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Sunday, March 12, 2017


Believe or not, dragon's blood used to be part of the sea-surgeon's pharmacopeia.  More formally called Sanguis draconis, it was prescribed as an astringent and incrassating tonic -- it thickened body fluids, which was considered a good solution to weeping wounds.

John Woodall, who wrote the first sea-surgeon's medical guide (The Surgions Mate) and published it in 1617, "for the benefit of young Sea-Surgions, imployed in the East-India Companies affairs," listed Sanguis Draconis in his chapter "Of the Medicines, and their uses."

"Sanguis Draconis is colde and drie in the first degree," he wrote; "it is of an astringent quality, it closeth up wounds, and confirmeth the weake parts, and stayeth the fluxes of outward wounds."

Unromantically, however, the "blood" did not come from dragons.  It was the gum resin secreted by the fruits of East Indian climbing palms, once classified as Calamus draco, and now listed as two species, Daemonorops propinquus and D. ruber.  I guess it was called "blood" because the gum renders a deep red color in an alcohol solution.  And, while it left the sea-surgeon's medical chest a long time ago, it is still used as a coloring agent in varnish and paint.

However, there are real dragons in this world, which I found on the Indonesian island Komodo.

And, quite frankly, I found them terrifying.  Not only are they unsettlingly well-camouflaged, but they stink.  And they drool ghastly bloodflecked strings of saliva.  Reportedly, they run very fast, chasing down prey and delivering a nasty bite.  And then they follow the bitten animal (or person) while the saliva in the bite takes effect.  Slowly, the victim weakens, until it can no longer fight back.  And the patient dragon enjoys a feast.

However, it does seem that the blood of Komodo dragons could be very, very useful in medicine.  According to Science Daily, Komodo dragon blood may hold the solution to the ever-growing problem of antibiotic resistance in disease bacteria.

As the article summarizes, "In a land where survival is precarious, Komodo dragons thrive despite being exposed to scads of bacteria that would kill less hardy creatures. Now in a study, scientists report that they have detected antimicrobial protein fragments in the lizard's blood that appear to help them resist deadly infections. The discovery could lead to the development of new drugs capable of combating bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics."

And so, you never know, Dragon's Blood may return to the sea-surgeon's medical chest, hundreds of years after Woodall.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Alaric Bond, master of the Age of Nelson genre

The great advantage of five weeks at sea is the chance to catch up with the TBR (to be read) list, and right at the top of that list were two books in the Alaric Bond "Fighting Sail" series, a treat that I had been putting off for far too long.

The huge advantage was that I was able to read them in sequence, something I really recommend.  So, if you haven't caught up with this series, this is a good time to start.

First, the eighth in the series, HMS Prometheus.

The bloodstirring battles, flamboyant characters, and shipboard lifestyle of the Age of Nelson resonate down the ages.  It could even be said, perhaps, that because of the legendary status of the “little, pigeon-breasted man” — as author Alaric Bond describes Admiral Nelson — that this series of conflicts with the French was the last of the glamorous wars. Since then, mud, blood, and agony characterize battle, and all the gold lace and glory has vanished.

Because of this, too, the era of Napoleon and Nelson is over-populated by novelists. I used to think that C. S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian had said it all, and the rest is redundant. To Forester and POB, however, I would now add a third, Alaric Bond.  While Bond has not created captains of the mythic status of Aubrey and Hornblower, he has given an eloquent voice to the rest of the floating village at war — the lower deck tar, the surgeon and the surgeon’s wife, the officers, the midshipmen, and the men who served the sails and the guns.  He describes the entire ship’s complement with a kindly and eminently knowledgeable eye. And, most definitely, he can write. 

This, the eighth book in Alaric Bond’s “Fighting Sail” series, begins with Prometheus under repair in the Gibraltar shipyard after what was evidently a savage battle with the French. We are rapidly introduced to a number of interesting characters, such as the enigmatic and relatively elderly midshipman, Franklin, the ship’s captain, Sir Richard Banks, varied and various seamen and officers, and the surgeon and his wife. There are so many people, in fact, that the names become somewhat of a blur, but the reader can relax in the assurance that he or she will get to know them very well indeed.

Back in fighting trim, Prometheus sails from Gibraltar, and not a moment too soon, because antics have been taking place on shipboard and in the shipyard accommodations that are more fitting to a shoreside British pub.  Meeting up with Admiral Nelson and his blockading fleet leads to a challenge, where a daring raid aimed at the destruction of a French ship of line sends the ship’s boats into the range of fire of not one, but two, shore batteries. Action after action follows, as the increasingly damaged Prometheus battles through crisis after crisis.  Then, after another repair at Gibraltar, the motley crew of the war-weary ship meet the greatest challenge yet.  Bond, with masterly control of developing chaos, pictures the final battle with such vivid detail that the denouement, though utterly shocking, seems almost inevitable.

The book has a very satisfying finish – and yet manages to end in a cliffhanger.  I couldn't wait to read the next in this very exciting series, so was overjoyed that Blackstrap Station was waiting on my kindle.

As promised, this ninth book in Bond’s compelling Age of Nelson series, “Fighting Sail,” begins where the last book ended, with the stranding of the crew of the beached HMS Prometheus.  

Christmas Day finds a small group of men, headed by one-armed Lieutenant King, trudging through hostile and barren French countryside in search of food, shelter, and some idea of how to get away without being captured. Then a miracle happens – not just because of a fluke of luck, but because of the extraordinary resourcefulness and courage of their leader.

This novel is a little different, in that King is definitely the major character.  There are other personalities featured, including a strange loner, seaman Weissner, whose character development throughout the story creates a particularly intriguing and satisfying sub-plot. Indeed, there are sub-plots aplenty – the travails of the stranded crewmen, their amazing feat of self-preservation, the humiliating consequences for a young midshipman when his courage fails him, and how he copes with the outcome of his cowardice. Even after King is given a spry little command of his own, there are more side-stories to be told, including the complications introduced by a wicked young siren named Sara. But King holds center stage throughout.  Getting to know him well, to care about him, and having the privilege of knowing what was going on in his heart and mind, was particularly rewarding.

What always strikes me about Alaric Bond’s writing is his obvious love for ships and the sea.  Every word rings true, enhanced by his deep knowledge of the ships of the time, and the seamen who fought to save them from the elements and the enemy.  That there is a glossary is a bonus, but not really necessary, because the author knows his subject so thoroughly, and imparts every detail so well and so accessibly that the reader can share every moment, and participate in every action-packed battle from the comfort of his armchair.

Another inspired and compelling story from a master of the Age of Nelson genre.  The only problem, for me, is that I have to wait for number ten in the series.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Usefulness of Swearing

When something really exasperating and infuriating happens, you can either laugh or swear.  And, as a writer, I believe that both work well, as long as they are not overdone.

It really annoys me when I hear people -- too often young people -- using the F word repetitively and casually, making the word absolutely meaningless.  What do they say when a crisis demands a really emphatic response?   So, while some writers have made brilliant use of repetitive swearing, to demonstrate the mindlessness of their characters or a society (think Clockwork Orange), it is pretty silly of most authors to overuse oaths in dialogue.  As in real life, save the really big words for really demanding occasions.  That way, the F word has maximum impact.

But, believe it or not, people have written books about swearing, and other people have published them.  As reviewer Joan Acocella remarks in The New York Review of Books, as long as there is no cure for cancer, it is going to be awfully hard to get a grant for studying swearing, but there are folks who seem to have managed it.  And they have found that there is a market for profanity.

Obscene language presents problems, the linguist Michael Adams writes in his new book, In Praise of Profanity, “but no one seems to spend much time thinking about the good it does.” Actually, a lot of people in the last few decades have been considering its benefits, together with its history, its neuroanatomy, and above all its fantastically large and colorful word list. Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-Word, an OED-style treatment of fuck that was first published in 1995, has gone into its third edition, ringing ever more changes—artfuck, bearfuck, fuck the deck, fuckbag, fuckwad, horsefuck, sportfuck, Dutch fuck, unfuck—on that venerable theme.

Meanwhile, Jonathon Green’s Green’s Dictionary of Slang, in three volumes (2010), lists 1,740 words for sexual intercourse, 1,351 for penis, 1,180 for vagina, 634 for anus or buttocks, and 540 for defecation and urination. In the last few months alone there have been two new books: What the F, by Benjamin Bergen, a cognitive scientist at the University of California at San Diego, together with Adams’s In Praise of Profanity.

 Another rich source is Melissa Mohr’s Holy Shit: A Brief History of Swearing (2013). Mohr even reads us the graffiti from the brothel in ancient Pompeii—disappointingly laconic (e.g., “I came here and fucked, then went home”), but good to know all the same.

They might even be worth reading, if you can stand the repetitiveness.  The F word has a long and ignoble history.  I particularly like "minced words," the decently veiled oaths beloved by people in the nineteenth century, who thought taking the Lord's Name In Vain was a terrible crime, and which are very useful when writing historical novels -- Good Godfrey and Gemini, for instance.

The review itself is certainly worth a good look.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The White Rajah of Borneo


Guest post from Antoine Vanner, author of the Dawlish Chronicles

James Brooke - The First  White Rajah of Sarawak

This article was written in Sarawak in October 2014, during a private visit.

Sarawak is the portion of Malaysia that lies on the north coast of Borneo. It stretches some 450 miles, roughly south-west to north-east, bordered northwards by its long coast along the South China Sea and southwards by its frontier with Kalimantan, the larger part of Borneo that belongs to Indonesia. With an area of some 48,000 square miles (compared with Great Britain’s 88,000) and a population of 2.4 million, Sarawak today is a highly-developed modern state with a thriving economy based on development of large gas and oil reserves.

But since Sarawak is in area only 17% of the vast island of Borneo – the third largest island in the world – how did it come into being as a separate state? The answer lies in the unlikely career of one of the most colourful figures of the 19th Century, James Brooke, who essentially defined its borders, governed it as an independent kingdom, and established a dynasty of “White Rajahs” who were to continue to rule until 1946.

Born in India in 1803, son of a British judge, Brooke was sent to England at the age of 12 to be educated, a process punctuated by running away from a school he disliked. He returned to India at the age of 16 and was commissioned into the Bengal Army of the British East India Company. (In this period there was no direct British rule, nor was there to be for another thirty years). The First Burmese War broke out in 1824 and Brooke was soon in action with a body of volunteer Indian horsemen he had trained. He was to lead them in a successful charge at the Battle of Rungpore in January 1825 and two days later repeated the exploit. This time however he was shot in the lung. Thrown from his horse, he was left for dead, and only when the battlefield was cleared was he found to be still breathing. He survived, but even after his initial recovery was weak enough to be sent back to Britain to recuperate. His wound was sufficient to justify a pension of £70 per year for life. The next five years, marked by continuing ill health, were spent in England and when he returned to India in 1830 he resigned his commission. Fascinated by South East and East Asia, he sailed on to China – more illness there – and back to England.

Once at home again Brooke began to read widely on the East and to consolidate the negative opinion he had formed of the East India Company (known as “John Company”) and the stranglehold it maintained on commercial activity. He did not share the prejudice of so many of his class against “trade” and he recognised significant opportunities in South East Asia. Drawing on family money, Brooke purchased a “rakish-looking slaver brig,” the 290 tons Findlay, loaded it with trade goods, hired a crew and master and took her to Macao, the Portuguese colony on the China coast. The venture was a financial disaster and Brooke returned home much chastened. He bought a small yacht and sailed it off Britain to increase his knowledge of seamanship – which he should probably have done to start with – and the death of his father in 1835 brought him an inheritance of £30,000, a vast sum at the time. Now 33, Brooke realised that it was now or never if he was to realise his dreams. He bought a 142 ton schooner, the Royalist, and set systematically about learning all he could about Borneo, which he had identified as offering the greatest opportunities. There was a Dutch presence on the south of the island, but the Malay Sultanate of Brunei, on the north coast, had been weakened by corruption and extortion and had only limited control of its territories. Oppression of the Iban tribes by the Malay rulers was extreme and there was widespread resentment. Loose control led to flourishing piracy, the most important participants being “Illanuns” from Mindinao in the Southern Philippines, as well as indigenous groups known as the “Sea Dyaks”.  Borneo’s estuaries provided ideal hiding places and the pirates tended to victimise Chinese traders and to avoid European shipping. If trade was sparse then the pirates moved inland, along the rivers, to raid the tribes living there. It might be added that headhunting was a widespread and honoured tradition at this period.

                                          Contemporary sketch of a Dyak war prahu

It was into this situation that James Brooke sailed his Royalist, arriving at Kuching in Western Sarawak in August 1838, and finding the settlement there threatened by Iban uprising against the Sultan of Brunei. Brooke took command of a combined Malay and Chinese force that had hitherto been on the defensive and, leading from the front, and supported by light guns landed from the Royalist, launched it on the enemy. The result was a rout and other successes followed. Brooke’s reputation was now established. Trading opportunities proved less than Brooke had anticipated and could only flourish is piracy was suppressed. Brooke, with local support, now launched a number of anti-piracy campaigns, which indeed were to continue for much of the rest of his life. In 1841, greatly impressed by Brooke’s successes, the Sultan of Brunei, offered him the governorship of Sarawak. The move was a wise one for many Malay nobles in Brunei, unhappy over the anti-piracy campaigns, attempted to depose the Sultan. Brooke came to the rescue and restored the Sultan to his throne. In the following year, 1842, the Sultan ceded complete sovereignty of Sarawak to Brooke, granting him the title of Rajah.

                                     Brooke negotiating with the Sultan of Brunei

Brooke now began to consolidate his rule over Sarawak, reforming administration, codifying laws, fighting piracy and ending headhunting. Major cultural shifts were required as the traditions of ages were challenged. One chieftain, named Matari, who came to see Brooke asked if he really intended to punish piracy and headhunting. On being assured that this was the case he asked pathetically if he might have permission to steal a few heads occasionally. Brooke administered justice from the hall of his large bungalow in Kuching, supported by Malay nobles. Once it became obvious that he was prepared to bring in and enforce judgements against the rich and powerful his reputation rose further. Financial challenges proved more intractable as the country proved less productive than he had anticipated. He estimated annual revenue at between £5000 and £6000 and out of this had to cover the salaries and costs of his administration, his own living expenses, and the upkeep of the two ships he maintained. It was at best break-even and he was frequently required to dip into his own rapidly dwindling fortune.

                             Brooke's and HMS Dido's forces attacking upriver
                          Pirate stronghold in background (from Keppel's book)

One of the largest anti-piracy campaigns was to be in 1843, when Brooke secured the support of a kindred spirit, James Keppel, captain of the 18-gun corvette HMS Dido. The objectives were three villages up rivers swamped by mangrove swamps where Dido’s draught did not allow her to penetrate. Brooke had had a launch called the Jolly Bachelor built locally for such work and she, with the Dido’s pinnace, two cutters and a gig, carrying 80 men between them, led the expedition. They were supplemented by numerous local craft, which carried a further 400. The first of the stockade villages was easily taken. The flotilla was ambushed as it passed over shallows to the next village, but the attackers were driven off, and this village’s defenders surrendered, promising “to reform their ways.” The third village, Rembas, put up a stiffer resistance but was stormed with little loss and burned thereafter. The defenders, who had fled into the forest, returned to negotiate a truce. Few lives were lost in the entire expedition, and not a single woman or child. In 1846 Keppel was to publish an account of these exploits, drawing heavily on Brooke’s own journal, with the result that he became widely known in Britain for the first time.

                              Brooke's Jolly Bachelor (left) in the thick of the action

Brooke's Sarawak Flag

In 1847 Brooke returned temporarily to England. Now a national hero, he was awarded  the Freedom of the City of London, appointed British consul-general in Borneo and knighted. He was however unsuccessful – as he continued to be thereafter – in getting the British Government to take over responsibility for Sarawak and he continued to bear a heavy financial burden. This was all the worse since he had lost heavily on investments in Britain in this period. He returned to Sarawak to find it well run by the small staff he had recruited in Britain and was warmly welcomed by the Malay and Iban communities. Brooke now provided Sarawak with a national flag – a red and purple cross on a yellow ground.

  The Nemesis had previously distinguished herself in the First Opium War (1840-41)

Pirate activity was again taking off however, leading to the largest punitive expedition of all. On this occasion Brook had the support of Admiral Sir Francis Collier with HMS Albatross (16-gun brig) and the East India Company screw gunboat Nemesis. Once again a drive upriver was required – for this Albatross had too deep a draught, but she provided her longboats – and Brooke brought some sixty “praus” – local craft – carrying a large force. In the battle that followed the pirate force was isolated on a sandspit and was lashed by fire from Nemesis. The prahus cut off escape and the battle raged for five hours under a bright moon. Brooke’s local allies showed no mercy to those who had persecuted them so long. An attempt was made to board Nemesis but the attackers’ canoes were overturned and many of their occupants battered under her paddle wheels. After losing nearly a hundred boats and 500 men the pirates’ main force, some 2000 strong, managed to escape upriver, losing 500 in the process. Brooke refrained from following and in the following weeks the pirate groups surrendered.

The 1850s were years of consolidation and Brooke established a small but capable civil service. Trade grew slowly, although there were further outbreaks of violence to be suppressed, including a revolt by part of the Chinese community. Brooke was reluctant to allow European traders to operate freely as he believed that this would result in exploitation of the inhabitants. Much trouble was caused by a trader called Robert Burns, apparently a grandson of the Scottish poet and described as “disreputable”. He was accused not only of stealing women but of encouraging local tribes to kill anybody trying to enter his areas of operations. Expelled from Sarawak, Burns was to turn to arms trading off North Borneo. Here he literally lost his head after his ship was attacked by pirates. Brooke accompanied the Royal Navy commander in the area, Admiral Sir Francis Austen, on an expedition to punish those responsible. This resulted in the unlikely circumstance of the novelist Jane Austen’s brother avenging the grandson of the poet Robert Burns.

In these years Brooke invited the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace to Sarawak. This encouraged  Wallace to decide on the Malay Archipelago for his next expedition, one  that lasted for eight years and established him as one of the foremost Victorian intellectuals and naturalists of the time.

Brooke became the centre of controversy in 1851 when accusations against him of excessive use of force, under the guise of anti-piracy operations, ultimately led to the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry in Singapore in 1854. After investigation, the Commission dismissed the charges but the accusations continued to haunt him in his later years.

Brooke never married – there is evidence of strong male friendships, but as these were frequent in the Victorian era, without any sexual dimension, it is impossible to come to any conclusions. Brooke did however admit to an illegitimate son, whose mother’s identity was never revealed, and to whom he left money in his will. As successor as Rajah be appointed his sister’s son, Charles Johnson, who changed his surname to Brooke.

Though James Brooke was still active in fighting pirates in the early 1860s, his health was by then failing. He retired to Britain, suffered several strokes and died in 1868. Here were to be two further White Rajahs – his nephew Charles (reigned 1868-1917) and the latter’s son Vyner (reigned 1917-1946). Occupied by the Japanese in World War 2, Sarawak was finally annexed by Britain in 1946, in return for compensation paid to Rajah Vyner and his three daughters. Britain granted Sarawak independence in 1963 and it formed the federation of Malaysia with Malaya, North Borneo, and Singapore later that year. (Singapore later seceded as a separate nation).
So ended one of the most romantic – and unlikely – episodes of British history, all due to one man whose exploits were indeed stranger than fiction.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Book Collecting Mania

From Lorraine Berry with The Guardian

When I was a young woman, I drew a sort of perverse pride from my
willingness to skip a meal or two in order to afford books. Soon enough,
with the ubiquity of credit card touts on campus, I could buy both books and
meals. I justified my increasing debt as necessary for my education, and
joked with friends that while others spent their money on cars and expensive
clothes, anything of value that I owned was on my bookcases.

I realise now that my "jokes" were, in fact, humblebrags. I did love books,
always had, but I also took a certain arrogant pleasure from owning so many.
It was also when my first "To Be Read" (TBR) pile started ­ all those
volumes I had bought with the intention of reading them. And while years
later, adult economics has forced me to stop shopping every time I step into
a bookstore, my work as a reviewer now means that an average of five new
titles arrive on my doorstep each week. My TBR pile is ceiling-high, and
while I'm not going into debt, the visceral pleasure that I get from being
surrounded by books remains the same.

In the 19th century, book collecting became common among gentlemen, mostly
in Britain, and grew into an obsession that one of its participants called
"bibliomania". Thomas Frognall Dibdin, an English cleric and bibliographer,
wrote Bibliomania, or Book Madness: A Bibliographical Romance, which was a
gentle satire of those he saw as afflicted with this "neurosis". Dibdin
medicalised the condition, going so far as to provide a list of symptoms
manifested in the particular types of books that they obsessively sought:
"First editions, true editions, black letter-printed books, large paper
copies; uncut books with edges that are not sheared by binder¹s tools;
illustrated copies; unique copies with morocco binding or silk lining; and
copies printed on vellum."

But Dibdin himself was obsessed with the physical aspects of books, and in
his descriptions paid an intense attention to the details of their bindings
and printings (rather than the content) that betrayed his own love. In a
letter published in an 1815 journal, he beseeched subscribers to bulk up
their subscriptions to help complete a set of volumes called The
Bibliographical Decameron
­ more beautiful than they could imagine. "I
should be loth to promise what is not likely to be performed, or to incur
the censure of vanity or presumption in asserting that the materials already
collected, in this department of the work, are more numerous, more
beautiful, and more faithful, than any which, to my knowledge, have come
under the eye of the publick."

While Dibdin was having new materials created to satisfy the hunger of those
who sought books, the auctions for existing items brought staggering prices.
The bloody end of so many French nobles in the revolution saw an influx of
collectibles arrive on the market as private libraries were posthumously
emptied. In 1812, the auction that released the library of John Ker, third
duke of Roxburghe, represented a watershed moment, according to Michael
Robinson, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. In his
forthcoming book Ornamental Gentlemen, Robinson says interest in the
Roxburghe auction was stirred by advertising, as well as the wartime
shortage of books. Many wealthy Englishmen ­ and a representative of
Napoleon ­ showed up for the auction, which lasted 42 days, and included a
tremendous selection of incunabula (books printed prior to 1500). An edition
of Boccaccio went for £2,260 (around $190,000 in today¹s US dollars), the
highest single price paid for a book up to that point. Dibdin himself
witnessed the auction, recalling the event as having been full of "courage,
slaughter, devastation, and phrensy".

The obsessive pursuit of books did not take place apart from the wider
culture, however. Recent studies have revealed tensions between a nascent
republican Britain and these bibliomaniacs. Even Thomas De Quincey, author
of the addiction memoir Confessions of an English Opium Eater, described the
literary addicts he had observed at the Roxburghe auction as irrational, and
governed by "caprice" and "feelings" rather than reason. De Quincey uses the
term pretium affectionus ­ "fancy price" ­ to describe how prices were
decided, transforming the book collector into a dandy ruled by his emotions.

While it may be too early to speak of a "gay" subculture, Robinson writes of
the "uncanny queerness of the stereotypical representation of 19th-century
bibliophiles". Men who collected books were often portrayed as effeminate.
In 1834, the British literary magazine the Athenaeum published an anonymous
attack implying that one of the prominent members of Dibdin's club was

Dibdin¹s language, which has been noted for its sensuality, is full of
double entendres and descriptions of book collecting in sexualised language;
from his Bibliographical Decameron, some characteristic dialogue:

"Can you indulge us with a sip of this cream?"

"Fortunately it is in my power to gratify you with a pretty good taste of

As Robinson told me: "Dibdin¹s mock-heroic discourse about books and
collectors contains language that is hard to read as anything other than
sexual innuendo. The sexiness of this stuff is quite surprising, actually ­
to the point where it can¹t really be called innuendo. These facets of the
subculture suggest the possibility that men who might today identify as gay
or queer were drawn to collecting."

One of the concerns in the early 19th century regarding book collecting was
the fear that by hoarding books, buyers were denying their fellow countrymen
their patrimony. The image of the rich dilettante was one of the conspicuous
consumer of books that would never be read ­ the old TBR pile ­ therefore
keeping books out of an intellectual commons. The collector was often
portrayed as having a kind of antisocial disease that kept him from
contributing to the greater good by sharing his printed riches. But the
origin for many literary anthologies lay in the libraries of these private
collectors ­ who were, in their own way, establishing a national literary

As colonial-era explorers would help themselves to other countries'
archaeological treasures or artworks, book collectors were arguably guilty
of similar cultural theft. But a search of the academic literature of
bibliomania failed to turn up such charges. I did, on the other hand, find a
curious book review from 1855 that discussed the "Arab domination" of Spain
prior to the Reconquista. In the review, a critique of Muslim bibliomania is
offered: while lauding the Moors' preservation of western culture during the
period pejoratively known as the dark ages, "few of their works, however,
are of value to the modern scholar". In full Orientalist language, the book
collectors of the Islamic world are dismissed with the same terms used by
earlier critics of British collectors: "We cannot sympathise with their
ecstatic vagaries of passion, or discover much merit in their over-sensuous
images and descriptions, and their verbose and stilted euphemism." It was
seemingly OK for the Arabs to have saved Aristotle and the mathematicians ­
but their choice to preserve books containing passionate language made
Victorians uncomfortable.

By the turn of the century, as evidenced by a 1906 Metropolitan Museum of
Art article, book collecting was no longer disparaged. Skill was required to
separate the gold from the dross; book collecting was now a "whole science"
and readers were told that they, too, could score a find, as long as they
possessed "keen judgment, faultless taste, inexhaustible patience ­ and
contempt for ridicule". As the author points out, it takes special knowledge
to know that Franklin Evans's The Story of an Inebriate ­ a book many would
throw away ­ was actually Walt Whitman's "first published work, and that it
is rare and valuable". Bibliomania was now a bragging right.

I chose my graduate school based on its library collection: Cornell, in
Ithaca, New York, was cofounded by historian and bibliomaniac Andrew Dickson
White, who spent his life travelling the world and collecting books, and
donated more than 34,000 rare tomes to establish Cornell's library. In that,
his bibliomania was useful to a common cause, despite the fears of previous
critics: to this day, scholars journey to Ithaca to use what would have once
been privately admired on White's shelves. The first time I sat in that
library, holding a book published before 1500, I felt something akin to the
way I have felt next to oceans: tiny, and in right proportion to the world.
Handling books from centuries before is a poignant reminder that, not only
have people loved books for as long as they have existed, they will continue
to do so long into the future. Perhaps today, bibliomania does not feel like
an irrational behaviour, as books have become less venerated and libraries
rarer. Rather, as it was for others before us, it is a careful act of
preservation for those who come after.

With thanks to Don Gilling

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

An Amazing use of Maritime Camouflage

Posted to All Things Nautical by Carl E. Ramsey

Sometimes in life, the guy with the so-crazy-it-just-might-work idea hits one out of the park and saves the day. This is what happened in 1942 aboard the HNLMS Abraham Crijnssen, the last Dutch warship standing after the Battle of the Java Sea.

Originally planning to escape to Australia with three other warships, the then-stranded minesweeper had to make the voyage alone and unprotected. The slow-moving vessel could only get up to about 15 knots and had very few guns, boasting only a single 3-inch gun and two Oerlikon 20 mm canons making it a sitting duck for the Japanese bombers that circled above.

Knowing their only chance of survival was to make it to the Allies Down Under, the Crijnssen's 45 crew members frantically brainstormed ways to make the retreat undetected. The winning idea? Turn the ship into an island.

You can almost hear crazy-idea guy anticipating his shipmates' reluctance: Now guys, just hear me out. But lucky for him, the Abraham Crijnessen was strapped for time, resources and alternative means of escape, automatically making the island idea the best idea. Now it was time to put the plan into action.

The crew went ashore to nearby islands and cut down as many trees as they could lug back onto the deck. Then the timber was arranged to look like a jungle canopy, covering as much square footage as possible. Any leftover parts of the ship were painted to look like rocks and cliff faces. These guys weren't messing around...they were trying to save their butts.

Now, a camouflaged ship that is in deep trouble is better than a completely exposed ship. But there was still the problem of the Japanese noticing a mysterious moving island and wondering what would happen if they shot at it. Because of this, the crew figured the best means of convincing the Axis powers that they were an island was to truly be an island: by not moving at all during daylight hours.

While the sun was up they would anchor the ship near other islands, then cover as much ocean as they could once night fell praying the Japanese wouldn't notice a disappearing and reappearing island amongst the nearly 18,000 existing islands in Indonesia. And, as luck would have it, they didn't.

The Crijnssen managed to go undetected by Japanese planes and avoid the destroyer that sank the other Dutch warships, surviving the eight-day journey to Australia and reuniting with Allied forces.

Sometimes in life, the guy with the so-crazy-it-just-might-work idea hits one out of the park and saves the day. That is what happened in 1942 aboard the HNLMS Abraham Crijnssen. Ingenuity was the mother of invention.

The Story is confirmed by the Australian War Memorial Museum

The photographs come from there.  

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The disastrous consequences of poor leadership

Island of the Lost is the story of two near-simultaneous shipwrecks on sub-Antarctic Auckland Island in 1865, and the differing fates of the two sets of castaways.

Each was utterly unaware of the existence of the other group, and so they were left entirely to their own devices, completely dependent on the leadership skills of their captains.

One was an abject failure.  Though a competent and well-respected shipmaster, he did not have the flexibility to turn his men into a cohesive group, working together for their joint survival.  Over the next 19 months they all died, save three.  Some turned to cannibalism.  There was one resourceful seaman, Robert Holding -- but he was "just" a seaman, and so the captain disdained to accept his sensible ideas.  Instead, when Holding built a boat, the "elite" castaways took it over -- and then one of the officers lost it.  Robert Holding, the common seaman, was not worth talking to -- except when he managed to kill a seal, and had steaks broiling over a fire.  Those steaks, naturally, were appropriated.  And, because he wasn't considered worth listening to, the group fell apart, fought among themselves, starved, and died.  Only Holding and the captain and an officer survived -- Holding because of his versatility and resourcefulness, the "elite" because they had preyed on him, though without recognizing his skills.

The other group succeeded brilliantly.   The captain was a true leader.  Democratic to the core, he co-opted all the castaways into a brotherhood, where they all worked for the common good. They built a cabin, foraged for food, had a duty roster, built a forge, made their own tools, and constructed a getaway boat from the timbers of the wreck.  Because of the captain's fine leadership, they all survived.

The book, with its demonstration of the crucial difference that leadership makes, is used in courses in American schools and universities, and in Australia and the UK, too.  As the writer of a British paper
points out, "the unique and different set of personality characteristics and leadership behaviors displayed by the two captains" draws "a fine line between order and chaos, life and death."

As the study concludes, "[i]t is not the situation that makes the leader but rather the opposite. On the Auckland Islands in 1864 it was most definitely the case that it was the difference in leaders that determined the outcome ... The conclusion that we are drawn to – since all other factors are equal – is that the personal style of the two leaders was the deciding factor that made all the difference...

"As the fate of these shipwrecked mariners shows, much of the success and failure that we endure together hangs on the character of our leaders. When the winds around our organizations blow cold and harsh and our ship goes aground, it is that character that may make the difference between building a new boat to sail to success or consuming ourselves in cannibalism."

The inescapable conclusion is that the doomed set of castaways would have had a better chance of survival if their captain had gone down with the wreck.

It is a lesson that still applies today. Countries with mad, bad, incompetent leaders collapse in dissension, death and chaos, just like the unlucky castaway party, while those with democratic, unifying leadership will survive intact.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Golden Age Gone for Multi-Nationals

Don't you love the graphic?  But, I am afraid, the following paints a very grim picture

The Economist describes a bleak future for multi-nationals with a Trump administration 

AMONG the many things that Donald Trump dislikes are big global firms. Faceless and rootless, they stand accused of unleashing “carnage” on ordinary Americans by shipping jobs and factories abroad. His answer is to domesticate these marauding multinationals. Lower taxes will draw their cash home, border charges will hobble their cross-border supply chains and the trade deals that help them do business will be rewritten. To avoid punitive treatment, “all you have to do is stay,” he told American bosses this week.

Mr Trump is unusual in his aggressively protectionist tone. But in many ways he is behind the times. Multinational companies, the agents behind global integration, were already in retreat well before the populist revolts of 2016. Their financial performance has slipped so that they are no longer outstripping local firms. Many seem to have exhausted their ability to cut costs and taxes and to out-think their local competitors. Mr Trump’s broadsides are aimed at companies that are surprisingly vulnerable and, in many cases, are already heading home. The impact on global commerce will be profound.

The end of the arbitrage: Multinational firms (those that do a large chunk of their business outside their home region) employ only one in 50 of the world’s workers. But they matter. A few thousand firms influence what billions of people watch, wear and eat. The likes of IBM, McDonald’s, Ford, H&M, Infosys, Lenovo and Honda have been the benchmark for managers. They co-ordinate the supply chains that account for over 50% of all trade. They account for a third of the value of the world’s stockmarkets and they own the lion’s share of its intellectual property—from lingerie designs to virtual-reality software and diabetes drugs. They boomed in the early 1990s, as China and the former Soviet bloc opened and Europe integrated. Investors liked global firms’ economies of scale and efficiency. Rather than running themselves as national fiefs, firms unbundled their functions. A Chinese factory might use tools from Germany, have owners in the United States, pay taxes in Luxembourg and sell to Japan. Governments in the rich world dreamed of their national champions becoming world-beaters. Governments in the emerging world welcomed the jobs, exports and technology that global firms brought. It was a golden age. 

Central to the rise of the global firm was its claim to be a superior moneymaking machine. That claim lies in tatters (see Briefing). In the past five years the profits of multinationals have dropped by 25%. Returns on capital have slipped to their lowest in two decades. A strong dollar and a low oil price explain part of the decline. Technology superstars and consumer firms with strong brands are still thriving. But the pain is too widespread and prolonged to be dismissed as a blip. About 40% of all multinationals make a return on equity of less than 10%, a yardstick for underperformance. In a majority of industries they are growing more slowly and are less profitable than local firms that stayed in their backyard. The share of global profits accounted for by multinationals has fallen from 35% a decade ago to 30% now. For many industrial, manufacturing, financial, natural-resources, media and telecoms companies, global reach has become a burden, not an advantage.

That is because a 30-year window of arbitrage is closing. Firms’ tax bills have been massaged down as low as they can go; in China factory workers’ wages are rising. Local firms have become more sophisticated. They can steal, copy or displace global firms’ innovations without building costly offices and factories abroad. From America’s shale industry to Brazilian banking, from Chinese e-commerce to Indian telecoms, the companies at the cutting edge are local, not global.
The changing political landscape is making things even harder for the giants. Mr Trump is the latest and most strident manifestation of a worldwide shift to grab more of the value that multinationals capture. China wants global firms to place not just their supply chains there, but also their brainiest activities such as research and development. Last year Europe and America battled over who gets the $13bn of tax that Apple and Pfizer pay annually. From Germany to Indonesia rules on takeovers, antitrust and data are tightening.

Mr Trump’s arrival will only accelerate a gory process of restructuring. Many firms are simply too big: they will have to shrink their empires. Others are putting down deeper roots in the markets where they operate. General Electric and Siemens are “localising” supply chains, production, jobs and tax into regional or national units. Another strategy is to become “intangible”. Silicon Valley’s stars, from Uber to Google, are still expanding abroad. Fast-food firms and hotel chains are shifting from flipping burgers and making beds to selling branding rights. But such virtual multinationals are also vulnerable to populism because they create few direct jobs, pay little tax and are not protected by trade rules designed for physical goods.

Taking back control
The retreat of global firms will give politicians a feeling of greater control as companies promise to do their bidding. But not every country can get a bigger share of the same firms’ production, jobs and tax. And a rapid unwinding of the dominant form of business of the past 20 years could be chaotic. Many countries with trade deficits (including “global Britain”) rely on the flow of capital that multinationals bring. If firms’ profits drop further, the value of stockmarkets will probably fall.
What of consumers and voters? They touch screens, wear clothes and are kept healthy by the products of firms that they dislike as immoral, exploitative and aloof. The golden age of global firms has also been a golden age for consumer choice and efficiency. Its demise may make the world seem fairer. But the retreat of the multinational cannot bring back all the jobs that the likes of Mr Trump promise. And it will mean rising prices, diminishing competition and slowing innovation. In time, millions of small firms trading across borders could replace big firms as transmitters of ideas and capital. But their weight is tiny. People may yet look back on the era when global firms ruled the business world, and regret its passing.