Monthly Archives: February 2020

Denis Diderot and his magnificent dressing gown

Hi everyone just dropping a quick blog off the cuff today, if you’re wondering part two of Mt Tambora is still set to drop next week, Tuesday morning NZ time. I can only imagine all New Zealanders will know our national lottery has jackpotted up to $50 Million on Saturday – and must be won (shhh American readers, to us this is a LOT of money). A pessimist might choose to blog on all the people who won big, spent up large, and now live off unemployment cheques- embittered and mournful for the days before the win. I choose to share a different kind of story altogether…. Well slightly less cynical anyway.

Denis Diderot (5th October 1713 – 31st July 1784) was a French philosopher, critic and writer. He edited an encyclopedia, and was a highly regarded thinker of the Age of Enlightenment – my understanding is he was an early atheist writer who stated we don’t need religion to be moral people (possibly why he is the centre of Fyodor Karamazov’s rambling tale to Father Zosima in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov? This is a theme of that book). He also loved the way science was throwing light into the deep crevices of our knowledge. This tale is about none of that however – it is about his dressing gown.

In 1769 Diderot wrote an essay ‘Regrets for my Old Dressing Gown, or A warning to those who have more taste than fortune’. Diderot, the story goes, was gifted a marvelous new dressing gown by a friend, who had noticed his old gown was looking a little threadbare. Diderot recounts how this affected his outlook stating “poverty has it’s freedoms, opulence has it’s obstacles”.

At first the new dressing gown made Diderot feel rather special -as a poor academic he was not terribly accustomed to the finer things – but soon he began looking askance at other objects in his sitting room. First it was the rough old paintings on the wall, which must be replaced by a Rubens of an old man (less well known than his voluptuous ladies) and a Claude Vernet seascape. This was all fine, but then Diderot started thinking about how much nicer a leather chair would look than the old straw chair he had. One day, while sitting in his comfy armchair, reading a book and occasionally looking up to marvel at his paintings – a thought occurred to him what he really needed in his life was an ostentatious mirror over the mantelpiece. His library of books, for many years torturing a couple of lengths of fir, were soon after housed in a fitting bookshelf (fit for a queen no less – Diderot sold his library to Catherine the Great later in his life. Catherine let him keep them till he passed, and paid him a stipend to be their ‘librarian’).

Next he had replaced some old clay statues with an antique bronze of Venus. Some time after he was looking at his growing pile of bills at his old table, Diderot decided the thing to do would be to buy a nice new bureau to store them in. Another day, while staring up from his armchair, it struck Denis Diderot a Geoffrin clock would look grand atop his mantelpiece. Next, a writing desk was called for. On this went till the only item which represented the old Mr Diderot was a worn out old rug. It was at this point Diderot realized he had become captive to a cycle of runaway consumerism, that he had lost his love of the things he had previously prized – and that he felt trapped under the weight of items he thought would bring him great joy.

a la Geoffrin clock

To quote Diderot on his old dressing gown “Why didn’t I keep it? It was used to me and I was used to it. It molded all the folds of my body without inhibiting it; I was picturesque and handsome. The other one is stiff, and starchy, makes me look stodgy. There was no need to which its kindness didn’t loan itself, for indigence is almost always officious. If a book was covered in dust, one of its panels was there to wipe it off. If thickened ink refused to flow in my quill, it presented its flank. Traced in long black lines, one could see the services it had rendered me. These long lines announce the litterateur, the writer, the man who works. I now have the air of a rich good for nothing. No one knows who I am”

In 1988 an anthropologist studying consumerism came to the same conclusions. We may buy things because they are fit for purpose, but we choose ‘that’ specific thing because something about that thing reflects us. If our things become incongruent i.e. we buy a fancy dressing gown, it can lead to a downward spiral of consumerism in an effort to match everything to the new, nicer thing. The anthropologist, Grant McCracken named the effect after it’s most famous victim – The Diderot Effect.

Someone in New Zealand this Saturday may soon discover this effect, in spades. I don’t begrudge them – I’ve bought my ticket in the hopes of being that unfortunate soul saddled with $50 Million burning a hole in their pocket. I can’t help but think though the two most important things Saturday night will bring to someone (or several someones?) is the freedom from doing the things they don’t want to do, and the opportunities to do the things they really want to.

Good luck to all the other gamblers out there (not really, I want to win). Enjoy the win, and spend that money in a way which will bring you joy.

Mount Tambora, a Butterfly Effect in Four Acts

Act One

It is early in April 1815 on the island of Java, modern day Indonesia. Like much of the world Java had been caught up in the worldwide conflict of the Napoleonic wars. The Island passed from Dutch rule to the French, then back to Dutch again after 1814, via the conquering Britons, in 1811. On 13th August 1814 the Convention of London handed the Dutch their lost Indonesian colonies back – and just shy of eight months later they were in the process of taking control re-establishing themselves in the East Indies. While it must have been some relief to the Dutch and English alike that they no longer had Bonaparte to worry about, they realized the Dutch had some way to go to rebuild their powerhouse trading empire in the Spice Islands. When cannon fire was heard in the distance, the Dutch and British must have wondered who was up to mischief, where, and to what end? Soldiers were sent out to deal to whatever militia, rogue 5th estaters, or interloper was out to cause trouble.
I don’t know how these soldiers, presumably British rather than Dutch, fared – I only really know Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore mentions them in his memoirs – but there was no interloper. Mother earth was about to king hit the region with a type of ferocity not seen for thousands of years.

Sir Stamford Raffles

On April 10th 1815, the supposed cannon fire was revealed as the prelude to the eruption of Mount Tambora, in Indonesia’s lesser Sunda Islands. To say this was a huge eruption is an understatement. It was the biggest volcanic eruption in at least 10,000 years. People talk of the neighboring Krakatoa eruption of 1883 as a big deal… well, it was, but it was a baby compared to Mt Tambora. Krakatoa happened at a time when telegraphs carried news around the world in the blink of an eye, at a time when greater democracy ensured an easier spread of news. Tambora was the real news story – at a time when technology simply was not equipped to disseminate information fast enough.

Let’s quantify this event. Though it continued to fume and spit out debris from 10th April till mid July, most of it’s payload was released in the first three days. In terms of pure power, Mt Tambora went off with an equivalent of 33 Billion tons of TNT, 2.2 million times the ‘little boy’ atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. To go full on ‘Tales of science and Imagination’ for a second; in three days the eruption blew with 1.17 x 10 to the power of 20 joules – or if like me you’re not a scientist – approximately equivalent to 3 months worth of the whole world’s power consumption in our time (2019), over a space of just 3 days.

Via three massive columns of fire, a plume of smoke which reached 40 kilometers into the atmosphere, and via pyroclastic flows moving at a speed of 160 kilometers per hour, the volcano would eject 175 cubic kilometers of debris. If you collected all the ash in an area the size of Rhode Island, the pile would be close to 56 metres high – almost half the height of Providence, Rhode Island’s highest building, its ‘Superman’ building. Convert that – New Zealand podcast and all- to Auckland, we would be looking at a pile 161 metres high, just under half the height of our Sky Tower -as wide as our super-city. It went off with a big bang heard 2,600 kilometers away, and left a once 14000 foot tall mountain with a caldera, a giant indent – over a kilometer deep and a little over 3 kilometers across.

Did this cause widespread death and destruction? Very much so. It’s estimated 10,000 people died instantly in the blast, near the island and on the neighboring island of Lombok. The blast caused a tsunami, which rolled through the Java sea at a height of around 2 metres. Ash fell on islands as far as 1,300 kilometers away in significant quantity. Enough so that it would collapse roofs 400 kilometers from the blast with it’s weight. Acid rain fell on the region. Water supplies left un-drinkable. Forests, grasslands, and crops would be decimated – and all up perhaps as many as 80,000 further locals would die of famine in the wake of the eruption.

Now I want to be a little careful, mindful of the fact act one is all statistics. To borrow from Stalin – one death is a tragedy, one million deaths a statistic. This was 80,000 tragedies. A loss of life on a huge, traumatic scale – a tragedy felt for generations in the region. All up this tragedy is believed to have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths in the region in the long run. But we have some ground to cover, and never enough column inches. One final stat I’ll share – while Mt Tambora threw a lot of ash into the atmosphere, it also released massive amounts of sulfur, chlorine and fluorine also. This lead to 1816 becoming ‘The Year without a Summer’ – and it drastically affected the whole planet. I leave the Indonesians with my love, to rebuild and move on – and turn our attention to other flow on effects of this tragedy.