided movement of the perverse Baha’i sect”, according to a leaked document. The homes of Baha’is have been destroyed and many of them have had to flee the country. Baha’i cemetaries are steamrollered as well. To take another example, like many other non-Christian religions, Baha’is haven’t been permitted to have religious assemblies in Romania since 2007.

The oldest continuously active vegetarian organisation in the world is the Tutmonda Esperantista Vegetarana Asocio, founded in 1908 and articles about vegetarianism were being published in Esperanto before the language was a decade old. Lev Tolstoj was honorary president of the TEVA. Their website is here.

I’ve tried to be brief here, but I would like to finish by outlining what seemed to be a common Esperantist vision of the world. Everyone would speak Esperanto as a second language, there would be no more nation states but a single world government, world peace would prevail, most people would be vegetarian and there would be a universal currency proof against inflation. All faiths would be recognised as one. Modern Esperantists are likely to add more to this, but it should also be recognised that Esperanto peaked at a time when women were seen as slaves to biology and therefore restricted in ways men weren’t, and homosexuality was at best understood to be a mental illness. However, the thing about all of these movements taken together is that they are all in a sense moderate. Esperanto is an international language, but not an ideal one and still quite Westernised. Baha’i is somewhat more liberal than most conservative religion but maintains sexism and homophobia. Vegetarianism is not veganism. The international currencies were actual currencies rather than LETS or post-scarcity working for the common good having superceded money. Nonetheless, taken together, even the inter-war consensus of these movements combined is better than what we have had at any point since the War in the world on the whole. Maybe we shouldn’t let the best be the enemy of the good.

Catastrophe Theory

By Salix alba – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26446257

I’ve already covered the topic of fractals and Chaos Theory, but the arrival and popularity of these two obscures a slightly earlier and rather similar mathematical topic which has a number of things in common with them, although it’s a lot “smoother”. This was Catastrophe Theory.

On 28th July 1975, BBC-2 broadcast a ‘Horizon’ documentary entitled ‘Happy Catastrophe’ which got a larger response from its viewership than any other ‘Horizon’ episode. It clearly captured the public’s imagination, attracting more correspondence than any other ‘Horizon’ up until that point, and in fact stuck in my own mind more than most other programmes at the time. Looking back at it, I found a number of other episodes in the mid-’70s quite memorable, such as the one on epilepsy and another on Erich von Däniken, which I mention here, but certainly this is one of them, and in fact epileptic seizures themselves could be modelled using catastrophe theory (CT) itself. To an extent, I want to blog about CT today, but I’m also interested in why it was so popular, and why it seems to be largely ignored today.

CT deals with discontinuities, which are moments of sudden change. For example, if you take a thin card and press it at its sides, it will do very little for quite a while, then suddenly crumple or flip into a different shape, and letting go of the card will not lead to its return to anything like the flat form it had before, although it will tend to spring back a little. The same applies to a snapping rubber band under tension and a host of other situations, such as the epileptic seizures I mentioned just now, although one would hope in this last case that the brain can in fact fairly quickly return to a more organised state. Unfortunately this is rarely not so, in which case it becomes a medical emergency.

The programme’s title, ‘Happy Catastrophe’, is interesting. When we use the word in English, and it is of course a Greek word, we generally mean something negative. The Greek word, “καταστροφη”, consists of the words “κατα”, meaning “down”, and “στρεφειν” – to turn, in other words a “downturn”, and with the usual connotations of falling does indeed have negative connotations. The word was prominently used in drama, where it referred to the fourth and final part of a play, after protasis, epitasis and katastasis. We’re familiar with it today through tragedy, but in fact it also applied to comedy, and in that setting it referred to a happy ending such as a wedding. Hence our own usage has become predominantly negative, but for some time I attempted to use it with a more neutral connotation, which in fact makes the word a lot more useful, although it can be confusing and we don’t really have control over the meaning of words, particularly when we lack something like L’Académie Française. There were two types of catastrophe, whether happy or otherwise, in Greek drama. In a simple catastrophe, there’s simply a transition from dramatic events to a quieter set of circumstances without any change in character, unravelling or revelation. Complex catastrophes involve sudden discoveries by the character or sudden changes in fortune which are feasible and upon which the plot depends, rather than being a deus ex machina. In a way, simple catastrophes occupy one side of the graph whereas complex ones occupy the other. This is what I mean:

Taken from here. Will be removed on request.

A simple catastrophe can be thought of as a movement across the steady slope on the left hand side of this graph. It descends into repose without anything huge happening. I don’t know what examples there are of this but to be honest they sound a bit boring. Complex catastrophes, on the other hand, are movements along the right hand side of the graph and involve events “falling off a cliff” in such a way that they permanently change things. This graph is of course the “cusp catastrophe”. It makes me wonder what the variable labelled as “u” is in drama. ‘Œdipus Rex‘ definitely occupies the right hand side – it has a low value of u, whatever that might be. It’s also important to remember that if you turn this graph upside down, you more or less have the same graph, and that therefore comedies are also catastrophic in nature. ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is just as catastrophic as ‘Œdipus Rex‘, but in a positive way.

Incidentally, in what I’ve just said I can’t help but be reminded of this:

Can you usefully take a quantitative approach to literature? In a way the answer is a definite “yes”, because for instance you could look at repetition of certain words and phrases or the prosody or rhyme scheme of a particular poem, but in general it does have a bad rap. But I can’t help noticing that when John Keating gets the pupils to rip out the introduction to ‘Understanding Poetry’, it is a catastrophic event, and of course later in the film there are other incidents more deserving of the word, but there’s no going back once the introduction has been ripped out, as the end of the film illustrates.

The cusp catastrophe graph looks like the kind of shape you’d get if you held a thin sheet of metal horizontally and bent it towards or away from you. This is because that situation is in fact a catastrophe with two control dimensions and one behaviour dimension. The buckling which occurs on one side of the sheet is dramatically greater than on the other. This now sounds like an engineering or metallurgy issue, but can be used for drama, as with the 1951 film ‘No Highway In The Sky’, which involves the catastrophic failure of aircraft in this way. In this case the behaviour axis involves the plane falling out of the sky and killing everyone, although there’s another catastrophe where Theodore Honey deliberately damages a plane to prevent it taking off and killing the occupants:

I’ve mentioned control and behaviour dimensions, or axes, without really explaining what they are. To elaborate, it makes sense to consider the simplest possible models, including non-catastrophic ones, which have two dimensions. A section of a two-dimensional line graph can have a number of shapes relevant to CT. It can be a slope, a trough, a peak or a fold. Except for the slope, these are all the same basic shape. With a fold, the shape is like a C rather than a U or an “n”. This means that as the control variable increases, the behaviour of the system can either become more dramatic or less so, to choose one possible label for a variable, but will be stuck in that trend unless the other variable reduces considerably. Or, it can be reflected along the Y axis and will be stuck in a trend unless that variable increases a lot. This is the “zone of inaccessibility” and can be shown in several other examples.

There are substances whose melting points are not the same as their freezing points. That is, if a solid of this nature is heated, it will melt at a particular point, but if the resultant liquid is then cooled, it may need to be made colder than the temperature at which it melted to solidify. I seem to remember that cocoa butter does this, but there are many examples. Similarly, when tuning in an analogue radio with a manual tuner, one can find a station, then tune up past it and then find that it seems to be on a lower frequency than one previously found it when twisting the knob back again. These are examples of the kind of behaviour which is modelled in the overhang found in the cusp catastrophe. A value can increase smoothly until it leaps to a higher value if another value is high, but can also stay on the lower surface, and likewise can stay on the higher surface until it is lower than when it initially leapt up. I have a feeling that tidiness is like this. It takes more effort to tidy something up in one big go than it appears to when one does it bit by bit, and then it slips down into untidiness more easily.

Adding a dimension clearly results in three-dimensional graphs, and again there are a certain number of these. Incidentally, before I go on I want to point out that CT graphs only focus on a narrow range of variables where something interesting is occurring, and are therefore small portions of potentially infinite graphs. The two-dimensional “fold” catastrophe could easily diverge to an ever-increasing but smooth extent along its control axis, even to infinity. Also, in illustrating these graphs the section can be a small map of a much larger landscape, such as one including peaks and basins or mountains and valleys. It’s just that the distinctive shapes can be broken down in this way.

Three-dimensional graphs could just be extensions of two-dimensional ones, so for example a valley could just be long and not do much interesting in the Z-axis, so all the types still exist in three and more dimensions and are not cancelled out by the new ones, but each added dimension does introduce additional graphs. In the three-dimensional case, X and Z can be the controls and Y the behaviour, which makes the surfaces more relatable as they’re more like topographical features. There’s the slope which rises diagonally to the axes, the peak, what I’m going to call the “crater”, which is a dent in a surface, and two less familiar shapes, the col and the cusp. I want to mention the col even though it isn’t catastrophic, because it’s less well-known or easy to relate to than the others.

A col is a gap between two peaks. These are often nameless locations, although passes are cols. They occur also in air pressure patterns, where there’s a low-pressure point between two high pressure weather systems. There’s also the saddle:

Saddles differ from cols in continuing to curve away in both directions, concave on one side and convex on the other. A col is the central point of a saddle according to one definition.

The cusp is crucially different from all of these because it has a kind of asymmetry to it along one axis, although it also is rotationally symmetrical in that turning it 180° around the axis labelled u in the earlier graph, assuming it’s aligned correctly, will lead the same shape. This mixture of asymmetry and symmetry doesn’t apply to the other shapes and the cusp is the only discontinuous shape involved.

These shapes appeal to the eye, and it’s been said that CT is particularly visual. It shares this feature with many fractals and the Mandelbrot Set, and in this respect serves as a kind of herald to those later, particularly visually appealing, mathematical excursions. It also has a kind of universalising tendency, which despite its name has been described as modelling rather than a theory. Calling it a theory is a bit like counting two legs on a person and seeing that there are two stars in a binary star system and calling that “integer theory”. It’s more that this kind of model can be applied to natural phenomena, and as seen above with the illustration of catastrophes as a dramatic device, also in the social sciences and humanities. The issue of their beauty may be similar to the beauty of regular fractals and the Mandelbrot Set, in that certain features echo the characteristics of being a product of the Universe, which is who we are in one respect.

There are a total of seven graphs, according to CT, which can between them be used to model all discontinuities. These are: the fold, cusp, butterfly, swallowtail, hyperbolic umbilic, parabolic umbilic and elliptic umbilic. The hyperbolic umbilic is illustrated at the start of this post, where it comprises the upper part of the image. Because it’s a five-dimensional shape, the illustration isn’t exactly what it “looks” like, but is in fact what’s known as the bifurcation set of the hyperbolic umbilic. This is a projection of the shapes which are discontinuous in the graph. In the case of the cusp, this is a kind of curved V-shape extending to infinity or the edge of the graph, like a kind of shadow cast by illumination on a transparent model, or alternatively, and this is more important than it might seem, the kind of light reflected by illuminating a smooth metallic version. The bifurcation set of an hyperbolic umbilic is like two superimposed half-pipes at a shallow angle to each other semicircular in cross-section at opposite ends smoothly becoming curved V-shapes at the other. That probably isn’t very clear. It has two behaviour dimensions rather than one, and three control dimensions. Umbilics are points on locally spherical surfaces, and hyperbolic ones have just one ridge line passing through the point in question, which if I’ve described the above clearly means the point of intersection between the two half-pipes. It’s interesting to contemplate what it would be like to skateboard around the bifurcation set of an hyperbolic umbilic.

The other two umbilics are the parabolic and elliptic. Elliptic umbilics have three control and two behaviour dimensions and the bifurcation set looks like a cross-sectionally curved triangular prism pinched smoothly to a point at the centre, which is the three ridge points passing through the umbilic point. Finally, the parabolic umbilic is six-dimensional, with four control and two behavioural dimensions, making it particularly hard to visualise as even the bifurcation set has four dimensions, but are transitional between hyperbolic and elliptic umbilics, with two ridges, one of which is singular. Visualised using the fourth dimension as time, running in one direction the bifurcation of a parabolic umbilic looks like a shrinking paper plane crashing through the fold in a sheet of paper folded into a V-shape while another V-folded paper shape at the bottom is flattening out and bowing outward.

The other two are the rather less awkwardly-named butterfly and swallowtail. The former is interestingly named because of the butterfly effect, but is not more closely linked to that than the others. It’s five-dimensional, with four control dimensions and one behaviour dimension, and has been used to model eating disorders. It looks odd, even reduced to three dimensions, which effectively destroys its usefulness but enables one to work out what it’s doing, as it looks like a cusp catastrophe with three cusps linked in a kind of triangle. That is, a triangle can be drawn between the three points where the cusps split off from the smooth side, but that triangle isn’t oriented in three-dimensional space unless the butterfly is rotated in such a way that most of it is in hyperspace.

The swallowtail catastrophe is so named because a mathematician was trying to describe it to a blind person, who responded that it sounded like a swallowtail, which it does. It’s merely four-dimensional and its bifurcation set looks like a swallowtail at one end with a U-shape above it with the tail diminishing into the U halfway along. This has one behaviour dimension and three of control. Salvador Dalí’s last painting, if it was his, in 1983, was based on this graph, and was entitled “The Swallow’s Tail”:

This is a cross-section of the bifurcation set with some extra bits added. The monoline S shape is a cross-section of the cusp catastrophe. Dalí described CT as “the most beautiful æsthetic theory in the world”. The artist used to kind of “riff” on scientific theories in an artistic way, using them as inspiration without necessarily understanding them in an analytical way. He also included a formula describing the swallowtail in his 1983 painting linked here entitled ‘El rapte topològic d’Europa. Homenatge a René Thom’. The last few years of his life are controversial because it’s alleged that he was made to sign canvases by his carers which would later be used to paint forgeries, and the above painting may not be his because his hands were said to be too shaky for him to draw such a line, which brings Britney Spears to my mind. After completing this painting, if he did, Dalí tried to enter a state of suspended animation through fasting and died five years later, soon after giving the visiting Juan Carlos a drawing entitled ‘The Head Of Europa’.

One way of looking at these graphs is to see the compartments as representing different stable states. Hence the six “cells” of the parabolic umbilic plus the seventh open space nearby are each conditions some systems can enter if there are four main factors determining their behaviour, which can in turn be described in terms of two factors. The same can be applied to the others.

I mentioned Dalí’s tremor making his creation of ‘The Swallowtail’ questionable, but in fact tremor and noise are not likely to disturb the behaviour of catastrophes. They’re quite stable in this respect, which calls into question the often-quoted explanation as to why they’re now so seldom modelled in this way being that not many systems can be adequately described with so few variables. This property is accompanied by what are called “attractors”, which CT has in common with Chaos Theory. An attractor is a set of states a system tends to drift towards, or in this case jump towards. Each one of the cells I mentioned just now is an attractor. After having got there, the system will tend to continue to be at least somewhat like that. It occurs to me in fact that limerence could be modelled in this way. It’s easy to get fixated on someone but it can be a lot harder to get over them. That, then, would be literally an attractor: a person one finds attractive. This suggests it would be fruitful to work out which control variables are involved, since in certain crucial circumstances, people do end up suffering from long-term limerence. However, discussing it and other psychological models in this way raises the question of positivism, which can be criticised on the grounds of reductivism.

You may or may not have heard of Gartree Prison, which was well-known for its helicopter escape in 1987. I have two personal connections to Gartree. One is that it ended up housing the bloke who abducted me in 1989 and the other is that one of my tutors on the herbalism course was married to a Gartree prison guard. Rather startlingly, Gartree prison disturbances were modelled using CT, more specifically the cusp catastrophe. This makes for a significant case study of the application of CT to social phenomena. When this was done, CT was riding on a wave of popularity triggered by the ‘Horizon’ broadcast and was possibly quite immature in its development, although as a modelling method it dates back to Edwardian times, the modelling having been published in 1976. The control variables seem to have been tension and alienation, which were assessed quantitatively, an approach which seems quite vague. They were based on governor applications, inmates requesting segregation, staff absenteeism, welfare visits and inmates in the punishment cells, and the shape of the graph seems to have been derived using a method which, it’s said, could have been made to fit almost any data set. There may have been an issue in the dominant connotations of the word “catastrophe” here, because it tends to be interpreted as negative and would perhaps consequently tend to lead to applications of the theory to model negatively-perceived events such as prison riots. It might also have been used by the prison service to make its operations and management appear more scientific than it actually was. And in any case, scientific management is widely regarded as a bad thing, at least for workers, as it’s seen as leading to redundancy, monotonous work, exploitation of workers, and from the management side expensive to implement, time-consuming and leading to a deterioration in quality. This could have implications for the situation inside prisons, as they are also workplaces for the staff and sometimes also for prisoners, so simply making the measures required might impair the function of the institution.

This could be applied more widely to other institutions such as mental hospitals and schools. For instance, if it successfully predicted grades in a school and also ways of manipulating variables in order to get those grades onto a higher tier of the graph, it wouldn’t necessarily improve less quantifiable measures of school performance. Likewise, a similar approach might lead to higher “cure” rates in a mental hospital, but that would only be in terms of particular paradigms of “abnormal” behaviour. Could it be applied to increase the quality of poetry? Maybe it could. Maybe J Evans-Pritchard would be able to measure the greatness of the poetry output by all these “cured” psychotics and high-achieving school-leavers with his scale. Or, maybe we just like to imagine that we aren’t reducible in such a way to a few variables and graphs, but maybe we’re wrong about that.

The modelling here, and in the other two as far as I know fictional examples I gave (the mental health one is less fictional than one might think), is applied to systems which depend on many assumptions about how society should be. For instance, assuming the prison study was valid, it might still fail to show anything because prisons of that kind are constrained by social factors always to be on one side of the cusp, and whereas manipulating the variables beyond that range is theoretically possible, doing so would not be possible given factors like level of public funding, policy regarding responses to crime and the nature of the buildings used. Then again, maybe we do want an entirely evidence-based set of policies. I would personally prefer that. It’s called socialism.

In a realm entirely outside the question of social policy, meditation, states of consciousness or mental illness, catastrophe graphs turn up in another rather surprising place: caustics. Caustics are projections of light rays reflected or refracted by a reflective or transparent medium onto a surface. I mentioned previously that a model of a cusp catastrophe could be made of mirror-like reflective material and be illuminated, and such a situation could lead to the projection of a caustic onto a flat screen. Caustics are the kind of light pattern you see when you look down into a clean, empty mug into which sunlight is shining, and they alter their shape and size according to the angle of incidence. They can also be seen in the dappling effect on a sandy seabed of waves on a sunny day. They can also have a kind of three-dimensional appearance, and in the teacup case they seem to look rather like a swallowtail bifurcation set, but in three dimensions in each case. Moving the cup leads to a different section of the graph. Caustics are odd because they’re always sharp and it isn’t clear what’s so special about the area they illuminate as opposed to its surroundings. They’ve also historically been problematic in computer graphics because depicting them accurately is computationally intensive, so in CGI they tend to be more decorative than realistic. It would be interesting to know whether catastrophe theory could simplify or has ever been used to generate caustics in computer images. Moreover, it would also be interesting to know if images of three-dimensional slices of higher-dimensional CT graphs could be accurately generated using three-dimensional reflective surfaces to generate their caustics.

A major question remains. Why don’t we hear so much about CT nowadays when it was so popular forty-odd years ago? An answer might be found in an illustration from herbalism, and at this point I shall intrepidly venture onto the territory of one of my other blogs. It’s been noted that herbal prescriptions with an odd number of remedies tend to be more successful than those with an even number. This needs to be restrained in various ways. For instance, it doesn’t mean that an even-numbered ℞ can be made more effective by omitting one of the herbs or adding one which is not relevant to the patient’s needs. I hypothesised that the reason for this was that an odd-numbered prescription could be modelled in terms of relative doses using catastrophe theory, whereas an even-numbered ℞ couldn’t. However, there are a number of problems with this which can be extended to other situations. The herbs here are presumed to be the control dimensions of the graph. A fold catastrophe has one control dimension, a cusp two, a swallowtail three, a butterfly four, a hyperbolic umbilic three, parabolic four and elliptic three, so the number of remedies would seem to have to be three or one if this is to hold true. In fact ℞s tend to have five or seven remedies, if one is in the low number of remedies in high doses as am I, because I feel the high number of remedies in low doses is beginning to look like homeopathy. Hence it can’t be applied to most herbal prescriptions other than simples, and there would have to be something which makes the fold, swallowtail and hyperbolic and elliptic umbilics distinctive in terms of their efficacy, which may be true but I’m not sure about that. But there’s a bigger problem which applies more widely. Herbs are not single remedies. They generally include a large number of different compounds with various effects on each other and physiology. Thus it seems implausible to apply catastrophe theory to herbalism, and this can be broadened out into biology more generally, since in most biological situations the number of control dimensions would be too high for CT to be relevant.

CT is still applicable to engineering and physics, but its intended target, the inexact sciences such as sociology, psychology and ecology, is rather more slippery. It does still happen, for instance in modelling the population dynamics of aphids via the butterfly catastrophe (it would have to be named after an insect – presumably the swallowtail is useful for modelling bird migration), but there really do seem to be too many variables and the smoothing effect initially claimed doesn’t seem to hold. That said, the formulæ used to generate the graphs are quite simple, and this could lend them to use in computer games, both in generating caustics on the graphics side and the likes of political and social interactions in games like Sim City.

Psychic Powers Part II

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com
  • Communication with the dead
  • Psychometry
  • Levitation
  • Teleportation

Yesterday I went into the conceptual structure of what might be termed the more prosaic psi abilities, and although I did stray into the area of anecdotal evidence and the assertion that they exist, I was more focussed on what they amount to. I do believe they exist, of course, but what I’m saying here should, I hope, not depend on a commitment to their reality. This is more about the idea of psi than their existence.

Some of the ones I’m left with amount to what are called siddhis in Yoga, that is, supernatural abilities, and are considerably more radical than the ones I’ve mentioned before. They’re more “showy”, sometimes literally in the sense that they might be faked as part of a stage show and would impress an audience. Yogis warn people against using them (which simply suggests they believe they exist) because of their showiness and because they “are powers in the worldly estate”, i.e. the temptation exists to use them for one’s own material gain, which if you believe in reincarnation for example is hazardous. Buddhists believe that if a human is reincarnated as a deity, the chances are they will succumb to the temptation to use their powers for selfish ends and end up in Hell in their next incarnation. A similar attitude exists among Christians, who often see these powers as real, but as dangerous for the person using them as they’re Satanic in origin. Other Christians see them as abilities humans would have had if sin hadn’t entered the world.

Communication with the dead is a controversial topic. For instance, dreaming of people who have passed away could be understood this way, and happen involuntarily. If it is as it appears to be, it seems to rely on consciousness and identity both surviving death, and therefore on the existence of a soul as an entity with a substance which exists in the same sense that a physical body exists but of different essence. However, it’s also conceivable that information is being obtained in another way. Anyone who’s seen ‘Black Mirror’ will be aware of the idea that a dead person can be simulated convincingly from their online behaviour, but that this will run the risk of eventually becoming unbearably creepy, and in our own interactions with each other we do build up sophisticated models of how our loved ones behave and who they are. If we are communicating with mere simulacra, the question arises of one’s own integrity and authenticity in one’s own life, in that if one wishes to live on in such a manner, for it to be an accurate copy of oneself one will need to conduct onself honestly towards others.

I would actually broaden the concept of communing with the dead here to a wider set of phenomena also including apparent past life memories and hauntings, and would further suggest that these are not all the same thing, some being much more amenable to naturalistic explanations than others. In what I’m reluctantly forced to call “ghost hunting” in the absence of a more dignified and Latinate-sounding term, a distinction may be made between genuine hauntings by spirits and something more akin to traces of events being played back by “stone tape”, as it came to be known. I find the latter more convincing than the former, and although a process whereby that could take place is hard to identify, I have discussed this in the post on the Chronovisor. It’s a well-established fact that traces of incidents are left in inanimate objects in various ways, such as exposure to daylight or heating, which can be “played back”, and there are very clear traces of events left in the form of such things as footprints and fossils.

The Tanakh is quite clearly opposed to the idea of communicating with the dead although it also seems quite inconsistent as it has practically nothing to say about what, if anything, follows death. The so-called “Witch Of Endor” incident is the only reference I’m aware of the dead communicating with the living, where it’s specifically stated that Samuel speaks to Saul from beyond the grave. The story is recounted in 1 Samuel 28, and there’s no suggestion that the medium is being deceitful. Elsewhere it says that the dead are conscious of nothing at all, or know nothing, in Ecclesiastes 9:5. Hence this appears to be inconsistent. What I understand to be the standard Christian view, and to some extent probably also the Jewish one, is that when people die, they cease to be conscious until the Day of Judgement, at which point they are brought back to life in a living body. Consequently in a Jewish or Christian setting the idea of communicating with the dead is right out, but in the case of Christianity the emphasis on Satan as a personification of evil means that demons or the Devil are likely to be seen as a likely source of apparent information from the dead, and that it’s a case of deception and impersonation for manipulative purposes.

Outside the Judæo-Christian context, and for once it seems justified to talk of a joint tradition while noting the rather more negative connotations in Christianity, there is ancestor-worship and the elevation of status of elders into that of deities. It makes sense to suppose that the perceived increasing wisdom of the old will continue to increase after death until they have a superhuman status. However, there’s also the attitude that the dead who do communicate with us have unfinished business on this plane of existence which it would be best to resolve. Since I’m not particularly well acquainted with Spiritism or Spiritualism, I feel I’m venturing onto unfamiliar territory here and would actively welcome someone’s input on this. Spiritism differs from Spiritualism in that the former asserts that reincarnation occurs but the latter is agnostic on the issue. They believe that spirits of the dead maintain their identity and continue to influence the physical world, in other words telekinesis. Some scientists took Spiritism seriously and it could be said to have been founded by scientists in the first place, notably Emmanuel Swedenborg. Everyone in the Spiritist Universe is gradually making progress towards moral perfection, and nobody is ever reincarnated into a lower form of life. Spiritism is also theistic or deistic (I’m not sure which), and is associated with the Brazilian/Afrikan religion Umbanda.

Spiritualism, unlike Spiritism, initially had no sacred texts, and had a strong liberal strand, in which many of the people involved in it supported votes for women, the rights of indigenous peoples and the abolition of slavery. It was much-criticised in the late nineteenth century due to a large number of mediums being accused of fraud, but it occurs to me that there is a tide away from belief in spirits towards a more materialistic belief system, perhaps in more ways than one. I honestly don’t know how sincere mediums were at the time, but I don’t really see any reason to suppose that the majority weren’t acting in good faith whether or not they were actually able to do what they claimed. I could compare it to complementary medicine. Whether or not it’s efficaceous, the majority of practitioners either believe that it is or that it’s of benefit to their clients. Why would the same not be true of Spiritualism?

Spirits of the dead are said to be inclined to communicate with those who are still alive, and to be evolving spiritually. The movement was also associated with the Quakers in the nineteenth century, although judging by the Quakers here in England I know today there must surely have been a drastic divergence in beliefs, because I can’t imagine any of them entertaining such a world view. The “Indian spirit guide” can be seen as an abiding awareness of the genocide practiced against the Native Americans and perhaps a recognition of the unearned mercy some of them might show post mortem. Although there is something of a loose system around Spiritualism, people completely outside any such tradition often claim to be in contact with the dead, and in fact that would include me, as I believe I at least meet an accurate representation of my father-in-law and one of my grandfathers in my dreams. However, I’m not convinced that identity survives death. I think perhaps individual experiences move around and enter the minds of others, and because they are always first person experiences they are labelled as happening to the person reporting them by their consciousness. However, I’m not going to say flat-out that it’s impossible to communicate with the spirits of the dead. I’m not sure what I think about EVP either, although I experimented with it as a teenager.

EVP is “Electronic Voice Phenomenon”, which is the perception of voices in static. It was said to have provided the inspiration for the Chronovisor, although in that case the voices were interpreted as coming from the past rather than being spirits. In a way, EVP is rather like divination such as reading tea leaves, where some kind of arbitrary, pseudo-random process is used as the basis for extracting apparent information, which may in fact be pareidolia. Static on TV has been suggested for the same purpose, and it’s even been said that the digitalisation of media is part of a conspiracy to close off a potential channel of communication with the spirit world, although this sounds seriously paranoid to me, but perhaps almost nostalgically so. In 1959, a Swedish film producer made recordings of bird song. When he played them back, he claimed to have heard the voices of his dead parents. I don’t know the details of this incident, but there is sometimes “print-through” on tape recordings, where a previous recording made on the same tape can still be faintly heard. Actually that isn’t print-through apparently, but it does happen (print through is where nearby tape on a reel induces faint audio patterns in the currently played portion of tape). Also, it’s interesting that once again the more spiritualistic interpretation is made of the phenomenon, that it was the current spirits of his parents he heard rather than a relic of the past when they were still alive. I don’t know how to choose between these alternatives. Is it time travel or paranormal? Both are very marginalised views. I don’t remember how I got the idea to do this. It would’ve been in about 1981 and it followed on from listening to things like numbers stations, over the horizon radar, jamming and Morse signals a couple of years previously. It doesn’t seem to have been learned from anyone else’s experiments with it. I found that I got vivid visual images in my imagination and could hear music after a few minutes of listening to white noise. In 1985, the book ‘The Ghost of 29 Megacycles’ was published, claiming that a particular frequency was particularly liable to this.

An interesting experiment conducted in 1972 involved the invention of a fictional ghost and a gradually induced séance atmosphere, and as this was increased, participants began to experience a sense of presence. I’m afraid that’s all I know about that.

Psychometry, a word which I think is correct but which I’m attempting to recall from reading it once about four decades back, seems to refer to the idea that a personal object in someone’s presence becomes charged with their energy and personality, as if it’s been magnetised. I was vividly aware of this idea when I visited a herb garrett in Bermondsey, where a surgeon’s saw for removing legs was on display. It had been used on numerous occasions to remove limbs which would otherwise have guaranteed the patient’s death, without anæsthetic of course. Although my rational mind said one thing, it was almost impossible to believe in the heat of the moment that that saw had not been imprinted with the immense quantity of agony it must’ve caused. However, on making this observation to a friend who was also there, he suggested the opposite. This tool had saved hundreds of people’s lives. This is the kind of thinking involved in the idea of fetishism in the religious sense, or perhaps for some in the sexual sense. More specifically, relics of saints and the cross carry a similar idea. In the realm of mediums and readers, as I might call them, the idea is that you can hold a personal effect and psychically reconstruct a person’s life and identity from the psychological impression you receive from it. Once again, like a chronovisor, it’s based on the idea that there are natural recording properties in objects which have been in close proximity to certain events or perhaps just generally, and to me at least this idea has immense emotional appeal. I know I’m not alone in the idea that I wanted to save every written note my mother left me as a child because destroying it would be like killing her. This has an obsessive-compulsive element but is probably quite common and needn’t be medicalised. In the late nineteenth century some people believed that psychometry would prove to be as important a branch of science as the study of electricity. It’s just hard to believe that the physical world really is as indifferent as it apparently is, and although disbelief in this is fine and probably correct, the emotional element is important, and we are emotional beings living in an emotional world. Few people would consider the possessions of a loved one to be completely insignificant, and if they were to dispose of them all after their death the chances are that they would be motivated by grief and not wishing to be reminded of their loss rather than lack of sentiment. This is also where the urge to hoard originates. As with several other alleged psionic abilities, mediums have been enlisted to use psychometry to investigate crimes and missing persons. The presence of DNA on such items means that today a similar kind of significance can actually be rigorously pursued with a high degree of confidence.

I’ve been into teleportation previously on this blog, so I’ll only cover it briefly here. There are a number of supposèd incidents of teleportation recorded, notably one which is said to have occurred between Manila in the Philippines and Mexico City in 1593. A soldier guarding the governor’s palace in Manila felt dizzy and faint, and leant against a wall, closing his eyes. When he opened them a few seconds later, he found himself in Mexico City. He was aware of the recent assassination of the governor of the Philippines before the news was able to reach the city, was jailed for desertion and then released when it turned out several months later that this assassination had indeed occurred. This is of course said to be a tall tale. Another incident involved a nun referred to as the Lady In Blue, whose real name was María de Jesús de Ágreda, who was said to teleport regularly from her abbey in Spain to the land of the Jumanos in present day Texas and New Mexico, between 1620 and 1623. When visited by missionaries in 1629, the Jumanos were said to have been very eager to be baptised because of her proselytism. There are a number of other examples, and Qephitzat Ha-Derekh is the Hebrew name for the phenomenon. Most teleportation today would be considered to be a science fiction device like the transporters in ‘Star Trek’, and teleportation is a bit different from the other examples of psionic powers because scientists have succeeded in relocating the information of a microscopic object’s quantum state without using any kind of physical signalling mechanism or moving the object itself. However, teleportation of the Qephitzat Ha-Derekh kind is another matter entirely, and a common question asked about teleportation is of whether it amounts to death followed by the creation of a clone in another place with intact memories or is a genuine method of transportation.

Finally, there is levitation, famously promoted by the Natural Law Party in the 1992 General Election here and also elsewhere in the world. I could dilate on the political party, which is associated with George Harrison and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and has actually won some elections, but will confine myself to making the observation that levitation in the context of the NLP is considered a Siddhi in the Yoga tradition and the party itself was the target of considerable outrage from my ex at the time. Levitation is another example of something which is practically achievable without paranormal involvement in some situations, as with superconducting magnets and high-intensity sound waves. It’s also said to occur by some Hindus and Christians, in the latter case sometimes but not always being seen as demonic. Levitation is practiced as a trick in some situations, where it seems to involve certain kinds of muscle control enabling someone to “plank” from beside a hand-held staff placed on the ground.

To conclude, then, this has been an attempt to survey psionic abilities, some of which haven’t even been mentioned. Although I have my own beliefs, I’m more attempting to describe what they are than advocating for their possibility or impossibility. I was hoping also to investigate philosophically the intelligibility of the claim that there can be supernatural explanations for phenomena, but unfortunately I’ve run out of time so it’ll have to wait.

Psychic Powers

There are certain topics which will mark one out as being in some sense beyond the pale, not to be taken seriously, perhaps psychotic, once one broaches them. At some point on this blog I plan to talk about ad hominem, which is the alleged fallacy committed when a person’s reputation is used to dismiss their arguments, but not yet. That said, there is an element of ad hominem here because once I’ve said that I believe in psychic abilities it may mark me for some as an unreliable source of accurate information.

I’ve told this story before on here but it’s worth revisiting. A number of years ago, I gave a talk on philosophical counselling at Leicester Secular Society. In case you don’t know, philosophical counselling is a method of applying philosophical methods and theories to a client’s feelings, behaviour and thoughts to reveal inconsistencies or examine them more closely in a revelatory manner and reach a state of greater well-being as a result. I’m almost accidentally qualified to offer this service although I haven’t explicitly done it very often except as part of a herbal consultation, but it does exist independently of herbalism as a therapy. Unfortunately, the person introducing me mentioned that I was a herbalist, which was fine for most of the audience but one of them was unable to hear my talk without filtering it through that lens and simply became critical and acerbically attacked me verbally. Dunning-Kruger was in full effect, but it’s also an example of ad hominem, since I was from that point on unable to penetrate their K-skepticism.

Many people reading this will already be aware that I’m theist and that this forms an important part of my life, and having learned this they may consider that I am in a sense unreachable to rational argument. If, however, you view my theism in a broader context, it means that I reject metaphysical naturalism, and I have that in common with many people who either reject organised religion or are agnostic or atheist without necessarily focussing that strongly on those labels, but do believe in psychic abilities.

However, I ask myself, is it actually necessary to believe in the supernatural to accept ESP, and what does it even mean to say something is supernatural? Before I go on, I want to mention specific categories into which psionic abilities are usually categorised. I may well miss some, and I want to point out that this is a conceptual classification which is not yet meant to involve commitment as to whether these things are real:

  • Telepathy
  • Dowsing
  • Remote viewing (or other senses)
  • Clairvoyance, clairaudience and others.
  • Precognition
  • Telekinesis and psychokinesis
  • Communication with the dead
  • Psi missing
  • Psychometry
  • Levitation
  • Teleportation

There may be others, and there are overlaps. At least one of these would in theory require absolutely nothing more than a particular physical ability, and it may be worth reversing some of these to see if they reveal anything extra.

I’ve put telepathy first because I think it’s different from most of the others. We are familiar with signals being transmitted and received via radio waves, and there are animals with magnetic senses such as rays, who hunt by detecting electrical signals within the bodies of their prey. They may of course be aided by the fact that both are immersed in water, although pigeons are able to navigate using Earth’s magnetic field. Whether or not human telepathy exists, there is no need to posit the existence of anything exotic or supernatural to accept its possibility. We detect light with our eyes and there are many organisms with luminescent organs. There seems to be no reason at all why an organ could not exist which transmits or receives radio signals. Whether they actually do exist is another question, and whether this is how telepathy operates, if it exists, is equally mysterious. However, in principle there just could be such abilities, even if all they amount to is the ability to communicate silently in a similar manner to vocalising. On a broader level, there also seems to be no reason why an animal wouldn’t be able to sense brain activity, perhaps by contact with the head in a Spock-like manner. Electroencephalograms exist.

Dowsing is in the same category. There has been a theory that bodies of water influence Earth’s magnetic field. It would clearly be an evolutionary advantage for an animal living in an arid environment to be able to detect subterranean water, and water is a very unusual substance. When I say dowsing, I’m not talking about using a pendulum over a map to find sources of water or something else which is more divorced from the circumstances where one is in close proximity to the body in question. Whereas dowsing may or may not be corroborated by experiment, the fact remains that it makes sense to be able to perceive the proximity of water, and in fact magnetic fields do interact with water: for instance, applying a magnetic field to water increases its melting point. It also makes sense that some native metals would be detectable for similar reasons.

The “gotcha” in these two categories is the question of the actual presence of such organs in the human body, or perhaps a more diffusely distributed function throughout the body manifested on a cellular or systemic level. There does not in fact appear to be any such organ, but there is an issue with post hoc “adjustments” which is the essence of pseudoscience, so if an experiment were to be conducted, it should be rigorously designed enough to postulate exactly what physical basis is sought and how it might operate.

Phenomenology is also an issue. Do we all encode our consciousness uniquely, or do we have a universal language of experience? Is it intelligible to “tune into” another’s brain and find that their red is one’s blue, for example? I think it isn’t, because concepts fit into a network. For instance, of the spectral colours yellow is the brightest and so arguably the closest to white and indigo is the darkest and therefore closest to black. If you disagree with this subjective judgement, you and I may perceive colours differently but we do appear to be having a meaningful disagreement, which can be checked using some other part of our mental systems. When it can’t, it’s possible that one of us is simply wrong. But there’s another level of phenomenology. Would we be experiencing the world of another person from a first person perspective, or would it be more like hearing their voice? What is telepathy actually like? What would it be like for a blind telepath to tap into a seeing person’s mind or vice versa? These questions might not depend on the reality of telepathy, or it could be that if they were pursued far enough they’d reveal that there is something wrong with the idea of telepathy.

Inverted telepathy is in a sense telekinesis, in a rather sinister sense in fact. A telepath detects events in someone else’s mind, but a practitioner of telekinesis is causing events to happen outside their body without using directly motive force. The mental analogue of this is mind control and thought insertion. Thought insertion is said to be a symptom of psychosis, although clearly the likes of gaslighting, brainwashing, propaganda and advertising kind of are thought insertion in a way, and of course mind control. It isn’t clear that psychic mind control would necessarily be any more disturbing or unethical. In fact, given the recent advent of “nudge” psychology, therapeutic use of mind control would be akin to hypnotherapy. In the right setting and with informed consent it could be completely benign.

Telekinesis is the more physically forceful sibling of mind control. Just to clear up a minor point of nomenclature, telekinesis is the ability to move objects with the power of one’s mind, whereas psychokinesis is an instance of telekinesis, or so it seems. Apply this to telepathy, incidentally, and you have psychopathy as a specific instance of telepathy, which in fact does make sense in terms of mind control to some degree! There’s also a bit of a caveat here as regards plausibility. One example of telekinesis might be pyrokinesis, which is the ability to set fire to inflammable objects by touching them, which may in fact be physically possible by influencing nerve impulses in a similar manner to electric organs in fish. From that it may also follow that it’s possible to interfere with electronics or move ferrous metals without this being a particularly paranormal talent, although again the necessary anatomy and physiology in a human body is not known to exist. Psychic surgery would fall into this category if it existed. Belief in the power of prayer is effectively belief in psychokinesis via an intermediary, and I’ve long maintained that if one is to believe such things are possible, accepting that prayer is sometimes granted is a brake on delusions of grandeur. One could believe either that one can directly affect the world or that one’s prayers might lead to God affecting the world, and the second position is humbler, and I would say psychologically healthier. This doesn’t depend on it being true either.

Precognition is something I firmly believe in because I seem to have experienced it pretty unambiguously, and recorded it before the fact in some cases. For instance, this is mixed, but when new clients would contact me by ‘phone for the first time, I would sometimes experience sympathy symptoms a few seconds before and expect to receive a ‘phone call imminently for a complaint associated with those symptoms, which would then happen. This, again, is not hindsight because my preconception of the client’s health preceded their first contact with me. Along with several other incidents, my experience and the way I have recorded it before the fact is enough to convince me that precognition exists. My attitude towards it is that it’s probably a universal ability, not that I’m special, similar to Beverly Jaegers, a C-sceptic who believed psychic abilities were latent in everyone and just needed training and practice to be brought out. This also suggests that K-skeptics are ignoring their own precognitive experiences or attributing them to chance. All that said, it’s entirely unclear how precognition would work given current science, although bafflingly, nothing ever seems to rule out time travel back in time no matter how much physics is discovered. A less personal example is Nostradamus’s apparently successful prediction of 9/11, which was also publicly interpreted as such more than two decades before it happened. With precognition, it’s important to be sure to make a detailed record protected from potential editing before the event predicted.

Remote viewing, which presumably involves other senses too, is the ability to see things at a distance. For instance, in one experiment the island of Kerguelen in the Indian Ocean was described without foreknowledge and in another, details of the Saturnian system were ascertained which were later confirmed by the Voyager probes. However, Immanuel Velikovsky also made a number of predictions about planets in this Solar System which turned out to be correct, but they were based on false premises. It’s possible to be correct by chance or educated guesses, and that mechanism for success could be hidden from consciousness. That said, this presumes to know another’s mind better than they know it themselves, which is dodgy ground. Remote viewing was researched by intelligence services up until the mid-’70s, but it was discontinued owing to the lack of useful results. It isn’t clear that this means they didn’t find it worked. However, police departments have attempted to use remote viewing to find missing persons, Beverly Jaegers again having been involved in this in 1971. The UK government researched it in the ‘noughties. It’s hard to know what to make of government agencies taking the idea seriously, as it could just reflect the non-scientific background of the people running the departments. One gets the impression generally that parapsychology was taken a lot more seriously in the 1960s and 1970s than it was later, and there’s a clear trend in a less accepting direction, which I perceive as a lack of openness to the possibility, but the clear implication is that there have been only negative results, or at least a meta-analysis would show this because statistically there could be some outlying positives which have no significance in a larger setting, that is, they’re just good luck. However, a general trend towards physicalism or mechanism would also show this and the mere fact that it isn’t fashionable needn’t be taken to mean there’s nothing in it.

Psi missing is a phenomenon which could be seen as pareidolia – a tendency to see patterns where none exist. If you take data such as with the Zenner Cards illustrated above and you ask people to guess twenty-five in a row, the null hypothesis is that 20% of the guesses will be correct. However, two other claims could be made looking at such data. One is precognition, where one card ahead is guessed correctly. If this is done twenty-five times, the final result can be discounted because it would be after the end of the experiment, so the probability of being correct is already four percent higher in this situation, making the probability of a positive result for precognition higher. Psi missing is an unusually low result, so it would be a result whose probability is significantly worse than random guessing. However, given the same data set and these three possibilities, the probability of finding something in them becomes much higher even though it may not in fact reflect anything genuine.

Larry Niven called psi missing “Plateau Eyes”. In the Known Space universe, there is a planet circling τ Ceti which is generally Venus-like and uninhabitable but has a high plateau called Mount Lookitthat sticking out of the clouds which humans have settled. On this planet, there is a high proportion of people who tend to be ignored. This enables them to get away with things other people wouldn’t, but it also means they find it very hard to find work or be promoted. I sometimes wonder if I have this! It could also be understood as bad luck, although it isn’t quite that because it can work to one’s advantage. If it exists of course.

Clairvoyance and clairaudience are older terms for a more generic form of ESP. Clairvoyance is the ability to visualise things beyond the “norm”, so for example it could include the past, the future, distant places or spirits, auras and energies. Clairaudience is the auditory equivalent, suggesting that clairvoyance is focussed only on vision but this doesn’t seem to be how it is.

I’m going to have to stop at this point. Part II tomorrow.

History of the British Climate Part I

Yesterday I covered the last 400 000 years of British climatological history. Today I’m going to do something like the previous æon, and possibly all the way back to the beginning of the world. In fact, yeah I’ll do that.

4 543 million years ago, the future Solar System was a swirling disc of dust and gas orbiting a newborn Sun. Jupiter had already formed and was gradually pulling the particles whose times to orbit were in harmony with its own slightly towards itself, leading to them drifting slightly out of phase with it and clumping into fairly insubstantial rings of matter. I’m not sure how warm the belt which would become us was at the time, but it was probably well below freezing point, because if it hadn’t been, there would have been no grains of water ice. On the other hand, there were also comets, so maybe not, but the fact remains that the Sun was dimmer and weaker back then and there were no greenhouse gases in a position to warm the dust and gas which would become Earth. It took seventy to a hundred million years for it to form, and at the beginning it would’ve been slightly more massive, have no permanent moon and the atmosphere would have been briefly high in hydrogen and helium. Within ten million years of its formation, a Mars-sized body which has been christened Theia hit us and shattered the outside layers of the planet, causing them to go into orbit around us and fall together into the body I call Cynthia and most other English speakers call “the Moon”. Clearly there was no such place as Britain at this point and the entire surface of the planet was molten rock heated by the mechanical energy of compression and collision along with radioactivity. The atmosphere would have been substantially superheated steam. Shortly after being hit by a planet-sized body, the atmosphere would in fact have been vaporised rock. It’s possible to determine the climate of the entire planet at this point, as it was quite uniform, meaning that although it makes no sense to talk of Britain, it does make sense to describe how conditions were everywhere. This eon lasted about 500 million years, and during this period the vaporised rock atmosphere would have condensed and fallen onto the surface as drops of lava. Towards the end of the Hadean, life was present, which seems to imply that there was liquid water in at least some places.

The next period is referred to as the Eoarchean, when the pressure was probably dozens of times higher than it is today, more like the solid surface of Venus than today’s Earth. Temperatures were between 0 and 40°C and there may have been ice ages. To quote ELO, “the weather’s fine but there may be a meteor shower”, because this was the time of the Late Heavy Bombardment, when for 300 million years asteroid collisions and other large meteors would have rained very often from the sky, although this has recently been questioned. The atmosphere was high in methane and carbon dioxide, which being greenhouse gases may have ensured that this planet was warm enough for life to survive on it given that the sun was 30% weaker than it is now.

All of this is rather vague and applies to the whole world. The earliest known British rocks are found in Na h-Eileanan Siar, also known as the Western Isles, and have been dated at 3 000 million years old. It isn’t clear that anywhere can be meaningfully called Britain before that date, and there’s no trace of anything else. It was likely to have been a small piece of the surface of the planet with unclear neighbours. The rock concerned is gneiss, which is a common component of continental shields, which are bits of Earth’s surface that haven’t been affected much by continental drift, such as mountain formation or rifting. It would be a bit excessive to call the rocks in Na h-Eileanan “continental shield” because they’re quite small, the nearest substantial example of one being most of Finland and Sweden, but they are the original and only rocks in that small area of these isles.

Even long after this, the island of Great Britain would have been in several parts, making it difficult to describe the nature of its climate. It means imposing the current situation on the past when it’s actually quite transient on a geological time scale. Also, in some areas, including this one, Charnwood, sedimentary rocks were laid down at the bottom of the sea or ocean and the idea of this being Britain is almost meaningless. It also changes the significance of climate, and as far as being at the bottom of a really deep ocean is concerned, almost irrelevant.

In the Archean, which lasted fifteen hundred million years, the planet was shrouded in methane clouds and there was practically no free oxygen in the atmosphere. The sedimentary rocks surviving which had been exposed to the atmosphere show no glacial erosion, but they do show evidence of rivers and rain. Therefore it did rain. In fact, presumably there was an enormous rainstorm lasting thousands of years at some point in the late Hadean when the oceans were formed due to the atmosphere and surface getting cool enough for the steam to condense out and persist on the surface, but because the pressure was much higher this would have happened long before the surface temperature dropped below 100°C. It is actually possible to measure the surface temperature by looking at the proportion of oxygen-18 in the rocks. There are two stable isotopes of oxygen: 16 and 18. Because oxygen-18 is heavier, molecules containing it vaporise at a slightly higher temperature. Chert, which is a sedimentary flint-like rock, is silica, i.e. silicon dioxide, containing oxygen, and is present in some Archean deposits, making it possible to measure the temperature where it was laid down. This puts the ocean temperature at 70°C, but this is probably wrong because weathering once it was exposed to the atmosphere would influence this. The degree of weathering which occurred was unaffected by land plants, since there weren’t any – there weren’t any plants in fact – and suggests a surface temperature between 18 and 24°C, so semitropical. The fact that there was neither excessive heat nor excessive cold suggests various things about the planet such as the ratio of methane and carbon dioxide, a relatively transparent atmosphere and only limited land surface, so it seems that not only do we only have bits of Na h-Eileanan available but that may have been partly because there just wasn’t that much land.

The Archean was followed by the Proterozoic, which began around 2 500 million years ago. This was characterised by the evolution of blue-green algæ, which proceeded to release oxygen into the atmosphere and removed carbon dioxide. This may also have reduced the activity of methane-producing organisms, another greenhouse gas, and also oxidised the methane. Incidentally, this hedging language I’m using here is down to my ignorance more than scientists’. Anyway, the consequences of this were that iron began to rust in the ocean, depositing itself in bands of rust on the sea bed, and the temperature of the planet fell, triggering an ice age. It’s theorised that this planet has two relatively stable states climatically, which it switches between: icehouse and hothouse. Icehouse has generally not dominated but can do at certain times and in fact it is at the moment, anthropogenic climate change notwithstanding. The dominant state is hothouse, which is generally warmer than today for millions of years at a stretch. Even so, there does seem to have been an ice age in the early Proterozoic, and at the end of the Proterozoic there was another much more severe one. In between those times the world-wide climate would’ve been warmer than today.

The Cryogenian Period was a crucial time in our planet’s history. It appears that the land was mainly equatorial at the start of this period, which would probably have included the bits of land which were to become these isles. We were situated just south of the Equator, in Laurentia and Baltica, as part of the supercontinent Rodinia, meaning a hot, wet climate, except that we were below sea level, so a very wet climate! The oddity about this time is that glaciers are found at the Equator, i.e. the parts of the supercontinent which were equatorial at the time, and it’s thought that this means that most or all of the planet was covered in ice and as cold as Antarctica. My comment about tropical conditions applies to how things were before this arose. There are a couple of hypotheses about how this happened. One is that Earth may have had an axial tilt as high as 60°, meaning that constant night in the winter and the midnight Sun in the summer would’ve applied to everywhere further from the Equator than today’s Brazil or Israel. Very surprisingly, a snowball Earth can only happen if there’s a lot of equatorial land. Most of the Sun’s heat is absorbed near the Equator, meaning that if there’s a lot of land there the heat would not be absorbed as much, and this would cool down the whole planet.

By Ryan Somma – Life in the Ediacaran SeaUploaded by FunkMonk, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24277381

The Ediacaran follows the Cryogenian and is for this part of Britain very significant, because it’s from this time, lasting 94 million years from 635 to 541 million years ago, that some of the most famous fossils found in this area date. These can be seen in a local museum and include the feather-like Charnia as seen above, and Bradgatia linfordensis, a lettuce-like organism obviously (to locals) named after Bradgate Park and Newtown Linford, both in Charnwood. Charnodiscus concentricus is another. These are all thought to be “quilted” animals who left no descendants, although some people class them in their own kingdom because they’re quite unlike any animals or plants we’re familiar with. They appeared 600 million years ago and all died out before the Cambrian. They may have had symbiotic algæ in their compartments, meaning that since many of them were also attached to the sea bed, the water must have been sufficiently shallow to allow light to penetrate. Hence Charnwood was still underwater, but the ice must’ve been gone and the water wasn’t particularly deep.

Rodinia was breaking up at this time, so there would’ve been a network of shallow seas, which sounds like the situation as it was here. Rodinia was an unusual supercontinent because it seems to have formed by the landmasses moving all the way round the world and colliding with each other on the opposite side to where they originated, which meant they had a long time to erode and the land surface was quite flat. The network of seas would have increased rainfall on the land, since much more of it would’ve been closer to the sea. This may in fact have been part of what triggered the earlier ice age. The temperature of the Ediacaran was still around 2°C cooler than the average for the Holocene, so it looks like the weather here would’ve been cold, wet and rainy. Plus ça change!

The Cambrian was warmer, around 8°C warmer than the Holocene average, and in fact this set a precedent for the generally warmer temperatures of the Phanerozoic, our current eon. During the next period, the Ordivician, sea levels rose by a hardly believable six hundred metres. This ended as a new supercontinent, Gondwana, reached the South Pole and a new ice age started, lasting twenty million years. A gamma ray burst may then have cause the mass extinction at the end of the period, meaning that it may have rained concentrated nitric acid.

Around 400 million years ago, three mini-continents collided to form the British Isles as we know them today, and it begins to become more meaningful to talk about British climate. These were Laurentia, which is effectively all of Scotland, Avalonia, which is England and Wales, and Armorica, which is Brittany, Devon and Cornwall plus a lot of other land such as Iberia. Glen Mòr, the fault along which Loch Ness is situated, continues into Ireland and therefore I imagine Ireland was also in two halves before this. Avalonia began as a volcanic island chain north of Gondwana. Britain was about 30° south of the Equator then. It drifted gradually north, crossing the Equator about 300 million years ago, and over this time other land collided with the forming Pangæa, meaning that it was increasingly far from the sea. This is about the time the Carboniferous started and the future Britain became covered in the rainforests which would become the coal measures, so Britain was hot and swampy, and the oxygen content of the air was so high that lightning strikes would have ignited wet vegetation, so there would be many forest fires even though conditions were damp. Around 305 million years ago, climate got cooler and drier and sea level fell, leading to retreat of coal forests from higher ground and the emergence of fragmented rain forests, which were no longer able to maintain their genetic diversity and there was a lot of inbreeding, shrinking of the size of, for example, horsetails, to cope with the conditions and a new ice age started in the Southern Hemisphere, although not severe enough to make Britain cold.

By this time, Pangæa was forming, as were the Pennines. Hot dry desert conditions took over from rainforest, with presumably an intermediate phase which today would be like the Serengeti, although with very different flora and fauna the details are not obvious. The late Permian was a peculiar time climatically, as the interior of Pangæa seemed to have extreme temperature variations so that it was both very hot and very cold at different times of year, and it’s been suggested that this was a cause of the Great Dying, where almost all life on Earth became extinct. Britain was now in the northern tropics, and as such was in the same zone as the Sahara is now. The Scottish Highlands at the time would’ve been as high as the Himalayas and formed part of a range which extended southwest into the Little Atlas and Appalachians. There might also have been a rain shadow desert to the east, making it even drier than it would’ve been without them, but the monsoon conditions which prevailed to the southeast might make it heavily forested.

In the Triassic there were salt flats in Cheshire, hence the salt mines which existed there in historical times, and red sandstone forming in what is now the Southwest, hence the very red soils in that area. Towards the end of the Triassic, the sea level began to rise again, converting much of the isles into a subtropical shallow sea and many of the hills and mountains as they existed then into islands, such as the Mendips.

The following photo is taken from this website and will be removed on request:

This is the “Barrow Kipper”, or rather a monument to where it was found in 1851. Barrow-upon-Soar is about an hour’s walk from where I’m sitting and between 200 and 150 million years ago was underwater, over the entire Jurassic Period. This particular plesiosaur was formerly classed as a Rhomaleousaurus but now as an Atychodracon, from the Early Jurassic, looking something like this but with a bigger head:

It used to be thought that plesiosaurs had to climb ashore to lay their eggs, so this suggests that there was land nearby, but fossils have since been found of pregnant ones, and their limbs were arranged in such a way that they would’ve had to have dragged themselves along the shore quite roughly. However, although it isn’t from precisely the same time, a few miles away in Rutland, the largest and most complete dinosaur fossil ever found in Britain was unearthed, a Cetiosaurus, like a mini-“Brontosaurus”, suggesting that this area was an archipelago of smaller islands or just near a beach. There is a famous traditional song called ‘Ashby De La Zouch By The Sea’, which has often made me wonder whether that particular nearby Leicestershire village ever was.

I am of course a Southerner, and as such Leicestershire will always be slightly foreign to me. My mother is from Maidstone, a place sufficiently famous for its Iguanodon finding that the animal is actually on their coat of arms:

These dinosaurs, dating from 157 million years ago, are also found, along with very many others, on the Isle Of Wight. It’s tempting to telescope all these findings into an imaginary scenario where they’re all simultaneous just because they’re all Jurassic, but in reality the Jurassic Period lasted fifty-six million years, almost as long as the time since the non-avian dinosaurs became extinct, and the Isle Of Wight dinosaurs are mainly early Cretaceous. There were, however, coral reefs in Yorkshire. In the Cretaceous, the situation was once again one of rising sea level with lagoons and streams. To the extent that these isles existed at that point, they were substantially united. That is, Ireland and Great Britain formed a single island, which was intermittently joined to the mainland and still steadily drifting north.

The Late Cretaceous climate was warmer than today’s at the same latitude, which was about the same as Madrid and Rome, although it had been cooling for millions of years. When the Chicxulub Impactor hit, the widespread fires would have raised carbon dioxide levels tenfold and caused a greenhouse effect heating the planet by 7.5°C. In the Palæocene the climate was slightly cooler and drier due to dust in the atmosphere reflecting heat into space, but tropical forests then developed all over the world, even in the Arctic, where the water was lukewarm. The Eocene would’ve involved warm swamps in many parts of Britain.

At this point I’ll repeat something I said a few days ago about Europe. Europe over the Cenozoic, that is, since the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs, has been gradually transitioning from an archipelago to a large peninsula, and the scattered islands of the region have shown a trend of joining together to build a subcontinent, for want of a better word. Looking at Great Britain and Ireland in this way, they are late developers, or outliers which show how the rest of the region used to be. There’s a common, and correct, idea that before the end of the last Ice Age and for several thousand years after that, Ireland and Great Britain formed a peninsula, and this is true, but there has been a kind of seesawing appearance and disappearance of sea around us and the level of the land at the moment has been pushed down by the recent weight of ice and is gradually springing back up. Hence it does make sense to speak of the British Isles, or perhaps an island comprising Ireland and Great Britain plus low-lying land in between, in the earlier Cenozoic, and moreover to see them as the westernmost members of a collection of islands a bit like the Caribbean or Indonesia in arrangement, although that may be a bit of an exaggeration. The North European Plain, though, was underwater for quite some time, Iberia ceased to be an island around the start of the Cenozoic and the Italian-Illyrian region was also separate for a long interval.

In the Neogene, Britain arrived in its present position and is no longer drifting north. Hence the climate began to approach how it is today although it would’ve been somewhat warmer still. Finally, the Pliocene saw a general drying out and the Pleistocene brings me to the start of yesterday’s post.

I can’t completely guarantee that all of this is accurate as I know a little, but some of it is disputed and I’m probably in the Dunning-Kruger trough at this point where I haven’t reached the point of realising how little I really know and how wrong I’m actually being. Nonetheless, it’s nice to imagine how our climate could’ve been more Mediterranean or Caribbean in particular in the geological past, and also, wouldn’t it be nice to holiday at home but do it using a time machine so we could get to the really sunny and warm climates which this part of the world, so to speak, used to experience?

A History Of The British Climate Part II (Part I Tomorrow)

It’s common knowledge that there used to be an Ice Age in this country. Something which is never clear to me is whether people generally realise that this planet has recently, i.e. in the past million years or so, undergone five ice ages, and it’s debated whether anthropogenic climate change will be sufficient to prevent the next one. As I mentioned the other day, up until the 1980s it was considered a toss-up whether the near future would involve global cooling or warming, although looking at the graph of recent global temperatures in 1977, it seemed close to inevitable that it would warm. But there have been people here for hundreds of millennia, back to the Hoxnian about four hundred millennia ago, so I will start with that, work down to the present and then go way up and repeat the process on a grander timescale.

As far as I know, and in fact I suspect I’m wrong, the earliest human remains found in what are currently these isles are the so-called “Swanscombe Man”, a Neanderthal or pre-Neanderthal woman dating from about four hundred millennia BP (before present – in fact before 1950 CE). She was found in a Swanscombe gravel pit, near Dartford in today’s Kent. The Hoxnian Stage was an interglacial lasting from 424 to 374 millennia BP, when it was slightly warmer than today on average. At the time, there were dense forests here, making it difficult for people to penetrate much of the country and they mainly stayed in river valleys, such as the Thames, then a tributary of the Rhine, where the Swanscombe remains were found. Other species sharing that environment included the straight-tusked elephant, hippos and rhinos. This is one of the startling things about British fauna, and in fact fauna in general, up until the start of the last Ice Age: it was actually quite Afrikan. Distinctive European fauna during interglacials didn’t arise until this one, referred to as the Holocene. In fact humans could be seen as an example of that, since we are originally Afrikan.

I grew up calling the Ice Ages of the Pleistocene Donau, Günz, Mindel, Rịẞ and Würm, which are apparently the wrong names for Northern Europe, where they’re called the Hamburger, Elder, Elster, Saale and Weichsel. One of the annoying things about ice ages is that they’re called different things in different parts of the world, which doesn’t generally happen with other geological periods although one of the Cenozoic epochs, can’t remember which, is said to continue in some parts of the world after it had finished in others. Possibly the Oligocene. In the case of ice ages this is to some extent justified, because as far as the Arctic regions are concerned we’ve been in one long ice age since the start of the Pleistocene. Britain, and in particular Scotland, is the northernmost land not actually considered Arctic, so it isn’t surprising that the ice ages operated somewhat differently here than they did further south. The names I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph are also the names of Alpine rivers, because the Alps were obviously more strongly affected than lower-lying parts of the European peninsula.

When the Ice Age I’m apparently supposed to call the Saale started around 374 millennia BP, glaciers completely covered what would become this archipelago, and of course Doggerland in the German Ocean/North Sea was still completely above sea level, so at this point these isles were not islands at all but a sub-peninsula of Europe. Fauna included lemmings, mammoths, woolly rhinos and musk oxen, but there would’ve been an intermediate cooling period during which horses would have arrived because the forests were thinning out. This came to an end around 130 millennia BP with the gross of centuries or so known as the Eemian or Ipswichian, during which sea level rose to six to nine metres above where it is today. Ice ages during this time are much longer than interglacials, which all seem to last about that long, which also means we’re kind of due for a new ice age, hence Nigel Calder’s fixation which I mentioned here. This is the period during which anatomically modern humans evolved, and our split between Asian and Afrikan populations. During this time there were hippos in the Thames and Rhine, and there were also straight-tusked elephants again in Britain, although we were at the limit of their range by then. They finally became extinct, or perhaps just left, at the start of the next ice age, the Weichsel.

The Weichsel, which is the most recent ice age and the one many probably just think of as the Ice Age, was less severe than the Saale, with the ice sheets only reaching as far south as the Humber and Mid-Wales, and across in Ireland in a line across from Wexford to Galway. South of those would’ve been tundra rather than actual permanent ice cover, and there were reindeer in the Peak District who used to migrate to Lincolnshire to calve. There were also still mammoths, for instance in Shropshire, until 14 000 BP, although they had previously been wiped out here because it was too cold for them. What seems to have been happening here is that local populations of mammoths were dying out and then getting replaced by others moving into the area, in a cycle. There were also bison, woolly rhinos and Irish elks. The last seem to be remembered in Irish legends. They were not closely related to elks but to fallow deer, and their last representatives vanished around 7 700 BP in Russia, at a time when mammoths were still around – they only died out around the time the pyramids were built. Irish elk appear in cave paintings and were hunted by humans.

The Holocene is actually formally defined, kind of by fiat, rather than just being the end of the last ice age. In the 1990s CE, it was proposed that a Holocene calendar be formally designated where years are numbered from the start of the epoch. Hence it started officially in 10 000 BCE or 11 950 BP. This makes it easier to use for geology and archæology, since Bede’s timing for the birth of Jesus is both arbitrary and culturally biassed, and not very useful for these purposes except that it helps us relate to the dates if one has a Christian background. That said, the onset of the Holocene is also the time of the last glacial retreat, and as such dates to around 11 650 years ago, or 9 630 BCE with spurious accuracy. All human recorded history has taken place in this period, and during this time there has been fluctuation in climate, here and elsewhere.

A big factor in the Holocene was the Bond events, which are fluctuations in ice rafting occurring from the Arctic in an approximately ten century cycle. In terms of the Common Era, these nine events took place at the following approximate dates: 9100 BCE, 8300 BCE, 7400 BCE, 6200 BCE, 3900 BCE, 2200 BCE, 800 BCE, 600 CE and 1500 CE. Some of these are associated with particular historical events or trends. What seems to be happening, and this is my interpretation, is that Arctic ice breaks up and spreads out in the North Atlantic, reflecting more heat back into space and cooling the planet globally. Then it refreezes and the planet warms up due to a smaller area being covered by ice.

The events in question sometimes had a major effect here, sometimes either not or not in a discernible way from this distance in time. Before I go on, I’ll talk about Doggerland, the formation of the Irish Sea and the English Channel. Doggerland, as you must surely know but I’ll mention it anyway, is the area now flooded by the North Sea. The Irish Sea used to be a marshy area with some lakes, the English Channel was also above sea level and even after the rest was submerged there was a narrow isthmus across the Pas De Calais until 5000 BCE. All of this was to do with ice melting and sea level rise.

Where the Bond events didn’t directly influence the climate significantly in this country, and in fact they would’ve done although without agriculture or written records the traces are harder to discern without some archæological research such as looking at tree rings, they may still have had a long-term knock on effect from what happened elsewhere. For instance, the 6200 BCE event led to a drier spell in Mesopotamia and therefore may have triggered irrigation efforts which led to the emergence of Sumer and the other cultures in that area, ultimately leading to the arrival of more advanced technology and different peoples here in the characteristic pattern where the East is south of the West. That said, the distribution of the aforementioned elephants also shows a northeast-southwest boundary and the glaciation kind of followed the same “diagonal” line. The 3900 BCE event led to the reformation of the Sahara Desert by four centuries later, whose effects can be seen in rock paintings showing animals usually found in wetter climates in that area. The Bronze Age began a couple of centuries after that. This got to Britain about a millennium later still. A later significant oscillation was the Iron Age Cold Epoch, which started around 800 BCE and coincided with the expansion of Ancient Greece and the foundation of Rome. This was followed by the Roman Warm period from 250 BCE to 400 CE, or 500 to 1150 AUC in the Roman dating system, which seems to have been fairly local, i.e. confined to Europe. Italy at the time was wetter and cooler, and it was the start of the current Subatlantic period. The temperature left to itself is slightly lower in this, current, period, than its predecessors and again this is evidence that we’re due an Ice Age, but human activity seems to be either postponing or preventing this for now. The cooling is thought to have triggered the migration of the Germanic tribes from Scandinavia down into the main part of Europe. There are then a number of named periods: the Late Antique Little Ice Age, Dark Ages Cold Period, Mediæval Warm Period and finally the well-known Little Ice Age.

The first two of these coincide to some extent, with the Late Antique Little Ice Age occurring in the middle of the Dark Ages Cold Period. In other words the former was the peak of the latter. The longer period seems to be precisely dateable to 509-865 CE, and includes for Britain most of the sub-Roman period, Augustine’s arrival and the early years of Alfred’s life until shortly before he became King. The middle of that period seems to have been worsened by volcanic eruptions reducing sunlight. The Annals of Ulster record a crop failure leading to a lack of bread in 536 and those of Innisfallen says this continued until 539. Ice cores from those years show a higher sulphur content than others. The Annales Cambriæ record “great mortality in Britain and Ireland” and also say it was King Arthur’s last battle. In various places it’s said that the Sun shone only weakly for a year and a half. In China it snowed in August 536.

This was eventually followed by the Mediæval Warm Period, lasting from around 950-1250. Sediments in the Sargasso Sea show that it was 1°C warmer than 1996 at this time. It seems that the ice-free seas of the North Atlantic were taken advantage of by the Norse people to colonise Greenland, as they called it, and Afrika was drier. After a bit of a gap, the Little Ice Age began in about 1350 and lasted up until about 1900, and this is something I find puzzling. There was a major famine here in 1315-17 which seems to have set Europe up for the Black Death later in the century because the people who were children at the time of the famine seem to have grown up rather unhealthy, laying them and the communities around them open to the ravages of the plague, if that’s what it was, as adults, and also making them a source of infection for healthier people who might otherwise have escaped. It might be expected that this was due to a series of years with bad weather conditions for growth of wheat in particular because of the climate, but in fact this doesn’t seem to be so. However, it does seem that a five-year long series of eruptions in Aotearoa/New Zealand of Mount Tarawera may have precipitated the event. Some people do extend the Little Ice Age back to 1300.

The following few centuries had such features as white Xmases and frost fairs on the Thames. There are two reasons why white Xmases used to me more frequent. One of them is pretty obvious, but the other, so I hear, is that there tends to be a snowier period shortly before the dates which are now celebrated as Christmas, and the calendar reforms moved it out of this to a less snowy stage of the winter. I’m not sure about that because it seems more likely to snow in early January than mid-December, so it seems to be in the wrong direction.

Frost fairs were held on the Thames in London from the seventh to the nineteenth centuries CE, peaking from the seventeenth century onward when the Little Ice Age was at its most severe. It’s thought that the Thames was more likely to freeze over in any case back then because of the water wheels under London Bridge slowing the flow of the river down and the pollution in the water raising the freezing point. They were in any case quite seldom held, and were much more common elsewhere in Europe. The Thames has frozen over further upstream much more recently, unsurprisingly in winter 1963. I can remember the sea freezing over to a limited extent in the Thames Estuary. It froze over for several weeks in London in the third Christian century, and in 695, the date of the first fair, then there’s a gap until 1608, when it first used name. The biggest was in 1683-4, when the ice was half a metre thick. The last one was in February 1814, when the ice supported an elephant. I don’t want to ignore the cruelty of exploiting a presumably Asian elephant in that way, but note the connection with native British straight-tusked elephants living on the banks of the river in ages past. In 1831, London Bridge was pulled down and the climate was warming, meaning that it ceased to be feasible from that point on.

By Giorgiogp2 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8942703

Approaching living memory, there’s the Year Without A Summer, also known as “Eighteen Hundred And Frozen To Death”, a phrase many older people may have heard of. This is 1816. The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in today’s Indonesia led to a global fall in temperature of 0.7°C. The summer temperatures were relatively lowest in France and England. There was food price inflation all over Europe and in 1819, there were typhus epidemics in Ireland and Scotland as a result of malnourishment. Mary Shelley wrote ‘Frankenstein’ during the summer of this year because the weather was too bad for them to go outside. Also by this time, sunspots were being observed and the Sun’s surface was unusually “clean” between 1796 and 1820, a period known as the Dalton Minimum, and like other minima it coincided with a spell of colder temperatures. The better-known Maunder Minimum from 1645-1715 had also seen this, and it’s also hypothesised that there’s a rhythm instantiated by these two, meaning that an earlier Spörer Minimum had occurred from 1460-1550.

There are several ways to retrieve the record of climate change in fairly recent times, including ice core samples, tree rings, coral skeletons, cave deposits and foraminiferan skeletons from the sea bed and chalk. One of the things these show is that the industrial revolution, which at the time was fuelled by coal, began to make its presence felt by about 1830, rather surprisingly in the Southern Hemisphere more than the Northern. Antarctica has been protected from much of this by the circulation of water and air currents in the Southern Ocean, but it can be seen in other oceans and landmasses south of the Equator.

This is more or less common knowledge, so I won’t go into much depth, and I’m pretty sure I’ve covered it extensively elsewhere on this blog. Therefore I’ll just mention three events: the winters of 1947 and 1963, and the summer of 1976.

From 23rd January 1947, Britain and the rest of Europe experienced an unusually harsh winter, which incidentally is a major plot point in my novel ‘1934’. I also know someone whose life was basically ruined by it. An anticyclone was stationary over Scandinavia, preventing low pressure areas from moving towards Britain from the Atlantic and allowing winds to blow from the east across the country. The temperature dropped to -21°C, there was pack ice in the Channel and ice floes in the North Sea. Similar, and in some cases more severe, measures were taken as during the War, including lower rations, the suspension of television, the reduction of radio and there were power cuts which even affected Buckingham Palace. Four million people claimed unemployment benefit. Three million sheep died, there were many crops lost or irretrievable from the ground due to frozen soil and there were of course many human casualties. This was followed by serious flooding in March when the snow and ice melted.

The next severe winter occurred sixteen years later, and Sarada can remember this although I wasn’t born. This was known as the Big Freeze of ’63 and was the coldest since 1895. The situation began similarly to 1947 with a stationary high over Scandinavia, but this was then replaced by another over Iceland. Temperatures fell to -19°C in Scotland and the sea froze over at Herne Bay for 1.6 kilometres. January 1963 is the coldest month since January 1814. The difference between the two post-War winters is probably down to the fact that Britain had recovered economically from the War by the second, and there were also some advances in technology and the infrastructure, but that’s just my guess.

Finally for today I want to mention an incident which I can actually remember quite clearly: the summer of 1976. Although this was only the second driest summer since records began, next to 1995, it’s far more memorable for its weather than the later one. You may recall, incidentally, that 1975 was also very hot and dry, and that dryness and mildness continued through the ’75-’76 winter, meaning that more insects survived and continued to reproduce in the next year. Meanwhile the water reserves were already unusually low. The cause of the actual heatwave and drought was, surprisingly, similar to those of the winters of ’47 and ’63, with a high pressure area stuck over Europe, and in fact the whole of Europe was affected, not just Britain. Shade temperatures rose to 34°C in late July. Rivers, lakes and reservoirs dried up, the grass died and there was a plague of ladybirds. It was actually possible to fill shovels with them, and many people, including myself, discovered for the first time that they “sweat” an irritant clear yellow liquid when stressed (incidentally the same thing happened a couple of days ago to me while I was out). This was because ladybirds are predators of other insects, and their plethora had led to a population explosion. There were also standpipes in the street due to a water shortage, and I think hosepipes were banned for the first time. The Archbishop of Canterbury prayed for rain to no avail. Then, bizarrely, the Prime Minister Harold Wilson appointed a minister for drought, Denis Howell, and ordered him to do a rain dance! Then it rained and he became minster for floods. I shall now specifically invite Steve to tell us his tale of ’76.

As for me, my tenth birthday occurred during the drought. I was on holiday in the Isle Of Wight and my brother and I both went down with tonsilitis. My temperature went up to 38.3°C. However, I recovered in time to enjoy the rest of the holiday, and we went to Blackgang Chine where there was a “ride” purporting to be Hell which was very hot inside, except that it wasn’t because of the temperature outside. Two other notable features were that after it had started raining people were still using standpipes and were actually standing in the rain waiting for water, and it was stated that even if it rained every day until the year 2000 there wouldn’t be enough water to replace what there had been in 1974. There was also said to be a problem with the mud getting baked into an impermeable condition, such that the rain would just run off and fail to accumulate. There were forest fires in the South, and everyone was warned to take extreme care. However, these have actually served to replenish heathland in the long run. Deaths went up by twenty percent.

That, then, is the history of climate in this country from the life of Swanscombe Woman four hundred millennia ago into the late twentieth century. Tomorrow I will cover the history of climate here from deep in prehistory up until the advent of the latest spate of Ice Ages.

No Hitler

Hitler used to tell a tale about sitting at a table some time in the First World War when he heard a voice telling him to move, so he obeyed it as if it was a military order, and a moment later the table was bombed and everyone sitting at it was killed. I don’t know whether this anecdote has been checked. On another occasion, which is well-known and can be verified, a British soldier called Henry Tandey, VC, DCM, MM, from Leamington Spa, is chiefly remembered for being the man who spared Hitler’s life. The story goes that on 28th September 1918 in the French village of Marcoing, a weary, wounded German soldier wandered into his gun sights and he chose not to shoot him. Hitler saw this and nodded his thanks. This may, however, be an urban legend and it may also be the second encounter between the two. Because it isn’t particularly wonderful to be remembered for that alone, although it shows he had a sense of decency and mercy, I should mention that Tandey was also given the Victoria Cross for restoring a plank bridge under fire on the same day, and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for, well, I’ll just quote the citation:

He was in charge of a reserve bombing party in action, and finding the advance temporarily held up, he called on two other men of his party, and working across the open in rear of the enemy, he rushed a post, returning with twenty prisoners, having killed several of the enemy. He was an example of daring courage throughout the whole of the operations.

Hence there seem to have been at least two occasions on which Hitler could’ve been killed before rising to power, and therefore it seems to be entirely plausible for him to have become yet another unknown casualty of the Great War, but of course this didn’t happen. I have to say that this suggests that he was in some sinister way protected from death during this period, and since I believe in the power of Satan as an personal evil force, I can easily accept that. However, how many other stories ended in potential future dictators of Germany being killed in WWI? I’m also unsure either anecdote is actually true?

But is Hitler really necessary? By which I mean, is a world without Hitler also a world where the Third Reich and Second World War didn’t happen? How much difference would it really have made to history if Hitler hadn’t existed or had died in the First World War? Might things actually have been worse?

Hitler was alleged to be a very poor strategist, basing most of his orders on never retreating, even tactically, and one result of that was that he lost a lot of battles which could potentially have been won otherwise. Consequently, in a Second World War where all other things were the same except that the Führer was a better military strategist, it might either have lasted longer or less long, and in a Nazi victory, and if it had dragged on, maybe the Nazis would have ended up acquiring and using the Bomb and winning that way, rather decisively and terrifyingly, going on to dominate the world. In the light of that, maybe it wasn’t Satan at all who protected Hitler those times. Maybe the protection was to ensure that an incompetent leader would lose the War. Of course, many anti-theists would say at this point that this is a funny kind of loving Deity because the Holocaust still happened, but perhaps we can leave the religious angle aside and just state the possibilities as they stand. Hitler surviving the First World War might have been a relatively good thing because it meant the Third Reich would lose the Second.

However, another question arises. The Holocaust and other atrocities are, morally speaking, central to the need to defeat the Nazis, even though they were apparently not the motivation for declaring war on Germany. Is it possible that a timeline where Hitler never rose to power would also not have had the Holocaust? A couple of scenarios have been popularly explored.

In one of them, Hitler died in the First World War at the Battle of the Somme and had no significant effect on the course of the War. The Treaty of Versailles is imposed in 1918 but instead of the Nazis coming to power, there is a Communist revolution in Germany and the Spanish civil war proceeds as it would’ve done anyway. Germany and the Soviet Union both invade Czechoslovakia and the USSR is thrown out of the League Of Nations. World War II happens anyway. After two years, there is a German-Soviet victory but then Pearl Harbor happens and Germany and Russia ally themselves with the US against Japan, and Canada and the US enter the war on opposite sides. There’s plenty more of this here, and it comes across as quite far-fetched. For instance, there’s no explanation as to the inconsistency of Germany going Communist while other countries become Fascist, and this is the crucial point.

My view is that if you look at the various European nations, many of them had successful Fascist movements, and only one of them had Hitler. Nazism is generally seen as a variety of fascism which emphasises the idea that there is a supreme Aryan race and a Jewish conspiracy. Other fascisms were not like this. For instance, Mussolini, the original founder of a Fascist party, focussed on the Roman Empire to encourage Italian nationalism and the Southern European fascisms generally stressed the centrality of the Roman Catholic Church. The Nazi version of Christianity, Positive Christianity, attempted to remove all Jewish elements from the faith, rejecting the Tanakh entirely, claiming Jesus was Aryan, supported the idea of an Aryan homeland and was hostile to Roman Catholicism. Mussolini had come to power in 1922 and therefore had longer to develop and enact his policies than Hitler.

It may also be instructive to look at the history of the Nazi Party. The Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (German Workers’ Party) became the Nazi Party as a result of Hitler joining it as a spy for the police in 1920, but that party was already anti-semitic and anti-Marxist. I don’t know much about the history but it seems to me that Drexler, the leader at the time, could have done the same thing, in which case the main difference would simply be that his name would have become symbolic of the most evil man in history instead of Hitler’s. Or maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe there were factors which would’ve led to his failure as a leader of the party, but this simply means either that someone else would’ve taken over and succeeded or another movement with similar aims would have arisen instead.

In a way, Hitler’s reputation is highly conditional and to some extent it plays into the cult of personality characteristic of totalitarian régimes. It may be that his life and interactions are important, but only because it helps one identify how precisely history took such a negative turn at that point. Specifically reviling him is to give him too much attention. It’s like constructing an elaborate cult around a serial killer or someone similar. It kind of feeds the myth and the kind of thing which makes politics seem to be about personalities. On the other hand, it is easy to take his actions personally when you’ve been directly affected by them, which applies by now probably to hundreds of millions of people if not more. The fact remains that there were any number of pathetic petty infantile moral vacua who could’ve taken his place if he had been killed in the First World War, and as usual it’s about the broad forces of history happening to converge on one person. Likewise, none of our leaders are that important today either. They’ve just been put there by the vagaries of economic and social forces and their lives are of no consequence.

That’s it – all I’ve got to say for today.