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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.


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.

Are You Choking on Carbon? #MeToo

I recently read of efforts by a young Swiss duo, both engineers, whose company, Climeworks, sucks CO2 out of the air and carbonates water, injecting the water underground into basaltic rock. To its own surprise, Climeworks finds that the gas converts to solid carbonate forms underground in a couple of years. So is this a stable way to remove greenhouse gases from the air? There are other uses for captured CO2 of course but the quantities are minuscule compared to global emissions. So the pundits talk of capturing the carbon dioxide and storing it in underground caverns or pumping it under pressure into the depths of the ocean. Why isn’t there more talk among technologists of reducing emissions, instead of accepting emissions as a given and figuring out ways of converting them at great cost to benign forms?

A friend recently commented on efforts to remove atmospheric CO2 and store it underground. It’s like swallowing gas, he says. You know what happens when you have too much gas. You either fart or burp, or both. Accumulated internal gas is painful and you wouldn’t do it to yourself, so why do they want to do it to the earth? Do they know what will happen when the earth farts? So why don’t we plant trees instead?

Relative strengths of major greenhouse gases. Image courtesy IPCC

Planting trees is a solution. An average tree sucks up 25 kilos of carbon per year. Humans emit 30 to 40 gigatons of CO2 every year. Let’s say emissions are kept at 30 gigatons a year. Thirty billion tons. That’s… let’s see, forty trees take up one ton per year, so multiply 30 billion by 40… so you get 1,200 billion. That’s 1.2 trillion trees per year just to break even!

How many trees are there on earth already? I found a BBC report of a 2015 Yale University study that estimates the number of trees currently on earth at 3 trillion. That’s 3,000,000,000,000. Since atmospheric CO2 concentrations are going up steadily, the situation would be much worse without these 3 trillion trees. So we still have to suck up the additional 30 gigatons a year, or else reduce emissions. If we take 7 billion to be the global population, leaving aside the old, the infirm and the very young, that leaves around 3 billion people of tree planting age worldwide. In order for 3 billion people to plant 1.2 trillion trees per year, each one will have to plant 400 hundred trees per year.

Persistence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Image courtesy IPCC

Can (and would?) 3 billion people plant 1.2 trillion trees in a year? Of course not. But if even 10% of that number were to plant 10% of the target, we would be well on our way to doing what we need to do. Is this realistic? Quick answer: No. So is there a quick fix? Yes. Eat less meat. Depending on the type of feed, a cow produces 70 to 120 kg. of methane per year. Remember, methane as a greenhouse gas is 23 times more potent than CO2, so cutting down on meat is a quick way to reduce emissions. And it has the added benefit of freeing up pastureland for tree planting. So now we’re beginning to get a handle on things.

If we pump huge quantities of CO2 underground and undersea, the earth might fart (so to speak), with unintended consequences. But cows already fart on an ongoing daily basis, emitting considerable quantities of methane, so eating less meat is a relatively painless quick fix. And then there are lots of concomitant steps that are in the process of hesitantly being implemented, like switching to public transportation and electric cars. And, oh yes, the most environmental step the world is taking is the #MeToo movement! Let’s write that on our foreheads as a reminder to the world. Education and empowerment of women is the fastest way to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and save our planet.

A is for Amazon

By now mostly everyone who reads the news knows that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is the world’s richest man, and his customers worldwide are increasing his wealth to the tune of US $ 250,000 per minute! Now, I don’t envy anyone their wealth, especially when it’s been earned through hard work and strategic, long-term thinking. But I do believe that with great wealth comes great responsibility. Other large companies are doing more than paying lip service to the idea of reducing emissions to save the planet. Google’s Waymo has ordered 20,000 Jaguar i-Pace electric cars for its driverless car fleet (an upgrade from its current fleet of Chrysler Pacifica minivans). Even the city of Munich, capital city of BMW’s home state of Bavaria, is encouraging taxi firms to experiment with adding electric cars to their fleets.

Jaguar i-Pace. Image courtesy Jaguar usa.

I can well understand the indignation of the writer of the article in Clean Technica who says, “Amazon thumbs its nose at Sustainability, orders 20,000 conventional Mercedes Sprinter Vans.” Admittedly there are only a handful of companies that can supply the electric vans needed, but that’s just how young industries get a leg up, with the support of far-sighted leaders of companies and corporations who not only look to the bottom line, but also to the welfare of society at large. In Amazon’s case, it appears, the bottom line takes precedence over benevolence. Maybe this is the most important explanation for Bezos’s immense wealth.

As a self-published writer, I’m in a quandary here. I was an early adopter of Amazon’s superb self-publishing tools provided by CreateSpace (for print-on-demand paperback books) and Kindle Direct Publishing (for e-books). I have published four books on Amazon and have three more novels in the pipeline. The novels have been well reviewed by a few readers, so if someday sales improve, I will be making Bezos richer still. What should I do? I need some advice here.

In looking for answers, I found the following New York Times article helpful; a review of a book by Anand Giridhardas entitled “Winners Take All,” a critical look at philanthropo-capitalism as it is practised in the USA today. Ironically, the first place I looked for the book was on the Amazon website.

Suffer the little Children: A New Testament Reminder

St. Mark, Chapter 10.
13. And they brought young children to him, that he should touch them: and his disciples rebuked those that brought them.
14. But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.
15. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.
16. And he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them.

Image courtesy dailymail.co.uk

Terrible things are done, mostly by dictatorial governments, to children everywhere, especially to the children of the poor, the powerless and the dispossessed. However, when an official spokesperson for a country that likes to think of itself as a beacon of freedom and the rule of law says, “I can say it is very biblical to enforce the law,” then that person has surely never heard that the law is an ass; that laws were made for people rather than the other way round; that war crimes are committed by people who say, “I was only obeying the law. I merely followed orders.”

It is biblical to obey the law… Image courtesy Youtube.

Transportation: The Weight of Fear

Consider me. Or consider yourself. Presumably an average human being of average weight. These averages vary considerably in different parts of the world, from 60 kilos or less, to 90 kilos or more. Looking back at the various means of transport that I have commonly used in the past five decades, I made a list of their approximate weights for comparison. My own weight has changed (increased!) by 5 kilos during this period, from 75 to 80 kg.

Bicycle: Throughout my schooldays, I used a single speed bicycle to take myself (40 to 65 kg.) to school and back. I assume bicycles weighed around 25 kg. in those days. In any case, the means of transportation was around a third of my own body weight. I loved the song of the open road. Most days I arrived at school in a lather of sweat, but no one really bothered about that.

My first job was as a travelling salesman and the most efficient way to do this at the time was with a motorbike or scooter. Traffic congestion was not yet a problem in the 1970s to 90s. I loved the song of the open road. Most days I arrived at work or at a customer feeling dapper and cool, even though a bit windblown. The weight of the motor-scooter or motorbike I owned or rode at various times in this period varied from 130 to 150 kg. My own weight at this time was a svelte 75 kg.

250 cc Jawa 2-stroke motorcycle ca. 1972. Image, coutresy jawa.eu

From the late 70s to the 1990s my preferred mode of transport was a private car. I loved the song of the open road, although traffic was constantly increasing. Loved to drive long distances on holiday. Car weights varied from 840 kg (1976 first generation VW Golf) to 1400 kg (same model 25 years later) to 1700 kg (minivan). In spite of long distance holiday travel with family, 90% of the annual miles were clocked commuting to work and back. i.e. 1000s of kilometers with just one occupant. i.e. using 1400-1700 kg to transport 80 kg of human being. Forget the song of the open road! Most daily commutes were exercises in creeping through congested streets and highways, impatiently waiting to get to work or home.

From the early 2000s onwards, my thinking about the daily commute evolved (?) as follows. Car (1700 kg, 40 minutes), bus (kg irrelevant, 80 minutes), bicycle (16 kg., 70 minutes). The bicycle was definitely a step forward in efficiency and economy. It cost practically nothing, and also gave added health benefits, although I arrived in a lather at work, as I did in my school days, and had to repair to a toilet for a cat-wash and a change of clothes.

Around 2005, I began to yearn for pedal assist on my bicycle and began to look around for electric models. There were none available as far as I could see. Sometime in 2006, I found a German website on the internet that advertised an electric bicycle with a 1 year guarantee, a 7 kilo NiCad battery pack, and no range specifications. I was tired of a steep hill on my daily commute (36 km per day), so I ordered the bike sight unseen and two weeks later, took delivery of a giant cardboard carton with MADE IN CHINA printed on the sides. It weighed 32 kg with battery, had seven gears and was a real pain to carry up and down to the cellar where I stored it overnight.

Image courtesy Pedalandpower.com

But it did the job nicely. The hill was a problem no more. And the range was around 30 km. Unfortunately, NiCad batteries suffer from a memory effect, and I could not charge it in the office for the ride home, so I got minimal assistance on the dreaded hill with a fading battery.

Ah, the perfect solution! Sometime around 2008, I saw a beautiful 24-speed KTM with the cutest little Li-ion battery that was good for 60 kms of pedal-assist riding. By this time, I had moved homes and my daily commute had increased to 50 km. Here was the answer to my commuting problems. The KTM bicycle weighed 22 kg, I weighed 80 kg., and the electricity cost me around €0.30 for 100 km (30 cents). My friends considered the electric bike expensive. It was expensive, in bike terms, but in reality cost about as much as the annual service of the average 1700 kg. monster. Maybe that’s comparing apples and oranges, you say. But such comparisons are ok when you’re riding an apple, and have gotten rid of the orange. Needless to say, I sold the 1700 kg. monster and have lived happily ever after.

Nowadays people tell me, you can’t ride around on a bicycle at your age! It’s too dangerous to ride a bicycle in this murderous city traffic. True. But I wear a helmet and try to ride cautiously. I’m happy carrying my current 79 kg. on two wheels weighing 22 kg., and wouldn’t dream of carrying it in 1700 kg. as I used to do. The difference in weight (ca.1,678 kg) I like to think of as the weight of fear. That’s quite a lot of fear to carry around in one’s life. Best to get rid of it!


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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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