Saturday, May 06, 2017

Qing Dynasty Art


The Qing, or Pure, dynasty was established by the semi-nomadic Manchus (Figure 106.1). Its emperors embraced a variety of forms of Chinese art culture, both established and new. Kangxi (r. 1662-1722) and Qianlong (r. 1736-95), in particular, were enthusiastic patrons of art, while ruling over a populace of high literacy and innovation. There were three main types of artists during the Qing: traditionalists, who were influenced by landscape painters of the Ming; individualists, whose works were highly personal and frequently expressed strong political beliefs; and courtiers, officials and professionals, who were employed at the Manchu court and heavily influenced by Western-style realism (Hearn, 2003a).

Figure 106.1: The Qing dynasty lasted from 1644 until 1912 CE. Its predecessor was the Ming (1368-1644), and its successor the Republic of China (1912-49). During this era, China had powerful emperors who reigned for an average of twenty-seven years. Although much of this time was prosperous, there were several natural disasters, invasions and a final rebellion, bringing about its demise (The Qing Dynasty, 2014).

Copyright © 2014

Traditionalist art flourished under the early Qing emperors. The works and ideas of prominent Ming artists such as Dong Qichang (1555-1636) were used to inspire new generations of mainly landscape artists. A constant theme was the comparison of art and nature. According to Dong: ‘If one considers the wonders of nature, then painting cannot rival landscape. But if one considers the wonders of brushwork, then landscape cannot equal painting (Hearn, 2003b).’

Dong and his contemporaries influenced future generations. Artists including Wang Shimin (1592-1680) established the so-called Orthodox School, where the earlier landscape styles of the Song (960-1279) were blended with the distinctive calligraphic brushwork of the Yuan (1271-1368) (Hearn, 2003b). Wang was one of the Six Masters of the early Qing era, all of whom specialized in shan shui (mountain-water) paintings (Encyclopedia of East Asian Art, 2017). Such works are not characterized simply by the artists’ visualizations of mountains and water (Yee & Hsuing, 1964; Maeda, 1970), but instead of their thoughts of nature (Sirén, 1956).

Wang Shimin was one the so-called ‘Four Wangs’. The other three, namely Wang Jian (1598-1677), Wang Hui (1632-1717) and Wang Yuanqi (1642-1715), along with Wu Li (1632-1718) and Yun Shouping (1633-90), were the Six Masters of early Qing dynasty art. Wang Jian’s White Clouds over Xiao and Xiang (1668) (Figure 106.2), for example, follows the similar painting method of Dong Qichang’s shan shui style (Encyclopedia of East Asian Art, 2017).

Figure 106.2: White Clouds over Xiao and Xiang (1668) presently resides in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., U.S.A.

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The Shiqu baoji was a series of collections of many thousands of traditional paintings and calligraphs (Liang, 2012). Many of these landscape images emphasized the Confucian culture of cultivation and, consequently, were popular until the nineteenth century (Encyclopedia of East Asian Art, 2017).

A new movement for Chinese art began during the mid-Qing era. Artists who practised this were known as Individualists. One of their most striking features was a freer style of brushwork (Encyclopedia of East Asian Art, 2017).

Individualist painters depended on artistic self-cultivation. Having escaped the aftermath of the chaotic Manchu conquest, they did not have easy access to old masters’ works, so their styles were necessarily personal, often inspired by nature (Hearn, 2003c). Their animosity toward the new rulers was also evident in their works, which often contained discreet messages of political criticism of the Manchus, or, alternatively, covert loyalty to the deposed Ming dynasty (Princeton University Art Museum, 2004).

One of the most prominent individualists was Bada Shanren (1626-1705), also known as Zhu Da. Having retreated to the mountains and spent thirty years as a Buddhist monk, he returned to painting in 1680. His style was wild and eccentric (Princeton University Art Museum, 2004), using ink only sparingly in his calligraphic brushwork (Encyclopedia of East Asian Art, 2017).

Zhu Da’s work consisted mostly of the plants and animals of his local environment. These included birds, insects, fish, crustaceans, as well as a variety of colourful flowers (Princeton University Art Museum, 2004). His careful study of wildlife, and rocks, was highly original at the time (Encyclopedia of East Asian Art, 2017). It has been understood that this deep and personal passion for depicting delicate lifeforms reflected Zhu Da’s belief that life under the Qing dynasty was very fragile (Princeton University Art Museum, 2004).

Many individualist styles evolved from specific locations. Anhui, Nanjing and Yangzhou were especially influential (Princeton University Art Museum, 2004). The Anhui Province was noted for its high-quality paper and ink. The Yellow Mountains (Mount Huang), with their wild cliffs and widespread pines, provided individualists with a welcome haven from Manchu domination and were prominent in works by the Anhui school. Hong Ren (1610-63) was one such artist (Hearn, 2003c).

Nanjing, having been a secondary capital during the Ming era, became a sanctuary for individualists and Ming dynasty loyalists. This was one of the first Chinese cities to become influenced by Western art. For instance, the use of shading and perspective became apparent in paintings of local landscapes. Arguably the most original of the so-called Eight Masters of Nanjing was Gong Xian (1618–89), who used ink dots of varying density to create effects of light and shade. This was probably a consequence of increasing Western influence (Hearn, 2003c).

In Yangzhou, wealthy collectors financed several individualist artists. Perhaps the most eminent was Shitao (1642-1707), whose self-expression, particularly in calligraphy, inspired a later group of artists known as the Yangzhou Eccentrics.

The third group of Qing scholars were courtiers and professional artists who were employed by the Manchu imperial court (Encyclopedia of East Asian Art, 2017). This group was responsible for documentary, commemorative and large-scale decorative art, partly to promote the regime of the reigning emperor. These artists were highly proficient in terms of technique and were heavily influenced by the Song dynasty (Columbia University, 2005).

Court art flourished under Emperor Kangxi. Kangxi was a calligraphy expert who revered the calligraphic works and styles of Dong Qichang (Princeton University Art Museum, 2004). He was also very shrewd, employing the leading traditionalist Wang Hui to oversee the painting of the famous Southern Inspection Tour scrolls (Figure 106.3) (Columbia University, 2005). Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368)

Figure 106.3: In 1689, the highly-detailed, ink-and-wash work, Emperor Kangxi Inspecting the Dams of the Yellow River was painted by Wang Hui and others, and remains one of the most important depictions of an iconic Qing state event (Encyclopedia of East Asian Art, 2017).

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Emperor Qianlong, Kangxi’s grandson, was also a distinguished calligrapher and obtained a vast collection of such works. His status as both a student and collector helped him to establish further his legitimacy as a ruler (Princeton, 2004). During Emperor Qianlong’s reign, the Qing dynasty reached its peak in terms of peace and prosperity throughout China. Trade and farming flourished, enriching the nation and allowing the best artists to be recruited to the court. Consequently, both the quality and quantity of court art increased (Hearn, 2003d).

Despite the existence of the three main types of artistic style during the Qing, it would be historically inaccurate to claim that each was completely distinct. For example, many amateur individualists became employed by the court and worked alongside professionals (Encyclopedia of East Asian Art, 2017). The court also employed distinguished foreign artists. Among these were Jesuit missionaries from Italy. One of the most influential figures was Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), who taught and worked alongside Chinese court artists to produce works combining novel European styles with traditional Chinese brushwork (Hearn, 2003d). Such new techniques included chiaroscuro, meaning the treatment of light and shade, which was developed during the Italian Renaissance (Earls, 1987), and linear perspective (Encyclopedia of East Asian Art, 2017).

From the beginning of the Qing to its end, several styles of art evolved, blending both with each other and outside influences. In turn, Chinese art was increasingly exported to Europe and beyond (Encyclopedia of East Asian Art, 2017). 

Copyright © 2017 Phoebe Spradbery


Columbia University. (2005). The Grandeur of Art During the Qing. Retrieved from

Earls, I. (1987). Renaissance Art: A Topical Dictionary. London, United Kingdom: Greenwood Press.

Encyclopedia of East Asian Art. (2017). Qing Dynasty Art: Characteristics of Manchu Arts and Culture in China. Retrieved from

Hearn, M.K. (2003a). The Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). Retrieved from

Hearn, M.K. (2003b). The Qing Dynasty (1644–1911): The Traditionalists. Retrieved from

Hearn, M.K. (2003c). The Qing Dynasty (1644–1911): The Loyalists and Individualists. Retrieved from

Hearn, M.K. (2003d). The Qing Dynasty (1644–1911): The Courtiers, Officials and Professional Artists. Retrieved from

Lessing Images (2017). Emperor Kangxi (K'ang Hsi) inspecting the dams of the Yellow River. From the scroll of Emperor Kangxi's tour of inspection in the South. China; Qing dynasty, 1689. Wang Hui (1632-1717), Yang Jin (ca.1644-1726) and Gu Fang (active ca. 1700). Painted on silk, height: 68.5 cm. Inv. MA2460. Retrieved from

Liang, S.Z. (2012). Shiqu Baoji. Nanchang, China: Jiangxi Fine Arts Publishing House.

Maeda, R.J. (1970). Two Twelfth Century Texts on Chinese Painting. Ann Arbor, Michigan, United States of America: University of Michigan, Center for Chinese Studies.

Princeton University Art Museum. (2004). Qing dynasty: 1644-1912. Retrieved from

Sirén, O. (1956). Chinese Painting: Leading Masters and Principles. New York, United States of America: Ronald Press.

The Qing Dynasty. (2014). The Qing Dynasty. Retrieved from

Yee, C., & Hsiung, S.I. (1964). The Chinese eye: An interpretation of Chinese painting. Bloomington, Indiana, United States of America: Indiana University Press.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Archimedes Back To Life

Outside the rural English village of Anderton, two navigable waterways pass within touching distance of each other. At least, they would, were it not for a fifteen-metre altitude difference. The higher of the two is the Trent and Mersey Canal, which opened in 1777, and enabled goods to be transported, via a basic chute system, down to the lower-lying River Weaver, and vice versa. The principal commodity for export was salt, which had been extracted from beneath the Cheshire Plain for centuries; whereas imports included copper and tobacco.

In 1793, the waterways’ respective owners concluded that the transfer mechanism was grossly inefficient. Consequently, Chief Engineer Edward Leader Williams (1828-1910) began to design a boat lift, using twin caissons (water baths), suspended by chains, to transport cargo boats. As one caisson descended, the other would, in perfect counterbalance, move upward. As with any application of hydrodynamics, Williams’s design had the name Archimedes engraved throughout. Imagine a salt-laden boat, weighing sixty tons, down on the riverbank. Now consider the two vast metal caissons, each holding an identical mass of water. As the boat enters the lower caisson, it necessarily displaces its own weight – whatever that might be – and always retains counterbalance with the higher caisson, whose water load never, therefore, requires adjustment. In a word: ingenious.

Williams employed hydraulic engineer Edwin Clark (1814-1894) to design the structure. It was initially powered by a steam engine, 10 horsepower (7.5 kW) being sufficient to raise a caisson in just three minutes. Construction was approved in 1872, and the first cargo transported three years later.

Thereafter, design faults soon became apparent. Cast iron structures were susceptible to bulk fracture; displaced salt caused rapid corrosion; and freezing temperatures would bring work to a standstill. In 1904, another hydraulic engineer, Colonel John Arthur Saner (1864-1952) redesigned the lift, replacing steam with a modern electric motor, which trebled the available power.

The lift operated successfully until the 1960s, when canal commerce was superseded by the superior logistics of road and rail. In 1983, the lift was finally closed, owing ultimately to severe structural corrosion and general neglect.

But for the tireless campaigning of local trusts and heritage associations, the lift would probably have been demolished, and its glorious history forgotten in time. Funds were raised, remedial work began in 2000, and the lift reopened, against substantial odds, in 2002 (Figures 105.1, 105.2 & 105.3). Anderton’s showpiece remains the only working boat lift in England – and the oldest.

Figure 105.1: Today, the lift is fully functional and computer-controlled.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

Figure 105.2: The entire site has been rejuvenated, with tasteful landscaping, outdoor picnic areas and viewing platforms on both levels.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

Figure 105.3: The twin caissons, photographed from the canal basin

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

I took my youngsters for a visit last weekend. There is a spacious twin-level visitor centre, both indoor and out, with a range of interactive exhibits and a smart café. Best of all, there are commentary-assisted narrowboat rides (Figures 105.4 & 105.5) along the river to the nearby town of Northwich, ending with a smooth ascent inside a water-filled caisson (Figure 105.6) to the restored aqueduct above (Figure 105.7).

Figure 105.4: Who needs a Mississippi paddle steamer?

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

Figure 105.5: Introducing Mel, the impressively knowledgeable tour guide. Here, she is explaining the lift’s history, despite appearing to be singing karaoke.
‘Don’t rock the boat, baby … don’t tip the boat over …’

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery


Figure 105.6: The boat entering one of the caissons at the lower (river) level …

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery


Figure 105.7: … and emerging at the higher (canal) level

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

As the boat sailed leisurely into town, I looked upward, through the glass roof, and noticed a lone buzzard, riding the thermals, its wings outstretched and motionless in the afternoon April air. It was simply utilizing the natural dynamics of the physical world. The Anderton Boat Lift does likewise, and all because a group of brilliant British brains, led by Williams, Clark and Saner (Figure 105.8), stood on the shoulders of a Greek giant – and got their sums right.

Figure 105.8: This striking outdoor mural, courtesy of artist Diana Bernice Tackley, depicts Sir Edward Leader Williams (left), Edwin Clark (centre) and Colonel J A Saner (right).

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

Friday, March 31, 2017

Save Empress Place


On the evening of Wednesday, 30th May, 1984, I can remember what I was doing. Liverpool were playing Roma in the European Cup Final; and, being a football nut, I was parked in front of the television. At the same time, at Hampton Court Palace (12 miles west of London), HRH The Prince of Wales was giving a speech to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

It is typical of the British Royal Family to steer clear of voicing strident views on contentious issues, but, that evening, HRH decided to chuck traditions out through the palace windows. He let rip thus:

‘Instead of designing an extension to the elegant facade of the National Gallery which complements it and continues the concept of columns and domes, it looks as if we may be presented with a kind of municipal fire station, complete with the sort of tower that contains the siren. I would understand better this type of high-tech approach if you demolished the whole of Trafalgar Square and started again with a single architect responsible for the entire layout, but what is proposed is like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend (my italics).’

The royal boot had landed – squarely up the rear end of an entire profession. Controversial was not the word, and much heated debate followed. Perhaps the most crucial consequence, however, was that HRH had, with just two brilliantly-chosen words, placed British architecture under the spotlight. Mention the phrase ‘monstrous carbuncle’ anywhere in the UK, and I think the vast majority of people my own age would be able to recall that event more than three decades ago.

I, personally, have never doubted that the Prince was wholly in the right. Some buildings in my native land are ugly beyond description. So much so, that there exists a ‘Carbuncle Cup’, which is awarded for the ugliest new building of the year. There is, justifiably, red-hot competition.

A disproportionate number of champion carbuncles adorn the capital. Many more are at the planning stages. If you take a trip along the London Underground’s District Line to West Brompton (Figure 104.1), alight at the station, climb the steps onto Lillie Road, turn left and walk for about a hundred yards, there is a grand old pub on the right, named, strangely enough, the Prince of Wales.

Figure 104.1: London SW6

Copyright © 2017 Google Maps

This pub is on the corner of an elegant Victorian terrace, aptly named Empress Place (Figure 104.2). These two rows of neat cottages (Figure 104.3), all with gardens, are highly coveted by London’s house-hunters. I have always believed that London’s characteristic architecture makes it the world’s most stunning capital city, and Empress Place makes a small contribution to its uniqueness and lasting splendour.

Figure 104.2: The Place, viewed from Lillie Road

Copyright © 2017 Google Maps

Figure 104.3: Empress Place’s stucco and polychromatic brickwork

Copyright © 2016 Po Kadzieli

You can probably guess where this is leading. Yes, Empress Place has been earmarked for imminent demolition. Property developers Capco have submitted grandiose plans to replace these attractive 19th-century cottages with a vast collection of what I can only term characterless monoliths which could be found anywhere in the world. There is nothing ‘London’ about what they are proposing.

At this point, I ought to declare that my objection to the plans is quite personal. The houses of Empress Place were designed by my great-great-great-grandfather, the esteemed London architect, John Young (1797-1877) (Figure 104.4). His influence on London’s architecture was substantial, having designed the Colosseum in Regent’s Park (1827), The Royal Marsden Hospital (1851) and numerous residential and commercial buildings.

Figure 104.4: An ancestral portrait

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He is especially renowned for his imaginative use of polychromatic brickwork. This is featured, not only throughout Empress Place, but also in many of his other creations. A striking example can be found at 23, Eastcheap (Figure 104.5), in the City of London, near to where generations of my ancestors were born and raised.

Figure 104.5: A London coffee shop. Note the intricate polychromatic brickwork of the upper floors, designed by John Young.

 Copyright © 2011 Stephen Richards

I am pleased to learn that there is a campaign to save not only Empress Place, but also the rest of (what now remains of) the Earl’s Court area. I support it wholeheartedly and would be greatly saddened if, in the near future, such an attractive old landmark were replaced by something that would ultimately subtract from London’s unsurpassed architectural heritage.

What else could I do? Perhaps I could write a letter to HRH. The Prince’s views would not be casually ignored.


Further information can be found at:

There is also a long-running campaign to save the home of John Young.

Further information can be found at:

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Auf Wiedersehen, 4th Reich

These are interesting times for me as an Englishman. Ever since the former UK prime minister, David Cameron, announced an EU-in-or-out referendum, the EU’s leaders, particularly those from Germany, have made an encyclopaedia of threats to the British people, designed to keep them compliant with a Germany-dominated continent. Indeed, Cameron joined in, too stupid to realize that he might lose. His own pathetic threats, codenamed ‘Project Fear’, echoed those from the EU until, spectacularly, they exploded in his face on June 23rd, 2016 and blew him off the political map.

Such intimidation betrays itself. Consider any single unit stating its intention to withdraw from a group. If, after so doing, the unit is destined to fail (and the group set to prosper), the rest of the group would say a friendly farewell and just continue to go about its business. If, conversely, it is likely that the unit would thrive on the outside, to the detriment of the group, then the group’s leaders would, logically, adopt a more aggressive approach. Would they not make threats, out of self-preservation, to try to thwart the unit’s secession?

The latter scenario is playing itself out. Why, because Germany is privately terrified. Not a week goes by without some EU mouth-in-a-suit preaching fire and brimstone to a recalcitrant British flock. Last week, it was the turn of the Bundesbank’s Andreas Dombret (Figure 103.1), who claimed, preposterously, that London’s eminence as Europe’s financial capital is on borrowed time.

Figure 103.1: Herr Dombret’s microphone ought to have been placed on the seat of his chair.

Copyright © 2017 Deutsche Bundesbank

Dombret either ignores, or is too myopic to see, the big picture. Whether he, Merkel, Juncker et al. will admit it or not, the EU is facing three existential crises. The first is economic and has several constituent parts. (1) The European Central Bank is still printing €60 billion, every month, in order for the EU not to descend into a crippling deflationary spiral. (2) Greece will require yet another massive bail-out in July. In truth, the money is required largely to pay back insolvent German banks and would have to come from seething German taxpayers whose patience is tissue-paper-thin. (3) Italy is hot on Greece’s tail but would be way too big to bail out. (4) Only Germany can make up for the UK’s soon-to-be-gone payments to the EU coffers. (5) Germany’s largest bank, Deutsche Bank, is circling the drain, owing to debts, corporate fines and its huge derivatives exposure. When it goes, the game is over.

Germany knows that the Euro has been advantageous to it but an equal and opposite disadvantage to Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, where youth unemployment is approximately 50%. The single-currency straitjacket has presented Germany with a de facto weaker currency, making exporting relatively easy to its southern EU neighbours, whose exporting ability is curtailed. Upon Eurozone collapse, Germany’s new currency will rocket to its true value, destroying its export market and massively increasing German unemployment.

The second crisis comes from Merkel’s million migrants. With militant Islamist groups hell-bent on continuing their destruction of Europe from within, Germany’s deranged chancellor last year allowed more than a million opportunists (from all over the Middle East) to walk into Germany, and hence Europe, without any meaningful vetting. It was a Trojan horse but without the horse. Last week, however, she announced that those same arrivals are to be offered up to €1,200 (of German taxpayers’ money) to go back from whence they came. She, too, ought to be sent packing.

Lastly, anti-EU political movements are gaining momentum. Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland party is on the march. More prominent is Marine Le Pen’s Front National, which is on course to win the first round of voting in this year’s French presidential election. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands next month, Geert Wilders might well become its new, and virulently anti-EU, prime minister.

Wake up, all ye pro-EU fools: the Fourth Reich is heading for oblivion (Figure 103.2).

Figure 103.2: Ship of fools

Copyright © 2016

So farewell, Germany. Come what may, you are finished.

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

Sunday, February 05, 2017

We Who Live By The Sea

Forget La La Land. The best film of this year, which ought to clean up at the 89th Academy Awards three weeks today, is Manchester by the Sea (Figure 102.1), directed by Kenneth Lonergan.

Figure 102.1: Six Academy Award nominations for ‘Manchester’

Copyright © 2016 Amazon Studios

The main character is Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck, a dogsbody janitor who ekes out an anonymous living in a drab Boston suburb. On hearing that his brother is seriously ill, Lee returns to his hometown – Manchester, Massachusetts – but his brother dies just before he arrives.

Lee is stunned to learn that he has been given custody of his brother’s 16-year-old son. The rest of the film centres on this unscripted new relationship which, despite profound mutual affection, neither of them finds ideal. As the odd couple stumble through the tedious post-mortem drag of funeral arrangements and financial bureaucracy, it becomes clear (with a deafening bang) why Lee had left Manchester in the first place. It is a shock that I cannot bring myself to dwell on for long enough even to write a paragraph.

Only when the viewer learns of this unspeakable tragedy can he comprehend Lee’s reticent and impenetrable persona. His emotions very rarely surface (Figure 102.2). This is not because they do not exist, but rather that Lee is fighting a perpetual battle in his own head to keep them beneath. This is how he survives. His only unscripted outbursts come when he gets drunk. If they came out with his mind fully alert, the pain would return and floor him more brutally than could any bunch of rough-ass brawlers in a bar.

Figure 102.2: Casey Affleck as ‘Lee’

Copyright © 2017 NYREV Inc.

Affleck’s portrayal is almost unbelievably thoughtful. Every inconvenience and awkward encounter – and there are plenty – is met by the attitude, ‘OK, emotions behind bars, and here we go again.’ It is like watching a weary old man lock a couple of fierce dogs in a back room before he dare open his front door to a visitor. With everyone he is forced to confront, the same strategy plays out: he opens the door but allows no one in. Hospital doctors, funeral directors, old friends, and flirty women who all but throw themselves at him, are met with empty eyes and an enigma writ large. His self-control is almost painful to watch.

When Lee eventually comes face-to-face with his (equally traumatized) ex-wife, he responds to her tears by insisting, ‘There’s nothing there.’ I suspected that really there was, but he convinces himself that his feelings are extinct rather than merely dormant. He knows that an honest eruption might well finish him off.

The final scene is captured with immense sympathy. As his nephew steers the family boat off the Manchester coast, Lee is perched at the back, gazing in silence upon his beloved seascape. He appreciates that this is as good, and as peaceful, as it will ever get, so he makes the best of it.

In a 21st-century cinematic world of mindless sci-fi and deus-ex-machina fantasy, drama replaced by melodrama, and emotional incontinence as a given, Manchester by the Sea is a film of understatement and understanding (Figure 102.3), made all the more poignant by the knowledge that there are countless Lee Chandlers out there, making their way in the world with almost every facet hidden from sight.

Figure 102.3: Film of the year

Copyright © 2017 Light Cinemas

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery

Monday, December 26, 2016

Black Swans Fly At Night

Few individuals are more annoying than those who are ‘smart after the event’. To put it more precisely, they are smart only after an event, but rarely prior to it. I am sure everyone can recall dozens of examples. Mainstream media outlets are bursting with them.

For instance, the UK’s recent pro-Brexit vote was hardly predicted before the summer referendum; but, ever since, hack journalists and self-appointed ‘experts’ have been falling over themselves to explain its inevitability. For me, post hoc wisdom verges on fraudulent. Anyone can do it. Of course, some did predict the outcome correctly and proceeded to broadcast their foreknowledge as loudly as possible, implying that ‘I was one of just a select few who, all along, could see it coming’. Even this is often disingenuous. If one makes enough predictions, however outlandish, some are statistically bound to be accurate. Does a stopped clock not tell the correct time twice every day?

The so-called ‘Black Swan Theory’ is a clever metaphor for a special type of surprise occurrence. It was first put forward by a Lebanese-American professor, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Figure 101.1), in 1991. Taleb’s neat idea relates to a difficult-to-predict event which proves highly consequential and can be rationalized only with hindsight. Political analysts are some of the worst offenders. They explain so many events, with great authority and eloquence, as if everything were blatantly obvious from the beginning (when they never thought to say so). The 2008 financial earthquake is another excellent case in point. Before the crisis, hardly any analysts foresaw it; afterwards, almost all of them supposedly did.

Figure 101.1: Nassim Nicholas Taleb (1960-) is a former mathematical trader and Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University’s Polytechnic Institute.

Copyright © 2016 Edge

The black swan reference originates from ancient folk wisdom: black swans (Figure 101.2) were believed not to exist because no one had ever seen one. Eventually, when such birds were identified, the presumption was instantly falsified. As the saying goes, absence of evidence does not equate to evidence of absence. (That said, please read Irving Copi’s Introduction to Logic if you feel inclined to disagree.)

Figure 101.2: A rare sighting of Cygnus atratus

Copyright © 2012 Stanford University

Taleb’s subject is a fascinating one to explore. Why, then, do black swans – the events, not the biological species – exist? I would say that nearly all individuals are hoodwinked by psychological bias, where they are more likely to accept new evidence if it concurs with their existing beliefs. Individual bias is then compounded by collective confirmation bias, because individuals tend to surround themselves with those that share similar views. Thus, even patently false or ridiculous beliefs can become entrenched.

It is said that we see only what we want to see. I would disagree: we see what we expect to see, as a result of psychological bias, whatever the extent of its veracity. If something did not exist yesterday, why be on the lookout for it today?

The night sky is full of black swans. A few will be sighted in 2017, and myriad know-alls will emerge from the woodwork and claim to have seen the birds invisible flight paths. I suspect, though, that the vast majority will continue to fly unseen. Some truly audacious ones might even repeatedly swoop and dive right in front of our faces  and still remain unnoticed. Food for thought, anyone (Figure 101.3)?

Figure 101.3: Do you see?

Copyright © 2016 Paul Spradbery

Copyright © 2016 Paul Spradbery

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Dying Of The (US) Light

My first visits to the United States of America, in the late 1980s, were the happiest of times. I had never felt so liberated. The summer sun shone every day; the Ohio countryside stretched to a hazy infinity; stars and stripes flags hung in silent majesty from the covered bridges of Ashtabula County (Figure 100.1); and, each night, I would fall asleep listening to the sound of crickets chirping in the grass outside. This was, quite evidently, the land of the free.

Figure 100.1: Root Road Covered Bridge in Northeast Ohio, USA

Copyright © 2016 Benjamin Prepelka

These were also the latter days of the Cold War, where the democratic, freedom-loving USA stood toe-to-toe with the authoritarian, clapped-out socialist republics of the Soviet Union. It was an easy dichotomy to grasp: USA good, USSR bad.

After two decades of reduced tension between West and East, the old foes are once again squaring up to each other. Today’s potential battleground is Syria, and Western propaganda is being ratcheted up to new levels. USA still good, Russia incurably bad – or so we in the West are being led to believe. This time, however, it is a lie.

The facts speak for themselves. The stand-off revolves around the supply of natural gas. Europe depends on Russian gas, and the USA is desperate to reduce Russian power over European nations. Two new gas pipelines have been proposed, linking the Persian Gulf to Europe. One is designed to transport gas from Qatar (where the USA has a military base), the other from Iran, a Syrian ally. In order to access Europe, both pipelines would need to pass through Syria. Understandably, Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, refused the first (Qatar) but accepted the second (Iran) (Figure 100.2). This wholly legitimate strategy reassured Russia but infuriated the USA, and Syria has since morphed into the horrific geopolitical chessboard that we see every day in the news.

Figure 100.2: The two proposed trans-Syrian gas pipelines

Copyright © 2016

Since the turn of the millennium, the USA has shown itself to be a psychopathic brute on the world stage. When Saddam Hussein threatened to trade oil in Euros, as opposed to US dollars, the Americans launched an illegal war, and subsequent occupation, of Iraq. When Muammar Gaddafi proposed a gold-backed pan-African currency, in defiance of the petrodollar standard, it was Libya’s turn to be ransacked. Thanks to the USA’s megalomania, both have become failed states. Millions have been killed.

True to form, proposals to invade Syria, and remove President Assad from power, were put forward a couple of years ago. Only with Assad gone could the USA get its way with regard to the Qatari pipeline. The proposal, endorsed with mindless enthusiasm by the UK’s former prime minister, David Cameron, was rejected by people who were at last beginning to see the USA for the hideous bully that it has become.

A different strategy was demanded. Instead, but also true to form, the USA covertly armed terrorists to do their dirty work in blatant defiance of international law. Thus, ISIS was born, and it quickly turned into an uncontrollable monster. US president, Barack Obama, then pretended to change his tune: military action in Syria was necessary to defeat ISIS, he claimed. This was simply a clumsy pretext, and anyone with more than a single brain cell could see that his sole aim was in fact to remove Assad.

Under siege from ISIS, Assad consulted Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and invited Russian military assistance to help Syrian forces to defeat the USA’s proxy of murderous Islamists. At this juncture, Western propaganda went into overdrive. The evil Russians, led by the evil Putin, were now massacring innocents in rabid pursuit of their unlawful aims. How any intelligent person could believe such a transparent untruth is beyond me by some distance.

Recently, US Secretary of State and presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, has even proposed the (illegal) establishment of a no-fly zone within Syrian airspace to resist Russian forces. President Putin, however, is standing firm (Figure 100.3). He knows that his forces have every right to be where they are, and that the USA is yet again breaking all manner of laws in order to get its own way.

Figure 100.3: The intellect gap between Vladimir Putin and his Western tormentors should be obvious to all.

Copyright © 2016 Free Syrian Press

Why, America, why? It is an easy question to answer, but one that pains me to admit it. This once-beautiful nation, founded by the likes of Thomas Jefferson (1723-1826) and helped on the road to greatness by Abraham Lincoln (1809-65), is in its death throes. Today, it rages against the dying of its own light. Economically, it is beyond redemption. Its national debt has doubled (to $20 trillion) in the last ten years; it has printed its precious paper currency like never before in order to stave off national bankruptcy; and a huge proportion of its inhabitants could not survive without welfare support.

Desperate predicaments bring about desperate survival measures. As the USA’s predicament deteriorates terminally, what measures might it take? On November 8th, hundreds of millions of Americans must ask themselves: Is Hillary Clinton spoiling for a fight with Russia? It is a fight she would not win, but might she nevertheless be sufficiently delusional to try?

God bless you, America.

Copyright © 2016 Paul Spradbery