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Never Say No to a Witch: Mai dire no ad una Strega

This is a short story with a punch line in Italian that goes to show that some jokes or puns are untranslatable. But I’m going to try anyway, in an attempt to cross cultural barriers, as we all urgently need to do these days.  So here goes!

Never Say No to a Witch (a short short story)

Two failed crooks decide to rob a bank. They’ve both attempted bank robberies alone in the past, but their efforts have failed. Miserably. One has tried legal and accounting methods to embezzle money, and was forced into hiding when the embezzlement was discovered. The other attempted armed robbery and was forced to flee when the carabinieri turned up within seconds. The police car happened to have been stopped right outside the bank in a traffic jam when the emergency call came through. So these two hapless wannabes decide to join forces and pull off a major bank robbery using brain as well as brawn.

The smart(er) crook uses deceit and inside knowledge to determine the precise hour and date for the robbery. The second one gathers untraceable weapons from the black market to use in case force is needed. They slip into the bank just before closing hours on the appointed date. They force the terrorised customers and bank staff to the floor and storm the vault. At the open door to the vault sits an elegant black-clad lady behind a desk with a bottle of yellow liquor and two empty glasses on it.

“Move over,” snarls one, brandishing his weapon.
The woman calmly fills two glasses with the yellow liquid and proffers them.
“Have a glass of Strega,” she smiles.
“I said move over,” he snarls again. His finger tightens on the trigger.
In the split second before he fires, she flings the liquor in their faces and Poof! There is a blinding flash of light and the two men disappear! The elegant lady smiles and refills a glass.
“Mai dire no ad una Strega,” she whispers as she takes a sip. Never say not to a witch. (Translator’s note: Strega is an Italian liqueur. The word also means witch in Italian).

I dreamt up this story some time ago and the makers of Strega are quite welcome to use it in one of their ads if they wish. But the story is also meant as a parable and a warning to the European Union. If the bank in the above story represents the citizens of the united nations of Europe, one of the two robbers stands for the nationalist factions in the various countries that led to Brexit, the Italian rebellion, the rise of the AfD, and the move away from democratic norms. The second crook, the one who uses his legal background to determine the best time and method of entry represents the bureaucracy of Brussels and of the European parliament. Everyone is entitled to an honest wage, but there are too many EU bureaucrats with tax-free salaries who are completely out of touch with the citizens they represent. When they prescribe austerity measures for countries that fail to meet certain economic criteria, they should practice austerity on themselves as well, so that they share in the pain they inflict on the collective. This principle is just as true within individual countries of course.

EU Parliament, Brussels. Image courtesy EU.

Politicians seem to have forgotten that the word “minister” implies that one is a servant whose duty is to minister to the well-being of the public.It is reasonable for ministers and prime ministers to enjoy rank and honor as a reward for self-sacrifice and public service. But they are not royalty. They are not infallible. They are not entitled to rob the bank. As someone who is ardently pro-EU, I see there is great need for democratic reform within the EU. I also see the Brexiteers, the AfD, the xenophobes, and the far-right of every country are like the second robber, the unintelligent one, looking to force as a way to getting the reform that they want. But they are using failed methods. Nationalism, xenophobia and fascism have been tried before, and have only led to repeated wars and mass destruction on the continent. Europe needs the EU more than ever. The world needs the EU more than ever.

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Leadership Hope for a Warming World

Several years ago, an Italian acquaintance said to me, “The growth of the Roman Empire was driven by testosterone, you know.” He was a polyglot polymath; a materials scientist by profession, and a keen historian who sometimes spouted Greek and Latin quotations to illustrate the points he made. Julius Caesar, as a promising young general in his thirties, felt like an under-achiever and a failure. He is known to have lamented that Alexander had conquered most of the known world by the age of thirty, while he himself was only a Quaestor (a local magistrate) in Rome. Caesar was forty years old when he formed the first Triumvirate with Crassus and Pompey. He then went on to defeat the Gallic tribes of modern day France over the next eight years, killing more than a million Gauls and Germans in the process (according to Plutarch) and enslaving a million more. Presumably, by the mores of his time, these deaths were considered necessary to establish rule of law, discipline unruly Roman citizens with firm leadership and ensure stable government.

UN General Assembly: Image courtesy United Nations secretariat

After the Second World War, with American leadership and the newly instituted United Nations organizations in 1945, it was widely believed that conquest and rule by force of arms was a thing of the past. Post-1945 the world entered an era of global peace and the longest absence of major wars mankind has ever known. If today’s world outlook seems bleak, blame it on the internet and social media, which are able to convey local impacts of minor skirmishes into our homes with larger-than-life images. Brutal killings appear immediately on the screens we carry in our pockets, or on laptops and smart tablets in homes and offices. When the Cold War ended, American philosopher Francis Fukuyama famously declared the end of history. In a nutshell his thesis was: with the spread of globalization and its accompanying prosperity, liberalism would spread around the world. Fukuyama’s book “The End of History and the Last Man” was published in the heady post-Cold War days of 1992. Today Fukuyama confesses: Twenty five years ago I didn’t have a sense or a theory about how democracies can go backward. And I think they clearly can.” (Washington Post article here)

On the other hand, Harvard psychologist and popular science author Steven Pinker argues that humanity is currently experiencing decreasing levels of violence (TED talk, 20 minutes) However he argues that liberal values are under threat from authoritarian populism, religious fundamentalism and radicalism of the left and right. There is no doubt in my mind that liberal democracies will do better than dictatorships and autocracies in tackling the gravest problem facing humanity today, global climate change. And it is mainly in democracies that the #MeToo movement is taking shape. People involved in the movement are asking questions and demanding action from their governments. Have we reached a tipping point? Can this watershed moment go beyond words to drive meaningful action? My answer to these questions is an emphatic yes. The fact that the movement has unexpectedly taken root in Asia is an enormous portent of things to come.

African press reports indicate that in many countries on the continent, women are afraid to talk about sexual harassment, especially in many of its conflict zones. According to this Zimbabwe newsletter, four of the five riskiest cities for sexual assault and rape are in Africa. There also appears to be a direct correlation between sexual harassment and  geopolitics. The greater the gender equality that exists in a country, the less likelihood of autocratic leaders. Strongmen (and wannabe strongmen) look on the exercise of power as a kind of pissing contest, with the Trumps and Erdogans of this world trying to outdo the Putins, Kim Jong-Uns and Dutertes. More women leaders coming to power in countries around the world as a result of the #MeToo movement would be the best news for global climate. Women are less likely to indulge in geopolitical pissing contests. On the one hand women are generally more inclined to collaborate and cooperate and and on the other, their plumbing discourages such childish displays, leaving them with more time to get on with the urgent tasks of governing.

Chocolate, Figs and Ham

Coming across some unsweetened chocolate containing dried figs and ham (prsut), the combination seemed so unusual that we picked a packet up to try at home later. This was in a little shop near the open air market of Ljubljana, the eminently walkable capital of Slovenia. The combination, when we tried it, was delicious and to be highly recommended. Tasting this reminded me of a bitterly cold winter evening some years earlier, wandering through a Christmas market in Vienna, when I was stopped by a bearded man who looked like a Peruvian pan flute player.
“You look cold,” he said.
“Yes, I am cold.”
“Try a mug of Aztec chili chocolate with rum,” he said. “It’ll warm you up in no time.”
So we bought two steaming mugs of his brew and soon felt a pleasantly mild fiery glow spread through our innards. It helped us forget frozen hands and the biting cold for a good half hour. Figs originally came from Asia Minor, modern day eastern Turkey, but they spread early all over the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Chocolate probably originated in Olmec lands around 1000 BC where they called it kakawa. The origin of the word chocolate is presumably from an Aztec word ‘xocoatl,’ a bitter drink they brewed from cocoa beans. Here’s a link to a brief history of chocolate.

A gourmet friend told me several years ago about a trip to Sicily where he ate the most delicious lasagna he’d ever tasted, in a nondescript restaurant in a small village. Curious, he asked the owner, who was also the cook, the secret to his lasagna. “Unsweetened chocolate,” the man explained, pointing to a thin brown layer in the middle.

The Olmecs gave us chocolate and avocados. Kiwi fruit were brought out of China and found a new home in New Zealand where its name changed from Chinese gooseberry to kiwi. Okra originated in Ethiopia and now is used by households from India to Florida. Sugarcane spread from India and New Guinea to the rest of the world. Potatoes and tomatoes also originated from South America, while chick peas came from Turkey and the Middle East as long as 8000 years ago. Ethiopia also gave the world coffee, probably via Mocha in modern day Yemen. Tea, as is well known, came from China.

Where is all this leading to? To people, of course. To the people who consume these foods and beverages all over the world. Thank goodness for the free movement of food and food habits. A world without hummus, okra, tomatoes, potatoes or, God forbid, coffee and tea would be a world of culinary despair. So the way the world is going right now, most nations are saying, ok, we’ll take your food but not your people. Imagine the long-term global poverty and despair that then ensues, not only immediately, but in the long run. Imagine a world of monocultures with no biodiversity! So next time you go to vote, remember to vote for culinary diversity, and the people that come with it. This idea is underlined in the following illustration and article from UK think tank Global Future about future diversity in business leadership. 

Global Future Diversity Index

 

A Gift to Gaia

The world is full of stuff and many parts of the world are drowning in it. Except for those parts of the world where people don’t have any stuff at all. Nothing to speak of.

Within our family, we stopped giving stuff as gifts quite some time ago. Nowadays, we mark occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries and significant celebrations with the gift of time.

The planet has plenty of time to spare, even though humanity does not. In a few hundred years, or a thousand years, even if mankind has pursued its current illusion of prosperity to oblivion, the planet will sedately roll on, and prosper without us. Just as it prospered long after the last dinosaur ceased to exist.

When Isaac Watts wrote his hymn, based on the 90th Psalm, he was not thinking of humanity’s self-induced annihilation as he composed the following lines.

Time like an ever rolling stream, bears all its sons away
They fly forgotten as a dream, dies at the opening day.

For those ‘successful’ busy people who have no time at all to spare, here’s a suggestion for a gift of stuff that’s actually a gift to the planet and buys us time. This gift has the added benefit of helping people who don’t have much stuff at all. Here’s a link to an Impact Calculator from Solar Aid. With enough gifts like these, perhaps one day we can sit down with Gaia and have the last laugh together.

Image: courtesy greenlightplanet.com

Soccer as Development: Rooting for Senegal

Aristotle famously said, one swallow does not a summer make. In the same vein, one could also say, eleven soccer players do not a nation make. Nevertheless, the collective pride of a nation gathers behind its soccer team once every four years while millions of people take heart or lose hope when their national team scores goals or is defeated. One way of looking at soccer is as a proxy war. Much better to slug it out on the soccer field than on the battlefield. But to my mind there’s a connection between soccer and development as well.

African Crowned Eagle, Senegal. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Economic development has a lot to do with collective confidence. Way back in 1990, Cameroon’s Roger Milla became an international star on the World Cup stage in Italy that year. He was one of the oldest players on the field, and his habit of doing a victory dance in corner field after scoring a goal made him a celebrity worldwide, not only among soccer fans. It was during these World Cup weeks that I drove to Schärding, a small town in Upper Austria, close to the German border, to spend a weekend exploring a newly opened bicycle path between Schärding and Passau in Germany. In the evening, after a long ride, when I entered the Gasthaus where I had taken a room for the night, the owner behind the bar did a double take and shouted, “Schau, schau. Der Roger Milla ist da.” Look, look, there’s Roger Milla. Everyone turned around to look, some cheered, and I could think of nothing better to do than imitate Roger Milla’s victory dance. The evening went off very well after that. Some of the regulars in the room seemed to think I really was Roger Milla and asked me how come I spoke such good German. (I was born in India, by the way and none of my friends think I even remotely resemble Roger Milla).

When I describe this incident, people ask me: how did you feel? Wasn’t that terribly racist?
Wait a minute, I tell them. Don’t be so quick with the R word. In a part of the world where there are few visible minorities, most people tend to be ethnically challenged. They see only themselves and other people like them, and everyone else is simply ‘the other.‘ This ethnic ignorance is the source of strength of divisive political leaders; the Orbans, the Kaczynskis, and the Petrys of Central Europe. To give an example of how I see it; I recently went on a field trip with a bunch of bird watchers. Where I only saw sparrows and the occasional bul-bul, they saw flycatchers, minivets, drongos, three kinds of woodpecker, kingfishers and many, many more. So too, with the ethnically challenged. Until they learn to see human life in all its rich variety, they will see only two kinds of people: us and them!

So that’s why I wish the Senegal team does well on the soccer field and even hope they win the World Cup, for maybe then, even the most ethnically (or ornithologically) challenged among us will finally realize: there are not only sparrows in Senegal, there are crowned eagles too.

Finding the Right Words

I read a review of a new book called “Translating Happiness” that describes the emotional privileges enjoyed by people who speak more than one language. The idea of multi-lingual people leading richer lives has been expressed in many different ways by thinkers through the ages. A Chinese proverb (there’s a good Chinese proverb for every occasion!) says that Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere. A Spanish proverb puts it more strongly and says One who knows two languages is worth two. Roger Bacon calls knowing more than one language the gateway to wisdom.

Greenland Image: courtesy npr.org

In Smilla’s Sense of Snow, author Peter Hoeg has the main character explain in the book that the Inuit and most other Greenlanders have a much more nuanced and deeply intuitive feeling for the varied facets of snow and ice than the rest of the world. To prove this, Smilla says there are 28 different words in Greenlandic languages to describe snow in all its moods and varieties. Although the book is a very readable thriller, a scholarly article I found actually lists 128 words for snow in Greenlandic languages. This is surpassed by a BBC news report of a University of Glasgow study that claims the Scots have 421 different words for snow. Picturesque examples include feefle, “to swirl” and snaw-pouther, “fine, driving snow.” Here I see rich pickings for an academic study of differences between Greenlandic and Scottish use of wintry language.

People who live in island nations and speak only one language are often the quickest to admit how culturally impoverished they are. By that measure, the United States is a linguistic island, with the vast majority of its populace militantly indignant when they encounter people who don’t speak English. An otherwise intelligent and sensitive American acquaintance of mine who travelled abroad for the first time recently made so many derogatory remarks about European customs she encountered. What made her so indignant was that certain customs were different from what she was used to at home. Such people, however decent and well-meaning, are like snails carrying their houses on their backs. They need to ditch their shells and learn to travel light.

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Breaking News – the news is broken

Most media outlets seem to operate under the principle that bad news is good news or alternatively, good news is not news. They may be right, in terms of profitability. But they are definitely wrong, in terms of the collective well-being of humanity. This blog is not dependent on readership or advertising revenues, so it can afford to print good news without fear of losing its readership. So here for a start is good news from the energy front.

Floating solar photovoltaic facility outside Nagoya producing power for Apple supplier. Image: courtesy Clean Technica

All of the electricity used by two of the world’s largest corporations, Apple and Google, were from renewable sources by the end of 2017. This is a remarkable achievement, considering that each of these companies uses more electricity than many small nations, not least to power immense data centers scattered around the world. So now, if you have worries about the amount of personal data Facebook & Co. are collecting about you because of their opaque terms of usage, rest assured that they’re not polluting the planet in the bargain.

But seriously, there’s lots of impressive news in the energy area alone. Here’s a chart, courtesy of National Resources Development Center, showing how prices have come down for major clean energy technologies.

Chart from NRDC: click to enlarge

Since clean energy is one of the basic requirements for human development, there’s not much stopping world-wide implementation, is there? Capital for investment? It’s increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few–rich corporations and rich individuals. So are we ordinary mortals totally helpless? No, not at all. But we have to make smart choices as customers. We can enrich our lives, and the planet in the process, by getting off the mindless consumption lifestyle that the glossies would have us aspire to.

In one hour, the earth receives more solar energy than the world uses in one year. Now that’s good news and worth repeating, even if its not new. So why are companies producing more dirty diesel cars and building more fossil fuel power plants? Because switching technologies means moving out of comfortable niches of expertise that would otherwise become useless; it would mean new investments, experimenting with new technologies, and why should they take all these risks when customers are flocking to buy new models anyway? As engine size and horse power of new automotive offerings increase, so do their profits, and they see even less reason to invest in new technologies. It’s only we, the customers, who can break this vicious cycle.

English speaking news readers tend to digest information from an overwhelmingly anglocentric or eurocentric point of view. Hence I was not surprised recently to hear a friend accuse the Chinese of polluting the planet when actually, despite (or perhaps because of) a totalitarian regime, they are doing more to clean up the earth than any other nation. For example, the southern Chinese city of Shenzen alone runs a fleet of 16,000 (yes, thousand) electric buses; more than the rest of world combined. So while air quality in Beijing might be abysmal, this past winter, particulate pollution was 50% less than in the previous year. This from no less a source than the US Embassy in Beijing! One reason for the lower levels of pollution might be that China installed more than 53 GW of solar power in 2017.

The above facts don’t make me an apologist for an autocratic government where power is increasingly concentrated at the top. This is undoubtedly a very worrying tendency, one that is being seen in several other large countries like India, Russia, Turkey, China and the United States. In the US case, its robustly democratic political system has been hijacked by corporate lobbies. Nevertheless there is good news coming from each of these countries, and I will try to highlight these bright spots in future posts.

 

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