Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Freakonomics on Piracy

The Freakonomics Blog has a post today about an incident involving America, North Korea, and Somalian pirates. I tell you, this piracy blogging thing is going to really catch on.

There's also a link in the comments there to a National Geographic article about modern piracy. I haven't read the whole thing yet, but it looks cool so I'll link it.

Pirate Wednesday - Blackbeard


Happy Halloween! One of the best pirate excerpts, Blackbeard, is below. Just before that, I'd like to point out just how much this Somalian piracy is exploding in the news recently. Exciting things happening in the world of piracy.

TEACH, CAPTAIN EDWARD, or THATCH, or THACH, _alias_ DRUMMOND, _alias_ BLACKBEARD. Arch-pirate.

A Bristol man who settled in Jamaica, sailing in privateers, but not in the capacity of an officer.

In 1716, Teach took to piracy, being put in command of a sloop by the pirate Benjamin Hornigold. In 1717, Hornigold and Teach sailed together from Providence towards the American coast, taking a billop from Havana and several other prizes. After careening their vessels on the coast of Virginia, the pirates took a fine French Guineaman bound to Martinico; this ship they armed with forty guns, named her the _Queen Ann's Revenge_, and Blackbeard went aboard as captain. Teach now had a ship that allowed him to go for larger prizes, and he began by taking a big ship called the _Great Allen_, which he plundered and then set fire to. A few days later, Teach was attacked by H.M.S. _Scarborough_, of thirty guns, but after a sharp engagement lasting some hours, the pirate was able to drive off the King's ship.

The next ship he met with was the sloop of that amateur pirate and landsman, Major Stede Bonnet. Teach and Bonnet became friends and sailed together for a few days, when Teach, finding that Bonnet was quite ignorant of maritime matters, ordered the Major, in the most high-handed way, to come aboard his ship, while he put another officer in command of Bonnet's vessel. Teach now took ship after ship, one of which, with the curious name of the _Protestant Cæsar_, the pirates burnt out of spite, not because of her name, but because she belonged to Boston, where there had lately been a hanging of pirates.

Blackbeard now sailed north along the American coast, arriving off Charleston, South Carolina. Here he lay off the bar for several days, seizing every vessel that attempted to enter or leave the port, "striking great Terror to the whole Province of Carolina," the more so since the colony was scarcely recovered from a recent visit by another pirate, Vane.

Being in want of medicines, Teach sent his lieutenant, Richards, on shore with a letter to the Governor demanding that he should instantly send off a medicine chest, or else Teach would murder all his prisoners, and threatening to send their heads to Government House; many of these prisoners being the chief persons of the colony.

Teach, who was unprincipled, even for a pirate, now commanded three vessels, and he wanted to get rid of his crews and keep all the booty for himself and a few chosen friends. To do this, he contrived to wreck his own vessel and one of his sloops. Then with his friends and all the booty he sailed off, leaving the rest marooned on a small sandy island. Teach next sailed to North Carolina, and with the greatest coolness surrendered with twenty of his men to the Governor, Charles Eden, and received the Royal pardon. The ex-pirate spent the next few weeks in cultivating an intimate friendship with the Governor, who, no doubt, shared Teach's booty with him.

A romantic episode took place at this time at Bath Town. The pirate fell in love, not by any means for the first time, with a young lady of 16 years of age. To show his delight at this charming union, the Governor himself married the happy pair, this being the captain's fourteenth wife; though certain Bath Town gossips were heard to say that there were no fewer than twelve Mrs. Teach still alive at different ports up and down the West India Islands.

In June, 1718, the bridegroom felt that the call of duty must be obeyed, so kissing good-bye to the new Mrs. Teach, he sailed away to the Bermudas, meeting on his way half a dozen ships, which he plundered, and then hurried back to share the spoils with the Governor of North Carolina and his secretary, Mr. Knight.

For several months, Blackbeard remained in the river, exacting a toll from all the shipping, often going ashore to make merry at the expense of the planters. At length, things became so unbearable that the citizens and planters sent a request to the Governor of the neighbouring colony of Virginia for help to rid them of the presence of Teach. The Governor, Spotswood, an energetic man, at once made plans for taking the pirate, and commissioned a gallant young naval officer, Lieutenant Robert Maynard, of H.M.S. _Pearl_, to go in a sloop, the _Ranger_, in search of him. On November 17, 1718, the lieutenant sailed for Kicquetan in the James River, and on the 21st arrived at the mouth of Okerecock Inlet, where he discovered the pirate he was in search of. Blackbeard would have been caught unprepared had not his friend, Mr. Secretary Knight, hearing what was on foot, sent a letter warning him to be on his guard, and also any of Teach's crew whom he could find in the taverns of Bath Town. Maynard lost no time in attacking the pirate's ship, which had run aground. The fight was furious, Teach boarding the sloop and a terrific hand-to-hand struggle taking place, the lieutenant and Teach fighting with swords and pistols. Teach was wounded in twenty-five places before he fell dead, while the lieutenant escaped with nothing worse than a cut over the fingers.

Maynard now returned in triumph in his sloop to Bath Town, with the head of Blackbeard hung up to the bolt-spit end, and received a tremendous ovation from the inhabitants.

During his meteoric career as a pirate, the name of Blackbeard was one that created terror up and down the coast of America from Newfoundland to Trinidad. This was not only due to the number of ships Teach took, but in no small measure to his alarming appearance. Teach was a tall, powerful man, with a fierce expression, which was increased by a long, black beard which grew from below his eyes and hung down to a great length. This he plaited into many tails, each one tied with a coloured ribbon and turned back over his ears. When going into action, Teach wore a sling on his shoulders with three pairs of pistols, and struck lighted matches under the brim of his hat. These so added to his fearful appearance as to strike terror into all beholders. Teach had a peculiar sense of humour, and one that could at times cause much uneasiness amongst his friends. Thus we are told that one day on the deck of his ship, being at the time a little flushed with wine, Blackbeard addressed his crew, saying: "Come let us make a Hell of our own, and try how long we can bear it," whereupon Teach, with several others, descended to the hold, shut themselves in, and then set fire to several pots of brimstone. For a while they stood it, choking and gasping, but at length had to escape to save themselves from being asphyxiated, but the last to give up was the captain, who was wont to boast afterwards that he had outlasted all the rest.

Then there was that little affair in the cabin, when Teach blew out the candle and in the dark fired his pistols under the table, severely wounding one of his guests in the knee, for no other reason, as he explained to them afterwards, than "if he did not shoot one or two of them now and then they'd forget who he was."

Teach kept a log or journal, which unfortunately is lost, but the entries for two days have been preserved, and are worth giving, and seem to smack of Robert Louis Stevenson in "Treasure Island." The entries, written in Teach's handwriting, run as follows:

"1718. Rum all out--Our Company somewhat sober--A damn'd Confusion amongst us!--Rogues a plotting--great Talk of Separation--so I look'd sharp for a Prize.

"1718. Took one, with a great deal of Liquor on Board, so kept the Company hot, damned hot, then all Things went well again."

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Business Model: Extreme Self-Serve

Let me preface this by saying I have absolutely no idea how gas stations are run. In fact, I know basically nothing about running a business period. That being said, here's my idea.

I really like to pay at the pump.

Years ago I tried using my debit card at the pump and it was an awful experience; too many questions, too much beeping, and the bastards try to trick you into authorizing "up to $70 fill" which means you pay $70 and if you don't pump that much gas, too bad. A little more recently I tried again using my credit card. This is a whole different experience. You swipe your card, gas up, and go. It's really quick, really easy, and you get the air miles or cash back or whatever card bonuses you subscribe to.

I want to see a gas station that is nothing but pay at the pump. Just a few pumps and... NOTHING ELSE! That's it. No little convenience store, no sleazy garage, no greasy teenager. It would be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week unstaffed. Maybe install one security camera to discourage vandalism and muggings, but I don't see crime being a problem because the gas won't pump until your card is approved, there is no register to rob, and credit card fraud wouldn't be any more of a problem than it already is at gas stations.

I imagine those little convenience stores turn a small profit when you consider that there's gotta be a guy sitting behind the counter selling gas anyways. If you remove that assumption, does the store really do that well in and of itself? Maybe, but you could always buy an existing gas station and rent out the store as a completely separate entity to reduce your risk and allow you to narrow your focus on self-serve gas. I wonder how much cheaper you could sell gasoline without the costs of maintaining a store/register and hiring pump jockeys (not to mention losses from people who drive off without paying)?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Cognitive Dissonance

Back to the Dalai Lama. He's in Canada now, meeting with our Prime Minister Stephen Harper. I already discussed my political differences with Mr. Lama, now I'd like to talk about his supporters in the west. Specifically from this article.

Asked about Canada's role in Afghanistan, the Dalai Lama said he believes "non-violence is the best way [to] solve problems."

"Using violence, counter-violence, sometimes it creates more [complications], he said.

Is it just me, or does that sound like something a six year old would say? First of all, non-violence isn't a thing. If he had said non-violent diplomacy is the best way to solve problems, at least that would make sense, but you can't 'do' anything by non-violence alone. It is defined by non-action. Second, that kind of over simplified wishful thinking is usually the realm of kindergarten students and Miss America contestants. The Dalai Lama doesn't know what he's talking about, and he has no solution to offer anyone. He says himself that he's "no expert on diplomatic formalities." So why is he so damn popular?

I figure either people just like hearing simple bite-sized unrealistic niceties that you would tell a toddler, or they genuinely support his claim to Tibet. If it's the former, well, those people are idiots. There isn't much I can say about that. If it's the latter, then it's a little more interesting. Why would anyone support his political claim to Tibet? It is a theocratic monarchy based on reincarnation. To genuinely support the Dalai Lama politically, you must not only accept that he is actually the reincarnation of the last Lama, but also that this is an appropriate way to choose a leader. If these western supporters were challenged on the point, I bet they would say they are in favour of democracy in their own country. So where does that leave you? Isn't there an implicit assumption there that Tibetans are somehow less capable or less intelligent than North Americans? Of course, WE should vote for our leaders, but THEY must have a priest as dictator.

Perhaps they are just taking cultural relativism to an extreme. I don't understand that either, saying that the Dalai Lama should rule Tibet because that's just the way they've always done it. If you go that far with relativism, how can you have any opinion at all? It's a complete resignation of morality - you're saying that anything anyone does is ok with you because... who are you to disagree?

It seems to me that any way you cut it, supporting the Dalai Lama requires some major self-deception and doublethink. I think it would just be too exhausting to hold two contradictory truths at the same time. I don't think I could do it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Pirate Wednesday - Maritime Bureau Report


So last week I mentioned a site I found from the International Chamber of Commerce Commercial Crime Services on piracy. I looked around their site a bit more. This is cool, they've got weekly piracy reports, daily alerts, a Google map showing all the latest worldwide acts of piracy, and a cool logo.



They also have a link where you can request a full piracy report from a recent year. You give them your email and they send you a big pdf. I just got the report for Jan-Sept 2007 in my inbox yesterday. Let's have a look.

There's an introduction describing the organization and the report, and some contact information given. If you'd like to help the pirates, you can do your part by flooding the anti-piracy helpline (++60 3 2031 0014) with prank calls. For statistical purposes, they define piracy as

An act of boarding or attempting to board any ship with the apparent intent to commit theft or any other crime and with the apparent intent or capability to use force in the furtherance of that act.
There's a long list of funders (traitors!) and then the report itself. This year so fa there have been 198 acts of piracy reported. The numbers (taken at the same time of year) for the past four years are 344, 251, 205, and 174. Clearly piracy is on a fast global decline, with a slight rise in the past year. This of course only confirms what Pastafarians have known for quite some time. Of these 198 attacks, 121 have been committed in 6 particularly piratey countries: Indonesia (37), Somalia (26), Nigeria (26), Bangladesh (13) Gulf of Aden/Red Sea (10) and Tanzania (9). Depending on your life goals, you'd probably want to either avoid or move to these locations. There were 132 actual attacks on ships, and 66 attempted attacks. What really struck me was that in virtually every case the pirates got away. The report specifically thanks the coast guard for catching one group of pirates, but other than that I can't find a single instance where the pirates didn't get away scot free.

The report contains a few more tables and charts listing the data in various other ways, but nothing too interesting. Then it has some ads for anti-piracy products (there's an electric fence you can buy that goes around your whole ship to prevent boarding) and some news reports about increased Somalian piracy, and then a more detailed narration of each individual attack. I haven't read them all fully, but none stand out as particularly cool. Certainly nothing like the stories from past Pirate Wednesdays. The report ends with some maps showing the locations of attacks. Not surprisingly, the vast majority were in east Africa and Indonesia.

I'm going to stay on top of the weekly reports and write about anything good that comes up, but for the most part, look forward to a return to harrowing tales of classical piracy on the high seas.
Next week: Blackbeard!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Great Beards of Our Time: Aubrey de Grey

Oh, what's better than a beard? What clearer symbol of raw male virility is there? And some, surely, are more awesome than others. I doubt this will become a regular feature, but I got the urge to profile a man with a great beard, who I also happen to like for other reasons.

Aubrey de Grey

Aubrey is a scientist and researcher in the field of human aging. His work is centered around identifying the mechanisms that cause us to age and decay, and finding methods to delay, prevent, and reverse these processes. He is a bit of a radical in that he believes complete immortality (with respect to aging and disease) is achievable within our era. He is the chief scientist of the Methusla Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes life extension research and awards prizes to scientists who break certain age barriers in mice. The implications of this kind of research are of course huge. There's a decent chance Dr. de Grey could become the next Norman Bourlaug.

I love this kind of science at the fringes. The collective body of research and literature about using technology and biology to fundamentally alter and improve human life is called Transhumanism. I've always been in favour of becoming a cyborg, like inspector gadget. I would like to have fake legs (maybe one of these) because I think the current technology is better than conventional human legs. Arms aren't quite there yet, but its just a matter of time. I would also like some kind of ocular implant, or even just a contact lens, that allows magnification and a heads-up display of some kind. There's no reason those things shouldn't be commercially available now. There's no telling what will be possible ten or twenty years from now. But I digress.

As well as doing very cool and very important scientific work, Aubrey sports one of the most Bad Ass beards around. No fooling around with this one, it's just a straight-up huge full beard. There are homeless men too self conscious to grow a beard this large, so for a Cambridge PhD to have one takes some serious balls.

Way to go Aubrey, and good luck curing death.

This is an evil man. I'm glad he's gone.

Deported imam outraged by his plane ride home

On the coattails of yesterday's post where I commented on the question of whether there are fundamentalist Muslims living in Canada, comes this story. This is so ridiculous I don't know if I can take it seriously.

Jaziri said he was deprived of any outside contact in the hours leading to his departure, including with his pregnant wife, and said the handcuffs he was forced to wear hurt him.

The Muslim cleric said the way he was treated qualified as psychological and physical torture, a nightmare that would take a lifetime to get over.

...

Jaziri was the cleric at the Al-Qods mosque on Bélanger Street in Montreal's Rosemont district. He earned a reputation for outspokenness by publicly supporting Sharia law, denouncing homosexuality as a sin and criticizing the controversial publication of the Muhammad cartoons in a Danish newspaper in 2006.

This is a man who advocates strict draconian theocratic punishments such as cutting off a hand for theft, execution for homosexuality, adultery or apostasy (which includes simply not being a devout Muslim) and the extreme oppression of women, is a raging homophobe, and an enemy of free speech. He has the nerve to say that lack of communication for HOURS at a time as well as UNCOMFORTABLE HANDCUFFS constitutes psychological and physical torture that will take him a lifetime to get over. Give me a break.

Surely there will be an outcry of support for this so-called cleric from a bunch of smelly hippies. Now, I'm as liberal as the next guy on any issue you care to name, and I value a tolerant society more than is probably reasonable. However, it is strictly antithetical to a tolerant society to allow bigoted men to enact their insane religious fascism. We cannot tolerate intolerance. That doesn't mean we should deport Muslims or even devout Muslims who passively admire Sharia law. This man violated the law and lied on his application for refugee status - that is why he was deported. But it's not why I'm glad he's gone.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Ayaan Hirsi Ali


Very brief background: Ayaan Hirsi Ali grew up in Islamic Somalia, was raised as a Muslim, subjected to the routine oppression of women, eventually fled to Holland where she became an outspoken critic of Islam and a member of the parliament. She currently lives in America and is under constant threat of death by jihadists.

I had heard about Ayaan Hirsi Ali a bit in the past, but I hadn't paid much attention because the things she was saying seemed to be beyond my scope. She's a politician talking mostly about Islam specifically. For the most part, those two subjects go over my head and frankly the specifics aren't that interesting to me. The other day I watched a video of Hirsi Ali speaking at the Atheist Alliance International conference (all of the videos at that link are fantastic, thought quite long) and I was extremely impressed. I watched a few more videos and for the most part liked what I saw. I believe that she does go a little overboard in some cases, but her arguments are convincing. I was also impressed with her modesty and humour.

Today I saw this interview with Ayaan in Reason. It starts with a great short biography, and the interview itself is cool particularly because it's Reason so where I disagree with Hirsi Ali (human rights) the Reason interviewer really challenges her. Her autobiography is called Infidel and is quite popular. I am definitely putting it on my reading list.

Whether or not you agree with her politics, you have to admire her courage. She is an amazing example of both success and tragedy (not to mention beauty...). Success because of what she has become, but tragedy for the events that created her. As a girl she was sold into marriage by her father to a Canadian. That felt quite like a punch in the gut to me, because we Canadians like to think of ourselves as equal to America in freedom, but more liberal. It hurts the national ego to think of radical Muslims who would buy women living in our midst. It also challenges the critics of the veiled voter law that I wrote about a while ago, who said there are simply no fundamental Muslims in Canada.

Hirsi Ali was also subjected to female genital mutilation in Somalia. Coincidentally, I read an article about that today as well. I have a pretty strong stomach for this sort of thing, I have always had that male fascination with the gruesome, so I'm pretty desensitized. Female genital mutilation repels me though; it makes me physically ill to read about it. This practice must absolutely end, by virtually any means necessary.

Within a day I have become a devoted fan of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She is certainly an inspiration and I second Dawkins' desire to nominate her for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Godgle

Here is a really cool site outlining the arguments for Google as a deity. I thought at first it would be just some silly tongue in cheek "OMG Google is teh rocks" site, but it is actually pretty intelligent. They've got some good arguments for why Google is the closest approximation there is to the common definition of God.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

"It's not your fault you're fat" says British nanny-state out of protruding, distended anus-mouth


Or rather, "obesogenic".

The British government, which has been spiraling ever closer to outright 1984 style communism recently, has officially decided to bin the notion of personal responsibility, and a hefty chunk of freedom along with it.

"Obesity, the authors concluded, was an inevitable consequence of a society in which energy-dense and cheap foods, labour-saving devices, motorised transport and sedentary work were rife.

Dr Susan Jebb of the Medical Research Council said that in this environment, it was surprising that anyone was able to remain thin, and so the notion of obesity simply being a product of personal over-indulgence had to be abandoned for good.

"The stress has been on the individual choosing a healthier lifestyle, but that simply isn't enough," she said."

Ooh, that last line gives me shivers. Ominous isn't it? Read that again: letting individuals make their own choices about what to put in their bodies and how to spend their spare time simply isn't enough. Subtext: the government must intervene and force people to behave a certain way, no matter what they'd rather do.

Now realistically, I agree with most of the above quote. It is hard to be healthy today, and it is a wonder anyone manages to stay thin, and it does go a little beyond personal choice because an unhealthy lifestyle is the default. However, the study is not passively relating this information to the public. It recommends that government step in and take control.

There is a small offhand remark about getting the public's consent to limit their freedom, but this is always a ridiculous sentiment. If the public wanted to eat healthier, wouldn't they choose to on their own? That's called the free market. They want us to think that every citizen will agree equally with letting the government control what they eat. That's called sanction of the victim. What they really mean by public consent is getting the consent of the majority to control the minority of fat people who choose to eat cheeseburgers. That's called oppression.

Pirate Wednesday - Somalian Piracy


A bit of good news for pirates, bad news for merchants. Piracy is on the rise in Somalia, up 14% so far this year. This form of modern piracy is, of course, nowhere as cool as classic piracy. It's something I suppose, but there's no romance to it. Ineffective corrupt African governments make it easy for this kind of lackluster nickel and dime piracy. It's actually kind of sad, poor oppressed Somalian citizens with little other means of survival resort to piracy, as opposed to young nobility taking to the high seas for a life of opulence and adventure. I'm glad that piracy is still alive in the world, but I hope that one day Africa will break out of the unfortunate position it has been put in, and piracy will rise again as a way to make a name for yourself and amass a fortune.

I also have a bit of exciting meta-pirate news. In researching the above story I found a great site from the International Commercial Crime Services and the International Maritime Bureau about piracy. They put out a weekly piracy report, as well as annual maps showing total acts of piracy by location. I'll look into it in more detail and hopefully incorporate the weekly piracy reports into Pirate Wednesday from now on.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The bigoted advice columnist

I was recently pointed to this article from Salon.com in the advice column by Cary Tennis. This really pisses me off. It's a letter from a dad, who is an atheist (at least, he talks about a non-belief in God and support of evolution, etc. He might be agnostic or something), and has a daughter who is being raised as an evangelical Christian by her mother. The daughter thinks her father is going to hell, and this upsets her. The father is asking for advice because this puts a strain on their relationship, and because he thinks "that organized religion is actively harmful to her development into a rational adult."

What is the advice? Well, right off the bat Cary ignores the second part of the problem, where the guy worries that his daughter is being raised by irrational faith-heads. Instead he offers some ridiculous football analogy where he likens atheism to someone not believing in football. Idiotic. Then he says the argument against a football atheist is "you need to go to some games" - which means the father needs to go to church to SEE how wonderful it is. Sounds like the Courtier's Reply to me. He needs to talk to a priest and find out how he can justify to his daughter why, within her backwards worldview, he won't go to hell.

This is a solution for a caring parent? Just go along with your ex-wife indoctrinating your daughter with lies because the lies are important to her? Fuck me! Aside from Cary telling the father that his beliefs about what is best for his daughter are meaningless (the implication is that atheists make bad parents), this should offend the non-religious as discrimination.

Lets change it around a little bit to clarify. Let's say the father wasn't atheist. Let's say he was Jewish. He writes a letter to Salon.com saying that his ex-wife is Christian and is raising their daughter that way. The daughter is afraid that her father will go to hell because he's Jewish. Imagine the same response!

"Listen, Jew: you need to go to a Christian church to see how great it is for your child, and talk to a priest. Find some justification within Christianity for why you won't go to hell. Your daughter can't be expected to change her bigoted opinions, this is what she BELIEVES."

Are you kidding me? No editor would allow that on a reputable website or magazine, they'd be flooded with letters accusing Cary of antisemitism! Why is it any different when the father is atheist?

The enemy of my enemy is not my friend

I've made it clear that I don't like the way China runs things, but I'm certainly not going to automatically side with their opposition. The Dalai Lama has been in the news a bit recently receiving various awards, as he is wont to do. He is set to received the Congressional Gold Medal tomorrow in the United States for god knows what, and this has understandably pissed off the Communist Party in China.

The Dalai Lama is an absolute fount of bullshit. Buddhism in general is no better than any other religion in terms of bad thinking and faith-based dogmatic rejection of a natural and scientific worldview, and it's only slightly less horrific in violent and oppressive human atrocities when compared to other religions. The Lama himself is a combination of the Pope and Deepak Chopra. I'm tempted to put Hitler in there, but I don't want to play into Godwin's Law, and he isn't quite as bad as all that.

If the Dalai Lama had his way, he would run Tibet as a theocracy, guided by the false religion of Buddhism. Freedom would be the second lowest priority on his list, beat only by scientific progress. There would be a feudal caste system in which the priest class live in luxury and opulence while the larger peasant class toil in poverty and manual labour with no opportunity for an education or social advancement. Criminals (those who violate ludicrous religious dictates) would be punished with torture and mutilation (the removal of eyeballs was a favourite under the last Tibetan theocracy).

Mr. Lama presents himself as a happy and peaceful man, and he says some very nice things. Outwardly, it is very easy to like him and respect him and want to support him despite his ridiculous irrational beliefs about reincarnation, dualism, and pantheistic animism. Looks can be deceiving. I wish everyone would just stop giving him awards. I was ashamed when my own alma matter UBC gave him an honorary degree a few years ago. If it happened now, I think I would write some letters, but I wasn't as outspoken then as I am now.

So, Dalai Lama: bad. China: possibly worse. Neither is worth supporting, and neither deserve awards of distinction.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Pirate Wednesday - Henry Morgan


'Tis time again for another pirate tale. This week it's Cap'n Morgan. I like this story because it shows the often blurred line between criminal and legal status of pirates. Many, like Morgan, were considered upstanding citizens and popular men in their own country, despite their bloody deeds abroad. Sometimes war is the rationale, but in many cases, as here, it was just hypocrisy and prejudice of governments.

MORGAN, SIR HENRY. Buccaneer.


This, the greatest of all the "brethren of the coast," was a Welshman, born at Llanrhymmy in Monmouthshire in the year 1635. The son of a well-to-do farmer, Robert Morgan, he early took to the seafaring life. When quite a young man Morgan went to Barbadoes, but afterwards he settled at Jamaica, which was his home for the rest of his life.

Morgan may have been induced to go to the West Indies by his uncle, Colonel Morgan, who was for a time Deputy Governor of Jamaica, a post Sir Henry Morgan afterwards held.

Morgan was a man of great energy, and must have possessed great power of winning his own way with people. That he could be absolutely unscrupulous when it suited his ends there can be little doubt. He was cruel at times, but was not the inhuman monster that he is made out to be by Esquemeling in his "History of the Bucaniers." This was largely proved by the evidence given in the suit for libel brought and won by Morgan against the publishers, although Morgan was, if possible, more indignant over the statement in the same book that he had been kidnapped in Wales and sold, as a boy, and sent to be a slave in Barbadoes. That he could descend to rank dishonesty was shown when, returning from his extraordinary and successful assault on the city of Panama in 1670, to Chagres, he left most of his faithful followers behind, without ships or food, while he slipped off in the night with most of the booty to Jamaica. No doubt, young Morgan came to Jamaica with good credentials from his uncle, the Colonel, for the latter was held in high esteem by Modyford, then Governor of Barbadoes, who describes Colonel Morgan as "that honest privateer."

Colonel Morgan did not live to see his nephew reach the pinnacle of his success, for in the year 1665 he was sent at the head of an expedition to attack the Dutch stronghold at St. Eustatius Island, but he was too old to stand the hardships of such an expedition and died shortly afterwards.

By this time Morgan had made his name as a successful and resolute buccaneer by returning to Port Royal from a raiding expedition in Central America with a huge booty.

In 1665 Morgan, with two other buccaneers, Jackman and Morris, plundered the province of Campeachy, and then, acting as Vice-Admiral to the most famous buccaneer of the day, Captain Mansfield, plundered Cuba, captured Providence Island, sacked Granada, burnt and plundered the coast of Costa Rica, bringing back another booty of almost fabulous wealth to Jamaica. In this year Morgan married a daughter of his uncle, Colonel Morgan.

In 1668, when 33 years of age, Morgan was commissioned by the Jamaican Government to collect together the privateers, and by 1669 he was in command of a big fleet, when he was almost killed by a great explosion in the _Oxford_, which happened while Morgan was giving a banquet to his captains. About this time Morgan calmly took a fine ship, the _Cour Volant_, from a French pirate, and made her his own flagship, christening her the _Satisfaction_.

In 1670 the greatest event of Morgan's life took place--the sacking of Panama. First landing a party which took the Castle of San Lorenzo at the mouth of the Chagres River, Morgan left a strong garrison there to cover his retreat and pushed on with 1,400 men in a fleet of canoes up the river on January 9th, 1671. The journey across the isthmus, through the tropical jungle, was very hard on the men, particularly as they had depended on finding provisions to supply their wants on the way, and carried no food with them. They practically starved until the sixth day, when they found a barn full of maize, which the fleeing Spaniards had neglected to destroy. On the evening of the ninth day a scout reported he had seen the steeple of a church in Panama. Morgan, with that touch of genius which so often brought him success, attacked the city from a direction the Spaniards had not thought possible, so that their guns were all placed where they were useless, and they were compelled to do just what the buccaneer leader wanted them to do--namely, to come out of their fortifications and fight him in the open. The battle raged fiercely for two hours between the brave Spanish defenders and the equally brave but almost exhausted buccaneers. When at last the Spaniards turned and ran, the buccaneers were too tired to immediately follow up their success, but after resting they advanced, and at the end of three hours' street fighting the city was theirs. The first thing Morgan now did was to assemble all his men and strictly forbid them to drink any wine, telling them that he had secret information that the wine had been poisoned by the Spaniards before they left the city. This was, of course, a scheme of Morgan's to stop his men from becoming drunk, when they would be at the mercy of the enemy, as had happened in many a previous buccaneer assault.

Morgan now set about plundering the city, a large part of which was burnt to the ground, though whether this was done by his orders or by the Spanish Governor has never been decided. After three weeks the buccaneers started back on their journey to San Lorenzo, with a troop of 200 pack-mules laden with gold, silver, and goods of all sorts, together with a large number of prisoners. The rearguard on the march was under the command of a kinsman of the Admiral, Colonel Bledry Morgan.

On their arrival at Chagres the spoils were divided, amidst a great deal of quarrelling, and in March, 1671, Morgan sailed off to Port Royal with a few friends and the greater part of the plunder, leaving his faithful followers behind without ships or provisions, and with but £10 apiece as their share of the spoils.

On May 31st, 1671, the Council of Jamaica passed a vote of thanks to Morgan for his successful expedition, and this in spite of the fact that in July, a year before, a treaty had been concluded at Madrid between Spain and England for "restraining depredations and establishing peace" in the New World.

In April, 1672, Morgan was carried to England as a prisoner in the _Welcome_ frigate. But he was too popular to be convicted, and after being acquitted was appointed Deputy Governor of Jamaica, and in November, 1674, he was knighted and returned to the West Indies. In 1672 Major-General Banister, who was Commander-in-Chief of the troops in Jamaica, writing to Lord Arlington about Morgan, said: "He (Morgan) is a well deserving person, and one of great courage and conduct, who may, with His Majesty's pleasure, perform good public service at home, or be very advantageous to this island if war should again break forth with the Spaniards."

While Morgan was in England he brought an action for libel against William Crooke, the publisher of the "History of the Bucaniers of America." The result of this trial was that Crooke paid £200 damages to Morgan and published a long and grovelling apology.

Morgan was essentially a man of action, and a regular life on shore proved irksome to him, for we learn from a report sent home by Lord Vaughan in 1674 that Morgan "frequented the taverns of Port Royal, drinking and gambling in unseemly fashion," but nevertheless the Jamaican Assembly had voted the Lieutenant-Governor a sum of £600 special salary. In 1676 Vaughan brought definite charges against Morgan and another member of the Council, Robert Byndloss, of giving aid to certain Jamaica pirates.

Morgan made a spirited defence and, no doubt largely owing to his popularity, got off, and in 1678 was granted a commission to be a captain of a company of 100 men.

The Governor to succeed Vaughan was Lord Carlisle, who seems to have liked Morgan, in spite of his jovial "goings on" with his old buccaneer friends in the taverns of Port Royal, and in some of his letters speaks of Morgan's "generous manner," and hints that whatever allowances are made to him "he will be a beggar."

In 1681 Sir Thomas Lynch was appointed to be Governor, and trouble at once began between him and his deputy. Amongst the charges the former brought against Morgan was one of his having been overheard to say, "God damn the Assembly!" for which he was suspended from that body.

In April, 1688, the King, at the urgent request of the Duke of Albemarle, ordered Morgan to be reinstated in the Assembly, but Morgan did not live long to enjoy his restored honours, for he died on August 25th, 1688.

An extract from the journal of Captain Lawrence Wright, commander of H.M.S. _Assistance_, dated August, 1688, describes the ceremonies held at Port Royal at the burial of Morgan, and shows how important and popular a man he was thought to be. It runs:

"Saturday 25. This day about eleven hours noone Sir Henry Morgan died, & the 26th was brought over from Passage-fort to the King's house at Port Royall, from thence to the Church, & after a sermon was carried to the Pallisadoes & there buried. All the forts fired an equal number of guns, wee fired two & twenty & after wee & the Drake had fired, all the merchant men fired."

Morgan was buried in Jamaica, and his will, which was filed in the Record Office at Spanish Town, makes provision for his wife and near relations.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Define Irony

Skydivers die in plane crash. Oh, the horrible irony.

Intelligent Design finally accepted by scientists

We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it.
This event, if it occurs the way it is being predicted, will one day be regarded as more important than the invention of the transistor, the internal combustion engine, and the printing press. Fire will barely maintain its lead.

It's Monkey Tuesday! WooHoo!

Two stories today about cognition and thought in non-human primates.

First is about how chimps play a basic game theory test game more rationally than humans, meaning they tend to maximize their own score better than we do. In the game, one player is given a sum of points and must offer any portion of it to the other player. If the other player accepts the offer, the transaction takes place. If the other player rejects, both players get zero. The only incentive to reject an offer is to punish the opponent for offering a small amount. Humans punish, chimps do not.

This looks like it could mean two things: one is that chimps simply aren't as highly developed in their cognitive skills as humans, and they cannot understand a concept as complex as punishment, or think ahead to future iterations of the game. Second, the social life of a chimp is much different from ours. They just don't have the complex relationships and social structures that humans do, but it isn't because of a simple brain, they just don't work that way. Bonobos have a social structure closer to our own, I would love to see the same test run on Bonobos.

Next is a brilliant study done on Baboons and their thought processes. Using recorded sounds to simulate normal (predictable) and abnormal (surprising) social interactions, researchers can observe how a baboon reacts to each and determine the level of understanding, and sometimes the actual process of comprehension. The results seem to show that baboons are able to parse information in much the same way that we do when we comprehend language. However, they lack the software for the reverse - turning complex thoughts into meaningful sounds.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Pirate Wednesday: Barbarossa


Oh, I'm on the ball this time. First thing in the morning I've got a nice little pirate story for you. This one is pretty short, but still pretty awesome. Bare in mind the dates, think of the level of sophistication in medicine at the time, and note how casually he just loses an arm. You gotta be pretty damn rough to keep going after that. I give you:

BARBAROSSA, or "REDBEARD" (his real name was URUJ). Barbary Corsair.

Son of a Turkish renegade and a Christian mother. Born in the Island of Lesbon in the Ægean Sea, a stronghold of the Mediterranean pirates.

In 1504 Barbarossa made his headquarters at Tunis, in return for which he paid the Sultan one-fifth of all the booty he took. One of his first and boldest exploits was the capture of two richly laden galleys belonging to Pope Julius II., on their way from Genoa to Civita Vecchia. Next year he captured a Spanish ship with 500 soldiers on board. In 1512 he was invited by the Moors to assist them in an attempt to retake the town and port of Bujeya from the Spaniards. After eight days of fighting, Barbarossa lost an arm, and the siege was given up, but he took away with him a large Genoese ship. In 1516 Barbarossa changed his headquarters to Jijil, and took command of an army of 6,000 men and sixteen galliots, with which he attacked and captured the Spanish fortress of Algiers, of which he became Sultan. Barbarossa was by now vastly rich and powerful, his fleets bringing in prizes from Genoa, Naples, Venice, and Spain.

Eventually Charles V. of Spain sent an army of 10,000 troops to North Africa, defeated the corsairs, and Barbarossa was slain in battle.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Burma's foul regime depends on Beijing. - By Christopher Hitchens - Slate Magazine

Burma's foul regime depends on Beijing. - By Christopher Hitchens - Slate Magazine

I make an effort to read every article I can get my hands on by Christopher Hitchens. I agree with him on many things, and I disagree with him on many things, but he is always an excellent writer. And the man knows his shit, backwards and forwards.

This article (link above) is particularly interesting to me, as I have recently fallen out of favour with China. To be clear, I don't hate China or its people, but as a quickly growing world power, I think it deserves more scrutiny and criticism than it is getting.

50 years in space


This Thursday will mark the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, the first satellite man put into orbit. It's easy to think of the various ups and downs of NASA and other space agencies over the years, and to complain about the lack of recent advances or manned missions, or whatever the popular criticism is at the moment. Just think for a second though, a mere 50 years ago there was no sign of life up there; no mark of intelligence whatsoever. Beyond our atmosphere there was a gaping void out to the moon.

In fifty years, within the adult lifetimes of many people still around to remember it all, we have launched countless satellites into orbit for a staggering array of purposes - virtually everything we do is in some way affected by 0rbiting computers, from TV to telephone to roadmaps and more. Space based technology has gone from science fiction to the tool of frivolous luxuries in under half a century. More than this, in fifty years we have put giant telescopes into orbit that show us glimpses of a universe more fantastic than anyone could imagine, humans have gone into orbit, lived on space stations, and walked on the god damn moon. Fifty years.

Now we are seeing a shift from government space programs to private ventures (see CNET's special report). Just think of how far we might go in the next fifty years if corporations, along with NASA, are able to guide and extend our reach beyond our planet.

I'm going to make a conscious effort not to dwell on past and future mission failures. Sometimes it's hard to remember just how amazing it is that we took that first step at all, let alone the giant leaps that followed.