Bolting Elephants – It Happened Today, January 23, 2017

On this date, January 23, Song dynasty troops with crossbows decisively defeated the Southern Han war elephant corps at the battle of Shao in 971. Which might seem a hair-raising and messy irrelevancy. But I record it because I’ve always found it odd that the crossbow was such a mighty weapon with so little impact on military history, and considered elephants an absurd weapon that I can’t figure out what I’d do if the other side showed up with them.

The “mumakil” or “oliphaunts” are a significant problem at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in the book version of the Lord of the Rings, and a ludicrously overblown one in the movie where they seem to kill about 63,000 of the Rohirrim before Legolas does them all in. But trying to devise a sensible strategy even for the more reasonably elephant-sized ones in the book is a puzzler. So having the Song riddle them with crossbow bolts fired with such incredible energy as to bring down even that big a target works for me.

As it did for them; elephants were then permanently dropped from the main Chinese order of battle. At which point they also started working on gunpowder weapons since once the elephants were gone, there wasn’t a lot the apparently super-cool crossbow could do. Despite at least a millennium and a half of military use of crossbows, this is the only battle I’m aware of where it was decisive.

As for elephants, they were used militarily in parts of Southeast Asia into the 19th century. Elsewhere it turned out they reacted even worse to cannonballs than crossbow bolts.


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Here Comes The Flood… Again – It Happened Today, January 16, 2017

St. Marcellus

English weather is proverbially lousy partly because it’s so wet all the time. But January 16 of 1362 was especially bad, the onset of the Grote Mandrenke which if your low Saxon is in good working order will alarm you because it means the “Great Drowning of Men”.

Also known as the “Second St. Marcellus Flood” because it peaked on his feast day, January 17, the Grote Mandrenke took at least 25,000 lives in the British Isles and northern Europe from Denmark to the Netherlands. A previous “First St. Marcellus flood” had hit in 1219, drowning some 36,000 people in northern Europe, which surely indicates that extreme weather did not begin when Al Gore hit middle-age.

In fact the Grote Mandrenke was the result of a massive southwesterly Atlantic gale that sent a storm side surging far inland, sweeping away islands, cutting off parts of the mainland and wiping entire towns off the map to the point that some cannot now be located even through archeology. And it was, as the “Second St. Marcellus flood” business indicates, far from unusual in that period.

Wikipedia notes blandly that “This storm tide, along with others of like size in the 13th century and 14th century, played a part in the formation of the Zuiderzee, and was characteristic of the unsettled and changeable weather in northern Europe at the beginning of the Little Ice Age.” But hang on. Doesn’t that sound exactly like “climate change”? But hardly “man-made” or, if you like long words, “anthropogenic.”

OK then. If drastic, menacing climate change has been clearly happening since long before humans invented factory mass production, and has been known to have been happening, it tells you what?

The politically correct answer is nothing. Everybody contemplating any issue other than the current panic knows climate has always varied, often suddenly and with dramatic consequences, and says it openly. Glaciers suddenly advance and suddenly retreat. The Earth warms and cools repeatedly. But never mind. Pay no attention. The science is settled. It’s all our fault.

Except the science is no more settled than the climate itself. The famous “Little Ice Age” itself, which brought the Middle Ages to something of a screeching halt and lasted into Victorian times, was not caused by humans. But nor logically then was its end, which set off the warming trend that persisted through most of the 20th century. Indeed most of that warming awkwardly preceded the large increase in atmospheric CO2 to which it is attributed by those who do not believe that causes must precede effects for science, or life, to make any sense.

Blaming humans for unstable weather is about as rational as blaming St. Marcellus. Which people in the Middle Ages were too sensible to do, I might pointedly add.


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Mooned by Uranus – It Happened Today, January 11, 2017

Merely saying the name of the 7th planet in our solar system risks provoking adolescent snickers. Especially when you add a moon or two of… Uranus. There. Now that we’ve disposed of that issue I’d like to raise a glass, carefully ground for optimum magnification, to William Herschel.

He it was who first discovered that planet, the third-largest and fourth-heaviest in the Sol system, in 1781. Or rather, discovered that it was in fact a planet and not a comet or a star. Despite which he wanted to name it the “Georgian star” or “Georgian planet” which is only funny in a sad way as it was an obsequious attempt to curry favour with King George III. I guess it worked, in that the German-born Herschel was appointed “The King’s Astronomer” by the German-descended king a year later. But the French were so unwilling to utter the name of the British king (I don’t see why; it’s not as though they were stuck with him) that they called it “Herschel” until the name Uranus was adopted after a long and on the whole civil debate of exactly the sort we don’t now have on the Internet. And by many people in whose language it wasn’t a double entendre, I might add.

As I might add that it was also Herschel who, on January 11 of 1787 discovered two moons of Uranus subsequently named Titan and Oberon by his son John. And it strikes me as worthy of commendation because it is so useless. To be sure, Herschel didn’t know it at the time. He was convinced the moon was inhabited, and that its settlements resembled the English countryside. (He was also certain Mars was inhabited, and the inside of the sun.)

If Uranus’ moons had been inhabited, perhaps we would have learned great scientific or cultural secrets from them. Like that the sun is extremely hot, say. Or that disinterested curiosity is a good thing. If they were even reachable, they might furnish thrill-seeking tourists with something special to do before you die like witness a methane waterfall. Right before you die, I mean.

Still, I feel that Hershel more or less stared into space because it was there, and found weird celestial bodies because they were. (While not composing one of his 24 symphonies along with many other musical works, in case you want to feel inadequate.) And he went right on finding cool things in space, like that the ice caps on Mars change with the seasons, that our solar system is moving through space and so forth. And to do something periodically without a covetous eye on the outcome is a good thing. As for his securing career advancement through it, well, it just shows a society exhibiting disinterested curiosity. And there are many worse qualities.


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Washington Watches a Balloon – It Happened Today, January 9, 2017

Regular readers of this feature will know that I have a soft spot for the incorrigible enthusiasts for hot air balloons, dirigibles and all those lighter-than-air craft that preceded the airplane, were rudely shoved aside by it, and yet whose backers continue to dream. You just can’t keep a hot air balloon down.

It is also remarkable that for some reason the French were especially keen enthusiasts. I won’t make any hot air jokes here. But I will note that French pioneers included Jean-Pierre Blanchard, who in 1785 boldly demonstrated the value of a parachute in escaping a troubled hot-air balloon by … um… throwing his dog out wearing one. (See “It Happened Today” for October 22, 2016.) Dogs being what they are, the pooch was probably enthusiastic about it. But I do not suggest you try it with a cat or it may well sharpen its claws on your balloon before your next flight. Or on you as you seek to ease it out of the contraption or into the parachute.)

Blanchard’s interest in the subject of escaping alive from a balloon gone bad was doubtless stimulated by his own very nearly lethal trip from Dover to Calais on January 7 of 1785 in which (see “It Happened Today” for January 7, 2016) he and his co-lunatic only escaped a plunge into the Channel en route by jettisoning all the ballast they could think of including Blanchard’s pants. And the danger was very real; an effort by another Frenchman, Pilâtre de Rozier, to cross the Channel the other way later that year ended in a fatal crash.

Well, on January 9, 1793, Blanchard was at it again. No, I don’t mean the animal cruelty stuff or the mid-air striptease. I mean a historic balloon flight. The first in the Americas, taking off from the yard of Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia and reaching Deptford in New Jersey. Which may not sound like the acme of glamour. But in fact the flight was witnessed by America’s first, incumbent President George Washington along with her future 2nd president John Adams, 3rd president Thomas Jefferson, 4th president James Madison and 5th president James Monroe.

Sadly, Blanchard suffered a heart attack and fell from a balloon in the Hague in 1808 and died about a year later from his injuries. And his widow continued ballooning demonstrations until she too died in an accident. And it’s also sad to see how France, which was somehow still a world leader in many ways at the turn of the 19th century despite a long tradition of bad government that was about to get worse, has gradually faded as excessive if no longer vicious government seems gradually to have stifled much of the French genius for bold innovation.

Obviously ballooning continues to have adherents, and I cannot look up on a beautiful day and watch balloons cruising over Ottawa without wishing I were in one. But given all the passionate commitment, interest and courage that went into their early development I do hope that one day that somehow the first and most graceful form of manned flight will become more important relative to the dominant, convenient but loud and increasingly tawdry airplane travel that dominates today.

Who knows? Maybe they’ll even serve good food. Especially if the French are involved.


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Common sense on carbon taxes

In my second video for Canadians for Energy East, a project of the Economic Education Association of Alberta, I explain what opponents should not say about them and what supporters should.


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Why the Energy East pipeline makes sense

In my new video for Canadians for Energy East, a project of the Economic Education Association of Alberta, I explain why Energy East is the right practical answer to the actual choices we face in energy policy in Canada.


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