Archive | July, 2012

Imagine America with a Queen

29 Jul

I don’t think too many Britons say nasty things about their Queen.

They don’t object to her politics because she really doesn’t have any. They may get mad at all the money – their money – she spends on palaces and servants, but they get over that.

What she represents is them, the collective whole, and they seem to appreciate it, rally round it, and draw strength from it.

A keen memory of mine is from a dinner toast at a British embassy. It consisted of two words that meant 10,000. It was simple and so reverent:

“The Queen.”

The leader and figurehead of the United States, by contrast, is called names and blamed for all kinds of bad things. His motives are questioned, as if he refuses out of spite to use clear and easy solution to big and complicated problems. It is frequently suggested that he is out to destroy America — on purpose.

Not so with a queen.

I was never much for monarchy. In fact, a favorite movie line of mine comes from Monty Python after, I think, a noble personage advises a lowly peasant, “I’m your king,” and gets the answer, “Well I didn’t vote for you.”

But seeing Queen Elizabeth at the Olympics, sitting there as an honored representation of all Great Britain, inspired envy.

From afar, and perhaps in fact, the British seem to have a cultural homogeneity that the U.S. does not. While Britain is markedly divided by class and is mixed racially (from immigration), there is something holding all together.

You only have to listen to the way the Brits sing their anthem “Jerusalem” to know this. They did so at the Olympics and it moved even me, a non-Brit. The final, powerful verse is:

 

I will not cease from Mental Fight,

Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand,

Till we have built Jerusalem,

In England’s green and pleasant Land

 

Americans love being Americans, but we are a country of individualists. We can be distrustful of each other. Our tendency is to work on our own to improve our lives, not to work collectively for a new Jerusalem. In Britain and much of Europe, there is a collective desire to see that all have health care, that all can afford higher education, that all can get around on trains, subways and buses.

We don’t have that in the states. We do have the Interstate Highway system, but only because the military needed evacuation routes in case of nuclear war.

The American continent does have a distant legacy of working as a tribe. But the ways of the Native American people never had an impact on the rugged, go-it-alone settlers.

Hardworking, innovative Americans have performed technological and economic miracles working alone. It was this kind of culture that allowed us to break from the English, better them and pretty much rule the world.

Still, I feel as if we lack something as a people. When I see the Queen of England, who I didn’t vote for, I have this wish that we could get behind our leaders in a forceful way that lifts our spirits and moves us ahead quicker. Of course, such a system would require that leaders be pure of heart and dedicated to the American cause and not their own.

This would be the hardest thing to accomplish, even if we gave them all palaces.

Google wounds the New York Times

28 Jul

It has been said that Freedom of the Press is restricted to those who own one.

With presses being of small importance today, that dictum has lost its punch. Today, he who controls transmissions in the digital world decides who goes on stage to shout.

Case in point: The New York Times, which ironically owns a press or two, lost more than $143 million in the last quarter mainly because a digital powerhouse – Google – changed an algorithm.

Google algorithms decide what pops up when a search is done. About.com, owned by the New York Times, once had a clear channel through the Google transmission line. When it clogged, favoring others and not About, the website lost traffic and revenue and its parent, the great media giant of the past, was laid low.

Fortunes have been made and lost trying to game the all-powerful Google algorithms. The algorithms are raging rivers of commerce, with gold at the end for those who can safely and consistently navigate them.

While it is frightening to think how quickly Google can change the information landscape, it must be said that About was a low-quality content farm (yet another irony) that was trashing up Google searches. Google acted to protect itself and better serve its customers.

Free speech was at a premium when it took an expensive press to get out a message. Now this, a big change … but not a change at all.

 

 

Go here to see your comrades in a bathing suit

22 Jul

There is a coastal beach resort in China called Beidaihe.  It’s  a summer retreat for top Communist officials. While vacationing, they seek alliances and plan political strategy for their big fall conference.

The resort was featured in a New York Times story today. It brought back memories because I once was there.

Years ago, before China got rich, I was living and working in Beijing. I traveled extensively in China and Beidaihe was the first town I visited that made me feel as if I were no longer in China.

Beidaihe may  have been somewhat seedy. but it was also bright, colorful and cheerful.  I liked it very much. In a way, it reminded me of the Jersey Shore.

At that time, few Chinese went on vacations. Evidence of this was the little stands in Beidaihe where visitors could rent bathing suits for the day. The women’s suits, if I recall, were very modest and dowdy.

The Times story points out that Beidaihe is known for political intrigue. The town is connected to the tale of Lin Baio, a top leader that some expected to replace Mao Zedong. Indeed, Mao is said to have sanctioned the succession by publicly telling Lin, “With you in charge, I’m at ease.”

But it was determined later that Lin may have been planning a coup. He tried to escape to Russia in a plane from Beidaihe. The plane crashed and all were killed. To this day, many consider the crash suspicious.

So, while in China, it was a common joke among the foreign workers to voice support for each other with the ironic, “With you in charge, I’m at ease.”

It always got a laugh.

I wish I could use it in the states, but it just won’t work.

Anyway, that’s my little story about Beidaihe.

The very first iPad was made of wax

21 Jul

Antiquity is full of surprises and incredible technological wonders. It’s a shame to think how many have been forgotten or lost.

My surprise of the day came from learning that the ancient Greeks and Romans carried a portable, reusable tablet that was their equivalent of the iPad. It had two wood-framed pages that could be folded like a book. The pages were coated in wax, and writing was done with a wooden stylus.

To reuse, the wax pages were heated slightly and then smoothed over.

This was literally a “tabula rasa,” the cute Latin term used today to describe a blank slate or a person without preconceived ideas. There are references to such tablets in Homer and the device may date to the 14th century B.C. It is believed they were used by the Greeks and Romans and in Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine. Evidence of them can be found up until the Middle Ages.

They ancients never lacked for technology and engineering.  They just did it differently; sometimes better. Our 20-year old highways may be crumbling, but the Roman aqueducts still stand.

Unlike the U.S., the Danes are blissful, successful and highly taxed

18 Jul

There’s a happy little country in Europe that is so successful, foreigners pay to put money in its banks.

That’s called negative interest. Denmark, population 5.5 million, asks for it and gets it. Mounds and mounds of Euros from the troubled European nations are flowing into Denmark as a safe haven. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the negative interest is low, with two-year debt yielding between minus .05 percent and minus .08 percent, but it shows the strength of that economy.

Unlike the U.S., Denmark has a positive trade balance, relatively low government debt and an unemployment rate of about 6 percent. (compared to about 9 in the U.S.) The Danes are said to be some of the most contented people in the world.

Oddly, or perhaps not, Denmark has the highest rate of taxes in the world.

Isn’t that ironic?

We in the United States are, for the most part, miserable and worried about our jobs, the economy and taxes. Our total taxes, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, are 24 percent of GDP. In Denmark, people are completely satisfied with paying taxes equal to 48 percent of GDP.

“We have a luxury problem,” said Jacob Graven, chief economist at Denmark’s fourth largest bank.

Sometimes, solutions to seemingly unshakable problems can be found in the most unlikely, 180-degree alternatives. To often, however, the ether of the American culture has convinced us they are off-limits, extremely dangerous and will erode and ultimately destroy our way of life.

Why are we Americans, known for innovation, so averse to opening our minds? Who is responsible for closing them, and how did they manage to do such a great job of it?

At the beach on a sunny day, what would the old tell the young?

17 Jul

If you look deep, faces reveal stories. One day on the beach, with faces all around, thoughts leaped from them.

In the posturing young males there was a cocky yet fragile confidence; a faith in one’s self, one’s strength and one’s energy, but also a poorly hidden fear of the unknown. There was a willingness to stay in place and time, and the troublesome idea that knowledge may be more important than charisma.

In the young females there was desire and hesitancy; a need for some unformed quality not found in the males; a necessity to move forward in place and time; a deep yet unacknowledged realization of superiority kept in the shadows by overly cautious optimism.

In the old there was either satisfaction and peace or pain and disgust. The first group had goals, some modest, that were met. The second harbored resentment; unhappy with fate and exhausted of second chances.

Seeing young and old together made me wonder what the old might tell the young.

Here is the advice I would give:

 

  • Realize you are much smarter than you think but that you know almost nothing.
  • Accept that good work requires lots of bad work.
  • Learn a second language; it will get you a second soul.
  • Play an instrument . . . well.
  • Read the great stories and myths of your culture. Let them guide you.
  • Place honor before money.
  • Know that truth is relative, fluid and deceptive.
  • Never deny a person his or her dignity.
  • Don’t wait.
  • Happiness is attainable but difficult to recognize.

 

As the words surface, the young, for a short time, will be both blind and deaf and wonderfully preoccupied. Then they will politely move on, overwhelmed by their own brand of discovery and their own style of learning, a more important kind, the kind even the old hold in high, if unspoken, regard; the juice of life that lodges forever in the mind.

Jews and Muslims together; vet neglect; the easy life in Greece

14 Jul

A small assortment of items:

I discovered a rare, interesting and encouraging case of Jews and Muslims uniting. Both are working together against a regional court ruling in Germany that outlaws circumcision, equating it with bodily harm, a criminal act.

While the court ruled in a regional case with only regional authority, hospitals across Germany are reacting by banning the procedure.

Jews and Muslims, who circumcise their male children, see this as an attack on religion and have found common ground.

From the New York Times:

            “The often very aggressive prejudice against religion as backward, irrational and opposed to science is increasingly defining popular opinion,” said Michael Bongardt, a professor of ethics from Berlin’s Free University who added that the ruling reflected a profound lack of understanding in modern Germany for religious belief.

 

###

 

Prolonged wars drain the treasury because killing is expensive. Equally expensive, with no end date, is the post-war cost of curing – and the difficulty of actually doing an effective job.

In June Bloomberg Businessweek  reported that:

  • 1.3 million disability cases were filed with the Veterans Administration in 2011, a 48 percent increase from 2008.
  • 905,000 cases are awaiting action.
  • 14,320  VA employees must handle the load.

There really is nothing new in this. Since the Revolutionary War, it has become routine for the government to abandon soldiers once they no longer are needed.

###

Eating ice cream with a Greek national, I learned a little more about why that nation and its economy cannot climb out of its fiscal swamp. The Greeks just aren’t working very hard, especially in the summer.

Perhaps we all knew this, or at least thought it. But my friend made it clearer, telling me how the Greeks take a fairly long siesta after a hearty and leisurely lunch (the day’s main meal). They nap from 2:30 p.m. until 6 p.m., when they return to work.

A light dinner generally is eaten around 10.

In the summer heat, however, only the merchants who service tourists go back to work after the nap.

Once I recovered from the realization that Greece is basically a part-time nation, I looked at my friend – a U.S. resident undergoing a great deal of stress from multiple layoffs in her family – and asked, “How in God’s name can you leave a place like that?”

###

Many clever lines in Woody Allen’s new movie, To Rome with Love.

Here is a rough paraphrase of one. It’s Woody’s character, a father speaking against his daughter’s new boyfriend, a left-wing Italian lawyer who he thinks is a communist.

“I understand being a leftist. I was a leftist when I was young. But I was never a Communist. Never. I couldn’t share a bathroom.”

In a fight with a laser-guided missile, don’t bring a motorcycle

7 Jul

By Lanny Morgnanesi

I think I’m trying to make a point with what follows. I’m just not sure what that point is. I will admit that for me the information I’m offering suggests some kind of gross, cosmic imbalance.

A Star Wars fanatic might call it a disturbance in the Force.

While Americans may not want to spend much on universal health care, we do spend a great deal to kill, whether we want to or not. Below is the long, indirect money trail that ultimately led to the execution of a man on a motorcycle. Intelligence agents had determined that he was a Taliban commander with plans to bomb a government building in Afghanistan. Details can be found in the New York Times.

Here’s the money trail:

 

$4.5 billion was spent on an aircraft carrier that assists in the Afghan war.

$100 million was spent for an F/A-18 strike fighter that sits on the carrier.

$100,000 was spent for an AGM-65E laser-guided missile aboard the fighter plane.

$160,000 was spent on the sortie that took the fighter off the carrier, into Afghanistan and up against the man on the motorcycle.

 

Having received his orders, the fighter pilot located Abdul Qayum riding along a dirt road on the back of bike driven by a very unlucky man. The fighter approached in a way that prevented Abdul Qayum and his driver from either seeing or hearing it.

The pilot released the AGM-65E laser-guided missile and accurately struck the motorcycle head-on, probably with about the force of a freight train.

There was very little left of the bodies or the motorcycle.

The world didn’t come to a halt because of this.  It was a simple consequence of war.

Still, it poses an important question:

Did our government do right or did it do wrong by Abdul Qayum and the American people? More specifically, is it immoral or just stupid to spend so much money and use so much technology to kill a single person? If so, what cost would be both moral and smart, and who determines that?

In my heart, I wish I had answers. Do you?

He’s not wearing pants, and they still don’t look

2 Jul

 

Because movies rely so heavily on visuals, film producers and directors  are good at describing complex concepts with just a few words.

I read such a description in a book review by Susan Balee in the Philadelphia Inquirer. It comes from film producer Michael Deane, who was trying to explain the importance of car crashes in movies.

It’s a great line, a true cultural barometer, and worthy of a posting:

 

A thousand people drive past the statue of David.  Two hundred look. A thousand people drive past a car wreck. A thousand look.

 

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