What was wrong with the English?

If you have never read Wade Davis, it is time to begin. He is a great writer of exploration, including some personal voyages of discovery, such as One River and The Serpent and the Rainbow. His research is meticulous and his style is deft.

I have been reading his magnificent history of the first British expeditions to Everest in 1922-24, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest .

The Everest book begins with a long exploration of the meaning of the slaughter on the western front in World War I, which is worth the price of the book, and leads easily into the organization of the first exploration and reconnaissance in 1921 of the area around Everest. The British had to come in from the north, the Tibet side, as Nepal was out of bounds.

Davis’ research and writing will take you to the high places of the world with some tough and intrepid young men. You will be able to feel the heights, not only the summits, but the high plateaux of Tibet, the intense religiosity of the Tibetans, the glaciers, and the endless difficulties of finding one’s way among vast mountains, where the base camps are at higher elevations than the highest mountain in Europe, Mont Blanc.

I recommend the book wholeheartedly. Yet I cannot fail to grasp something that Davis has many occasions to allude to: the condescension reserved for the Canadian surveyor on the first expedition, who found the best way to the base of Everest, and the Australian medical doctor on the second, who single-handedly ensured that oxygen breathing apparatus was available and made to work.

The surveyor was Oliver Wheeler, a superb athlete and mathematician, a graduate of Royal Military College in Kingston Ontario, who would rise to the rank of Brigadier General in the British Army, head of the Survey of India, and knighted in 1943. Of him Wade writes:

“His work as surveyor general resulted in the publication, during the Second World War, of 20 million maps a year, a vital contribution to the Allied war effort. As much as any single man, Wheeler was responsible for foiling Japanese plans to invade India after Japan’s conquest of Burma in 1942.”

In the 1921 reconnaissance around Everest, it was Oliver Wheeler who discovered an access on to the east Rongbuk glacier, which became the path through which all future expeditions from the Tibet side would use to get to the base of Everest, a pass which the lead climber, Mallory, had previously missed or discounted.

“Wheeler’s map, which Mallory went at some length to disparage, may in fact have been the very first indication that he or Bullock had of the East Rongbuk Glacier, an embarrassing oversight that Mallory went out of his way in the official expedition account to obscure. One thing is certain: it was not Mallory or amy of his English compatriots who first discovered the key to the mountain. It was the canadian Oliver Wheeler, working alone in the solitude of the Rongbuk Valley.” (at page 330)

Wheeler also mapped the region for the first time using trigonometric methods, adding tens of thousands of miles to the knowledge of man. Each observation involved carting heavy equipment to the nearest summit, with enormous labour, sometimes having to repeat the process days in row while bad weather obscured the peaks being surveyed.

The Australian was George Ingle Finch, who was a doctor and who maintained and adapted the then-totally novel oxygen equipment on the second expedition in 1922. Incidentally he was the inventor of the down-filled coat, by which he kept warm as others were freezing in their woollens. (page 386)

Finch tried his best to inform the climbing party on the use of oxygen by having them drill with the equipment, for which he earned only the contempt of several members of the party.

The leadership of the 1922 expedition had always intended that the first team would attempt the climb in its final stages without oxygen. Because of an attack of dysentery, Finch was left without a climbing partner of experience and strength. The experienced climbing party went ahead without oxygen, and failed to make the summit.

“Finch, to his credit, did not view Strutt’s decision [to go ahead with all of the experienced climbers without oxygen] as anything more than the what it was: a lapse in judgment and leadership that squandered an opportunity and severely compromized their chances of achieving the ultimate goal.” This left Finch with 48 hours to transform a lesser climber into an accomplished one, and to take off for the top with him. In the end, Finch reached higher -27,300 feet – than did Mallory and his team of three better climbers.”

As Wade Davis writes: “Finch, pilloried from the start as an Australian, dismissed as a scientific eccentric, marginalized as a colonial irritant, had done the impossible, and in doing so had changed mountaineering history”.

Finch was not included in the 1924 expedition. He had offended the leadership by giving lectures for money in Germany, which was felt to be outside the bounds of his agreement with the organizing committee. Lawyers for each side did not share the committee’s interpretation of the loose contract that each member had signed with it. “George Finch was the finest ice and snow climber in Britain and the world’s leading scientific authority on the use of oxygen in mountaineering.”

I have selected these two examples because they struck me as symptomatic of a culture which was not learning. The Brits appear to have had great difficulty in accepting the value of fellow “anglo-saxons” – as the lingo would then have described them. If they had such trouble recognizing the contributions of a Canadian and an Australian, try to imagine the difficulty they had in dealing with Americans on the plane of equality, let alone coloured people.

More than this, the account given by Wade Davis shows the many occasions where the Brits were inappropriately dressed, and did not seem to think that equipment mattered more than ‘pluck’.

As a man who ventures outside to snowshoe for hours, I am contemptuous of those who are under-equipped for cold. Cold is not to be endured; it is to be equipped against. Wrapping a scarf around your neck, and buttoning up the tweed jacket at freezing point makes sense, even if it is inadequate. Imagining that is sufficient at minus 20 or minus 30 is insane, dangerous, and stupid.

These are the kinds of attitudes that killed Robert Scott on his expedition to the South Pole, and which left Roald Amundsen and his team alive and well to tell the tale. Amundsen engaged in meticulous planning, lived with the Inuit for several years, and learned how to live with cold. Scott did not, and died of cold in consequence.

I urge you to read Wade Davis. His book on Everest is a masterpiece. I apologize for singling out this relatively unimportant aspect of the book. Yet the difference between a learning culture and one that is not learning is of great significance to me. The people being portrayed in Into the Silence show every sign of not being inclined to learn anything. Bravery becomes so much more necessary when you do not learn new skills, or rise to new challenges, or to see the limits of one’s point of view. In my way of thinking, one wants to use foresight, cunning and innovation to obviate the need for stubborn bravery.

Sex differences in sports

Table 1. Differences between Male and Female World Records

EventMaleRecordFemaleRecordDifference% Difference
100 metres9.5810.490.919%
200 metres19.1921.342.1510%
400 metres43.0347.604.5710%
800 metres1:40.911:53.2812.3711%
1,500 metres3:26.003:50.0724.0710%
5,000 metres12:37.3514:11.151:3311%
10,000 metres26:17.5329:17.453:0010%
High jump2.45 m2.09 m0.36 m17%
Long jump8.95 m7.52 m1.43 m19%
Triple Jump18.29 m15.50 m2.79 m18%
Pole vault6.16 m5.06 m1.1 m21%

From Quillette

Sex Differences, Gender, and Competitive Sport, by Andrew Langford

Catastrophists versus hopefuls

“Population Bombed: Exploding the Link Between Overpopulation and Climate Change”, by Pierre Desrochers and Joanna Szurmak”.

I have had the most useful engagement with a book recently, and I thought I would bring it to your attention. For those concerned with the global warming/climate change issue, the biggest challenge is to realize that this issue is perennial, and that its underlying attitudes have been fought over for ages. The clash between outlooks will never be resolved, I suspect, because it is religious in nature. By religious I do not mean having to do with God, or Gaia, but with basic human propensities towards hope or fatalism.

Let me give you the biologist’s view in a simple picture and quote:

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In a nutshell, that is the ‘limits to growth’ ideology in two sentences. At the heart of it lies the enemy known as capitalism: relentless, restless, seeking, appetitive, knowing neither piety towards the gods nor despair of the future. Bad dog! Bad man! Bad male! By contrast, the depletionist view holds that we are all just bacteria in a closed petri dish. We will expand until we come up against the limits of the carrying capacity of the planet, as which point we will experience a catastrophic die-off . The metaphor is of fixed limits. It is the product of the epistemic bias of the science of biology.

Then there is the view of the Rational Optimist, which is the view of Pierre Desrochers and Joanna Szurmak, and others whose thinking they expose one to. One such is Adam Frank, astrophysicist and astrobiologist, and I quote him:

“It’s not the earth that needs saving. Instead it’s us and our project of civilization that need a new direction. If we fail to make it across the difficult terrain we face, the planet will just move on without us, generating new species in the novel climate it evolves. The ‘we suck’ narrative makes us villains in a story that, ultimately, has none. What the story does have are experiments – the ones that failed the ones that succeeded.” – cited from page 173 of “Population Bombed”

As Adam Frank told Joe Rogan, “we are what the biosphere is making right now”.

Population Bombed reviews the arguments of the catastrophists and their opponents. One such opponent was Julian Simon, an economist, who famously bet the doomist biologist Paul Ehrlich that a list of five natural resources would be cheaper in a decade’s time than they were at the time of the bet. [It appears that Julian Simon chose the right decade for his bet].

More importantly, Population Bombed shows that there was a straight-line relationship among three catastrophist visions: soil depletion in the 1950s, global cooling in the 1970 caused by polluting aerosols, and global warming of the present day. It was pushed by the same people, and funded by the same sources. Doomists changed their particular cause of doom without breaking stride.

Desrochers and Szurmak conclude:

“Trade, the division of labour, more people and more carbon fuels are what allowed humanity to simultaneously bake and enjoy an ever larger number of economic and environmental cakes, while in the process making human societies ever more resilient against extreme weather events and any climate change they may be confronted with”.

Eventually Desrochers and Szurmak seek an understanding of the doomists/limits-to-growthists in the epistemic prejudice of biology, which is set forth above in the quote from Ursula Le Guin. If your governing metaphor is that humans are like bacteria in a petri dish, and hydrocarbons are the sugar that has been added to the mix, then human population will explode until we suffer a catastrophic die-off. In the depletionist mind-set, humans suck, and you do not have to go far before you discover that many eco-catastrophists are very close to exterminationist in their beliefs.

If, by contrast, your view is the humans are constantly adapting , then one is not surprized to find that one of the first adaptations humans have made to prosperity is to reduce their birthrates in all societies across the planet. The education of women – caused by the advances that energy, technology and prosperity have allowed – has led to plunging birthrates, even in societies that have not industrialized. This was the subject of Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline, by Bricker and Ibbotson. Empty Planet is worthwhile but much narrower in scope than Population Bombed, since the former confines itself to a discussion of what world population will do until about 2100.

My point is that the optimists – in reality the hopefuls – are right to emphasize that humans adapt. Resources are not fixed. Indeed, the term “resources” is like the word “weed”, or “kosher” or “haram”; it denotes belonging to a class whose nature has been previously determined on other grounds. The iron age has not yet run out of iron, nor did the stone age run out of stones. What is a “resource” depends on a prior idea of science, technology, or art. Resources are not fixed; they expand or contract as human vision and opinions change.

The optimists are aware of this. The eco-catastrophists are fixated on the metaphors of depletion, finite resources, carrying capacity of the planet, and spaceship earth. The optimists are saying, in essence, that we are the things that dreams are made of. that though we are part of the natural order, we are in the most significant ways not a part of the natural order. Using our curiosity, imaginations, our willingness to learn and trade, and to make, the human species has risen to great heights. If we remain flexible and adaptive, we may survive yet.

Finally, in order to explain better that catastrophist mindset, Desrochers and Szurmak refer to an old favourite of mine, Jane Jacob’s Systems of Survival, one of the most important books ever written. Yes, I know that is a large claim. Jacobs discusses the contrasting moral outlooks of the “guardian” and “commercial” syndromes. It is a book of amazing and concise explanatory power, and doubtless it offends those who cherish confusion, nuance and messiness over clarity and precision. However, Jacobs’ two moral syndromes is a heuristic, a rule of thumb, not an exclusive or exhaustive discussion of all things human.

I leave you to look it up. The interest for me was the linkage that Desrochers and Szurmak forge between the guardian mentality and the eco-doomist catastrophist outlook, which for me was akin to finding that piece of the jigsaw puzzle linking large collections of previously separate areas of thought. Population Bombed situates a contemporary debate in a larger and older clash of ideas and beliefs, and I admire it for grounding me in that age-old discussion, as well as ably advancing the cause of the hopefuls.

“Stick with the optimists. It’s going to be tough enough even if they’re right.” 
― James Barrett Reston

The mind of Steve Bannon

I would like you to direct your attention to the speech of Steve Bannon, given a few weeks ago. He is one of the very few who see the relationship among several events and forces: the colossal failure of the financial system in 2008, shipping jobs to China, low interest rates, the party of Davos, and what Trump is doing or expected to be doing.


Bannon constantly tells us to sift the noise from the signal. The Russian collusion nonsense is the noise. Dealing with a mercantilist dictatorship like China is the signal. Controlling immigration is the signal, because without it the wages of the US working classes are continually driven downwards. And because of the economic crash and the flood of money used to bail out the rich, no one can save money.

He says China is exporting deflation and de-industrialization of the United States. A multi-decade project is required to turn back the growing power of the administrative state, and that will take a Supreme Court able and willing to comprehend the issue.

This edition below of one of Bannon’s recent speeches is even better, though its production values are worse.

He predicts that information war, cyber war and economic war with the Chinese mercantilist dictatorship is beginning, indeed it is underway. He finds it absurd to assume that free trade can possibly work with such an entity. For the Chinese, foreign relations are in essence the management of barbarians. The US can export swine, canola, wheat and ore to China, but aircraft and smart-phones, never. China wants tributaries, and the idea of equality between nations, or a rules based order, is absurd, un-Chinese, and contrary to nature.

At an earlier stage of life, I had an ethnic Chinese Canadian brother in law. His first words to me of any seriousness were that “The Chinese idea of democracy is ‘you do as I say'”. I have never forgotten what he said, because Chinese state behaviour has exemplified the insight throughout the years.

“The whole object is to shift the world’s supply chain back to the industrial democracies of the West” (including Japan and Korea). Getting a trade deal with Mexico and Canada is key to this, as well as special deals with Japan and Korea. “You must be a manufacturing juggernaut if you want to be a serious power”.

You can question the premises of his position, and I am certain many think he is drumming up war. What you cannot assert is that Bannon lacks strategic vision.

“The deplorables are mad because they are rational human beings.” Amen.

A short moment of vindication

Wait for a moment and allow yourself the pleasure of realizing that you were right all along. Before politics returns to its usual hysterical mode, contemplate for a moment the discomfiture of the fanatics who cannot find the crime that Trump has not committed. As Scott Adams points out, this is a time when psychologists should be on television talking to the newspeople about mass delusions, group think, and cognitive dissonance. What we do not need is more political analysts pretending they will not be satisfied until they get to the bottom of the Mueller report. The last thing the fanatics want is more information exonerating Trump. We know it, and they know it.

Some sources played it straight and admitted that the dream of impeachment is over. The New Yorker, to my great surprize, admitted that, though trouble for Trump will continue, The Donald is largely out of the woods. Salon thinks that Trump has succeeded in stonewalling Mueller.

Slate is occupying itself handwaving to draw attention away from Trump’s exoneration. The slagging of Robert Mueller can now begin in earnest.

It matters not. To the satisfaction of many, and the consternation of the Left, Trump has had his entrails investigated, and he has been found not guilty of illegal collusion with Russia or its agents.

Matt Taibbi has rendered judgment on the capacity of the media to get anything right, and found them extremely wanting. Is there any reason to believe what you read and see on television? No, it has been demonstrated, there is no such reason. If you still have faith in the media, you are hopelessly naive.

Taibbi writes: ” As a purely journalistic failure, however, WMD was a pimple compared to Russiagate. The sheer scale of the errors and exaggerations this time around dwarfs the last mess. Worse, it’s led to most journalists accepting a radical change in mission. We’ve become sides-choosers, obliterating the concept of the press as an independent institution whose primary role is sorting fact and fiction.”

A lot of institutions are in trouble these days: The Roman Church, the American left wing news-engines, the Canadian federal Liberal Party, to name some that come to mind. They richly deserve it.

Even more nothing

Of all the interpretations of the effect of Brexit that I have heard, the one I like best is seldom discussed. This is Conrad Black’s prediction:

“crashing out will be almost completely painless and imperceptible, and May will either take the hint that she has a serious confidence-problem and go, or fumble along until November and be handed a bus ticket.”

What if they decided to have a catastrophe and no one showed up? In the meantime Theresa May demonstrates a level of incompetence and irresolution that betokens yet another seriously over-promoted woman with a profound faith in herself.

A nothing, a nullity, a zero

Robert Mueller has submitted his report on the Russian collusion story. “Story” is the operative word here. I cite from the report this morning (hyperlink not available) in the National Post (page A2) from reporters of the New York Times: “While the inquiry, started months earlier by the FBI, unearthed a far-ranging Russian influence operation, no evidence has emerged that the president or his aides illegally assisted it.”

I am with Tucker Carlson on this. Those who propagated this false narrative should face social and political obloquy. They will not, of course. They will swiftly move on to the next Big Lie, and be richly rewarded for their shameful behaviour.

Image result for robert mueller

I got nothing

The Burial of Richard III

It took a few centuries for the political passions to settle and for the bones to be found. He then received a proper burial ceremony. A proper and fitting ceremony for a dead king.

For a good commentary on his successor, Henry VII Tudor, father of Henry VIII and grandfather of Elizabeth I, see this.

Some of the kings of England have been weasels, main-chancers, weak, unscrupulous murderers, and traitors, even. Although Charles 1st thought that it was impossible for him to have committed treason, Parliament demonstrated to him otherwise by lopping off his head in 1647. With the passage of political leadership to the institution of Prime Minister, it is their assistants rather than kings’ minions who shove a knife into their enemies these days. The Wars of the Roses makes the resignations of the Gerald Butts and the Clerk of Privy Council seem like small stuff.