Quotulatiousness

October 5, 2014

Jeremy Clarkson riles up Argentinian car fans

Filed under: Americas, Britain, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

For a change, it isn’t anything he said:

Top Gear‘s crew has had to abandon their cars at the roadside and flee Argentina after being pelted with stones. The incident happened after it emerged they were using a vehicle with a number plate that apparently refers to the Falklands War.

A Porsche with the registration number H982 FKL, which some people suggested could refer to the Falklands conflict of 1982, was among those abandoned. BBC bosses have said the number plate was merely a coincidence and was not chosen deliberately, but it led to protests in Argentina, including a demonstration by a group of war veterans who protested outside the hotel used by the show team.

[...]

The executive producer of Top Gear, Andy Wilman, said: “Top Gear production purchased three cars for a forthcoming programme; to suggest that this car was either chosen for its number plate, or that an alternative number plate was substituted for the original, is completely untrue.”

Even if Wilman is dissembling about the license plate … just how flipping sensitive do you have to be to object to a sort-of abbreviation, in a foreign language, in the characters on a license plate? Who would ordinarily notice or care what the license plate may or may not hint at, unless someone is busy trying to stir up trouble? That said, Top Gear thrives on controversy, so it’s quite possible that they hoped they’d draw some attention, but probably not to the extent of being forced out of the country.

Update: Clarkson is now accusing the Argentine government of setting a trap for the Top Gear film crew.

The presenter was said to have infuriated locals by driving through South America in a Porsche with the numberplate H982 FKL, seen as a goading reference to the 1982 Falklands conflict.

However, Clarkson said the plate was “not the issue” — he claimed it was an unfortunate coincidence and that he removed it two days into the trip — and blamed the state government for orchestrating an ambush by mobs armed with pickaxe handles, paving stones and bricks.

“There is no question in my mind that we walked into a trap,” Clarkson said.

“We were English (apart from one Aussie camera guy and a Scottish doctor” and that was a good enough reason for the state government to send 29 people into a night filled with rage and flying bricks.”

He claimed the crew were “plainly herded into an ambush” and said: “Make no mistake, lives were at stake.”

[...]

The team were confronted at their hotel by a group claiming to be war veterans.

“Richard Hammond, James May and I bravely hid under the beds in a researcher’s room while protesters went through the hotel looking for us,” Clarkson said.

They then fled by plane to Buenos Aires — having “rounded up the girls” on the team — leaving the rest of their crew behind.

The crew were forced to make a gruelling six-hour trek to the Chilean border, abandoning the Porsche and their camera equipment at the side of the road.

September 18, 2014

QotD: The Columbus Myth

Filed under: Americas, History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Another example that I have encountered repeatedly is the Columbus myth, the belief that the difference between Columbus and those who argued against his voyage was that he knew the world was round and they thought it was flat. It is a widely believed story, but it is not only false, it is very nearly the opposite of the truth. A spherical earth had been orthodox cosmology ever since classical antiquity. The difference between Columbus and his critics was that they knew how big around the earth was, they knew how wide Asia was, they could subtract the one number from the other, hence they could calculate that he would run out of food and water long before he got to his intended destination. Columbus, in contrast, combined a much too small estimate for the circumference of the earth with a much too large figure for the width of Asia in order to convince himself that the difference was a short enough distance to make his planned voyage possible.

Why is this wildly ahistorical account so widely believed? Because it lets moderns feel superior to all those ignorant people in the past.

I could offer other examples of the same pattern, beliefs about people in the past inconsistent with the historical evidence, based on and supporting the unstated assumption of our superiority to them. It is the same motive that makes men believe they are superior to women, women that they are superior to men, Americans that they are superior to foreigners, Frenchmen that they are superior to everyone. Feeling superior feels good, and the less likely you are to confront the people you feel superior to, the easier it is to maintain it.

Men often meet women, women men, Americans foreigners, Frenchmen non-French, which can be a problem. Believing in your superiority to people long dead is safer.

David Friedman, “A Modern Conceit”, Ideas, 2014-09-16.

July 10, 2014

Argentina’s economic woes – tourist edition

Filed under: Americas, Economics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:56

How bad is the Argentinian economy right now? So bad that middle class Argentine tourists in Brazil eat at soup kitchens, according to the Wall Street Journal‘s Miriam Jordan:

The state-funded Citizen Restaurant in downtown Rio is accustomed to serving a balanced meal at an unbeatable price to about 5,000 poor residents of this city each day. During the World Cup, however, this cafeteria has been catering to another clientele as well: middle-class Argentines.

“We serve homeless people, drug addicts, blue-collar workers and retirees,” said Jose Barbosa, Rio de Janeiro state coordinator for food security. “This World Cup we have been welcoming Argentine soccer fans, too.”

With the value of the Argentine peso deeply eroded amid the country’s economic woes, many Argentines who have flocked here to root for their soccer team [...] say they’re counting every Brazilian real they spend — and hunting for bargains. On Monday, dozens of Argentines lined up alongside Brazilians to buy lunch at the cafeteria, where a meal of black beans, white rice, salad and choice of meatballs or chicken sausage cost 1 real, or about 40 U.S. cents.

“Rio is very expensive — that’s why I am here,” said Fernando Castillo, a 24-year-old bartender from Buenos Aires. With gusto, he dug into his plate of food, which sat on a plastic-blue tray beside a cup of guava juice and a fresh orange for desert, both included in the price. “This is perfect,” he said, “especially at this price.”

“The generous portion keeps us filled all day,” added his cousin, Thomas Castillo.

[...]

To save on accommodations and flights, many Argentines drove to Brazil. In Rio, their campers and cars occupied prime beachfront parking spots until the city evicted them.

It then allowed them to park vehicles and pitch tents in a vast parking lot downtown that abuts the permanent bleachers where Rio’s samba schools perform during the annual carnival celebrations.

Word spread quickly at these parking lots that Citizen Restaurant, within walking distance of the Argentine encampment, offered good Brazilian fare at a bargain-basement price in a clean, safe environment. “It started with 10 of them one day, then 50 of them came and now we’re seeing about 200 Argentines each day,” said Ricardo Chaves, the eatery’s administrator.

July 9, 2014

Thoughts on the “blitzkreig of Belo Horizonte”

Filed under: Americas, Europe, History, Soccer — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 14:59

Colby Cosh, self described as having descended from “multiple generations of German-killers” explains why he’s content with Brazil’s soccer disaster at the hands of the German national team yesterday:

It’s already being called “The Mineiraço. Yesterday’s 7-1 slaughter of Brazil by Germany in the semifinals of the World Cup seemed an awful lot like a historical turning point, and the political ripples are already being discussed. Perhaps they are not even confined to Brazil, although the recriminations there are bound to be awesome: the government spent untold billions on a golden stage for Brazilian glory, and ended up with the sporting equivalent of the Challenger disaster, if Challenger had crashed intact into a packed stadium where the Pope was giving a homily.

What seems most remarkable to me is not the match itself but the prelude. I grew up in a colony of Anglo-Saxon Soccer World in which Germany was inevitably cast as a cartoon villain and Brazil was everybody’s second favourite national side. Brazil were what Canada fancies itself to be in hockey: the native “speakers” of the prestige dialect of the game — a national noblesse, possessing self-conscious power to establish, dictate, and impose its ideal form on lesser breeds. (Even Canadian children who played soccer were dimly aware of this: the rich ones would signify their coolness by wearing Brazil kit to practices, as I’m sure Bulgarian youth hockey players must signify to their mates by flaunting expensive Crosbiana.)

[...]

Anglo Soccer World seemed to be very much leaning toward Germany in the run-up to the Mineiraço. No doubt this is partly because we are getting ever further from the Second World War. Germany has been mostly tame, friendly, and progressive for 70 years, the Biblical specification of a human lifetime. The length of this period is approaching the duration of the trouble to which German hyper-German-ness subjected Europe between the Battle of Sedan and the Holocaust. It is hard to see any lingering trace of the old ills of the German national character in contemporary Germany.

Update: Compare the responses to yesterday’s game to the reaction after the 1954 West German team’s victory:

… the West German victory was hardly something that was welcome elsewhere in Europe, particularly to the authorities in East Berlin. Less than ten years after the end of a world war for which the Germans were held responsible, there was understandably little public enthusiasm in Britain and France at the outcome of the competition. Nonetheless the extent of the dismay and even vitriol at the time expressed in the media of both countries requires further explanation and points to deep-seated concerns in Britain and France about the speed of German economic recovery and re-armament in the mid-1950s.

For the East German regime, West Germany’s victory at the World Cup was the worst possible outcome. Communist leaders had been praying for a Hungarian win in order to prove the much-claimed ‘superiority of socialist sport’ and, by implication, the Communist form of government. Hungary’s defeat appeared to prove that the opposite was true, just at a time when East German leaders were trying to promote their state as the ‘progressive option’ for all Germans, as opposed to what they called the ‘Nazi successor state’ of the Federal Republic.

[...]

It was two events off the pitch – one immediately after the final and the other a few days later – that were to give ammunition to those keen to link the West German victory to allegations of resurgent German nationalism. First, as a rain-soaked Fritz Walter led his team up to collect the Jules Rimet trophy from the man whose name it bore and a Swiss band played the German national anthem, a boozy section of the German fans began singing the banned first verse of the national anthem – ‘Deutschland, Deutschland, über alles’ rather than the Federal Republic’s officially sanctioned third verse – ‘Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit’ (unity, justice and freedom). Foreign journalists present immediately took note.

A few days later the damage was compounded by a speech given at the official victory celebration in a Munich beer cellar by the President of the German Football Association (Deutscher Fussball-Bund), ‘Peco’ Bauwens. In an atmosphere heavy with alcohol and emotion, Bauwens – who had joined the Nazi Party as early as 1933 – told the reportedly bemused players not only that they had been inspired by the spirit of the Nordic God, Wotan, but that victory had been made possible by their adherence to Der Führerprinzip. By this he appears to have meant unflinching obedience to a strategy worked out by the coach, Josef (Sepp) Herberger. The speech, which was being broadcast live by Bavarian Radio, was mysteriously cut short at this point and the tapes subsequently lost, but foreign reporters monitoring the coverage had already heard enough.

July 7, 2014

QotD: The mother of mediocrity is the university

Filed under: Americas, Bureaucracy, History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Why, almost everywhere you look, should such mediocrity triumph?

Of course, if mediocrity has not triumphed throughout the Western world, there is nothing to explain. There is, after all, no need to search for the origins of the nonexistent. But let us suppose that there is such a trend to mediocrity, a manifestation of which is bureaucratization: What can explain it? (Here I should mention that we should not get too exercised about definitional matters: Words should be used as precisely as possible, but not more precisely than possible. We know what a cloud is without being able to define its limits.)

The explanation lies in the expansion of tertiary education. Earlier in my life I used to think that this was unequivocally a good thing: The more educated a population, the better. But length of education, or attendance at supposedly educational establishments, is not the same thing as education itself. But in the modern world, where governments have to demonstrate tangible progress to their electorates, length of education and education are confounded.

Guerrilla movements in the last half-century or so in Latin American countries, seeking to establish totalitarian utopias, were caused by the expansion of tertiary education, not by peasant discontent. The graduates of that education — many of them, at any rate — found after obtaining their diplomas that the only work available to them, if any at all, was beneath their new status as educated person, a status that formerly would have entitled them to both respect and an important position in society. If they found work, it was work that they could have done without having gone to university. Bitter disappointment and resentment was the natural consequence.

We in the developed Western world do not have guerrilla movements, at any rate to a significant extent. Our equivalent is the bureaucracy that administers increasingly politically correct regulations. In this way people who have gone to the considerable trouble of obtaining a tertiary education that is of value to them neither vocationally nor intellectually may avenge themselves upon an unjust world, though their anger can’t be assuaged, being the only thing that gives meaning to their lives.

Thus, the mother of mediocrity is the university.

Theodore Dalrymple, “Triumph of the Mediocre”, Taki’s Magazine, 2014-01-19.

June 25, 2014

Mexico’s champion crony capitalist

Filed under: Americas, Economics, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:31

I don’t read the various financial magazines’ regular fanboi coverage of multi-billionaires, so I wasn’t all that aware of the fabulous wealth of Mexico’s Carlos Slim. Slim is one of the richest men in the world, but he doesn’t owe his success to technical innovation or outstanding business skills … he owns the Mexican telephone market thanks to a sweetheart “privatization” deal he got from his good friend in the Presidential palace back in 1990. In other words, his fortune largely derives from his ability to skim off vast profits from a captive customer base. Steve Sailer rounds up some interesting snippets about Slim, including a bit from French economist and current media darling Thomas Piketty:

Andres Oppenheimer wrote for PBS:

    Mexico in the early nineties was similar to American capitalism in the late 1870s. Azcarraga, Slim, and Hernandez were not much different from railroad and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie or oil trader John D. Rockefeller. Like the American “Robber Barons” of their time, the Mexico Twelve were making a fortune from their close partnership with the government. And to their immense relief, Mexico was not contemplating anything like the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which had broken up U.S. monopolies through forced sell-offs.

In return, Salinas demanded at a private dinner party on February 23, 1993 that Slim and Mexico’s other 29 oligarchs donate $25 million each to the ruling party’s campaign war chest, a total of $750 million. Oppenheimer notes:

    Telecommunications magnate Slim … supported the motion, adding only that he wished the funds had been collected privately, rather than at a dinner, because publicity over the banquet could “turn into a political scandal.”

Now, you might think that there is something unseemly about a regular contender for the title of World’s Richest Man making his fortune off the relatively small Mexican economy. We’re constantly told that Mexicans have to be allowed to flock to America to escape starvation in their own land. Yet one well-connected monopolist is permitted to pile up an enormous trove by charging exorbitant fees for the lifeblood of any economy, communications.

A 2006 article in the New York Times pointed out:

    The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an association of wealthy countries based in Paris, reports that Mexicans pay some of the highest phone rates in the world, with calls costing 50 percent more than the group’s average. Forbes reported that the average monthly phone bill for a small business in Mexico is $132, compared with $60 in the United States.

Slim epitomizes the toll taken on the Mexican economy by monopolists:

    As a result, said Mr. Ortiz of the Bank of Mexico, economic growth is one percentage point less than it could be with real competition. There are not enough jobs to keep workers from migrating to the United States …

Piketty, however, is offended by how Slim

    … is often described in the Western press as one who owes his great wealth to monopoly rents obtained through (implicitly corrupt) government favors…

(Slim, himself, has been proactive about improving his press coverage: in 2008 he financially bailed out the New York Times and is now the newspaper of record’s second-biggest owner. Not surprisingly, Slim, who profits lavishly off long distance calls between illegal immigrants in America and their loved ones in Mexico, doesn’t get mentioned much in the Times’ vociferous denunciations of immigration skeptics.)

Piketty, in his inimitable prose style, explains that criticizing Slim is a mistake, if not downright racist:

    Rather than indulge in constructing a moral hierarchy of wealth, which in practice often amounts to an exercise in Western ethnocentrism, I think it is more useful to try to understand the general laws that govern the dynamics of wealth—leaving individuals aside and thinking instead about modes of regulation, and in particular taxation, that apply equally to everyone, regardless of nationality.

In other words, rather than the citizens of Mexico using the rule of law to break up Slim’s monopoly, as Americans did with Rockefeller’s, the important thing is for readers of Capital to take global control.

What could possibly go wrong in Piketty’s planetary empire?

June 16, 2014

FIFA and the World Cup

Filed under: Americas, Bureaucracy, Football — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:29

H/T to Roger Henry for the link.

June 14, 2014

Spain meets Nemesis (wearing Netherlands team jerseys)

Filed under: Americas, Soccer — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:51

I didn’t watch this game, but apparently I missed quite the event. A Dutch friend of mine took to Twitter to express his joy through the course of the game:

May 31, 2014

Scott Feschuk: “How murdered might you get at the World Cup?”

Filed under: Americas, Humour, Soccer — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:10

Worried about your personal safety at the World Cup in Brazil? Scott Feschuk helps you to be as worried as you should be:

Has there been much corruption?

Define “much.” If you mean scattered incidents of price gouging to line the pockets of a few local firms and politicians, then yes. But if you mean a grandly orchestrated, systemic pilfering of hundreds of millions of dollars, then yes. Brazilian soccer legend Pelé describes it as a “disgrace.” (By the way, it is mandatory that Pelé be quoted in every World Cup article, no matter the topic: RAIN COMING WEDNESDAY ACCORDING TO ‘FEELING IN KNEE,’ LEGEND DECLARES.)

[...]

If I go to the World Cup, how murdered will I get?

British papers have been playing up the threat of violent crime, depicting the cities of Brazil as crime-infested hellscapes through which there is scant hope of safe passage. The way they tell it, Rio is like Gotham before Batman or Times Square before Applebee’s.

So concern is overblown?

Oh God, no. But listen: the people of Brazil are well aware of your fears. To their credit, they’ve taken substantive action to address the issue by, um, well … they published a brochure.

What — a guide on how to react when you’re mugged at gunpoint, haha?

Yep. Brazilians have a lot of interesting traditions. They speak directly. They touch one another lightly while talking. And their criminals like to kill people who make a fuss over getting robbed. They even have a word for a mugging that escalates into a murder: latrocinios. You know people are serious about something when they have a word or phrase for it. Just ask the people at McDonald’s about Kirstie Alley and second breakfast.

What does the brochure recommend?

Remain calm. Do your best not to cry out. If you stay largely motionless and don’t say a word, it will be over soon enough. Pretty much the same guidelines to follow when losing your virginity.

Amusing Telex exchange as Falkland Islands were invaded by Argentina

Filed under: Americas, Britain, History — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:35

Falklands invasion Telex conversation

H/T to Jonathan Liew for the image.

May 15, 2014

The real Havana, outside “Cuba’s Elysium”

Filed under: Americas, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Michael Totten lied to Cuban immigration officials to get into Cuba. Then he went outside the area of Havana that the foreign tourists see. The movie Elysium is supposed to be about a dystopian LA in the future, where the plutocrats live in vast luxury aboard a satellite, looking down on the squalor of those left behind. Totten says this is a pretty accurate description of Cuba today:

Outside its small tourist sector, the rest of [Havana] looks as though it suffered a catastrophe on the scale of Hurricane Katrina or the Indonesian tsunami. Roofs have collapsed. Walls are splitting apart. Window glass is missing. Paint has long vanished. It’s eerily dark at night, almost entirely free of automobile traffic. I walked for miles through an enormous swath of destruction without seeing a single tourist. Most foreigners don’t know that this other Havana exists, though it makes up most of the city — tourist buses avoid it, as do taxis arriving from the airport. It is filled with people struggling to eke out a life in the ruins.

Marxists have ruled Cuba for more than a half-century now. Fidel Castro, Argentine guerrilla Che Guevara, and their 26th of July Movement forced Fulgencio Batista from power in 1959 and replaced his standard-issue authoritarian regime with a Communist one. The revolutionaries promised liberal democracy, but Castro secured absolute power and flattened the country with a Marxist-Leninist battering ram. The objectives were total equality and the abolition of money; the methods were total surveillance and political prisons. The state slogan, then and now, is “socialism or death.”

Cuba was one of the world’s richest countries before Castro destroyed it — and the wealth wasn’t just in the hands of a tiny elite. “Contrary to the myth spread by the revolution,” wrote Alfred Cuzan, a professor of political science at the University of West Florida, “Cuba’s wealth before 1959 was not the purview of a privileged few … Cuban society was as much of a middle-class society as Argentina and Chile.” In 1958, Cuba had a higher per-capita income than much of Europe. “More Americans lived in Cuba prior to Castro than Cubans lived in the United States,” Cuban exile Humberto Fontova, author of a series of books about Castro and Guevara, tells me. “This was at a time when Cubans were perfectly free to leave the country with all their property. In the 1940s and 1950s, my parents could get a visa for the United States just by asking. They visited the United States and voluntarily returned to Cuba. More Cubans vacationed in the U.S. in 1955 than Americans vacationed in Cuba. Americans considered Cuba a tourist playground, but even more Cubans considered the U.S. a tourist playground.” Havana was home to a lot of that prosperity, as is evident in the extraordinary classical European architecture that still fills the city. Poor nations do not — cannot — build such grand or elegant cities.

[...]

Cubans in the hotel industry see how foreigners live. The government can’t hide it without shutting the hotels down entirely, and it can’t do that because it needs the money. I changed a few hundred American dollars into convertible pesos at the front desk. The woman at the counter didn’t blink when I handed over my cash — she does this all day — but when she first got the job, it must have been shattering to make such an exchange. That’s why the regime wants to keep foreigners and locals apart.

Tourists tip waiters, taxi drivers, tour guides, and chambermaids in hard currency, and to stave off a revolt from these people, the government lets them keep the additional money, so they’re “rich” compared with everyone else. In fact, they’re an elite class enjoying privileges — enough income to afford a cell phone, go out to restaurants and bars, log on to the Internet once in a while — that ordinary Cubans can’t even dream of. I asked a few people how much chambermaids earn in tips, partly so that I would know how much to leave on my dresser and also to get an idea of just how crazy Cuban economics are. Supposedly, the maids get about $1 per day for each room. If they clean an average of 30 rooms a day and work five days a week, they’ll bring in $600 a month — 30 times what everyone else gets. “All animals are equal,” George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm, his allegory of Stalinism, “but some animals are more equal than others.” Only in the funhouse of a Communist country is the cleaning lady rich compared with the lawyer. Yet elite Cubans are impoverished compared with the middle class and even the poor outside Cuba.

April 24, 2014

Beyond civil disobedience lies a second civil war

Filed under: Americas, Government, Military, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

A short quote posted at KA-CHING! led me to this very alarming blog post at Taxicab Depressions:

Mr Wheeler replied, “There is certainly no shortage of guns and corruption in Central America. If you have the means to smuggle a ton of cocaine, you can probably smuggle a ton of guns, too. But this was easier… the Justice Department and the ATF made the contacts and set up the networks, told the gun shops to cooperate, so all the Mexicans had to do was send in a straw buyer, make the purchase, and move the weapons south of the border.”

I said, “These people aren’t very smart… there are something like 300 million guns in America, and they have a robust shelf life. Even if all gun manufacturing stopped tomorrow, there would still be an abundance of guns in America for decades. The only way to disarm Americans is mass confiscation, and I feel pretty certain that would spark a civil war. I know several gun owners that would rather fight than give up their guns.”

Mr. Wheeler said, “Oh, I know dozens… perhaps hundreds that feel the same way. I really don’t think confiscation is something you need to worry about, because it will never work. There are simply too many of them, and too many people have guns that there is no record of. A confiscation program would only piss off the most dangerous people in America… the people who would shoot back. You are correct, a mass confiscation would provoke a civil war.”

I said, “Well, you are a military man… what would that look like?”

Wheeler said, “Well, it wouldn’t look like the first Civil War… no lines of men standing in ranks and shooting across a field at each other, no “North and South” or sharply defined state lines for friendly and enemy territories, at least, not in the beginning. No, it would look more like Iraq or Afghanistan, with house to house fighting, IED’s, snipers, small factions and independent militias operating on their own, refugees streaming away from battle zones in all directions…”

“But the first question to ask is who would the combatants be? I mean, the Army isn’t going to just roll out onto the street in tanks on day one, so my guess is that it would start out as a police action, with Federal agencies like ATF and FBI taking the lead, supported by local law enforcement. But once people start shooting back, they would have to ratchet things up, do things like institute curfews and roadblocks, and they would eventually try to press the various state Guard units into service. That’s where it all goes squirrelly, because both local law enforcement and the Guard will be riddled with people who support gun rights, regardless of what laws the politicians pass, and they won’t be crazy about having to police, and maybe even fight against, their own people. The Governors may well object to the state Guard units being activated and may not wish to cooperate…”

“And it is not clear to me how many LEO and Guardsmen would remain loyal to the government and how many would join the “rebellion”. My guess is that both sides would be riddled with defections, informants, and spies. But what if, say, the Gulf states like Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida secede, and they take control of all military bases and equipment, and you suddenly have gone from an insurgency with rifles to a breakaway nation, or maybe several breakaway nations, armed with fighter jets, drones, tanks, and a navy? Whoo, buddy… now all bets are off… kiss posse comitatus goodbye. This would be the ugliest thing this county has ever seen…”

I asked him several “what if” questions and let him riff on them… I just let him talk and wargame out the Second Civil War, there in the back seat of my car as we drove to the airport, and he painted a picture of horrific death and destruction. Once this conflict started, even the best-case scenarios he described sounded truly grim. He seemed to believe that civilian casualties would be extremely high, given how much fighting would centered in and around large cities, and that food would be used as a weapon, causing famine and starvation on a terrifying scale. Booby traps, IED’s, rampant bombings, drone strikes, snipers, local-level assassinations, mortars and shelling, death squads (both government and rebel), reprisal killings, torture… it sounded more like the Middle East than middle America.

Wheeler got quiet for a few moments, and then he said something that I will never, ever forget.

“These people are playing with matches… I don’t think they understand the scope and scale of the wildfire they are flirting with. They are fucking around with a civil war that could last a decade and cause millions of deaths… and the sad truth is that 95% of the problems we have in this country could be solved tomorrow, by noon… simply by dragging 100 people out in the street and shooting them in the fucking head.”

April 10, 2014

Chiles, peppers, and world trade before globalization

Filed under: Americas, Economics, History, India — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:53

ESR linked to an interesting discussion of the spread of chile peppers and other exotic spices from the Roman empire onwards:

Can you imagine a world without salsa? Or Tabasco sauce, harissa, sriracha, paprika or chili powder?

I asked myself that question after I found a 700-year-old recipe for one of my favorite foods, merguez — North Africa’s beloved lamb sausage that is positively crimson with chiles. The medieval version was softly seasoned with such warm spices as black pepper, coriander and cinnamon instead of the brash heat of capsicum chile peppers — the signature flavor of the dish today.

The cuisines of China, Indonesia, India, Bhutan, Korea, Hungary and much of Africa and the Middle East would be radically different from what they are today if chiles hadn’t returned across the ocean with Columbus. Barely 50 years after the discovery of the New World, chiles were warming much of the Old World. How did they spread so far, so fast? The answers may surprise you — they did me!

I learned that Mamluk and Ottoman Muslims were nearly as responsible for the discovery of New World peppers as Columbus — but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The global pepper saga begins in the first millennium bce with the combustible career of another pepper — black pepper (Piper nigrum) and its cousins, Indian long pepper and Javanese cubeb. Although Piper nigrum was first grown on the Malabar Coast in India, the taste for it enflamed the ancient world: No matter what the cost — and it was very high — people were mad for pepper. The Romans, for example, first tasted it in Egypt, and the demand for it drove them to sail to India to buy it. In the first century, Pliny complained about the cost: “There is no year in which India does not drain the Roman Empire of fifty million sesterces.”

In one sense, the whole global system of trade — the sea and land routes throughout the known world that spread culture and cuisine through commerce — was engaged with the appetite for pepper, in its growth, distribution and consumption.

Dried chiles shipped well worldwide. From top-left: New World Capsicum annuum varieties include guajillo, ancho and New Mexico; a smaller Capsicum frutescens variety called “birdseye” chiles spread wild in Africa after birds spread their seeds from early gardens, and they are now common also in Southeast Asia; “Indian” chiles are among the most common varieties in India, which today grows and exports more chiles than any other nation. Bottom-left: Three popular capsicum peppers that took root in the Middle East—Maraş, Urfa and Aleppo, shown below in their flaked form—are used in dishes throughout the region. Bottom-right: Fresh serrano, poblano and ripe jalapeño peppers.

Dried chiles shipped well worldwide. From top-left: New World Capsicum annuum varieties include guajillo, ancho and New Mexico; a smaller Capsicum frutescens variety called “birdseye” chiles spread wild in Africa after birds spread their seeds from early gardens, and they are now common also in Southeast Asia; “Indian” chiles are among the most common varieties in India, which today grows and exports more chiles than any other nation. Bottom-left: Three popular capsicum peppers that took root in the Middle East — Maraş, Urfa and Aleppo, shown below in their flaked form — are used in dishes throughout the region. Bottom-right: Fresh serrano, poblano and ripe jalapeño peppers.

ESR said in his brief G+ posting:

More about the early and very rapid spread of capsicum peppers in the Old World than I’ve ever seen in one place before.

I also didn’t know they were such a nutritional boon. It appears one reason they became so entrenched is they’re a good source of Vitamin C in peasant cuisines centered around a starch like rice. My thought is that moderns may tend to miss this point because we have so much better access to citrus fruits and other very high-quality C sources.

The bit about paprika having been introduced to Hungary by the Ottomans was also particularly interesting to me. This was less than 30 years after they had reached the Old World.

February 24, 2014

Argentina reported to be increasing military spending

Filed under: Americas, Military, Politics — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:09

The Argentine government has announced it will be increasing spending on their armed forces by a third in the coming year. While this report in the Daily Express takes it seriously, it fails to account for the overall sorry state of the Argentinian economy … it’s not clear if there’s any actual money to be allocated to the military:

Buenos Aires will acquire military hardware including fighter aircraft, ­anti-aircraft weapons and specialised radar, as well as beefing up its special forces.

The news comes months before drilling for oil ­begins in earnest off the Falkland Islands, provoking ­Argentina’s struggling President Cristina ­Fernandez de ­Kirchner.

Last month she created a new cabinet post of Secretary for the Malvinas, her country’s name for the Falklands.

Meanwhile, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has refused to confirm that Britain would retake the Falklands if they were overrun by enemy forces.

The extra cash means Argentina will ­increase defence spending by 33.4 per cent this year, the biggest rise in its history. It will include £750million for 32 ­procurement and modernisation programmes.

They will include medium tanks and transport aircraft and the refurbishment of warships and submarines. The shopping list also ­includes Israeli air ­defence systems, naval assault craft, rocket systems, helicopters and a drone project.

As reported earlier this month, the economy is suffering from an inflation rate estimated to be in the 70% range, the government has expropriated private pensions and foreign-owned companies, and is unable to borrow significant amounts of money internationally due to their 2002 debt default. Announcing extra money for the military may well be the economic version of Baghdad Bob’s sabre-rattling press conferences … just for show.

On the other hand, military adventurism is a hallowed tradition for authoritarian regimes to tamp down domestic criticism and rally public opinion. Being seen to threaten the British in the Falkland Islands still polls well in Buenos Aires.

February 22, 2014

Venezuela’s crisis

Filed under: Americas, Government, Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 12:10

With all the attention being on Ukraine’s political upheaval, there’s another political crisis happening in South America:

How is Venezuela doing? Well, tens of thousands of protesters are in the streets, the army’s been sent to crush revolt, an opposition leader has been arrested and supporters of the government just shot dead a former beauty queen. It’s going to hell in a handcart, that’s how it’s doing.

After Hugo Chavez died he was replaced by Nicolas Maduro, a man of considerably less talent who bears a striking resemblance to an obese Burt Reynolds. A Venezuelan friend explains that Chavez’s titanic personality held his revolution together, reconciling its various contradictions with his charismatic nationalism. By contrast, “Maduro has let the worst people take over” — surrendering authority to radical mobs and corrupt officials in a bid to keep them all on side. The result? Bad economic management, inflation at 56 per cent, rising unemployment, food shortages, shocking levels of crime and an increasing reliance on government control of the press.

The Left always insisted under Chavez that some meddling in the media was necessary because it was otherwise controlled by dark, foreign forces (read: people who disagreed with Chavez). But Maduro is now threatening to expel CNN, which is about the fairest and most balanced news source on the planet. CNN’s crime was to report on the recent protests that have engulfed the capital. And good for CNN. Coverage on what’s happening in Venezuela has been eclipsed by events in Ukraine, so for those who don’t know here’s what’s happening on the ground.

  • On February 12, the opposition held a massive rally that resulted in bloodshed. Three people were killed, including two opposition protesters and one pro-government activist. The National Guard was dispatched to prevent further rallies.
  • Violence quickly spread out across the country. Some 3,000 troops were sent to pacify the city of San Cristobal, where the government also cut off transport links and the internet.
  • Opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, was forced to hand himself over to the National Guard on charges of inciting violence.
  • The President blamed America for starting the conflict and has expelled US officials.
  • Local TV stations have gone into lockdown and simply aren’t reporting the fighting. Venezuelans are relying on social media, which includes some false reporting. The opposition lack a single national TV outlet to be heard on.
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