It happened one evening in the new year, driving back to the city on the autobahn from a visit to the town of Petronell-Carnuntum (once home to Marcus Aurelius’ Roman legions as they fought against the barbarians, so colorfully depicted in Ridley Scott’s movie, Gladiator). I was travelling at about 100 kmh, overtaking a column of trucks travelling at their legal speed limit of 80. There was a gusty wind blowing. The road was clear although it had snowed a day or two earlier. The temperature was close to freezing. Suddenly in the gathering twilight I saw something large and white swirling towards the windscreen of the car. Travelling in the middle of three lanes, with trucks on the right and faster cars on the left, there was neither time nor space to avoid it. A bone-jarring thump, and the windshield of the car dissolved into a criss-cross of lines as the safety glass shattered but did not break apart. Recovering from the shock, I realized it was a block of ice, the size of two or three bricks, that had dislodged from the roof of one of the trucks ahead of us. A harder gust of wind or a few km/h faster and I, with my precious cargo of three other people in the car, might all be dead.
Thinking about the incident later brought to mind the phrase “the hand of God.” Being of a non-religious bent, I am inclined to ask: was it the hand of God that threw the chunk of ice, or was it the hand of God that blocked it? Or was it both? A display of divine power? An attempt to impress that seems unworthy of an all-powerful being!
The beliefs of various religions claiming to know the origin of the universe and to give its creator a name; be it Jehovah, Jahveh, Allah, Brahman, etc. seems to me to be just that; beliefs. And the claims made by brilliant scientists like Stephen Hawking who said that the universe was decided by the laws of science simply fails my common-sense test.
“So then science is your God?” I ask Hawking in my dream.
“Well yes,” he replies. “If you like you can call the laws of science “God,” but it wouldn’t be a personal God you could meet and put questions to.” (see USA Today, Oct. 17, 2018)
So to my mind, the beliefs of both science and theology are limited, rather like the motto of the New York Times; “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Although admittedly a superior newspaper, the claim is, in global terms, ludicrous. As ludicrous as the claim of any religion or science to know all the truth. As someone who has been close to death on two occasions, I can assure you there’s nothing to fear on the other side. On the contrary, the overwhelming feeling is a warm sense of peace accompanied by deep, wordless joy. One comes out of the experience loving life more than ever, but in a detached kind of way that is infinitely liberating. As to what really lies on the other side, I’m sure no one really knows for sure, so if it comforts you, go ahead and cling to your beliefs. But for God’s sake, don’t go starting wars or fighting over it.
I’ve sporadically followed Paul Salopek’s six-year walk across the world in National Geographic. As someone who loves to walk in all kinds of terrain myself, I find his a fascinating journey, a wonderful way to see the world up close in all its varied colors, moods and seasons. This to me is real travel; travel measured in footsteps rather than miles in a car or hours of flight. The very word flight conjures images of an attempt to escape rather than a journey to explore and expand one’s horizons. For much of the journey, Paul’s companions have been pack animals and his long treks have brought him to a real and humble understanding of the rich variety of sentient life. For this reason, he speaks with simple sadness of the death of Raju, the donkey who accompanied him on his walk across much of northern India. See the National Geo article here.
I’ve aimed to walk 10,000 steps a day (around 5 miles/8 km) for the past few years and more or less achieved it, except when the weather’s been impossible. I was also surprisingly moved by the death of a feline friend last year. Maybe that’s why the article resonated with me. Maybe that’s why the following passage he quotes from Matthew Scully’s book Dominion lingers in the mind long after reading.
“How we treat our fellow creatures is only one more way in which each one of us, every day, writes our own epitaph—bearing into the world a message of light and life or just more darkness and death, adding to the world’s joy or to its despair… Perhaps that is part of the animals’ role among us, to awaken humility, to turn our minds back to the mystery of things, and open our hearts to that most impractical of hopes in which all creation speaks as one.” From Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy by Matthew Scully.
“…to awaken humility…” and to perhaps remind ourselves that a warming planet requires us to do this for our own salvation.
There’s a new car sharing company in town called Caroo mobility (caroo.at). Their selling point: e-cars only, offering a choice of makes and models that are fun to drive and easy to manoeuvre in town. They offered initial longer term rentals to volunteer alpha testers, so I took a BMW i3 for 2 days. The test package included 200 free kilometers per day, so I was looking forward to several test drives around the city and surrounding countryside. Recharging at the local energy utility’s (Wien Energie) 22kW installations was a breeze and took around two hours for a full charge (180 km in winter). The company supplied two different charging cards for the car. A smart phone app, quickly downloaded from a wide range of choices on the app store, showed several hundred charging points in and around the city. I should have remembered Murphy’s Law at this point!
We travelled outside the city on the second day, planning to visit two different towns south and east of Vienna, travelling around 220 km in all. Fully charged, the dashboard showed 180 km range left so we thought, armed with two charging cards, no problem. We’ll charge somewhere along the way. The two phone apps of charging stations, hastily downloaded in the morning, chosen at random from more than a dozen, showed scores of charging stations around the two towns and along the highway. We set off, the car fully charged and showing 180 km of range left on a cold, clear winter morning. By the time we reached the first town, 50 km distant, the screen showed we had 115 km of range left, not bad at all, considering the heating was set to 20C and we drove at modest highway speeds. After our visit in the first town, we had plenty of juice left for the next town, 70 km away. Our apps showed several charging stations at the next town, but we decided to play it safe and top up the charge before heading off. Our real EV learning experience began here.
At the first charging station, run by a different utility, our cards were compatible, but the car did not charge. I called the hot line of the utility and was assured, if the pillar light was green, the charge should work. Green lights all around, no charge! The helpful hotline lady said, sometimes these things are finicky. Try disconnecting and reconnect again. Tried this several times, no luck. So we drove around the outskirts of the first town for an hour, looking for other charging stations. Found another one. The chargers were not Type 2, the ones we needed. By this time our range had come down to 90 km, still enough to make it to the next town. Unsure of what would happen there, we decided to head back to Vienna on the highway, where there are a few charging stations. All of the charge stations were badly marked, so we missed the exits to two. Finally pulled into a giant service station where we found a bank of 6 high speed chargers, labelled 150 kW, 175 kW. The plugs were incompatible with our car. I assumed they were CCS, to allow high power DC fast charging, and was afraid they would fry our batteries even if I could connect. There was one 44kW pillar, where the BMW’s plugs were compatible, but our two charging cards were not valid here. So we ended up driving an extra hour back to Vienna to fully charge the car at one of the city’s charging stations.
So my short summary here. The BMW i3 is beautiful to drive with many well thought out details, some design quirks that don’t really work for me on first use (like the back doors opening backwards), beyond my budget, with the bare bones version starting at around €40,000. So when I buy an electric car later this year, it’s going to be a used Renault Zoe at 25% of the price of an i3, with a monthly rental fee for the battery. A word about the rental fee that begins at around €60 per month; it might sound like an additional financial burden, but remember that battery rental will keep your insurance costs low, since the most expensive component of the car does not have to be insured. Worth keeping in mind when you decide on a purchase plan. And the last word. Before I (or you) buy an EV, download a good app of local charge points and make sure you study the specs, not only of the car, but of charging port requirements with their corresponding charge cards or apps.
I had the flu last week. It probably wasn’t a flu, actually. Just a cold and a fever that kept me in bed for three days. What a bore, you say. No. It wasn’t at all. Because the illness opened up a window of time where I could indulge myself and read what I wanted to. I was on a train journey when the fever and chills began, so I wrapped myself up in my warmest clothes and began to read Madeline Miller’s wonderful book.
Circe, by Madeline Miller. When I started the book, I knew of Circe only as an appendage to Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, an also-ran who played a small supporting role in the life of a classic hero. She was the one who bewitched his men and turned them into swine. In passing, Circe is spoken of as a daughter of Helios the sun god and an ocean nymph. In this book, the heroes (Jason and Odysseus among them) are shown to be flawed human beings with all too human frailties that undermine the lives of those closest to them. The parallels to the 21st century fall of several iconic heroic figures are very close and inescapable. The author brings Circe to magnificent life; a courageous woman who battles her fate and in the end, defies her father to escape the eternity of exile on the island of Aiaia to which Helios has condemned her. Rather than simple mythology, this is a beautiful coming-of-age story (over a period of several centuries, admittedly); a story for our time about a long suppressed and battered woman who finds her voice. The miles flew by and the train journey soon ended. By the time I finished the book I was home, the discomfort of the train journey behind me, and crawled tiredly into bed. After several cups of tea I fell asleep, and when I awoke it was bedtime. I was wide awake, with a runny nose, a bit of a cough, and no chance of going back to sleep. So I started another book.
Die Trapp Familie: die wahre Geschichte hinter dem Welterfolg by Gerhard Jelinek, Birgit Mosser. Many Austrians find it annoying when tourists gush about The Sound of Music and think that it represents a true picture of the country. They see the movie and the musical as a candy floss image of the truth. So this painstakingly researched history by two reporters sets the record straight. For me the real hero in the story is Captain von Trapp, a highly decorated U boat captain. More impressive than his wartime exploits are his apparent human qualities. According to his own writings, he genuinely agonized about enemy loss of life when attacking enemy shipping (but followed duty and did it anyway). He was a devoted father, had a harmonious marriage to his first wife, the mother of his first five children. It didn’t hurt that she was a wealthy English heiress who came from a prominent industrial family based in Trieste. An Irish cousin of his first wife who spoke no German lived in their household for several years. So his children grew up speaking English as well as German. This stood them in good stead in their burgeoning international career. Apparently it is true that the good captain used a ship’s bosun pipe with individual calls to summon his children, but only because they lived in a rambling house with extensive grounds. He was by no means a martinet and when Julie Andrews, pardon, Maria Kutschera, arrives as a childrens’ governess, the family was already very musically capable. They sang in a choir with Captain von Trapp playing first violin and two of the older children on instruments. Anyway, just as in the movie he does really marry the governess, and it is her driving ambition that makes them internationally famous. From this point on, the Julie Andrews myth seems to be closer to the truth. Good reading for the first night and second day of the fever.
Becoming by Michelle Obama. I was feeling much better as I started reading, but soon realized I wasn’t going to get completely well until I’d finished this book uninterrupted. It was a long and easy read. The narrative flowed unpretentious, self-aware and honest. After finishing the book, two impressions were very clear. This woman would be a great politician if she wanted to be one. Second was the certainty that she would never, ever go into politics. And so I delved into the life and times of this fascinating couple. Interestingly, only the last 30% of the book is dedicated to the White House years, presumably because so much of it is in the public record. It is very clear that the focus of her life, apart from the causes she has been associated with, is her family. The immediate family and the extended family. In any case, it was a refreshing and compelling read and I emerged from the book completely well enough to go back to the normal routine of time spent outdoors and other work.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A quotation from the Psalms recently came to mind. The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off and we fly away. (Psalm 90, v. 10).
Having reached that Biblical milestone earlier this year, I recall a favourite uncle of mine quoting the above lines at me some decades ago when he reached the age of 70. At that time, his attitude was: I’ve done my bit for the world, and given you a good start. Now it’s up to your generation to carry on the good work. Study hard, find jobs, work hard, and you’ll end up like me, looking back on a life well-lived and enjoying the fruits of prosperity.
Based on the foundations laid by an earlier generation, many in this generation (myself included) worked hard and enjoyed a prosperous life, largely managing to evade the conflicts and other terrible things that happened around the world at different places and different times. We lived in a time of a rising tide lifts all boats otherwise known as trickle-down economics, but somehow gravity didn’t do what it was supposed to do, for the simple reason that human greed defies gravity. So instead of trickling down, money trickled up, slowly at first, until the present day when it’s become a roaring flood. Economic pundits (and most famously the pop group Abba) call it “The Winner Takes it All” syndrome. Economist Brian Arthur who has published a body of work on technology and society calls it “the network effect locking markets in to the domination of a single player.”
So here I am, at three score years and ten years thinking, the work’s not done yet; we’ve not laid the foundations of prosperity for coming generations, we’re not leaving behind a healthy planet for them. There’s still time, but there’s a lot of work to do, easily doable despite the shortening window of opportunity remaining, if enough people join in. Here are some links to steps for a healthier planet.
These are only small actions, but following the suggested prescriptions on only one of these links can greatly improve your own health as well as that of the planet. As a side benefit you might find, like Moses, that your eyes are not dimmed, nor your natural force abated. So here’s wishing you all the best for the future of the planet.