Saturday, March 28, 2009

Eye Candy

The History of Civilization

Chapter Eighteen: The Last Gasp of Democracy

After the end of the Peloponnessian War, Athens made a final attempt to unify Greece. It gradually rebuilt its walls and fleet and, through the dependability of its currency and long established talent for finance and trade, won back commercial mastery of the Aegean.

Industry and trade were the basis of the new economic recovery. Most of the farmers from pre-war days were dead, and the few who survived were too discouraged to return to their ruined holdings, and sold them at low prices to absentee owners who could afford long-term investments. In this way, ownership of Greek farms passed into the hands of a few families, who worked many of the large estates with slaves.

The silver mines were reopened, and fresh victims were sent into the pits. Silver was mined so quickly that the supply outran the production of goods, causing prices to rise faster than wages. The poor bore the burden of Greece's recovery. A plan was devised to purchase 10,000 slaves to work the silver mines at Laurium, and thereby replenish the exhausted Greek treasury.

The growth of commerce and accumulation of wealth multiplied the number of bankers in Athens. They received cash for safekeeping, but apparently paid no interest on deposits. They quickly discovered that not all deposits were reclaimed at once, and began to loan funds at substantial rates of interest. As the fourth century BC progressed, a real credit system developed: wealth could now pass from one client to another merely by an entry in the banker's books.

Bank failures were common, and there were several "recessions", in which bank after bank closed its doors due to excessive speculation and sub-prime loans. Charges of malfeasance were brought against even the most prominent banks, and people looked upon bankers with the same mix of envy and suspicion with which the poor view the rich today.

This change to movable wealth produced a feverish struggle for money. In the midst of all this wealth, poverty actually increased: the freedom of exchange that allowed the clever to make money made the simple lose it faster than ever before. Unemployment was high, and the wages of free labor were kept low by competition from slaves.

Class warfare erupted, leaving Greece internally divided. In Argos in 370 BC, the poor revolted against their creditors, killing over 1200 of them.

Moral disorder followed the growth of luxury. Exotic deities like Ammon, Cybele, and Mithra began to displace the traditional gods. Individuals freed themselves from the old moral restraints: children from honoring their parents, husbands from their wives, and citizens from duty to the state. Marriage declined as young men began to live unwed with courtesans and flute girls. Contraception became common, by abortion or infanticide. We are told that women prevented conception by anointing their wombs with oil of cedar, ointment of lead, or even animal dung.

This new era of decadence cost Athens both her empire and her freedom, as the far more disciplined Macedonians undermined their authority.

In this way, democracy disappeared for over 2000 years. Weakened by decades of endemic war and internal struggle, Greece was easily defeated by the warlike Spartans, Persians, and finally, by Macedonia (in our next chapter). Its failures would serve as a cautionary example for centuries of how democracy wouldn't work, because the fickle mob changed the nation's direction at every bump in the road, and loved luxury more than security.

In spite of these failures, the Athenian democracy produced the Golden Age of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, in addition to medical and scientific progress which would be unparalleled until the Renaissance. For this, we should judge them with a bit of compassion.

To be continued...

For my previous posts on the History of Civilization, click here.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Eye Candy

The Next 100 Years

The Next 100 Years, by George Friedman
$17.13 in the Hansisgreat Gift Shop
ISBN: 9780385517058
The twenty-first century has begun in war, terrorism, economic recession, and widespread concerns that the American ascendancy may be coming to an end. All of us seem to be at a crossroads, so it's only natural to want to look ahead and predict what's in the future. The author of this fascinating and well researched book is an expert on that very subject: he's the founder of the leading private intelligence and forecasting company.
Geopolitics is the study of international relations for the purpose of forecasting what's down the road. Friedman considers the economic and political situations along a number of "fault lines", to predict who will rise to prominence in the century ahead, what will become causes of conflict, and how the wars of the future will be fought.
It's amazing how well he summarizes the conditions of countries I know almost nothing about. There's s stunning chapter on the Balkans, the most unstable part of Europe and freqent flashpoint during the wars of the past. With dozens of distinct cultures, caught between powerful western Europe, the former Soviet bloc, and the Islamic nations, understanding this unstable region is crucial to predicting the politics of the future.
Also important is the Pacific, controlled by the US Navy (larger than every other navy in the world combined), but also crucial for Japan and China as trade routes. In fact, the Pacific has hosted the opening scene of war before, when Japan bombed a US military base at Pearl Harbor during World War II. As the US falls further into debt to China and Japan, these powerful countries will begin to resent its dominance of Pacific sea trade.
This is all leading to what Friedman calls the crisis of 2040. Escalating tension will eventually lead to war unlike any fought on Earth before. Soldiers will live in space, on battle stars which resemble something out of a science fiction novel, and ground troops will become less important on the military stage.
Obviously, I can't summarize all of Friedman's predicitions in this short blog post: there are too many countries involved and a hundred years of change and growth. Additionally, as he admits himself, all of his predictions won't come true. He's not a Magic 8 Ball, after all.
Still, most of the book seemed convincing and well thought out. I also learned a lot about the political map in our own time, which makes the book worth reading by itself. Poland, Mexico, and Turkey rank very high on the list of superpowers of the 21st century, so if you aren't too familiar with them now, it might be a good time to read up.
It's a little strange to read predicitons about a future I won't live to experience. At times, I found them alarming and unfamiliar, but overall they were strangely reassuring. When the new world order comes, I'll be ready for it. Will you?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Eye Candy

The Precession of the Equinoxes

We all know that the Earth spins like a top. Like a top, it wobbles a little bit while it spins. The main effect of this wobbling is that the position of the constellations on a particular night changes very slightly each year. Astronomers have noticed that this was taking place for millennia, although ancient people weren't aware that the Earth was spinning, or that it revolved around the Sun.

One complete wobble of the Earth's top takes approximately 25,765 years, called a Great Year. This is divided into twelve ages, each lasting 2,150 years, named for the constellation of the zodiac in which the sun rises on the morning of the spring equinox.
The culture of precession appears in the most unlikely places, including the Bible, even as astrology is explicitly forbidden. Biblical times are divided into three ages, and Jesus foreshadows a fourth age which we have not yet entered.

Consider the following:

4300 BC - 2150 BC = Age of Taurus

2150 BC - 1 AD = Age of Aries

1 AD - 2150 AD = Age of Pisces

2150 AD - 4300 AD = Age of Aquarius

The Age of Taurus occurs just before the beginning of Old Testament Times. Although Israel was not yet a nation, we do see a lot of bulls in culture from this period. Mythical Daedelus built a labyrinth to capture the Minotaur, a monster who was half bull and half man. Minoan art is filled with images of bulls.

When Moses comes down from Mount Sinai, he is shocked to find his people worshipping a golden bull, which he destroys. The religion of the ancient Jews contains more imagery of Aries, the ram. Worship began when a priest blew on a ram's horn. Abraham found a ram trapped in a thorn bush before sacrificing his son Isaac.

This image of the ram replacing the bull even extends outside of Judaism: the pre-Christian god Mithra kills a bull, and is often portrayed riding on a ram or wearing ram's horns.

The ram is replaced around the time of the birth of Christ, which coincides with the beginning of the Age of Pisces.His first disciples are fishermen. He divides two fish to feed thousands during one of his miracles. After his ressurection, his disciples see him on the beach cooking fish for breakfast. Even the earliest Christian symbol, predating the cross, was the sign of the fish. In other words, fish symbolism is very common in the New Testament, and throughout the Age of Pisces, which we are still in today.

"And lo, I am with you always, even until the end of the age."
-Matthew 28:20

Jesus predicted the coming of a fourth age. When his disciples ask him where the Passover will be held after he is gone, he says, "Behold, when you enter the city, there shall a man meet you bearing a pitcher of water. Follow him into the house where he enters." This man is the constellation of Aquarius, whose house Earth will enter in 2150.

Precession occurs very gradually: ancient astronomers must have kept records for thousands of years to have realized that it was occuring. Although we do not experience its effects in every day life, it leaves it subtle imprint on many aspects of our art, literature, thought, and culture.

For my previous posts on astronomy, click here.
There's an interesting video on precession in religion at You Tube. You can watch it here.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Eye Candy

The Accountant's Story

The Accountant's Story, by Roberto Escobar (with David Fisher)
$17.81 in the Hansisgreat Gift Shop
ISBN: 9780446178921
This is the true story of Pablo Escobar, founder of the Medellin drug cartel, as told by his brother, Roberto.
Colombia has a long history of violence and corruption. The Escobar boys were born during a period of civil war, known in the country as La Violencia, during which peasant guerillas murdered as many as 300,000 people. At the beginning of our story, Roberto recalls how he and Pablo hid under their bed from soldiers who had threatened to murder their entire family. They had no weapons, and nowhere to flee: nothing but a locked front door to protect them. When they were rescued by the Colombian army, their entire town was in ruins with burning bodies hanging from the lamp posts.
Roberto says that everyone in Colombia who has a little power uses it for personal gain. The police are not well trained, paid very poorly, and not respected; therefore they almost always take bribes and are corrupt. Organized crime with police, judges, and government officials on the payroll are very common. It was in this environment that Pablo began his life as a crime boss, smuggling contaband to avoid paying taxes on merchandise shipped from Panama: washing machines, television sets, and other merchandise that he could sell for a deep discount because he hadn't paid the import taxes.
Soon he became involved in trafficking cocaine, a drug which was mostly unknown outside of Latin America at the time. He set up drug labs deep in the jungle, complete with housing for the workers, medical facilities, and even schools for their children. He devised dozens of ingenious systems for transporting the finished product across the borders, and finally, into the United States. He had a fleet of planes lined with secret compartments, and hundreds of employees.
As Pablo's business grew, he soon came into conflict with rival gangs, resulting in the drug wars of the 1980s. The Colombian government was powerless to stop the warring cartels, which had more soldiers and better weapons than the legitimate army. In this way, the US government became involved, attempting to stop the massacres in Colombia and stem the flow of smuggled cocaine. Pablo became the most wanted man in America, and was forced into hiding in the Colombian city of Medellin.
At the height of his empire, Pablo Escobar was one of Forbes magazine's richest men in the world. Although he was a despised villain here in the US, he was beloved by the poor of Colombia for his efforts to releive their poverty. He funded the construction of schools and hospitals, employed countless thousands, and even set up his country's first system of Social Security, all financed with drug money.
It's easy to consider a man like Pablo a monster: he was undoubtedly responsible for horrific acts of cruelty. Nonetheless, many recall him as a hero in a country where the rich did nothing for the poor.
Roberto's story is very personal: he shares a lot of stories from their childhood, and was with his infamous brother to the very end of his life. Roberto now resides quiety on a ranch, nearly blinded by a letter bomb, sent to assassinate him in prison.
The Accountant's Story is exciting from the very first page, I learned a lot about the drug trade and the situation in Latin America, and it's sure to be enjoyed by anyone who likes a dark and tragic anti-hero. This book is a rare oppurtunity to read about someone destined to make history, told by someone who knew him from the very beginning.