Neanderthal Culture

We like to think that culture separates humans from animals, but what is the sign of culture? The reason this is of interest is that recently cave art has been discovered in some Spanish caves that is at least 60,000 years old, which means that it was drawn by Neanderthals as Homo sapiens did not arrive in Europe for another 20,000 years. It is not as distinctive as some of the cave art found in French caves, but that may not be surprising, since it has had to last an additional 30,000 years or so, and some has been dated to over 100,000 years.

Neanderthals are often considered as unsophisticated brutes, incapable of art, and far less technically capable than us. That has often been argued because Homo sapiens made quite sharp arrowheads and Neanderthals did not. It is true that Homo sapiens also made sharper spear tips, but this may be because the two races/species hunted differently. The Neanderthals were ambush hunters in the ice age forests whereas Homo sapiens arrived as grass-lands were appearing, and had to hunt in the open. This may be why the Neanderthals gave way: they simply could not get enough food. That we shall never know. There is also an argument that we have a few per cent of Neanderthal genes, which means the two interbred, which to me suggests they were simply different races and not different species.

As for being clumsy brutes, I saw in a museum near the palace at Versailles some artifacts, and yes, by and large the weapons used by the Neanderthals for hunting were far more clumsy looking, and would need a lot more power to use. But they were far more powerful. They had strength, but not stamina. They had not mastered flint knapping, and I am not sure whether they even knew about flint. We have to be careful in making such statements because although we have a number of artefacts, they tend to have been collected from a few very selected places, and during an ice age, the supply or resources may have been considerably less. However, at this museum there was also a bone flute that was attributed to them. If so, that means they made music. The caves also contained shells with holes pierced in them, strongly suggestive that the shells were made into necklaces.

Now the paintings. The way we know how old they are is interesting. The cave artists used inorganic pigments, by and large, although the black may have been carbon. However, the dating was done by a particularly crafty means. The paintings have a thin layer of calcite over them, deposited by groundwater seeping down over them. The water contains tiny levels of uranium, and when lodged in the calcite, it decays to thorium. (Thorium oxide is effectively insoluble in water, so it would not have been in the original water.) The uranium/thorium ratio allows us to date the calcite, and interestingly, although this layer is relatively thin, they have been able to shave it and find that the deeper calcite is indeed older.

So they drew, they made music, they adorned themselves. Not that much different from us.


A Fictional Eulogy

I was invited by Baer Books Press to write a fictional eulogy for one of my fictional characters. I could hardly turn that down, and it was fun to write, and maybe fun to read, which is unusual for a eulogy. Anyway, here is the link:

Character Eulogy for Kuyrill Kazyn

Try it.

The Latest Indictments by Robert Mueller

Probably the most interesting thing to happen this week on the world stage, as opposed to locally, was the issuing of indictments by Robert Mueller. These came as quite a surprise to me because they were only peripherally related to the election. The few things that were, like dressing up as Hillary Clinton in prison garb was, in my opinion, more juvenile than anything else, and the charge of posting tweets that might have influenced voters seems to me to be a bit over the top. It almost made me wonder if anything I had written in various posts could be considered as “influencing American voters”. If it were, then I find that strange because I have no preference for American politics, but because of the importance of the US, of course I am interested in what goes on there.

One of the things that surprised me about this indictment was its length. It is 37 pages long, and some of the allegations seem to me to be ridiculously trivial. One allegation I found interesting was that some of these Russians “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign”. This would seem to indicate that Trump’s protestations that there was no collusion is valid. Collusion implies knowledge of what you are doing; being fooled by someone is hardly collusion. Another interesting thing about this allegation is that it gives no examples of what actually happened with these “unwitting individuals”. It could be a straw man allegation for all we know, and no evidence is likely to be required because I can’t see these Russian coming to the US to defend themselves.

One of the defendants is a collection of entities termed “the organization”, and it had an annual budget of millions of dollars. That is a fairly trivial budget compared with what the American parties spent. It “obviously” had Russian government involvement because one of the officers had been in a company that provided food for the Kremlin. Now that is a deep association. It divided itself into sections and posted on social media, with the goal of spreading distrust towards candidates and the political system in general. If so, we have to admire its success, because if you look at the social media there are a lot of people who do not trust their politicians. Apparently the organization received money though a number of Russian banks, but given that it is a registered Russian company and its headquarters are in St Petersburg, that is hardly surprising, nor is it a crime. A cited example of their efforts at subverting the US elections was to have somebody stand outside the White House with a sign saying “Happy 55th Birthday Dear Boss”. What an earth-shattering criminal he was! One man, R. Bovda, attempted to travel to the US under false pretenses but could not get a visa. Obviously a master criminal! Most of the other defendants are charged with holding office in the Russian company. Charged? Why is that a crime?

A number of the defendants were charged either with attempting to enter the US or of doing so and not disclosing their full intentions. The indictment even mentions that two who succeeded wrote a report summarizing their itineraries and listing their expenses. Maybe they were complying with tax law. They talked to Americans, and even made a list of US public holidays. And someone paid them to do this? Others posted on social media, under misleading identities, with the intention of irritating Americans. Now that is sterner stuff.

Apparently these Russians were real spoil sports, as they periodically destroyed or deleted data, emails, and other evidence of their activities. However, the FBI seems to have taken the trouble to look up Facebook and check their history. Again, hardly master criminals. They purchased Facebook ads for “March for Trump” rallies, but also advertised “Support Hillary. Save American Muslims”, although later they tried “Down with Hillary”. For people being paid to do this, they lacked focus.

Some were also charged with obtaining money by fraud, including defrauding a federally insured institution. They are also charged with misrepresenting and lying on their visa application, and in carrying out identity theft, and used false credit cards thus defrauding the financial institutions. They also perpetrated wire fraud and bank fraud. At this point I should add that it is highly appropriate that such people be charged for such crimes, and dealt with in the usual way. However, what I find surprising is that these sort of crimes are not usually given this sort of publicity. The usual procedure is to apprehend the perpetrator, charge them, and let the law run its course. It is hardly of the stature of international crime. Another oddity is that no American is charged, and presumably the Russians are in Russia, so why release this now? Why not say nothing, hope they try to enter the US again, and if they do, arrest them? Is the release to show evidence that Mueller has been doing something? Hopefully, not to divert attention from other problems.

At the same time, an ex-Director of the CIA has apparently publicly stated that the CIA has regularly interfered with foreign elections, “but only for the greater good”. The greater good of whom? Why was Pinochet of greater good than Salvador Allende? Admittedly, the American mining companies in Chile would agree, but would the Chileans at the time? If it is for the greater good of America, why can’t some other country do the same for the greater good of their country? Then we might ask, what was the budget of the CIA for these ventures? My guess is it would be far greater than “millions”. The Russians should be accused of being cheapskates, or maybe the CIA of wasting tax-payer’s money?

In one of my futuristic novels, I had a different form of governance, and there was a fringe movement calling for “the return of democracy” (not that we actually have it now – our western governments are of the Republic form). Three very senior people sit around a table discussing this, laughing at the bizarreness of those long-gone times. However, I never foresaw anything quite like the present political mess.

More Bombs for Syria

Now that ISIS is essentially beaten as a state, a number of questions arise, and the last two weeks has brought the need for answers. The first question is, what happened to the ISIS fighters? A number of them were killed, but from what we can make out, a lot of them from Raqqa were allowed out by the US forces in the area and they seemingly went in the direction of Deir ez-Zor, which is on the Euphrates, and nominally has a population over 210,000, although these days, who knows? Deir ez-Zor was surrounded by ISIS for about three years, but it was recently liberated by the Syrian Army on the Western bank of the Euphrates after considerable fighting.

What happened next in this area is unclear. What I think might have happened is that the Syrian army crossed the Euphrates and moved towards what they think is the last bastion of ISIS (and recall a lot of ISIS fighters were permitted to head in this direction) when they were bombed by the US air force, killing about a hundred of them. What we next here is the US claimed the bombing was in self defence. How come an armoured infantry unit was attacking the USAF? Obviously, it wasn’t, so what was happening? Eventually, it became clear that “self defence” without a further explanation was not exactly convincing, so then we find, they were defending “a secret US base.”

That raises more questions. First, if it is that secret, maybe the Syrians did not know it was there, and they were attacking the ISIS or al Qaeda people believed to be there. For the purpose of this essay, al Qaeda refers to whatever it has been rebranded as. al Nusra was effectively al Qaeda, but it too has rebranded itself, seemingly more than once, but it has not changed its terrorist ideology. So did the Syrians actually know? Had the US told the Syrian government they were putting a military camp in their country? Just imagine what the US response would be if it turned out that North Korea had such a camp in the US.

The next question is, what were these US soldiers doing there? The official answer appears to be, “training moderate rebels”. US intervention led to al Qaeda after the US abandoned those who had helped get the Russians out of Afghanistan, and it was instrumental in forming ISIS after it had no idea what to do with the Iraqi army after the GWB invasion. Given that we know ISIS fighters headed in this direction, how do we know the US isn’t simply training and supplying the rebranded version of ISIS? As the week has progressed, the explanations from the Americans has also changed, so it is unclear what the truth really is, other than there is a US base more or less on an oilfield, which in turn is preventing the government of Syria from getting access to the oil.

All of which raises the question, why is this base located there? The answer to that seems ominously familiar: it appears to be located near or on an oil field managed, and maybe part-owned, by Conoco. Was the US action to protect the business interests of an American company against those of the legal government of the country it was in? Also, why has this oilfield been rather untroubled by the terrorism? We know ISIS was gaining most of its funds from selling oil, and most of the Syrian oil comes from this field. So at first sight, ISIS fighters leaving Raqqa and heading towards Deir ez-Zor might indicate that they were to make a last stand there, but from a strategic point, this makes no sense at all because it could never sell the oil. Another possibility is that the fighters were going to merge with the rebranded al Qaeda units, who seemed to have US blessing because they were labeled as “moderate” opposition to al-Assad, so here was a chance to get protection before . . . Before what? My view is, whatever they are thinking, those terrorists are not suddenly going to turn into model citizens working for peace and economic growth. The ugly option is that the US could not care less who it helps as long as it gets rid of Assad.

So, Assad is a bad leader. Maybe he should be prevented from getting his hands on the oil. But then comes the next question: how will Syria be rebuilt? The only real source of potential money to do this is from the oil. Both the Americans and the Russians have carried out extensive bombing to get rid of ISIS, and that may seem to be legitimate, but somebody has to rebuild Syria, and there is no sign whatsoever that the US wants to help do this.

Another event in Syria was the shooting down of a Russian aircraft by a surface to air missile from another rebranded al Qaeda hold-out. Now, where did that come from? We can probably eliminate Russia or China, so that effectively means Israel or the West. The US denied giving such missiles to Syrian opposition forces, and that is almost certainly the truth if we add, “directly”, but what about from places like Saudi Arabia, which buys a lot of sophisticated US military equipment. Interestingly, the Russian air force immediately began bombing heavily the area where the missile came from, without any further response. That suggests that if they know they are there, they are less troubled.

Finally, it is worth noting what the effects of such bombing are. Mosul was “liberated” in July 2017. Right now, approaching seven months later, they are still digging bodies out of the rubble. The bombing has essentially made the city uninhabitable, and many major earthquake zones seem rather impressively sound in comparison, but what happens to the citizens? They are on their own, although they seem to have been given tents. Are those people going to thank the “liberating bombing”, or have we created the next generation of terrorists?

Summer Storms

New Zealand has just had some more bad weather. Not an outstanding statement, but it does add a little more to the sort of effects that climate change is bringing to us. We have had quite a warm summer. Certainly not as hot as Australia, but where I live we have had many days hotter than what before were outstandingly hot days. On many days, we had temperatures about ten degrees Centigrade above the January average. Apart from one day of rain shortly after Christmas, we had almost no rain from October and the country was in a severe drought. You may say, well, a lot of countries have months without rain – so what? The so what is that October and November are usually the rather wet months here.

Then a week ago we got a storm. It was supposed to be “a depression that was the remains of a tropical cyclone” but with wind speeds of 86 knots reported, by my count that is still a tropical cyclone, except it is no longer in the tropics. (It just limps in to a category 2 hurricane.) Why did it not die down? Probably because the surface waters of the Tasman are at record high temperatures, and seven degrees Centigrade above average in places, and warm sea waters feed these systems with extra energy and water.

Where I am, we were lucky because the system more or less passed us by. The highest wind speed here was 76 knots, but that is still more than a breeze. We also missed most of the rain. Yes, we did get rain, but nowhere near as much as South Westland, where 0.4 meters of rain falling in a day was not uncommon.

The rain did some good. A couple of scrub fires broke out in Otago, and it looked like they would be extremely difficult to contain, thanks to the drought. The best the fire service could do would be like spitting at it compared with what the cyclone brought to bear.

However, the main effect was to be a great inconvenience, especially to Westland. Westland is largely a very thin strip of flat land, or no flat land, running through very tortuous mountain country. If you have nothing better to do, go to Google Earth and zoom in on the town of Granity (41o37’47″S; 171o51’13″E). What you will see is the hill, which goes up very steeply to over 300 meters before rising more “gently to the town of Millerton at about 700 meters. Between the road and the sea is one layer of houses, and the storm was washing up into their back doors.

The hills and mountains are very young, which means they have very little erosion, whole a lot of the rock is relatively soft sedimentary rock. There are some granitic extrusions, and these merely provide another reason for the rest to be even more tortuous. The whole area is also torn apart, and constructed, from continuing earthquakes. Finally, there is fairly heavy subtropical rain forest, parts getting over ten meters of rain a year. The area is quite spectacular, and popular with tourists, and it is very well worthwhile driving through it. Once you could see glaciers flowing through rain forest; now, unfortunately, the glaciers have retreated thanks to global warming and they only flow down mountainsides but they are still worth seeing.

The net result of all this is that when this cyclone struck, the only road going north-south and was west of the mountains got closed thanks to slips (one was a hundred meters wide of fallen rock from a hill) and trees knocked over by the wind. Being stuck there would be an experience, especially since the place is basically unpopulated. If you want to see the wild, you tend to be short of facilities. Some were quite upset about this, but my question to them was, this cyclone was predicted for about three days in advance. If you really could not put up with it, why go there? One grump was recorded as saying, “This sort of thing would not happen in . . . ” (I left out the country – this person did not define them.) Well, no, it would not. They don’t get tropical cyclones, hurricanes typhoons, or whatever you want to call them, and they don’t have this difficult terrain. One way or another, we have to put up with weather.

However, the real point of this is to note there is still glacial progress being made to do anything sensible to hold global warming. There is a lot of talk, but most of it is of the sort, “We have to do . . . by the next fifty years.” No, we have to start a more determined effort now.