Tuesday 23 July 2024

Spartacus (Third Servile War)

   "No, I'm Flaxen Saxon" 

When the average man is asked to name three characters from ancient Roman history, they will inevitably conjure the following folks in their head: Caesar (obviously), Nero and Spartacus. Sometimes Nero can be substituted with Caligula (wot no Hannibal?). These characters from history have insinuated their presence into the modern mind and secured their place in history. Of the three, Caesar's incorporation into the corpus is warranted upon a consideration of merit. We are looking at the rare (extremely rare) individual that has changed history through the dint of their character, intelligence and action. Nero has left, but a scratch on the historical path, and his inclusion on this list is underserved. With Spartacus, we have a different case. Spartacus is remembered not because he changed history or became a mad emperor but because he became a powerful, alluring idea and ideal. Read on and weep.

Three significant slave revolts impinge on our sense of Roman history. I have previously written about the revolt of 135 BC, entitled 'The First Servile War,' on this very blog platform. The second slave revolt remains but a spark within my restless, nay febrile/fecund brain. The first two 'Slave Uprisings' were confined to the island of Sicily. The Roman heartland/mainland was unaffected. This all changed with the third and last major slave revolt. 

The Romans had a problem. Like most ancient cultures, they operated a slave economy, and mainly due to success in war, Rome had a lot of slaves. So many slaves, in fact, that during the latter Republican period, slaves outnumbered the free population of the city of Rome and numbered a third of the total population of Italy. There was always a constant fear that the slaves would somehow come together, organise and overthrow their masters. This was not a hypothetical dilemma, as, by 73 BC, Rome had endured two significant slave outpourings. Now, in 73 BC, Rome was about to face the third slave uprising; the Spartacus Rebellion was the most significant, the most destructive and most successful.

We know little about Spartacus' early life. He likely hailed from ancient Thrace, a region now considered part of the Balkans. According to the Roman writer Appian, Spartacus was taken as a prisoner of war and sent to a gladiator school due to his robust physique. Plutarch gives a different version, claiming that Spartacus was in the Roman military but was charged with desertion and sentenced to the arena. Regardless of provenance, at the time of the revolt in 73 BC, Spartacus was ensconced in a gladiator training school close to the city of Capua. The training was harsh and cruel, designed to instil complete obedience and produce an accomplished gladiator for the amusement of the rich and poor alike. Spartacus, together with others, planned to escape and flee north. However, their plan was discovered. Knowing their fate was sealed, the men incited 78 others to violently revolt. Armed with kitchen knives and utensils ( sans egg timer), they fell upon their captors, wreaking havoc. After killing their tormentors and collecting a cache of weapons, they fled to the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Once camped, Spartacus was elected as leader, with Crixus and Oenomaus as immediate underlings. They then began to systematically loot the region, encouraging enslaved agricultural workers to flock to the 'banner of freedom'.

The Romans were not impressed or especially worried and considered the slaves as more of a trifling nuisance than a major military threat. Consequently, their response was lacklustre and dilatory. A force of poorly trained militia was gathered under the leadership of Gaius Claudius Glaber and sent forth to deal with the problem. Glaber, with his force, surrounded the slaves, hoping to starve them into submission. However, Spartacus and his men used vine branches to climb out of the encirclement. Afterwards, they attacked the Roman camp from the rear, defeating the troops, plundering the camp, and further enhancing their weapon supply.

A second armed troop led by Publius Varinus was hastily prepared and sent to attack these pesky but annoyingly persistent slaves. Again, the Romans had underestimated their enemy and the 'pesky slaves' quickly defeated the Roman troops sent against them. This victory encouraged more slaves to leave their masters and join Spartacus' rapidly growing army. At last, the Romans realised that they had a serious military situation, as by this time, Spartacus commanded a force of 70,000 ex-slaves. The senate decided to send both consuls (spring 72 BC) and their troops to deal with the rebellion. This response utilising the military resources of the two consuls, Gellius (erroneously called Publicola in some sources) and Clodianus, illustrated the grave threat Spartacus and his slave army posed to the Republic of Rome. In response, Spartacus devasted the region, laying waste to several cities (Nola, Thurii, Nuceria, and Metapontum) in the process. Spartacus, no doubt, realised that his luck would soon run out as Rome was mobilising its vast military resources against him and his merry band. No longer would Sparticus face barely trained militiamen, for now, he would have to face the battle-hardened soldiers of the legions. His force was a mixed bunch of slaves, of which many would have been of little utility in battle.

This host needed vast resources and food, and thus, he decided to split his slave army into two, with Crixus commanding the second group. His initial plan was to strike north, cross the Appenine range and from there, the band was to disperse with individuals striking out to return to their homes. A forlorn hope, I suspect. Though it has to be said, the whole enterprise was predicated on desperation with little to commend it. From the rational perspective, the slaves would experience a brief idyllic taste of freedom before death in battle or worse. Certainly, no rational man would have savoured falling into the hands of the Romans and their inevitable cruel retribution.

Troops under Gellius attacked Crixus and his army, defeating his contingent and killing Crixus. Meanwhile, Spartacus had miraculously defeated Clodinius and his troops and then turned to drive Gellius from the field. At this stage in the conflict, Spartacus made a critical error. Perhaps his victories had gone to his head. Whatever the reason, Spartacus disregarded his original scheme and, at the head of a large force of infantry and assorted cavalry, marched toward Rome. He encountered two more Roman armies on the way and defeated both. His tactical skill was undeniable, though ultimately, he lacked sound strategic vision. Even the military genius Hannibal shirked a march on Rome after his stupendous victory over the Romans at Cannae. By this time, the conflict had dragged on for nearly three years, and what had started as a simple and local slave revolt had now developed into a crisis of epic proportions. The Romans had had enough and placed their armies under the competent general, Marcus Licinius Crassus. During the initial clash of arms, a portion of Crassus' army exhibited cowardice, and as punishment, Crassus revived the ancient practice of decimation. One in ten of the men was selected by lot; thereafter, the rest of the troop beat their unlucky comrades to death with cudgels. Crassus was not soft. This terrible display of Roman justice served to encourage the others and to exhort Crassus' army to display great feats of courage in the coming, final battle. Spartacus abandoned his march to Rome as the way was blocked by Crassus and his armies. Instead, he marched south into the 'toe of Italy' to a region known as Bruttium. Spartus then negotiated with Cicilian pirates to arrange passage to Sicily for himself and his men. However, the pirates reneged on their end of the bargain, leaving the slaves in a desperate plight. Who would have thought that pirates lacked honour! Once Crassus arrived with his army, he hoped to pen in the slave army by building fortifications and earthworks.

However, at night and during a heavy snowstorm, Spartacus and his army managed to break through the lines. Spartacus then made the fateful decision to turn and fight a major battle. It is here that Spartacus lost his military acumen. Or, more likely, the odds were not in his favour, and Crassus was no military dullard. At the battle of the Silarius River, Spartacus was killed in the fighting, and his army was utterly defeated. Six thousand slaves were taken prisoner and crucified along the Via Appia and left to rot at the stake. Thus they provided a stark billboard to those travelling this busy byway. The message was clear: Don't fuck with Rome, or you will die horribly, horribly. Thus the Third Servile War' came to an end. As for Spartacus, his body was never found.

Throughout the ages, Spartacus has inspired the oppressed and disenfranchised. His motives have been widely debated. Was he a proto-Marxian proletariat revolutionary or something else? I conclude that he was 'something else'. What that 'something else' is open to much speculation. Modern interpretation through film, theatre, and literature often displays the disparate/desperate slave group as 'freedom fighters' railing against the oppressive and cruel Romans. Ancient writers err on the side of the prosaic: Spartacus and others merely planned to escape, disperse and head home. Their aspirations changed when their plan unravelled, and swift, violent action was the only option. It seems that the merry band of slaves became a rallying point for equally desperate folk in southern Italy, and I suspect Spartacus became the unwilling focal point for a horde. Did this sudden change in fortunes go to his head? He must have realised that there was strength in numbers, but did he appreciate its inherent weakness. People need resources, both food and weapons. Whatever the group dynamic was saying, I think Spartacus' ultimate aim remained the same: he just wanted to go home. Not all in his band shared this sentiment or goal. Some of his group were out for revenge and plunder- two processes difficult to disassemble. He must have known that whatever he did, the Romans would eventually prevail. Once the Romans finally realised that this was not a police action and engaged competent military leaders, the game was up. I don't see Spartacus as a man of high ideals, a man raging against the system. I see a man thrust into the limelight by the cast of the dice, by chance, a hero. He was a victim of circumstances of which he had little control. He did not write the script, but he was fully aware of the last page. In the end, I see a man who, unlike Caesar, was not about being part of history, just a frightened, courageous young man yearning to go home.    

Thursday 18 July 2024


                                                  Greetings From Jo'Burg

Greetings From Fortress Flaxen

On the early morning of last Thursday at approx. 12.30 am., Mrs. S was taking out our three yappy, fluffy, white dogs for their final piddle. During the procedure, the dogs started to bark (not unusual) and alerted my wife to an intruder standing in the front garden about 15 metres away. Bravely but foolishly, she challenged the interloper and asked: ''What are you doing on the property''? The man turned his head in her direction but said nothing. She then hurried into the house and woke me up. At my age, I need my beauty sleep. I quickly put on a housecoat, grabbed a knife and flashlight, which I keep strategically under the bed and rushed outside. By the time I had entered the front garden, the interloper was nowhere to be seen. I did not think it wise to be prowling around my property in the dark, so I returned to 'Fortress Flaxen', locked the door and turned on all the interior and exterior lights. In the meantime, Mrs S phoned the police, and they arrived 20 minutes later. The two officers had a wander around the immediate garden area, and one of the officers challenged Ted, the alpaca, but nothing unusual was seen.    

Mrs. S provided the officers with a description: He was about 5' 10'' and wearing a motorcycle helmet. Of course, she couldn't supply any further details due to the darkness and situation. Interestingly, I didn't hear a motorbike when I came outside—perhaps I was too slow? The officers suggested that the potential thieves were looking for unsecured quad bikes, ride-on mowers, etc. This seems reasonable as we live on a large rural property. 

This episode obviously made us examine our current security and the means to improve and upgrade safety. The next day, I alerted our immediate neighbours about the incident. Our closest neighbour is a retired policeman who suggested several easy-to-implement safety measures.

In fairness, we live in a safe area not noted for crime; however, that is no excuse for complacency. We also need to tailor our security needs to our own particular circumstances. For context, our property lies at the end of an extended tarmac drive about 0.5 km in extent. From this drive, access can be gained to four properties, including our own. We have a typical 'farmer's style' gate about 10 feet in length. Normally, the gate is left unsecured and open. However, from now on, the gate will be secured with a chain and padlock. The house lies about 30 metres from the gate and is accessed by a gravel driveway. The house is surrounded by areas of managed garden. Our garden area is large in extent and comprises about 0.5 of an acre in total. Outside this area, we have several managed lawned fields. Adjacent to one field and the garden area, we have an acre of unmanaged pasture containing livestock. Currently, we own a single alpaca and sheep. Apart from the house, our other major security concern is the barn/shed. This building contains a number of expensive items, including two ride-on mowers. The shed is accessed from a gravel driveway that arcs off the main driveway and loops behind the property before terminating at the shed. This driveway also has a farm gate that was hitherto left ajar but is now secured. The shed itself is accessed via a door which is now permanently locked. These measures alone should deter thieves interested in stealing our ride-on mower, as two locked gates would need to be opened. We do not keep the keys to the mower in the shed, and therefore, to steal the machine, the thieves would have to drive a pick-up vehicle to the shed, gain access to the shed and load the mower on their transport. I suspect the barriers imposed would represent a severe impediment and deterrent.

Now we come to the house itself. Our home is a four-bed brick bungalow lying off-centre on the property. It is pitch black at night due to the lack of urban and external lighting. Due to the incursion, we decided to invest in external camera security- we already have internal security cameras. Four cameras have subsequently been fitted to encircle the property to ensure there are no blind spots. The cameras are fitted with night vision, a hefty spotlight, an alarm and two-way communication. The cameras can discriminate between the local wildlife (possums, rabbits and feral cats) and miscreants of evil intent. The images are crisp, and the system provides up to two years of video storage. Alerts are through our phones, and the various parameters offered are eminently customisable. 

Now it gets personal: unlike the US, gun laws in NZ are very strict, and firearms are not encouraged for home defence. As mentioned at the beginning of this tortuous post, I keep a knife close by at night. It is a robust weapon with a 7" blade and full tang. I've added to my nocturnal safety by including a pistol crossbow. It is quick and easy to load with attached mechanical assist and fires metal 6.5" winged darts. It is accurate to 20 metres and has a draw weight of 80lb. I am well versed in its use, and I'm going to assume that anyone entering my house at 2 am. in the morning is not there for a cosy chat. I suspect being hit by a crossbow bolt in the chest area is not conducive to further respiratory activity. I am forced to enact this extreme measure to ensure personal safety for myself and my family. This is especially relevant due to lengthy local police response times.

Am I being over the top, considering we do not live in South Africa or San Pao? As a digression: my son used to date a Brazilian girl whom he met on an exchange program. She lived in San Pao in a luxurious compound full of rich folk. When my son went to visit, he was shocked by the opulence and self-contained nature of the gated community. This starkly contrasted with the immediate outside world as most of San Pao is draped in a pall of desperate poverty. When they ventured away from their cloistered bubble of enchantment, they travelled by car with bodyguards. When the 'Brazilian Princess ' (for it is she) deigned to stay with us, she was astonished that we did not have servants. The upshot is that this 'beautiful bauble' (my son gets his taste in women from his dad) did not do a lick of work around the house during her stay, which pissed off Mrs S no end. Here endeth the digression/lesson.

Our ex-copper neighbour explained that it is a matter of security layers. The more effort you put forth to secure your property, the less likely you will be targeted by thieves. That said, professional, highly skilled thieves will put forth the effort if they think you own very expensive items. We do not come within the range of the super-wealthy, and the items available in our home are no different from most middle-class establishments. No fine art, jewellery or precious stones are within our humble abode.   

It could be argued that owning three crappy/yappy dogs is our best defence against intruders. Although they are fairly indiscriminate and not customisable as to their response, they undoubtedly provide an effective early warning system. Anyway, folks, let me know your thoughts and approach to security issues.                  

Sunday 30 June 2024

The Problem With Academia. Part I

Makes a Great Serving Tray

There is a lot to discuss regarding the current academic system in the West, and most of it is not good. I've decided to pontificate upon some of the issues facing modern academia and set them out here for scrutiny and discussion. Today's contribution is a brief but pert foray into the commercialisation of higher education, and the problems engendered thereon. Further posts will delve further and consider the plight of those brave and foolish enough to attempt to enter and thrive in those 'Hallowed Halls'.

There is a misconception for those not in the know that the 'World of Academia' is somehow not part of the 'Real World'. Instead, this is a world of high academic principles and values. Where the meagre and sullied concerns of daily mundane life do not intrude. A lofty domain of pure learning and intellectual repose. A place of quiet contemplation, a meld of like minds. A philosopher's cave/enclave where shadows of the outside flit across a petrified vista. Okay, maybe this is fiction from a pre-medicated mind. But I'm sure you get the point.   

First off, I need to clarify: I am not an academic. While it is true I spent three years at an English University engaged in serious botanical research involving the much-maligned dandelion, I was never a tenured staff member. While working as a Human Geneticist in New Zealand, I lectured to Medical Laboratory Science students at Aukland University of Technology and organised and supervised practical sessions. In addition, as the departmental Training Officer, I mentored, trained and cajoled students, too many to recall, as they plodded throughout their semester dedicated to Human Genetics during the 4th year of their degree. All that said, I do have a kernel of understanding and knowledge of the 'Academic System' as it currently stands, and I'm painfully aware of its inherent deficiencies. I'll be using the British Higher Education system as my paradigm, but what I have to say here is equally relevant to the systems of the US and Australasia. 

There is much to be said about the relevance of undertaking and obtaining a degree in the modern setting. Back in those halcyon days, in the 1970s, when I embarked on my higher education journey, acquiring a degree from a British university was something of academic worth. When I was a lad, 8% of the population entered these venerated halls of higher education; today, the intake is 38%. This is in spite of the fact that in the 70s, undergraduate degree course fees were enswathed (stop waxing lyrical Flaxen!) by the government, and in addition, a grant was issued that covered student rent and basic living expenses. Fast forward to today, and the student is expected to fund the whole of their college adventure by whatever means. Not all parents put aside investments directed at funding their children's education. Regardless of how it is funded, higher education is expensive, especially if expectations extend to postgraduate training. 

Fifty years ago, a degree was a respectable academic achievement and widely recognised by prospective employers as a stamp of intellectual prowess and a passport to the professions. Today, a degree seems a prerequisite for most jobs that pay above the minimum wage. In 1974, a qualification earned at 16 (O'levels) was all that was required for employment as a biochemistry tech. Today, applicants for the same position require a degree in chemistry or biochemistry. 

Clearly, if everyone and his ferret (go shagger) are obtaining a degree, then its 'academic tariff' is bound to decline in worth. I also contend that the modern education structure enables the 'success' of students who, in previous decades, would not have been accepted for entry into the university system. It follows, therefore, that for 'everyone' to matriculate, academic standards suffer. Modern universities are businesses, and the students are their customers. As with any successful business, you must garner more customers to ensure economic success. Undergraduate courses cost the UK consumer about $9,000 annually, with international students paying appreciably higher fees. 

Over the years, I have taught a cadre of high-calibre students, but unfortunately, I have also had experience with a clutch of individuals who lacked the necessary intellectual mettle. Two international students are standouts. To bolster my argument, I am willing to relate the following anecdote: A young Chinese citizen I was teaching was susceptible to constant plagiarism. Her own writing suffered from a scatter of grammatical errors that made her work difficult to read and mark. To be fair, I did not penalise the student as long as I could identify the knowledge therein and the thread of the reasoning. Although projects submitted usually began with her idiosyncratic idiom, it soon switched to standard English prose with impeccable syntax. When I challenged the young lady in question, she vehemently insisted it was all her own work, even though there was a change in the font! It was a clear case of egregious plagiarism, even from a cursory inspection. She had the temerity to complain to her course supervisor that I was being unfair with the grades I allotted to her work. Fun times were had by all.

It appears that students are catching on to the ruse, realising that a university education may not be the pathway to a golden future. UK and US student admissions have declined this year; in particular, the number of foreign students entering English universities has shown a dramatic downturn. Foreign student revenue is the lifeblood of UK colleges, and this decrease will force approximately 40% of universities into deficit by the end of the year.

Historically/hysterically, a degree was seen as the passport to the fabled 'Middle Class' and, by extension, a better life. However, the middle class is no longer, and those careers deemed middle class have far too many applicants chasing too few opportunities. The irony, of course, is that those jobs traditionally viewed as 'blue collar' are at a premium these days (have you tried to get a plumber or electrician?), and subsequently, tradesmen are paid very well. Universities are churning out the future baristas, checkout operators and waitstaff. A change in attitude is necessary for societal change. The idea that the 'Trades' somehow confer inferior status must go. No longer is a university education necessary for financial success. Go forth and obtain an apprenticeship, young man! 

I will have more to say about the higher education system in future posts.  


Sunday 16 June 2024

Bronze Age Collapse

 Just over three thousand years ago (c1200 BC), there was a flourishing international community comprising a number of sophisticated nation-states. This economic 'federation' encompassed Egypt, the Mycenaeans, the Hittites, Cyprus, and Crete. These societies were stable, economically viable, and adorned with a refined and structured administration system. In short, these societies were intensely civilised and, moreover, enjoyed diplomatic, commercial, and political interconnectivity. And yet, within a generation, these mighty, highly organised states were no more, with the exception of Egypt. However, Egypt was so battered by the event that it never rose to independent greatness again. What happened? What could be so catastrophic and momentous to have caused these powerful and wealthy civilisations to collapse at the same time and so quickly? The problem is that we have very little evidence to sift in order to piece together the events that destroyed four civilizations and brought one to its knees. However, it is possible to put together a plausible scenario, a scene that has ramifications for our modern Western socio-political civilisation. Who said we were just three meals away from societal collapse? Read on and weep.

These events occurred in the 'High Bronze Age', on the cusp of the introduction of iron for utensils and weapons. It is oft asserted that the Sea People's use of iron weapons gave them a distinct advantage when fighting the Mycenaean Greeks, Hittites, and others who relied mainly on inferior bronze swords and spearheads. This supposed 'weapon superiority' is more apparent than real, and I'll comment further later in this post.    

The eclipse of the major powers in the Eastern Mediterranean, Aegean and Near East was not due to a single catastrophic upheaval. Indeed, research suggests that a confluence of factors was likely involved. Some of these factors were interconnected, whilst others appeared to stand alone. Regardless, the major civilisations of the region were blighted by a number of unfortunate events that, by their very nature, had an additive and perhaps synergistic effect that proved too much for these seemingly robust and secure societies to withstand. On mature and studied reflection, it has been revealed that the stability was somewhat of a chimaera, a societal cohesion riddled with fragile choke points and fractures.

Socio-Politicol Stability

We tend to look back and see ancient civilised societies as existing in some form of dynamic harmony. Yet this is an illusion. The minority of the population lived extremely well, while the majority were either slaves or impoverished serfs. This can be a perilous situation for the ruling elites, and if their fingers ever relax from the instruments of internal social control, then social upheaval is a real eventuality. Evidence from Mycenae, obtained from inscribed tablets of the period, hints at civil unrest and an increase in military activity. Even the mighty Hittites seemed to be experiencing significant internal agitation. It is oftentimes difficult to dissemble the causal factors. Perhaps it was a reaction to external stressors of the period. At this time, the empire was under pressure from the Haskas people to the north. During this calamitous period, the Haskas appropriated Hittite territory and burnt the Hittite capital of Hatti. It did not help that the Hittites were dealing with a plague outbreak at the time.  

Climate Changes

Pollen excavated from the region and dated to circa 1200 BC, together with oxygen isotope studies from marine environments, indicated a drastic drop in rainfall in the region concomitant with a drop in crop productivity. This sudden change in agricultural fecundity would have resulted in famine and increased competition for resources, leading to societal disruption and contributing to mass migration. Evidence indicates at about this time there were a series of powerful earthquakes along the littoral shore of the region. Cities and, more importntly, city walls damaged by seismic activity would render cities vulnerable, ripe and easy pickings for those able to take advantage of the calamity, whether from within or without.  And this brings us to consider the enigmatic 'Peoples of the Sea'.......  

Folk of the Sea  

Historians are still debating where the 'Sea People' originated. Most sober historians (few in number) place these folk originating from Europe and Anatolia. Were they a reaction to calamitous events to which they had little control? Or were they reavers exploiting weaknesses within the fabric of the civilised states? Did their presence, therefore, precipitate the collapse, or were they victims themselves? Cause, effect or maybe a combination of both? Nevertheless, undoubtedly, the 'Sea Peoples' were a confederation of at least nine separate peoples. During a fifty-year time span, they ravaged the seaboard of the region, causing great harm. As the empires of the time relied greatly upon maritime trade, the destruction of the major seaports completely dislocated the economic basis of the region. It is thought that the major disruption of sea commerce contributed directly to the socioeconomic collapse of these once-mighty empires. The Egyptians succeeded in repelling the Sea Peoples in two momentous battles. These battles were celebrated on stone reliefs that can be seen today at Medinet Habu, Thebes and Karnak.

The Role of Bronze

The epoch under consideration represents what historians call 'The Late Bronze Age'. Bronze is a composite material mostly comprised of copper with a small admixture of tin. Copper was readily available to the late bronze age civilisations centred upon the Mediterranean. To increase the hardness of copper to produce bronze, a small amount of tin was necessary. Tin is a relatively rare metal found in pockets throughout northwest Europe. Bronze was certainly an important metal for the civilisations in question. Not only was it used for the production of weapons such as swords, spears and armour it was also essential for everyday utensils and cutting tools. By the late bronze age, the use of bronze was at its zenith, and any interruption of the tin trade, as occurred in c 1200 BC, would have serious consequences for bronze-reliant societies. And, of course, this is what occurred during this critical period of history. Without bronze, you can't have a bronze age. It has been put forth by serious scholars that the Sea People employed iron weapons, which gave them an edge (ged it?), over their civilised foes. The problem with this thesis is that if the Sea Peoples had access to iron weapons, it is unlikely that they would have been superior to their bronze counterparts. Bronze weaponry had reached its peak in technological evolution, while iron was a new technology, and the iron of the time would have had a high slag content. Thus, swords made of iron would have been soft, easily bent and would require constant sharpening in order to maintain a keen edge.        

What we see is the conjoining of a number of events and catastrophes, some interrelated, that placed severe strains on the Bronze Age civilisations under discussion. The cumulative damage inflicted by these factors proved too much, destroying internal cohesion and ultimately resulting in governmental and political dissolution. 

If history has taught us anything, it is that all civilisations are susceptible to disintegration given the right circumstances. This collapse can be dramatic or involve a slow, steady decline into decadence and final annihilation. From my observation, Western Civilization has been in decline for a while now, and I would mark the start of the dark descent as the beginning of the Great War in 1914. I am happy to share my reasons, but that will have to wait another day. 

For those who can see, Western Civilization is under assault from a number of internal and external negative pressures. The parallels with the Bronze Age Collapse are uncanny. Surely, there is nothing new in this world. Unrestrained immigration, financial disarray, catastrophic international conflict and war, a looming Great Recession/Depression, internal societal chaos and degradation, together with a mix of natural disasters, are predictors of future desolation and ultimate abasement. Nuff said.

Sunday 26 May 2024

Amazon Archery

Gone Fishing

This post is just a brief commentary about a short video that I watched concerning the bows and arrows used by native people of the Amazon basin.  

The video showed two gentlemen discussing the bows and arrows used by Amazonian Indians. In particular, they noted the length of both the bow and the arrows used. The picture they presented indeed illustrated that the bows used were very long, perhaps approaching seven feet, while the arrows were about six feet in length. The bow was very much in the classical longbow mould, and the arrows had large feathered fletchings. I was intrigued as the archery configuration appeared, at first glance, to be totally unsuited for the dense  Amazonian rainforest. For instance, a short bow would be better suited for a densely vegetated environment. Modern hunters favour relatively short bows when hunting in forest/highly vegetated environments. This is why short compound bows are employed by hunters. Longbows will catch and become snagged where the flora is rampant, and this would be especially the case in the dense cover of the rainforest. Having acknowledged that very long bows are suboptimal in the jungle environment, there must be a good reason for their employment by these native peoples. The Amazonian Indians are not stupid. They have survived in this environment for tens of thousands of years, and therefore, the equipment they use is likely to be the best they can deploy, given their particular circumstances. 

Now for the arrows. Long arrows, especially with large feathered fletchings, are going to be slow-moving and very limited in the distance they can travel. During the conversation between the two gentlemen, it is mentioned that the arrows propelled from the native bows can travel two hundred metres. This tells me that he is no archer, as the native bow shown probably has a range of no more than thirty metres. Long arrows and longbows waste energy. Turkish flight archery is a sport where the object is to propel an arrow as far as possible. Incredible distances can be achieved by the sport, with arrows reaching over eight hundred metres. However, in order to achieve these great distances, the arrow is light, short and endowed with small fletchings.

I decided to see if I could work out why the Amazonians utilised their particular archery set-up in their peculiar environment without recourse to the all-seeing GOGLE. Given that longbows are not the best for a cluttered vegetative environment, it, therefore, seemed that the natives were labouring under a constraint of some regard. I suspected the limitation might be due to the material available for the bowyer's craft. Woods suitable for making self-bows have a set of superlative characteristics. During the discussion it was mentioned that the natives fashion their bows from a tree called black palm. At the time, I was unaware of the qualities and suitability of black palm wood for bow making. I was aware that the rainforest contained bamboo, and I was also aware that bamboo could be fashioned into great bows. But not all bamboo species are suitable for bow making, as I've found to my cost. Mayhap black palm is suboptimal for bow making, but it is the best available in the native environment. Regardless, I'm aware that if you are attempting to craft a bow from wood that is in some way deficient, it is wise to make it long and perhaps thick in crosssection. In this way, the stresses and strains inherent during the bow draw process are distributed over a large area, thus providing stability at the cost of efficiency. I've discussed elsewhere in this blog the intrinsic qualities necessary in tree species that signify, nay validate, a superlative bow-making wood; therefore, I will say no more here. If you are desirous of further enlightenment, seek within the blog, and you shall find.  

As an archer, I can attest to the difficulty of finding lost arrows at an outside range during a shoot. Even in relatively optimal conditions where the fletchings are colourful and the grass is short, arrows have the habit of mysteriously disappearing into the void. This is a well-known phenomenon among archers and is referred to as sacrificing the arrow to the 'Resident Arrow Gods'. Considering how expensive arrows are, I can only conclude that the archery pantheon is particularly avaricious. Therefore, I could see the advantage of having an overly long arrow with large fletchings in a foliage-rich and dense environment, as it would aid identification and retrieval under such circumstances. Furthermore, in such an environment, the prey would be close by, either in the canopy or in the undergrowth, as the rich diversity and sheer density of the vegetation would limit vision to the 10 to the 15-metre range, if that. Thus, the limitation of using a long arrow that is unsuitable for long-distance archery would not be an issue. Also, I can see how a very long arrow would aid bow fishing.  

Finally, I decided to check on the suitability of the tree species black palm as a bow-making wood. At a cursory glance, I learned that black palm is not technically a wood but a species of grass akin to bamboo. Also, black palm is not considered a premier material for making a bow. And indeed, the best self-bows, made from this material, are kept long at about 6 foot 2 inches.

In conclusion, the Indian natives of the Amazon rainforest have developed the best archery system, given the constraints of the materials available and the reality of operating in a challenging environment.  Nuff said.

This post is but a minor diversion on the road to further enlightenment on the nature of consciousness. Currently, I'm working on how consciousness came about and evolved in higher organisms. When did the first organism become aware, and why? This is the ultimate conundrum.    

Saturday 11 May 2024

A Fan Tail/Tale

My Adversary!

Just an interlude from my usual bollocks. In today's post, I'm going to eschew the esoteric science and philosophical trains of thought and derail into the mundane daily life of the Flaxen household.

Let me introduce my readers to a native bird of New Zealand, the Fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa). Tis a small bird bedecked with bright, colourful plumage, and as the name suggests, once perched, the cheeky chappy has the habit of displaying its rear plumage in an engaging peacock-like manner. Whilst strolling/patrolling the boundaries of my estate, I'm often followed by said critter. They swoop, cavort and tumble akimbo as if bowing to my very presence. Sadly and prosaically, I've subsequently learned that their behaviour is just a response to my stirring up the insects as I walk. In other words, I provide an easy lunch for these delightful and alluring birds. 

Although undoubtedly harmless, fantails are not without annoying habits. They are often keen to enter our habitats, especially if they have easy access. Thus, garages, with their large open doors, are an obvious attraction. My shed has a large 'roller deck' door that I often leave fully open to take advantage of the clement Wairarapa weather. As I work within the shed, fantails visit on a regular basis. They dart about for several minutes, alighting and perching briefly upon the beams before buggering off. 

The Maoris hereabouts have a superstition about these rather captivating birds. If they enter your abode, they are considered an omen of impending doom. In particular, they are viewed as a messenger foretelling the news of imminent death. Does a garage and shed count? I know not. Anyway, the other day, as I was working away in the shed, carefully applying feather fletching to a wooden arrow shaft, the aforementioned portend of doom came to visit. It chirped merrily as it flew from beam to beam. Initially, I ignored the interloper and carried on with the task at hand, occasionally taking a sip of a fine cold ale. Usually, fantails depart after a few scant minutes. However, today, my diminutive feathered visitor decided to tarry a while longer, and after about 20 minutes, I decided to stop work and shoo my unwanted guest out of the shed. Now, you may ask, why bother? They are cute, inquisitive little birds without a hint of malice. And indeed, this is the truth. But I have a quirk. I have a pathological distaste for bird poop (scat begone!). Therefore, it was time to persuade the overstayer to seek solace in my insect-bestrewn garden. Usually, a quick blast from the Makita blower induces departure, but not on this occasion. After a while, I changed tactics. I embraced the power of a long wooden stick and tapped on each of the rafters upon which the fantail settled. I was hoping that the bird would get the hint. Not this fantail. I had to give him/her credit for endurance as I sent the bird flying between the beams. After a while, I realised I needed reinforcements and decided to recruit the formidable resources of the indomitable Mrs Saxon. Together, we reeled about the shed, driving the poor bird before us in a concerted effort to convince the creature to leave. In the end, we had to admit defeat and accept that this small but noble bird had gained ascendance and would no doubt leave when good and ready. In total, I/we had spent a good hour trying to remove one small bird. 

As time was drawing late, I decided to leave, and so I doffed my hat to the lone fantail, raised my glass and drank a toast to its fortitude. The bird, in turn, acknowledged my homage by promptly releasing a stream of poo. I left the door and front entrance fully ajar, leaving my guest to egress without duress and on its own good time.   

I returned an hour later to find a shed bereft of fantail.    

I was so moved by the fantail's intransigence that I decided to write a poem in commemoration. As I began to write, 'The Muse' enveloped me with its canopy of lyricistic (not a real word) opulence. Please forgive my pretension to write in a late Elizabethan style. I write as the Muse directs and also I have run out of my meds. Read and weep.

Ode to Rhioidura fuliginosa 

In yonder shed, where shadows dance in glee,

A fantail visits, a sprite of airy grace.

Its feathers, like ferret's fur, light and free,

Yet bound by fate within this humble place.


A man of fair countenance toils within,

An ancient soul, here upon a quest.

His aged hand doth unfurl, finger point to one siskin,*

A stout staff a goad, for the winged one, no rest!


With wings of dusk, it flutters to and fro,

A captive of its own enchanting whim.

Though whispers beckon from the wild below,

It stays, entranced by shadows growing dim.


For here, amidst the rafters, it finds rest,

In corners where the light doth softly fade.

A chirping sentinel, a feathered guest, unbidden,

In solitude, its company is made.


No tempest fierce nor luring song's refrain

Can coax it from its chosen sanctuary.

For here, it finds its solace, free from pain,

A creature of the shadows, solitary.


Oh, gentle fantail, why dost thou remain,

Within this shed, where dreams are bound to rust?

Yet who are we to question thy domain,

In shadows deep, where mysteries entrust?


So let it be, this feathered denizen,

A symbol of the beauty in constraint.

For in its choice, it finds its own sweet ken,

And in its flight, a tale of strength innate.

Tis here in coarse domain, the fantail tarries,

Tis here, his perch, his home within.

No longer the staff goads and harries,

A place on a beam for brave urchin.

* Please note: Siskin refers to a small European finch that bears no relation to the fantail- call it poetic licence; call it a banana. Arse

Saturday 4 May 2024

Consciousness: Part I

Prove It

The problem of consciousness is fundamental to our personal experience, and the nature of consciousness is indeed a highly fraught topic that has no clear consensus between contemporary scientists and philosophers. It is in this murky pool that I have decided to dabble/paddle. Initially, and prior to diving a little deeper, I had fairly clear ideas concerning the problem. After a little research and reading, I'm not so cocksure. The subject of 'Consciousness' is a difficult pond in which to splash, and the waves are high. In blog format, I've decided to break up the topic into bite-size, blog-friendly pieces. Therefore, this first post is introductory. There is much to say, and, again, using the pool analogy, I might be in deep, dark waters that are way over my head.

Let's Begin

The Problem of Consciousness has occupied philosophers for over 2,000 years. Recently, scientists have had the temerity and audacity to enter the arena that was once the preoccupation of idle gentlemen. The study went from thinking very hard about the problem, as assigned to pure thought dynamics, to scientists applying the wretched 'Scientific Method'. And this has been the case for the last two hundred years or so. Regardless of methodology, the question remains: What do we mean by the term 'Consciousness', and can we understand consciousness wholly in terms of the physical? Or do we need to separate the physical world from the mind and conscious realm? Thus, we seem to have two intellectual approaches to the problem.

The majority of neuroscients fall into the 'physical camp'. The claim is that the brain is the sole/soul seat of the mind. Without a brain, a human, or any cognitive creature for that matter, cannot experience the world, and consciousness disappears along with the loss of the pineal gland. Consciousness is due to the action of neurotransmitters and neuronal connections, multivarious. At the fundamental reductionist level, consciousness is a consequence of ions passing between 'gates' present in neural tissue. However, there are those whose physical austerity is unyielding who propose that, ultimately, the mind is best understood at the quantum level. They may have a point. Knowing what we know concerning the unpredictability of the 'Quantum World', there may well be an explanation as to why my car keys keep vanishing from the last place I left them.

Philosophers, at least since Descartes, focus on the subjective experience of 'Consciousness'. We can only know our own subjective experience and infer that similar processes happen in others. However, there can be no certainty with this approach. Perhaps those around us are automatons without consciousness of any sort. Their actions are automatic and not driven by cognition. As the spectator, we interpret their actions as evidence of volition. But we observe a correlation which is interpreted as causation. Also, there is the brain in the vat problem. All before us could be an illusion, although a very persistent one. We observe and, apparently, 'feel' phantasms of our own mind, perhaps; certitude eludes us, it seems. As Descartes invariably and rightly noted using his method of Cartesian doubt, the one thing we can be absolutely certain of is our own mind. From that base, he built up the tangible world, at least to his own satisfaction. If we push this idea too far, we invite the spectre of solipsism. Intellectually, solipsism represents a philosophical dead end. It stands irrefutable, sterile and utterly outlandish.

The ancient Greeks invented the mind/body problem or duality, in which physical things were different from mental things. This idea persists today, especially among philosophers. Descartes believed that the pineal gland mediated a connection between the body and mind. He chose this small, unassuming gland in the brain as the 'connecter' for obscure and silly reasons. Even great men can have a bad 'intellect day'.

Today's philosophers and a minority of neurobiologists reject the physical hypothesis, the idea that consciousness resides completely within our neural tissue. Physical reductionists believe that eventually, given enough time and analysis, we will be able to discover how consciousness arises from the myriad of electrical connections within the brain. Dr Julia Mossbridge, a bona fide neuroscientist, believes that consciousness is not derived from physical matter at all. She considers that consciousness is primary and all else inferred. In other words, consciousness causes materialism. I can't help thinking that Julia has left the world of science and is now dabbling in mysticism; she admits that she is a little 'woo-woo'.

Dr David Chalmers holds qualifications in mathematics, science, and philosophy and showed precocious savant behaviour at the age of ten. The point is that David is appropriately educated and undoubtedly a very smart man. He has a theory (Panpsychism) that consciousness is a fundamental property like mass and gravity. He argues that reductionist physicality can never get to the heart of the problem. While it is true we can observe neural networks in the brain firing in concert with a specific conscious behaviour, these two events represent correlation. And even more damning: while eventually, we may be able to assign all brain activity to specific behaviours, it still doesn't explain the subjective experience of consciousness. The subjective character of experience defies reductive analysis. It could be argued that automata infused with an electronic analogue human brain could perform all the movements and behaviours of a human but feel nothing. This is the view of the philosopher Thomas Nagel in his 1974 paper: 'What is it like to be a bat'. I invite my readers to seek out this learned piece; tis a riveting read. After reading Nagel's work I do confess that the man has a point.

Due to my training, I have always considered consciousness in terms of the scientific reductionist hypothesis. Any talk of body/mind dualism seemed nothing more than an extension of Plato's discredited sophistry. Grudgingly, however, I have been forced to think anew due to the complexity and subtly of the problem. I have not yet abandoned my previous stance, but I'm certainly open to plausible alternatives. Dr Christof Koch takes 'Panpsychism' and extends the property to all matter, living or not. Consciousness pervades all. However, it is not equally divided in all. For instance, humans are endowed with the highest degree of consciousness, while a mouse has a lot less. This even extends to the quantum level, where atoms receive a very small amount of consciousness. The wheels of the train of rationality have long since fallen off, along with the train of thought. Frankly, I'm not convinced of Koch's vision of reality. The likes of David Chalmers have a less radical thesis and one that I'm willing to contemplate. I keep an open mind on the topic and await further enlightenment that I suspect will never come.

As mentioned, this post is only an introduction to a difficult and dense subject. In the next post, I would like to explore why and how consciousness evolved in animals. Nuff said for now.

Bugger, did anyone notice the dozy mistake in the last paragraph? Updated and rectified, akimbo!