Archive for April, 2018

China: the dragon breathes fire

April 26, 2018

Diocletian reformed the coinage too

The Roman Empire had a chaotic patch in the Third Century; most reigns were brief and ended violently. Then came Diocletian, introducing an orderly system with responsibility divided among four rulers, two senior and two junior; the latter would duly move up and appoint new juniors. This “tetrarchy” worked for a short while, until some guys were too power-hungry to accept its constraints.

Deng Xiaoping

China had a chaotic patch between 1966 and 1976, when Mao Zedong’s power unleashed great violence. After his death, Deng Xiaoping, who had twice been purged, emerged as leader. Seeking to prevent a repeat of the Mao disaster, Deng, like Diocletian, established an orderly system of divided authority, including term limits. And like Diocletian’s, this system worked for a while, until one guy was too power-hungry to respect its constraints.

Xi Jinping

That would be Xi Jinping. He has consolidated far more power in his own hands than anyone since Mao; today no one in China but Xi really has much power. And it had become increasingly clear that he wasn’t going to bow out gracefully after 10 years as the Deng system would have required. Now, with little fanfare — and all internet discussion ruthlessly scrubbed — the 10-year limit has been formally abolished. Xi is now ruler for life.

It’s so much easier to amend China’s constitution than ours. Theirs being a charade of a constitution. Another advantage of China’s system. None of the messy public debate or legislative bickering that plague democracies.

The other big thing Deng Xiaoping did was to get China off Maoist-Communist economic madness, opening up to free enterprise. The result has been phenomenal economic advancement, raising hundreds of millions out of poverty. We Westerners had long believed that, as the Chinese gained economic security and affluence, they’d surely demand more say in governance.

That actually seemed to be happening in 1989 — until the regime responded with a bloodbath, showing its adherence to Mao’s dictum that “power comes from the barrel of a gun.” Yet still we continued to reason that such a political model was simply incompatible with a modern, educated, wealthy population.

Xi Jinping is determined to prove otherwise. China’s previous baby steps toward democratization, loosening up, and rule of law are being relentlessly rolled back. All green shoots of civil society not under the regime’s thumb are being crushed. Sperm donors are now screened for political loyalty. Lawyers are no longer even allowed to defend regime targets. Xi is building a Big Brother 1984 surveillance state. As The Economist recently noted, technologists used to scoff that controlling the internet would require hiring hundreds of thousands of secret policemen. “Then China did more or less precisely that.”

China is also deploying a pervasive system of social control, a monster Santa Claus naughty-and-nice list, utilizing “Big Data” to assign citizens points for good behavior and black marks for things the regime doesn’t like. High scorers get favored with privileges; low scorers had better watch out. And the government will indeed be watching for them. It is outfitting policemen with facial recognition software to scan crowds seeking targeted individuals.

And not only within China. Thousands in other countries have been grabbed and whisked back for punishment.

There seems to be remarkably little resistance inside China; nothing resembling the dissident movement that harried the USSR’s regime. Of course, with such strong internet and other social controls, there’s very little opportunity for dissidence to surface. China’s Communist Party is actually more fiercely repressive than its Russian counterpart was (at least post-Stalin), and it’s working. But even so, the populace seems weirdly acquiescent to its massive civic emasculation. Were we wrong after all to consider Enlightenment values human universals? Are the Chinese really that different from us?

Another of our hopes was that a more prosperous China would grow to be a more mature and responsible world citizen, playing nice with others in the global sandbox. That’s not happening either; here too China is going the other way, with Xi flexing his muscles not just at home but abroad. A regular bully China has become, brooking no restraints upon its aggressive aims. Even a previously unthinkable seizure of Taiwan by force begins to seem frighteningly thinkable. Wouldn’t that be just the thing to feed Xi’s strutting vainglory. If Putin could get away with it in Crimea, why not Taiwan?

Xi seems intent on proving us Enlightenment suckers wrong not only for China but for the whole world. How much more comfortable the rulers will be in their Beijing palace if the rest of the world looks more like China than its American antithesis. Xi’s touted “Belt and Road Initiative” is an infrastructure development plan aiming to almost literally bind a big part of the world to China. “Confucius Institutes” proliferate around the globe to promote, in reality, not China’s ancient wisdom but its modern outlook. All over, China is buying up media outlets and pliant political stooges, bullying publications, and making its overseas students into an army of nationalistic propagandists.

If Xi wants to Chinify the rest of the world, Trump seems to wish it too. Thus he mused that maybe America should follow China’s lead and abolish presidential term limits.

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Visiting sunny tropical Iceland

April 23, 2018

Years back we made the mistake of visiting Washington, D.C., over Christmas. It was bitterly cold. I vowed no more icy vacations!

My wife’s windblown selfie

So this time we chose . . . Iceland. Well, how cold could it be in April? And wet, and windy? I didn’t realize it’s supposedly the third windiest place on Earth. The other two are uninhabited.

But it was fun. Long underwear helped.

Iceland is a small country, and sparsely settled; population only a third of a million (about equal to Anaheim’s). Partly because it is indeed fairly inhospitable. Its first settlers, in the Ninth Century, could just barely eke out survival. They came from Norway. How awful must Norway have been?

During Iceland’s next thousand years things only got worse. They quickly consumed all the island’s trees, thereafter making do with driftwood. And it grew colder.

The only saving grace was self government, of a sort, embodied in the Althing, an annual gathering for making laws and settling disputes (which seemed to be legion), presided over not by a king but the “law speaker.” Iceland’s Althing continued more or less continuously since the year 930; today the parliament still bears that name. We visited the place where the ancient Althings were convened.

Luxurious traditional Icelandic homes

But otherwise Iceland’s history was grimly depressing. Windy though the place is, the winds of progress passed Iceland by, and the Middle Ages continued there until the middle of the Twentieth Century. Epitomizing this is the language being virtually unchanged over the millennium. Try reading or understanding Ninth Century English (if you could call it “English”).

Also, Iceland never developed the modern convention of people having last names. Instead, Bjorn’s son Eric goes by Eric Bjornsson; his daughter Ingrid is Ingrid Bjornsdottir. (I suppose transsexuals change both their names.) This makes it fun trying to look someone up in a phone book.

Iceland was finally blasted from a medieval existence into modernity during World War II. A possession of Denmark, which was occupied by the Nazis, Iceland was preemptively occupied by the Brits and Americans. Then it took the opportunity to declare independence from Denmark in 1944. Foreign investment, and tourists, poured in, and Iceland, in a few decades, vaulted into First World ranks.

Seeking some breakfast our first morning in Reykjavik, we went into what looked like a very modest little place. A chocolate covered croissant seemed tempting until we saw it was $17! Such prices are very typical, showing how “advanced” Iceland has become. The Economist has a “Big Mac Index” gauging how over- or under-valued a nation’s currency is by reference to the local price for a Big Mac. That’s a universal commodity — except in Iceland, which has no McDonalds restaurants. But according to one analysis based on comparable burger prices, Iceland’s currency is actually the most overvalued in the world (i.e., its prices are the highest).

Nevertheless, its people are imbued with a very positive attitude. We got a wool-making demonstration, by a gal named Harpa who characterized herself as “hyper.” She was so animated and bubbly that it made this wool demonstration a highlight of the trip for me.

Speaking of positive attitude, my wife’s, as always, greatly enhanced the experience. She enthusiastically appreciates everything and never complains about anything.

Me, under a waterfall

Another trip highlight was our glacial lagoon boat ride. That glacier is the biggest in Europe. The lagoon had only just unfrozen, and was still full of ice crunching under our open rubber boat. We were encased in rubber ourselves — looking like astronauts in space suits. Getting suited up took longer than the boat ride. And it didn’t keep us from getting wet in the cold rain. But . . . you had to be there.

We also visited the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano, whose 2010 eruption messed up European air travel. Actually, we couldn’t see the volcano itself; but a farm at its foot had set up a visitor center, showing a really excellent home-made film about the eruption’s impact on them. Our visit was just about the last before the facility was closing so the family could get back to full-time farming.

Then there was the Blue Lagoon, touted as the world’s biggest jacuzzi. It’s heated by geothermal action and clouded with silica and other minerals. It was a weird sensation to have one’s body in hot water with the head (slathered with mineral goop) exposed to a cold breezy drizzle, while the whole scene is enveloped in a steamy mist (so I couldn’t see much of the bikinied babes). But, again, you had to be there.

The one key attraction we missed was Reykjavik’s Penis Museum. Maybe next time.

“Without God everything is permitted”

April 20, 2018

My wife and I have been reading, aloud to each other, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s 1880 novel. A key motif is whether “without God everything is permitted.” That’s become a major talking point against atheism; the notion that atheists have no reason to be moral. Indeed, the idea’s societal reverberations may well be traceable back to Karamazov.

It was written when atheism was beginning to be important. Nietzsche soon declared, “God is dead.” Dostoevsky was himself deeply religious, yet in Karamazov he does not cavalierly dismiss the opposing point of view. Rather, he wrestles with the moral implications.

I have previously discussed morality without God. If we need him for morality, we’d be in trouble, because of course he’s a fiction. But in truth, whatever moral codes religions prescribe, they are merely a reflection of our pre-existing moral intuitions, rooted in evolution. Our ancestors lived in groups wherein cooperation, morality, and even altruism aided survival. People with tendencies toward those virtues lived to pass along their genes. These norms became further embedded through culture; religions are cultural inventions and again merely incorporate the moral ideas already a part of a given culture.

Further, each of us figures out, using common sense and our rational minds, how to live. Most of us do what’s right because it feels right. Our empathy for others dissuades us from actions harming them. And we realize it’s better to live in a society where people treat each other decently than in a Hobbesian “war of all against all.” None of this requires a God.

In Karamazov, Ivan hallucinates a conversation with the Devil. And in it, the Devil makes this remarkable speech — imagining what he thinks Ivan himself would say:

“Once every member of the human race discards the idea of God (and I believe that such an era will come, like some new geological age), the old world-view will collapse by itself without recourse to cannibalism . . . . Men will unite in their efforts to get everything out of life that it can offer them, but only for joy and happiness in this world. Man will be exalted spiritually with a divine, titanic pride and the man-god will come into being. Extending his conquest over nature beyond all bounds through his will and his science, man will constantly experience such great joy that it will replace for him his former anticipation of the pleasures that await him in heaven. Everyone will know that he is mortal, and will accept his death with calm and dignity, like a god. He will understand, out of sheer pride, that there is no point in protesting that life lasts only a fleeting moment, and he will love his brother man without expecting any reward for it. Love will satisfy only a moment in life, but the very awareness of its momentary nature will concentrate its flames, which before were diffused and made pale by the anticipation of eternal life beyond the grave . . . And so on and so forth. Very sweet!”

The Devil is being sardonic, as the final words show. He’s mocking Ivan. And yet this speech — put in the Devil’s mouth by the very religious author — actually expresses pretty well my own humanist ethos.

In the next passage the Devil invokes twice the “everything is permitted” trope — the new “man-god” can “jump without scruple over every barrier of the old moral code devised for the man-slave.”

Yet scruples are integral to our essential human nature. Our morality, which is self-built, does not enslave us, but liberates us, to live good lives, despite lacking ennoblement conferred by a god.

Pecha Kucha Night – My love affair with numismatics

April 17, 2018

The Opalka Gallery at the local Sage College has a great event called “Pecha Kucha Night;” they’re held all the world. A bunch of presenters each shows and talks about 20 slides, each shown for exactly 20 seconds. I did one recently. It was quite a challenge to time my verbiage so that it matched up with the slides. Here’s my presentation:

Hello. My topic is my 60 year love affair with numismatics, which is the fancy word for coin collecting. It has enriched my life beyond measure. Eventually it took over my life, and I quit my real job and became a full time coin dealer. I’ll show you a couple of pictures of my coin office.

This is a small part of my “fulfillment center,” coins I have for sale. I assure you it’s very well organized, and I can locate any coin to fill an order. Usually. By the way, I sell coins only by mail. Quite a lot of them, as this picture suggests.

Now, often coins require some research, and here’s a picture of part of my numismatic library. Much of this kind of research can now be done on the internet, but it hasn’t totally replaced the need for reference books.

And speaking of books, I did write one myself about coin collecting, in 1992, called “Confessions of a Numismatic Fanatic.” Note the subtle, understated color I picked for the cover. Almost nobody noticed that the coins on it form a smiley face.

I’m going to focus tonight on just two things. The first is ancient coins, which I especially love. Here’s one from Parion, in what is now Turkey, around 300 BC. Every Greek city had its own coins. The face is Medusa. Supposedly, seeing it would turn you to stone. But this picture is safe to look at.

Now, that coin is in superb condition, which is rare. Quality is the name of this game. Here we see the more typical condition for ancient coins. I bought this boxful of junk to re-sell. But when it comes to my own collection, I’m very much a condition snob.

The next coin, from Larissa, is notable for its artistic quality. Also, it happens to come from the greatest collection of Greek coins ever formed. That collector is still around, he’s actually bought coins from me; my wife and I once had dinner with him in Athens. (And with his full time librarian.)

Next is a coin from the Roman Republic. This depicts the story of Tarpeia; she’s the figure in the center; with two soldiers bashing her to death with their shields. I’m showing this delightful coin to illustrate how ancient people had a different mentality about violence.

The main thing I want to illustrate is portraiture on ancient coins. Often again the artistry was pretty amazing. Here is Alexander the Great. He really had an amazing career. Note that he’s depicted deified with the horn of Ammon, an Egyptian God.

The next guy is not so famous: Philetairos, the eunuch king of Pergamon. One time my toddler daughter climbed into my lap while I had a coin like this in my hand. I explained to her that it had a picture of an ancient king. And she asked me: “Was he nice?” I had to say probably not.

And here we have Cleopatra. A realistic portrait. She was not in fact a great beauty. This coin is actually more worn than I like to have in my collection, but it’s fairly rare, and about as good a portrait coin of Cleopatra as you can get.

Next we have her lover boy, Julius Caesar. “Yuli-oos KAI-sar” as the Romans would have pronounced it. He was the first guy who dared to put his own portrait on a Roman coin. It was one of the things that got him assassinated; it was felt he had too much power.

The next coin is Caligula’s. I’m showing you the back, because this was again something unprecedented — it names and depicts Caligula’s three sisters. Whom he slept with, at least according to the ancient historian Suetonius, who wrote “The Twelve Caesars.”

Here we have another famously disreputable Emperor, Nero. His coin portraits are particularly impressive. Now this is the kind of condition quality I like in my collection. This is a bronze coin; notice the beautiful green patina. This is a coin to die for.

Next is Hadrian, another superb portrait. Look at this artistry. And again, a bronze coin. I do have some gold ones, but I really much prefer bronze and silver. The reason is that for the price of a very routine ho-hum gold coin, you can get a fantastic bronze.

This is the last portrait: Antinous. Who was he? The boy toy of the previous guy, Hadrian. (Do you think there’s too much sex in my talk?) Antinous seems to have killed himself at age 21 because he felt he’d lost the bloom of youth. This coin is from Egypt and is very rare.

Now for the second part we jump to the early 19th century, and a little tin coin from Palembang, a Sultanate on Sumatra. A few years ago I happened to discover that quantities of these coins, apparently recovered from a river, were being sold quite cheap by several guys in Indonesia.

So I e-mailed each of them: how many have you got? Want to make a deal? I wound up with 35,000 coins. This picture shows just a portion. The cool thing is that these coins come in many variations, which had never been properly studied and catalogued.

So I decided to tackle it myself, and published a little book. It was a monumental job to sort through all those coins to make sense of them; I now have a real appreciation for just how big a number 35,000 is. In the end, I identified 18 distinct issues, with 291 significant varieties.

This final picture shows two sample pages from the book. And in case you’re wondering, I have sold thousands of these coins, but still have many thousands left. So if any of you are interested in a great deal on Palembang coins, you can see me outside.

Thank you!

 

Fake News and government propagandists

April 8, 2018

Researching my 1973 book on Albany politics, I pored over early 20th century local newspapers. I was astonished how partisan they were, openly touting candidates, with no division between news and opinion pages. This was typical; many American papers called themselves “The Democrat” or “The Republican.” Some still retain those vestigial names. But the standard journalism model has changed, and for a long time now it’s been universally understood in the news media that opinions go on the editorial page, while news reporting is just that: reporting.

It’s true that most journalists, due to their cultural backgrounds, personally lean liberal. Yet it’s really a lie that their work is skewed by bias (let alone calling it “fake news”). Modern professional journalists are steeped in the ethos of accuracy and neutral objectivity, and generally strive hard to uphold it. Making stuff up is an absolute no-no; correcting errors a must. And if anything, they bend over too far in giving both sides of a story, even when one side is rubbish (for example, lending credence to climate or vaccination science denialism).

I’ve regularly watched PBS’s Washington Week, where reporters discuss the news. It’s striking how their personal opinions are never detectable. Indeed, it’s almost maddening to hear them talk, in bland neutral tones, about Trumpian outrages. And even Jon Stewart, on The Daily Show, making no secret of a liberal stance, was an equal-opportunity satirist, often freely skewering Obama and other Democrats.

But then there’s Fox “News.”

I put it in quotes because Fox is in fact the regime’s fawning cheerleader and propaganda mouthpiece — making a cruel joke of its former slogan, “Fair and Balanced.” Fox is anything but. It’s the real fake news channel, shattering the longstanding paradigm of news media striving for accuracy and objectivity.

And now too Sinclair Broadcast Group. Sinclair owns about 200 local TV stations covering 40% of the country, and aggressively seeks to gobble up more. Like Fox, Sinclair is uncritically all-in for Trump. While it can’t, like Fox, control every word going out over its airwaves, Sinclair can and does put words in broadcasters’ mouths. Recently we saw every Sinclair station (including Albany’s WRGB Channel 6) required to air a script about “fake news.” While the lockstep parroting in these hostage videos was itself ludicrous enough, so was the content: straight out of Trump’s potty mouth, telling viewers not to believe what they hear from supposedly biased mainstream news media, which Sinclair called a threat to democracy. At least Sinclair stopped short of calling them “the enemy of the American people.”

See what’s going on. Trump lauds slimy Fox and Sinclair while demonizing all legitimate news sources. It’s a concerted effort to cripple news media not in the government’s thrall, and replace them with ones that are — with regime propagandists. This is something very new to America, and very chilling. THIS is the threat to democracy.

We saw its apotheosis in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the Communist world; we see it today in Russia, China, Turkey, Venezuela, and too many more places. Malaysia just passed a law with stiff jail terms for “fake news” — defined as anything the government doesn’t approve (presumably including any reference to Prime Minister Rajak’s billion dollar theft from a state development fund).

Am I being alarmist? Yes, I am very alarmed. I do not want America with a government of lies unaccountable to a free press. Like Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, Malaysia, and other such shit-hole countries.

America’s war on refugees

April 5, 2018

Way back in 2015 (a different epoch), when I wrote here comparing America unfavorably with Germany regarding refugees, my daughter (working in the Middle East for a refugee aid organization) chided me that we’ve actually taken in more refugees than any other Western nation.

That was then.

My lawn sign

Our annual refugee quota had averaged 95,000. Now it’s been slashed to 45,000, and actual admissions will likely be far lower. Our infrastructure of charities helping refugees is crumbling because the pipeline is running dry. Partly it’s because Trump has put additional restrictions on intake from 11 countries on a secret list, said to include South Sudan, Syria, and Iraq. In other words, many of the people most desperately in need of refuge.

This panders to Trump’s most rabid nativist fans, and reflects his own personal vileness.

He’s also trying to build a wall, impose a Muslim travel ban, kick out dreamers and millions of other undocumented residents, and even to cut traditional legal immigration almost in half. He’s already ordered out tens of thousands of Haitian, Salvadoran, Liberian, and other refugees, many of whom have lived here legally for decades under a special program.

A lot of them are now heading north to Canada: refugees FROM America!

All these policies are not only cruel, but harm our own country. We should welcome immigrants and refugees not just because it’s the right thing to do, the humane thing, but because they’re good for America, making it stronger and better. (As it does for Canada.)

Trump’s saying other countries “send” us their worst people is a moronic lie. Migrants are not sent, they’re self-selected, and those with the courage and grit to leave behind everything familiar and start fresh in a new country are the best people. Certainly better than those creeps who revile them.

It’s a lie that migrants cost us money. To the contrary, their productive efforts and talents add to our national prosperity. In fact, with an aging population (collecting ever more benefits) and declining workforce participation rates, we desperately need the new blood of immigrants to refresh our employment pool. It’s a major reason why America’s economy is fizzier than in other countries even less receptive to immigration.

And it’s a lie that immigrants and refugees cause crime or threaten terrorism. In fact their crime rate is lower than for the native-born. None of the three million refugees we accepted since 1980 has ever been involved in a fatal terrorist attack.

All these lying arguments against immigrants and refugees are fig leaves to cover up the naked truth. This is racism. The people being kept out and kicked out mainly have brown skins. That, plain and simple, is the animus behind Trump’s actions.

He also lies in blaming Democrats for lack of a DACA solution. He himself was responsible for creating the problem in the first place; he lied when he said he wanted a legislative fix; he did his utmost to torpedo every effort. And he blames Democrats. What a sicko.

From The Economist

The Economist’s Lexington columnist (who covers America) wrote recently about a South Sudanese teenager he’d met in an African refugee camp in 2000. Read his great article. That refugee now lives in Michigan in a four bedroom house with two cars; he’s so far contributed over $100,000 in taxes. Lexington tells this success story not because it’s exceptional but because it’s typical. And the goodness doesn’t shine just in America. Most migrants doing well here send money back to home-country relatives, uplifting those people and places too.*

Finally, immigrants and refugees understand and uphold, far better than most natives, what America is all about, the ideals and values it stands for (or used to). Everything Trump turns his back on. He’s un-American.

America was great because it was good. Now it’s breaking my heart.

* I wrote here a poem in 2016 inspired by a Somali refugee. I sent him a check; he told me he sent the money to his mother in Africa.

Words you can’t say on TV — or can you?

April 3, 2018

The late great comedian George Carlin’s most famous routine was “The seven words you can’t say on TV.” That was in 1972.

My wife and I are longtime devotees of The Daily Show on Comedy Central. Naughty words — “fuck” came up constantly — have always been bleeped. I found this annoying and silly. If you know the word will be bleeped, why say it?

We’ve also been watching Jordan Klepper’s The Opposition (a sort of Daily Show spin-off). The other night, Jordan said “shitty” and it was not bleeped. I turned to my wife and pointed this out. She, ever word-wise, suggested that perhaps “shitty” (even though it includes the four-letter word) wasn’t bleepworthy because it merely means having the characteristics of shit, which is not the same as shit itself.

Immediately afterwards we watched a DVR’d Daily Show. And guess what? Shit! The plain word was spoken — unbleeped.

So apparently we’re down to six words. Still a long way to go before George Carlin’s ghost can find rest. But at least now I feel free to properly revise this blog’s “posted in” category list.

Christ is risen

April 1, 2018