Steve Stewart-Williams on the evolution of the Breton fishing boat

I finished reading The Ape That Understood The Universe about a week ago now, but there is one further bit from this book that I want to scan into this blog, because I think it is my absolute favourite.

At the beginning of the second half of the book devoted to Man, “The Cutural Animal”, SS-W offers six examples of cultural evolution in action. These are: Breton Boats, Conditioned Behavior, Language, Teddy Bears, Businesses, and Science. I have already copied the bits on Teddy Bears, and on Language. Here is the bit about Breton Boats (p. 224):

The first example concerns the fishing boats used by Breton fisherman in the Île de Groix. Where did these boats come from? At first glance, it looks like a no-brainer: If anything’s a product of intelligent design, it’s a boat. On closer inspection, though, it turns out it really is a no-brainer … or at least a partial-brainer, in the sense that human brains played a more modest role in crafting the boats than we normally assume. This possibility was first mooted by the French philosopher Emile-Auguste Chartier (aka Alain), who in 1908, took a Darwinian hatchet to the common sense view. “Every boat,” he observed,

is copied from another boat … Let’s reason as follows in the manner of Darwin. It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up at the bottom after one or two voyages, and thus never be copied … One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.

If a boat returns, the boat makers may copy it. If it doesn’t, they definitely won’t. The boats that are most likely to be copied are therefore those that survive the longest. As Daniel Dennett points out, no one needs to know why these particular boats survive. To make a good boat, you don’t need to understand what makes a boat good; you only need to be able to copy another boat. How do you know you ‘re copying a good boat? Well, you don’t need to know, because the sea automatically culls the not-good ones from the boat population. Meanwhile, any especially good boats get copied at a faster rate. Over time, this process of culling and copying fashions more and more seaworthy boats.

Now maybe each and every step in the gradual evolution of the boat was a product of intelligent design: of a thousand forgotten boat makers figuring out a thousand different ways to make their boats more sea-worthy. But maybe not. Maybe many steps along the path were simply fortuitous accidents, which were automatically preserved and propagated. To the extent that this is so, the design evident in Breton boats comes from blind, mindless selection, rather than the machinations of intelligent minds.

Language and Teddy Bears are a bit off the beaten tracks I like to beat. But with this discussion of the design of a quite big physical object, in this case a boat, SS-W’s core agenda, and one of my obsessions over the years and decades ever since I was a failed architecture student, overlap in a very big way. As I said at the end of the language posting linked to above, I have long been thinking along the same lines as SS-W, about “mindless” design. And as I said at the end of another recent posting here, about Facadism, Keeping Up Appearances and so on, it is my earnest hope that I will, by and by, be able to pull such thoughts together in a bigger piece for Samizdata.

The Modern Movement in Architecture was, when it started out, shot through with the idea that you should not “mindlessly” copy an established design, even if it worked well, unless you knew why it worked well. Wrong.

Equally and oppositely, the first lot of Architectural Modernists said that you should turn your back on “mindless tradition” and design anew, from “first principles”. Very dangerous, as a design technique. Sometimes necessary, provided you choose good “first principles”, but never without extreme hazard. Architectural Modernism only worked well, and in a country like Britain has only started to work well, when Modernism itself became a tradition, embodying the experience of what worked and what works, and what did not work and what does not work.

Steve Stewart-Williams on the evolution of the teddy bear

I am now nearing the end of The Ape That Understood The Universe. Steve Stewart-Williams has said what he has to say about the survival of the fittest genes, and is now talking about the survival of the fittest memes. The evolution of culture, in other words.

Here (pp. 227-228) is what SS-W says about the evolution of one bit of our culture, the teddy bear:

Language evolution is at least as old as we are, but other arenas for cultural evolution have a much more recent pedigree. One of the most important is the capitalist marketplace. Just as species compete for limited space in the local environment, so too products – from books to fizzy drinks to exercise equipment – “compete” for limited space on supermarket shelves and bestseller lists. This competition may foster the evolution of products exquisitely designed to suck money out of people’s pockets and bank accounts – designed, in other words, to sell. Importantly, business people don’t necessarily need to know why some products sell better than others. They only need to copy the ones that do. To the extent that that’s what happens, the design we find in our products comes from blind selection rather than intelligent design.

An example concerns the cultural evolution of the teddy bear. The first teddy bears went on sale in the early twentieth century. In those days, they had long snouts and long, thin limbs. They were pretty ugly. As the century wore on, however, teddy bears became progressively cuter. Their snouts receded, leaving them with cute flat faces. Their foreheads grew larger. Their limbs grew shorter and chubbier. In a word, they became more neotenous or baby-like. More and more they came to resemble the innate Kindchenschema we discussed in Chapter 4. Today’s teddy bears are, in effect, the answer to the question: What do you get when you cross a human baby with a bear? And they raise a new question of their own: How do we explain the evolutionary trajectory of this enduringly popular children’s toy?

Here’s one possibility. Successful teddy bear makers were sensitive to market trends, and generally copied the designs that sold best last season. But they didn’t copy them exactly. Some happened to push their designs a little further toward our evolved standards of cuteness; some happened to push them a little further away. The former sold better, and the better-selling bears became the baseline for the next season. Little by little, teddy bears drifted toward neoteny. Did successful bear makers know that increasing neoteny was the secret of their success? I doubt it. After all, if they did know, they could have just jumped straight to the most neotenous models. The trend toward neoteny is something that people only noticed after the fact. While it was happening, bear makers simply made more of whatever sold. In a sense, consumers redesigned the teddy bear with their aggregate preferences and purchasing decisions. If your parents bought you a teddy bear, they were contributing to the evolution of this beloved children’s toy. Generalizing the point, any time you or anyone else buys anything, you’re helping to guide the evolution of culture.

For me, the killer line here – the killer meme, you might say – is the bit about how all that is necessary is to copy. You don’t have to know why your product does the job and will consequently be popular, you merely have to know that it does the job and will be popular.

“Mindless” copying is a much under-rated design method.

I was ruminating upon ideas of this sort back in 1988.

“But I am Beethoven.”

I’ve already recycled a bit from John Suchet’s non-fictional book on Beethoven. Here is another bit from the same book (pp. 260-262 of my paperback edition – it follows a description of how Rossini met Beethoven, hence the Rossini reference in the first paragraph quoted). It illustrates what an eccentric state Beethoven was reduced to in later life, by his general state of ill-health, by his deafness, and by his lifelong tendency to do composing far better than he did living and getting along with other people:

It was probably in the autumn of this year, 1822, that an extraordinary event occurred that has become one of the legends surrounding Beethoven’s life. It was related to Thayer, again some forty years after the event, by a lithographer named Blasius Hofel for whom Beethoven sat, so as with many other tales of eccentricity it might have become embellished over the years, but as with Rossini’s account there is no reason to doubt its authenticity.

One autumn evening Hofel was enjoying an early-evening drink in the tavern Zum Schleifen (‘At the Ribbon’) in the Vienna suburb of Wiener Neustadt. Among the party was the local Commissioner of Police. It was already dark when a police constable came to the tavern to find the Commissioner.

‘Sir,’ said the constable, ‘we have arrested someone for behaving in a suspicious manner, He won’t be quiet. He keeps on yelling that he is Beethoven. But he’s just a tramp. He’s in a moth-eaten old coat, no hat. He has no identity papers, there’s no way of finding out who he is. We’re not sure what to do.’

‘Keep him under arrest overnight,’ replied the Commissioner. ‘We’ll speak to him in the morning and find out who he is.’

But it did not end there. As the Commissioner told Hofe! later, at eleven o’clock that night he was woken at home by a policeman who told him the man in custody would not quieten down, was still yelling that he was Beethoven, and was demanding that Anton Herzog, Musical Director in Wiener Neustadt, be called in to identify him.

The Commissioner decided he had better investigate. He went to Herzog’s house, woke him up, and asked him to accompany him to the police station. The Commissioner and Herzog were taken to the cell, and as soon as Herzog cast eyes on the tramp he exclaimed, ‘That is Beethoven!’

The Commissioner, no doubt congratulating himself that he had taken the matter seriously, ordered Beethoven’s immediate release. Herzog took him back to his own house, gave him the best room, assured him he would not be disturbed, and looked forward to seeing him for breakfast if he so wished, or if he preferred to sleep longer …

The next day the local Mayor came to Herzog’s house to apologise in person to the renowned composer for his treatment at the hands of an over-zealous police officer, gave Beethoven his best coat and the mayoral carriage to transport him home.

By then everyone knew what had happened. The day before Beethoven had got up early in the morning, put on his threadbare old coat, forgotten to take a hat, and set out for what he intended to be a short walk. He reached the towpath on the Danube Canal and followed it. He walked on for hours.

By late afternoon he ended up at the canal basin at the Un­gertor, a considerable distance from the city. He was totally lost and disorientated, and in a pitiful state having had nothing to eat all day. In this condition, tired, drawn, hungry, in tattered old clothes, he was seen by local people looking in at the windows of houses. They became suspicious and called the police.

A constable approached him and told him he was arresting him for behaving suspiciously.

‘But I am Beethoven.’

‘Of course you are. Why not? I’ll tell you what you are. You’re a tramp, and that Beethoven is no tramp.’ (‘Ein Lump sind Sie; so sieht der Beethoven nicht aus.’)

When classical music doubled up as pugilism: Beethoven knocks out Steibelt

John Suchet first wrote about Ludwig van Beethoven in the form of a three volume fictionalised biography. I recently read the first two volumes, but then switched to reading Suchet’s shorter, unfictionalised biography of Beethoven, which sticks closer to the known facts and cuts back on the flights of fancy.

But you suspect that Suchet still gets somewhat carried away. Here is his description (pp. 106-110) of a famous-at-the-time piano contest between Beethoven and the noted Prussian virtuoso Daniel Steibelt, that took place in Vienna in 1800. Beethoven spent his life establishing himself as a composer, as distinct from relying on being a mere performer, and when his deafness struck he had no choice in the matter. He had to compose, and only to compose. But when he first arrived in Vienna, it was as a keyboard virtuoso and improviser, as well as composer, that Beethoven had first made his name.

Two regular themes at this blog are sport and classical music. In 1800, in Vienna, these two things were a lot closer than they are now:

It was customary at that time in Vienna for aristocrats to stage ‘improvisation contests’ in their salons. The way it would work was that their two virtuosos, with their supporters, would meet in a salon, and display their skills before an audience. This would involve playing their own compositions, possibly with an ensemble, and then setting tasks for each other. One would play a theme he had invented, which the other could not possibly have heard before, and improvise on it. The other would then go to the piano and try to emulate this. Then this second virtuoso would set a theme of his own invention, and the first player would have to copy that. Often it would involve imitation. If one pianist had a particular style, the other would imitate it. It was an evening’s entertainment in aristocratic Vienna.

Very soon after his arrival in Vienna, when aristocrats such as Lichnowsky realised what young Beethoven was capable of, they put him up against the local talent, and one by one he saw them off, at the same time steadily enhancing his reputation. Enter Daniel Steibelt, from Berlin, capital of Prussia, a renowned piano virtuoso with a fearsome reputation. Steibelt had stunned salon audiences in Berlin with his extraordinary virtuosity, enhanced by his trademark flourish, the tremolando. Now on a tour of European capitals, he had arrived in Vienna to conquer that city’s sophisticated musical cognoscenti. He brought with him something of a dashing reputation. He had been forced to join the Prussian army by his father, but had deserted to pursue a musical career.

It seems some of Beethoven’s friends went to hear Steibelt and were stunned at his virtuosity, to such an extent that they feared he might damage Beethoven’s reputation. This is probably why Beethoven, by now sick of these showcase events designed solely for the amusement of aristocrats, agreed to go along to the home of Count von Fries. He decided that he would play his recently published Trio for piano, clarinet and cello, which he had dedicated to Prince Lichnowsky’s mother-in-law. Steibelt brought along four musicians to perform his Piano Quintet.

The company assembled, including no doubt Prince Lichnowsky and his family. Beethoven and his musicians played first. His Trio was perhaps a slightly odd choice, since the piano part does not call for a particularly high degree of virtuosity. The work is in three movements, is fairly straightforward, and the critics welcomed it as being more easily comprehensible than the earlier published Op. l Piano Trios. The final movement is a set of variations on a well-known theme from a comic opera which had recently played successfully in Vienna.

There was polite applause from the salon audience, including Steibelt, who had listened ‘with a certain condescension’, and made a show of complimenting Beethoven. He took his position, with his musicians, in front of the audience, confident his Quintet would put Beethoven’s Trio in the shade and win the day. To make sure, he added some impressive (no doubt prepared) improvisation, and drew gasps from the audience with his audacious tremolandos.

At the end there was no doubt in anyone’s mind who had put on the more impressive display. All eyes turned to Beethoven, who as was usual at these events had the ‘right of reply’. Beethoven remained stubbornly in his seat and refused to play again. Steibelt had carried the day.

A week later it was decided to repeat the event, to stage a ‘rematch’. Given that Beethoven had been reluctant to attend the earlier evening, we can only assume his blood was up. Steibelt’s condescending behaviour, not to mention his ridiculously showy playing, had got under Beethoven’s skin. He was out for revenge.

There must have been an air of tension and anticipation in Count Fries’s salon on this second evening. Beethoven’s unpredictable temperament was well known. Everybody knew he had been bested a week earlier, and they would have seen the flare in his eyes and the set of his jaw. This spelled trouble.

Steibelt went first this time. He performed another of his quintets, which again met with great approval. Then he once again improvised on the piano, in a way that put his previous performance in the shade. It was brilliant. But he made a mistake, a serious mistake. There were gasps from the audience as they realised he had chosen the theme from the final movement of Beethoven’s own Trio, performed at the previous meeting, on which to improvise.

If the audience was shocked, Beethoven’s friends were appalled. That was nothing to how Beethoven felt. This time he needed no encouragement. He got out of his seat, stormed to the front, and as he passed the music stands snatched up the cello part of Steibelt’s Quintet. He sat roughly on the stool, all thoughts of salon etiquette gone, and made a show of putting the cello part on the piano stand upside-down.

He glared at the music, playing now to the audience, knowing he had everyone’s attention, aware that the decisive moment in the ‘Contest Beethoven v. Steibelt’ had come. With one finger he hammered out a series of notes from the first bar of Steibelt’s music. He made it sound exactly what it was: crude and unsophisticated. He then began to improvise. And boy, did he improvise. He imitated Steibelt’s playing, he unpicked it and put it back together again, he played some tremolandos, emphasising their absurdity. He played in a way no salon audience had heard before, and that Steibelt could not have believed was humanly possible.

It is easy to picture that powerful head, hair untamed, clothes inappropriate, fingers moving in a blur, no doubt singing, shouting, quite possibly hurling insults at the Prussian, who was probably sitting, back erect, powdered wig in place, clothes perfectly fitting, fingers curling tighter and tighter, as he realised he was not just being outplayed, he was being humiliated – in front of the most sophisticated musical gathering in the most sophisticated musical city in Europe.

Steibelt did not sit that way for long. With Beethoven still playing, he rose from his chair and strode out of the salon. He made it clear he never wanted to meet Beethoven again, and that if ever he was invited to perform again in Vienna, he would do so only if Beethoven was not present. In fact he took even more drastic action than that. He abandoned his tour and returned to Berlin to nurse his wounds. Some years later he went to St Petersburg and remained there for the rest of his life. He never returned to Vienna, and never met Beethoven again.

As for Beethoven, he was now – if there was any doubt before – the undisputed master of the keyboard in Vienna, if not Europe. Even Hummel, greatly admired, could not touch him. And following the drubbing of Steibelt, Beethoven was never again asked to take part in an improvisation contest. His position as Vienna’s supreme piano virtuoso was established once and for all.

Flash grief

So here I was, all set to do a great excerpt from a book about Beethoven. But then, my scanning software suddenly wasn’t working. I alerted The Guru. After the usual palaver about “Is it plugged in?” and “Is the scanner connected to the computer?” (yes and yes) The Guru then spent a while operating my computer from a distance (he has this particular superpower) and he then revealed that the reason my old scanning software had stopped working was that it made use of Adobe Flash, and Adobe Flash has recently given up the ghost.

So, another scanning system was installed, and I am now struggling to make sense of it. The Guru is very wise, but he suffers from the affliction of many gurus, which is that he supposes that what is to him obvious is surely quite easy also for the rest of us to understand. I have to explain it to him that what is obvious to him is, for me, downright impenetrable and bordering on impossible. To him, the new software is easy. He is used to getting to grips with new software. To him, that’s easy. For me, even when he has taken me through every small step, this new piece of software is still a great swirl of confusion, and I need a clear day to get to grips with it.

It is now nearly midnight, and so instead of that Beethoven book excerpt, which I will try to do tomorrow, there has only been time for this.

Steven Johnson’s history of what we do for fun

Tell ’em what you’re going to say, tell ’em, tell ’em what you said. I believe that’s the formula that many preachers follow when they give their sermons. The bit from a book below is from the “tell ’em what you’re going to say” bit, in other words the Introduction (pp. 8-11), of Steven Johnson’s Wonderland, which I ordered from Amazon back in October, and am now starting to dip into:

Delight is a word that is rarely invoked as a driver of historical change. History is usually imagined as a battle for survival, for power, for freedom, for wealth. At best, the world of play and amusement belongs to the side bars of the main narrative: the spoils of progress, the surplus that civilizations enjoy once the campaigns for freedom and affluence have been won. But imagine you are an observer of social and technological trends in the second half of the eighteenth century, and you are trying to predict the truly seismic developments that would define the next three centuries. The programmable pen of Jaquet-Droz’s Writer – or Merlin’s dancer and her “irresistible eyes” – would be as telling a clue about that future as anything happening in Parliament or on the battlefield, foreshadowing the rise of mechanized labor, the digital revolution, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

This book is an extended argument for that kind of clue: a folly, dismissed by many as a mindless amusement, that turns out to be a kind of artifact from the future. This is a history of play, a history of the pastimes that human beings have concocted to amuse themselves as an escape from the daily grind of subsistence. This is a history of what we do for fun. One measure of human progress is how much recreational time many of us now have, and the immensely varied ways we have of enjoying it. A time-traveler from five centuries ago would be staggered to see just how much real estate in the modern world is devoted to the wonderlands of parks, coffee shops, sports arenas, shopping malls, IMAX theaters: environments specifically designed to entertain and delight us. Experiences that were once almost exclusively relegated to society’s elites have become commonplace to all but the very poorest members of society. An average middle-class family in Brazil or Indonesia takes it for granted that their free time can be spent listening to music, marveling at elaborate special effects in Hollywood movies, shopping for new fashions in vast palaces of consumption, and savoring the flavors of cuisines from all over the world. Yet we rarely pause to consider how these many luxuries came to be a feature of everyday life.

History is mostly told as a long fight for the necessities, not the luxuries: the fight for freedom, equality, safety, self-governance. Yet the history of delight matters, too, because so many of these seemingly trivial discoveries ended up triggering changes in the realm of Serious History. I have called this phenomenon “the hummingbird effect”: the process by which an innovation in one field sets in motion transformations in seemingly unrelated fields. The taste for coffee helped create the modern institutions of journalism; a handful of elegantly decorated fabric shops helped trigger the industrial revolution. When human beings create and share experiences designed to delight or amaze, they often end up transforming society in more dramatic ways than people focused on more utilitarian concerns. We owe a great deal of the modern world to people doggedly trying to solve a high-minded problem: how to construct an internal combustion engine or manufacture vaccines in large quantities. But a surprising amount of modernity has its roots in another kind of activity: people mucking around with magic, toys, games, and other seemingly idle pastimes. Everyone knows the old saying “Necessity is the mother of invention,” but if you do a paternity test on many of the modern world’s most important ideas or institutions, you will find, invariably, that leisure and play were involved in the conception as well.

Although this account contains its fair share of figures like Charles Babbage – well-to-do Europeans tinkering with new ideas in their parlors – it is not just a story about the affluent West. One of the most intriguing plot twists in the story of leisure and delight is how many of the devices or materials originated outside of Europe: those mesmerizing automata from the House of Wisdom, the intriguing fashions of calico and chintz imported from India, the gravity-defying rubber balls invented by Mesoamericans, the clove and nutmeg first tasted by remote Indonesian islanders. In many ways, the story of play is the story of the emergence of a truly cosmopolitan worldview, a world bound together by the shared experiences of kicking a ball around on a field or sipping a cup of coffee. The pursuit of pleasure turns out to be one of the very first experiences to stitch together a global fabric of shared culture, with many of the most prominent threads originating outside Western Europe.

I should say at the outset that this history deliberately excludes some of life’s most intense pleasures-including sex and romantic love. Sex has been a central force in human history; without sex, there is no human history. But the pleasure of sex is bound up in deep-seated biological drives. The desire for emotional and physical connections with other humans is written into our DNA, however complex and variable our expression of that drive may be. For the human species, sex is a staple, not a luxury. This history is an account of less utilitarian pleasures; habits and customs and environments that came into being for no apparent reason other than the fact that they seemed amusing or surprising. (In a sense, it is a history that follows Brian Eno’s definition of culture as “all the things we don’t have to do.”) Looking at history through this lens demands a different emphasis on the past: exploring the history of shopping as a recreational pursuit instead of the history of commerce writ large; following the global path of the spice trade instead of the broader history of agriculture and food production. There are a thousand books written about the history of innovations that came out of our survival instincts. This is a book about a different kind of innovation: the new ideas and technologies and social spaces that emerged once some of us escaped from the compulsory labor of subsistence.

The centrality of play and delight does not mean that these stories are free of tragedy and human suffering. Some of the most appalling epochs of slavery and colonization began with a new taste or fabric developing a market, and unleashed a chain of brutal exploitation to satisfy that market’s demands. The quest for delight transformed the world, but it did not always transform it for the better.

Lomborg on climate catastrophe

It became clear from the very first paragraphs of False Alarm by Bjorn Lomborg that I was going to have to start revising my prejudices about its author. If, later in this book, Lomborg ever tries to downplay the centrality to the climate argument of the claim that our planet is heading for a climate catastrophe, as opposed merely for a dose of mere climate change, and to deny the centrality of climate science to the climate debate, instead banging only entirely about mere economics, he certainly doesn’t start his book by doing anything like that. Quite the opposite (pp. 3-4):

WE LIVE IN AN AGE OF FEAR – particularly a fear of climate change. One picture summarizes this age for me. It is of a girl holding a sign saying:

YOU’LL DIE OF OLD AGE
I’LL DIE OF CLIMATE CHANGE

This is the message that the media is drilling into our heads: climate change is destroying our planet and threatens to kill us all. The language is of apocalypse. News outlets refer to the “planet’s imminent incineration” and analysts suggest that global warming could make humanity extinct in a few decades. Recently, the media has informed us that humanity has just a decade left to rescue the planet, making 2030 the deadline to save civilization. And therefore we must radically transform every major economy to end fossil fuel use, reduce carbon emissions to zero and establish a totally renewable basis for all economic activity.

Children live in fear and line the streets in protest. Activists are cordoning off cities and airports to raise awareness that the entire population of the planet is facing “slaughter, death, and starvation”.

Influential books reinforce this understanding. In 2017, journalist David Wallace-Wells wrote a lengthy and terrifying description of global warming impacts for New York magazine. Although the article was generally panned by scientists as exaggerated and misleading, he went on to publish the same argument in book form in The Uninhabitable Earth, which became a bestseller. The book revels in unabashed alarmism: “It is worse, much worse, than you think.” Likewise, in his 2019 book, Falter, naturalist Bill McKibben warned that global warming is the greatest threat to human civilization, worse even than nuclear war. It could finish off humanity not with an explosion but “with the burble of a rising ocean.” A bookshelf would groan under the weight of recent books with deliberately terrifying titles and messages: Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change; Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity; The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable; and This Is the Way the World Ends: How Droughts and Die-offs, Heat Waves and Hurricanes Are Converging on America.

Media outlets reinforce the extreme language by giving ample space to environmental campaigners, and by engaging in their own activism. The New York Times warns that “across the globe climate change is happening faster than scientists predicted.” The cover of Time magazine tells us: “Be worried. Be very worried.” The British newspaper the Guardian has gone further, updating its style guidelines so reporters must now use the terms “climate emergency,” “climate crisis,” or “climate breakdown.” Global warming should be “global heating.” The newspaper’s editor believes “climate change” just isn’t scary enough, arguing that it “sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.”

Unsurprisingly, the result is that most of us are very worried. A 2016 poll found that across countries as diverse as the United Arab Emirates and Denmark, a majority of people believe that the world is getting worse, not better. In the United Kingdom and the United States, two of the most prosperous countries on the planet, an astonishing 65 percent of people are pessimistic about the future. A 2019 poll found that almost half of the world’s population believes climate change likely will end the human race. In the United States, four of ten people believe global warming will lead to mankind’s extinction.”

You can read the first twenty five pages of this book, including the above quote, here.

Antony Beevor omits any reference to the forecast for June 19th 1944

I did a posting here a while back about the weather-forecasting for D-Day (June 6th 1944), and also about the weather-forecasting for the day that would have been D-Day (June 19th) if Actual D-Day (June 6th) had been postponed, quoting from this book by Peter Caddick-Adams.

In that posting, I surmised that real D-Day experts would surely be familiar with the tale that Caddick-Adams told, about how, had the forecast weather for June 6th not been good enough, as it so nearly wasn’t, the attempt to do D-Day would have then happened on the 19th, and would have been a catastrophic failure.

Later, it occurred to me to delve into another D-Day book that I also possess, but have also only been dipping into. And on page 216 of D-Day: The Battle For Normandy by Antony Beevor, we read this:

The storm continued until the evening of Thursday, 22 June. The destruction on the beaches defied belief. More ships and materiel had been lost than during the invasion itself. Yet those involved in the planning of D-Day could not help remembering with grateful relief the decision to go ahead taken on 5 June. If the invasion had been postponed for two weeks, as had been feared, the fleet would have sailed into one of the worst storms in Channel history. Eisenhower, after he had seen the damage on the beaches, took the time to write a note to Group Captain Stagg: ‘I thank the gods of war we went when we did.’

Caddick-Adams makes no mention of this note, so score one to Beevor for that.

However, I searched before and after the above passage for any reference to what Beevor says the weather forecast had been for the 19th, and found nothing. Caddick-Adams quotes one of Stagg’s forecasters saying that all the forecasters had in fact forecast, very wrongly indeed, good weather for the 19th. Beevor, unless I am badly mistaken, makes no reference to this later and wrong forecast. He only needed to include about one more sentence to do this, but no such sentence is to be found.

Had the forecasters foreseen the dreadful storms of June 19th-22nd, D-Day (had they been contemplating it then) would surely have been postponed yet again, no matter what inconvenience and frustration that would have caused. But, they did in fact miss this storm, and would have missed it. So it’s a crucial detail.

So, I would say that in this particular engagement between historians, Caddick-Adams edges it.

Peter Caddick-Adams: If D-Day had been postponed it would have been a catastrophe

I have been reading the recently published book by Peter Caddick-Adams about D-Day, entiled Sand and Steel: A New History of D-Day, the follow-up to Snow and Steel, which was about the Battle of the Bulge. James Holland, quoted on the cover of Sand and Steel, calls it “Magisterial”, which is his way of saying that it is a huge book, with a huge amount of judiciously presented detail. The book is, I’m afraid, too “magisterial” for me now to be ploughing through it from start to finish. What I am now doing is feeling my way into it by looking up, in the index of Sand and Steel, people involved in D-Day whom I already know a little about, and then seeing what Caddick-Adams has to say about them.

I already know, for instance, a bit about Captain James Stagg, the one who supplied Eisenhower with that famous weather forecast, of a break in the bad weather on June 6th 1944, which enabled Ike to say: Go.

Caddick-Adams disapproves of how a little too much honour for this has been heaped only upon Stagg. Stagg was not himself a professional weather forecaster. He did summarise and pass on to Ike what the real forecasters, half a dozen of them, were telling him. That is honour enough for Stagg, but the real hero was the elaborate system that gathered together all the relevant information. Also, the German forecasters told pretty much the same weather story to their superiors, contrary to what Stagg-fans like me had been assuming.

Caddick-Adams is very good about somewhat misleading tales of this sort. His passion for detail, and for tracking down absolutely everyone and anyone who could tell him those details, is all mixed up with him wanting to know what really happened, as opposed to the stories that some people have been in the habit of telling one another, in movies for instance. This great generation of warriors, you can hear Caddick-Adams insisting, deserves nothing less than the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. That being why his books are typically so long. The whole truth of something like D-Day can’t be told in a hundred and fifty pages. Sand and Steel is one thousand and twenty five pages long.

Of a lot more interest, to me, than who exactly we should be praising for that most famous and famously accurate of weather forecasts, is what Caddick-Adams says about what might have happened if the weather on June 6th not been so favourable, and if Ike had consequently been forced to say: No. Not yet. Or for that matter if, given the forecasts he did get, Ike had simply said no anyway.

To know this, you have to know what range of dates the Allies considered suitable for the D-Day landings, weather permitting, and why. The relevant passage from Sand and Steel goes thus (pp, 346-347):

Given the specific moon and tidal requirements for the landing, Hogben recalled …

… Hogben being one of Stagg’s weather forecasters …

… they had just six possible days to invade in June: 5th-7th and 19th-21st. ‘We worked out the odds on the weather on any one of those four days conforming to our needs as being 13-1 against. So meteorologically, D-Day was bound to be a gamble against the odds.’ Admiral Alan G. Kirk, commanding the Western Task Force, recorded the factors that needed to come together for the invasion: ‘The night before D-Day had to be reasonably light so that convoys could keep station with ships darkened: he wrote. ‘Airborne operations also required this, necessitating a night with a full moon, or nearly so.’ Next, Kirk identified that ‘H-Hour needed one hour of daylight before the initial landings to enable bombarding ships to neutralise German batteries and drench the landing beaches’, but it needed to be ‘sufficiently before high water for the demolition parties to remove beach obstacles while still dry’.

However, it also had to be ‘sufficiently after low water in order to permit the landing on certain British beaches where sand bars prevented an assault until two or three hours later’. Ideally, the day would be fixed to ensure ‘a second high water in daylight to permit maximum unloading’. In conclusion, wrote Kirk, ‘the only dates on which all these factors were available were 21-23 May; 5-7 and 19-21 June, or 3-5 July’, though Stagg later observed that if they waited for the perfect set ‘it would take 140 years’.

So, if June 6th had not been the right day to be D-Day, what day would have been?

Here is what Hogben said about that (p. 351):

In speculating what would have happened if the poor weather had persisted on 6 June, leading to postponement until the nineteenth, the New Zealander Hogben stated, ‘As it happened, on 17 June, all six of us produced a forecast for the nineteenth for almost perfect conditions – the invasion would definitely have gone ahead, and would have been an utter catastrophe. Complete failure – for on 19 June the biggest storm of the twentieth century lashed the Channel and I doubt many landing craft would have even made it to the beaches. They would all have been swamped with the high winds. It does not bear thinking about.’

Says Caddick-Adams:

Recent statistical analysis supports this. The storm was a ‘once in forty years’ event, a tempest of slightly less ferocity having lashed the Calvados coast in February 1905, emphasising how lucky Eisenhower was to have opted to go on 6 June. …

Under a photo from his own (presumably vast) collection, of a huge wave crashing over the sea wall at Arromanches-Les-Bains, Caddick-Adams hammers home the same point (also p. 351):

The Overlord meteorologists were aware that violent storms often blew in from the Atlantic to batter the Normandy coast. Much documented was the hurricane of February 1905, which threw huge columns of water at the future invasion beaches and sites for the two artificial harbours. In June 1944, the Allied weathermen spotted a lull in the bad weather, but the tempest that began on 19 June replicated the violence of 1905. Postponing the invasion from 6 June to the nineteenth would thus have been disastrous for D-Day and the landings would have failed.

The point being, although the Allied forecasters got their forecast for June 6th right, they got the forecast for June 19th totally wrong, and unanimously so. They would definitely have said: Go. Ike would surely have concurred. And, it would have been a disaster.

The USSR conquering a whole lot more of Europe than it did. No President Eisenhower. Maybe the atom bomb being ready before the end of the war in Europe? The alternative history ramifications are endless.

Maybe D-Day buffs have long known about this June 19th aspect of the D-Day story, but it was all completely new to me.

A techno-prophecy from one of Rebus’s drinking pals

While channel hopping of an evening, I recently realised that episodes of the television version of Rebus are now being shown again. Having already read most of the books, I have found these Rebus TV adaptations to be frustratingly simplified and compressed. The books are complicated odysseys taking many days, and often weeks or even months, to unfold. They certainly take me several days to read. But these TV shows are brisk evening strolls by comparison. I paid less attention to the John Hannah episodes because he seemed to me wrong for the part of Rebus, and presumably also to many others because he soon made way for Ken Stott, who can say some innocuous line like “Is that right?” and send a shiver down your spine. And in general, I find the casting and the acting of the Ken Stott shows to be excellent. It’s just that convoluted stories like these need a decent number of hours and episodes to have their effect. You can’t do books like this justice in an hour and a bit for each entire book.

So, I’ve now been going back to the books to find out all the things that happened in them, as opposed to merely watching the highlights in the evening. Here is the very latest Rebus, which came out at the beginning of this month. But meanwhile, not wanting to buy a hardback of that latest one, and provoked by the TV version of Let It Bleed, I recently re-read that in the original. I’m a slow and easily distracted reader but I sped through it, having totally forgotten everything from when I first read it a decade or more ago.

I was especially entertained by a little snippet early on. The time is the mid-nineties, and Rebus is in the pub with his drinking cronies, one of whom is called Salty. Salty has an on-and-off career as an IT guy in “Silicon Glen”, and Salty is to be heard holding forth on the future of the internet and related matters (pp. 35-36):

‘So what I’m saying is, you can go anywhere on the superhighway, anywhere, and in future it’ll be even bigger. You’ll do your shopping by computer, you’ll watch telly on it, play games, listen to music … and everything will be there. 1 can talk to the White House if I want. I can download stuff from all over the world. I sit there at my desk and I can travel anywhere.’

‘Can you travel to the pub by computer, Salty?’ a drinker further down the bar asked.

With the wisdom of hindsight, we now know that there was more to all this than merely sitting at a desk, the way I am now. Computers have now gone miniature and mobile. Your computer won’t (yet) actually take you to the pub, but you can now take it to the pub with you.

So what does Salty say next?

Salty ignored him and held his thumb and forefinger a couple of inches apart. ‘Hard disks the size of credit cards, you’ll have a whole PC in the palm of your hand.’

Not bad for 1995, which is when this first came out. I had a vague recollection of Ian Rankin having been some sort of IT guy himself, before he got stuck into doing Rebus books, which would have explained his foresight in these matters. But no, there is no IT work in his bio, other than writing Rebus books on his own computer. He got all that stuff about the “superhighway”, and about mobile phones, from just picking people’s brains in pubs. (Which I am convinced was something that Shakespeare also did.)

When I recently encountered that TV version of Let It Bleed I didn’t give it my full attention, but this little pub scene is just the kind of thing that would probably have got cut from it. Doesn’t drive the plot forward quickly enough. Just background. But strip out all the “background” and the foreground becomes a dead and drearily predictable skeleton, which not even Ken Stott can save, rather than the complex living creature that you get hooked on when you read one of the books.

Maybe one day, televisual justice will be done to and for Rebus.