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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Friday, May 25, 2012

Pictish Carvings, Trusty's Hill, Gatehouse of Fleet

Pictish carvings, Trusty's Hill, Gatehosue of Fleet

These are the carvings that the Galloway Picts Project hopes to make less mysterious by finding dating evidence from the hill-fort. A piece of African Red Slipware, manufactured at/ near Carthage in north Africa circa 550 AD has already been found. As other finds are analysed, this will provide further dating evidence.

The site is a hill-fort on a rocky outcrop above the Fleet Bay. It was originally surrounded by stone walls with timber posts in them. At some point the timber was set on fire, causing vitrification of the walls which then collapsed. Charcoal from a post hole has been found which will be dated. This will give a date for when the site was destroyed.

A few miles to the east is the Mote of Mark near the mouth of the river Urr. This was also built on a rocky outcrop and surrounded by stone walls with timber which were burnt causing vitrification. Before then, and around the same time as Trusty's Hill was occupied, jewelry making was carried out at the Mote of Mark. A piece of bone with some Anglian runes was found at the Mote of Mark plus an Anglian style clay spindle whorl. These finds  suggest that the Mote of Mark may have been attacked/ destroyed by Angles from Northumbria in the seventh century. Could Trusty's Hill have met a similar fate?

If these sites had been burnt in the course of local (British/ Brittonic speaking) feuding, they could have been rebuilt and re-occupied. But if they were  destroyed as part of a Northumbrian take-over of Galloway, this would explain why they were not re-built. We know that the Northumbrians did move into Galloway since they took over the British (with earlier Gaulish links) monastic site at Whithorn in Wigtownshire and occupied  a similar religious site at Hoddom in Annadale/ Dumfriesshire - and erected the imposing Ruthwell Cross.

The evidence (finds) so far recovered from Trusty's Hill point to it being a place where 'high status' people lived - e.g. the Red African Slipware find. The existence of the Pictish carvings suggest something more than just a wealthy chieftain and his family - some one more like a 'king' or ruler of a larger territory. Unfortunately the history of Galloway in this post Roman/ pre-Northumbrian period is confused by the possibility that Galloway was part of Rheged.  It may be more useful to think of the history of Galloway in this period as the development of the structure of Novantae (the Roman name for the people of Galloway) society.

But if the Novantae developed their society into a post-Roman kingdom, as a distinct political entity this may have implications for the post-Northumbrian period. Was the coherence of Fergus of Galloway's kingdom - which as a political and social  unit survived until the end of the Douglas lordship of Galloway in 1455- based on Novantae foundations? Pure speculation - but the Galloway Picts project may yet provide some supporting evidence for such speculations.    

Galloway Picts Project report

Piece of (north) African Red Slipware circa 550 AD from Trusty's Hill.

This important find of  high status pottery imported from Carthage/ north Africa shows that Trusty's Hill near Gatehouse of Fleet, Dumfries and Galloway was an important/ prestige site in the sixth century. For more on the Trusty's Hill dig, see the Galloway Picts Project

I visited the site today (Friday 25 May 2012) where my son Alistair junior has been working as a volunteer digger/ scraper in ferocious heat.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Three ospreys at Threave Castle nest site.

Two female and one  male ospreys at Threave, Castle Douglas nest.
Monday 14 April 2012. Alistair junior took this photo of three ospreys at the Threave Castle, Castle Douglas nest site. One female was on the nest, the other female and the male were flying around.

Until Friday/ Saturday there was only the male at the nest, then one female arrived. Now there are two females plus the male.

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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Industry as Entropy

Industry  Entropy

There are several questions I am turning over in my mind as I read through books and sources on the industrial revolution and its relationship to the Enlightenment Some are ‘half-questions’, still too vague to be posed as actual  questions. One partial question is about the relationship between theory and practise. Another is about the economic dimension, about the role of capitalism in the development of industrialised economies.

Part of the difficulty is to do with the relationship between the past, the present and the future. Where we are now is the result of actions and decisions taken in the past. Where we will be in the future combines the actions of the past with those taken in the present. So the big problems of the present- global economic crisis and global climate change are the products of the past but how they will affect the future depends on our actions in the present.

If, for example, David Deutsch’s interpretation of the past - that the Enlightenment was a game changer, setting humanity on a new path towards ‘infinity’- holds true, then the problems will be solved and we will have a Star Trek (optimistic science fiction) type future. But if Tony Wrigley’s interpretation - that access to the energy stored in coal and oil was the decisive factor- then a more pessimistic science fiction (Mad Max?) type future will unfold.

The energy question also has political implications. Wrigley’s scenario places limits on Marx’s interpretation of the Enlightenment model. The workers of the world will inherit the ruins of a civilisation which cannot be rebuilt since the energy (coal/ oil) necessary for the rebuilding will be gone. The future struggle will not be against capitalism, but to prevent a revival of feudalism.

Such examples can be multiplied to create a range of possible futures. But are such futures constrained by the past? If it was possible to have a better understanding of the past, would we be better able to understand the present and hence the actual future?

To condense the argument down- how far would the potential of the Enlightenment have progressed if there had been no shift  from organic to mineral sources of energy in the eighteenth century? Alternatively - how far would the shift from  a feudal to a capitalist economic system have progressed  without the use of coal in the same period? No amount of ingenuity  would have overcome the problem that there would not have been enough wood to launch an industrial revolution or the continuous growth necessary to sustain a capitalist economy.

What this leads to is a mechanical model of  human culture. Or even evolution. As Wrigley points out the ability of plants to process sunlight through photosynthesis is the basis for everything else. But it is a diffused process- a herbivore needs to eat a lot of plants to create the meat for a carnivore to eat. For most of the human species existence, there were only a few of us, gathering and hunting across large areas. The Neolithic farming revolution did not change this basic system, but it did intensify it. Favourable areas were used to cultivate a few key crops and a few animal species - at the expense of biodiversity. Areas of farmed land (including animal pasture) were vast collectors and converters of solar energy for human use. The various social structures of the cultures which occupied these areas then converted the energy gained into knowledge. To conserve this knowledge, writing was invented and so history began. Writing allowed the accumulation and preservation of knowledge - a process which resembled the action of Maxwell’s Demon. [A bold claim- does it really?] So instead of the ebb and flow of events, the rise and fall of civilisations, always resetting  the system to zero, the potential for progress/ increase in complexity now existed.

The shift to coal as an energy source did not change the overall energy balance - the coal was concentrated solar energy. But its use did enable an increase in the production of knowledge. Some was ’pure knowledge’ - the leading edges of science and philosophy- but most was embedded/ practical knowledge focused on economic objectives and the maintenance of elite power. Education was designed to deliver a workforce with useful practical skills rather than encourage critical (potentially disruptive) thought and analysis.
To go back to the Maxwell’s Demon analogy- the demon’s task is to separate high energy from low energy molecules/ particles. This is a critical skill. If the demon cannot distinguish between  high and low energy molecules/ particles, it cannot do its job. We live in an environment suffused with information, with potential knowledge. To maintain ‘progress’, we need the critical skills to distinguish between different forms of  information and separate those which are in some way useful from those which are not. Take global warming as an example. The science which points to global warming is very strong, but there are determined efforts being made to cast doubt on it. These efforts are able to succeed not because very few people have advanced knowledge of the science of climate change, but because very few people have the critical skills necessary to distinguish between a rational/ reasonable argument and an irrational/ unreasonable one.  The argument for global warming is coherent, the counter-arguments are incoherent.

Coherence is equivalent to a lower state of entropy and incoherence to a higher state of entropy. This analogy may also apply to the workings of ‘the market’. Are market forces coherent and rational or incoherent and irrational? Are the ordered or are they random? The claim is that ‘the market’ is rational, ordered and coherent - but is it? If, as David Harvey (following Karl Marx) the market economy is based on the need for continual growth, and (following Wrigley) this is in turn based on coal and oil which are finite resources, then it is impossible and hence irrational and incoherent.

The real is (becomes) the rational and the rational is (becomes) the real - as Hegel once said.  As the present becomes the past, so we will find out  what is real and what is not, what is rational and what is not. But do we have to wait - or can we  anticipate  history’s judgment? Or can we rely on  avid Deutsch’s optimistic interpretation of the Enlightenment  which places us at the ’beginning of infinity’? Right now I don’t know. Which is why I am going back over the various histories of the industrial revolution and the Enlightenment to see if they support or refute Deutsch’s vision.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Knowledge: Power::Information: Energy

Ideal heat engine- the knowledge of power.

Still considering the relationship between the increase in energy use which began with the industrial revolution and the increase in knowledge which has followed. Does power create information? What is the relationship with the rise of capitalism/ political economy? Would a shift to a sustainable/ de-mineralised economy lead to a loss of knowledge? Is there a connection to entropy as loss of information?

To give a practical example: progress in particle physics is related to the use of large amounts of energy in particle accelerators. Ina  de-mineralised/ de-carbonised economy, would there still be enough energy available to power such devices?If not, would that mean an end to progress in that branch of physics?  
Is modern science a product of industrialisation/ mineralisation? Do less economically developed countries produce less scientific knowledge? Does the rate of progress decline during a recession?

More questions than answers here. Finding the right question to ask is the difficult part. 

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Knowledge and Energy

The Beginnings of Infinity, David Deutsch, Pelican edition, 2012
This is a stimulating book to read. It is packed full of challenging ideas, which I will need to read through again (and again no doubt). One which has already got me thinking hard is his defence of the Enlightenment.

David Deutsch’s argument on the Enlightenment is that it created a breakthrough from stable, static societies of the past  to the dynamic ‘Western’ society of the present and future.  The dynamism comes from the liberation  provided by scientific (but not quite so much from  philosophical) rationality.  Rationality is open-ended  and so we are  at the beginning of infinity - the beginning of unlimited progress. Progress is unlimited since rationality has the ability to solve problems. So any problems created by rationality become the stimulus for  further problem solving in a sequence without end - and infinite sequence.

This is an optimistic scenario, but one based on reality - since, as Deutsch argues-  scientific rationality is derived from and explains reality.

My problem is that I have also recently read ’Energy and the English Industrial Revolution’ by E. A. Wrigley (Cambridge, 2010). What Deutsch calls the stable and static societies of the pre-Enlightenment past, Wrigley describes as ‘organic economies’ and contrasts them with the ‘mineralised economies’ which emerged with the industrial revolution. Both the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution occurred in the eighteenth century so there is an overlap between Deutsch and Wrigley.

The key problem is how to understand the relationship between knowledge and energy. Deutsch argues (p.414) that ‘primitive, static societies… contained pitifully little knowledge and  existed only by suppressing innovation’. Wrigley’s argument is that ‘organic economies’ were constrained by their reliance on human and animal power and wind and water as energy sources which placed limits on their ability to innovate and grow.

So did the Enlightenment stimulate the industrial revolution? More specifically, did the Enlightenment stimulate science which then influenced the industrial revolution?  Probably not. The key stimulus was economic and the economic impetus came from the opportunities created by the expansion of what was to become the British Empire and the wars (mainly with France) which went with that expansion. Very little science was involved in the trial and error tinkering with existing methods and technologies which formed the basis for the industrial revolution.

The substitution of coal and coke for wood and charcoal in iron smelting, the use of iron as a replacement for wood in ploughs, bridges and machines, the use of steam rather than wind, water, human and animal power to drive machines - all came about through trail and error tinkering with existing methods of production and technologies. All depended on the exploitation of a mineral resource- coal - to breakthrough the constraints of an organic economy. With the cotton industry, slavery was another vital component.

Damn. Themes from the book are now circling around my head. There are so many of them, its difficult to get a fix on any one of them long enough to critically assess it. Another difficulty is the all or nothing logic. Deutsch explains that questioning arguments from authority was part of the Enlightenment project but then, using his position as a world-class authority on physics  goes on to create a series of arguments from authority which extend beyond physics and into history and social/ cultural anthropology to create a static/dynamic distinction between non-rational and rational (Enlightened) societies.

In particular, in a slightly confusing discussion of global warming/ climate change , he seems to suggest that a dynamic society will find ways to either reduce the temperature or thrive at a higher temperature. He goes on to say ‘ There is as yet no serious sign of retreat into a sustainable lifestyle (which would really mean  achieving  only the semblance of sustainability), but even the aspiration is dangerous.’ Dangerous because it would mean  rejecting  the alternative choice  ‘to embark on an open-ended journey of creation and exploration whose every step  is unsustainable  until it is redeemed by the next…’

The suggestions made - carbon capture, creating clouds to reflect sunlight, encouraging aquatic organism to absorb carbon dioxide - are possible techno-fixes which do not involve reducing our output of carbon dioxide and Deutsch does not make any suggestions about how we might be able to ‘thrive’ at higher global temperatures. This section of his book  seems more focused on denying that there are any limits to growth than seriously engaging with the problem of climate change. This creates a strange tension, where Deutsch as advocate of science has to down play the findings of science.

This brings us back to Wrigley and his mineralised economy. If it was the exploitation of energy from coal and oil rather than the knowledge of the Enlightenment which  liberated us from organic/ static/ sustainable societies , then we will never achieve Deutsch’s vision of infinity. Either climate change or resource depletion will prevent us from embarking on an ‘open-ended journey of creation and exploration’.  As our sources of concentrated energy run out, so will the knowledge associated with an energy rich culture.  If climate change begins to damage our ability to feed, clothe and shelter ourselves, the complexities of our culture will be diminished - including  science- as existence once more becomes a daily struggle for survival.

On the other hand, if Deutsch is right and  we have passed a threshold of complexity, these problems will inspire solutions and the Enlightenment (creative rationality) will be conserved. This optimistic scenario is one I hope will prevail. But to hedge my bets, I will continue to wrestle with Hegel- who is not mentioned by Deutsch. Although the industrial revolution had begun in Britain during Hegel’s lifetime, it had not yet reached Germany where he lived. His philosophical speculations are therefore the product of an organic  rather than mineralised economy and were directly inspired by the Enlightenment. Hegel’s work in turn influenced Karl Marx - who Deutsch rejects as a ‘mechanical’ thinker.

To conclude- if Deutsch is right, our future is to infinity and beyond. I would like to agree with his optimistic vision, but when he moves from his field of expert knowledge - physics- to the history and future of human societies, his vision starts to be contradicted by actuality.