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I have been deeply dissatisfied by contemporary events…so much so that I am going to look away from our time and gaze back through classical antiquity to the Peloponnesian War…but bear with me. Some say there are lessons in history which pertain to current world. The definitive story of the Peloponnesian War is told by Thucydides, an Athenian general who took part in the proceedings and had the grace to explain why he wrote his history (and what he thought his biases were). Thucydides’ great work is arguably the first real work of history but it is also the first great work of political science. The way that leaders manipulated people and events and news turned out to have strange consequences that the protagonists did not foresee (but, in hindsight, clearly should have).
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The war is the story of a fading power being supplanted by a rival. The fading power, Athens, had unrivaled naval supremacy, but the upstart power, Sparta, had an enormous ever-victorious army. Athens had a league of close allies, the Delian league who supported them and were a great source of their strength (a fact not always appreciated by the proud Athenians). Many American theorists of the Cold War found these principal characters disturbingly familiar—a broad-minded yet imperialistic democracy versus an autocracy where all aspects of life were controlled by the state. Even the style of the nations seemed familiar—a nation based on wealth and trade and webs of friendship (and superior naval technology and prowess) versus a thuggish nation which ham-fistedly squashed its rivals into submission and dominated the battlefield through numbers and pure aggression.

Enough backstory. Let’s get to the central point. At the moral heart of the book is the story of the Siege of Melos.
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Melos (which should be familiar to sculpture fans as the discovery place of the Venus de Milo) was a small yet prosperous island originally colonized by Dorian people, who shared cultural heritage with the Spartans. Despite this cultural background, the Melians remained neutral in the war, until one day the Athenians showed up demanding punitive monetary tribute and other concessions. The Melians argued that they were neutral and Athens was in the wrong. Surely the Spartans (or perhaps the gods) would come to the rescue of Melos if the Athenians abused their military supremacy for a very slight monetary/strategic gain. The Athenians, who had lost some of their famed thoughtfulness through the exigencies of war and political struggle responded by laying siege to Melos. When starvation forced the little city state to surrender, the Athenians executed all of the adult men and took the Melian women and children as slaves. Afterwards, the island was repopulated entirely by Athenian colonists.
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This…lapse…shocked the people of Athens (Euripides’ agonizing “Trojan Women” which came out shortly afterwards is a story of the writer’s own time clothed in a story about a bygone age). The brazen, terrible behavior also shocked the allies of Athens. Perhaps that was actually the point: to remind recalcitrant allies that the Athenians were strong enough to be brutal and act for naked self-interest.
But, despite the ostentatious show of naked power, the conquest of Melos did not help Athens very much. In a world where Athens and Sparta seemed increasingly alike, the old alliances broke apart. Also, Athens was not as good at autocracy or thuggery as the Spartans (who, by the way, DID show up to avenge Melos and kill off the Athenian colonists). Back in Attica, things got worse and worse. The story of the first great democracy became an increasingly dark tale of venal & selfish leaders—demagogues—who were replaced willy-nilly by the fickle mob. Factions fought each other more vehemently than they fought the Spartans.

When China…uh, I mean Sparta! finally won the war it behaved with much greater leniency and restraint than the Athenians showed the Melians. The Spartans installed a crooked counsel of oligarchs (who had maybe been pushing Spartan interests there at the end). The Greek golden age was over.
Political scientists tend to think the Melian story illustrates the principal of “might makes right” (I left out the famous back-and-forth dialogue, which you should definitely read about on your own). Yet perhaps there are larger lessons to the larger story.
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Thoughtful citizens might extrapolate that a nation is only as powerful as its allies and its leaders of the moment…and friendship and admiration can be easily squandered for very little gain. Throughout secondary school I was always taught that democracy is clearly superior in every way to every other system. Thucydides’ history reminds us that there are dark perils inherent within the very nature of group rule. Our classically minded founders knew this story and thought about it a great deal. It is unclear whether today’s legislators (or citizens) have given as much heed to the lessons of how Athens abandoned its principles and treated its friends like underlings and split into antagonistic factions and was swiftly broken to bits like a vase bumped off a plinth.
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The other day I rashly promised a post about Juno—or I will call her “Hera” since the Greeks invented her (?) and their name is more euphonic. Immediately though it became obvious that writing about the queen of the gods is not as simple as it seems.  Hera plays the villain in many myths—particularly those of Heracles (indeed, her name is his name: Heracles means “Hera’s man”).  She is a great and terrible antagonist–even more so than giant sentient animals, or super dragons, or the dark monstrous deities of the underworld.  But why is that? How can a regal woman be so much worse than the gods of charnel darkness and stygian torture?

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The Goddess Juno in the House of Dreams (Luis Lopez Piquer ca. early nineteenth century, oil on canvas)

Hera is the eldest daughter of Rhea and Cronus. She was devoured by her father at infancy, but escaped (via mustard emetic) and joined her brothers and sisters fighting against the titans for world domination.  Once the battle was won, she initially rebuffed the romantic overtures of her youngest and strongest brother, Zeus.  The king of the gods then took the form of a bedraggled cuckoo and cunningly played upon her sympathy for small injured creatures in order to win her heart and her hand.  After their marriage, however, Hera played the cuckoo in their relationship as Zeus dallied with goddesses, nymphs, and comely mortals of all sorts.  Classical mythology is pervaded by a sense that Zeus, king of the gods and lord of creation who fears nothing (except for being replaced by a strong son) is extremely afraid of Hera.  She is often portrayed as jealously lashing out at Zeus’ paramours and their offspring…or otherwise punishing those who act against her will or fail to pay her sufficient respect.

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Juno Discovering Jupiter with Io (Pieter Lastman, 1618, oil on canvas)

Hera’s animals are the lion, the cow, and the peacock (she put the hundred eyes of her dead servant Argus on the bird’s tail to give it even greater beauty).  Her emblems are the throne, the chariot, the scepter, and the crown.  She is sometimes portrayed wearing a strange cylindrical crown of archaic pre-Greek shape (which may indicate that she was a goddess of power borrowed from a pre-Greek society).

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Hera tends to be portrayed as a rich powerful woman of a higher class who barely deigns to notice her inferiors.  She is the goddess of women, marriage, wealth, success, and (above all) power.  Her children are Ares, Hephaestus, Eileithyia (the goddess of childbirth), cruel Eris, and beautiful Hebe, the goddess of youth who married Hercules after his apotheosis.

Have you read “The Three Musketeers”? After spending the entire book struggling against the machinations of Cardinal Richelieu, the hero prevails and join forces with…Cardinal Richelieu. Power is like that, and so is Hera. She can’t effectively be fought against.  The world is hers.  She can only be appeased or beguiled… or served outright.

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The way upwards is not through deeds of merit, or valorous acts, or fighting monsters—it is through political wiles, networking, and figuring out how to please extremely rich powerful people who are impossible to please and implacably oppose regarding you as any sort of equal.

 

 

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This is the year of the monkey! Way back during the Chinese New Year, I promised to celebrate the primates—that intelligent and nimble (and malicious) order of mammals.  Since then, primates have made the news (literally, since it is our invention), but where have the posts been?

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(the malefactor crouched on an electric thingy)

Well yesterday, June 7th 2016, a vervet monkey (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) fell onto a power transformer at the Gitaru hydroelectric power station in Kenya.  The transformer tripped off, which led to a cascading sequence of generators shutting down–which, by some dark magic of electric grids, caused a nation-wide blackout.  Kenya, a nation of 44 million souls was without electricity for fifteen minutes (and the juice was out much longer near the epicenter of the problem).  A monkey turned off the world’s 31st most populous nation for a quarter of an hour!  The malefactor survived this mayhem and has been taken into custody by Kenya wildlife services—no news on what sort of community service they have planned for the mischievous creature.\

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The vervet monkey is a generalist vegetarian which eats fruit, berries, grains, flowers, seeds, and vegetables (in addition to eggs and small animals when they are available).  Adult vervets weigh between 3.5 and 8 kilograms (7.7 and 17.7 pounds).  They have a long tail which is not prehensile and grizzled dun and gray coats which fade to white collars around their black faces.  That description makes them sound somewhat monochromatic, however they are among the most brilliantly colored primates…in certain respects: adult males have magnificent turquoise scrotums and vivid incarnadine genitalia.  Speaking of procreation, vervet monkeys give birth to a single infant which can live up to 24 years (in captivity).

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Vervet monkeys are trapped as pets, poisoned as pests, and hunted for meat by humans, even though primatologists (and anthropologists) have noted profound social similarities between our species.  Vervet monkeys are capable of complex communication (including self-serving lies) and they build complicated webs of alliances and enmities.  The Wikipedia page says they are also one of the few animals capable of spite (which suggests that Wikipedia has limited experience of living creatures), however it would go a long way towards explaining yesterday’s events in Kenya.

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Masters of Purest Spite?

A Map of the Kingdom of Oudh

A Map of the Kingdom of Oudh

The region which was once Oudh is a fertile portion of Northern India located in the contemporary province of Uttar Pradesh. The name is an anglicisation of the name “Awadh” which in turn is derived from the older name “Ayodhya,” the quasi-mythical capital city of Lord Rama (eponymous hero of the Ramayana).   During the age of the Mughals, Awadh was an important province run by different Nawabs (governors) on behalf of the Mughal emperor. In the 18th century, the authority of the Mughals waned and the position of Nawab became a hereditary feudal one.  The Nawabs of Awadh were a Persian Shia Muslim dynasty from Nishapur and they were renowned for their wealth and culture, however their (real) power was short-lived. In the latter half of the 18th century, the East India Company manipulated Oudh into serving as a buffer state against the Mughals and a de-facto treasury for their projects and adventures in northern India.

Portrait of Ghazi-ud-din Haidar, King of Oudh (Robert Home, ca. 1819, oil on canvas)

Portrait of Ghazi-ud-din Haidar, King of Oudh (Robert Home, ca. 1819, oil on canvas)

In 1819 the East India Company granted the Nawabs of Oudh permission to rule as independent kings. Anyone interested in power should immediately be able to spot the problem with that sentence: real authority was in the hands of the East India Company. However the delighted new king had a royal crown created for himself (designed by a British artist, Robert Home who painted portraits in the various courts of India). Here then is the crown of Oudh. Although it was a real object made of actual gold and jewels (unlike say, the Dutch crown, made of foil and fish paste) the crown of Oudh was a British stage prop meant to further disconnect Oudh from the last of the Mughals. By 1856, these theatrical machinations became too much for the British, and they dispensed with the Nawabs in order to rule the region directly.  Yet the stagecraft of politics are a funny business—by annexing Oudh outright instead of running it through decadent puppet kings, the British precipitated the Indian Rebellion of 1857 (A.K.A. the First Indian War of Independence).

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Many people complain that the news is all bad.  That is not true at all, but good news is sometimes harder to quantify or follow than bad tidings—plus human progress tends to be incremental.  I bring this up because this week did feature a good news story—and Ferrebeekeeper has been following along (as best we can) for years. The nuclear scientists at the National Ignition Facility (a part of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) have been attempting to use a vast laser array to heat/compress a deuterium and tritium fuel pellet to the extreme conditions necessary for nuclear fusion.

The container for the nuclear fuel

The container for the nuclear fuel

Nuclear fusion involves compressing/heating the elementary particles which make up atoms until the atoms fuse into new atoms.  Such a process releases outrageous amounts of energy but it does not start easily–indeed so much energy is required to begin the reaction that “hot” fusion typically requires a star or a nuclear fission detonator.  These items are dangerous and alarming to have lying around so scientists have been attempting to find a more controlled method of fusing atoms together.

The NIF Target Chamber

The NIF Target Chamber

Earlier this week the science journal Nature published a paper which details how NIF scientists finally managed to produce more energy than was initially put into the fuel pellet (albeit not into the overall system).  This does not sound overwhelmingly exciting—yet it is farther than nuclear engineers have got in 50 years.  To quote the amazingly named head scientist, Omar Hurricane, “We’ve assembled that stick of dynamite and we’ve gotten the fuse to light…If we can get that fuse to burn all the way to the dynamite, it’s going to pack a wallop.”

Just dream what we could accomplish with such energy!

Just dream what we could accomplish with such energy!

Abundant safe energy from nuclear fusion would be an astonishingly transformative innovation for humankind.  Immediately our principle economic and environmental problems would be forever altered.  Additionally having such a cosmic wellspring of energy available would allow us to embark on engineering works of a vastly greater scale than any known so far.

Planetary Engineering!

Planetary Engineering!

In ancient Greece, one of the most universally popular symbols was the gorgoneion, a symbolized head of a repulsive female figure with snakes for hair.  Gorgoneion medallions and ornaments have been discovered from as far back as the 8th century BC (and some archaeologists even assert that the design dates back to 15 century Minoan Crete).  The earliest Greek gorgoneions seem to have been apotropaic in nature—grotesque faces meant to ward off evil and malign influence.  Homer makes several references to the gorgon’s head (in fact he only writes about the severed head—never about the whole gorgon).  My favorite lines concerning the gruesome visage appear in the Odyssey, when Odysseus becomes overwhelmed by the horrors of the underworld and flees back to the world of life:

And I should have seen still other of them that are gone before, whom I would fain have seen- Theseus and Pirithous glorious children of the gods, but so many thousands of ghosts came round me and uttered such appalling cries, that I was panic stricken lest Proserpine should send up from the house of Hades the head of that awful monster Gorgon.

In Greco-Roman mythology the gorgon’s head (attached to a gorgon or not) could turn those looking at it into stone.  The story of Perseus and Medusa (which we’ll cover in a different post) explains the gorgon’s origins and relates the circumstances of her beheading.  When Perseus had won the princess, he presented the head to his father and Athena as a gift—thus the gorgon’s head was a symbol of divine magical power. Both Zeus and Athena were frequently portrayed wearing the ghastly head on their breastplates.

Ancient Electrum belt buckle in the form of a gorgoneion

A Gorgoneion decoration on an Attic ceramic vessel from approximately 490 BC

Although the motif began in Greece, it spread with Hellenic culture.  Gorgon imagery was found on temples, clothing, statues, dishes, weapons, armor, and coins found across the Mediterranean region from Etruscan Italy all the way to the Black Sea coast. As Hellenic culture was subsumed by Rome, the image became even more popular–although the gorgon’s visage gradually changed into a more lovely shape as classical antiquity wore on.

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Gorgoneion from the House of Mosaics in Eretria (4th c. B.C.)

Roman Gorgon Mosaic from the first century AD

In wealthy Roman households a gorgoneion was usually depicted next to the threshold to help guard the house against evil.  The wild snake-wreathed faces are frequently found painted as murals or built into floors as mosaics.

Gorgoneion mosaic found in Pompeii's House of the Centenary

Not only was the wild magical head a mainstay of classical decoration–the motif was subsequently adapted by Renaissance artists hoping to recapture the spirit of the classical world.  Gilded gorgoneions appeared at Versailles and in the palaces and mansions of elite European aristocrats of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Rodela de la Medusa de Carlos V (Filippo y Francesco Negroli, Milán, 1541)

Carved Gorgon's head at Versailles

Gorgoneion (Thomas Regnaudin, ca. 1660, Carved wood)

Even contemporary designers and businesses make use of the image.  The symbol of the Versace fashion house is a gorgon’s head.

While thinking of how to sum up 2011, I looked backwards to my last blog post from 2010 and was jarred by the similarity of the two years.  There it all was again: the same sort of political scandals, the same news of war in the Middle East, the same tedious celebrity hijinks–only the world shaking environmental catastrophe had changed (the Gulf of Mexico oil spill was supplanted by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster).  It made me question the optimism of last year’s New Year’s post, in which I ultimately concluded that technology was rolling forward and thereby bringing us both knowledge and the resources needed to live a better happier life.

So this year I am going to base my final post around the worst thing that happened in 2011: the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.  This spring, three nuclear reactors on the northeast coast of Honshu melted down after being shaken by an earthquake and inundated by a once-in-a-lifetime tsunami. Designed in the sixties and manufactured in the early seventies, the reactors were an old design.  Mistakes made by engineers trying to rectify the situation initially compounded the problem.  This event has already been responsible for several worker deaths (although those occurred not as a result of radiation but rather from disaster conditions caused by the earthquake and flood).  It is estimated that, over the coming decades, fatalities from cancer could ultimately stretch up into the tens or perhaps even the hundreds!

Hindsight is 20/20, but, seriously, was this the best place for a series of fission reactors?

The fear generated by the incident has caused a global anti-nuclear backlash.  Plans for next-generation nuclear plants have been put on hold while existing power plants have been shut down.  Germany is exiting the nuclear energy business entirely.  Japan is building a host of ineffective wind plants and setting its advantages in fission power aside.  Developing nations like India, Brazil, and South Africa are reassessing their nuclear power plans.  The United States is suddenly building more gas power plants.  Even France is backing away from nuclear energy.

Anti-nuclear demonstrators march in Cologne (AP Photo/dapd/Roberto Pfeil)

Of course cold-blooded, analytically-minded readers who missed out on the media circus around the Fukushima incident might be wondering why a few (potential) deaths outweigh the 20,000 victims who were killed by the tsunami outright, or the hundreds of thousands of people killed worldwide in traffic accidents, or the millions of victims of North Korean famine.  Those kinds of casualties are all very ordinary and dull whereas the people who (might possibly) die (someday) from nuclear contamination face a very unusual, rare, and scary end.

Isn’t it worse that ten men might someday die of cancer then 10,000 men die outright from coal mining accidents?

Well no, not really.  The hype around nuclear accidents was used by fear-mongers to peddle their energy agenda–on the surface this might seem to be earth-friendly green energy, but since such a thing doesn’t really exist yet, the beneficiaries of nuclear power’s decline will be oil and gas producers, who are already operating the largest and most lucrative industry on earth.  Additionally the whole crisis allowed media sources to garner viewers and readers by means of frightening headlines (in fact that’s what I’m doing with this post).  The nuclear industry must become bigger to fit the needs of a world running out of fossil fuel (but with a quickly growing population of consumers).  Additionally our next generation of technology will likely require more energy rather than less.

Nigerians fight an oil pipeline explosion which burned hundreds of people to death

But, thanks to a disaster involving equipment that was four decades out of date which killed two people (from blood loss and contusion), humankind is abandoning the pursuit of inexpensive inexhaustible green energy for the foreseeable future.  At best, the next-generation nuclear designs now on the drawing boards or in early stages of construction will be reevaluated and made safer, but at worst we will fall into a long era of dependence of frac gas and foreign oil–a gray age of stagnation. Our leaders will greenwash this development by pretending that solar and wind energy are becoming more effective—but so far this has not been true at all.

I hope my flippant tone has not made it seem like I am making light of the tragedy that befell Japan, a peace-loving nation which is an unparalleled ally and friend.  I really am sad for every soul lost to the tsunami and I feel terrible for people who are now forced to live with the nebulous fear of cancer (especially the brave workers who raced in to known danger to fix the stricken plant).  Similarly, I worry about the Nigerians burned to death in pipeline accidents, the Pakistanis killed in friendly fire accidents, and the bicyclists run over by minivan drivers. To care about the world is to worry and face grief.

Tsunami Memorial Stone

But coping with such worries and sadness is the point of this essay.  Our fears must not outweigh our bright hopes. We must keep perspective on the actual extent of our setbacks and not allow them to scare us away from future progress. Only bravery combined with clear-headed thought will allow us to move forward.  Undoing this year’s mistakes is impossible but is still possible to learn from them and not live in fear of trying again.  I wrote about the energy sector because of its primacy within the world economy—but I dare say most industries are facing such a crisis to one extent or the other.

If we turn back or freeze in place, we will be lost–so onwards to 2012 and upward to great things.  And of course happy new year to all of my readers!

[And as always–if you feel I am utterly misguided in my energy policy or any other particular, just say so below.]

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