- Jul 5, 2017: Recommended Reading: The Gunpowder Age
- Now and then I read something really interesting, and never think to tell anyone about it. This time, I'm telling you about it.
The Gunpowder Age, by Tonio Andrade, Princeton University Press 2016, ISBN 978-0-691-13597-7.
From the Introduction:
Historians have long studied gunpowder's revolutionary effects, but they've paid most attention to the West. Indeed, you've probably heard the saying, false but often repeated, that the Chinese invented gunpowder but didn't use it for war. This meme is still widely circulated, appearing in scholarly works, and even in China itself. But in fact the Chinese and their neighbors explored gunpowder's many uses, military and civilian, for centuries before the technology passed to the West. These Asian origins are often glossed over, and most studies of gunpowder warfare focus on the early modern period (ca. 1500-1800). This was, historians have argued, when the first gunpowder empires were born, and when the "gunpowder revolution" and the "military revolution" helped transform Europe's feudal structures, laying the groundwork for Western global dominance.
But the gunpowder age actually lasted a millenium, from the first use of gunpowder in warfare in the late 900s to its replacement by smokeless powder around 1900. Examining its full sweep can help us answer--or at least clarify--the question of the rise of the West and the "stagnation" of China.
The book is a study of the history of the development of gunpowder in both Chinese and Western warfare, and refutes or attempts to refute many of the classic theses for China's so-called "stagnation". (Answer: it wasn't what most people think). The author is a professor of history at Emory University, who specializes in Chinese/European contact history, among other things. The book is clear and straight-forward to read, not bogged down by academic jargon, but it is a well-documented academic work--everything is footnoted and referenced in the extensive bibliography. The author does not rely on regurgitating other English-only works, but uses and cites original Chinese sources. I approve. Always go to the original source if available, because other people's interpretations of a source are just that: their interpretation.
I learned a LOT from this book, including the fact that I had a lot of misconceptions. I'm one of those people who was taught that the Chinese never did anything significant with gunpowder. Oops, wrong as wrong can be. They did bombs, rockets, guns, incendiaries, and other fun things like "fire lances", which were an early predecessor of the gun that shot fire (burning gunpowder) out of a tube at people. (It took them a while to work out good enough powder and barrels to use gunpowder as a propellant rather than an incendiary. However, it worked as a short-range anti-personnel weapon. I suspect that being set on fire by burning gunpowder was at least as unhealthy as catching a bullet).
I also learned that medieval armies were using early cannon starting in the 14th century--you know, during the Hundred Year's War, that classic late-medieval war that brought us Joan of Arc and those classic demonstrations of English long-bow awesomeness, Crécy and Poitiers. Speaking of which... did you know that Joan of Arc was a skilled artillery tactician? Apparently one of the things that made her armies dangerous to the English was her knowing how to deploy cannon in a siege. Did you know that there were volley guns deployed to protect the longbowmen from any charging knights? Their arrows would kill horses and did a number on the crossbowmen, but they didn't actually penetrate plate all that well.
A tidbit for people looking for an historical, multi-ethnic setting for adventure:
The period from the 1540s to the 1560s was a golden age of East Asian piracy, and the pirates were a motley and multiethnic lot. Most were Chinese, but sources make clear that they worked with Japanese, Portugese, Siamese, "black Malaccans", "black barbarian demons", "white and black mixed types," and various other "barbarians". They exchanged ideas, techniques, and technologies, creating what one scholar has called a "hyrbrid maritime culture." Although arquebuses weren't widely used by the pirates, they were certainly present, and Ming officials took note. According to one source, a pirate band led by brothers surnamed Xu "lured the barbarians from the land of the Franks... and they came in a continuous stream." The Xu brothers established an island outpost, Shuangyu Harbor, which, according to one scholar, "became the stage for the dissemination to all of East Asia's maritime realms of every kind of gunpowder weapon." The Xu brothers worked with many other pirates, including Wang Zhi himself, as well as a man named Bald Li. Some sources suggest that among Bald Li's adherents was "a barbarian chief who was good at guns." -- p.171.
- Jun 25, 2017: Varda and Manwë
- ...are the names of two of the many dwarf planets (Trans-Neptunian Objects) out beyond the Kuiper Belt.
Varda's moon is named Ilmarë
Manwë's moon is named Thorondor.
- Jun 14, 2017: Climate change... it isn't doing what you think it is
- I recently finished reading an interesting book, After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America by E. C. Pielou. (I'm researching what parts of the Earth looked like for humans at the end of the last glaciation, when the big ice started melting and the sea levels started rising.)
In researching Ice Ages, I learned a number of interesting things. One is that we are still in the Quaternary Ice Age; we are merely in an inter-glacial within the Ice Age. The Ice Age will not end until the continents stop surrounding the north pole and the Antarctic continent moves off the south pole. That's a very long time in the future. In the meantime, glacials and inter-glacials are governed (mostly) by Milankovitch Cycles, though the changes in Earth's orbit affect temperature in complex ways. Note that neither element (plate tectonics, orbital cycles) is under human control. There will be another glaciation, and there is not much we can do about it.... except maybe dump lots of CO2 in the air.
But wait, isn't everyone worried about anthropogenic global warming (AGW)? Well, yes... and no. The warmest period of the current interglacial, the Holocene Climate Optimum (aka hypsithermal), ended about 5000 years ago, about the time of Egypt's Old Kingdom, which developed during the warm, wet period. It's cooler now than it was during the Optimum; in North America, various temperature-sensitive ecosystems were several hundred kilometers north of where they are now. Right now, we might warm back up to that temperature; the main thing that climate scientists are concerned about is the rate of warming, which seems greater than what has happened before. On the other hand, sudden climate changes don't show well in the fossil record; the resolution isn't that good. We know it warmed very rapidly at the start of the Optimum.
The Little Ice Age may have been the start of the next round of glaciation (the "neoglacial")--if so, it was reversed right around the time industrialization started dumping CO2 in the air in a big way, about 1850. AGW may well be what is staving off the next glaciation; we don't know enough yet. What we do know is that panicking that "global warming will destroy the world!!1!!" is stupid hysterical nonsense.
Another glaciation, on the other hand... well, look at the last glaciation. There is nothing quite as devastating to an ecosystem as grinding it under a few hundred feet of ice--not even strip-mining for coal is that bad. Nothing lives on an ice sheet, and nothing bigger than microbes and algae lives under it. (Although there are cave refugia under the rock under the ice where cave lifeforms carry on...). The sheer weight of a continental ice sheet depresses the continental crust under it (this will be important later); the presence of a continental ice sheet alters the weather in major ways, as icy catabatic winds howl off the ice sheet to sweep the lands surrounding the ice (it also carries dust for hundreds of miles, piling up massive loess deposits beyond the ice). All that water locked up in a continental ice sheet is no longer part of the water cycle; the whole planet becomes drier and more arid. Polar deserts and tundra surround the ice sheets; boreal forests persist in humid areas of what used to be the temperate zone. The rest of the mid-latitudes are cold steppe. Temperate forests get pushed back to the humid sub-tropics; the tropics become more arid and rainforests nearly vanish, replaced with steppe; the old steppe becomes deserts. The Sahara desert enlarges far beyond the current nightmares of desertification. Alpine and tundra life persists at the edge of the ice, or in isolated refugia along the coast or on nunataks. The sea-level falls 100-120 meters.
The end of the glaciation was also devastating. The great ice sheets slowly thinned and melted back, revealing land scrapped bare of soil except for the layer deposited by the retreating ice. Vast icy lakes of melt-water formed at the melting edges of the ice sheets, because the land was still depressed from the weight of the ice. Beyond the ice sheets, the land had bulged upward in isotatic reaction; as the crust rebounded from the weight of the ice, the land beyond the ice sheets sank back down to its normal position, adding isostatic sinking to the eustatic sea level rise from the melting ice. (Because the bordering crust had bulged upward, at first the glacial melting didn't raise the sea levels much...then it suddenly did). As the crust that had been under the ice sheet rose, the proglacial lakes switched drainage routes, and/or drained away--the vast freshwater sea that covered what is now the Great Lakes and most of Ontario eventually settled into the Great Lakes; the inland freshwater seas further west shrunk into the Great Bear and Great Slave lakes of the present day. (Fish populations re-populated the interior because of these lakes and drainage switching around, as fish can't walk to new lakes or rivers). Plants slowly migrated northwards, from the south or from refugia, first the pioneers that could grow in rock dust, sand and gravel, later the plants that needed damp, organic-heavy soil to root in. Animals moved in as fast as the plants they could browse on, though the big carnivores could cross sea ice and barrens in search of prey (Newfoundland is top-heavy with carnivore species because of this). Humans moved in where there was sufficient food, and hunted mammoths.
The sea level rose and rose and rose as the great ice sheets melted and the crust rebounded, up to 120 meters in some places. Beringia flooded, and became Siberia and Alaska. The dry land ('Doggerland') between the British Isles and Scandanavia floods, becoming the North Sea and the English Channel. Much of Southeast Asia becomes the string of large and small islands that we are familiar with today, instead of the low-lying continental mass it was during the glaciation. The face of the world changed.
Note that I am not arguing that global warming is happening--that it is undebatable fact, measured by satellite for several decades now, and by buoy and ground station for over a century. We have the numbers. There is a correlation with global CO2 levels. What we don't know: how hot does it get before Earth's feedback mechanisms kick in and damp it down? The oceans lock up and deposit excess CO2 in the form of carbonates via the Carbonate-silicate weathering cycle; the hotter it gets, the faster that happens, until enough carbon dioxide is pulled out of the atmosphere to cool things down to Ice Age glaciation levels again.
Panic and hysteria help no one and nothing, except someone with an agenda that requires people to react without thinking. They certainly don't solve the problem of AGW...if it is a problem that can be solved, or even needs to be solved. Climate does change, it has changed drasticly in the past, it will change in the future, it is changing now. Things will never be exactly like they were last Tuesday, that's just not how the Earth works.
- May 12, 2017: Cultural Appropriation is Fine
- [Inspired by recent incidents in the Canadian writing community]
Cultural appropriation is a good thing. It means the majority culture is learning to appreciate and is curious about something besides themselves. It means the culture isn't stagnating. It means The Other is good, not bad, and a friend, not an enemy to be suppressed or exterminated. It means The Other is stopping being "Them" and is becoming "Us". We humans love Us; we humans regrettably tend to hate Them. Better for all if they are Us.
The notion that cultural appropriation is bad is one of the more snowflake, dumb-ass and downright poisonous ideas to come out of the left. The logical end-point of "cultural appropriation is bad and you mustn't do it" crowd is cultural segregation and apartheid--everyone is only allowed to write or make art about their own racial and cultural niche, and no one will be exposed to any culture but their own. That would be bad; we learn to tolerate and accept People Not Like Us by getting to know them in person; ditto for cultures.
At worst, badly-done appropriation comes across as crass, rude and insensitive to people of the originating culture. So don't be crass, rude, or insensitive. However, there is not a single damn thing wrong with braiding your hair differently, eating different food, or wearing different clothes than those you grew up with. Don't let anyone force you into a creative or life-style strait-jacket because of what they think is appropriate for you.
- Apr 22, 2017: LJ is dead; long live DW!
- I finally deleted my old livejournal. From the reports of others, the rotting corpse of the former journaling service is allowing lots of porn spammers in the comments; I don't need my name and works being used for that kind of crap.
- Apr 20, 2017: The left's continuing self-immolation
- Nick Cohen, left-wing British writer and essayist, continues to explain better than I ever have, and at more length, what the frack is wrong with you people. I dunno, when I try to explain it in simple words any idiot should understand, I get dismissed and ignored as one of Them. You know, "the Deplorables". The *-ists. The apologists for the *-ists, who the right-thinking apparently shouldn't listen to, just in case it might taint the purity of their perfect thinking or something.
( extended rant here )