Home » history (Page 2)

Category Archives: history

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.

See this author’s page at Amazon.com to read more of his work

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.

 

See this author’s page at Amazon.com to read more of his work.

A School Playground with no Women

As parents, we all have a duty to find out what happens to our children in school. We have to protect weaker children from school bullies who might otherwise terrorize their juniors.

Imagine the school bully unchecked after a playground fight. “You,” he shakes a menacing fist at a defiant runt. “Don’t dare talk back to me again, or else…” he pulls a knuckle duster from his pocket and shoves it in the little boy’s face. “Or else you’ll have a bloody lip…” The little boy, whose name is Cutter, looks around to the smirking head boy sitting on the playground fence for support, but the head boy says nothing and does not move.

“I’ll see he doesn’t talk back to you.” stammers another little boy, whose name is Kurshid. The bully shrugs, looking out of the corner of his eye at the head boy sitting on the fence. He remembers that some time ago, the head boy came to Kurshid’s aid when another bully smacked him on the head, took away all his marbles, and kicked him out of the playground. On that occasion, to everyone’s surprise, the head boy beat the bully to pulp and had him expelled from the school. Everyone knew the head boy had done this because he liked Kurshid’s marble collection.

“Now be good boys,” says the harried teacher, who knows the boys don’t respect his authority in the least. “Be nice. Don’t all gang up on the smallest because he won’t play with you,” he says, shrugs, and turns away, knowing the fighting will start again as soon as his back is turned. Meanwhile the sadistic head-boy sits on the fence and smirks gleefully. He’s just sold a knuckle duster to the biggest bully on the playground and can’t wait to see it in action.

There are no female teachers present. This scenario is playing on the world stage. Here are the real players in this drama.
Cutter – al-Thani clan, Qatar
Kurshid – Emir of Kuwait, mediator
School bully – Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia
head boy – Donald Trump, United States
another bully – Saddam Hussain
marbles – oil
harried teacher – UN
knuckledusters – US arms sales to Saudi Arabia
Other key actors offstage:
chief hoarder of marbles – China
school clown – Kim Jong Un
neighborhood dope dealer – Putin
anxious parents -Rest-of-the-world

A few weeks ago, the Guardian newspaper published a list of 13 demands made by Saudi Arabia and friends. Qatar is to comply with all of them within ten days, or else… (see https://goo.gl/KDdkeP)

Dismantling Democracy

“Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” King Henry II allegedly muttered in frustration. Although not a direct order, four of his knights rode to Canterbury and killed Thomas Becket. This happened in 1170 AD.

St. Thomas Becket. Image, courtesy bio.com

History repeats itself. Eight hundred and forty-seven years later, an impetuous, ignorant president mutters similar words about a troublesome special counsel. Whereupon, several of his knights, who are now called Republicans, unsheathe their swords, which are now verbal (although these republicans insist upon their inalienable right to own and carry arms), and begin a character assassination of the special counsel and his team.

Meanwhile, around the world, despots and dictators clap their hands with glee, knowing that a powerful global champion of human rights has suddenly lost its teeth. This A-Z of dictators and would-be despots ranges from Syria’s Assad to Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, their alphabet-soup stock strengthened by people like Duterte, Erdogan, Lukashenko, Kim Jong-Un, Putin, Saudi Arabia’s ruling elite, Xi Jinping, and Yogi Adityanath.

Are we to simply sit around, watch helplessly and do nothing? Reflect on this, try to look beyond the superficialities of news headlines, think about what you, as an individual, can do. Here are three points from a recent Forbes article by political commentator Jim Powell that are worth noting.

  • Aspiring dictators sometimes give away their intentions by their evident desire to destroy opponents.
  • There’s no reliable way to prevent bad or incompetent people from gaining power.
  • Ultimately, liberty can be protected only if people care enough to fight for it, because everywhere governments push for more power, and they never give it up willingly.

As two Emery University academics warn in their article “The Psychology of Dictators: Power, Fear, and Anxiety” With regard to dictators, one particular trait that consistently stands out as relevant is narcissism. Narcissistic individuals have a “greatly exaggerated sense of their own importance” and are “preoccupied with their own achievements and abilities.

And… More recent work shows that, after a negative evaluation, narcissistic people will demonstrate greater aggression even to individuals unrelated to the feedback.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/jimpowell/2013/02/05/how-dictators-come-to-power-in-a-democracy/2/#6124eb767a55

https://www.anxiety.org/psychology-of-dictators-power-fear-anxiety

Carbon Countdown Clock

Image:courtesy usgs

Ah, Trump. Has pulled the world’s second largest greenhouse gas emitter out of the Paris Accord. Was promised. Was to be expected. The one campaign promise that this prevaricating president did keep. The Guardian newspaper has usefully provided an online carbon countdown clock to show the world how time is running out. I believe Trump’s action might provoke the rest of the world to come together to save our common future.

https://interactive.guim.co.uk/embed/aus/2017/carbon-embed

Click on the link above to see how much time we have left.

 

Serious Comedians – Giving voice to Lions

An East African proverb. Until the lion learns to speak, every story will glorify the hunter. As with lions in the savannah, so too in human affairs. History is written by the victorious. As far as I know, contemporary Gauls did not write histories of Caesar’s conquests. My early school textbooks were published during colonial times and spoke of the Indian Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. A few years later, my history books reflected the views of a self-governing nation and called it The first war of Indian independence. Similarly, a history text used by children in a Francophone African country began: nos ancêtres, les Gaulois, étaient grands et blonds.

Moving forward to today, a modern nation confronts the semantic shenanigans of a prevaricating president, one who heads the world’s largest military and nuclear strike force. He threatens to destabilize the world, and frequently expresses the desire to overthrow constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is a relatively recent tradition in our human history; a tradition that gives voice to lions. Research insights into the value of biodiversity show that ecological variety is absolutely imperative to the long-term ecological survival of our planet.

A time of instant communication is also a time of instant miscommunication, so many people no longer know where to turn for the truth. Official news agencies tend to broadcast the voice of the hunter, but where do lions tell their side of the story? Leonine voices are emerging from unexpected corners of television and the internet. The new lions are stand-up comedians, and they are emerging in every politically repressed country, from American to Turkey to Zimbabwe. Perhaps North Korea is the only country in the world where the only comedian still standing up is its great leader himself. In several countries that recently show signs of tending towards dictatorship, the leaders are becoming unwitting comedians in the mold of Kim Jong-Un.

Image courtesy the warmonger report.

It’s time for us consumers to realize how serious these jokes are. Time to sit up, stop laughing and act.

From Wellesley to Wellington: Auction Sale for Nostalgia Buffs

I recently attended a Vernissage of watercolor paintings by Chennai based artist Vikram Verghese. Several of his paintings caught my fancy and I bought the one pictured below, mainly as a gesture of solidarity with a talented young artist. I also had another thought at the back of my mind. A friend had remarked at the exhibition: “Why don’t you auction it afterwards to raise money for the rural education center you’re helping to build?” It appeared to be a splendid suggestion and that’s just what I’m doing here.

remains of Wellesley House, Fort St. George, Chennai, India, home of the future Duke of Wellington, 1798-1800.

Ruins of Wellesley House, Fort St. George, Chennai, India, home of the future Duke of Wellington, 1798-1800. Watercolor by Vikram Varghese

The painting below is on sale to the highest bidder. Floor price €1000 (or US$ 1060/Rs. 72,000).  This should be sufficient to buy almost 2 kW worth of solar panels and battery storage at today’s prices. The excerpt below is from an article by local historian S. Muthiah, who explains why the ruined building shown in the painting is historically significant. It appeared in the online edition of “The Hindu” newspaper on the 13th February 2017.

S. Muthiah

FEBRUARY 13, 2017 00:00 IST

UPDATED: FEBRUARY 13, 2017 03:42

My favourite bed-time reading the past couple of years has been the Richard Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell, in which he puts his hero in the middle of battles from Seringapatam in 1799 to Waterloo in 1815, Cornwell has Sharpe the foundling rise from private to officer through 16 campaigns the British fought. They’re a fun read at one level, but to me the books are much more. They are brilliant, well-researched descriptions of battles and wars with often a bit more than a nod to the political history of the times.

Throughout the series there is a Sharpe-Arthur Wellesley relationship which began in Madras. In my latest read, the connection cropped up again. Coincidentally there arrived an invitation for a water-colour exhibition,Disappearing Dwellings by K. Vikram Varghese, and on its back cover was a picture of a dilapidated house, a house almost collapsing. That house was where Wellesley had lived from his arrival in Madras in 1798 as the Colonel of the 33rd Regiment (after having bought his commission) till he marched to Seringapatam in 1799 during the Fourth Mysore War.

This building, Wellesley House , was built in 1796 and is one of the 16 Archaeological Survey of India-protected monuments among the 30 or so buildings in Fort St. George.
The portion of the house seen in a state of collapse met that fate during the 1980 rains.
Since then, though the main portion still stands tall, talk of restoring the buildings gets nowhere due to territorial rivalries.
With talk of the Army moving out of the Fort, very likely sometime this year, perhaps the ASI will get around to restoring this historical building as well as its protected neighbours and then make a bid for World Heritage Site status for Fort St. George.

Why ‘historical’? Arthur Wellesley took his first steps to serious soldiering while living in this house and went on from here to eventually become the Duke of Wellington, a military legend who had while in India sworn by the Madras Regiment.

Anyone interested in bidding can make an offer on the E-Bay listing at this link. This auction ends in a week, on the 5th of March, 2017.