You’ll Never Guess Who I Saw In Cubbon Park

Taken in March of 2014 in Cubbon Park.

Taken in March of 2014 in Cubbon Park.

One of the little anomalies that surprised me when I moved to Bangalore last Fall was a set of statues of Queen Victoria and King Edward VII that are located in Cubbon Park.

There are a number of cities, towns, and other places named after British royalty in the eastern United States, but I always assumed that was because they were named before the Revolution and changing them would require getting American politicians to agree on something (other than the urgent need to eavesdrop on everybody’s communications.)

Edward VII, Emperor of England

Edward VII, Emperor of England

Having statues up seems a little beyond vestigial names, however. Most of the Warsaw Pact countries ripped up their monuments to tyranny after the Cold War ended. Budapest created a nice open air park of Stalins, Lenins, Béla Kuns, and generic Stakhanovite workers.

I remember reading Michael Palin’s book, Himalaya, and he mentions having a moment of pause after passing from Pakistan into India near Amritsar. He had thought of the border crossing as representing a trip from risky and tumultuous Pakistan into safe and secure India. However, among the first sights he saw was a monument to the assassin who killed Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the tyrannical governor of Punjab, and a monument for 400 peaceful protesters massacred by British troops in 1919. This reminded him that a British man might not be the most welcome visitor in those parts.

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t forgive and forget. Nor am I suggesting that one should lose sight of one’s history past the current regime. Those are both perfectly rationale and virtuous notions, but, yet, I’m still curious why those monuments remain.

Can India Compete With China?

IMG_0131There’s perennial hope in the West that India will succeed. Having won the Cold War, advocates of democracy and rule of law aren’t eager to replay it and have a Communist country win–not even one that yields to market forces in large part.  Citizens of democratic nations want reaffirmation that democratic rule and rule by law, not men, is the superior paradigm. We acknowledge that such a system is rarely easy, but live with the words of Winston Churchill ringing in our ears:  

Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

When I found out that I was moving to India, I read all that I could find on India in magazines I subscribed to, such as Foreign Affairs, National Geographic, and Wilson Quarterly. Needless to say, there was a lot to read. Besides India’s nuclear programs, both energy and weapons, I hadn’t followed its role in the world. These articles took me on a roller coaster ride. If one went back many years, no one expected much of India. Then, a few years back, massive enthusiasm blossomed that India was going to rocket off and leave India in its dust. Then I got to the most recent articles, which did yet another turnabout–saying that India’s growth had been ephemeral and no one should expect much from the country in the near future.

India has a number of advantages. Almost everyone who is capable of publishing is fluent in the de facto international language of business and academic publication–namely English. India has as abundant a supply of cheap labor as anywhere. Indians have a culture that values education. They are building a first-class university system by, in part, having sent students to the very best of academic institutions globally. Their universities are attracting foreign students. This, in combination with such a big population, has given them the potential to build impressive student bodies.

So, why isn’t India competitive? The first thing that should be stated is that things are never as simple as they appear in aggregate. In some domains, India is competing quite nicely–and not just with China. Here in Bangalore, it’s apparent that large IT companies see big advantages in doing business in India.

I made a recent trip to Hampi and was amazed to see how successful India was in building up wind power generation in central Karnataka. India is 5th in installed wind capacity overall. Many democracies have difficulty getting traction with wind because the public views the turbines as an eyesore.

Still, India has its problems. Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC) surveyed business leaders about Asian bureaucracies and found India to be the worst bureaucracy in Asia.  On a 1 to 10 scale, where 10 is the worst possible, India rated a 9.21. This isn’t a surprise in the least. It seems to be common knowledge that business leaders who move to India do so in spite of India’s governance, not because of it.  India’s bureaucracy hasn’t embraced the IT-revolution. It’s interesting being in Bangalore, where IT-companies are state-of-the-art, and being asked for the same copies of documents a half-dozen times because the information is only stored on non-networked PC hard-drives–and paper files are collected but don’t seem to be organized in any way.

An ethos of corruption is ubiquitous in India. Police officers have been known to sit in parks and solicit “admissions fees” from tourists. I’m pretty sure I saw a shakedown in progress this past week when our car went through a toll booth on a toll road we had already paid for and two guys standing outside in front of the toll-taker insisted that our driver pay for the toll that he had already paid not ten minutes before. Being from a country where corruption is punished severely, I’m ignorant of the process of bribes. (I suspect this is why I’ve had so little success in getting anything done that involves the Indian bureaucracy.) For a less anecdotal experience, one can turn to the “Corruption Perceptions Index,” which places India in the bottom half among all nations.

One may wonder how a democracy retains a culture of corruption. Usually, citizens of a democracy get fed up and start voting their disapproval. At the Bangalore Literature Festival, I heard an interesting policy panel featuring a politician, a retired general, and a policy pundit. It was said that there is a high degree of apathy among the Indian middle class. Indian voter turnout rates are generally below 60%. There’s a belief that those most capable of affecting change are relatively happy and, thus, unwilling to rock the boat. I don’t know how true this is, but it seems that India is having trouble defeating some of the problems that wither on the vine in the face of a politically active public.

It also seems that there is a segment of the population who are completely cowed. This is a legacy not only of colonial repression but also of caste repression. While castes have been done away with, there remains a large segment of the population who are accustomed to doing just as they’re told without questioning and without making moves to get ahead.  Perhaps, because they believe they exist in a world in which there’s no getting ahead.

India’s abundance of cheap labor may be a curse as well as a blessing. While cheap labor has brought in foreign direct investment, it has also contributed to a business culture that doesn’t seem to value increased productivity. As an example, if one goes into a small shop in Chicago or Copenhagen or even Beijing, it’s likely that a single salesperson will show one merchandise, ring it up, and bag it. If it’s a big store, there may be a two person interaction–salesperson and cashier. In an Indian store, a salesperson will show one merchandise, a clerk will write up an invoice, one will take that invoice to a cashier, that cashier will take one’s money and hand one a carbon-copy of the “paid” stamped invoice and direct one to a pick up window, a bagger will bag your purchase, and  a “checker” will check your receipt and hand you the bag. I love specialization as much as the next economist, but this is a Rube Goldbergesque approach to retail operations.

If India wants to be a first-rate power, it needs to take on corruption, bring its bureaucracy into the 21st century, and its population needs to realize they can have a more satisfying life than waiting around for someone to need them for a momentary job. The citizenry needs to value good governance, and businesses need to figure out how to increase productivity.

BOOK REVIEW: The Mind of the Guru by Rajiv Mehrotra

The Mind of the Guru: Conversations with Spiritual MastersThe Mind of the Guru: Conversations with Spiritual Masters by Rajiv Mehrotra

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon Page

The Mind of the Guru is a compilation of 20 interviews with various teachers and spiritual leaders. While most of the individuals are from Indian spiritual traditions or offshoots thereof, the author makes concerted efforts to represent a range of religious and spiritual traditions.

The list of interview subjects is impressive and includes: The Dalai Lama (Tibetan Buddhism), Thich Nhat Hanh (Zen), S.N. Goenka (Vipassana), BKS Iyengar (yoga), Deepak Chopra (medical doctor and spiritual pundit), Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (Art of Living founder), Desmond Tutu (Christianity), and The Aga Khan (Islam.)

The book is at its best when these gurus are discussing their thoughts on development of the mind and spirit. Obviously, there is a lot of this type of discussion as that is the expertise of most all of the assembled teachers.

A brief forward by The Dalai Lama sets the theme of the discussion. His Holiness states that in Buddhist tradition one becomes a teacher because one has students. Consider this in contrast to traditions that fallaciously believe the title of teacher is granted from above. A master teacher may grant a teaching licence, but that’s just a piece of paper unless someone shows up to one’s lessons. He then goes on to say that one should abandon teachers who act in an unwholesome manner. This, too, is an important point. Having invested oneself in loyalty, it can feel like betrayal to leave a teacher who no longer suits one.

His Holiness is the lead chapter interviewee. In the early part of the chapter, he presents many thoughts on Tibetan mind science. “Mind science” may seem like a strange term, but there’s an important part of Tibetan Buddhism that deals not with deities and conceptions of morality, but with understanding and improving how the mind operates.

If one comes from a tradition in which science and religion are in tension, this may seem unusual, but there is a definite scientific approach (observing the mind and playing out experiments with it.) One doesn’t see a rift between science and religion in Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, His Holiness says that if certain parts of the religious tradition were proved not to exist, they would have to be abandoned. (For those beginning to raise objections, shown to be unlikely and disproven are two different things.)

A second Tibetan Buddhist, Sogyal Rinpoche, addresses the topic of death, and lends the book one of my favorite quotes: “If you are worried about dying, don’t worry, you will all die successfully.”

The first part of this five part book also includes interviews with Thich Nhat Hanh and S.N. Goenka. The former talks about mindfulness and the “interbeing,” and the latter describes the Vipassana approach to meditation and its development. Interbeing is a term coined by Hanh to address a being who is connected to all things. For those unfamiliar with Vipassana, it’s a meditation practice that emphasizes 10-day intensive meditation retreats. There are many retreat centers where this is practiced around the world, including one in the city in which I currently live, Bangalore.

The second part deals with the unity of mind and body. BKS Igenyar, head of a self-named branch of Hatha yoga, opens the chapter with discussion of his background and approach to yoga. Deepak Chopra talks about the intersection of science and spirituality. David Frawley talks about Ayurvedic medicine as well as some more “out there” subjects, such as astrology.

I hadn’t heard of two of the three interviewees in part three, Swami Ranganathananda and Mata Amritanandamayi. However the third interview was Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, a guru well-known internationally for his soft-spoken teachings that combine yoga with a secular spiritualism rooted in Hinduism but not explicitly advocating it. Swami Ranganathananda is from Ramakrishna’s order, which was a secular spiritualism movement rooted in Vedantic traditions but embracing diversity of belief. Mata Amritanandamayi is one of only two women interviewed for the book, indicating women haven’t achieved equality in guru-hood just yet–for all the talk of enlightened thinking. (This is not a dig at the author, who probably went out of his way to include these two to have diversity in gender as well as diversity of tradition.)

The fourth part adds to the diversity by opening with an interview with Sufi Muslim, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan. Sufi is the mystical branch of Islam. (Mysticism meaning a belief structure in which God is considered to be part of one and is accessed by mindfulness and introspection. This in contrast to the largest strands of the world’s major religions in which God is conceptually something distinct from the self and is an entity to be worshiped. Most major religions have mystical elements or a mystical branch, including Christianity and Islam.) This interview eases us away from the traditions that are either of India or have their roots in India. (By that I mean that Buddhism has its roots in India, though, for example, Zen is different from Buddhism as practiced in India today.)I say “eases us away” because the mystical nature of Sufi would not create much cognitive dissonance in yoga practitioners, Hindu spiritualists, or Zen monks, but, instead, shares much common ground.

The second chapter in part 4 is that by the other female guru, Radha Burnier, who is a practitioner of Theosophy, which means “divine wisdom.” This modern development is secular in that it doesn’t advocate a particular religion, but rather engagement to fix societal problems and eliminate biases and divisions. In the interview we get a hint of the divides that plagued this organization.

Part four is rounded out by interviews with Swami Parthasarathy and U.G. Krishnamurti (not to be confused with Jiddu Krishnamurti, who probably would have been included in this book if he hadn’t died in the 1980’s.)The former speaks about the end of knowledge and the latter about his role as an anti-guru, rejecting traditional approaches to thinking about spirituality.

The fifth part of the book is entitled “The Ethics of Engagement” and I’m afraid it’s where the wheels roll off. It has six excellent authorities, Desmond Tutu, Baba Amte, Ajarn Sulak Sivaraksa, Swami Agnivesh, The Aga Khan, and Karan Singh.I don’t criticize the selection of interviewees, but what happens here is that the chapters predominantly become about politics and policy. Some of this discussion is present throughout the earlier chapters, it’s a point that the author/interviewer finds either intriguing or salable. For example, he asks The Dalai Lama about the politics of Tibet and China, but only after much wisdom is shared.

Here is my–sure to be highly controversial–view on the subject. Wise people show the least wisdom when they’re speaking of politics and policy. I understand why readers may want to hear their thoughts, and I know that as leaders they shape movements in these domains. However, their thoughts on such subjects rarely pack the wallop of value they do when they are talking about subjects like improving one’s mind or living a moral life–subjects on which they have great authority.

What happens when the wise talk about policy is the same thing that happens when most people do, they fail to understand the complexity of the issues and they end up making a lot of “have our cake and eat it too” statements. The most common of these is that we need to: a.) raise all the poor to a certain standard of living (a noble cause), b.) eliminate attachment to materialism and consumerism (also a fine cause, no one should be addicted to “stuff.”)

As one trained as an economist, however, when I see these statements issued by the same person in the same interview, I laugh. We have no idea how to achieve these two things simultaneously; anybody who tells you they do is living in a dream world or is deceiving you. If everybody decided tomorrow that they didn’t need a bunch of new gadgets and widgets, this wouldn’t help pull the poor out of poverty. On the contrary, it would lessen their opportunities to raise their quality of life. Conversely, if you want to pull people out of poverty, they have to produce and sell things that other people want. Rising incomes result from rising productivity, and rising productivity comes with rising production–but someone has to buy that increased production. If you have a way to truly get around this dilemma and it’s one that economist haven’t thought of before and which hasn’t either been proved wrong or internally inconsistent, I will personally lobby for you to be nominated for next year’s Nobel Prize in Economics, and would place a bet on you to win.

I will say that some of the authors seem more savvy of the political and societal domain than others. For example, Mata Amritanandamayi says, “Even if we remove all nuclear weapons from our armories and transfer the to a museum [that last bit is, admittedly, a really bad idea], it wouldn’t bring an end to war. The real nuclear weapons, the negative thoughts in our mind, should be eliminated.” In other words, you can’t fix society’s problems through dictates, particularly when those dictates are in contradiction.

One of my lesser complaints with the book is that the author sometimes asks leading questions (i.e. he subsumes a conclusion in the way he forms the question.) However, almost invariably the speaker sets the record straight, but it makes one wonder about how the message is shaped by the interviewer.

There may be a little too much cultural self-congratulation going on throughout the book for some. There’s a primacy fallacy theme throughout the book that India had everything perfect until it was infected by Western ideas. This isn’t to imply there aren’t fantastic ideas and cultural developments that have come out of India. I wouldn’t have read the book if I didn’t believe there were, but there was also the caste system and some other fairly giant issues of institutionalized injustice like women essentially being sold off into marriage.

An example of this bias can be seen in the talk of Swami Ranganathananda. He says of Socrates, “Had he been in India, he would have been honored and worshipped.” Yeah, if he were of the right caste, maybe, but he also might have been bludgeoned to death in a fashion far more brutal than having to drink hemlock.

Overall, I would recommend the book. It is an impressive collection of teachers and all of them have something intriguing to offer in food for thought. One just needs to go back to The Dalai Lama’s Forward and not be so awe-inspired that you fail to look critically at the message of each.

View all my reviews

Happy 237th, America

IMG_9111America is the product of a set of exceptional human beings. Some may wish to humanize the founding fathers and to deflate the mythology that has grown up around them, but deflate the myth and one still has impressive facts. Who turns down a salary for the most sleepless and thankless job in the universe? George Washington, that’s who. Who writes a political document so artfully that its turns of phrase still chime poetically  in the ear 237 years after the fact? Thomas Jefferson, that’s who? Who can invent the lightening rod and bifocals, convince the French to move toward the sound of the guns (just kidding, France), and get the chicks despite the most hideous comb-over ever? Benjamin Franklin, that’s who.

Now this may be Golden Age fallacy talking, but today’s ruling elite seem a bit… well let’s just say “pathetic” by comparison. Sure modern-day rulers still have charisma out the wazoo, but Franklin had charisma plus a world-class intellect. Jefferson had charisma, and he didn’t need a speech-writing team and focus groups to craft his words for him. Washington had charisma, and–quite frankly–he could scare the shit out of a grizzly bear. It’s the rare modern-day leader who is  qualified for any alternative career besides ambulance chasing.

Still, I will remain optimistic about the fate of the nation as long as great ideas prevail. Checks and balances is a great idea. The compromise to appease both populous and small states is a great idea. The Bill of Rights is a set of great ideas. I’m a little amused whenever I hear people say that America needs to revise its Constitution if it wants to keep up in the modern world. I heard this most recently from a scholar who said that because it was relatively difficult to make laws and spend money, America was going to fall ever behind the likes of Scandinavian countries? What? Really? Seriously?

Drones over Des Moines: or, UAV’s in the Heartland

Source: Wikipedia; User: Dammit

Source: Wikipedia; User: Dammit

National Geographic has an interesting and well-timed article in this month’s issue called The Drones Come Home. I say well-timed because of all of the attention that Senator Rand Paul’s recent filibuster received. Senator Paul was filibustering the nomination of John Brennan as CIA Director, but his true purpose was to bring attention to the lack of transparency on policy regarding the use of drone strikes on U.S. soil. You’ll recall from your Civics classes that the 5th and 6th amendments (supported by other laws) require legal due process be conducted before anyone gets, to use the mafia-esque term, “whacked.”

The impetus for all this discussion of drones is the Obama Administration’s 2012 direction to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to open the skies to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) by September 30, 2015.

It should be noted that the use of armed drones for execution missions is only the most dramatic of many legal issues that will arise with the proliferation of this technology. The National Geographic article devotes more space to the use of drones by state and local law enforcement than they do to that of the Federal government.

Some other new legal considerations will include:

Searches:  I suspect that well before any government is terminating U.S. citizens at home with such devices, they will be using them for surveillance and investigation (i.e. spying.)  The Constitutional standard is that law enforcement can act on any evidence that can be seen from a place they legally have a right to be. So if you’ve got a stolen car in your front yard, they can arrest you.  However,  if the police get an anonymous tip that there is a stolen car in your backyard under your deck, things are trickier. They can ask you to see your backyard, but you can say no. They can ask a neighbor if the neighbor will allow them to look from the neighbor’s property onto yours, but, if that’s unsuccessful, they’d better be able to impress a judge sufficiently to obtain a warrant.

However, what  happens with UAV’s? Now the law enforcement officer can be parked perfectly legally on the street while his “eyes” are hovering over your backyard.  Your property rights overhead are not established (unless you are getting a check every time Delta flies over your house–I’m not.)

Extensions: What about peaking in through your window with an aerial telephoto lens? What if it’s not law enforcement, but rather the Neighborhood Watch? What if it’s not even the Neighborhood Watch, but rather the crotchety retiree at the end of the block who has self-appointed himself neighborhood watchman because he’s bored to tears… and more than a little bitter?

Sovereign Immunity: Many governments have laws that prevent you from suing them. So what happens given a scenario suggested in the National Geographic article, the government’s UAV falls out of the sky and it’s rotor-blade slices open the jugular of your four-year old daughter as she is innocently playing in the sandbox in your back yard?

There are many who are concerned that this technology is not perfected. The military is having its share of problems, and they are spending billions on UAV’s. Imagine what will happen when local governments, corporations, and other cash-strapped entities begin flying more low-budget versions?

Personal No Fly Zones: Despite the tenuous legal situation regarding the “airspace” over one’s head. You know that, sooner or later, someone will try to enforce a no-fly zone over their property. So what happens when a person sees that Sheriff’s department UAV peeping through their window, and they blast it out of the sky with a 12-gauge shotgun?

Of course, there will be a whole new wave of issues that will arise as the autonomous UAV’s are perfected. By “autonomous” I mean ones that don’t need a remote pilot, but are more “fire-off and forget.”

MASTER WORKS: Apology by Plato

ApologyApology by Plato

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Apology is Plato’s account of the trial of Socrates. This brief work presents Socrates’ defense of himself as well as his reaction to the death sentence verdict against him. Of course, it is all through the lens of Plato, as Socrates left us no written works.

Socrates was charged with impiety and corruption of the youth. He acknowledged both that he was eloquent and that he was a gadfly of Athens (the latter being a role for which Socrates believes he should be valued.) However, he denied both of the formal charges.

Socrates refuted the charge of corrupting the youth first by denying that he had taken money in exchange for teaching. Taking money was a component of this charge. Socrates’ claim is supported later when Socrates tells the court that he can only afford a very small fine, even in the face of the alternative–a death sentence.

Socrates says that he sees nothing wrong with taking money for teaching–if one has wisdom to share. Socrates says that he has no such wisdom, and suggests the philosopher/teachers that are taking money aren’t in error for taking money, but rather because they really don’t have wisdom themselves.

This is summed up nicely by this pair of sentences, “Well, although I do not suppose either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is–for he knows nothing and thinks he knows. I neither know nor think I know.”

While Socrates raised the ire of the Athenian leaders with what they no doubt believed to be his arrogance, in fact it wasn’t that he thought himself wiser than they, but that he thought they were deluded in thinking themselves wise.

Socrates’ lesson remains valid today. It is the scourge of all ages to think that have finally attained true understanding of the world. Our posterity may know more, but we know all of the essentials and are rapidly converging on a complete picture of our world. We think our generation to be humanity’s sage elders, when, in fact, we are the impetuous teen whose growth spurt has made him cocky. I would propose to you that in all likelihood, even today, the sets of “that which is true” and “that which humanity ‘knows'” form a classic interlinking Venn Diagram. That is, some of the body of knowledge that we take to be proven true is, in fact, false. This occurs because we cannot accept that there are things we are not yet prepared to know, so we use sloppy methodology to “prove” or “disprove.” This one reason we have all these conflicting reports. E.g. coffee is good for you one week, and carcinogenic the next.

VennDiagram_WhatWeKnow

Socrates uses the method that today bears his name, i.e. the Socratic method, to challenge the arguments of Meletus, the prosecutor. The Socratic method uses questions as a device to lead the opposition to a conclusion based on premises they themselves state in the form of their answers. Socrates proposes that if it is he alone who is intentionally corrupting the youth, they would not come around–for no one prefers to be subjected to evil rather than good.

Socrates denies the suggestion that he does not believe in the gods, and in fact indicates that the very suggestion by virtue of the charges against him is a contradiction. What Socrates is guilty of is encouraging those who come around him to develop their own thoughts on god, and not to subordinate their thought to anyone–an idea the leaders found disconcerting.

Socrates goes on to say why he is unmoved by the death sentence. He wonders why it is thought he should beg and wail, when he doesn’t know for sure that an evil is being done against him.

The moral of the story is that those in power fear and will attempt to destroy advocates of free thinking.

This book should be read in conjunction with a couple other Platonic Dialogues, Crito and Phaedo.

View all my reviews

The Case of the Biggest Ego

Dear Leader, Version 3.0, and Dennis Rodman

Dear Leader, Version 3.0, and Dennis Rodman

I was reading an article in The Economist over the weekend about the sanctions against North Korea, and Kim Jong Un’s “don’t mess with me, I’m CRAZY!” response.

The article featured the photo above. I was immediately struck by the fact that Kim Jong Un’s head is higher, despite the fact that Dennis Rodman is about six-and-a-half foot tall and Kim Jong Un is… well, let’s just say a dwarf.  I don’t know exactly how tall Kim is, and I’m sure nobody truly does. I tried to look up Kim’s height, but the figures ranged from 5’3″ to 5’9″. This isn’t surprising. The Kim family motto is, don’t let blatant facts to the contrary get in the way of a good lie; stick to your guns, execute people as necessary, and show your skeptics the crazy eyes. Kim Jong Il was believed to have worn six-inch lifts and a nine-inch pompadour to impress his underlings with his grand total 5’2″ physique. Of course, each successive generation of the Kim Dynasty has an easier time because the country’s citizenry is shrinking due to undernourishment, a fate that isn’t shared by the Kims. (Sadly, this isn’t a joke. North Korea is one of the few nations whose average height has been in decline over recent decades.)

It’s not really surprising that Kim insists on his head being higher than his guests. (I know what you’re asking. Whose set of phonebooks is he sitting on, because there sure as hell aren’t enough phones in North Korea for him to be sitting on the DPRK listings–which is more of a pamphlet?) Anyway, kings, emperors, and dictators have always required others to scrunch down so that the royal status will remain unquestioned.

However, if there is anyone who can match a dictator’s monumental ego ton for ton, it’s a professional athlete. Consider Lance Armstrong, he sued reporters for telling the truth about him. What kind of rarefied atmosphere does one have to live in to do that?  Then there are the many athlete-rapists whose defense was “Your Honor, I didn’t know I needed permission to have sex with that person. I think my lawyer may have failed to make you aware that I’m this year’s MVP… Even an MVP needs permission? That’s some crazy shit.”

As a society, we nurture the notion that the dictates of polite society don’t apply to those who are skilled at winning games. Coaches have been known to be fired mid-season for losing, but Bobby Knight beat the hell out of kids for decades before he got fired. We deify athletes just like the people of North Korea, who can’t afford leisure activities of any kind, deify their dictator.

So this photo answers for me an intriguing question, who’s more narcissistic: a professional athlete or a professional dictator. Seeing Dennis Rodman peering at the game over the twin humps of his knees answers the question nicely.

To be fair, Rodman did get a subtle dig in with his Team USA cap;  subdued as it may have been, that must have gotten Kim’s goat. Rodman also got in a nice Coca-Cola product placement. Fun fact: I was once told by a Coke employee that there were only two countries in which Coke was not sold. Everybody guessed that North Korea was one of them, but that’s not correct. It was Burma and Cuba (don’t ask me how the latter has been making Cuba Libres all this time.) Given Burma’s reforms, I wouldn’t be surprised if today it was down to one (or none.)  [World dominance… check.]

Our Most Beloved and Most Deadest of Presidents

Source: Kennedy Library

Source: Kennedy Library

Presidents live the ultimate catch-22, the only way to reliably boost their approval ratings is to shuffle off this mortal coil (i.e.become worm food.)  The more decomposed a president, the more fond our remembrances of him. The worst thing that anyone ever says about a long dead president is nothing at all. When was the last time you heard a scathing character impeachment of Millard Fillmore? (I do realize that a person with the supreme narcissism needed to be president may find silence more insufferable than being called the son of a syphilitic donkey whore.)

(Quick, without looking, name a president from the 19th century other than Jefferson or Lincoln [or Fillmore]?) FYI- there were 23 or 24 of them. If you drank your entire cup of coffee before you could come up with one of the other twenty names, congratulations you are a typical American– or an exceptional non-American.

I first noticed this phenomena when watching the Reagan funeral. Everyone from all walks of life had great things to say about our 40th president on that day. However, while I was still a minor at the time, I distinctly remember half of the country loathing the man spectacularly and engaging in ad hominem attacks against him at any opportunity. Well there was one period during which no one was saying horrible things about Reagan’s character and that was  during the brief period after the assassination attempt when his opponents thought he might die — at which point they went into dead presidents mode. Had Reagan passed away at the hands of John Hinckley, he would’ve achieved a level of freedom from being crapped upon usually reserved for a our first few (long decomposed) presidents.

Still, Reagan has achieved the broadly beloved status of being the Democrat’s “In-your-face President” just like Kennedy serves in that role for Republicans. An “In-your-face President” is one that political parties use to attempt to show that their current opposition is on the lunatic fringe by indicating that that iconic leader supported something vaguely, roughly approximal in a similar sort of way to what they are trying to do in the present day. These statements being followed by a silent, but understood, “IN YO’ FACE.”

I’m sure that when Carter dies, equally lovely things will be said about him — though never has a bigger train wreck of state been seen then the term of James Earl Carter. To be fair, some of the wheels that rolled off the RV-of-state were not his fault, but we  give all the credit and all the blame to the president. Why do you think Clinton is always grinning like he just had sex? No, it’s not because he just had sex– though he did (the speaking circuit is like fishing with dynamite), it’s because he reigned over the big bubbly part of the bubble. When we were rich because we thought we had a lot of valuable stuff, before anyone bothered to look inside and see what we had was rotten at the core.

Admittedly, Nixon’s demise did challenge everybody’s ability to grin and say nice things.  Comments were made such as, “That Checkers was a good boy, such a good boy, yes he WAS… YES he WAS. Oh yeah, and how about that China thing, that was a real work of diplomacy.”  (Checkers was one of Nixon’s dogs, made famous by a Vice Presidential speech of the same name.) The word “China” was used at Nixon’s funeral more than it was used at the Chinese Conference on China in Beijing, China. Of course, there wasn’t much nice to say about Nixon. Democrats can’t even take advantage of the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was a Nixon Administration initiative. Nixon can’t be an “In-your-face President.” It’s too much like slapping your opponent with a bloated dead fish; you may hit them, but you’re going to get the stink on you never-the-less.

5 Minefields of Armageddon for 2013

National Land Image Information, Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation & Tourism, Japan

National Land Image Information, Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transportation & Tourism, Japan

1.) Ever heard of the Senkakus? What about Diaoyus? If not, you should look them up. When you’ve been wearing a gas mask for the 33rd day straight, you may want to know about the chunks of rock in the East China Sea that we tripped into nuclear winter over. Simmering tensions between Japan and China have been flaring up over these islands of late. So you’re probably wondering who lives there who’s so important that it’s worth wandering through a minefield that could trigger World War III. If you answered, “absolutely no one,” give yourself a prize.  They’re uninhabited. It’s not the islands themselves that anyone gives a rat’s as about, it’s the ramification they have for underwater drilling rights.

The reader may accuse me of hyperbole. (Shh! Dont tell anyone, but– of course– that’s what I do.) After all, China has a boldly stated “No First Use” policy. That is, they claim they will not use nukes in a first strike. Given that Japan isn’t a nuclear weapons state (NWS), there doesn’t seem to be much risk. Except that a.) Japan lives under the U.S. nuclear umbrella;  b.) Japan is the non-NWS that could develop nuclear weapons in the shortest time imaginable — they have the material, infrastructure, and technical know-how (okay, Germany is in the same bag); and c.) see #2

KimJongUn3

2.) North Korea conducted its third nuclear test. This presents a risk because: a.) it provides an incentive for Japan to build its own nukes (particularly if faith in the US umbrella wanes.) b.) [and more importantly] Kim Jong Un has too many yes-men, and no one to slap him in his chubby face and say, “are you smoking powdered unicorn horn?” In other words, he doesn’t have a good idea of what he can get away with before the world unleashes a crate of whoop-ass on his sad country. So he wanders in the minefield.

3.) Europe is getting depressed. Fat and happy Europeans are productive and polite. Downtrodden Europeans have been known to swallow some pretty despicable narratives, and– in doing so– drag the world into war. At the moment this seems really far-fetched. These political movements are at best in the political fringe of countries on Europe’s fringe, right? Maybe so. Time will tell.

4.) If America’s economy is crash-landed, everyone is going to be hit by the debris. This will be depressing, see #3 and then multiply globally. Times like these  echo Churchill’s comment, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Any person, company, or government that sees the train coming in the distance but can’t find its way off the tracks can’t be expected to thrive for long.

5.) India and Pakistan, enough said…

BOOK PLUG: The Nuclear Renaissance and International Security

The Nuclear Renaissance and International Security 

Edited by Adam N. Stulberg and Matthew Fuhrmann

2013, Available Now

Buy this book

This is not so much a book review as a shameless plug (I have a chapter in this book.)

Nuclear energy has had a checkered past. From the 1950’s to the 1970’s, there was a massive build up of nuclear power reactors– granted among a fairly small number of nations. Recent decades have seen a drop off in the pursuit of nuclear power among all but a few diehards. This decline resulted from both accidents and unfavorable nuclear power economics (the former exacerbating but not entirely responsible for the latter.) With increasing desire to combat global climate change, there has been renewed interest in nuclear energy as part of a strategy to slow carbon emissions without crippling energy output. However, to date this interest has not turned into large-scale development of nuclear power anywhere except China. After the Fukushima Daiichi accident, even some diehards (e.g. Japan) are reconsidering nuclear power.

This book considers whether there will be a resurgence of nuclear power, if there is what shape it will take, and what the security ramifications of future nuclear power development might be.

Among the many questions addressed in the book are:

1.) Will the future bring more nuclear energy states, or will any expansion take place only within existing nuclear power states?
2.) Why do states supply other countries with nuclear energy technologies, and what are the ramifications of such supply efforts?
3.) Can an International Fuel Bank be successful in reducing the threat posed by proliferation of dual-use fuel cycle technologies?
4.) Will climate change drive a renaissance of nuclear power?
5.) What effect will an expansion of nuclear energy have on non-state nuclear trafficking?
6.) Are states with nuclear power more, less, or equally likely to get into wars?

If you are interested in these questions, this book is for you.