History

Calculating Easter

Thursday, 17 April, 2014 0 Comments

One of the most fascinating figures in the history of Easter is Nicholas of Cusa, a lawyer from Trier and a true Renaissance man, whose driving ambition propelled him all the way up from a non-noble birth to being made a cardinal by Pope Eugenius IV.

Nicholas established his reputation at the Council of Basel, which began in 1431 and went on for 18 years. He arrived in the Swiss town to argue the case of the disputed bishopric of Trier but made history by helping to broker an agreement in a bloody dispute between Rome and the Hussites. Then Nicholas turned to a matter that required enormous competence in law, mathematics and religious observance: the calendar. As John Mann writes in The Gutenberg Revolution:

Nicholas of Cusa “The Church was deeply concerned with the calendar because of the need to calculate the date of Easter. A thousand years before, the Council of Nicaea, laying out the ground rules of Christian practice, had decreed that Easter should fall on the Sunday following the full moon following the vernal equinox, one of two dates (in spring and autumn) on which day and night were of equal length. But the calendar of the time contained two errors. It’s year (365.25 days) was 11 minutes and 8 seconds too long, which over 1,000 years amounted to seven days; and the calculations that predicted the lunar cycle were way out as well. Actually, Roger Bacon, philosopher and scientist, had pointed this out seventy years before, but it was considered so intractable a problem that the papal authorities averted their eyes. In his De Reparatione Calendarii (On Revising the Calendar), presented to the Council in 1437, Nicholas expertly reviewed the evidence and proposed the only possible remedy: to adopt a new lunar cycle, leave out a week in the calendar — he suggested Whitsun, because it was a moveable feast and the general public wouldn’t notice — and then, as a final piece of fine tuning, omit a leap year every 304 years. This would have to be done not only with the agreement of the Greeks in Constantinople, because the were co-religionists, but also of the Jews, who would bear the brunt of revising all financial agreements.”

Given the fractured state of the church at the time, nothing was done, however. Reform had to wait for another 80 years when Pope Gregory XII introduced the “Gregorian” calendar, as we now know it. Still, the structure that measures our years and guarantees sweet indulgences in Spring owes an enormous debt to Nicholas of Cusa.


Huntington and the Clash of Civilizations in Ukraine

Thursday, 20 March, 2014 0 Comments

In 1993, Samuel Huntington put the cat among the international relations pigeons with an article in Foreign Affairs magazine titled speculatively “The Clash of Civilizations?” He expanded it to book length and it was published in 1996 as The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. The book was immediately condemned by the multi-cultural complex because of its staunch defence of Western values, but its stock rose significantly after 9/11 as people woke up to the reality that the new, anti-Western barbarians were already at the gates.

Huntington makes a number of recommendations to save Western civilization, including restraining “the development of the conventional and unconventional military power of Islamic and Sinic countries.” But he also urges the West “to accept Russia as the core state of Orthodoxy and a major regional power with legitimate interests in the security of its southern borders.” When it comes to today’s politics, it’s worth examining how Huntington stacks up two decades after his initial analysis, especially regarding Russia.

Stalin In chapter 7, which deals with “Core States, Concentric Circles and Civilizational Order”, he looks at “Russia and its Near Abroad” and lays out several scenarios for Ukraine, “a cleft country, with two different cultures.” Its “civilizational fault line between the West and Orthodoxy runs through its heart and has done so for centuries” says Huntington and he suggests that “Ukraine could split into two separate entities, the eastern of which could merge with Russia.” He also quotes a Russian general as saying, “Ukraine or rather Eastern Ukraine will come back in five, ten or fifteen years. Western Ukraine can go to hell!” This leads him to conclude: “Such a rump Uniate and Western-oriented Ukraine, however, would only be viable if it had strong and effective Western support. Such support, is, in turn likely to be forthcoming only if relations between the West and Russia deteriorated seriously and came to resemble those of the Cold War.”

And here we are 2014, where relations between the West and Russia have deteriorated seriously and talk of a new Cold War fills the air. Huntington rewards reading.


#web25

Wednesday, 12 March, 2014 0 Comments

“By design, the Web is universal, royalty-free, open and decentralised. Thousands of people worked together to build the early Web in an amazing, non-national spirit of collaboration; tens of thousands more invented the applications and services that make it so useful to us today, and there is still room for each one of us to create new things on and through the Web. This is for everyone.” Sir Tim Berners-Lee


Kasparov checkmates Putin

Monday, 10 March, 2014 0 Comments

Garry Kasparov, the former World Chess Champion and considered by many to be the greatest chess player of all time, is not just a passionate opponent of Vladimir Putin, he’s a multimedia opponent of Vladimir Putin. Along with using Twitter to rebuke the Russian leader on an hourly basis, he’s on TV, the radio and in the traditional press. “Cut Off the Russian Oligarchs and They’ll Dump Putin” is what he wrote on Friday in the Wall Street Journal. “Use banks, not tanks,” is his advice. Snippet:

Thanks to their unfettered access to Western markets, Mr. Putin and his gang have exploited Western engagement with Russia in a way that the Soviet Union’s leaders never dreamed of. But this also means that they are vulnerable in a way the Soviets were not. If the West punishes Russia with sanctions and a trade war, that might be effective eventually, but it would also be cruel to the 140 million Russians who live under Mr. Putin’s rule. And it would be unnecessary. Instead, sanction the 140 oligarchs who would dump Mr. Putin in the trash tomorrow if he cannot protect their assets abroad. Target their visas, their mansions and IPOs in London, their yachts and Swiss bank accounts. Use banks, not tanks.


Dreams and nightmares of a Russian imperium

Thursday, 27 February, 2014 0 Comments

“History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” That’s what James Joyce has Stephen Dedalus say in Ulysses, and looking at this morning’s news, one gets the feeling that these are Joycean times. Consider this headline: “Armed men seize Crimea parliament and hoist Russian flag.” Now why would they do that? Because of history. In 1944, Crimea’s Tatars were forcibly deported to Central Asia by Stalin as a form of collective punishment for their supposed collaboration with the Nazis. A decade late, Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea to Ukraine, making it the only region of the country where ethnic Russians dominate. In such ways is the nightmare of history, with its memories, hatreds, borders and peoples made. According to the 2001 Ukrainian census, 58.5% of the population of Crimea were Russians, 24.4% were Ukrainians and 12.1% were returned Tatars. Given the fault-lines, this this not bode well for the future.

The Third Imperium Talking of the future, The Third Imperium is a futuristic novel by the Russian oligarch Mikhail Yuriev. It’s set in 2053, a time when Russia has withdrawn from all international organizations and revoked all international treaties. Thanks to this strategy, and the wise rule of a leader who is partly of Chinese origin, it’s doing better than ever. Provoked by the United States, it launches a preventive nuclear strike — although for humanitarian reasons only sparsely populated states such as Nevada and Utah are targeted. America retaliates with a massive counter-attack but since Russia is protected by its superb anti-missile shield, this has no effect at all. The Third Imperium, with its hints of The Third Reich, is triumphant.

Footnote: At the beginning of January, Bloomberg published a story that began: “Mikhail Yuriev, a former Russian politician and businessman, said he’s quitting Russia to invest in the U.S. energy industry where cheaper financing, better infrastructure and support for foreign businesses boost returns.”

Although they’re anti-Western to the core, today’s visionary Russians prefer capitalism to communism, but like their Chinese counterparts, they dream of a world that will be a nightmare for most of its inhabitants. Just take a look at Moscow, Beijing and Crimea.


Camelot

Friday, 22 November, 2013 0 Comments

Yes, there really was a Camelot upon the banks of the Potomac. Sure, it was a media construct, but it resonated with millions yearning for a sunnier alternative to the sombre uncertainty of the Cold War. The shots that rang out in Dallas on 22 November 1963, and the sudden death of the 46-year-old president, still echo down the decades and on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy we pause to take stock of one of the defining moments of modern history because nothing in the course of “the American century” marked it as profoundly as the killing of Camelot. RIP, JFK.

In short, there’s simply not
A more congenial spot
For happily-ever-aftering than here
In Camelot


JFK and 007

Thursday, 21 November, 2013 0 Comments

In March 1960, Ian Fleming had dinner with John F. Kennedy at the White House. In his book, The Life of Ian Fleming, John Pearson notes: “During the dinner the talk largely concerned itself with the more arcane aspects of American politics and Fleming was attentive but subdued. But with coffee and the entrance of Castro into the conversation he intervened in his most engaging style. Cuba was already high on the headache list of Washington politicians, and another of those what’s to-be-done conversations got underway. Fleming laughed ironically and began to develop the theme that the United States was making altogether too much fuss about Castro — they were building him into a world figure, inflating him instead of deflating him. It would be perfectly simple to apply one or two ideas which would take all the steam out of the Cuban.” Kennedy asked him what would James Bond do about Fidel Castro. Fleming replied, “Ridicule, chiefly.”

In March 1961, Hugh Sidey wrote an article in Life Magazine on JFK’s top ten favourite books designed to show that the president was both well-read and in touch with popular taste. The only work of popular fiction on the list was From Russia With Love. Up until then, Bond had not sold well in the US, but by the end of 1961 Ian Fleming had become the largest-selling thriller writer in America.

“The great trains are going out all over Europe, one by one, but still, three times a week, the Orient Express thunders superbly over the 1,400 miles of glittering steel track between Istanbul and Paris. Under the arc-lights, the long-chassied German locomotive panted quietly with the laboured breath of a dragon dying of asthma. Each heavy breath seemed certain to be the last. Then came another.” Ian Fleming, From Russia With Love

From Russia With Love


Islands divided: Northern Ireland, Northern Cyprus

Tuesday, 19 November, 2013 0 Comments

After the cataclysm of the First World War, Winston Churchill looked across the sea towards Ireland and noted, grimly: “The whole map of Europe has been changed … but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.” The steeples are still there, the dreariness persists and the hatred is tenacious.

Like Ireland, Cyrus is deeply divided. On 15 November 1983, the Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash proclaimed the unilateral independence of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and the resulting wound has scarred the island and its capital, Nicosia, ever since. At the weekend, the Famagusta Gazette stated: “The unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) proclaimed by the illegal regime in Turkish-occupied Cyprus is ‘null and void’, the Foreign Ministry stresses in a press release.” Reconciliation is not in sight and reunification is as unlikely as in Ireland.

In his video clip, “Nicosia — A timelapse”, Alex Cican presents the beauty and melancholy and energy of a divided island.


Celebrating the Pattern Day

Thursday, 15 August, 2013 1 Comment

The “pattern” or pátrún was celebrated in almost every parish in Ireland from the middle ages to the mid-20th century. Primarily, a religious event associated with the patron saint of holy wells, the Pattern Day was also an important occasion in the social calendar. “We whiled away the time by drinking whiskey punch, observing the dancing to an excellent piper, and listening to the songs and story-telling which were going on about us,” wrote Crofton Croker after attending the Pattern Day at Gougane Barra in West Cork in 1813. With daylight fading, the revellers, Croker included, retired to tents:

“As night closed in, the tent became crowded almost to suffocation, and dancing being out of the question, our piper left us for some other station, and a man, who I learned had served in the Kerry militia, and had been flogged at Tralee about five years before as a White-boy, began to take a prominent part in entertaining the assembly, by singing Irish songs in a loud and effective voice. These songs were received with shouts of applause, and as I was then ignorant of the Irish language, and anxious to know the meaning of what had elicited so much popular approbation, I applied to an old woman near to whom I sat, and found that these songs were rebellious in the highest degree. Poor old King George was execrated without mercy; curses were also dealt out wholesale on the Saxon oppressors of Banna the blessed (an allegorical name for Ireland); Buonaparte’s achievements were extolled, and Irishmen were called upon to follow the example of the French people.”

In 1834, the English author Henry Inglis visited Connemara and was invited to a Pattern Day at Maumean in the Maamturk Mountains:

“It fortunately happened, that on the second day of my sojourn at Ma’am, a very celebrated pattern was to be held, on a singular spot, high up amongst the mountains, on a little plain… on an elevation of about 1,200 feet… The ascent to the spot where the pattern was to be held was picturesque in the extreme, for up the winding way, for miles before us and for miles behind too, groups were seen to be moving up the mountainside — the women with their red petticoats, easily distinguishable; some were on foot, some few on horseback, and some rode double. About half way up, we overtook a party of lads and lasses, beguiling the toil of the ascent, by the help of a piper, who marched before, and whose stirring strains, every now and then prompted an advance in jig-time, up the steep mountain path.”

On arrival at the summit Inglis was invited into a tent where “the pure poteen circulated freely.” However, heated words were exchanged and a fight developed. Inglis describes the row, how five or six “were disabled: but there was no homicide.” Afterwards, “some who had been opposed to each other, shook hands and kissed; and appeared as good friends as before.”

In 1682, Sir Henry Piers attended a Pattern Day at a church on a hill overlooking Lough Derravaragh in County Westmeath noted that quarreling was very much part of pattern procedure:

“For ale sellers in great numbers have their booths here as in a fair and to be sure the merry bag-pipers fail not to pay their attendance. Thus in lewd and obscene dancing, and in excess drinking, the remainder of the day is spent as if they celebrated the Bacchanalia rather than the memory of a pious saint or their own penetentials; and often times it falls out that more blood is shed on the grass from broken pates and drunken quarrels when the pilgrimages are ended than was before on the stones from their bare feet and knees during the devotions.”

Let’s hope that today’s Pattern Day in Ballylanders will a peaceful and happy affair.

Pattern memories


Transparent Spanish idiocy

Monday, 5 August, 2013 0 Comments

Increasingly corrupt, dysfunctional and beset by regional tensions, Spain has gone from being the poster-child of the EU to one of its most troubled member states. At the height of the current crisis, unemployment was at 26 percent — youth unemployment was above 50 percent and, to add to the challenges, the authority of the government has been damaged by a party-funding scandal. Then there are the GUBU moments like Morocco agreeing to free 48 Spanish prisoners as requested by King Juan Carlos during his recent trip to Rabat. Turns out, though, that one of these was Daniel Galvan Vina, convicted of raping 11 children aged between four and 15 years of age. The Moroccans are not very happy about that.

Gibralter In an attempt to divert attention from this lamentable state of affairs, Spain, which is dependent on tourism income and goodwill, is contemplating imposing a new border tax on Gibraltar and to investigate the affairs of Gibraltans with Spanish economic interests. Spain is also considering closing its airspace to flights heading to the Rock. The latest strains emerged 10 days ago after Gibraltan boats began dumping concrete blocks into the sea near the territory. Gibraltar said it was creating an artificial reef that would to improve fish stocks which it maintains have been depleted by incursions by Spanish fishermen.

Spain claims sovereignty over Gibraltar, which stands on the southernmost tip of the Iberian Peninsula but has been a British Overseas Territory since the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The business with The Falklands didn’t work out well for Argentina and democratic Spain would be foolish to think that it can succeed where Franco once failed.


The New German Question does not have an Answer

Friday, 2 August, 2013 0 Comments

“The trouble with the German prescription for the eurozone is that it is — according to taste — either just not working or not working fast enough. One simple, theoretical point seems to me worth stressing. Germany, the export champion, has been described as Europe’s China. Just as not everyone in the world can be China, and if everyone were like China, China could not be China — for who would then buy its exports? — so not everyone in the eurozone can be Germany, and in the unlikely event that they did become like Germany, Germany could no longer be Germany. Unless, that is, you assume that the rest of the world would cheerfully expand its domestic demand to buy an all-German eurozone’s increased supply of exports.”

A witty, insightful snippet there from “The New German Question” by Timothy Garton Ash in the 15 August issue of the New York Review of Books. As Professor of European Studies at the University of Oxford, Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Timothy Garton Ash is well qualified to discuss German questions, old and new. The fact that he is one of the few English historians who speak German fluently and has spent years living in the country copper-fastens his authority on the issues. Unlike some of his English historian colleagues, however, Garton Ash is sympathetic towards and supportive of the German position in most matters, European and global. Not everyone in Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal or Ireland would agree with his conclusion: “Germany therefore needs all the help it can get from its European friends and partners. Only together can we generate the policies and institutions, but also that fresh breeze of poetry, to get the European ship sailing again. The answers to this new German question will not be found by Germans alone.”

This is a bit rich as Germany’s “European friends and partners” will have no say in the Bundestag elections on 22 September. Because they won’t be asked The New German Question, they cannot answer; they can only guess. And that’s Europe’s dilemma.

Germany