The octopodes among us

It is not normally my practice to blog from work (see “mortgage payments”), but having discovered historian Rob MacDougall’s Old is the New New via his link to Jeet’s own post on Homer Simpson and Irish stereotypes, I was immediately entranced by both his buoyant writing style and his remarkably eclectic range of historico-cultural interests — so I felt compelled to drop what I was doing and tell you about it. Go check out his site, and for your first mind-expanding sally, read his post Angels and Octopodes.

What are you still doing here? Go!

Super Poems

The Human Torch burning bright
The Human Torch burning bright

In a plot line inspired by Robert Frost’s poem Road Not Taken, fictional character Archie Andrews has already proposed to Veronica and will propose to Betty next month.  I wonder what it would be like if other comics were inspired by poems…(imagine dreamy music and blurry vision.)

On His Blindness—John Milton

Spiderman is blind, worries about his moral value as a superhero, comes to a new appreciation for spidey sense.

The Imperfect Enjoyment –Lord Rochester

Calvin and Susie finally do it, it doesn’t go well.  Probably because they’re in first grade.

The Waste Land—T.S. Eliot

The Green Lantern considers a stranger’s childhood in Austria, plays game of chess HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME into the fire Power Ring Jesus Buddah Shakespeare your mom HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME and we shall play a game of chess The Giant Puppet.

An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot—Alexander Pope

Superman laments his status as the number one superhero because it means lots of annoying hero-wannabes are all up in his grill for advice.

The Lady’s Dressing Room—Jonathan Swift

While visiting Professor Xavier at his Westchester mansion, Angel accidentally walks in on Marvel Girl while she’s changing. He finds out just how many pairs of spanx are required to get her into the green body suit.

Hollow Men—T.S. Eliot

Anthony Stark quits being Iron Man for a while, goes back to his company, but he’s just middle management.  It’s not as fun as being a super hero and driving a sweet Audi.  His alcoholism is less charming and more necessary

All those cat poems—T.S. Eliot

Batman loses his brooding, grumbley side.  Becomes jolly, whimsical, roly-poly.

The Shield of Achilles—W.H. Auden

Steve Rogers becomes Captain America, except World War II actually really terrible.

Tiger—William Blake

The Human Torch is in the forests of the night.

Great Moments in Selective Quotation

Winston Churchill: we don't need another book about him.
Winston Churchill: we don't need another book about him.

Not too many years ago, Andrew Roberts was a respected historian. He specialized in a very old fashioned sort of history, writing sympathetic biographies of conservative British bigwigs like Lord Halifax and Lord Salisbury. However conventional they might be, these volumes were based on original archival research and graced by a fluid prose style. The Salisbury biography won the prestigious Wolfson History Prize.

 

But in the last decade Roberts has degenerated into something much worse, a glib tabloid historian who writes vapid books celebrating the British Empire and its American successor. In this incarnation, Roberts has won some worldly success even as his scholarly reputation has been tarnished. Both George Bush and Dick Cheney are said to admire his pop histories, finding in them consoling lessons about how Anglo-American civilization has a duty to bring order to those ungrateful natives who live in faraway lands.

 

In the August 21 & 28, 2009 number of the Times Literary Supplement, the historian Richard J. Evans has a devastating review of Roberts’ latest book, The Storm of War: A New History of Second World War. As Evans notes, the new book and some of Roberts’ other recent works can be categorized as a “hastily written potboilers, widely criticized by reviewers for their inadequacies and inaccuracies.”

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Banner image: John Sell Cotman

Though few members of the public give much thought to ranking the prestige of different art forms, if forced to do so it is likely that watercolour painting would be granted an affectionate but decidedly second-tier status. We think of pretty landscapes formed with washed-out pigments: light browns, greens, yellows, pinks and reds that tend to pink, of Englishmen in sunhats sitting patiently in a field, enjoying a hobby for idle gentlemen. Meanwhile, in a stratum below all of this lies our childhood memories of dipping thin brushes in water, rubbing them against coins of hard paint, and applying the resultant mixture to soggy paper.

There is some truth to all of this, but it is at best a half-truth. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw the emergence of painters who used watercolours to sublime effect: Thomas Girtin, John Constable, and J.M.W. Turner – who produced three times as many paintings based on watercolours as on oils — elevated landscape art to a position of dominance, at least for a time. Lesser known today but judged by earlier critics to have been one of the most innovative and artistic of the watercolourists was John Sell Cotman (1782-1842).

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It came from the desert, part deux

Readers of the Globe and Mail will already have seen today’s front-page-above-the-fold article on diplomat Robert Fowler’s return to Canada and his interview on national TV about his abduction last year by a splinter group of AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — itself a splinter group of the Algerian insurgency of the 1990s), which adds some interesting first-person colour to this otherwise murky story. If you missed it the first time around, you may wish to read my August 7 post on the recent history and wider context of politics and insurgency in northwest Africa, and on the contested identity of AQIM itself.

It came from the desert

According to American and European intelligence and military sources, there is a growing menace to Western security in (to use the intervention-justifying cliché of recent times) “the vast ungoverned spaces” of northwest Africa. A New York Times story published earlier this month itemized a string of violent events in the region that officials blame on Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a group that apparently formed in the final years of the Algerian civil war of the 1990s and that was until recently known as the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC).

“Is there a threat? There sure is a threat,” Gen. William E. “Kip” Ward, commander of the two-year old United States Africa Command, told journalists in June, and the NYT piece echoes his tone of certainty. By only its third paragraph, the idea that the incidents “reflect Al Qaeda’s growing tentacles” in the region has already appeared as a foundational assumption.

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Global Citizenship Expert Reviews Japan’s Open Future

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I’d like to share a recent review of my book Japan’s Open Future: An Agenda for Global Citizenship by Dr. Hans Schattle, an expert on global citizenship and author of the 2007 book The Practices of Global Citizenship

I have not yet had the chance to read Schattle’ s book, but according to the Amazon review, it “provides a detailed and vivid account of how the term global citizenship has been interpreted and communicated in recent years,” and it “includes numerous fascinating conversations with global citizens from many nations, revealing how notions of global citizenship have been put in practice by an ever-increasing number of governing institutions, non-governmental organizations, corporations, schools, and universities.”

 It was exciting therefore to be reviewed by a global citizenship expert who could assess Japan’s Open Future in this broader context. Dr. Schattle wrote the review for Global Asia, a publication of the East Asia Foundation. The East Asia Foundation was established in Seoul in January 2005 with the goal of promoting “peace, prosperity security and sustainability in East Asia,” while Global Asia aims to “provide a compelling, serious, and responsible forum for distinguished thinkers, policymakers, political leaders and business people to debate the most important issues in Asia today.”

Here is his review in full.

“THE CONCEPT OF ‘global citizenship’ has gained momentum in recent years as a metaphor to describe both communities of individuals and professional and advocacy networks that operate across national boundaries. While global citizenship often comes across as an idea that transcends the limits of nationalism, much of the contemporary public discourse on global citizenship also uses the concept as a way to evaluate the policies and practices of national governments. It is this view of global citizenship, as a series of enlightened and responsive policy choices carried out by nation-states, that drives the authors of a sweeping new volume, Japan’s Open Future: An Agenda for Global Citizenship. John Haffner, Tomas Casas I Klett, and Jean-Pierre Lehmann have channeled their experiences in academic and business circles in Japan into a tour de force of the country’s recent history and the imperative for Japan to establish a new foreign policy ‘rooted in an enlarged conception of humanity that identifies Japan’s interests integrally with the fate of people everywhere.’
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A Garden at Last for Kolakowski

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I was sorry to hear from Jeet’s recent post that Leszek Kolakowski had died. As an undergrad I read and read again his penetrating collection of essays in Modernity on Endless Trial – an inspired title, I always thought. Fittingly enough for someone who was influenced by Kant, he shook me from some of my immature dogmas.

For instance, Kolakowski convinced me of the pointlessness of efforts to resolve and overcome doctrinal differences among the various Christian denominations, an insight that helped inform what became my commitment to secular pluralism.

He also helped me to question and resist lazy ways of speaking about left and right, as though these terms were static and self-evident. His essay “How to be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist,” which Jeet has already reprinted in his post, should be required reading in Poli Sci 101.

And his amusing piece “The General Theory of Not Gardening” reminds us that intellectually we get what we project: whatever school of thought we are trained in shapes how we see the world and so much within it, and often to the exclusion of competing schools and methodologies. The essay in my view is a tacit argument for an interdiscipinary education. But perhaps for Kolakowski it was rather meant as a witty caution against too much learning, because, as he wrote, “it is much easier to have a theory than to garden.”

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Life, the state, and a pack of Kents

Anamaria Marinca in Cristian Mungiu's "4 Weeks, 3 Months, and 2 Days" (2007)
Anamaria Marinca in Cristian Mungiu's "4 Weeks, 3 Months, and 2 Days" (2007)

At the beginning of Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or-winning film 4 Weeks, 3 Months, and 2 Days, the camera lingers on a goldfish in a square bowl. The fish seems to be trying to escape, not by jumping out, but by pushing directly against the glass, its tail thrusting spiritedly but without result.

It is an effective if too obvious metaphor for Romanian society under the latter days of communist strongman Nicolae Ceauşescu; the action here takes place in 1987, two years before the dictator’s fall. As the camera pulls back, we see that the bowl rests on a fold-out table in the dorm room of two female students at a regional technical college. The women are preparing for a trip of some kind. Gabita is packing a bag nervously, while Otilia ventures up and down the halls of the dorm, attempting to buy a pack of Kent cigarettes from a student-run black market dispensary two doors down, and purchasing soap for her friend to add to her baggage.

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Cleopatra’s Dessert and Shark Fin Soup

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At a Brussels nuclear law conference in 2007, I gave a technical paper on intergenerational issues in nuclear waste economics. I argued for the prudence of applying a conservative discount rate when setting aside funds for future nuclear waste management so as to guard against contingencies. Recently I had the chance to look at my argument again with fresh eyes when I obtained a copy of the conference proceedings (published by Bruylant), and I was struck by one passage that may be of broader interest, especially given what happened between 2007 and now in global financial markets:  

“The fifth and final argument for [a conservative discount rate] is the possibility of some unforeseen event that could dramatically change the economic circumstances of one country or another. In Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s excellent recent book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, the mathematician and former trader argues that history is dominated by highly improbable, high impact events. He cautions that markets are poor predictors of war, for example, that government predictions are generally unreliable, and that the accuracy of a forecast ‘degrades rapidly as you extend it through time.’ Or as he cautions in a nutshell: ‘No one in particular is a good predictor of anything. Sorry.’

The  Asian financial crisis of 1997 led to rapid – and quite unforeseeen – devaluation of the Thai baht, the Korean won, and the Indonesian rupiah. Argentina’s economy, meanwhile, experienced hyperinflation in the late 1980s and then collapsed between 1999 and 2002. Japan actually experienced deflation and a zero interest rate policy between 2001 and 2005, quite at odds with economic predictions for the country two decades earlier (and also at odds with what one would expect of the world’s second largest economy). These examples give us pause, because Argentina, Japan and Korea have nuclear plants, and Thailand announced plans in June 2007 to build the country’s first nuclear plant. All will need [nuclear waste] repositories in time. But more within the spirit of Taleb’s argument, the better lesson is to recognize that we have no idea where the next financial crisis will occur.”

The last sentence was meant as a general warning, not a premonition. We may have recognized the lesson of that sentence for now – humility – but we’re likely to forget it again in the next bull market.

As for the title of this post, it comes from the fact that seemingly small human preferences at one moment in time – apparently marginal increments of utility or enjoyment – can have huge impacts on future generations. As Cowen and Parfit write (I quote them in my paper), “Imagine finding out that you, having just reached your twenty-first birthday, must soon die of cancer because one evening Cleopatra [the ruler of ancient Egypt] wanted an extra helping of dessert.” The example sounds far-fetched, right? But the issue is whether incremental forms of consumption and enjoyment at the expense of the environment today – widespread enjoyment of shark fin soup, for example – are set to have similarly dramatic and harmful impacts on future generations.

As the British economist F.P. Ramsey wrote in an important paper in 1928 (“A Mathematical Theory of Saving,”), to “discount later enjoyments in comparison with earlier ones … is “a practice which is ethically indefensible and arises merely from the weakness of the imagination.” Sadly, and ironically, Ramsey died only two years after writing those words, only 26 years old, and with the wisdom of someone who had lived much longer.