Piri Reis

I was going to call this ‘East and West’, because of the events of the coming week. The New York marathon was cancelled, but not the U.S. presidential election. Almost simultaneously, on the other side of the world, the Chinese Communist Party elects the president and vice-president of the Middle Kingdom.

The differences between the two systems could not be sharper. The first is as hotly disputed as Bush-Gore, and is set to shape the world’s wealthiest democracy, which simultaneously bears a colossal national debt. The second has a rather predictable outcome, but unlike the U.S., the nation that has become the world’s bond holder, flush with surplus cash, is shaping up for a huge paradigm shift.

China’s paramount leader needs to hold three positions: President of China, General Secretary of the CCP, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission. The ascension process requires membership of the Politburo Standing Committee, VP of the CCP, and VP of the CMC— right now, the current designated successor Xi Jinping only holds two aces.

But in a flash of east-west serendipity, the Turkish map-maker Piri Reis came back into my life, after an absence of forty years. A conference is being held in Turkey on Eurasian maritime history, and the meeting is opened by the chancellor of Piri Reis university. The friend who told me about it wrote the preface to the Portuguese edition of The India Road, and what he doesn’t know about the Lusitanian discoveries is not worth knowing.

What’s worrying me about uncle Piri is that I can’t remember where I heard of him. Ticking the boxes, I know it was a long time ago, and given the lack of alternative media, I suspect it was in a book. It might have been in Von Daniken’s ‘Chariots of the Gods’, which makes the case for the extraterrestrial colonization of the earth. Problem is, I don’t recall much about that one either, except that the giant statues of Easter Island were a prominent (sorry) feature of his theory.

The Piri Reis world map, circa 1510. By then, Islam’s hold on the sea was rapidly losing strength.

A little surf on the web goes a long way—apparently this chart was mentioned in the book, to claim that such accurate mapping would have been impossible without an areal perspective. This is bunk, since maps by Portuguese explorers and cartographers such as Reinel, as well as Cantino’s planisphere, and other charts, accurately depicted distances and contours as early as the late XVth century. Reinel was a star, but he certainly wasn’t an alien.

The Rice University website discusses the origins of meridians, and measurement of horizontal distances. We learn that the first prime meridian (the zero line) went through Madeira. The Spanish charts then established the Canary Islands as the prime; it was only centuries later, when Britain became a dominant maritime power, that the Greenwich meridian was defined. There is also reference to lunarians and solar eclipses. In my wanderings I came across the tale of Captain Joshua Slocum, and it looks like a good read.

When I was researching The India Road, I read that the Portuguese used the eclipses of Jupiter’s sixteen moons—since those days many more have been found—to tell the time, and therefore take a longitude position. Unfortunately, the satellites of the giant planet are almost invisible to the naked eye, so this also sounds like bunk.

Natural phenomena are as fascinating now as they were five hundred years ago; when they cause disasters, the common man becomes both interested and fearful, just as in the dark ages. Who does he turn to for solace and wisdom? The gods, now as then. But where five hundred years ago humans felt helpless before the forces of nature, unable to comprehend disease, or disaster, we are now masters of the universe, or so we believe.

Hurricane Sandy has shattered this notion for millions on the eastern seaboard of the US and revived the moribund discussions on climate change. In a foundering economy, there’s been zero interest in saving the planet—but now voters are asking serious questions, and instead of cursing fate they turn to science.

The problem is science can’t help beyond a certain point. It identified a climate shift, and provided informed speculation on the consequences. Melting icecaps, sea level rise, more extreme events. Our planet is so complex, and our capacity to predict change so limited, the best science can do is make the following statement: let’s do less of this, and things will probably get better some time in the future. Not exactly the ideal platform for a politician.

In my new book, clean energy radically reduces America’s dependence on fossil fuels. Actually, it’s not really a new energy source, it’s a way to use less of the old stuff and do the same thing. Of course, there are many special interests opposed, the most important of which are oil and war—the two seem to go hand in hand. And that makes for a good plot.

The idea behind the book is very simple, and in a way it’s just a historical perpective on the development of the Mid-East. One hundred years ago it was one of the poorest regions on earth, with only small tribal conflicts. Oil made it what it is today, for better and for worse. A reduced world dependency on fossil fuels will curtail its only significant exports, oil and terror.

The present-day alternatives to oil bask in their greeness, but they can only survive as a heavily subsidized element of national energy policy. In the US this is known as Renewable Portfolio Standards, or RPS. The numbers don’t differ much in America and Europe, which is not surprising, because the costs of infrastructure and production should be similar.

Anywhere between 30-50% of your electricity bill subsidizes renewables. In Portugal, it’s over fifty percent. The Danish industry, which bet heavily on wind power, is currently going through some pretty hard times.

Still politics is politics, and America is once more worried about climate change. I wonder when Obama is going to roll out Al Gore.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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