Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Book Review: Civilization, By Niall Ferguson

I have found an excellent book review on a book I just finished reading, Civilization by Niall Ferguson. Enjoy. If you haven't read it I would highly recommend it!

Here is also a short summary of the book, for those who haven't heard about it before:

Written by a historian lauded in The Times as "the most brilliant of his generation", this defence of Western civilisation contrives to be off-puttingly trendy in its sub-title ("The Six Killer Apps of Western Power") and starchy in its preface (two pages devoted to the historiography of R.C.Collingwood from 1939). Fortunately, the narrative proper bears Ferguson's hallmarks of readability and impressive research. With the skill of a master strategist, he marshals facts and opinion.

Ferguson's six major reasons for the success of the West begin with medieval competition that propelled our technology ahead of even the advanced Chinese. Ferguson maintains that "multilevel competition" between states and even within cities explains the rapid development of the mechanical clock from the 1330s onwards. "Not only more accurate than the Chinese water clocks, they were intended to be disseminated rather than monopolised by the Emperor's astronomers."

Other forces that bolstered Western advance include science, which enabled the West to dominate the Orient, particularly following the Ottoman failure to take Vienna in 1683, and the property rights inherent in British colonisation, which "generally produced better economic results than Spanish or Portuguese, wherever it was tried."

Ferguson adds medical developments ("There is no question that here, as elsewhere, Western empire brought real measurable progress), the consumer society and the work ethic: "The Western model of industrial production and mass consumption left alternative models of economic organisation floundering in its wake."

However, Ferguson goes on to point out that "Europeans are today the idlers of the world", which he links to "a comparable divergence in religiosity. Europeans not only work less; they also pray less – and believe less." Citing the tumultuous collapse of the Roman empire – "in just five decades the population of Rome itself fell by three-quarters" – he concludes that "Maybe the real threat is posed not by the rise of China, Islam or carbon dioxide but by our own loss of faith in the civilisation we inherited."


Sunday, 24 February 2013

Hilary Mantel on Kate Middleton

On the 4th February, at the British Museum, author Hilary Mantel made a speech called 'Undressing Ann Boleyn'. In her speech which was about the way royal women have been portrayed over the centuries Mantel said that in contrast to Diana, Princess of Wales, Kate appears "machine-made". She has been accused of describing the Duchess of Cambridge as "a shop window mannequin with no personality of her own". However she is actually defending the Duchess; the list of accusations is actually a list of the "threadbare attributions" she says were presented in the press about Kate Middleton.

Mantel said we treat the Royal Family like pandas, staring at them as if they are in a cage. Her fear is that we become like "spectators at Bedlam. Cheerful curiosity can easily become cruelty. It can easily become fatal". This is in reference to Princess Diana, who, she says, "we" drove to destruction. Her conclusion is that we have now a chance to be different. She concludes: "I'm not asking for censorship. I'm not asking for pious humbug and smarmy reverence. I'm asking us to back off and not be brutes."

Cameron and Miliband have been quick to jump to the defence of Kate, with Cameron saying "She writes great books, but I think what she's said about Kate Middleton is completely misguided" and Miliband telling the BBC "These are pretty offensive remarks, I don't agree with them.Kate Middleton is doing a brilliant job in a difficult role. She's a huge asset to the country. She deserves our support in the role that she's playing."

However many people agree with Mantel, that if we are not careful Kate could become a "jointed doll on which certain rags are hung". If you are interested on reading up more about the ongoing debate on Hilary Mantel's speech, then this article is fantastic on the subject

Sunday, 17 February 2013

New Year, New Problems for Egypt

I know it's not exactly New Year any more but it's still only February so I think I can get away with a new year-new problem piece on Egypt. President Mohamed Morsi was sworn in on 30 June 2012, as Egypt's first democratically elected president, but although he has been President for less than a year he is already facing tough decisions that could risk his already declining popularity. The Islamic government won with a 64% majority vote, although other reports state it as 51.7%, but Morsi still has a defiant opposition, a wave of government defections and a looming economic crisis.

Morsi's political rivals have refused to accept the result of the popular referendum, vowing to fight until the divisive constitution is annulled. Revolutionary activists meanwhile are calling for “a second revolution,” on the anniversary of the January 2011 mass uprising to protest what they allege was a vote marred by fraud and numerous irregularities.

In a bid to win over his opponents and broaden his support base, Morsi appointed 90 new members (including liberals and Christians) to the Upper House last week. The new constitution gives the council legislative authority until the lower house or People’s Assembly is elected early next year.

However the political turbulence has kept tourists and foreign investors at bay, undermining efforts to prop up the faltering economy. Last week, Standard & Poor’s cut Egypt's long-term credit rating, saying another cut was possible if the political unrest continues. The government also put a $10,000 limit on the amount of foreign currency travellers can carry in or out of the country at any one time. This move was intended to halt capital flight after an increase in the number of people withdrawing their savings from banks due to the political instability.

At a future date I hope to talk more about the root of Egypt's troubles and the political fight for freedom, but for now, I hope this short post has taught you something new. Have a great Sunday!

Thursday, 14 February 2013

History of Valentine's Day

Every February 14th, candy, flowers and gifts are exchanged between loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine around the world. But who is this mysterious saint, and where did these traditions come from?

Pre-Christian era
In ancient Rome, 13, 14 and 15 February were celebrated as Lupercalia, a pagan fertility festival. This seems to be the basis for a celebration of love on this date.

Circa AD 197
A Christian known as Valentine of Terni was martyred  after apparently being imprisoned, tortured and beheaded in Rome for his Christianity. According to legend, he died on 14 February, but that is likely a later embellishment.

Circa AD 289
Another Christian, Valentine of Rome, was martyred. Valentines was a priest who was apparently arrested for giving aid to his prisoners and helping young men marry in secret (apparently Emperor Claudius had banned marriage until a certain age so young men would make better soldiers). Many rumours circulate Valentine of Rome, particularly that while in jail, he is said to have converted his jailer by healing his blind daughter's sigh or that he fell in love with the daughter, sending her a note saying “From your Valentine” - however this probably just a myth. Like his earlier namesake, Valentine of Rome is supposed to have died on 14 February, but – again – this is implausible.

Circa AD 496
The then Pope, Gelasius, declared 14 February to be St Valentine's Day, a Christian feast day..

On St Valentine's Day a court was opened in Paris, the High Court of Love, dealing with affairs of the heart: marriage contracts, divorces, infidelity, and beaten spouses. A few years later, Charles, the Duke of Orleans wrote the first recorded Valentine's note to his beloved, while imprisoned in the Tower of London following capture at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

St Valentine's Day had become popular; even Shakespeare was writing about it: “To-morrow is Saint Valentine's day,/All in the morning betime,/And I a maid at your window,/To be your Valentine.”

Mid-18th century
The passing of love-notes became popular in England, a precursor to the St Valentine's Day card as we know it today. Early ones are made of lace and paper. In 1797, the The Young Man’s Valentine Writer is published, suggesting appropriate rhymes and messages, and as postal services became more affordable, the anonymous St Valentine's Day card became possible. By the early 19th century, they become so popular that factories started to mass-produce them.

Hallmark Cards produced their first Valentine card.

The St Valentine's Day Massacre took place, which was when five Chicago gangsters lined their victims up and shot them in the head with machine guns. 

The commercialisation continues: noting the sales effect of the holiday on chocolate, flowers and cards, the diamond industry got involved, promoting St Valentine's Day as a time for giving jewellery. The “tradition” takes off.

Valentine's Day generated an estimated £9.2 billion in retail sales in the United States alone.

An estimated 1 billion St Valentine's Day cards were sent worldwide, making it the second most card-heavy celebration after Christmas.

I hope you all have a lovely day and celebrate it with your loved ones. 

Monday, 11 February 2013

Pope Benedict XVI is resigning

Pope Benedict XVI made history on Monday when he announced, to the shock of the Catholic Church, that he would resign, making him the first Pope to do so since the middle ages. The Pope is planning to leave on the 28th February, leaving the papacy vacant until a successor is chosen.
Pope Benedict's has spent 8 years as the head of the Catholic Church, however his time as been peppered by sexual abuse scandals and often very controversial decisions. 
His successor is expected to be elected by the end of March and possibly for the beginning of holy week on 24 March. Pope Benedict will honour public commitments and engagements until the date of his resignation, after which he will move to a summer residence near Rome and then to a former monastery within Vatican territory.
He will take no part in the process to elect a successor. Cardinals will meet and vote on nominees in a series of ballots until a new pope is chosen.
Benedict, who became the 265th pope in 2005, has arthritis, particularly in his knees, hips and ankles. He had been due to travel to Brazil, the largest Catholic country in the world, in July for a youth festival, but concerns had been raised among Vatican observers about whether he was fit enough.
A voluntary papal resignation is rare – certainly in recent centuries. Pope Celestine V exercised his right to abdicate in 1294. Pope Gregory XII resigned in 1415 to end the western schism.

Friday, 8 February 2013


The annual World Economic meeting took place recently in Davos. The World Economic Forum was first set up in January 1971 when a group of European business leaders met in Davos, Switzerland.
A Partner in Shaping History - The First 40 Years
The Forum is perhaps most widely known for its Annual Meeting in Davos-Klosters. Annual business, government and civil society leaders meet to discuss major global issues. The European Management Forum is a non-profit organised based in Geneva founded by Professor Schwab.
In 1973 the annual meeting began to expand its focus to include economic and social issues, and political leaders were first invited to Davos in January 1974.
Two years later, the organization introduced a system of membership, which were "the 1,000 leading companies of the world". The European Management Forum changed its name to the World Economic Forum in 1987 and has since expanded its activities to include a Centre for Public-Private Partnerships, which engages businesses, civil society and political authorities in initiatives ranging from health in India to alliances combating chronic hunger in Africa. The Forum's knowledge centre has expanded to include several other competitive reports, including the Global Gender Gap Report,Global Risk reports and regional scenario reports.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

King Richard III has been found!

A centuries-old mystery involving one of England's most famous rulers has finally been solved. Researchers have announced that they have found the long-lost remains of King Richard III, the last English king to die in battle has been found and identified - sitting under a parking lot in the English Midlands for more than 500 years.

Richard III, the controversial 15th century English monarch, was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. The story goes that the body was taken to nearby Leicester, about 100 miles north of London, after his death. Until recently, no one had tried to dig up his remains. In September, archaeologists at the University of Leicester began to dig under a city council parking lot and within a week had found a skeleton and a medieval friary, raising hopes that Richard's remains had been found. DNA tests suggest that bones found under a parking lot in Leicester, England, are those of King Richard III, who ruled from 1483 to 1485 before being killed at the Battle of Bosworth. Dow Jones's Jenny Gross looks at the debate over where he should be buried.

The skeleton also has a curved spine, just as Richard was reported to have. Radiocarbon dating revealed the individual had a high-protein diet, including significant amounts of seafood, a sign he was of high status, the university said.

Leicester officials said they hope the prospect of a proper burial site would be a boost to tourism, creating a focal point for a king who ruled England for just two years, but whose story has long captivated enthusiasts.

Richard became king in 1483, taking power from his nephew, the 12-year-old Edward V. Richard said Edward was an illegitimate heir as the product of his father's second marriage. Richard was said to have imprisoned his two nephews in the Tower of London. Within months of Richard's taking the throne, the two nephews disappeared, and some assumed Richard had them murdered.

Some historians say Richard was an evil, power-hungry ruler who murdered family members to quicken his rise to the throne. William Shakespeare's "Richard III" helped to popularize this depiction, describing Richard as a crippled villain who killed anyone in his path to the throne.

Others say this description is fictional, and one spread by Henry Tudor, Richard's successor, whose army killed Richard in battle. Shakespeare was born about 80 years after Richard died and wrote during the Tudor dynasty. Pro-Richard enthusiasts say a closer look at Richard's reign shows he was one of the most progressive rulers of his time and one who promoted foreign trade and books.

His death at the Battle of Bosworth Field, outside of Leicester, marked a pivotal moment in English history and in the struggle for power between the House of York and the House of Lancaster, known as the "The Wars of the Roses." Richard was the last of the Plantagenet kings to rule and his defeat by Henry VII began the start of the Tudor dynasty, which lasted for more than a century.

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