A Smoother Pebble

Off with Injuries

I do sports training ~5 times a week. On Saturday I injured my hand. Showed the parents (they're both doctors). This morning I had an appointment with another doctor friend of theirs. His verdict: I don't need surgery (whew), but can't go back to training for a month, possibly two.
I also can't play the piano with my left hand, at least for a few weeks. Almost all the decent repertoire for the one handed pianist is for the left hand - the Ravel concerto, the Prokofiev concerto, the Strauss Burleske, the Brahms transcription of the Chaconne in d, etc., etc.

There are two reaons for this:

1) Most of the one-handed piano music is made up of technical studies. Even for a left-handed pianist like me, the right hand becomes considerably more agile than the left over time as it must play the complex melodies instead of the slower left hand harmonies, so composers will concentrate on providing excercises and training for the left.

2) Ludwig Wittgenstein's brother, Paul. He was a concert pianist who lost his right arm in the First World War, and then used the family fortune to commission music from the best known composers of the day - for the left hand of course. Once the trend started it became self reinforcing. I'm not the only one - my father was treating a concert pianist who'd lost the use of her left hand and faced the same problem.

The only thing I can think of to play off the top of my head is the Alkan study for the right hand only. I don't know what the right hand one is like, but the study for the left hand is said to be fiendish. I'll have to dig the music out from the library. I believe that a couple of the Chopin/Godowsky Etudes are for the right hand only but, as Jorge Bolet says, the technical difficulties are also "horrendous".

So I've decided to start blogging again - hibernation ends in spring, after all.

Looked over the old posts. Mostly but not all cr*p.

There probably won't be any readers left by now, but this was always more of a diary than a blog. (Correction: Looking at Sitemeter, I was touched to see that a small number of faithful readers had continued to check for signs of life what had seemed to be a hopelessly extinct blog. It was rude of me to just leave you hanging for two months, without saying if I intended to return or not. Sorry. Won't do it again.)


(In order to understand what I'm yammering about: I left a comment on this post, replied to here. This is my rather disconnected reply. Bryan Norwood in bold, my comments in plaintype.)

First, my remarks weren’t so much addressed at the problem of the first cause, just at the idea that the order of the universe necessitates a creator god. I wouldn't say that progress in the physical and natural sciences contradicts the necessity of God, but I would say that science enables us to explain a great deal that, as Norwood notes, we would once have been unable to explain without appealing to God (angels pushing the planets around, Prometheus moulding humans out of clay, etc.).

A tribe of cavemen had no explanation for how the phenomena of the natural world could have arisen short of a creator, but science can explain not only how the world we see works but how it came to be as far back as the beginning of time. Of course, science doesn't explain everything: it leaves untouched questions like the origin of the universe itself or how space, time, indeed anything at all can exist.

'Could the concept of number even exist without some natural order to illustrate it? Can I have the idea of 2 without ever having 2 of something?'

Well yes, practically we do get our preliminary understanding of number through counting as children and our understanding of geometry through our apprehension of space, but maths isn’t just intuitive geometry and arithmetic. For several centuries now maths has gone beyond these to become totally abstract. We can’t intuit non-Euclidean geometries, but they are just as ‘valid’ as the Euclidean geometry that we can intuit. If we can only have the ‘idea’ of 2 because we have seen a pair of things in the past, how can we grasp the idea of a non-Riemannian manifold, a transfinite ordinal or a Hilbert space?

‘Secondly it seems strange to separate nature from mathematics when so much of mathematics finds itself in nature, whether it be architectural proportions or Fibonacci series.’

I wasn’t trying to 'separate' maths from nature; maths exists independently of nature and embeds itself in the universe due to the universe’s orderly nature. To take a basic example, pinecones and sunflowers don’t owe their Fibonacci structure to some divine artist’s signature.

‘It is correct that the free market is uncontrollable by any one individual, but this argument [i.e. that the market, as an example of spontaneous order, suggests that order could have arisen without God] fails as a parallel to a Godless universe. The argument falls prey to two important principles of causality.

First, the market arose as a contingent agent, not as a necessary one. That is to say, the market would not have come about and could not have come about unless the necessary agent, humans, existed. The market was created by organisms with freewill, and although it may have now attained some sort of psuedo-freewill, this is no way proves that an originating cause was not necessary.

Secondly, the market can never have more reality than its cause. It is the effect of humans. The market it is also still a dependent entity. If humans ceased to exist so would the market.Therefore this illustration turns out to support the necessity of a first cause of the universe.’

My comparison was a limited one, just intended to show in a restricted case how order need not be evidence of design. More broadly. I’d draw a distinction between the teleological argument which says ‘the fact that the universe exhibits order implies design, and therefore a creator’ and the argument from first cause - ‘the fact that the universe exists demands a prime cause, i.e. God.’

Full disclosure: I agree with Norwood about the necessity of God, I just don't find the teleological argument persuasive.

Castro Death Watch

For years Augusto Pinochet and Fidel Castro have been waiting to see the other’s coffin lowered into the ground. It now looks as though Pinochet will win the contest. Castro's impending death should be a cause of celebration: the fewer bloodstained dictators there are in the world, the better.

Castro is a tyrant who has murdered thousands. In Cuba there are no elections, no independent political parties, no independent media and no economic freedom. Cubans in Miami are already on the streets celebrating, but they could be in for a disappointment.

Even if Castro dies tomorrow, a free Cuba could still be distant. For instance when Kim Il Sung died in 1994, almost all outsiders thought that the regime would implode, but Kim Jong Il swiftly and seamlessly took power and is still going strong after a decade. Clever and ruthless, Kim had prepared for his father's death and spent years wiping out out all opposition to himself in the party hierarchy. We now have an analogous situation with Castro and his brother Raul. Castro doesn’t want his revolution to die with him and he and Raul have had decades to meticulously plan the succession.

The only scenario I can foresee for a quick transition to democracy is if some other apparatchik makes a try for the top job and launches a coup d’etat which leads to civil war and a U.S. invasion. But if Raul can establish himself, then nothing will have changed. The nightmare in North Korea over the past decade suggests that a doomed regime can hang on for a long time, there is a great deal of ruin in a nation. North Korea and Cuba must collapse eventually, but that might not be until half the population starves to death.

Gandhi in Gaza

In the war between Israel and Hezbollah, I am with Israel. Hezbollah stands for cruelty, atavism, fanaticism and tyranny. Hezbollah is the antithesis of all that is good and true. This is the barbarism that we have been fighting since 2001; Israel stands for civilisation and liberty.

Just think how rare, how fragile, how precious, how hard won is this civilisation that you and I have the luck to live in. Are you envious of lottery winners? You and I have already won a lottery with a much bigger jackpot. The couple of million dollars that separates you and me from a Powerball winner is nothing compared with the gap between us and most of mankind throughout history, even most of mankind today. Israel is one of the tiny number of societies that have climbed out of the primeval darkness and into the light. I’m not talking about mere wealth and the technological sophistication of a society here. Saudi Arabia is barbarous no matter how many satellite dishes and fast-food restaurants it has.

Reasonable people can differ over tactics and strategy, how far the Israelis should go in avoiding civilian casualties, whether their responses are ‘proportionate’ (yawn) or not. But if Hamas and Hezbollah are on one side, all reasonable people must be on the other.

Though I would criticise some Israeli actions, in the face of the Islamists I am pro-Israel by default. I suspect many others are as well. Islamist terrorist groups hurt the Palestinians, pushing many who could perhaps be more sympathetic to their cause to line up behind Israel. If the Palestinians desire peace there is an obvious solution.

Israel occupies Palestine because the Israelis believe their security requires it. The Palestinians have it in their power to end the forced evictions, checkpoints, roadblocks, collateral damage, all the undeniable hardships caused by the occupation. If the Palestinians were really interested in achieving a peaceful two-state solution rather than in destroying Israel, then they should adopt Mahatma Gandhi’s ‘passive resistance’ that he used in the 1930s and 40s against British rule in India.

If the Palestinians renounced terrorism and launched a massive campaign of strikes, civil disobedience, all the stunts that Gandhi pulled, then they could easily get Israel back to the 1967 borders. Instead of young men with suicide belts, AK-47s, Molotov cocktails and stones, people of all ages and both sexes chanting, singing, condemning all violence and not hitting back when arrested or beaten or water-cannoned.

Gandhi’s ‘passive resistance’ will not work against a government that executes dissidents and controls the news, as the opposition is exterminated before anyone knows it even exists. For example, when Gandhi and his followers lay in front of a British train, the train would stop. If the Jews had lain in front of a train driven by the Nazis, the train would have driven over the lot of them, then reversed back over.

Israel already labours beneath the condemnation of the EU, the UN and the chattering classes everywhere, while faced with an enemy as foul and merciless as a viper. If a ‘Palestinian Gandhi’ emerged, the international pressure to negotiate would become irresistible. Few Israelis ever wanted a Greater Israel, and most would embrace any prospect of a genuine peace.

The Palestinians have the luxury of facing a civilised, conscientious enemy, the only kind on whom Gandhi’s techniques can work. I think that the failure of the Palestinians to even try this ‘civil disobedience’ shows the Palestinians will be satisfied only when they have swept the Jews into the sea.

The Organ

I've just got back from playing on one of the best organs in Australia. I've never played on a great organ before. It was exhilarating, tremendous, breathtaking - I'm almost drunk from the experience. I'm sorry, I'm babbling. But it was wonderful.

All right, stop. Deep breath. Start from the beginning.

A neighbour of mine is an organist. He has a miniature pipe-organ (about 12 feet high) in his house, and sometimes invites me over to play it. I was having one of these sessions on Monday when he offered to take me to play on the organ at St. xxxxx’s, where he serves as the organist. Last night I had trouble sleeping from the excitement, like the night before Christmas. It was very kind of him, but then we've got on well ever since they first moved in thirteen years ago. I was hanging out in the street, indifferently watching the furniture-movers unload furniture from the truck into the house, when I saw it. Sitting in the back of the truck was a harpsichord (his wife plays professionally). Ever since I’d discovered Wanda Landowska, I’d had no greater ambition than to play a harpsichord – but they’re not easy to find. The gods had smiled on me.

I waited, my heart pounding, until I was alone in the street, then ran over and started playing. His wife rushed out, fearing that I’d damage it, but listened and realised I was playing the Prelude in C major from Book One of the Well-Tempered Klavier, not ‘Chopsticks’, and stopped. I finished the prelude and played the fugue. Then we got into conversation and made each other’s acquaintance.

Anyway, since Monday I’ve spent all my spare time practicing my piano in preparation for tonight. Sorry for the lack of posting, if it matters to anyone. (Regular posting will start again now.)

A brief note on organs. Pipe organs produce sound by pumping air into metal and wood pipes. A typical organ has three or four keyboards and a pedalboard. A pedalboard is just like a piano’s keyboard, but played with the feet. The keyboards and pedal boards can be connected to different sets or ‘ranks’ of pipes with controls called ‘stops’. For instance if I play middle C with the vox humana stop out, then, inside the organ, the bellows will pump air into the unique pipe that produces middle C in vox humana, causing it to sound. Each rank has a different sound. The ‘trompette a chamade’ rank is brassy, while the ‘diapason’ is smoother and reedier. Some stops (e.g. Grand Orgue) activate several ranks at once, so that playing a single key may make six pipes work simultaneously, all the sounds blending into a single note.

A big organ will have thousands of pipes. Suppose an organ has a range of seventy notes and seventy ranks, and each rank covers all the total range. Then the organ will have 70 times 70 pipes = 4900. These pipes can range from an inch to 64 feet in length, from wooden boxes to the majestic, graceful flue pipes that you’re used to seeing on the outside of organs. Normally the ugly ones are hidden behind them, which is why most people don’t realise they exist. There’s a modern fashion for displaying the ugly ones too, rather like the ridiculous Centre Pompidou in Paris that has the sewage pipes on the outside. But not the organ I played tonight.

[end note on organ structure/] (For more information, go read Wikipedia.)

This evening my host and I went over to St. xxxxx‘s. My host put on his organ shoes and spent a few minutes demonstrating the organ’s features, the stops and couplers (voix celeste, oboe, principal, rohrflote, gamba, bourdon, bombarde, trombone, etc.), the computer, all the bells and whistles.

A pianist playing the organ has to adjust to the organ’s unique features. When you press the piano’s keys softly, the sound is quiet; when you strike firmly, loud. This is why the pianist’s individual touch is so important. However, the intermediate mechanism of the organ means that the sound is identical whatever the touch. Notes can be emphasised only by indirect measures, e.g. slight anticipation and extension on the beat. Also, the organ will sustain sound as long as the key is depressed; on the piano it will die away. Added together, this forces the pianist who wishes to learn the organ to modify this entire hand action and pick up a new mindset.

The greatest hurdle is pedalling. The addition of the pedalboard means that you don’t have to use your hands to play the organ. Like novels written without the letter ‘e’, there are pieces written for the feet alone, but generally the feet and the hands play simultaneously. Mastering this coordination takes years; the occasional sessions I’d had on my host’s home organ haven’t been enough for it to ‘click’ for me.

Nevertheless, I played reasonably - mostly Bach - the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, some chorals, a stab at the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major, and a good deal of messing about with disjecta membra from other works.

Then it was my host’s turn. First he played Reger and a bit of Franck. Then Messaien. My host is an uber-Messaienic, and has made valiant attempts to convert me – which have failed. Messaien bores and nauseates me by turns. And I mean physical nausea. If you don’t believe me, go listen to the Turangalila Symphony. Or rather, don’t.

Then my host played two old warhorses, 'the' Widor and 'the' Gigout. Although Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937) and Eugene Gigout (1844-1925) were prolific organist-composers, to organists ‘the’ Widor or ‘the’ Gigout mean the Toccata from the Symphony for solo organ no. 5 op. 42 by Widor, and Gigout's Toccata in b. There are lots of examples of this immortality through a single work- Rodrigo and his Concerto de Aranjuez, for instance.

I hadn't ever heard ‘the’ Widor or ‘the’ Gigout in real life. Heard through speakers they’d left me cold, but now they swept me away. It wasn’t just the immediacy of a live performance, which applies to any music. It’s that the toccatas are show-pieces tailored to the immensity and majesty of an organ. They don’t have the musical depth of Bach, so they suffer when shrunken and reduced to tinniness on an iPod’s speakers. Postcards of a mountain and postcards of a flower are both copies of the real things, but we can still appreciate the flower’s fragile beauty but no longer quite feel the mountain’s epic grandeur.

The organ can be wistful, elegiac and intimate, but only the organ can resound and thunder like a force of nature. Man makes comparisons of scale by the only measure he has – himself. We are ‘bigger’ than the sound of violins, accordions, banjos and even the piano. The organ is bigger than us. It can dwarf us, swamp us like a tidal wave. That’s why, in one of the stock clichés of horror films, the villain plays the organ - only the organ can match the scale of his plans for world domination. The organ is the king of instruments.

My host finished up by playing the Prelude and Fugue in E flat major ‘Saint Anne’ and the Passacaglia and Fugue in c minor. Then he gave me a tour of the organ’s inside. And then it was all over….

I’m still on a high, I can’t sleep. I enjoyed it as much as a kid visiting a candy factory. Damn it, I should have screwed up my nerve and asked to go to St. xxxx ’s years ago.

Want a Bet?

I have a very left wing friend. To keep the peace we generally avoid 'sensitive' subjects. But this morning we broke our habit and started talking about Israel's incursion into Lebanon. I was shocked at what he said. Not at the usual apologies for terrorism, which I've heard before, but at his claim that the BBC was biased in favour of Israel.

The BBC?

Back in October 2004, the French airlifted the dying Yasser Arafat to a Paris military hospital where he was kept on life-support for a few days, while the PLO and Mrs. Arafat wrangled over his Swiss bank accounts. The BBC journalist covering the airlift wept.

I reminded him of this and said, "If the BBC is biased towards Israel, then BBC journalists would be more likely to weep for Ariel Sharon than for Yasser Arafat, wouldn't they? I wasn't at all suprised when that woman blubbed for Arafat, but I'm prepared to bet you 10 to 1, even 100 to 1, that no journalist at the BBC will weep when Sharon dies."

He refused the bet. Anybody out there who thinks the BBC is pro-Israel and prepared to take me up?


Sibelius has always been one of my favourite composers, and until recently I thought that I knew all his major works: the Symphonies (1-7), the tone poems (the Oceanides, the Swan of Tuonela, Tapiola, etc.) and the Violin Concerto. But I have just found an almost unknown work which contains some of the greatest music Sibelius ever wrote, a true neglected masterpiece.

Sibelius composed the tone-poem Skogsraet in 1894, based on a ballad by Viktor Rydberg. It was performed twice and then the manuscript was lost until 1996. It's only been recorded once, in 2001. Considering its quality, you would have expected it to have entered the repertoire of the major symphony orchestras, been recorded several times and become one of the most popular of Sibelius' works. But none of that has happened.


One problem, at least in the English speaking countries, has been the usual translation for 'Skogsraet' - 'Woodnymph' . This horrible title suggests a gauzy, Peter Pan, pretty-pretty, sentimental, insubstantial piece. (Dvorak's tone poems have the same problem.)

Sibelius wrote two types of music. In his serious compositions, he tortured himself without regard for time or money to produce great music, heedless for anything except beauty. These are the works that are best known today, but they did not make enough money to support Sibelius and his family. To pay the bills, he dashed off light and fluffy music like Valse Triste and Valse Chevalaresque. 'Woodnymph' suggests the latter sort of piece. Outside Scandanavia, Sibelius is biggest in the Anglosphere, so the misleading title might be a factor in Skogsraet's neglect. Female Demon of the Woods would be a better title, but is terribly clumsy.

It's undeniable that, for all its inspiration, Skogsraet is repetitive and needs trimming. The manuscript not surfacing until 1996 has been another handicap. Most people I've spoken to are suprised at the idea that a work of so much richness, lasting over twenty minutes, could have been forgotten.

Sibelius himself, ironically, bears a good deal of the blame. Sibelius suffered all his life from alcoholism and depression. In his later years his output slowed and then stopped as he became creatively paralysed by self-criticism.

Sibelius' demons drove him to destroy the completed manuscript of the Eighth Symphony and many of his early works. It seems that Skogsraet and many other pieces only survived because he couldn't get his hands on their manuscripts. However, the mere fact that Sibelius removed Skogsraet from his published opus list appears to have convinced many people that the piece wasn't worthy of attention.

Going off on a tangent, they ought to have used Sibelius for the 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy, a good set of films with a forgettable sountrack. Take 'The Shining' or '2001' - average movies that most people remember for the music of Bartok, Ligeti and Strauss. When I saw the LOTR trilogy, I spent a lot of the time trying to mentally blank out the music and replace it with Sibelius. The dark brooding music at the end of Skogsraet would have been perfect for Sauron and the Land of Mordor; the repetition wouldn't have mattered in a film score.

In any case, Skogsraet is wonderful. Go get it.

Beneath the Skin

Writing my bit on the Porter essay I spent a deal of time flicking through old lives of the 'desert English', the soldier-administrators who built the Raj. Most of their biographers seemed to be the heirs of Parson Weems, famous for his story of Washington and the cherry tree. They make their subjects more like heroes of a boy's adventure story, or plastic figurines of a superhero (with no genitalia) than real men. But when John Martineau in his life of Sir Bartle Frere assured me that he searched in vain for a flaw in the man and found none, that I threw up my hands. I wanted to read a different sort of book by a different sort of man.

Sir Richard Burton was an explorer, soldier, writer, translator, and an extraordinary linguist. According to his own claim, he could 'salute the rising sun in fifty languages'. He disguised himself as a Pashtun medicine-man, entered Mecca and made the Hajj, discovered Lake Victoria and scandalised Victorian society by his disregard for convention and traditional morality. He translated the Kama Sutra and the complete Arabian nights (16 volumes). He claimed to have commited 'every sin in the Decalogue', and when a Victorian Mama asked him what his intentions were towards her daughter replied 'Strictly dishonourable, Madam'. No one has ever tried to turn Burton into a plaster saint.

The book I picked up was his Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah, the story of how he travelled to Mecca, where only Muslims are allowed. If he had been unmasked as a European, he would have been killed for sacrilege. When I was a kid I imagined copying Burton. But, unlike the swarthy short Burton, my appearance would count against me and the growing number of Western converts, or 'reverts', to Islam has spoiled this little game. It's too easy now.

The thing that depresses me most when I think about the Global War on Terror (yes, it is a war, and one we must, must, win) is that I can't even imagine how we could win it. We could win World War II by invading Germany and killing Hitler. But in this war against the jihadists, there is no Central Command to bomb, no regular armies to defeat, no enemy leader whose death remove the threat. Israel can and must destroy Hezbollah as an armed force, but another such organisation will just take its place. There are millions and millions of Arabs who want 'Death to Israel and America', and we can't win without somehow changing their hearts and minds.

Burton had a definite goal he wanted to reach, the Ka'aba. In the Cold War, we were facing the Red Army. There was a global communist conspiracy and it had an organisation and a headquarters. When the USSR collapsed, that was the end of the communist threat. We were not left facing hostile millions who still wanted communism. But if the Saudi royals were overthrown, the population would still be as hostile as before. Compare out situation with the plot of John Buchan's silly but gripping novel Greenmantle:

SPOILER ALERT: During World War I, the Germans try to launch a pan-Islamic Jihad against Britain by enlisting a prophet to unite the entire Islamic world. The prophet dies of cancer, so the plan is abandoned. END SPOILER ALERT.

If Osama bin Laden died of renal failure tomorrow, what would it change? There are jihadis in Waziristan and in the capitals of the West. They are Shia and Sunni, rich and poor, some illiterate and some with graduate degrees, some who have never seen an infidel in the flesh and some who have lived amongst us their whole lives.

I remember September 12th 2001. At my school, even the hard core leftists were in shock, but one kid calmly said that America deserved it. I'll call him Mehmet. I often think of him. He was intelligent, he came from Turkey, the nearest thing to a secular, humane state in the Muslim world. He lived in Australia, as near as men have come to an ideal society, was attending the most prestigious school in the entire state, socialised every day with non-Muslims, and it hadn't changed a thing.

I thought I'd known Ahmed, just as Burton's companions on his pilgrimage had thought they knew who that Afghani, Abdullah, was. Mehmet and I started at the school on the same day, sat next to each other in class, had chatted many times. I'd assumed, without even noticing I'd assumed, that because we were superficially the same, fundamentally we were the same; just as the men surrounding Burton only saw the surface, and didn't realise how different he was beneath his henna-dyed skin.

Whenever I hear George Bush assure us that bringing 'democracy', 'hope' and 'freedom' to the Middle East will solve the problem of jihad, I think of Ahmed. We could make every Muslim government as democratic as Australia's, give every Muslim the wealth of the Saudi royal family and the Western education and exposure of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Mohammed Atta - and the problem would remain.

The West has already seen off an ideology like Islamism. The victim culture, the desire to blame Jews and foreigners for one's own woes, the fantasies of global conquest and triumph, are all reminiscent of Germany in the 1920s and 30s.

One of the main causes of World War II was German resentment at the loss of World War I. It was a widespread belief that Germany had been stabbed in the back by a hidden conspiracy of Jews and Socialists. The Versailles treaty left hundreds of thousands of Germans in Eastern Europe in the new Slav nations, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Ukraine. Slavs were subhuman, peasants, animals. They were unfit to rule over Aryan Germans. The existence of Poland especially, like the existence of Israel, was intolerable.

Why were these ideas so popular with the German people before the war, and so unpopular after? Because the Allied victory killed the hard-core fascists who were fighting for the Third Reich - after we won, they were either dead or in Argentina. Because the war made the German people feel the cost of trying to conquer the world. What the Germans had done to the capitals of Europe was done to the cities of Germany. Nazism was no longer attractive.

There suggests a possibility for us. Islamism could similarly be rendered unattractive by winning a vast and total war in the Middle East, killing millions of Islamists and showing the remaining population the full might of America.

I don't think that any of you considers that acceptable.

But a nuke in Manhattan could change all that.

Hardest. Ever.

I've played piano since I was five years old. I used to be very keen and until I was fifteen fantasised about becoming a concert pianist. Condi Rice did too, until she realised she was heading for a lifetime of "listening to 13 year olds murder Beethoven". If you read this site, you can see that my mind is stuffed with useless facts, so maybe I could have made it as a musicologist (blehhh).

As it is, I just play for pleasure and don't feel guilty when I slack off. It's a perpetual delight to start noodling at the keys and forget the outside world. I've got a special affection for the music of the 19th-century virtuoso-composers; not just Liszt, but neglected ones like Alkan, Thalberg, Moszkowski, Arensky and Henselt.

The hours and hours I spent praticing as a kid gave me a reasonable technique, and I can usually handle anything a composer throws at me. I don't mean that I can play a passage instantly, but that I can learn to play it. Slowly and with mistakes at first, but gradually conquering the challenges. Anyone who's played a musical instrument will know what I mean. But this week I came across the hardest piece that I've ever seen. It's not hard because of tempo, arpeggios, octaves, leaps, or any of that stuff. It's an Etude by Saint-Saens 'pour l'independance des doigts'. And it is pure evil. Usually learning a very difficult piece is like running a marathon. Due to boredom or fatigue you mightn't make it to the end, but you know that every step you take gets you closer to the goal. This Etude is like trying to climb a glass mountain. Here's the first bar:

The entire piece follows the formula of the first bar. So what's the difficulty? Well, it's the notes marked in red. You're supposed to accent them so that the listener hears them as the melody. If you play piano, try it. You see now? If you don't play, it's difficult to explain. I've heard Piers Lane play this piece but I didn't realise at the time how difficult it was, as it sounds like a piece for seven year olds. I've been planning to get a lesson of Lane when he comes to Australia later this year, so I can ask him for tips then.

P.S. Yes, I know that this is a fluffy post. I'm trying to write something about Hayek and Mexico, but it just isn't coming together. After staring disconsolately for hours at the same few paragraphs, I worked at the Saint-Saens but got nowhere, so I wrote this. You can find the Etude (Op. 52 no. 2) here.

Porter's 'British and American 'Imperialisms' Compared'

Brian Porter has an essay 'British and American 'Imperialisms' Compared' up at the History News Network. Its argument is that American 'imperialism' is of a different nature to British imperialism, and that the USA won't succeed in fulfilling its goals in Iraq or Afghanistan. Talk of American imperialism need not be pejorative; Robert Kaplan, for instance, uses it approvingly. It is just a reflection of America's current role in the world. The major assertions of Porter's article aside, some points he makes seem disputable:

America can’t rule people like Britain could, because she doesn’t have a significant ruling class. Nineteenth-century Britain did. Though she had developed a profoundly capitalist economy (before America), and the middle class to go with it, she also retained a powerful pre-capitalist upper class alongside this, antipathetic to capitalism (‘trade’) to a large degree, and with some very un-capitalist values attached to it, like ‘paternalism’; which turned out to be well suited to governing Britain’s new possessions when they needed to be ruled. ... The USA doesn’t have this class. She largely jettisoned it when she let go of Britain in 1789. (The Southern slaveocracy probably comes closest; followed by the old north-eastern intellectual elite. But they are now shadows of their former selves.) Much of the mess she has clearly made of administering Afghanistan and Iraq stems from this. Bereft of a governing or ‘prefect’ class, she has had to get diplomats, businessmen, soldiers and (for pity’s sake!) academics to do it.

Porter seems to say that an aristocracy is necessary to run an empire effectively. He gives no justification for this extravagant claim. It's unlikely he agrees with Plato that the ability to lead is hereditary and that there's some caste that's 'born to rule'. So probably he means that a society will not have a sufficient number of 'leaders' to hold an empire together, unless there is some caste brought up in the belief that they're destined to be the leaders. This assertion is difficult to square with the fact there are countries without a hereditary ruling class that are at least as difficult to run as many British possessions were, and yet somehow hold together.

Porter is even wrong about the only example he cites. It wasn't the aristocracy that built the Raj, but the middle classes, the sons of lawyers, doctors, merchants, army officers and clergymen. Entrance to the Indian Civil Service was by examination. John Nicholson (who at 27 was worshipped as a God by the sect of Nikkulseynites) was the son of a doctor. William Hodson was the son of an archdeacon. Cecil Rhodes, the most successful of all imperialists, was a grammar school boy, the son of a country vicar. The outstanding soldier-administrators known as the 'desert English' were mainly Scots and Irish, not English and not aristocrats.

Also odd is Porter's suggestion that American imperialism is doomed to fail because, unlike British Imperialism, it relies on 'diplomats, businessmen, [and] soldiers'. What did the men who ruled India do? They did business for the East India Company, they acted as diplomats in their dealing with native rulers, as soldiers they fought for the company and later the Crown. I can't see how Porter is to defend his suggestion short of claiming that a nineteen year old shipped out from Britain already had a mysterious faculty for ruling the natives, like a hero of Plutarch or Livy.

If Porter softens his position to say that an empire requires a class of men steeped in patriotism, the martial virtues and a sense of divine mission, then America already has such a class - the white, evangelical Southerners who are disproportionately represented in the U.S. Army. This class is in fact very much like the 'desert English' - men like Nicholson, the Lawrence brothers or Shere who saw it as their mission to uplift India, who thought as Bush speaks. America, a country with far greater population and resources than Britain ever had, has more than enough Southern Baptists to run an empire.

Mathematics and Beauty

I remember the moment I discovered the astounding beauty of mathematics. I was eight years old and my father and I were cycling in the local park with him riding just behind me. I was amusing myself by mentally juggling with numbers, when suddenly I saw that the sum of the first n odd numbers ( 1 , 3 , 5 , 7 ...) is the nth square number ( 1 x 1 = 1, 2 x 2 = 4, 3 x 3 = 9, etc.). It was like a thunderclap - I was overcome by an intense feeling of transcendent beauty and elegance. It was as close to a mystical experience as I have ever had. It was as if I had penetrated into a hidden, mysterious world without the dirt and imperfection of the everyday one, had reached out and touched the sublime.

In my ecstasy I clamped the brakes, hard. Not having time to react, my father cannoned into me, and we both went flying. When we'd got ourselves and our bikes untangled, I wanted to talk about my 'find', but he wanted to talk about what the hell I'd thought I was doing.

From my coversation and reading, it seems that most people who get bitten by the maths bug can look back to a moment in their childhood when they 'got' it. Here is a passage from Bertrand Russell's memoirs:

At the age of eleven I began Euclid with my brother as tutor. This was one of the great events of my life, as dazzling as a first love. I had not imagined that there was anything so delicious in the world. ... From that moment, until Whitehead and I finished Principia Mathematica at the age of thirty eight, mathematics was my chief interest, and my chief source of happiness.

Or Paul Painleve, a French mathematician:

I remember weeping through excess of aesthetic delight, twice on the same day, some time in my fifteenth year. The first occasion was produced by the description in the Iliad of the parting of Hector and Andromache, the second was produced by the definition of acceleration given by Newton.

Well, he was French. The best known story of this kind is about Gauss, the greatest of all mathematicians, at the age of ten. His schoolteacher wanted to occupy his class of peasant boys for an hour and ordered them to find the sum of the numbers from one to one hundred, i.e. 1 + 2 + 3 + ... + 99 + 100. To the teacher's astonishment Gauss almost immeadiately wrote the answer down on his slate and sat back with a smile. He had noted that 1 + 100 = 101, 2 + 99 = 101, 3 + 98 = 101, ... 49 + 52 = 101, 50 + 51 = 101. There are altogether fifty such pairs, so the answer is 50 x 101 = 5050. Although the problem was a quite trivial one, there is in Gauss' neat insight a microcosm of all that mathematicians mean by the elegance of proof.

The morning after the bike ride, I had an experience common not only to mathematicians but to all research scientists at some time or other in their careers: the chagrin of being beaten to the punch, when my teacher told me my result had been known for several millenia. But this pettiness was minimal and fleeting, and in no way spoiled my pleasure at the beautiful thing I had discovered. A Babylonian had found it first, so what? I didn't want to own the result I'd found, anymore than you want to own a sunset. My joy wasn't even the joy of discovery, or of accomplishment. which are not restricted to the mathematician but known to all scientists or to anyone who solves a crossword puzzle or fits together a jigsaw. It had been, above all, an aesthetic experience.

For me, it truly was the ecstasy and devotion of a first love. From that moment on, I had only one desire - to learn more about mathematics. Love has faded since, as first love will, but we are still good friends.

Most people will find what I am saying bizarre and incomprehensible. Maths is just a dull school subject about arithmetic, cosines, rolling dice and hypoteneuses. Only a tiny number of people ever experience the sheer joy of mathematical beauty, and the great majority of people don't even know that it exists. This is a rather exceptional situation. The tone-deaf generally realise that there must be something in music they are missing, virgins grasp sex might prove enjoyable, the blind hear the sighted praise the beauties of nature; mathematical beauty is overwhelmingly a private preserve of mathematicians and the kids who will one day join the exclusive freemasonry themselves. In fact, forget mathematical beauty - most non-scientists don't realise that mathematics, as an independent branch of learning, even exists. Many who do simply assume that it is about programming enormous computers to do ever more enormous calculations.

When mathematicians say 'mathematics', they don't mean the school mathematics of counting, statistics or everyday geometry, the basic maths about the real world where we count apples, measure lengths and areas and gather analyse scientific data. They call that 'arithmetic'. School mathematics bears about as much resemblance to real mathematics as mythology bears to philosophy; not just richer, more complex, more sophisticated, but with different foundations, methods and nature. Mathematics is an art, one that deals with form and abstraction at their most general. It will always remain the preserve of the few.

Anyone can listen to music and start tapping their toes, but doing maths requires effort. Just doing maths is not enough, either. I'd been messing about with maths for years before stumbling into that enchanted garden I never knew existed. And although I enjoyed doing maths over the next few years and read widely, I didn't get the old feeling again with the same burning intensity until I started (much later) to read group theory and the theory of the infinite.

Russell made one of the best attempts to explain to the outsider the aesthetic of mathematics:

Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty -- a beauty cold and austere, like that of scupture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show.
All right, maybe you're sceptical of a lot of maths geeks claiming to be the custodians of sublime wisdom; what about the poet Novalis, who isn't in the trade union:

The Life of God is mathematics; all divine ambassadors must be mathematicians. Pure mathematicians is religion. Mathematicians are the only blessed people.

Postscript: For those readers who didn't get what I was saying about square numbers and odd numbers, the first square number is one, as one times one equals one. One is also the first odd number. So the first odd number equals the first square number. The second odd number is three. Add three to the one and you get four, which the second square number as it is equal to two times two. So the second square number is the sum of the first two odd numbers. The third odd number is five. Add the first three odd numbers together (i.e. one plus three plus five) and we get nine, which is the third square number as nine equals three times three. This pattern is true for all square numbers. In mathematical notation:

12 = 1

22 = 4 = 1 + 3

32 = 9 = 1 + 3 + 5

42 = 16 = 1 + 3 + 5 + 7

52 = 25 = 1 + 3 + 5 + 7 + 9 ,

62 = 36 = 1 + 3 + 5 + 7 + 9 + 11 .

Or more succinctly:

This image may also help:

(Images courtesy Wikipedia)

Kai Lung

I woke up at 3am last night and couldn’t get back to sleep. After an hour of tossing and turning I gave up the struggle, turned the light on and reached for an old favourite, Kai Lung’s Golden Hours.

Since The Wallet of Kai Lung was first published in 1900 the six Kai Lung books have maintained a small but devoted following. The series, written by an Englishman, Ernest Bramah (1868-1942), is a Chinese version of the Arabian nights. It consists of the picaresque wanderings of Kai Lung, an itinerant professional story-teller, his beloved Hwa-Mei, the depraved mandarin Shan Tien, the malignant secretary Ming Shu and the tales (said to be from the classics) that Kai Lung tells, generally to get himself out of some scrape. Kai Lung is the equivalent of Scheherazade, and his wanderings connect the chapters together. The books are a delightful pastiche, an hilarious fantasy of a China that never was (even if it ought to have been), one populated by devious, corrupt courtiers, elegant concubines, venerable magicians, poverty-stricken scholars, dragons, wily bureaucrats and benevolent deities. I was very young when I started on Bramah, and it was subsequently a disappointment when I found that this China was only the figment of the imagination of a suburban Englishman.

The books are the literary equivalent of the Brighton Pavilion, or the Chinoiserie style of furnishing in the 18th century, neither oriental nor occidental, but an amalgam of both. Just as Voltaire took the Arabian Nights and refined and burnished them before instilling his own genius, Bramah takes the old Chinese fairy tales and makes them art. Kai Lung will prove a delight for all those who enjoy Zadig, Babouc, Le Taureau Blanc or La Princesse de Babylone.

Edward Said would have condemned the stories as ‘orientalist’, but Bramah (who never visited China or even studied Chinese) parodies modern society and the European image of China rather than mocking the Chinese themselves, just as the contes of Voltaire and the Asterix strips were really about the France of the writers' time. The stories are perpetually amusing and neatly plotted, but Bramah’s special gift, like P.G. Wodehouse’s, was for language, and it is the language of Kai Lung that gives the books their unique charm and has won them their fanatic admirers.

Everyone from the Emperor to the meanest peasant speaks in a weird and wonderful parody of a European’s idea of formal Chinese speech, impossibly convoluted, self-deprecatory, mendacious, and euphuistic. When I read certain favourite passages, even after half a lifetime of repetitions, I want to claw myself with pleasure. Here is Kai Lung, held up by a bandit:

O illustrious person," said Kai Lung very earnestly, "this is evidently an unfortunate mistake. Doubtless you were expecting some exalted Mandarin to come and render you homage, and were preparing to overwhelm him with gratified confusion by escorting him yourself to your well-appointed abode. Indeed, I passed such a one on the road, very richly apparelled, who inquired of me the way to the mansion of the dignified and upright Lin Yi. By this time he is perhaps two or three li towards the east." "However distinguished a Mandarin he may be, it is fitting that I should first attend to one whose manners and accomplishments betray him to be of the Royal House," replied Lin Yi, with extreme affability. "Precede me, therefore, to my mean and uninviting hovel, while I gain more honour than I can reasonably bear by following closely in your elegant footsteps, and guarding your Imperial person with this inadequate but heavily-loaded weapon."


“It has been said,” he began at length, withdrawing his eyes from an unusually large insect upon the ceiling and addressing himself to the maiden, “that there are few situations in life that cannot be honourably settled, and without loss of time, either by suicide, a bag of gold, or by thrusting a despised antagonist over the edge of a precipice on a dark night.”


But, about this time, the chief wife of Wang Ho having been greeted with amiable condescension by the chief wife of a high official of the Province, and therefrom in an almost equal manner by the wives of even higher officials, the one in question began to abandon herself to a more rapidly outlined manner of existence than formerly, and to involve Wang Ho in a like attitude, so that presently this ill-considering merchant, who but a short time before would have unhesitatingly cast himself bodily to earth on the approach of a city magistrate, now acquired the habit of alluding to mandarins in casual conversation by names of affectionate abbreviation.


After secretly observing the unstudied grace of her movements, the most celebrated picture-maker of the province burned the implements of his craft, and began life anew as a trainer of performing elephants.

Bramah, with an endless flow of wit and an eye as sharp as Voltaire's, can keep this up for page after page without his invention flagging or his style becoming tiresome to the reader; the lofty and flowery sayings of the characters a contrast to their ruthlessly pragmatic actions. As with all the best fairy tales, good triumphs over evil, and the poor but virtuous hero overcomes mercenary father, wealthy rivals, and malignant demons to win the heroine.

Apart from the Kai Lung stories Bramah is best known for his contributions to crime fiction with his tales of Max Carrados, the blind detective, and his butler Parkinson. Carrados has the mind of Sherlock Holmes, while Parkinson has the observation. Bramah, an eccentric and recluse, also published a number of now forgotten novels and a work on numismatics, a subject which turns up in the Max Carrados story The Coin of Dionysus.

Three of the Kai Lung books are available online from Project Gutenberg (find ‘Bramah’), and four Max Carrados stories.

No Honesty Amongst Thieves

The crooks in Canberra who steal our money in ‘taxes’ are quarrelling over the spoils. If you don’t follow Australian politics, the Treasurer, Peter Costello, has announced that the Prime Minister, John Howard, cheated him over an agreement made in 1994 to hand over the leadership to Costello after two elections. There have been four elections since then, and Howard is still PM. Costello has effectively called his leader a liar and a swindler, which everyone knew already. I suppose that Costello wouldn’t have done that if he didn’t intend to try to topple Howard.

It's easy to forget that politics is just as much a competitive endeavour as sport. There is not a single member of parliament from Costello to the most junior backbencher who doesn’t want to be PM instead of Howard, just as the other pro tennis players want dethrone Roger Federer, but the nature of politics necessitates deception.

Wittfogel Reconsidered

The Qinghai-Tibet railway has opened, finally linking Tibet with the rest of China. It is a technological marvel. The track, at its greatest elevation, runs higher than base camp on Mount Everest so the air in the carriages must be hyperoxygenated. An even greater challenge was the building of the route over the extremely unstable permafrost. Deep shafts were sunk to support the track and to stop the ice melting, liquid nitrogen is continually circulated in specially laid pipes.

The whole thing cost a spectacular 3.2 billion US$ and won’t be economically viable, so why was it built?

Tibet undoubtedly needs development, considering the grinding poverty and squalor the Tibetans live in. The rich Westeners who praise the simple primitive existence obviously never knew relatives who had lived as peasants. Tibet was no paradise even before the Communists invaded. How many those who romanticise Tibet's past know that in 1951, 700,000 out of 1.25 million Tibetans were serfs? The Dalai Lamas were typical Oriental god-kings, with all that implies.

But the welfare of Tibetans railway is not why the railway was built. According to exile groups the railway has cost more than has been spent on Tibetan health and education in fifty years.

The usual explanation given in the foreign press is that the government hopes that via the raillink more Han Chinese migrants will settle in the region, and troops could be transported to Lhasa by it in the event of a Tibetan uprising. These are only partial explanations. There are already nearly 2 million Han in Tibet, and any rebellion would be doomed in advance.

Probably part of the reason is national pride. The current dictatorship, now that they have junked Marxism, try to solidify their rule by playing on the Chinese people’s traditional chauvinism and memories of the humiliations that the Europeans inflicted on China in the 19th century. For millennia, China was the only civilisation the Chinese knew of, and thus they assumed that it was the only one; the Emperor was said to rule ‘All under Heaven’ (tian1 xia4). There was nothing of interest outside China, just a few insignificant barbarian realms, all of whom paid allegiance to the Son of Heaven and whom the Chinese treated with contempt. The written characters for many racial minorities incorporated the sign for ‘animal’, and in 1793 the first British diplomatic mission to China almost failed when Lord Macartney refused to prostrate himself to the Emperor, symbolically recognising England as a vassal state.

Then, in the 1800s, the barbarous Europeans came and defeated Chinese armies, torched imperial palaces, imposed humiliating treaties and grabbed Chinese territories. The humiliation was profound, and the Chinese have still not mentally recovered. Even now, when an athlete wins an international gymnastics competition, when China launches its first astronaut into space, when Beijing hosts the Olympic Games, each achievement is viewed as a sign that China is wiping away the ‘century of humiliation’. To the Chinese leadership, an engineering triumph like the Tibetan rail link is just another step towards China taking its place as a great nation.

The gargantuan Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River is an even greater white elephant than the railway. Almost a million people were displaced during its construction and many sites of great cultural and archaeological significance submerged. The project’s economic and practical wisdom seems very doubtful. In an unprecedented move, a third of the Chinese rubber-stamp parliament opposed its construction; however it was pushed through by then vice-premier Li Peng, a hydro-electric engineer. He is considered an ideological hardliner and is believed to have been instrumental in ordering the tanks into Tiananmen Square in ’89. There is a strong case that several small dams would have done just as well as the vast one that is being constructed, but that wouldn’t have been as impressive.

Karl Wittfogel in his brilliant study Oriental Despotism proposed the idea of ‘hydraulic despotism’. Briefly, his theory was that geographical conditions in ancient Egypt, China, Central America and India necessitated the construction of huge irrigation works to make the land fertile. The building (by slaves), maintenance and administration of the dams required a large and powerful bureaucracy, which was why these societies became ‘bureaucratic despotisms’.

Wittfogel was right that a land that requires massive engineering works to render it arable will acquire a totalitarian bureaucratic state to manage them. But the reverse is true as well. A despotism that controls all aspects of its population’s lives will find ‘geoengineering’ (engineering projects that reshape the geography of entire regions) no less attractive than social engineering. A statist, bureaucratic mind that views people as raw material to be used like coal or steel for a larger end, rather than self-owning individuals with their own telos, and believes that society must be planned, rationally constructed and above all controlled, won’t be restrained by any fear of hubris when trying to work on an even bigger scale.

In Cambodia in 1975 the Khmer Rouge launched the most ambitious programme of social engineering of the 20th century. The old society was to be destroyed, and an entirely new, ‘pure’ society created in its place. It was not 1975 anymore, but Year Zero. The urban population was sent into the countryside, the educated classes were exterminated, libraries and temples destroyed, money abolished, and the borders sealed. By 1979, when the regime fell, one in four Cambodians had died. The leaders’ vision was for a combination of Marxism with a revival of the ancient Khmer empire, whose god-kings used slave labour to build a vast irrigation system and the giant temple complex of Angkor Wat. The Khmer Rouge’s programme was taken from a doctoral thesis that Khieu Samphan, the president of the presidium, had written in 1959. Rice would be the main crop across all of Cambodia, now watered by a massive network of dams, reservoirs and canals. The millions of former city dwellers were to provide the manpower to build all this, before they were killed. However much of Cambodia was unsuitable for the cultivation of rice and mass starvation resulted.

Saddam Hussein, having crushed the revolts launched against his regime after the 1991 Gulf War, punished the rebellious Marsh Arabs by diverting the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and turning their land into a desert, like an Assyrian king salting the land of a defeated enemy.

The idea of global engineering found a favourable environment in the former USSR. Stalin’s colleagues (for example Khrushchev) considered engineering the ideal profession for their children. (Not politics, too dangerous.) There was great enthusiasm for enormous hydroelectric projects and industrialisation campaigns, to whose catastrophic environmental consequences the nomenklatura were indifferent. For instance, for decades the Aral and Caspian Seas have been drying up due to excessive amounts of water from the inflowing rivers being dammed and used for agriculture, creating one of the largest ecological catastrophes in history. But the environmental problems left behind after the collapse of communism seem trivial compared with the risks of some other projects seriously considered.

In the 1970s the USSR’s Ministry of Electricity gave its approval to the construction of a dam 78 metres high and 60km long which would have produced an artificial sea the size of the U.K. As well as generating hydro-electric power, the aim was to alter the entire climate of Western Siberia, via an intricate set of climatological dominoes, and render the region arable. If this project hadn’t died in bureaucratic inertia, they might have moved on to some of the even more fantastic schemes mooted. It was genuinely hoped to dam the entire Bering Straits, which separate Alaska and Russia, in order to melt the polar icecaps and make Northern Canada, Russia and even the Sahara Desert fertile. Other methods of warming the Artic and greening were also proposed.

What these disparate examples suggest (to me) is that totalitarian regimes will be prone, not just to hideous pseudo-classical monuments and loyalty parades, but to vaultingly ambitious and ecologically disastrous plans to remould the face of the planet with colossal engineering plans.

Postscript: One last thought: perhaps certain scientific fields, because of their subject matter, general working assumptions, research methods or other factors may be more likely to make their practitioners view humans as resources rather than individuals, machines rather than souls and give them a corresponding bent towards totalitarian politics. On the other hand, perhaps some scientific disciplines appeal to those who find such worldviews attractive in the first place. Or, as George Orwell noted in the late 1940s of a gaggle of British Stalinist scientists: ‘Why are they all biochemists?’

Suicide Bombings

Having read this post at Philosophy, et cetera on terrorism, I suggested in the comments that the crucial distinction in Kamm's enemy analogy is whether or not it is necessary to kill.

A tangential issue is that of Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel. In the West it is generally assumed that suicide bombings are an unjustifiable and barbarous violation of the conventions of war (jus in bello). In the Islamic world, clerics like Al-Qaradawi defend the bombing of Israeli restaurants, cinemas, and buses by arguing that as Israel has universal conscription, most Israelis are not civilians; therefore it is acceptable to target Israelis qua Israelis. Disturbingly, I can’t think of a good counter argument.

Some bad counter arguments:

1) Israel is in the right, the Palestinians in the wrong.

There is a fundamental distinction between judging an act permissible under jus in bello and sympathising with its motivation. I am pro-Israel (with some reservations), and thus am against attacks on Israelis. However: In the case of World War One, I am pro-Allied but nevertheless don’t think every soldier of the Central Powers who killed an Allied soldier was a murderer. It should be possible to be pro-Israel, while conceding that the Palestinian people consider themselves to be at war with Israel. Whatever one’s sympathies in the conflict, a Palestinian who kills an Israeli soldier should not be considered a murderer as he would be if he killed the Israeli to rob him.

2) Suicide bombings kill babies and the old, who are obviously non-combatants.

Of course the thought of dead babies and white haired grandmothers with their legs blown off is horrible. But if we were unwilling ever to kill a baby, we would be total pacifists. Almost everyone accepts that defeating Hitler justified killing some babies along the way, and the Israelis themselves kill babies as collateral damage.

3) But the Israelis try to minimise collateral damage, while Hamas deliberately targets civilians.

Now we get to the crux of Al-Qaradawi’s argument. Almost all Jewish males and two thirds of Jewish females between the ages of 18 and 45 are completing their three years of army service, or are reservists who do up to a month’s service a year. Suppose a bomb goes off at an Israeli nightclub. The ultra-Orthodox, who get exempted, and the old aren’t going to be there so the great majority of casualties will be persons on active service or in the reserve; although not in uniform at the instant the bomb goes off.

4) But most won’t be front line soldiers.

By convention any soldier is considered a combatant, whether a quartermaster or a paratrooper.


Suicide Bombings continued

5) But, even under this definition of combatants, there will still be non-combatant casualties.

It’s all a question of numbers, even the U.S. and Israel kill civilians. In most wars civilians are the majority of casualties. A tactic that kills 10 civilians for every 1 combatant killed would be unacceptable; but on the other hand 10 combatants dead for every one civilian killed would be acceptable, indeed it would be a great improvement over the past. It seems that the combatant/non-combatant kill ratios for Palestinian suicide bombings are not much worse than other tactics historically considered acceptable.

War is inherently messy, and you’re inevitably going to kill people you don’t want to. Since World War I about one in every six American war deaths has been caused by friendly fire.

The Palestinians could confine themselves to targeting Israelis only when armed and uniformed. But why should they be expected to? From the Palestinians’ point of view suicide bombings are an efficient way of attacking a far stronger foe.

It is even arguable that Palestinians could be justified in deliberately targeting Israelis below military age- babies too, as they will grow up to be Israeli soldiers. Now even in a war for civilisation like that the Allies fought against Hitler, it was unacceptable to deliberately target German babies, because whatever the outcome of the war, no one seriously imagined that it would be going in twenty years when the baby would have become a soldier. But the Israelis and the Palestinians have been fighting for half a century. An Israeli newborn in 1988 would be in the IDF now, and a Palestinian in 1988 would have had reasonable grounds for believing that the baby would one day grow up to fight him. So why would the baby not be a legitimate target?

It might be argued that babies have not yet made the choice to join the Israeli army and could theoretically become conscientious objectors. But this is all rather far-fetched; one can’t treat an enemy as an individual in a war.

6) What if this happened in Australia?

Australia has a very small, professional army, and no conscription, so the arguments above don’t apply.

7) How convenient.

Honestly, I’m pro-Israel, and would be grateful to anyone who thought of a valid reason to condemn suicide bombings.

Night Thoughts

Which one of the 'Great Philosophers' would make the best blogger?

Socrates, of course, would be good, and would've spent a lot of time in the comments threads.

Plato would've hated blogging. He is supposed to have written the first paragraph of The Republic seventy times. A blogger has to produce regularly and must sacrifice quality for quantity. Obsessive revision is impossible. If you spend all morning taking a comma out and all afternoon putting it back in your audience forgets you. A blogger has to continually toss out fresh ideas, one after the other. Good, bad, who cares? The readers can always skip to the next post. So what if you cringe with embarrassment when reviewing your old posts? No one reads them. Lastly, blogging is ideally a conversation, and Plato preferred to preach.

Aristotle? The kind of professor who dumps all of his course notes on his website, with no consideration for entertainment and prose style. Uses the internet to look up on-line databases, that's all.

Montaigne? Not a philosopher, strictly speaking, but I could picture him posting his essays from the Ivory Tower. But Montaigne wouldn't have taken full advantage of the internet as the vast majority of his references are to authors dead for a millenium or more; fairly few, even by the standards of the day, are to contemporaries. Few links, and probably wouldn't even have kept a blogroll.

Kant? Regrettably there is only a certain amount of intellectual meat that can be packed into a blog post. One can't really talk about technical issues above the faculty lunch chit-chat level on a blog. This and Kant's impenetrable prose style would have been a great handicap. On the other hand his punctilious habits would have made for regular posting. If the citizens of Koenigsberg could set their clocks by his morning walk then we could have been assured of getting our daily dose of Kant.

That fraud Hegel? No. Blog readers want to be entertained. Hegel is read out of the mistaken belief that he is 'important'. Blog readers are never under the delusion that a particular blog is 'important'.

Wittgenstein? Well of course not. The kind of philosopher who gets one Big Idea and then broods over it, fiddling with it for years or decades wouldn't do any better at blogging than a marathon runner in the sprints.

Russell? Voltaire? Hume? I don't doubt but that all of them would have taken to blogging if they had put their minds to it, but blogging would have perfectly fitted one man:


We've all met Schopenhauers on the internet. The cranky loner, the brilliant eccentric who doesn't talk physically to another human being for days on end, on the borderline of lunacy and genius. The internet would have been perfect for Schopenhauer.

When The World as Will and Representation was published in 1818 Schopenhauer thought that he had solved the fundamental problems of philosophy. He expected that the world would acknowledge his genius and the discovery that no one was interested in reviewing, responding or even reading his book astounded him. Nowadays Schopenhauer would've followed the usual course for an unsung genius and self-published on the web. Then he would've started posting articles, more and more regularly, and finally a weblog. I imagine that someone at the Volokh Conspiracy would've started to link to him (all Schopenhauer's early fans were lawyers), and soon he would have been well launched.

And he would have been a success. Schopenhauer has always been one of the most-read philosophers amongst educated non-academic readers because of his coruscating style, his brilliant wit and the range of his thought- music, crime, novels, architecture, and other subjects which philosophers generally don't touch. Of course amateurs also like it for its non-technical nature (which makes it less often studied by academics) and the philosophy itself is mostly nonsense, but amusing nonsense- just like blogs.

The essays in Parerga and Paralipomena (how's that for a blog title?) would make perfect blog posts. Schopenhauer used to read the newspapers (especially The Times) every day and his works are full of anecdotes taken from the journals. Isn't that perfectly like a blogger? Short posts made up of links to a couple of newpaper articles barbed with a few witty remarks to fill out the time while he taps out a longer essay- the blogger who posts heavier content has to leaven it with some light ephemera.

Even Schopenhauer's faults fitted him for blogging. However absurd his speculations he is constantly thought provoking. His mind was always bubbling with speculations; as Karl Popper said, there are more interesting ideas in Schopenhauer than in any other philosopher. True, many of them are so outlandish that it's hard to credit anyone believing them - that clever people are bad at maths, that we inherit our intelligence from our mothers and our characters from our fathers, that men of genius are short, etc., but we don't have to agree with someone always to find them interesting.

A blogger will, unavoidably, become repetitious over time. One can't think of a totally new topic every day of the week, so the blogger has to return to his hobby-horses. Most first-time readers only look at the first few entries anyway, so repeating material lets them get a fair view of the site. One of the annoyances when reading Schopenhauer is his tendency to write the same thing over and over again. In Parerga and Paralipomena especially this repetitiousness reaches an extraordinary degree, which the blog reader can easily solve by using the PgDn key.

Finally, the most important skill of all: invective. The ideal blogger has to be skilled in the 'vituperative arts'. Flamewars, rants typed all in caps, trolling, blogfeuds - these things give the internet its spice. The freedom under cover of a pseudonym to insult another pseudonym, to be liberated from the constraints of honour and decency, to escape the normal consequences of boorishness and rudeness is extremely refreshing; we all need an occasional cathartic Saturnalia. Schopenhauer was naturally well equipped for this; just consider what he wrote like this in his published works what would he have done in a comments thread?

Hegel ... a commonplace, inane, loathsome, repulsive and ignorant charlatan, who with unparalled effrontery compiled a system of crazy nonsense that was trumpeted abroad as immortal wisdom by his mercenary followers, and was actually regarded as such by blockheads ...

First Fichte and then Schelling, both of whom were not without talent, but finally Hegel, that clumsy and nauseating charlatan, that pernicious person, who completely ruined and disorganised the minds of an entire generation...

[Idealist philosophy is] a prostitute who for shameful remuneration sold herself yesterday to one man, today to another...