Author Archives: John Robson

Climate questions

My friend Tom Harris is inviting people to attend a conference sponsored by his International Science Climate Coalition and others in Paris at the same time as the big UN affair. Even if you don’t find yourself in Paris this coming week, it’s well worth pondering the questions Tom and his colleagues are asking about the orthodox view.

Most fundamentally, the ISCS and others ask for proper evidence on these three points:

  • Recent climate change is unusual in comparison with historical records;
  • Human emissions of carbon dioxide and other ‘greenhouse gases’ are dangerously impacting climate;
  • Computer-based models are reliable indicators of future climate.

If the consensus is as solid as alarmists claim, it should be easy to provide. If they can’t or won’t provide it, something very unscientific is going on here.


It happened today – November 29, 2015

On November 29 1947 the United Nations voted to partition Palestine and create a Jewish homeland. And you know what happened next, don’t you?

Exactly. The partition was a compromise deeply unsatisfactory to Jews and Arabs alike. But the Jews decided to swallow hard and make the best of it and hope for peace with their neighbours. The Arabs rejected it angrily and, at the first opportunity, sought to exterminate not just Israel but the Israelis.

They failed, and Israel got bigger. And it happened again, and again, and again. Compromise after compromise was put on the table, always deeply unsatisfactory to both sides. And each time the Jews swallowed hard and made the best of it and hoped for peace, and the Arabs rejected it angrily and plotted wars they then lost badly.

We’re still there now, of course. And the irony is that the original checkerboard Israel was almost certainly not viable. By accepting it, Arab leaders could have destroyed it. But they didn’t, and now it’s too late.

Not that they aren’t keen to repeat the pattern indefinitely, of course.

It happened today – November 28, 2015

Frank (right) and Charles

On November 28, 1895, Frank Duryea did something unprecedented in American history. He entered a car race. What’s more, he won it.

Not many people even entered. The Chicago Times-Herald had sponsored the race to drum up the fledgling U.S. car industry. And fledgling is the right word; Duryea’s victory bagged him $2000 back when that was real money and sufficient publicity to make his and his brother’s Motor Wagons company the leading auto manufacturer in America, with a breathtaking 13 sales in the following year. Talk about volume.

As for the race itself, it was meant to go 92 miles, from Chicago to Waukean, Illinois and back (and you had to carry an umpire to make sure you didn’t take a sneaky short cut). But a snowstorm forced organizers to shorten it to 50 miles, to Evanston and back. One journalist wrote that with eight inches of snow “Waukegan might as well have been Timbuktu.” To be honest, for my money it might still be. But that’s not the point.

The point is that Duryea made the trip in 10 hours. So he set a blistering 5 mph pace. Which is easy to ridicule until you hear that thanks to the weather only six cars out of the registered 89 even got to the start line, including two electric cars that promptly died and three Benz cars of which exactly one finished at all.

I love the rules of the race, including that you had to have at least three wheels. I presume they meant at the beginning and the end; the way those cars were built you never knew what might fall off next. Think pre-Wright brothers airplanes on tires wrapped in string. (Seriously, to give something politely referred to as traction in the snow). But here’s the thing.

Much as we admire the skill and courage of modern race-car drivers who achieve genuinely spectacular speeds, and the incredible machines in which they race, Duryea’s feat was actually more difficult and remarkable because the technology was less advanced.

Do not mistake technical progress for the real thing. And remember Frank Duryea, who dared to enter and somehow win a “car race” that almost no one else could even start that had never been seen in the land before.

It happened today – November 27, 2015

On November 27, 1954, a ghost was released from prison. His name was Alger Hiss and he wasn’t technically dead. Indeed, he lived until 1996 and never ceased to protest his innocence. It’s terribly sad.

Not because he was innocent, a victim of the “Red Scare”. On the contrary, he was guilty, a fact established in Congressional testimony and in court at the time and confirmed by Soviet archives and serious researchers since. It is detailed in Whittaker Chambers’ book Witness and it cannot be evaded.

A child of privilege, a radical betrayer of the system that had given him so much, Hiss was not merely a communist but a Soviet agent. And when exposed he could not face the truth about himself.

In a deeper sense he had never been able to do so. He knew he was a Communist and must have suspected that his activities on behalf of his comrades amounted to spying. But he convinced himself it was all in such a good cause that somehow it wasn’t real and neither were the horrors of the Stalinist regime whose crimes he abetted.

The most compelling, almost heartbreaking comment on Hiss came from Chambers himself, who said at the time the “saddest single factor about the Hiss case is that nobody can change the facts as they are known…They are there forever. That is the inherent tragedy of this case.” And he meant it.

In testifying about Communist penetration of the U.S. government during what liberals sneeringly dismiss as the “Red Scare”, Chambers even perjured himself to avoid incriminating former comrades he felt were no longer an active threat, on the grounds that he had wandered so long in the darkness himself that he would do nothing to keep others from finding their way back to the light. The darkness he referred to was primarily internal, in his own case and theirs. And ironically, at one point he perjured himself to shelter Hiss, before Hiss’s own actions and the nature of the crisis forced him to come clean.

Chambers was always deeply sorry about what he had to do to Hiss. Sorrier, indeed, than Hiss himself ever was. Hiss could not bring himself to repent his own deeds; Chambers deeply repented having to expose them.

So it was that Chambers, who died in 1961 aged just 60, was a man during the comparatively few years left to him after the Hiss case, and Hiss was a ghost for decades, squandering the long years before his formal death at age 92.

It happened today – November 26, 2015

On November 26, more than 3,000 years later, someone finally knocked. I refer of course to November 26 1922 and the door of King Tut’s tomb. The boy pharaoh achieved lasting fame and glory of a sort that largely eluded him during his brief life. And Hollywood went nuts with mummies.

Much of the credit goes, or should go, to Howard Carter, one of those larger-than-life British explorers who had already located two significant tombs in the thoroughly plundered Valley of the Kings, thought to be bereft of remaining treasures. (One was that of Queen Hatshepsut, whose funerary temple is one of the greatest buildings in the world, by the way). And then in 1922 he made his biggest find, Tut’s magnificent, untouched tomb.

Much had happened since Tut died, after an undistinguished decade in which he mostly undid the radical religious innovations of his father Akhenaten. Tut was originally Tutankaten after Aten, the monotheistic sun god Akhenaten more or less invented but changed his name and… am I boring you?

If so I apologize. Egypt is weirdly fascinating and yet truly obscure and distant; the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece remain familiar in their broad outlines to any educated person whereas Osiris and Horus and that crowd could be jackals in the desert for all we know (and at least one of them looked like one but I don’t know who either). And its religious quarrels and controversies didn’t really lead anywhere; the Greek gods yielded to Christianity whereas the Egyptians just sit there like a Sphinx, mute and puzzling.

There, I think, lies paradoxically the enduring fascination of Egypt. When Tut’s tomb was sealed, and then he and his father were officially disgraced, their records including the location of their tombs destroyed, and then excavations for the tomb of Rameses VI two centuries later buried it in rock chips, it closed the door definitively on whatever his hopes were and threw away the key. They could not be more vanished if they were on Jupiter. And yet everything looked exactly the way it did the day they closed the door amid lamentation, aspiration and controversy.

Tut’s curse also got him plenty of good press despite not existing. But the main thing is the haunting way the lifelike nature of the artefacts seemed to preserve, in eerily fragile beauty, the hopes we all have that our life might somehow mean something permanent.

In life he was just annoying. In death, frozen in time, rescued from obscurity, he became weirdly magnificent.