Category Archives: history

Reflections on others’ perceptions of still others’ hard-workingness

(originally written Dec 20, 2011 — part of my Great Upload of 2013)

>

I saw an item the other morning suggesting that as a country, Italians actually work 20% more hours per year than Germans and French.  This runs counter to the popular moralistic argument that countries that run into debt troubles, do so because they’re lazy.

>

The idea that poor countries are poor because they’re not hard-working, is a variant on the outlook that wealth is a moral outcome of life.  This perspective holds that if you’re rich, you deserve it because you were harder-working / smarter / more cunning than everyone else.  And by corollary, if someone else is poor, it’s because they’re lazy / dumb / naive.  By further corollary, if you’re poor (or less rich than you want to be) it’s inevitably someone else’s fault, of course — government is a popular target.  :)

>

Taking a broader perspective, many in the West retain the silly notion that the “Protestant work ethic” powered the Industrial Revolution (instead of, say, the exploitation of fossil fuels, which allowed small European countries to spend unprecedented amounts of energy doing and making things, like dominate the rest of the world).  Popular historian Niall Ferguson seems to’ve devoted a chapter to the Protestant work ethic in his new book, Civilization: the West and the Rest, calling it one of the West’s historical advantages.

>

This bias is most revealingly shown in the comments of an Australian diplomat reporting back from a trip to Japan at the turn of the 20th century, using the “l-“word or some similar paraphrase to describe the indolent islanders, who could never hope to achieve anything in the go-go world of world economies.  (I came across it in a South Korean economist’s book, Bad Samaritans.)  Within a few decades, of course, Japan had industrialized, militarized, and attempted to colonize East Asia with — if this is possible — even more barbarity than shown by the Europeans in their heyday.

And it’s not just recently that the Japanese got industrious either.  Within a decade of the introduction of firearms around 1542 (through Europe, not China, funnily enough) Japan may have had more guns than any other country in the world.  For some reason, once the country had been unified, the Shoguns introduced the world’s most comprehensive gun-control laws…  :)

No doubt other cultures have similar stories, too.  One can imagine what a Chinese ambassador in the Middle Ages might’ve thought of the hapless Europeans, who lacked the Five Great Inventions: the compass, gunpowder, papermaking, the printing press, and the seedless mandarin orange.  (Others’ lists may vary.  ;)  )

>

Such context also helps to make sense of stories closer to home: there was a recent Globe & Mail article about how 1/3 of Canadians expect to be paying mortgages past the age of 65.  This does not a stress-free citizenry make.  (Most frightening for us post-baby-boomers: old people always vote!!)

>

One can wonder why someone would sign up for a mortgage that retires after they’d like to (why anyone would agree to provide that mortgage, is another question).  But it could be that they were taking cues from Ben Bernanke, the Chair of the US Federal Reserve.  The central banker refinanced his house twice (!) in the past decade, and at the age of fifty-eight, still owes almost $700,000.  Assuming a 25-year-amortization just for fun, he could be paying that back, well into his eighties!

One wonders if Bank of Canada chief Mark Carney also falls into that all-encompassing “do as I say, not as I do” category.  Fortunately for Bernanke, he has kids, so if “worse comes to worst” (that’s how you’re supposed to say it, people!) he can always move in with them.  :)

Second fiddles (usurping first-fiddle status)

(Originally written April 29, 2012 — part of my Great Upload of 2013)

>

Cory Schneider’s replacement of Roberto Luongo as Vancouver’s #1 goalie has been all the talk for the past week or so.  But so solely focused was I on a work deadline, that I didn’t even cobble my thoughts in the extraneous minutes of each day, as I normally do.  (Tea-drinking social caterpillar that I am, I don’t spend much time chatting or on coffee breaks.  ;)  )

So, now’s my chance!

>

One really feels for Schneider, who put up astounding numbers (1.31 GAA! .960 save percentage!) but got two losses in the three games he appeared in.  It’s a bit like Dominik Hasek’s performance in ’93-’94 (1.61, .950) when the Devils beat his Sabres in seven, in the opening round.  Since Devils’ goalie Martin Brodeur went three playoff rounds and only faced twice as many shots as Hasek, you can roughly guesstimate that Hasek was 50% busier than Brodeur each night — and still almost pulled it off.

Schneider’s rise to #1 status triggered a few items in the quirky relational database that is my brain, about understudies making it big.  Gloria Gaynor’s disco anthem I Will Survive was actually the B-side of the record, until DJ’s decided it was better than the now-long-forgotten A-side (“Substitute”).  What’s a B-side?  A “throwaway” song which wasn’t good enough to be on the album, so got dumped on the back side of a vinyl record single.  ;)

>

A case with more cultural impact was when Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers got eclipsed by their opening act… the Jackson Five (featuring a young Michael Jackson).  Perhaps despairing of ever making it in music, Vancouvers’ co-founder Thomas Chong drifted for awhile before embarking on a series of, ahem, counter-cultural movies with Cheech Marin…

>

And on the business side, William Wrigley made baking soda.  His chewing gum started off as a freebie giveaway in baking soda tins, at least until demand for the gum exceeded demand for the baking soda, and he decided to focus on that instead.  (Funnily enough, the baking soda itself had started out as a freebie giveaway with soap, which was Wrigley’s original business before he’d switched to baking soda!  Who knows?  In an alternate universe, “Ivory” might be manufactured by the conglomerate of “Proctor, Gamble & Wrigley”.)

>

Moving back to hockey, everyone’s familiar with the freewheeling, “firewagon hockey” the Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers played in the 1980’s.  The all-offense all-the-time style was actually brought to North America by the Winnipeg Jets in the 1970’s, back when they were part of the World Hockey Association.  The Jets paired a couple Swedes (Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson) with the aging-but-still-great Bobby Hull, and built their team around the European game.  They won three WHA championships, including the last-ever one in 1979, against an Edmonton Oilers team featuring Wayne Gretzky, which coach / GM Glen Sather was savvily building around the same model.

In a twist, the WHA championship was called the Avco Cup, named after a division of Textron, a conglomerate whose carbon fiber materials division Ballard bought, eleven years ago.  So there’s actually a (very tenuous) Ballard link to all this!  Cool, eh?

[note: I was working for Ballard Power Systems, when I wrote this, primarily for work colleagues]

When billionaires brawl… (some US election thoughts)

So, the US elects its next President (or re-elects its current one) today.  One hopes that our southern cousins avoid the fiascos of 2000 and 2004.

As all but the young recall, the 2000 Gore vs. Bush US election hinged on Florida, where George Bush’s brother Jeb was governor.  Before the election, Republican operatives had conducted a voter purge to illegally remove thousands of people from the voters’ lists — conveniently, people who overwhelmingly tended to vote Democratic.  After the election, a Supreme Court voted 5-4 that rejected votes shouldn’t be re-examined and where appropriate, added to the tallies.  Two judges on the majority had been appointed by Bush’s father, George HW Bush, who chose not to recuse themselves from the judgement.

The voter purge, incidentally, was a feature story by the investigative journalist (and Canadian!) Greg Palast in December 2000 in the online magazine Salon, and was televised in early 2001… on the BBC.  It never aired in America.

In the 2004 Kerry vs. Bush election, Ohio went Republican after condemnable measures by the Republican state government to suppress voting in Kerry-leaning districts.  (Astonishingly, the state even limited the access of international observers.)  It couldn’t’ve hurt that the private-sector companies which owned and operated the voting machines, were Republican as well.  To quote from the blistering Harper’s story, None Dare Call it Stolen:

In Butler County the Democratic candidate for State Supreme Court took in 5,347 more votes than Kerry did. In Cuyahoga County ten Cleveland precincts “reported an incredibly high number of votes for third party candidates who have historically received only a handful of votes from these urban areas”—mystery votes that would mostly otherwise have gone to Kerry. In Franklin County, Bush received nearly 4,000 extra votes from one computer, and, in Miami County, just over 13,000 votes appeared in Bush’s column after all precincts had reported. In Perry County the number of Bush votes somehow exceeded the number of registered voters, leading to voter turnout rates as high as 124 percent. Youngstown, perhaps to make up the difference, reported negative 25 million votes.

Yes, the roughly 60,000 voters in Youngstown, Ohio cast roughly four hundred negative ballots, each.  When a mandatory hand recount of 3% of Ohio’s precincts showed discrepancies between the manual totals and the computer-generated ones, by law full recount should’ve been performed, but one wasn’t.

Bush’s margin of victory in Ohio was 100,000, for a 51% to 49% advantage in the vote totals — which may or may not have been bigger than the effect of the manipulations outlined above.  We’ll never know whether Bush would’ve won the state without performance-enhancing help, but the Simpsons’ Mr. Burns commented a few years ago that at least Bush won the second time around… unless people found the missing ballot boxes.

>

Fortunately, Obama seems to have a big enough lead in 2012 that these kinds of electoral chicanery crimes won’t change the outcome — though one can’t fault Mitt Romney for trying.  He’s got close ties to Hart InterCivic, which provides voting machines for Ohio.  Fortunately for the optics of the situation, Hart only counts a small percentage of Ohio’s total votes.  Organized voter-intimidation and -disenfranchisement tactics will probably have a bigger effect, but again not big enough to remove Obama’s apparent lead.

Continue reading

Lana Wachowski, Joe Simpson and our evolving social mores

The recent release of Cloud Atlas, piqued my interest in writing some thoughts about sexual identity.  As has been fairly well publicized leading to the movie’s opening, Lana Wachowski (born Larry) underwent a gender transition (“sex change”) a few years ago; and from all accounts, seems the happier for it.

The even-more-recent allegations that Joe Simpson (Jessica and Ashlee Simpson’s father) came out to his family as gay, mean I’m going to scratch that itch, even if it might mean this blog gets permanently filtered for “sexual content”.

So, first off, congratulations to these two for being able to affirm their identities; one hopes that they didn’t endure too much suffering before taking a big leap of faith and entrusting in their friends’ and family’s acceptance and love.  And if anyone didn’t accept them for acknowledging who they happened to have been all along, well, jeers to those folks.

>

Animals’ sexual diversity has been exhaustively documented, and it’s no surprise that humans are like our distant kin.  To summarize in a sentence, one’s equipment comes at conception (depending on whether one has a Y-chromosome), but one’s inclinations come several weeks later, as hormones shape foetal development.

>

If I remember correctly from years-ago readings in mythology, the pride community (homosexuals, transgender folks, and the like) dominate the religious ranks in some so-called “primitive” religious traditions: they are the shamans, the witch doctors, the priests, and so forth.   These societies have belief structures that these holy people are special, because most people are “only male” or “only female”, but the gods gave the holy people both male and female powers.  We might see these social mores as positive, and affirming of the diversity of the human experience.

This tendency may not be unique to “primitive” religious traditions, either.  If you were  gay in medieval Europe and didn’t want to fake your way through a lifelong marriage, there was only one place you could go to avoid suspicion: the clergy.  (I’m including monasteries and convents in this category.)  So overrepresentation of the pride community may not just be a feature of “primitive” religions.  Mind you, while primitive shamans celebrated their god-given identities, their counterparts in world religions would have suffered deep and unhealthy repression — and would probably have adopted a militantly homophobic tone, to throw suspicion off themselves!

Our own era is littered with cases of such “gay homophobes” so uncomfortable with themselves, that they verbally attacked their non-straight peers, perhaps to avoid being detected themselves (e.g. see here).  One of the most notorious was George W. Bush loyalist Ken Mehlman, who, naturally, opposed same-sex marriage until he came out.  He’s widely believed to have helped or masterminded a plan to jam the phone lines of a Democratic Party get-out-the-vote operation in 2002, to prevent them from reaching New Hampshire voters, enabling the Republican candidate (John “Colin Powell only endorsed Obama because he’s black” Sununu) to win a narrow victory.

[Addendum: as noted in the comments, Mehlman is now proving quite an ally for gender equality now, perhaps making up for lost time.  And for this, he should be commended at least as energetically as he should be criticized for his past transgressions against his community.  As much as I’d like to think I’d’ve done things more uprightly than him if I’d been in his place, I’m not in his place — and it’s dangerous to let oneself get seduced into a sense of self-righteousness.]

>

If religious homophobia is perpetuated by troubled gay authorities who are trying to cover up their own sexuality, we might wonder whether this was a feature of the original religious teachings, or whether this was a later addition.

A famous later-addition many people will be familiar with, is the notion of Original Sin, which doesn’t appear in the Christian scriptures, was first conceived by Iraeneus in the 2nd century, was finally popularized by St. Augustine about four centuries after Jesus’ death, and finally confirmed as Christian doctrine in the year 529.  Sorry, make that Western Christian doctrine.  While it may be a central tenet to Catholics and Protestants, the idea is as alien to Eastern Orthodox Christians as it is to Jews, and as it would have been to the first few centuries of Christian converts.

So, let’s go down the rabbit-hole, shall we?

>

Continue reading

Muslims in America and other hidden ethnic histories

Yves at Naked Capitalism cross-posted a wonderful Alternet piece by Lynn Parramore, eviscerating the idea that Islam is new or alien to America.  In truth, the Muslim faith has had a long (if lightly-populated) history in the United States.  Islam arrived in America so early, the Puritans hadn’t even burnt their first witch!!

While the 1620 voyage of The Mayflower is deeply mythologized in the American psyche, the 1630 arrival of devout Muslim Anthony Janszoon van Salee in the New Netherlands, gets a lot less attention.  Which is a pity, because he seems to’ve been a business magnate — he had the foresight to buy Manhattan real estate back when it was cheap!  (It seems he once owned the land on which Wall Street was built.)  On top of that, he winds up being an ancestor of Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the richest men of all time.  Why is this Horatio Alger-style “self-made man” not already an American legend??

(For those of you keeping track, van Salee arrived a short ten years after The Mayflower.  According to Wiki, New England executed its first “witch” seventeen years later, in 1647.  And the Salem witch trials occurred in 1692/1693.)

>

It’s deplorable that a fringe of American society wants to pretend the country is / should be Christian, on the flimsy and faulty premise that it was founded as such.  While the first pioneers in the 1600’s may have been passionately religious, by the late 1700’s the colonies were led by men whose intellect helped shape the Age of Enlightenment: or, as it was also known, the Age of Reason.  For many of them, the philosophy of choice was Deism — the atheism of its day, attacked by the righteous cacophony of religious conservatives.

One example is Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet Common Sense may have done more than any other document to galvanize the independence movement.  He was ostracized later in life for his scathing criticism of Christianity, his funeral attended by a mere six people.  The more potent case is Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, who created his own Gospel — commonly known as the “Jefferson Bible” — by literally cutting-and-pasting the four gospels of the New Testament into one combined, miracle-free, Resurrection-less narrative.  (Definitely not the behaviour of the faithfully devout, or one considering the text holy.)  To quote from the Wiki article:

[It] begins with an account of Jesus’s birth without references to angels (at that time), genealogy, or prophecy. Miracles, references to the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, and Jesus’ resurrection are also absent from his collection.

With “Christians” like that, who needs atheists?

>

>

Holding a mirror to country and community reveals hidden ethnic histories of our own — and not just of the Aboriginal peoples, who have suffered seemingly-interminable injustices over the centuries.  In my home province of British Columbia, Vancouver and the surrounding suburbs has seen an influx of east Asians in recent decades.  (My wife among them.)

As of the 2006 census, 45% of residents in the suburb of Richmond claimed Chinese heritage.  Given that the Chinese population grew by 20% in the five years from 2001 to 2006, it’s possible that as I write this (2012) Chinese-Canadians are the majority in Richmond.  Delving further, we see that “visible minorities” in Richmond have a formidable 2/3 majority!  Which makes for some exceptional cuisine.  :)

Continue reading