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Travels in the Land of Kings

For some people the best journeys are those that take place in the mind. If you have good company and travel in the right frame of mind, an inward transformation occurs with each step and each changing view of the landscape. This was a summer of encounters in Rajasthan that changed the inner landscape of my mind but words are a poor way to show the changes, so I will post a few pictures here instead. This is offered by way of apology that this blog has been inactive for the past six weeks.20140712_161027

Rajasthan is India’s largest state. At 340,000 sq. km, around the size of Germany, it comprises 10% of India’s territory. The name, literally “the land of kings.” is very apt. There are ruins aplenty and reminders of past glory at every turn. But take a moment to look behind the ruins and there are stories behind every crenellated wall and jharoka.

A jharoka is an overhanging or enclosed balcony as seen in this house facade

A jharoka is an overhanging or enclosed balcony as seen in this house facade

This is also a land of stories, a place where myths are born. The stories are a glorious mix of fact and fantasy, like the great Indian epics themselves, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. More about this land and the stories in the blogs to follow.

9th Century cool decorates a step-well in Rajasthan

9th Century cool adorns a step-well in Rajasthan


Humayun’s Tomb and the Star of David

Visiting Mughal Emperor Humayun’s tomb in Delhi, I was surprised to see the six-pointed star of David adorn the entrance to the West gateway. The tomb was built by Humayun’s son, Akbar the Great, in memory of his father six years after the latter’s death. Akbar was known to be a wise ruler who was religiously tolerant and looked on all faiths as equally valid interpretations of the same divinity. I assumed that the stars above the tomb were an early expression of mutual Jewish-Muslim tolerance and understanding. The stone tablet outside the gate dispels this notion (see the second photograph below). 


Wikipedia says that the star became a symbol of Jewish communities only during the 19th century and the symbol was inherited from medieval Arabic literature by Kabbalists for use in talismanic protective amulets.

The conflict between Arabs and Israelis has lasted more than 2000 years (see my earlier post entitled History in 1000 words: The Israeli -Palestinian conflict at https://aviott.org/2012/12/06/history-in-1000-words-the-israeli-palestinian-conflict-2/

Far too long! The world needs more Akbars and Yitzhak Rabins with the courage to make peace and perhaps even die for it.

Fossil Fuels to Renewables: Cost of Transition

How much would it cost to transition our ‪#‎energy‬ system from ‪#‎fossil‬fuels to ‪#‎renewables‬? A new study from IIASA Energy researchers shows that while large increases in investment are needed, the overall cost is not much more than what we currently invest in fossil fuels. (IIASA: International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, a think-tank based in Laxenburg, Austria)


How much would it cost to transition our #energy system from #fossil fuels to #renewables? A new study from IIASA Energy researchers shows that while large increases in investment are needed, the overall cost is not much more than what we currently invest in fossil fuels.  http://bit.ly/1rXbt05

Kürtőskalács on Lamma

Lamma Island’s many restaurants, food stalls and stores offer a variety of cuisines, from Chinese to Fish & Chips to Continental. The stores that cater to this small population of 6,000 (twice that on weekends) stock mostly everything from Austrian jams (Darbo naturrein!), to Marmite. One of the few things that have been missing till now were Hungarian Chimney Cakes (Kürtőskalács in Hungarian).


Fortunately, this sad state of affairs has been remedied by Roland who bakes them fresh every morning at the Prime Bar, next to where Tony dispenses his excellent offerings of soul-saving South American coffee as people rush to catch the morning ferries to work. The crisp rolls are mildly sweet and come with a choice of toppings including cinammon and chopped walnut. Both coffee and rolls are highly recommended.

Yung Shue Wan Main street, from 7 to 11 am.

The World is a Book: St. Augustine

Saint Augustine of Hippo (present-day Algeria) lived from 354 to 430 CE and is the source of one of the most well-known quotes about travel. “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” The grand-daddy of all famous travel quotes is Lao Tzu’s eminently quotable “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Of course, at the times these quotes were made, travel was expensive and perilous. Today hordes of innocents travel far afield armed with little more than a credit card and, perhaps most hazardous, an overdraft on their bank accounts at home. Paradoxically, the hazards of travel are global and impersonal. A single intercontinental jet flight can cause as much CO2 emissions (1 ton) as a year of driving (around 12,000 km) an average car.

However, in today’s interconnected world, it simply won’t do to live life on a single page. Recently, when contemplating an intercontinental journey from Europe to Asia, I explored the possibility of taking ‘a slow boat to China,’ and discovered that travel on an assortment of cargo ships was possible, only the journey would take three months and cost around US $10,000 instead of 15 hours and $1000 by plane. So what is a globally responsible citizen to do? The incipient wanderlust of early childhood was stimulated decades ago by my grandfather’s collection of bound volumes of National Geographic Magazine filled with travel descriptions and black and white photos from the 1920s and 1930s; from that glorious age when there were still many unknown parts of the world and when the bulk of humanity still lived a single-page existence. Today, billions of people live confused and deracinated lives because the bulk of their multi-page wisdom and experience comes from, or is filtered by, television.

Around the turn of the millenium (that was only 15 years ago), National Geographic offered a 110-year archive of  issues on CD that was bought by aspiring world (armchair) travellers. The software was clunky and time-consuming to use, and the operating systems quickly became outdated (anyone with a Windows NT operating system is welcome to my 1999 NatGeo CD collection).  The email offer from National Geographic received today for online access to 125 years of the magazine holds the promise of longer accessibility than the CD-ROM version. As the quote on the desk of a professional archivist I know says: Electronic archives are good for eternity or five years, whichever comes first.

Here is the link. The archive is free for a limited time.



Daniel Ellsberg Defending Edward Snowden

US Secretary of State John Kerry called Edward Snowden a coward and a traitor and praised Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times in 1971, for having stayed in the country after the leaks about the Vietnam War.

Daniel Ellsberg, writing in the Guardian, says that Edward Snowden is not a coward, but has no chance of a fair hearing and trial because of the Espionage Act.

On the Today show and CBS, Kerry complimented me (Daniel Ellsberg) again – and said Snowden “should man up and come back to the United States” to face charges. But John Kerry is wrong, because that’s not the measure of patriotism when it comes to whistleblowing, for me or Snowden, who is facing the same criminal charges I did for exposing the Pentagon Papers.

…Snowden’s chance of being allowed out on bail (is) zero. (Ellsberg: I was out on bond, speaking against the Vietnam war, the whole 23 months I was under indictment). More importantly, the current state of whistleblowing prosecutions under the Espionage Act makes a truly fair trial wholly unavailable to an American who has exposed classified wrongdoing. Legal scholars have strongly argued that the US supreme court – which has never yet addressed the constitutionality of applying the Espionage Act to leaks to the American public – should find the use of it overbroad and unconstitutional in the absence of a public interest defense. The Espionage Act, as applied to whistleblowers, violates the First Amendment, is what they’re saying.

Without reform to the Espionage Act that lets a court hear a public interest defense – or a challenge to the appropriateness of government secrecy in each particular case – Snowden and future Snowdens can and will only be able to “make their case” from outside the United States.

See the link below for the full article from the Guardian of 30 May 2014.


The Wisdom of 7 year-olds

Why is six afraid of seven?

Because seven ate nine.

Macau Highrise overlooks Venetian cityscape.

Macau Highrise overlooks Venetian cityscape.

Heirs to Camillo Agrippa, fencing master, Italy, 1590-1650. Author of "Trattato di Scienza d'Arme."

Heirs to Camillo Agrippa, fencing master, Italy, 1590-1650. Author of “Trattato di Scienza d’Arme.”

2 Recent Books: Burning Question, and Burning Answer

The burning question was asked in May 2013 by Mike Berners-Lee, Duncan Clark and Mill McKibben. The Burning Answer was published a year later, in May 2014 by Keith Barnham, a physicist with practical experience in industry. The topics raised in these two books, the questions posed, and the answers to them will change the world in the coming decades.

The Burning Question: We can’t burn half the world’s oil, coal and gas. So how do we quit?
by Mike Berners-Lee, Duncan Clark and Bill McKibben
May 2013

The Burning Question reveals climate change to be the most fascinating scientific, political and social puzzle in history. It shows that carbon emissions are still accelerating upwards, following an exponential curve that goes back centuries. One reason is that saving energy is like squeezing a balloon: reductions in one place lead to increases elsewhere. Another reason is that clean energy sources don’t in themselves slow the rate of fossil fuel extraction.Tackling global warming will mean persuading the world to abandon oil, coal and gas reserves worth many trillions of dollars — at least until we have the means to put carbon back in the ground. The burning question is whether that can be done. What mix of politics, psychology, economics and technology might be required? Are the energy companies massively overvalued, and how will carbon-cuts affect the global economy? Will we wake up to the threat in time? And who can do what to make it all happen?

The Burning Answer: A user’s guide to the solar revolution
by Keith Barnham
May 2014

Our civilisation faces a choice. We could be enjoying a sustainable lifestyle but we have chosen not to. In three generations we have consumed half the oil produced by photosynthesis over eight million generations. In two generations we have used half our uranium resources. With threats from global warming, oil depletion and nuclear disaster, we are running out of options. Solar power, as Keith Barnham explains, is the solution. In THE BURNING ANSWER he uncovers the connections between physics and politics that have resulted in our dependence on a high-carbon lifestyle, which only a solar revolution can now overcome. Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2 led to the atomic bomb and the widespread use of nuclear energy; it has delayed a solar revolution in many countries. In a fascinating tour of recent scientific history, Keith Barnham reveals Einstein’s other, less famous equation, the equation the world could have relied on.

Einstein’s other equation has given us the laptop and mobile phone, and it also provides the basis for solar technology. Some countries have harnessed this for their energy needs, and it is not too late for us to do the same.

In this provocative, inspiring, passionately argued book, Keith Barnham outlines actions that any one and all of us can take to make an impact now and on future generations. THE BURNING ANSWER is a solar manifesto for the new climate-aware generation, and a must-read for climate-change sceptics.

Peter Forbes, writing in the Guardian, has published thoughtful reviews of both these important books.




Prosperity without Growth?


Thanks to Gary Friedman for leading me to the above web page with photographs of thousands of the world’s unsold cars. Every time I walk through a car-saturated city somewhere in the world (increasingly, these cities are in Asia), I wonder when this mad and mindless proliferation will stop. Having personally experienced  the dramatic improvement in quality-of-life since selling the family car a few years ago, it is definitely time for a planetary re-think. Of course a change like this is much easier when one lives in a city with good infrastructure, affordable public transportation, pedestrian-friendly built up areas, and safe bicycle paths that are separated from both pedestrians and cars.

Overproduction of cars is only the most visible and resource-consuming chunk of the overproduction of stuff in general. Which brings me to Tim Jackson’s influential book, Prosperity without Growth. In an age of quick soundbites, his message requires at least a few hours of thought to consider and digest. However, as a guest speaker in wide demand on platforms across the world, he has condensed the content of his book into 30 minutes divided in three roughly 10-minute chunks. The first part deals with the dilemma of growth; the second with exploring the economic and social systems that compound this dilemma. The third deals with avenues for change that lead to a different kind of prosperity. In the video below, hear Tim Jackson speak at a lecture in Australia in 2010.


For those in too much of a hurry to listen to the full 35 minutes of Tim Jackson’s talk, here are some of the most important questions, thoughts and ideas that came from the talk.

How can our economy continually expand on a finite planet? The answer is deeply philosophical and deals with who we are as humanity.

More than climate change, it is biodiversity loss that is furthest beyond planetary boundaries of sustainability.

To bring the poorest nations out of poverty under current patterns of growth, you need an economy that is 200 times bigger than at present, therefore growth is unsustainable.

Income growth matters in the poorest nations. As incomes increase, that distinction weakens. Beyond a certain threshold, income growth in rich countries does not lead to better quality of life.

Constant increases in labor productivity drives people out of work unless the economy keeps expanding. Constant growth is unsustainable. The answer is to de-couple the world economy and growth, but de-growth is unstable. In a world of 9 billion people, all aspiring to western levels of income, carbon intensity needs to be reduced from 770 grams per dollar to less than 6.

The consumption of novelty is the driving force behind the increased consumption of stuff.  Why do we consume much more than we need? In the words of anthropologist Mary Douglas we, as human beings, are helping to create the social world and find a credible place in it.

Consumer debt was encouraged. It led us to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to create impressions that don’t last on people we don’t care about; or worse still, who don’t care about us. So what was all that about?

Coming to face with planetary limits says to us that our prosperity hangs with the prosperity of those around us, as theirs does on us. Investment is a fundamental economic relationship between the present and the future.

An unrelated video entitled “Africa is Poor and 5 other Myths,” provides some pointers to avenues for change that lead to a different kind of prosperity.


Adam and Eve: the better version

Thanks to Erich Striessnig for drawing my attention to this story with a Facebook posting. According to the Old Testament version of the story, God created the earth, the waters, animals, birds and everything else in it, in the first 5 days of creation. And on the 6th day, he created man and woman, Adam and Eve. They were left to live in innocent delight in the garden of Eden. They could eat and drink all they wanted. The birds and the beasts of the earth, as well as the fruit of every tree were at their disposal. Except of course, the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The well known story goes on to narrate that the evil serpent first approaches the “gullible” or “more easily corruptible” woman (words in quotes are my own interpretations of what the Old Testament text implies) and tempts her to eat the apple. Adam joins in the feast out of a sense of solidarity. The scales of innocence drop from their eyes. Adam and Eve realise they are naked and cover their bodies with aprons sewn of fig leaves. God finds out. God, of course, is angry. In the book of Genesis in the Old Testament, Adam comes across as a snitch and weak character. He immediately blames the woman, “the woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.” Whereupon, God turns to the woman and asks, “what is this that THOU hast done?” Thereby laying the blame for mankind’s ills squarely in the lap of womanhood for all time.

Historians of the Bible were always convinced that the story of Adam and Eve was based on other, older legends about creation. However, until recently, there was apparently no written or historical evidence to prove it. The so-called Ugaritic clay tablets were found in Syria in 1929 and partially translated in the 1970s. Ugaritic is a northwestern Semitic language and the clay tablets were discovered by French archaeologists in Ugarit (modern day Ras Samara, Syria) in 1929. American scholar Cyrus Gordon Herzl calls Ugaritic “the greatest literary discovery from antiquity since the deciphering of the Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mesopotamian cuneiform”. In their recently published book: Adam, Eve and the Devil, two scholars from the Protestant Theological University of Amsterdam have re-interpreted the texts in their Biblical context. These cuneiform writings are around 800 years older than the Biblical texts (i.e. from 400 BC).

In the Ugaritic version, Adam is portrayed as a (good) God who has to fight against an evil one. This evil God disguises himself as a serpent and poisons the tree of life, thereby depriving the first couple of immortality when they eat its fruit. The Sun Goddess consoles Adam and the good woman by his side (Eve). They will nevertheless achieve a kind of eternal life through natural reproduction.  This older version of the story seems much more logical and sensible to me and, importantly, does not make one half of humanity less worthy than their male counterparts. This small shift in perception will, I’m convinced, go a long way to curing many of the ills in the world today, two millenia after these stories were written.

Adam, Eve and the Devil: a new beginning (Hebrew Bible Monographs)
Marjo C.a. Korpel, Johannes C. de Moor
Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014, 346 pages