Saturday, 27 June 2015

Phalanx, Testudo and Pig Shit

Like the Penguin, I am fascinated by 'coincidence' and, like reading Borges, how one thought seems to stimulate other thoughts which may be considered as almost 'non sequitors'; bearing only a very tenuous relation to the previous thought. It is no doubt a quirk of the human brain's 'wiring', brought about by the incessant struggle of our remote ancestor's to survive to breed, but is interesting nonetheless.

I have recently been re-watching the excellent HBO series 'Rome' on DVD. Whilst it is largely fantasy woven around some documented history ('documented' in this context revolves around how much credence you give Suetonius, Cassius Dio et al), it does seek to portray a historically accurate picture of Rome as a city of three distinct classes, patricians, plebs and slaves, and the wildly differing notion of morality in a pre-Christian society.  (The fact that Roman morality in the period immediately before and after the Christian era lends a prodigious scope for nudity, simulated sex and gory violence would be an added bonus for the series' producers. HBO would be one of the first 'networks' to display naked breasts, and nipples, on TV in the USA in the ground-breaking 'Dream On' in the early nineties. The fact that the 'major' networks in the US have failed to latch onto this obvious 'viewer-catcher' illustrates just how much they are beholden to the morals, and purchasing power, of the 'moral minority', who far from being moral, preach a dogma based on hate; the very antithesis of Jesus' message.)

Be that as it may, the first few episodes had me running to Wiki to see if I could find the origin of 'testudo'; the strategy of interlocking shields to form a wall and a roof to protect legionaries from missiles. I failed to find an explicit explanation, and so I offer my own.

As far as I can determine, proto-testudo began with the Greeks. Greek hoplites were armed with 'greaves' to protect the shins, leather or bronze 'armour' to protect the upper body, a helmet of bronze, a short stabbing sword ('xiphos'), a shield ('aspis') and, most importantly a 'fuck-off' lance ('doru' and as much as 14 feet in length) with which to spear the opponent. (It was seldom thrown). The hoplites would advance, carrying their shields before them in a proto-shieldwall, thrusting their immensely long spears at the enemy; the hoplites in the second, or even maybe the third rank, could also thrust at the enemy over the tops of the advancing first rank due to length of the spears. The aim was to progressively force your opponents, shield to shield, backwards until the opposing line 'broke'. Obviously, there are ways around this. Push harder, or cavalry around the flanks to disrupt the wall or, as was demonstrated at the Battle of Senlac Hill, lure the shield wall to break of its own accord. Harold must have been devastated when the left flank of the wall went after the Norman cavalry in what was but a simple ruse. Discipline was all!

The Roman legions effectively borrowed this tactic and enhanced it. It is not known whether the Greeks rotated the 'front line' as a matter of course, although it is likely that they did when the occasion warranted it; as at Thermopylae, for instance, when the Spartans and other Greeks held off  a force of Persians at least ten to twenty times their number . However, amongst the legions, no-one was expected to spend more than a minute or two in the front line before being relieved by the second rank. In this way, the legion's 'phalanx', often up to twelve ranks deep, could be assured of 'freshened-up' troops at the 'sharp-end' of any attack; one front rank having up to ten or fifteen minutes to refresh themselves before once again entering into the affray.

Not that this distanced them totally from defeat. Arminius (Hermann) managed to lure three whole legions, between 15,000 and 20,000 men, into a two pronged trap in the Teutoburg forest which few managed to survive. Three eagles, standards of the legion, were captured which led, according to Suetonius, the Emperor Augustus to proclaim: 'Quintili Vare, legiones redde! Quintilus Varus, give me back my legions!' Moreover, Hannibal plundered and raped Italy for years during the years of the Republic, winning many battles, before he was finally defeated by Scipio Africanus in Africa. Rome could be defeated, although never for long; before it would rise up from its ashes, much like the phoenix of legend and crush its enemies with the power of, probably, the first, professional, well-trained, disciplined army ever to have existed, although that laurel may well go to Alexander of Macedon (and the rest of the known world).

'Testudo' is mostly portrayed in movies as a response to massive archer attack but this was unlikely to have been the reason for the development of the tactic. Most of the tribes which the Romans sought to conquer did not have archers in any numbers until much later in the Empire and the tactic would probably have had little value in the field. Where it came into its own was in the siege. Troops could largely advance to the wall unmolested, albeit very slowly (try marching in a testudo, you certainly cannot run if you want to keep the shield above you locked tight to its neighbours) and would therefore been in a position to ram or chip away at a gate to gain an entry point.

What I found weird was that in investigating 'testudo', I unearthed a news item from the Ukraine in 2014, which found a similar tactic being used and one which I had never seen in any riot where riot  shields were deployed, although it seems so obvious to the launch of 'missiles' from the opposing faction, many of which were targeted at the rear ranks. Maybe the Met ought to provide a background military training in tactics, although a testudo is not likely to counter Molotov Cocktails, which have been a feature of recent UK riots! (I use the term 'riot' loosely, as a riot would tend to imply a largely unco-ordinated response to events. The not-now-so-recent 'riots' as a response to the killing of a black man (am I allowed to say 'black man'?) in the UK were clearly anything but a spontaneous eruption of anger!) The Ukranian police were clearly improvising, the officers did not form into any kind of formation, but I have no doubt that some protection was afforded.

It is altogether a little strange how the world wide web seems to mirror my own brain; perhaps I should have been a nuclear physicist or an independent computer consultant like Tim Berners-Lee.  The notion of how, with little effort, except with your wingtip to click the mouse button, one could end up researching 'testudo' and find oneself in the depths of pig shit and industrial farming methods never ceases to amaze and fascinate me; it's so easy to get lost in the vast accumulation of knowledge that exists 'out there'! For those of a sensitive disposition, do not follow this link which just illustrates where I ended up: I warned you!

Gross, isn't it?

Well, that's just the tip of iceberg to the effects of 'industrial farming'. Vegan, anybody?

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

The Mating Mind, hero worship and the boy who did not die

Two things before I begin:
Julian Patterson's blog from a week or so ago is priceless for anyone concerned about the NHS.
I (MG) came to an awful conclusion yesterday about the Penguin's less than complimentary comment under the sidebar picture. I believed that my inability to paint was a direct result of the stroke I suffered. I am now inclined to think that it is more likely to be the effect of an ever-worsening cataract in my right eye which is playing havoc with my ability to see and perceive correctly in three dimensions which is causing the problem. Perhaps if I can afford to get that fixed, it might solve the problem. Here's hoping!

Now to the main course; why do we engage in so much hero worship?

In between reading 'The Mating Mind' by Geoffrey Miller, a cognitive researcher, I have been re-watching the Harry Potter films (all of them in sequence) while eating my evening meal and imbibing the odd, post-prandial brandy or two.

Now, without wishing to extol, or demean, Ms Rowling's literary creation, Harry Potter is, in a conventional 'boarding school', children's novel, merely a highly successful franchise in the the manner of Sigurd,  Robin Hood, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, Agents J and K, Indiana Jones, John McLean et al; the characters are all heroes. Whether they are fundamentally flawed as characters or not, they all rise above their limitations and save whatever it is that they are 'fighting' for and this is very attractive to a wide range of people; why else would you sell 30 million books to adults and children alike and create films that gross over a billion dollars. What is interesting is that they, the characters, whether females contribute to their success or not, are all male.

This may be seen by some as merely the effects of a largely patriarchal society and, until Geoffrey Miller, I might have agreed with them but now I am not so sure.  Female heroines have largely been portrayed in literature and its derivatives, plays and films, as people who have displayed that which is traditionally deemed to be male characteristics; assertiveness, belligerence, bloody-mindedness, a willingness to do battles; a metaphorical allusion to the competitiveness, often bloody, which characterises all, or nearly all, male combative strategies for winning mates.  From Hedda Gabler to Lisbeth Salander, from Emma Bovary to the Hunger Games, it is difficult to find a 'popular' female heroine who does not embody the traditional male attributes.

What Miller's book does, if nothing else, is to question the reason why some proclivities may have arisen in the past as a result of sexual selection; not merely natural selection. After all, we are inheritors of instincts which were borne out of our primeval past and just cannot be laid at the door of the last ten thousand years of civilisation. How do we know that things are intrinsically immoral? Because our parent teach us? Because society deems them wrong? The young invariably react against the teachings of our elders and yet, still, few of us react against the taboo of incest, that generosity is preferable to downright selfishness, that being kind is preferable to being cruel; why should we care?

After all, altruism costs! Big time!

What Miller postulates is that the cost of being altruistic in pay off terms, 250,000 thousand years ago, paid off in reproductive success. Being able to demonstrate your reproductive fitness by being kind, caring, intellectually  and emotionally stimulating, being able to demonstrate your reproductive potential by assigning vast amounts of resources to these endeavours in opposition to merely staying alive, meant that you would acquire a higher percentage of mates and thus enlarge your (your trait's) presence in the gene pool for future generations.

So, what has this to do with 'hero worship'?  Think about it!

Females would want to mate with the best males possible. Heroes embody all that males have to offer: bravery; skill; aptitude; ambition; drive; commitment; a hearty feast of attributes for a female. And all attributes which deny the mere act of survival. For the male, what do we have? Expenditure of vast resources of energy; the learning process, the acquisition of skill; the risk of getting killed. But what of the rewards?

The promise of longevity through the genes; both male and female.

However he may be vilified in the US. Richard Dawkins and his collaborators taught us one fundamental truth; we should not confine ourselves to the group or the organism, we must consider the gene and its 'wish' for self-preservation

Geoffrey Miller does not offer 'sexual selection theory' as a panacea to cure all of 'whys' of Darwinian evolution, merely that is has become neglected and should be investigated in more detail.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Gerson's Therapy, the Scientific Method and an impossible catch

In the absence of the Penguin's contribution to this little blog, he is still huddled down in his small 'turtle' with others of his folk, I (MG) thought that I might as well make a small contribution so that 'beauty and elegance shall not entirely vanish from this world'.

I have recently changed my primary email address and, as a result, I find it more convenient to use as my home page to ensure speedier access to what few emails I receive. Now, posts 'news', UK and world, although the standard of journalism leaves much to be desired; much of it appears to be gleaned from whatever falls into the inbox from PA (the Press Association, a news agency) with inadequate checking of facts and dubious sources. However it is very good at (1) promoting BT products under the guise of 'news' and (2) attracting UKippers (supporters of the UK Independence Party) to the comments section of every 'story' and who seem to lay the blame for any or all of the UK's current problems at the door of (1) immigration, (2) the EU and the UK's membership of same and (3) its own rampant and rabid xenophobia. That is to be expected; any website that allows an individual to comment will attract its fair share of nut-jobs, single issue fanatics, the misinformed, trolls and the just-plain-ignorant. However one comment on a 'news-story', how 10% of all diagnoses of cancer affect the under-45s, attracted my attention.

(I should add here that I am not surprised at the fact that 10% of all cancer diagnoses affect the under-45s; disease is not selective about whom exactly it targets but the the longer that you live the more liklihood you have, statistically speaking, of contracting it.)

So what attracted me? A comment that 'Gerson therapy appeared to show promise' and that this, together with other so-called alternative therapies, should be investigated. Should it?

The name sounded familiar from when I had the time to read any Tom, Dick or Harry's blog after the stroke but I could not remember exactly why. A quick search on Google (which would be a lot more democratic if people could not buy their way into the top-ranking spots - just Google 'Gerson Therapy' to see what I mean) found the article which I had once read; the article had remained in my mind as being worthy of note not the actual therapy itself. The article is here , although it is long and you must bear with the preamble; the point of it is obvious later in the article.

You may have noticed that the Penguin and I share a belief, if belief it is, of the value of the 'scientific method'; first realisticly practised by Roger Bacon, a 13th century monk who surely formed the genesis of Umberto Eco's Brother William of Baskerville and formulated by Karl Popper some seven centuries later. This holds, at its core, that observations about the natural world must be repeatable and adhere to a rational and logical exxplanation, however bizarre that explanation may be. The value of the scientific method lies in its repeatability, the same result may be obtained by whomever performs the experiment, and any subsequent theorem or explanation must explain all of the 'facts' (obtained by experiment) not only a selective subset. Herein, lies its power; and no method has produced such a dizzying array of support for the method of attempting to make sense of our world as we perceive it.

Some would no doubt argue that a 'belief' in the method is no more an article of faith than is the divinity of Christ or that a turtle supports the world and it, itself, is supported by another, larger, turtle or an elephant and so on, ad infinitum. This misses the mark by so wide a margin as to be inconceivable to a rational human being. There is no direct evidence to our senses of a turtle that supports the world just as there is no direct evidence of the divinity of the character, fictional or not, that we choose to call Jesus of Nazareth.  However there is evidence to suggest that chemotherapy or radiation therapy in cancer victims does have measurable and quantifiable results; some patients live longer than the norm, assuming no treatment, and some are 'cured' beyond the bounds of statistical probability. Therapies, like Gerson, seldom, if ever fully record or follow-up, on the short-term or long term success of their treatments and rely on anedoctal testimonies, which seldom provide any evidence that the treatment regime is worth pursuing.  Without rigourous analysis of the data, which is largely unavailable, it is impossible to determine whether the treatment is successful or why? Some people go into spontaneous remission for unknown reasons; it only takes one such case for some bright spark to laud this, what ever it may be, as a miracle cure!

I, once, in a school cricket match made the most stupendous catch; a ball hit hard and fast to my left (my weak hand) and high that prompted the most prodigious leap from point or cover, I can't remember which, to my left with an outstretched left hand. I caught the ball firmly in my grasp; I don't know how. That ensured my place in the 'First Eleven', the highest accolade, until the other members of the team realised that it was a fluke; that one time when I caught 'an impossible to catch' ball.  The captain fielded me at slip, silly mid-on, silly mid-off and short-leg because they thought that as a result of a fluke, I had a safe pair of hands. They soon realised their mistake and they dispensed with my services shortly after.

One swallow does not a summer make. It takes the repeatable occurance of swallows to herald warmer weather and so it is with all things. Remember 'cold' fusion; and the research it engendered. No-one could repeat the results and so it became consigned to the backwaters of research. Maybe it is possible but why waste valuable, limited resources on a pipe dream?