Saturday 30 April 2022

Battle of Crecy Part I 1346

    Bugger, me Head has just fallen orwfff.

I initially envisioned this post as a one-off stand-alone. However, the gods of brevity decided otherwise. Tis always more difficult to be concise than verbose and my florid blogging style helps not at all. And tis always a challenge to decide what is relevant, germane and important in order to maintain credibility, and coherence and render the topic intelligible. So thusly, I have had to render/rend this topic into two parts. My first post will be an introduction, whilst the second will deal with the battle itself. I'm hoping to follow up this introductory post, with the second, in just a couple of days. May Woden steady my writing hand, and shit.    

When attempting to describe the 'Battle of Crecy' we are faced with the problem that the battle has accrued a certain mystique, at least in English speaking countries.  No doubt the English longbowmen played an important, nay major, part in the victory. However, there were other salient factors at play, notably the differences in professionalism displayed by the respective armies. I also suspect the French army acted precipitously due to the 'smell of blood in the water'. The French outnumbered their foe by over three to one and therefore expected an easy victory on that sultry August afternoon in 1346.      

The battle of Crecy between the English and French marked a serious escalation of armed conflict between these nations which had been simmering away since 1337.  The battle's outcome resolved nothing, and intermittent warfare, of varied intensity, would grind on until 1453.

The battle has been enshrouded in mythology in part due to the pivotal role of the English longbowmen in the battle's outcome. Furthermore, it seems, to some folk at least, as if the battle came out of historic nowhere as if there was no antecedent or prior bellicose interaction between these two proud nations. This is but naive fiction. In fact, the English and French had quite a long history of engaged warfare up to this point. But, as it came to pass, twas the battle of Crecy that really introduced the French to the battlefield prowess, and power, of the simple 'stick of Yew'. The Genoese mercenaries, serving with the French, had never sampled the sting of the yard shaft before this battle and they seemed mightily impressed and unwilling to undergo the experience again. But for the lure of high pay, men will do anything. Gallic tarts at 10 groats a brace, ain't cheap.   

The cause of the battle and the subsequent long term struggle between the warring nations lies within the complex political and familial relationships (Nobility, of course) between France and England during the Medieval period. From what I can uncover, the turbulent interactions between these nations oft revolved around the convoluted relationships between the respective nation's royal 'houses' and their various dynastic ambitions. To do justice to these 'political machinations' would require several, separate articles. A task, in which, I have no interest or technical competence to attempt. Suffice to say, at the time of the battle, a large part of Western France and its nobles and common folk owed allegiance to the king of England. Two hundred years prior to the battle, a marriage alliance resulted in the English king becoming the duke of French Aquitaine. In return, England supposedly became the nominal vassal of the French king. Clearly, this situation pleased no one and tensions between the two nations was intense and manifested in armed combat, of various degrees of intensity up and until, Crecy. In the Middle Ages, the degrees of hostility were decreed by economics; a poor state undertook war poorly unless large scale appropriation of wealth occurred. This explains why much of Medieval warfare was messy and low key. Of course, the Crusades proved very lucrative and changed European society, forever, and to some degree, kick-started our early modern era (discuss).

As is often the case, the death of a leader provided the pretext for a major war. On the death of Charles IV, the French nobles declared Phillipe de Valois, Charles' cousin, as the future king of France. The English found the candidate less than ideal and had their own 'ruler in the wings' ready to encompass the royal French mantel. Enter war, stage left.......... That is enough politics.

And so it came to pass that in the July of 1346 king Edward invaded northern France and began to ravage the land as he moved south. The French responded and Phillipe with an army estimated at 60,000 marched north to engage the English. After crossing the River Somme, Edward picked his position to fight near the town of Crecy. He chose a ridge to disperse and emplace his men and abutted his right flank on the River Maye. The English army, in total, consisted of no more than 13,000.  

As an interlude, it will be mildly informative to review and inspect the composition of the respective armies. At this stage of the 14th century, it appeared that Medieval society, in Europe, was entering a stage of transition, if not upheaval and this was reflected in the armies about to engage. The French army was classically feudal. It had a large contingent of mounted knights. These knights received no pay for the fight but considered their presence as an obligation to the king in return for land. Although these knights were tough and formidable fighters they were also ill-disciplined, haughty, independently minded and not easily controlled. The accompanying French infantry was a levee en mass and poorly trained. Not much was expected of this variously armed rabble and the serious fighting would be the province of the knights. A hint of professionalism was afforded by a contingent of mercenary Genoese crossbowmen.

The English army facing the French, although superficially similar to the Gallic host, was in fact organised in a radically different way and unlike the French army was no longer feudal- what a wonderful time to be alive. Regardless of status, high and low alike were paid for their service. Therefore the English army was more akin to a mercenary host and served at the king's wage. This distinction would manifest in discipline and the ability to act in a coordinated way under the direction of the lead knights, generally battle-tested higher nobility.

Edward split his force into three divisions. The vanguard was placed under the nominal control of the king's son, known as the 'Black Prince'. The rear echelon was placed under the command of the Earl of Northampton, a highly experienced warrior, while the king took charge of the central reserve in a vantage point to watch the battle unfurl. From this position Edward could reinforce his other divisions, as he saw fit, and in response to developments on the battlefield. The baggage and wagon train was placed in the rear to act as a barrier. The lines of foot soldiers were interspersed with wedges of doughty English and Welsh longbowmen. In total, the 'arrow chuckers' made up about 50 % of the English army, some 7,000 men. Before the French arrived at the scene the English had time to rest and enjoy a hot meal. 

The scene is thus set for the epic battle about to unfold. The next thrilling instalment will detail the actual battle and barring any unforeseen personal issues, will unfurl within the next couple of days.  


Wednesday 27 April 2022

Tempus Fugit


Is time travel possible? In films and books, the answer is yes. Numerous fictional representations depict folk either going back in time or into the future. The classic scenario involves a character going back to alter history. The plot often involves the elimination of someone who will, in the future, cause great harm. Would there have been a Second World War if someone had killed Hitler when he was ten? But interfering in the past would raise a number of paradoxes that are not easily resolved. I'll return to this interesting phenomenon later.

If I was of a facile disposition I would mention that in fact, we all travel in time at the rate of 1 second per second. Time is inexorable and, seems to us at least, to move only forward. But that explanation will satisfy no one and in fact, is rather glib and even trite. There is a way to look into the past without violating known universal laws and that is through astronomy. Every time we interrogate the cosmos we see stellar objects as they were, and from our perspective, as they looked in the past. For instance, the nearest star to our system lies 4.3 light-years away. Therefore it takes light 4.3 years to reach us from this relatively close star. If it exploded or ceased to be, we would not be able to register the event for 4.3 years. An example closer to home: our sun is 93 million miles away, and even though the speed of light is a blistering 186,000 miles per second it still takes just over 8 minutes to reach us. I suspect my readership is already aware of this quaint consequence and thus remains unmoved and perhaps, indifferent.

Einstein's breakthrough theories at the beginning of the last century radically altered our perception of how the natural world operates, at the macro level at least. Newton's systematic explanations were overthrown. Although Newton knew that gravity acted over a distance and was aware that this force was related and proportional to mass, he confessed he had no idea how it worked or how the force was transmitted/propagated through space. We had to await the genius of Einstein to understand that time and space are intertwined and that gravity could be explained, simply at least, as mass warping space- the greater the mass the greater the 'deformation' of space. Also, his insight that light has a constant speed, regardless of context, and that it represents the ultimate speed limit in the universe would result in weird time dilation effects. This post is not a review of Einstein's Special and General relativity, so I won't delve any deeper - perhaps in the future? Einstein predicted that time is relative and alters according to velocity and is dependent upon the 'participant's' perspective. At light speed, although the photons/waves take a finite time to reach us from objects in the universe, light 'perceives' reality rather differently. Imagine, if we could ride a photon and we didn't fall off, we would not experience time at all; everywhere and anywhere (unnecessary tautology) would be arrived at immediately. This is hard to conceptualise, but Einstein predicted time dilation based on theory alone, without any practical and experimental validation. Consequent experimentation has shown this to be correct. For instance, orbiting satellites travelling at 17,000 mph experience time slightly less than us mere terrestrial beings. The difference is not great, just a few milliseconds, but it has been verified on numerous occasions. To really observe significant time dilation we would have to travel extremely fast indeed and close to the speed of light. Of course, it is impossible for anything with mass to travel at the speed of light. However, if say you could travel from the Earth at 99.9% light speed and come back to Earth after 50 years, according to the terrestrial viewpoint, everyone on Earth would have aged by 50 years. However, from the traveller's perspective, the journey would have only taken 2.24 years and consequently, he would have aged accordingly.  Some physicists consider that time does not exist, in any 'real' sense at all, and is no more than an illusion, although admittedly a stubbornly persistent illusion.

It seems that significant time travel to the future is a theoretical possibility, but it is a one-way ticket. Time travel into the past violates the laws of physics, as we currently know them, and as intimated earlier would create strange and wonderful absurdities. This can be expressed using the 'Grandfather Paradox': consider that you could travel back in time and murder your grandfather before he sired your father. Accordingly, if the father did not exist then neither could the time traveller and therefore you could not have killed your grandfather (refer to diagram). There are those who reconcile the 'Ultimate Paradox' by positing alternative future narratives. So, if you killed your grandfather, there would be a bifurcation of reality where your grandfather continued to live and an alternate reality where his death would result in your nonexistence. Indeed, a select group of philosophers consider taking this thought process even further and consider that every action we undertake in the real world results in the formation of a host of, noninteracting alternative futures. This is not easy to conceptualise and raises many issues that are difficult to resolve from our interpretation of how the Universe works. There could be other explanations, but it has to be acknowledged that perhaps our minds are just not up to tackling this problem. Evolution has moulded our brain to cope with the everyday vicissitudes of life and is not designed to pontificate on the Ultimate Questions of our existence. The late, great Stephen Hawking believed that time travel to the past was an impossibility, and I'm not going to disagree with this towering intellectual giant. This has not stopped speculation on possible ways to return to the past. One consideration promotes the idea of 'Wormholes' in the fabric of the universe, which connect alternative possibilities in both time and space. The problem is we have found no evidence to date to suggest that wormholes exist. There are pundits who consider that entering a black hole would whisk the traveller magically back in time. I'm sure my readers can see the problems with this so-called, solution.

So, as far as we can tell, travel to the future is a possibility, given the right conditions. A return to the past is not so favoured by Natural Law, although I do believe there are equations that predict its possibility. If only we could get hold of 'exotic matter' that doesn't seem to exist. Quite a conundrum.

Anyway, enough of these bollocks, my next post will concern the battle of Crecy.

Tuesday 12 April 2022

Love and the Single Man

                                                      O Shit! It's Disco Flaxen

This is well off my 'beaten track' when it comes to posts. However, tis a topic that I find fascinating and is highly relevant to the modern Western world and young men in particular. Read and weep, especially if you are a young male.

The Dating/Mating Game

Due to the 'Biological Imperative' animals are doomed to pursue the opposite sex. Not only is sex pleasurable it is important for the continuation of the species (no shit: Flaxen stating the bleeding obvious).

In my dating heyday (c1975), the best way to meet a member of the opposite sex was to hit the 'Disco', usually at the local pub on a Saturday night. Go back with me to those halcyon days: A young Flaxen, long blond hair flowing, all dressed up in flared 'Loon Pants', crushed velvet jacket and a rounded collar shirt. The atmosphere was dank, dark, loud and interspersed with strobe lights. Both sexes sported long hair, and in such circumstances gender recognition was difficult; mistakes were made. So, in order to cut down on a 'misdiagnosis', when approaching a potential mate, my opening line was: "Are you a guy or a chick". Times were much simpler in those days.....

Cut to modern times. Discos are no more and online dating apps, such as Tinder and Bumble, reign supreme. I'm going to argue that online dating is great for all women, irrespective of looks, but extremely bad for the majority of men.

The overwhelming majority of men (the rest are lying) state that the most important characteristic they seek in a potential mate is 'good looks'. This is perhaps of no surprise and the empirical data supports this. As for women, when asked in surveys what is the most important characteristic desired in a potential mate, personality ranks supreme. Physical attractiveness actually scores 4th on a list of desirable traits. A positive of online dating apps, from a statistical perspective, is that they are a rich mine for data. And from data gleaned from dating apps it seems, when it comes to actual dating preferences, women go for 'looks' every time. Everything else is secondary. The next best thing is height. Women overwhelmingly prefer men 6 foot and over, with 6 foot 2 to 3 being perceived as ideal. Furthermore, height overrules good looks when a man is very short. Regardless, a good-looking man is doomed in the online dating world if he is 5 foot 4, for instance.

It seems, from the hard data (Tinder), 80% of women 'swipe right' on the 20% of men judged the most attractive. Also, for Tinder, for every woman, signed up, there are three men. On these two data points alone, it appears that, for the majority of men, online dating is a very poor strategy for attracting a mate. For lower-tier men, that is in the four and sub-four region (consider an attractive scale from 1 to 10), there is virtually no chance of attaining a match. As for the top tier men, say in the top 10%, when it comes to online dating, they can do no wrong and all women, irrespective of their own attractiveness, will swipe right. Now men being men, the top tier will have casual sex with most women, even in the lower categories. All women will ultimately desire a high tier man for the exalted status of 'long term partner'. This is where men show their true colours. While they are quite happy to sleep with 'ugly women' they have no desire to enter into a long-term relationship with such. When high tier men decide to enter a relationship they will do so with a woman of at least equal attractiveness, a condition called 'assortive mating'. In the same way, ugly men tend to have relationships with ugly women; desperation, when it comes to sex, knows no bounds/boundaries.

All this behaviour can be explained from an evolutionary perspective. This is where, my training, as a biologist kicks in. Men and women are 'programmed' to pursue different reproductive strategies. For men, dispersing the seed wide and far makes sense. Men are able to produce many children with different women if so favoured; the 'quality' of the women concerned is not paramount- for men, evolution demands quantity. Women are in a contrary position. Their eggs represent a scarce and precious resource. If pregnant, they are indisposed for 9 months and after the birth, they have to invest at least 15 years in their offspring. Children (modern children), are expensive financially but also in terms of 'energy, resource investment'. Therefore, a women's best strategy is to secure a 'high tier' man. An attractive man is oft endowed with a plethora of other desirable genetic factors. For high tier women, on the attractiveness scale, obtaining a top tier man who is willing to support their offspring is achievable. In contrast, consider, the options befitting low tier women. For them, they can reproduce with a high-status man but are unlikely to achieve investment stability. Therefore, it behoves these women to share their genes with these men, even if they can't get them to invest. So, their second-best strategy is to mate with a 'Chad' and thereafter seek a lower-tier man to provide long-term investment. As an example, look at the percentage of single mothers on dating apps. This is often the best way a lower-tier man can achieve sex, even at the cost of raising another man's child- this is, for a man, of poor genetic stock, not ideal from an evolutionary perspective. But what choice do they have?

There is so much more I would like to say on this topic, but the need to not exceed the magic '1000' word limit prevents this. Anyway, I am intrigued to discover what my readership thinks. Also, I'm fascinated as to other folk's dating experiences- let me know in the comments.

My final thought: As for most things in life. Do not listen, or at least give much credence, to what a person says, look at their actions. This especially applies to women when it comes to the fraught game of dating. WHAT! women tell lies- who would have thought it?


Sunday 10 April 2022

Flaxen in Contemplative Mood

Atheism is the most misunderstood doctrine. People are confused. So to set the record straight let us determine what atheism is and what it is not. Atheism is a lack of belief in deities. Thus it is not a positive belief. The atheist, as such, therefore does not have to defend his position or offer evidence for his stance. The onus of argument and proof rests solely with the theist. In the same way, a non-believer in pixies is not required to posit evidence for non-belief in pixies. If you believe in pixies it is incumbent on said individual to provide rational evidence for their belief. Otherwise, their belief exists outside rational scrutiny
and therefore is not worthy of sensible consideration.

There is a lot of baggage when it comes to being an atheist. People make assumptions. Atheists are amoral, immoral, communists or nihilistic. It is true that all of the preceding characteristics are not incompatible with atheism, but this is not the point. There are atheists who are communists, philanderers and full of despair, as are Christians. The point being that when someone tells you that they are an atheist all you can discern is that they are a non-believer in gods. Nothing else is discerned. Atheists don’t have to agree on anything else, whether in politics, morality or philosophical stance. Their only common accord is atheism.

How can morality exist if there is no god? A world without God will surely lead to anarchic and immoral chaos. But surely a moral code can exist without a belief in god. We know it is wrong to kill, steal and covet your neighbour’s wife. These basic tenets are necessary for any well-ordered and civilised society. Indeed, you could argue that atheistic morality is superior as it is justified by the merit of doing good and is not tinged and influenced supposedly by rewards or punishment in a mythical hell or heaven.

Surely let us enjoy this life. Feast, drink wine and make love to your wife. Arse…..

Do not pass by my epitaph, traveller.
But having stopped, listen and learn, then go your way.
There is no boat in Hades, no ferryman Charon,
No caretaker Aiakos, no dog Cerberus.
All we who are dead below
Have become bones and ashes, but nothing else.
I have spoken to you honestly, go on, traveller,
Lest even while dead I seem talkative to you.”

Friday 8 April 2022

Trilobites: In Life and Death

                       Ubiquitous 300 Million Years Ago: Don't Tell the Creationists

When Charles Darwin was asked by someone with a religious inclination what wonders, of the world, cast light on the working of God's mind, he replied: "An inordinate fondness for ferrets beetles".  Sadly, this is not something Darwin was wont to say- but he should have. Regardless, this answer would have been more appropriate, in my opinion, if it had been applied to the phenomenon that was trilobites.

This post is dedicated and inspired by this innovative, in the evolutionary sense, class of animals, collectively known as trilobites. Sadly, they are now extinct but in their heyday, they were the most dominant and prolific animal in the primordial sea some 500 million years ago. Over the weekend I attended the local 'fair'. Twas an eclectic mix of food outlets, stalls, entertainment and rides for the kids. One stall, in particular, caught my eye. The owner returned my errant ocular appendage and therefore I was able to espy a delectable collection of fossils, various. One, in particular, had caught my eye. Luckily it had landed atop this ancient artefact thus facilitating its recovery. The object in focus was none other than a species of trilobite called, Elrathia kingii. These represent the most common species of fossil trilobite found in shale sediments throughout the world. Hundreds of million years ago this animal was 'swimming' in the shallow seas of the Paleozoic period. And now it was about to be purchased by a slightly mad, but very pert, exiled Englishman.

Trilobites were the first arthropods to evolve upon the Earth and eventually would give rise to crustacea, spiders and insects. They evolved a series of features that were hitherto unique in nature and were incredibly successful, giving rise to over 20,000 species that dominated the oceans for 270 million years. Distribution was ubiquitous throughout the world and it would take four sequential mass extinction events before their demise 250 million years ago in the late Permian. 

Until the evolution of trilobites, the seas were dominated by a plethora of soft-bodied sponge-like creatures. Five hundred million years ago, trilobites burst upon the scene and rapidly filled a whole variety of ecological niches. As previously noted, they were responsible for the evolution of a number of novel features, including the first compound eye, made of calcite, and the presence of a hard chitinous outer shell. The transition and the introduction of a hard exoskeleton were likely to have reflected the evolutionary pressure afforded by predatory sea creatures. Obviously, under such circumstances, the presence of a protective outer shell would have been highly advantageous and likely to be responsible for trilobites' successful radiation throughout the world. The first fossils appear in the Lower Cambrian and are a testament to the ease of fossilisation afforded by a hard outer shell. In fact, the Cambrian epoch was a very fruitful time for the evolution of large numbers of separate species; a period recognised as 'The Cambrian Explosion'. 

Trilobites are known/renowned for their adaptation to a succession of marine environments and could be found swimming freely or crawling on, or within, fertile ocean sediments. Morphology was also varied although they maintained the tripartite structure of their ancestors. Some trilobites were just a few millimetres in extent while others were over 20 centimetres. The varied forms produced exotic looking animals with extended eyestalks, spikes and extra ridges. Also, they evolved the ability to roll up into a 'ball' another adaptive response to the presence of predators. Judging by the presence of trilobite fossils found clustered together it has been surmised that these creatures enjoyed a rich and complex social existence. Their mode of living was as varied as their morphology. And thus, predatory, plankton-eating and sediment grazing species existed together and flourished in warm and cold waters with equal aplomb.  

Even this remarkable, diverse and adaptive creature eventually succumbed to the vicissitudes and vagaries of 'Mother Nature'. However, it took at least four distinct mass extinction events over many million years and epochs before this most resilient of organisms became truly extinct. Surely, this is a lesson for mankind. We may pride ourselves on being the top species inhabiting this fragile planet but Homo sapiens has existed as a distinct species for probably less than 500,000 years. This is a mere blip in the time scale of life's presence upon this Earth. Nature cares nought for our hubris and overweening sense of superiority. Forces that we can scarcely comprehend and control are always queuing to wreak havoc and therefore change the course of evolutionary history, in ways unfathomable to man. It takes but one large asteroid (not haemorrhoid- although their impact on an individual's life can be devastating) to crash upon our fragile Earth, or a perverse extra stellar event or the eruption of a terrestrial hyper-volcano, to set off a disastrous train of events resulting in man's termination of tenure on this planet. An insouciant Earth will give not a jot or a scintilla of pity for our passing. No doubt the Earth will recover, be it in a million or a billion years and the inexorable march of natural selection and evolution will continue in its course, anew. Mayhap, a new 'dominant' species shall emerge. And remember, it doesn't have to be smart, or even sentient, it just needs to be successful in the great game of survival. Imagine far off in the future the Earth 'ruled' by an overbearing squishy mat of gelatinous goo, called Bertram (steady Flaxen). Uncomprehending, but ultimately, triumphant, for a time, at least.