Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “factoids”

The new Cold War

This morning a friend asked on Facebook what I thought of this article, and I will try to reply here. BREAKING NEWS – PUTIN EXPOSES OBAMA’S PAID ISIS MERCENARIES IN MIDDLE EAST AND SYRIA! | THE MARSHALL REPORT:

(Putin speaking): First point. I never said that I view the US as a threat to our national security. President Obama, as you said, views Russia as a threat, but I don’t feel the same way about the US. What I do feel is that the politics of those in the circles of power, if I may use those terms, the politics of those in power is erroneous. It not only contradicts our national interests, it undermines any trust we had in the United States. And in that way it actually harms the United states as well.

But I can’t reply to this in isolation. It is part of a whole string of media reports and media reporting that goes back two years or more.

Concerning the Middle East in general, and Syria in particular, we are bombarded by  increasingly shrill and decreasingly credible media propaganda from all sides that I’ve simply stopped paying attention to most of it. If there is any truth wrapped up in the all-too-obvious lies, I have no means of sifting and discerning it.

I have tended to interpret all in the light of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis, as expounded in his book The clash of civilizations and the remaking of the world order. I’ve already written about that here, so I won’t repeat much of it now, except to say that things are now much worse.

I have tended to attibute the growing American Russophobia, which strikes me as loony and entirely irrational, to Putin’s blocking of Obama’ s plans to bomb Syria. But now the Russian air force is bombing Syria.

The world... is going to hell in a hand cart

The world… is going to hell in a hand cart

Two years ago, I regarded Russia Today as  a more reliable news source than most of the Western media, especially on events in the Middle East. Now it is blatantly filled with anti-American propaganda, so I don’t watch it any more. It’s clearly playing tit-for-tat to the Russophobic line of the BBC, Sky News, CNN, and Fox news. As a result the truth suffers.

Can Al Jazeera be trusted? When reporting on other parts of the world, perhaps. But Syria? I’m not so sure. Al Jazeera’s base is Sunni, the Syrian government tends to be Shia. There could be some bias there that would be difficult for non-Muslims to discern.

Also, since I’m inclined to be pacifist, I find the increasing belligerence of warmongering politicians distressing. Obama promised “change you can believe in” but he is just as belligerent and bloodthirsty as his predecessor George Bush and the only difference is that he is more articulate about it. David Cameron is just as belligerent and bloodthirsty as Tony Blair, but I didn’t expect him to be any better. I did, at one time, and probably foolishly, hope that Obama would be better than Bush and Clinton. But it’s always naive to believe in politicians’ promises, and Obama proved to be no exception.

Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn

If the Labour Party, under Jermy Corbyn’s leadership, manages to win the next UK general election, will it be any better? Will this, at last, be “change you can believe in”?

Not if the British media have anything to do with it. They have slammed him left, right and center, dismissed him as insane because he has qualms of conscience about annihilating millians of people in a nuclear holocaust.

And my mind goes back more than 50 years to Jeremy Taylor, a Johannesburg school teacher who sang this song:

Well one fine day
I’ll make my way
to 10 Downing Street.
“Good day,” I’ll say
“I’ve come a long way
Excuse my naked feet.
“But I lack, you see
the energy
to buy a pair of shoes
I lose my zest
to look my best
when I read the daily news
’cause it appears you’ve got an atom bomb
that’ll blow us all to hell and gone.
If I’ve gotta die
then why should I
give a damn if my boots aren’t on?

Three cheers for the army and all the boys in blue
three cheers for the scientists and politicians too
three cheers for the future years when we shall surely reap
all the joys of living on a nuclear rubbish heap.

I would fight quite willingly
In the forces of Her Majesty
but not at the price of sacrificing
all of humanity.

That expressed my sentiments when I was 21, and still does, now that I’m 74.

And, since the politicians of the world seem to be determined to restart the Cold War, and threaten to make it hot, another Cold War hymn seems appropriate.

The day God gave thee, man, is ending
the darkness falls at thy behest
who spent thy little life defending
from conquest by the East, the West.

The sun that bids us live is waking
behind the cloud that bids us die
and in the murk fresh minds are making
new plans to blow us all sky high.

Fact checking and mental arithmetic

When I was at school our maths teacher once expressed his horror at going to a shop and when he bought something the shop assistant used an adding machine to calculate the change due. Yes, in those days they were called adding machines, not calculators, and they operated mechanically and not electronically. He told the story to encourage us to improve our mental arithmetic skills, and not become zombies dependent on dumb machines.

addmachI think of that maths teacher quite a lot, because in the course of my family history research I quite often need to calculate a date of birth from a person’s age at a census or death, and when I do so, I reach for my cell phone, which has a calculator in it. Is it just that I’m becoming mentally lazy? Possibly, but I find that I make fewer mistakes that way, even though calculating dates is a lot easier than working out change in pounds, shillings and pence.

dictionaryToday in an online forum for discussing English usage someone mentioned something similar. Like my maths teacher, teachers of English apparently deprecated the use of online dictionaries, as they thought that lazy students resorted to these rather than improving their vocabulary and memorising lists of irregular verbs. I’ve always thought that memorising lists of irregular verbs was a rather useless method of language learning, but still.

And now that you can access the Internet from almost anywhere, why bother to memorise any facts at all, since you can always look them up when you need them? That would be the ultimate example of machine dependence.

Twenty years ago I used to make lists of things to look up when I went to the library or the archives to do research. I still do, but the lists are a lot more focused now. When I arrive at the archives, I order the files I want straight away, because I’ve looked them up in the online indexess beforehand. But last week the computers were down, and that formed almost the sole topic of conversation on at least one genealogy mailing list ( see Hayes & Greene family history: South African archives computers down for a week).

When I reach the end of the month and I run out of ADSL bandwidth (usually because my sons have been watching too many videos), I feel that something has been amputated because I’m not able to look things up on line. It’s become so easy that we get frustrated if, for any reason, the service is not available.

So is there any reason to learn facts any longer? Why bother, when you can just Google for them?

But then the historian in me kicks in, and I start getting like my old maths teacher and his extolling the virtues of mental arithmetic. I get like the language teacher extolling the virtues of a large vocabulary.

mental-mathBut there is a difference. Calculators are generally accurate. You can check their accuracy with mental arithmetic, but it is very rare that you would need to. The same applies, to a slightly lesser extent, to online dictionaries. But the same does not apply to facts. The facts that you find online are not always reliable, and if you rely only on looking up stuff online you are likely to find it difficult to distinguish between facts, factoids, and outright falsehoods.

Do you know what a factoid is?

Many people think it is a trivial fact, one that is not important. And that is a case in point, because a factoid is actually a falsehood that is repeated so often in the media and elsewhere that many people simply assume that it is true.

If people knew more of the facts of history, they would be far less likely to be taken in (as millions were) by the falsehoods in books like The da Vinci code.

Not everything you read online is true. For example Opinionated Vicar: Facebook: Don’t Believe What You Read?:

I’m one of over 3000 people on the ‘Yeovil Real News’ Facebook group, which serves up a mix of news stories, road closures, adverts for Zumba classes and the like. Twice in the last week the group has been taken in by wrong information.

Firstly, a definite hoax – a local pub burnt down, and someone posting under a false name announced a candlelit vigil with hymns and a cake. We should have smelled a rat, but instead over 50 people, including local councillors, turned up at the appointed time. They were rightly pretty miffed, though at the same time it showed community support for the pub.

Even if your calculator doesn’t make a mistake, you can. Your finger can slip. With no knowledge of mental arithmetic, you might not realise you have made a mistake, but if you know mental arithmetic, you might realise that the result is improbable.

This is even more important with facts. Knowledge of facts gives you discernment to distinguish facts from falsehoods, including the less obvious falsehoods like factoids, which are falsehoods masquerading as facts.

Urban legends about Christmas

Recently someone posted a few items about Christmas on an interfaith discussion forum. The problem was that each item began with or contained statements about Christmas that were manifestly untrue.

Here’s one:

Oh, no — more hysteria over Christmas from Bill O’Reilly, joined now by Gretchen Carlson, the blinkered bigot host of some other Fox program. The dialog is hilariously stupid. Billo blows it early, claiming that Christmas marks “the birth of Jesus Christ, which is what the holiday is based on”, which is simply not true (Source: Pharyngula).

Now I don’t know who Bill O’Reilly or Gretchen Carlson are, but claiming that the statement that Christmas marks the birth of Jesus Christ is “untrue” (and implying that it is “hysteria”) is, well, untrue.

That’s like saying that it is untrue to say that your birthday party commemorates the anniversary of your birth (and hysterical to boot).

As we approach Christmas, urban legends about Christmas proliferate, but that has to be the most ridiculous one I’ve seen yet.

Here’s another, from the same poster:

Early in its history, the Catholic Church proclaimed December 25th as Christmas. Several centuries later Pope Gregory corrected the calendar. 12 days were displaced from the Julian calendar. What had been December 25 was now January 6. The Eastern Church refused to go aloing with the calendar change and continued to observe Christmas on the OLD December 25 which was now January 6 in the West. The Western Church still wanted to give some sort of holiness to the original December 25 so they proclaimed it a new holiday, Epiphany. Thus were born the 12 days of Christmas.

He doesn’t give a source for that one. Unlike the first one, it doesn’t make glaring errors of logic. But it strings together a series of historical “facts”, most of which are wrong, or have wrong inferences drawn from them, or both.

So what really happened?

Until about the 4th century, Christians celebrated the birth of Christ along with his baptism on 6 January (as the Armenians still do today).

Some time in early 4th century a separate commemoration of the birth of Christ began to be observed on 25 December, probably beginning in Rome. It spread throughout the Christian world (with the exception of Armenia, as noted above).

When the Gregorian calendar was first introduced in the 16th century it was 10 days ahead of the Julian Calendar. The gap grows by a day a century, except when the end of century year is divisible by 400 — so it did not increase in 1600 and 2000. The gap is now 13 days, and in the 22nd century it will be 14 days.

This means that “Old Christmas” (which is still kept by some Orthodox Churches) is on Gregorian 7 January, not 6 January. In the Old (Julian) Calendar Theophany (Epiphany) is on 19 January Gregorian.

So the story, as posted, gets the whole thing backwards. But that is typical of the urban legends about Christmas.

And here’s a third one, also from the same poster (no source quoted):

Christmas has a difficult history. Until recently, Christmas was not a major celebration. When the Protestants had their reformation, Christmas came under attack, specifically in England. It was called a Catholic holiday and many employers would fire their workers if they did not show up for work on December 25.

I suppose that one depends on what you think “recently” means. For Christians, Christmas has been a major celebration for at least 1000 years, and probably a lot longer than that.

In the Orthodox Church the Nativity of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ (Christmas for short) is preceded by a 40-day fast. The only other feast preceded by a fast of that length is Pascha. That makes it major.

Nativity3Now I’m sure the poster (who isn’t a Christian) was not being malicious when he posted these in the discussion forum. He maybe thought that with Christmas approaching they were timely and had interesting information. The problem is that most of the information was wrong. I suggested that he might do better to post information about festivals of his own religion, where he could be more discerning to check that the information was accurate before posting it.

But I give these three examples of a common phenomenon, especially at this time of year. The urban legends about Christmas are often spread by the media, and people pick them up by the way. The recipes columns of the newspaper will publish a page of traditional Christmas recipes, and the writer of the column, who may know something about cookery, but little or nothing about the history of religious festivals, might preface it with a couple of half-digested paragraphs compiled from an encyclopaedia article or two. And so these weird and wonderful urban legends about Christmas (and other things) spread.

So here’s a tip for any journalist who has been told by their editor to produce a column on Christmas and its origin, and the folk customs associated with it, and their origin. The book to read is The stations of the sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain by Ronald Hutton. Even if you aren’t in Britain, Hutton’s book will do for the English-speaking world. Hutton is a careful and competent historian, and knows what he’s talking about.

There also the stories one also sees around Christmas time to the effect that Christmas was “originally” Yuletide, which was celebrated at about the same time. This too is an urban legend, and a moment’s thought will show how ridiculous it is.

It’s a bit like saying that the Feast of the Annunciation on 25 March was “originally” Greek independence day, and that that was why the date was chosen.

The fact is that there are only 365 days in a year, and that if you look at a particular day when a religious or other group has a particular celebration, you will probably find another group that celebrates something else on the same day. It may be that two groups that have different celebrations on the same day may encounter each other, and each may borrow some aspects of the other group’s celebration. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the meaning changes.

Among Orthodox Christians who follow the Gregorian calendar, for example, the following are commemorated on the same day:

  • St Andrew, Archbishop of Crete (712)
  • St Martha, mother of St Simeon Stylites the Younger (554)
  • St Andrew Rublev, Iconographer (c 1447)
  • Burial of St Andrew, Prince of Bogoliubsk (1174)
  • St Finbar, Abbot of Innis Doimlile (6th)
  • St Andrew the Russian of Cairo (1174)
  • St Donatus of Libya, Bishop
  • Martyrs Theodotus and Theodota at Caesarea in Cappadocia (108)

The day is 4 July.

This does not mean that all those commemorations are derived from US independence day.

See also The real origins of Christmas.

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