Triumph of the West

If at the beginning of the 15th century you’d had to predict who was going to dominate the world for the next 500 years, the answer would surely have been China. From the sophistication of its sanitation system to the size of its fleet, China — under the Emperor Zhu Di and his eunuch naval commander Cheng Ho — was a country going places. Its mighty, 400-foot-long ships sailed as far as Malindi on the East African coast and probably Australia. It had invented the clock and, of course, gunpowder.

Europe, during the same period, was — relatively speaking — a stagnant, backward mess. Architecturally, it had nothing modern that could match the glories of the Forbidden City in Peking or imperial Nanjing. It was decidedly lacking in Confucian harmony and cohesion: a mishmash of violent, squabbling, plague-ravaged city states and warring kingdoms. Between 1330 and 1479, one quarter of deaths among the English aristocracy was violent.

By the end of the century, though, something had changed. Columbus, in a ship one tenth the size of Cheng Ho’s, had discovered the New World, while Vasco da Gama had opened a new trade route to India. And by 1842, the power imbalance had grown so great that to punish China for confiscating some of its opium Britain was able to demand reparations, including $21 million, the opening of five trade treaty ports and the establishment of a crown colony on Hong Kong.

Where did Europe get it so right and the Chinese so badly wrong? This was the question asked by Niall Ferguson in the first episode of his six-part series Civilisation: Is the West History? (Channel 4, Sunday). I can’t say I’ve been a particular fan of his earlier stuff, which has always struck me as a bit abstruse and pleased with itself. But this new one looks set to be an absolute cracker: cogent, urgent, persuasive and compelling.

Read the rest at the Spectator.

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5 thoughts on “Triumph of the West”

  1. Nige Cook says:14th March 2011 at 9:28 amYes, it wasn’t too bad. I saw it and Niall Ferguson half won me over with his discussion of the role of science in the military, showing off Benjamin Robins’ book which attempted to mathematically predict air resistance effects on cannon shell in his 1742 New principles of gunnery were enthusiastically taken up and extended three years later by the German language translator, the ubiquous mathematician Leonard Euler, in his improved Neue Grundsätze der Artillerie, 1745. Robins argued that the effect of air resistance increases with the initial velocity of the projective, which was revolutionary because the previous half-baked analysis by Tartaglia in 1537 and made parabolic by Galileo in 1638, claimed that air resistance was only important near the end of the trajectory.

    In fact air resistance is highest when the velocity is highest (in the early stages), because the drag is due to dynamic pressure, which as Euler found is clearly proportional to the square of the velocity of the shell. So as it slows down, air resistance becomes smaller, not bigger (as previously believed from intuitive guesswork). The key problem was determining the shell’s range as a function of gun elevation angle and the initial velocity of the shell. Napoleon studied the French version of Euler’s revision, and was able to get his gunnery more efficient than his rivals, whose military relied on an excessive amount of preliminary “test shots” to empirically determine the best elevation angle (wasting time, wasting cannon, and forewarning the enemy!). So the basis of Napoleon’s success was the brainpower of an English physicist!

  2. Nige Cook says:14th March 2011 at 9:41 am(Sorry, I was interrupted while writing the comment above; the second sentence is a dog’s breakfast.)
  3. JimmyGiro says:14th March 2011 at 6:04 pmI totally agree with your assessment of the Headmaster, in Jamie’s Dream School, as being the weakest link. And therein lies the value of the show; not so much for Jamie’s hopes, but for the way this show promises to expose some of the excuses that professional teachers (and their unions) come up with, such as blaming parents.

    Whether these ‘dream teachers’ succeed or fail becomes dwarfed by the incite we will all get by watching the reactions of real kids in real lessons. And I’ll bet a pound to a penny that the Headmaster will inadvertently expose his political training, along with the culpability of the teaching profession as it currently stands.

  4. Velocity says:15th March 2011 at 2:30 amNial Ferguson nailed only 1 major force for Europes, and latterly Americas, economic success: competition. It’s the most powerful force in capitalism.
    The other key he missed was freedom. Freedom of the individual to push boundaries, wether that be technology, industry or science (ie. knowledge).
    He touched on Chinas regression from being the most advanced nation but he didn’t nail the reason: authority or centralising of power.
    Centralising power of economic progress is fatal. Ity proved fatal to China.
    Whereas in Europe entrepeneurs, primarily agricultural and industrial, had room to breath. However Americas freedom surpassed Europes increasingly stifling Govts which is why America overtook authoritarian Europe so rapidly.

    Incidentally James ‘The Abyss’ is about to kick off i believe. The Euro and US stock markets have just taken what looks like the beginning of an accelerating wave down.
    This is important because it’s a lead indicator for the economy. And it also leads all political events (markets = horse… politics = cart).
    This last stock rally is being nicely ‘peeked’ by Merkals Emperor like orders for the minnows of Europe and agreeing to increase the Eurozone bailout fund. But this stock collapse is marking the beginning of the end for these last ‘chummy’ and ‘friendly’ Euro Clubbers. The declining stock market will now bring on devision, fall out and the inevitable split of the Eurozone in the next year.
    Tell Hannan… he’ll like the news… in fact if he knew how events unfold he could make the news and mark his place in history! He was very brave to use my line that business does not need the EU/Govts to trade across Europe in his speech at the EU. He gulped a bit delivering such a powerful message but deliver it he did (kudos for that)

  5. herkinderkin says:15th March 2011 at 2:37 pmJames – Nailed, pretty much. I cannot disagree about the key advantages:
    competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic.

    Neither can I disagree about that these are negatives:
    bunny-hugging, diversity awareness training, renewable energy and the EU. The last is taxation (and regulation) without representation.

    The way that successive UK politicians of both left and right have ceded sovereignty to the EU.is treason in my book. NZ politicians have similarly ceded sovereignty to foreign interests and the UN. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the same leaders have abolished the death sentence for treason. Playing it safe, no doubt.

    Two comments are necessary.

    It is ironic that China, which is growing very fast, has central control, but does it in such a way that it now at last has all of the key advantages you identified. (Actually, they always did have the last, the work ethic.) I am uncomfortable with the excesses of the control the Chinese exercise, but it seems to be working overall. The Chinese are out-performing the West.

    Part of their success – a big part, arises from the headlong rush of western businesses to source their manufactured goods from the cheapest sources. As a result, manufacturing in the West has severely diminished. The short-term profits have been made, but the overall wealth of western nations has declined sharply.

    And the Chinese, and latterly the Indians, are beginning to laugh all the way to the bank.

    Competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic. greed may not be such a crash-hot idea. It might be a good thing if western governments exercised some controls designed to promote growth. And abandoned the cloying, unecessary growth-limiting controls of carbon taxes.

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Television: Weekly Shockers

Did you hear the one about Jordan’s disabled son? Unlikely, since you probably don’t watch Tramadol Nights (Channel 4), nor read the Mirror (‘Katie Price furious after Frankie Boyle joke about her disabled son’), nor the Guardian (‘Frankie Boyle’s Katie Price joke sparks Ofcom investigation’).

Don’t worry, I’m not going to repeat it here. What kind of sicko do you think I am: Rod Liddle? It’s an issue, nonetheless, on which my sympathies are more torn than common decency tells me they ought to be. Sure, it’s absolutely disgraceful that a nasty Scottish comedian should make light of the suffering of an eight-year-old boy with septo-optic dysplasia and autism. On the other hand, any joke that provokes the collective handwringing of the entire libtard media, the world’s dullest celebrity (Price), the world’s most stupid celebrity (her ex Peter Andre), Amanda Holden, Mencap and Ofcom must, almost by definition, be one we should cherish and Re-Tweet as often as we possibly can.

And what on earth were these people expecting of Frankie Boyle anyway? It’s not as though he’s the new Ronnie Corbett, tickling us gently with his relaxed armchair monologues. Frankie Boyle uses comedy like a broken bottle in a rough pub. He’s genuinely scary and hard and unpredictable. That’s why people go to see shows and even to sit in the front row and be hideously abused by him. They want to see just how low Boyle is prepared to go. And the answer, hence his career, is lower than anyone else.

An expert on violence once told me that similar rules apply in street fighting and gangland warfare. It’s not how good you are at martial arts that counts, or even how big you are. The one who wins is the one who turns more brutal, more quickly than the opposition. It’s the theme of the Bob Hoskins classic The Long Good Friday. It’s the theme of real-life gangs in cities around the world: whichever has the heaviest- duty weaponry and most merciless footsoldiers is the one that gets to control the trade.

Not, you understand, that I’m brandishing Boyle as a small-willied man does his Ferrari or his pit bull. Though I admire his fearlessness — such as the way the week after the Jordan furore, he moved on to telling jokes about cancer victims — I don’t find him nearly as funny as I do, say, Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse, or Armstrong and Miller, or Mitchell and Webb. I never go, ‘Oh good. Mock the Week’s on!’ Still less do I have any urge to watch again his latest sick-fest Tramadol Nights.

(to read more, click here)

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2 thoughts on “Television: Weekly shockers”

  1. Chris P says:11th January 2011 at 4:20 pmAnd yet you yourself call people “libtards”. Are you still stuck with playground vernacular.

    You have zero useful knowledge that could be used to move the planet forward. You are just like all the other scum on the other side of the Atlantic. Getting paid to write garbage that puts fear in the hearts of the gullible.

    Scaremongerer.

    The people I know who come up with new ideas and solve difficult technical problems aren’t gun carrying Tea Partiers at a political rally.

  2. Don Stuart says:12th January 2011 at 5:57 pmThere there Chris, go and soothe yourself with a nice rub down with the Independent. Mummy will be along in a minute to tuck you in with a piece by Polly Toynbee.

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Religious conversion

The other week Simon Hoggart had a go at Rev — the new comedy about an inner city vicar played by Tom Hollander (BBC2, Monday) — and I don’t blame him. We had a similar reaction in our household when we watched about ten minutes of the first episode before deciding it wasn’t for us and switching off.

(to read more, click here)

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One thought on “Religious conversion”

  1. yaosxx says:30th July 2010 at 2:01 pmHa Ha Ha! Though I did think the fur coat bit stood in their favour – at least it meant they were less likely to be lentil-munching vegan nutters!

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Trouble Upriver

I rarely review TV drama.

Three reasons why I hardly ever review TV drama: 1) the length, 2) the politics, 3) sheer bloody laziness. I suppose the last one is the main reason but the others aren’t just excuses. It really is too depressing when, three hours into one of those Sunday and Monday two-part dramas, you suddenly realise that you’ve already wasted one evening and you’re about to waste another, but that you can’t bail out now because you’re in too deep — and what if something good and exciting suddenly happens?

Almost all TV drama is too long and the reason for this is that the more screen hours you fill the bigger your commissioning budget. So any ambitious director who wants to make a halfway decent-looking drama has to pad it out till it’s as bloated as a foie gras goose. This, of course, builds up expectations which the dénouement cannot possibly hope to fulfil. Especially not when — as is invariably the case, given the political sympathies of 99.99 per cent of people in TV — the twist turns out to be that the baddie wasn’t after all the innocent black crack dealer or the misunderstood Islamist or the fundamentalist eco-loon but, yes, yet another of those secretly evil, white middle-class males who make our world such a terrifyingly dangerous place.

Anyway, I’ve only seen part one of Blood and Oil (BBC2, Monday) and, though all of the above may yet hold true with part two, I’m enjoying it immensely so far.

(to read more, click here)

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Making a Difference

Many years ago, when I decided to ‘become’ a novelist, I shipped myself off to a village in south-west France called St Jean de Fos for three months, banned myself from reading any novels in English (lest they corrupt my style) and became an obsessive maker of French dishes like cassoulet because my first book was about a restaurant critic and I wanted to make it perfectly authentic.

Now that I am older and wiser, I look back on that era and think, ‘Poor naive young fool.’ I honestly doubt whether any of that elaborate preparation made the blindest bit of difference to the quality of the book I wrote. I could have stayed in London — or wherever — and quite possibly have written a better one, because I would have concentrated on things like getting the plot right and using my imagination instead of burdening myself with all this ritual and research and prissiness. Then, again, maybe not. You just never know, do you?

I feel much the same way about French cuisine. Does it honestly, truly make the blindest bit of difference whether or not you break the crust of your cassoulet three times, or use goose fat or duck fat, or include lamb or exclude it depending on whether it’s the cassoulet de Toulouse or the cassoulet de Castelnaudary or the cassoulet de l’other place whose name I’ve since forgotten? Or is the rigid formality of French cuisine — all the excessive training you have to go through, the regimentation in the great kitchens, the sublime arrogance of it all — just an elaborate front, designed to create the mystique which hides the unpalatable truth that, actually, Italian cuisine is way better?

This, more or less, is the question likeable New Yorker writer Bill Buford sets out to answer in his two-part series Fat Man in a White Hat (BBC4, Tuesday), but I’m not sure he’s entirely successful.

He certainly does the legwork — slaving in a number of mildly terrifying French kitchens; moving with his family to Lyon, the better to learn the chef’s art — but I suspect the inevitable book will be much more interesting than the TV show. Not enough of anything exciting happens; it’s too wordy; there’s no dramatic tension; it’s all served up too straight. Sure, one deplores this hideous new world in which every TV doc now has to involve major humiliation, serious stunt-action sequences, riotous colour and fake-countdown scenarios, in which unless the objective is completed within half a day the entire city will be destroyed. But that’s still no excuse for a return to the good old days of watching-paint-dry TV.

The scene that really exposed the flawed nature of the enterprise, I thought, was when Buford sat in a highly revered French restaurant eating poulet de bresse, stuffed with foie gras and black truffle, with a dash of Viognier and brandy, poached inside a pig’s bladder. Buford spent a very long time telling us how good it was. Yeah. I’m sure. But with ingredients like that, how could it not be?

Read the rest in the Spectator.

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Childhood hero

Never big enough.

I think I might be about the second-last person on earth finally to have replaced his squat, bulbous, stone-age TV set with one of those new angled, wide-screen, narrow, HD-ready jobs. My worry is it’s not big enough.

‘No, you can’t have a 50-inch. No way are you having a 50-inch. Not in MY house,’ said the wife, as the kids and I all begged and begged to no avail.

Of course, I understand where the wife is coming from. There was indeed an era when to have a large TV screen dominating your sitting room would have been considered vulgar or nouveau-riche or what we now call chavvy. But that was 20 years ago. Times have changed. Plus, I’m a TV critic — sort of — so I jolly well should.

The other new technology we’ve just acquired is a Virgin box because we’ve just changed our account from Sky so as to get one of those all-in phone, internet and digital TV deals. I’m not yet convinced the service is any better. The Virgin box makes a terrible loud whirring noise, whereas the Sky box was quieter. But it does have one clever feature — a Catch Up TV function — which means you don’t have to worry about videoing stuff any more. You can just scroll through a menu and catch up with all the worthwhile programmes you missed.

This is what I did with The Day of the Triffids (BBC1).

(to read more, click here)

Territorial Imperative

Ever since I gave up watching TV over Christmas and New Year I have become much, much happier. The reason Yuletide TV is so depressing is that — as with those tantalising presents under the tree — it’s fraught with a level of expectation it can never possibly fulfil. You think, ‘At last: I’m free. Free to slob; free to watch without having to worry about going to bed and getting a good night’s sleep so I can be fresh for work tomorrow. So, go on, TV: entertain me!’

I’m not even sure that it’s TV’s fault. I think it’s the problem with Christmas generally. The whole season reminds me of a slightly dodgy Ecstasy pill. ‘Am I up yet?’ you keep asking yourself. ‘When’s it going to happen? When do I peak?’ But you never do. Christmas lunch is quite nice. Singing the carols in church is quite nice. Then it goes on a bit. And a bit more. Then it’s over. I blame global warming. The only thing guaranteed to make Christmas feel like Christmas is snow and you don’t really get that in England any more except at the wrong time.

But look, I’m quite serious about this not-watching-TV-at-Christmas thing. If you really must stare at a screen, I’d just rent a bunch of movies you haven’t seen and watch those. (My mate Justin Hardy tells me it’s a crime that I haven’t seen John Carpenter’s The Thing — so I will.) What I’d recommend much more, though, is that you do what we’ll be doing this year and play board games, especially Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan.

(to read more, click here)

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Wind Farms: Will Paxo Ride to His Brother’s Rescue?

On telly Jeremy Paxman is a terrifying figure: combative, irascible, impatient, contemptuous and ungenerous. (For an example of the latter, do check out how he begins his interview with right wing US commentator Ann Coulter – who promptly wipes the floor with him). But in real life he is an absolutely sweetheart. On several occasions I’ve watched him compere charity quizzes and prove himself to be such a cuddly, good-natured, double-cheek-kissing, borderline luvvie I wondered whether perhaps he suffers from Jekyll/Hyde syndrome. Either that or the Paxman you see on TV is some kind of evil killer replicant version of the real Jezza, with all the human qualities removed.

It’s this nice, sensitive side of Paxman, I hope, which will ride to the rescue of his brother James – currently fighting a valiant campaign to prevent a wind farm blighting a beauteous stretch of Devon overlooking Dartmoor national park. Presumably the brothers get on (I’m way too scared to ring up and ask, in case the evil TV replicant answers the phone) and go to stay with one another. In which case, Jezza will surely have been to his brother’s Dartmoor pad, noticed the region’s rugged magnificence, and been struck by the fact that what the area really doesn’t need is nine wind turbines on 120 foot high sticks dominating the horizon and quite removing all sense of the natural from the landscape. And will thus be compelled to lend his weight, as a public figure, to this tremendously worthwhile cause.

Or will he? Paxman is an ostensibly bright man. But unfortunately there are an awful lot of ostensibly bright people who have been taken in by Al Gore’s Man Made Global Warming Myth, in much the same way as many global “intellectuals” were seduced in the Thirties (and Forties, Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, Eighties, Nineties and Noughties if your name’s Professor EL Hobsbawm) by Josef Stalin. Even more unfortunately, Paxman works for the BBC where to question the Al Gore version of “climate change” is about as career safe as it would have been for an ambitious SD officer in Nazi Germany to start championing the human rights of Jews, gypsies and homosexuals.

A bit like the Queen, leading BBC interviewers have to adopt a guise of impartiality so it’s not always easy to know what they really think. (Actually I lie, it’s pimpsqueak: they’re tree-hugging pinkoes, every man Jack of them). When I Googled to find what Paxo’s views are on “climate change”, all I could find was a piece he wrote in the BBC’s in house magazine Ariel, in which he lambasted his employers for their ecological hypocrisy.

He wrote: “It strikes me as very odd indeed that an organisation which affects such a high moral tone cannot be more environmentally responsible.”

“The BBC’s environment correspondents, even the makers of series like Planet Earth, are trapped in a bizarre arrangement in which they travel the globe to tell the audience of the dangers of climate change while leaving a vapour trail which will make the problem even worse.”

How are we to interpet this? The charitable interpretation is that he is not taking a stance on “climate change” per se, merely on the inconsistency of the BBC’s attitude, viz: ‘If you really believe all this green drivel you’re spouting, at least show some kind of intellectual and moral consistency.’

What makes me fear that Paxo is very much part of the problem not the solution, however, is his apparent belief in ‘carbon credits’. Elsewhere in the article, he complains that BBC staff are being forced personally to fork out for the cost of carbon-offsetting the air-, land- and sea-miles for all their BBC junkets to the Olympics, Glastonbury, and God knows where else. He speaks as if, somehow, this were a bad thing; as if – heaven forfend – it ought to be the licence-payer who ought to be funding these carbon-offsets.

“Come off it, Jeremy!” as I’m sure his killer TV replicant would say under different circumstances. There are varying levels of credulousness and air-headed stupidity among warmists. But only the really thickest of thick actually believe that paying fifteen quid so that some bloke in India can plant a mango tree so as to carbon-neutralise the cost of your eco-junket in Copenhagen is anything other than silly, pointless and redolent of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Still, here is the perfect opportunity for Paxo to prove me wrong. Go on Jezza! Come out for your bro! Speak up against the wind farm menace! Otherwise, it may be that I shall be forced to distrust anything you say on any subject ever again, for I will know that you are not the  questing, intellectually fearless empiricist you claim to be but, well frankly, that you’re just another of Al Gore’s useful idiots.

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