On the Occasion of My Birthday

Musings on the world at thirty-two in 2018.

Today I am turning thirty-two (or thirty-three by East Asian counting.) I have done and seen an incredible array of things and places in my life, and, fortunately, my memory remains robust and rich in detail. Growing up we did not have a lot of money, and I did not learn many of the social and networking skills that define the upper middle class skill sets that dominate a lot of “successful” people’s outcomes. I have nonetheless managed to get to the point where I am 100% free of debt (as of this paycheque), I have a good start on retirement savings in an index fund, reliable transportation, and a good network of personal and professional contacts that I think will allow me to manage any personal or small-scale crises that come my way in the future. I still write in overlong sentences, though.

One thing that I have observed over the years is the interconnectedness of human lives and events. It seems to be a natural, especially Western, mentality to compartmentalize and label things and to lock them into hierarchies and “stovepipes” of different disciplines and different schema of organization. By itself, this is not a bad impulse or civilizational habit to have – but I have noticed that the most successful ventures in business, charity, government, or military fields come from interconnectedness. Some people, especially academics, seem to take that life lesson and want to impose hierarchy, bureaucracy, and synthetic order onto complex issues. I have observed this approach and found it to be oftentimes the opposite of a successful strategy for accomplishing anything from providing social services to managing major military operations. Centralization may offer short-term gains, but it also plants the seeds of sclerosis, stagnation, future failure, and defeat.

Many writers far more erudite and perceptive than I have pointed out that the global order is in an inflection point. Assumptions about the track of human events are daily set on end and shaken about like a chew toy in the mouth of an energetic puppy. The forces of sclerotic decline are in control of most of the West’s institutions, if not, at present, the actual position as “leader of the free world” for what that means anymore. Their more violent, repressive fellow travelers control China and other significant civilizations in Asia and South America. Overall, however, I think it reasonable to be optimistic about the future.

So, from the strange and potentially dynamic and fruitful Middle East post-monopoly on global energy markets, I sign off on my thirty-second birthday.

Roaming with the Romanovs

Apologies to anyone who has continued to follow my blog and noticed a prolonged absence of posts! It has been a busy few months for me both at work and in my personal life. To return to form, -ish, I will write some brief comments on Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs. Unlike a conventional history of one of the great powers of Europe, Montefiore writes almost like a gossip columnist. Interspersed with bureaucratic missives and detailed accounts of political debates are recountings of interior design choices of tsars’ mistresses or a note on the color of a soldier’s eyes. It takes what could be a dry-as-dust chronicle of some six hundred-odd years of history and enlivens it as though watching a very long, meticulously researched miniseries on a finer cable network.

The actual history is very intriguing, as prior to this book most of my knowledge of Russia has been either its Soviet and present incarnations, or very limited exposure through literature, music, visual arts, and some notional popular accounts of individual Romanov rulers. Montefiore’s real gift is his use of personal letters, diaries, and other records to humanize these otherwise inscrutable autocrats and their complex and hidebound Empire. It is like learning all of the details of the helm of the ship and its officers in the aftermath of a mutiny of passengers and staff. The Romanovs, it could be said, were ordinary people, too.

A Great Leap Sideways

On Deng Xiaoping and Chinese history…

So I have been slogging my way through Ezra Vogel’s Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China for the last year or so, maybe longer.  It is a tome equal to the import of Deng’s impact on the twentieth and even twenty-first century.  What makes the biography so fascinating is how much access, however controlled, the author had to primary sources of Deng’s notes, commentaries, and Communist Party records.  Instead of being merely a celebrity biography, the work gives you detailed insights into at the very least a sanitized account of the rapid and complex transformations of the post-Cultural Revolution China.  To say that the Cultural Revolution was a tragedy for humanity, not just for China, is still a dramatic understatement.  Thousands of years of history vanished in smoke.  The intellectual and developmental devastation of Maoism continues to haunt the country.  Deng Xiaoping, instead, comes off in this biography as one of the most profound pragmatists of human history.

Reading the story of the failed Taiping Revolution amidst reading this biography also provides an extra level of insight – where Hong Rongan dreamed of modernizing China, giving it a native government focused on industrial development, modernization, and peaceful relations with other nations, Deng in many ways fulfilled those goals, albeit while fostering regimes that killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, on the periphery of the Sinosphere.  Certainly, I do not find Deng to be a truly sympathetic character, however great a genius of leadership.

For a case study of that genius, consider Deng’s approach to foreign policy.  They say only Nixon could go to China, but the cautious rapprochement between the two countries would not have been possible without the influence of Deng and other reform-minded partisans.  One of the lessons that Deng can teach leaders at all levels now is through his efforts to be as forthright as possible, even when it is necessary to conceal ultimate goals for political necessity.  Coming into power as the CCP transitioned from the iron will of Mao and his inner circle towards a very different following generation of cadres, Deng skillfully manipulated partisan ideologues into accepting reforms that prevented Chinese stagnation along Soviet lines, while also dealing with external crises and attempts from “reactionary” doctrinaire Maoists who valued Marxist-Leninist-Maoist orthodoxy above competence, practicality, and realistic solutions to the issues facing a society as enormous and varied as twentieth century China.

Nearly everything familiar about contemporary China can be traced back to Deng’s era of leadership.  In many ways he was a reverse of Franklin Roosevelt, de-escalating nationalization and distributing authority outwards from an increasingly hidebound and doctrinaire central party structure that threatened to trap China in a stagnant, dogmatic system.  I have not finished reading the entire biography, but currently I am at the portion discussing the development of the “one country, two systems” approach to the transfer of sovereignty, reverting Hong Kong back to PRC control from the United Kingdom.  Deng had every opportunity to be a hardliner, and was dealing with Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady who successfully pulled her own land back from the tubercular death throes of socialism and stagnation.  His solution, which is still in at least partial effect more than twenty years after the handover of control, was to assure the successful local power elites that they would not suddenly find themselves sucked dry by a corrupt and inefficient Communist bureaucracy along old Imperial Chinese lines, and instead played off of the powerful effect Hong Kong had as an entrepôt between the commercializing and industrializing mainland and the wider world of global capitalism and the developed economies of the West.

Like many of my entries so far, I wish that I had more time to discuss this book and this individual and his place in human history, but I at least want to close this post with a recommendation to check out the book.  If you are interested in the roots of contemporary China as it moves into the more autocratic, centralized era of “Xi Jinping thought” and even want a good primer on why the Mao Dynasty/CCP-era of China runs on the thoughts of its “paramount leaders,” few are as thorough and well-researched as Ezra Vogel’s.  It is an almost impossible task to gain a real understanding of China as it has become, but to learn its history in the highly dynamic time frame of the second half of the twentieth century, this is a good starting point.  The writing, while dry at times, is also peppered with amusing anecdotes about Deng Xiaoping’s interactions with world leaders and is relatively free of heavy doses of overt propaganda, for or against the oppressive reality of the Chinese Communist Party.

Bookworm Weekend

On finishing several books…

Over the past few days I have had some work, and also been allowed some time off for the US celebration of Labor Day.  While I did plenty of other things, I was most successful at finishing a number of books I have been either devouring or slogging through piecemeal over the past few months.

The first book, which read extremely fast for being a doorstopper in physical hardcover volume, was The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. I enjoyed it immensely, and it is full of details that you only catch if you are an inveterate history, scifi, and language geek such as myself.  Neal Stephenson and co-author Nicole Galland. The overall tone is upbeat and almost cheery throughout, even when you know that something dire is about to happen. The book is written in a very self-aware multi-threaded style, and the authors use everything from jotted memos to skaldic verse to convey a surprisingly coherent narrative.  I would enjoy reading a follow-up volume if they do choose to continue the collaborative project. Stephenson and Galland, I did not know until reading a review of the book, had previously worked together on the Mongoliad hypertextual multimedia project.

The next book that I finished was Markman Ellis’ The Coffee-house, a History, which I first began to read last year as part of the research for my MA capstone project. The book was engaging, and covered an extensive range of primarily English history, seen through the lens of the social and economic roles of coffee and coffeehouses in both practical and more esoteric cultural terms.  Ellis’ coverage of the twentieth century veers into a very different sort of tone, but still conveys a great deal of interesting information.  Apparently before Starbucks, the British experienced a sort of non-centralized “franchise” coffeehouse phenomenon that ran alongside and interacted with the Mod period of the Avengers and the Swinging Sixties. But the majority of the book covers the era of the Enlightenment and Early Modern period, with figures any historian or even popular history reader will readily recognize.

Additionally I finished Addiction by Design, as I mentioned earlier.  I still think that in many ways that has been one of the more informative works I have read in a while, as it gives insight into the industrial scale of emotional manipulation. The gambling industry more or less seems to have heard secondhand accounts of the worst science folklore of Skinner boxes and said “hold my beer…”  But in other ways it touches quite strongly on the larger underlying social and psychological roots of addiction, habituation, and how risk-taking and seemingly wasting time and losing control can somehow satisfy the needs of restless people in broken communities for control over other areas of their life.

Not on the list of completed books, but I began reading Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom, which is a very well-written overview of the Taiping Revolution/Revolt/Rebellion that ran almost concurrent with the US Civil War. It is an absolutely fascinating look into Chinese civilization at a crossroads, well before the true dissolution of the Qing dynasty, but very much a vast, seething mass of humans with a few noteworthy figures suddenly slamming into the pressure cooking confines of expanding Western imperialism (in a very literal sense, not the modern intellectual catch-all the term has become.)  The Taiping as a cultural movement are themselves a fascinating group – part cult that would have almost fit in with the Second Great Awakening in the US, part very practical sociopolitical revolutionary party bent on taking China back from Manchu domination. I look forward to reading further into the book, which complements books on the Opium Wars and on general Chinese history that I have previously read.


Il Giornale

On branding and globalization..

Tonight I want to write about the power of branding. One of the greatest complaints about modern commerce is about the international monopolies that have formed controlling many consumer industries. I am not writing tonight to judge them, morally or aesthetically. Rather, what I find most interesting is about how they are able to meet their markets and then, subtly and slowly, change them towards a more homogenized cultural norm.

I have been reading The Coffee-House: A History by Markman Ellis, and also being present in Qatar, I can see firsthand how both during the Enlightenment era and the present day, branding can be the critical factor in getting people to consume commodities that are at first glance exotic or imposing.

For my final project towards my MA in World History, I looked at how coffee went from being an oddity of Yemen, adopted into the Islamic world in a brief window of moderation during the Ottoman Empire, and spread like wildfire between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to become a global commodity traded in one of the most frenetic and demanding markets of the contemporary era. I will not rehash that paper here, but it suffices to say that the story is far more complex than any modern narrative of “appropriation” or post-modern angst over the subaltern, etc.

What Ellis examined was the English phenomenon of the coffee-house, from its origins in the Middle East up to the spread of Starbucks across Europe and the globe. What I think it says about the larger world is that franchising and establishing a comfort zone for people from incredibly varied backgrounds is a powerful force in modern commerce. To give a local example from Qatar, most fast-food franchises from the United States here in Qatar are administered by a chain called “Sterling Enterprises.” Not to be confused with the Starling corporation from the Tom and Jerry movie, this company uses the Pillsbury Dough Boy as its mascot, since it originated in a chain of bakeries, and controls properties from coffee shops to pizza joints, Burger King franchises to its own namesake sandwich shops.

The common thread is in the way that consumers want a “normalized” experience along the lines of what they “know” from air travel, studying abroad in the West, and spending their riches from petroleum and natural gas production in their home countries. It has, in effect, led to a situation in which the original Arabic/Turkish idea of the coffeehouse as a place to procure underage boys for entertainment and a place to discuss controversial topics of religion and politics has transformed into a locale familiar to anyone who has been in a Starbucks coffee from Tampa to Tokyo. Much like how firms successfully present American Chinese food in China to a receptive audience, coffeehouse culture takes a convoluted series of forms in Middle Eastern commerce based upon a long-disappeared historical model. Herein lies the seed of a much greater study of consumption, the psychology of modernity, and the logistical supply chains that allow nearly any substance to be commodified.

For the purposes of finishing this blog entry, I will leave off with a personal anecdote that branding, nowadays, is as much a badge of comprehensible qualities of food, drink, and atmosphere, as it is some greater conspiracy to adapt well-off nations to some sinister or corrosive ideological viewpoint. What used to be regional phenomena, even harkening back to wine-shops in the Roman Empire, now allows people to know what they will get for their money across thousands of miles and in places that, outside of the mediated franchise environment, may not even possess indoor plumbing or regular waste disposal. The title of this piece is tied to the fact that I was studying up on my Italian using a phone app version of Duolingo and realized that I wanted to make a journal entry about the erosion of barriers to communication and commerce that have enriched many lives, while bowdlerizing others.