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Are digital technologies making politics impossible?

The Mask of Anonymous

“Well, maybe this: If you want to satirize the condition of a society, going after the apex of the pyramid is a waste of time. You need to attack the bottom. … And this requires the satirist to present the average citizen as a naïve sheep who fails to realize the hopelessness of his or her position.”   – Chuck Klosterman, I Wear The Black Hat

On January 27, 2000, President Bill Clinton congratulated his fellow Americans and himself, in his State of the Union speech:

“We are fortunate to be alive at this moment in history. Never before has our nation enjoyed, at once, so much prosperity and social progress with so little internal crisis and so few external threats. Never before have we had such a blessed opportunity and, therefore, such a profound obligation to build the more perfect Union of our Founders’ dreams.  We begin the new century with over 20 million new jobs; the fastest economic growth in more than 30 years; the lowest unemployment rates in 30 years; the lowest poverty rates in 20 years; the lowest African-American and Hispanic unemployment rates on record; the first back-to-back surpluses in 42 years; and next month, America will achieve the longest period of economic growth in our entire history.”

Academics wrote of the end of history.

By Mike Davidson for Hillary for America

By Mike Davidson for Hillary for America

Recently though, politics has not been so grand nor so compassionate. Examples are abundant; here are just a few: the U.S. Congress’s pitiful response to the ZIKA virus, the corruption scandals in Brazil, Malaysia and South Korea, the imploding economy of Venezuela, Zimbabwean hyperinflation, the bank note farce in India, and a horrible war in Syria, and another in South Sudan. This sorry state of affairs has become normal for our post-millennium times, yet 2016 will be unique due to two events, BREXIT and the election of President Trump. Two others should also get an honorable mention: the ‘No’ vote in the Italian referendum, and the narrow defeat of Nobert Hofer, who belongs to the far-right Alliance party, in the Austrian Presidential Election. Hofer might have been the first far-right European president since World War II.

In the postmortems on the European events in the U.K., Italy and Austria, the phrase “digital technologies” was not bandied about much, nor how it threatened democracy much discussed, although hindsight may reveal a bunch of malign influences, murky conspiracy, and sinister programmers. During the BREXIT debate, there was plenty of lying of the good old fashioned kind; the most egregious porkie (rhyming slang: pork pie) was the big red bus emblazoned with “We send the EU ₤350 million a week”, and “let’s fund our NHS instead”. At any other time, any one of the European dramas would be a big thing, much discussed in the media. The honorable mentions might fizzle away. BREXIT will take years to effect, and yet may die – an anencephalic left in a side ward. Then, there is the surreality of Donald Trump becoming the 45th President of the United States of America.

This was so wildly improbable back in December 2015 that a bet placed on Trump would now yield 18 times the original stake. How did The Donald pull it off? Three days after her defeat, Hillary Clinton blamed her loss on FBI director, James B. Comey, and his announcement eleven days before the election. By December 8, she knew that: “It’s now clear that so-called fake news can have real-world consequences”, and implied that she had been robbed in the 2016 Presidential Election by fake news planted in the social media, principally Facebook. The CIA says they can prove that the Russian government was behind the hackers. The FBI isn’t so sure, maybe. The right-wing news website breitbart.com, which is run by President Trump’s (first) political strategist, has called the CIA reports fake news. Meanwhile, President Obama agreed that he had warned the Russians about hacking and has evicted a few from American soil, which brings us to the topic of this essay: “Are digital technologies making politics impossible?” As a high school term paper, a resulting essay might look something like this:

Digital technologies are what computers turned into and they are everywhere, even my dog. In olden times, computers printed things like the Snoopy my gran’ma has in her restroom downstairs. Then the hippies in California invented The Internet and PC’s, and soon everyone was happy and sending emails all the time. Then they got even happier when Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook and it became real easy to share pictures, messages and things with their friends. Now everyone spends hours and hours on Facebook, and don’t even watch TV no more.

Politics is what governments do. The government is run by people like Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama. Politics is about stuff what happens in other countries far away where they don’t have a clue how to do things right. Out there there are lots of really bad people like in Russia there is a very bad man called Putin, and other places there is ISIS who is also really, really scary.

Politics became impossible this year, because Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the American election. Hillary is much better at politics and has lots of friends in Washington D.C. and

New York, and said she could do things to help people. Donald Trump is really, really rich, like a billionaire, and is famous for being on “The Apprentice”. He would say “You’re fired”. He don’t know anything about politics and is friends with that Putin guy in Russia.

Hillary Clinton lost because of Fake News. Like I said, everyone spends their time on Facebook and don’t watch TV much. They get news from their friends. This is called echo chambers. Because everyone trusts their friends that bad man Putin paid people to pretend to be everyone’s friend and tell awful lies. That Jestin Coler says right-wing people believe anything bad about colored people, China, gays, Democrats, the left-wing media conspiracy and Hillary Clinton.

Fixing fake news is difficult because like I said right-wing people like it, and don’t care much if most people think they are stupid. Some people make money making fake news, sometimes a lot. We need to copy China. China has a Great Chinese Firewall and can tell whether the news is from China or just fake. If you live in China and you send fake news a police man will take you to a special camp to educate you. That might work here.

This fictional essay, from one of Klosterman’s naïve sheep might be worth a B minus – appalling academese, I know, but it’s a fair summary of the Fake News circus of Spring 2017. Would Hillary Clinton substantially improve on its substantive? She did leave US national security to a computer you might buy at Best Buy. Her fellow Democrats fared little better.

The blistering pace of modern invention leaves everyone a little amnesiac. It wasn’t so long ago that a mobile phone was the size of a brick, and computer programs PUSHed and POPped data a byte at a time. Any worthwhile book on “digital technologies” ought to define what the beast is, describe it and how it got to be. This ought to be eminently readable but also tech savvy, touching on areas such as the Deep Web, Dark Fiber, Deep Mind, and perhaps Deep Thought.

In my opinion, there are two crucial facts that the Fake-News FBI-conspiracy circus is uncannily obtuse about.

Thing1:

The first fact is the failure of the polls to predict President Trump. Newsweek reported: “By almost every metric, Clinton was the favorite to win. Trump’s presupposed loss was so unanimous among the political pundit class that he was used as an example to put the 2016 World Series into context. On October 30, after the Cubs fell behind to the Indians two games to one, FiveThirtyEight gave the Chicago squad less chance than our current president elect …. It should have been a sign.” That is except for The National “Enquirer: The Voice Of America!”, who along with an exposé about Tom Cruise’s girlfriend starring in a lesbian porn movie, claimed that, “The ENQUIRER drove light years ahead of the “lame”stream media …. Though The ENQUIRER did not follow the strict rules statistical samples, they proved to be the ONLY accurate results”. Perhaps Agent K’s assessment in Men In Black is true:

Kay: [at newsstand] We’ll check the hot sheets.

Jay: *These* are the hot sheets?

Kay: Best investigative reporting on the planet. Read the New York Times if you want, they get lucky sometimes.

Jay: I cannot believe you’re looking for tips in the supermarket tabloids.

Kay: [front-age article about farmer’s stolen skin] Not looking for. Found.

Quality Journalism Means an Informed Citizenry by Mike Licht

Quality Journalism Means an Informed Citizenry by Mike Licht

Thing2

The second fact is that the supposed chuckleheads who voted Trump into the Presidency and the spinsters from Rhyl who voted for BREXIT agreed with Thomas Piketty and his tome, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I doubt that Brer Cletis et al. have heard of Piketty, nor do they know much about negative interest rates, Gaussian copula functions or the Panama Papers, but they have intuited the principle political truth of our times: the richer you are the richer you are getting, and this is now a problem. Although one should not go overboard about the wisdom of crowds, the Trump presidency clearly shows that the Trumpers and Trumpettes know that Globalization has made Thing2 The Problem.

Finally, the bad side of Globalization has become a political hot potato. We are lucky that it happened, and if social media contributed to it, that too is good. Back in 2002, Bo Karlson et al. from Wireless@KST published the seminal Wireless Foresight: Scenarios of the Mobile World in 2015. The book is prescient, as it predicts Fitbits, Google Glass, Siri, Netflix, Internet of Things, and has much to say about how this was to come about. It posits four scenarios: two were slow and environmentally friendly, one was disruptive and the last Orwellian. Karlson favored the disruptive “Wireless Explosion – Creative Destruction” scenario. This is the one we got: we won.

Panama Papers

Panama Papers

Any worthwhile book on modern global politics, possible or otherwise, ought to describe how the world became a village and the roles that digital technology played in this process. Such a book ought to examine how power has bled away from nations to organizations, bigger and smaller, which may ignore national boundaries and can manipulate national law. An example is the wrangle about taxes between Apple, Eire and the EU.

Just over one hundred years ago, in one day, 84,710 men from France, men from Britain, and men from Germany died a violent death in a field in Flanders. They had their faults but they also had families, friends and sweet-hearts. At Christmas, they had sung Silent Night. Such loss shattered the notion of Pro Patria Mori, destroyed the four absolute monarchies which entered the war, and would take supreme world power away from Europeans and give it to others. Today, we marvel at how the decision-makers chose a War to End All Wars. Also, we are reminded that many of their considerations were frankly trivial and how they sheltered under a common delusion that their choices could not harm them personally. Comparing their times and ours, we find that equality in wealth is roughly the same, elites who are aloof, fearful, and ill-prepared, technology that has run well beyond the ken of all but a handful, and most people dispirited and poor. To this, our times can add global warming, unprecedented environmental destruction, tens of millions of refugees and atomic bombs. What could go wrong?

So, say should The Donald and Teresa and buddies be unable to recast our world, do we, we humans, have a Plan B? One that does not involve hundreds of millions of people dying. One that does not wreck our planet, forever. One that attempts to live up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Any worthwhile book ought to suggest ways to recast our world. I believe we can, we will, and that it will be quick. After all, gay marriage became law in only a few short years. We have the technology, we have the talent, how might it happen?

A mustard seed

Cognitive Bias Codex - 180+biases, designed by John Manoogian III

Cognitive Bias Codex – 180+biases, designed by John Manoogian III

We love stories. We met them in childhood when we learn their conventions. They grow up with us and are pressed into business, history and politics. The adult world employs those linear, narrative conventions found in fairy stories to shape our understanding and our reasoning. The same tools are used to make sense of the Norman Conquest and World War 2, Fibonacci’s Liber Abaci and Quantum Mechanics, and the invention of the printing press and the Industrial Revolution. The minuscule size of the human working memory means that anything more complex than a Russian novel requires a crib sheet.

The usual workaround in the study of the past is to focus on a few individuals or events, and exclude the rest into a fuzzy background, occasionally narrated by Charlie Brown’s teacher. Complexity is hidden within flabby labels, caricature and generalization. When writ small, as in a TV show, these errors are magnified: traditions and peoples are squashed into cartoonish stereotypes, and the world is drawn as a spectator event viewed through soap opera glasses. This simplification has real world consequences. Did Aleppo fall to Assad partly because the US media portrayed his enemies primarily as jihadists like ISIS? No wonder Vladimir Putin pores over and vets school textbooks.

The world is now too complicated to rely on narrative technique alone; story telling needs an upgrade.

A good model for the process of this upgrade is the development of the procedural computer language C into the Object-Oriented C++. Bjarne Stroupstrup did this by adding keywords, so C++ is commonly described as a superset of C. The purpose of the Object-Oriented methodology is to reduce computer bugs by making code reuse part of the design of the language and to promote careful thought at the start of a project, rather than optional.

CPT-OOP objects and classes

CPT-OOP objects and classes

My book will suggest candidates for History++..  Descriptive linguistics and the Classic Style in writing are promising. History++  would be at home with math, be it Game Theory, Statistics, or Linear Modeling. It would facilitate connecting humans, history and Big Data. It would recognize that people are people, and listen to Kahneman and Tversky. It would live in a real world of volcanos and famines, the Life-World and bacteria, fashion and sex.

History++ would eschew magic. Its Classic Style would deal in concrete events, choices, and where possible measures. These are bound together in a causal network. They are effected by an environment, including all the above and more, marshalled by a notion from descriptive linguistics: some rules are necessary, e.g. Newtonian physics, and others are optional to various degrees, all are relevant at the cutting face.

The continuum of human life and events, are not loped into ages of this material or that person. Instead, it grounded in Rubicon events, which have direct and indirect participants who make choices and who have their own histories, agenda and character; events framed by beliefs, the natural world, and technology; events that are essential to understanding the world they leave in their wake. Caesar’s Rubicon choice is not one of these Rubicon events; if he won big in Gallia, he always intended to return to Rome. One such event is the arrival Cortez’s first treasure ship at Seville, on December 9, 1519.

Labels should be scrutinized. Flabby ones, with their overflowing steamer trunks of baggage, would be ridiculed and discarded. For example, “populism”: it has become the cliché of a speaker, no one in particular, rabble rousing. It connotes Mark Antony, Elizabeth I, Winston Churchill, Mussolini, Martin Luther King and Donald Trump. It’s quintessentially snobby and smug, and should be retired, immediately. History++ would employ the notion, borrowed from Object Oriented program design, called encapsulation. By requiring a strict provenance, History++ would limit 20:20 hindsight and woolly pontification. Its aim is the eloquent simplicity of the C++ keyword, “this”.

For example: How does narrative interpret the choices made by Henry, second of that name King of England, Count of Anjou, Duke of Normandy, and Lord of Ireland, and in particular his support for the common law? Simon Schama’s narrative view, in his excellent “A History of Britain”, is that Henry chose trial by jury because he honored his coronation oath, i.e. Henry was a nice guy and deserves a statue in Parliament Square.

Bueno de Mesquita’s game theory approach suggests that his choice was financial and part of the cold war against the Pope. He chose trial by jury over trial by ordeal, because trial by ordeal was miraculous and the business of the church. It was good business, too, and, for Henry, depriving the church of a nice little earner was a good move. So, a 12th Century squabble over land becomes a part of the stream of events which leads to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The difficult birth of a German king and the hemophilia of the son of another are part of the event stream leading to World War I.

History++ really takes off when it leaves the halls of academia.

this is aztec gold. for real by erin leigh mcconnell

this is aztec gold. for real by erin leigh mcconnell

This how I envision the first block of the 6th grade history class, History of the America. Teacher comes in, takes the register, and announces that today is August 27, 1520. You are either a spices merchant in the town of Ghent, or the spice mechant’s wife. Today you are going to see the treasures on display bought to Ghent by Charles V, the Spanish king. On the way in you bump into a German artist called Albrecht Dürer. You see golden bells, “earrings and nose ornaments of exquisite workmanship, and feathered ornaments mounted in jewels, and there were even ‘books such as the Indians use.” There was an Aztec calendar, “a golden wheel ‘seventy-nine inches in diameter, of a thickness four reales’’ cover in magic symbols and malevolent gargoyles. A ceremonial shield made of feathers. You are rather frightened by the four Aztec warriors dressed in war paint, feathers and precious little else. Ok, kids, I have a question for you: how do we know any of this is true? The teacher quotes Dürer’s diary for that day, and by the by introduces the class to the notion of primary sources. Mrs. Krabappel now invites questions and there are so many of them. The rest of the class, she spends curating those questions as per the teacher’s guide, assigning who will investigate and report on what, all in preparation for next lesson, the Spice merchant’s source of pepper. a Portuguese which leads us to Prince John, the rounding of that African cape, and the dedication of Hagia Sophia and the fall of Constantinople. Back to Charles V’s grandparents, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, the Fall of Granada, the Spanish Inquisition, and Columbus, and Pre-Columbia America. The Vikings.  Arrival of the French and then the Brits.

Public policy might model Bueno de Mesquita’s predictions about Iran. Imagine the US sitting down to negotiate with Iran with his game plan. Public policy would require little to be hidden. News reportage would no longer be a TV soap but a sports report.

Of course, there will be timid souls, historians afraid of math, officials guzzling the gravy train, who would prefer the current ruinous state of affairs. I hope this idea will find friends with the intellectual courage, the insight and the foresight to bring it to the world soon.

Once done, the superset nature of this idea make it antifragile; criticism can only make it stronger. Our global networks would give it geometric growth, and as Albert Einstein said “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. … .” It would be wonderful if we could say of our work, the words written by Martin Luther of his faith:

“Oh, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing,… .”

 

My Idea of Heaven

https://unsplash.com/collections/158745/salt-life-for-me

An English Heaven . . .

A Full English Breakfast

A Full English Breakfast

Julian Barnes, a noted English author, has a very clear and a very English notion of heaven. It starts, naturally, with a Full English Breakfast. (An English comedian said once that a Full English was one of the two things that a woman can do which would comfort any man.) Julian’s heavenly grapefruit is perfectly formed; its segments do not cling, and float away from the fruit on the tip of the oval grapefruit spoon. It had a mélange of flavors coalescing like fine wine, ‘a sort of awaking sharpness followed quickly by a wash of sweetness’.

 Then followed ‘crispy [bacon whose] fat glow[ed] like fire’, eggs which ‘trail[ed] off into filigree gold braid’ and, the tour de force, the grilled tomato. Julian rhapsodized over his grilled tomato: this tomato actually does ‘ – yes, this is the thing I remember – tast[e] of tomato’. The toast and jam is beyond his powers of description but I reckon it was Five Grain Wholemeal bread from Publix, toasted just enough to crisp the toast surfaces but only warm the interior, generously buttered with Kerry butter, and lavished with Bonne Maman Peach Preserve.

Roekelseskar by Nina Aldin Thune

Roekelseskar by Nina Aldin Thune

The main event, though, is tea. Not so much the delicate aromas of the tea itself, rather the receptacle it came in. Of my teapots over the years I am especially fond of a Brown Bessie and one which looked like a painter’s work table,both now alas dearly departed, but of Barnes’s teapot we know little. He is taken with the ‘strainer . . . attached to its spout by three silver chains’ somewhat like a demi-thurible, ‘the insignia of some chic Parisian café’, ‘a little gadget which seems to me almost a definition of luxury’.

 He finds his wardrobe full of his most comfortable, totally wabi-sabi, retired-now-magically-new clothes, and settles down for two more breakfasts.

Next day he goes shopping. A relation of his had said, “When I die, I don’t want to go to Heaven, I want to go shopping in America”. This was Publix/Whole Foods/Central Market double plus good. The range and quality was unparalleled even for those magnificent stores, including, as it did, ‘Terrine de Kangarou’, Garibaldi biscuits with a 50:50 ratio of currents to pastry, and a libation called ‘Stinko-Paralytiko (made in Yugoslavia)’.

Red Teapot by Jorge Garcia

Red Teapot by Jorge Garcia

The following day, at breakfast, he read in the newspaper that ‘No kidding, Leicester City had bloody well won the FA Cup!’

He took up golf on a course which had ‘bits of seaside links like in Scotland, patches of flowering dogwood and azalea from Augusta, beechwood, pine, bracken and gorse.’, and scored a respectable 67. That evening, his carer, Brigitta, artfully declined sex but sex was to be had as he found ‘two long red hairs’ on his pillow in the morning. It is kind of interesting, and very English, that he can make more of your Full English than a good f$%k.

Then, ‘Guess what happened next? [He] started worrying.’ Looking for reassurance, he asked ‘Look, this is heaven, isn’t it?’, to which the reply was ‘Oh yes’ And so his heavenly ‘life continued, and [his] golf improved no end.’ After a while and a cruise or two, he starts to worry again, this time about religion. His case manager asks him what he does on Sundays.‘ “On Sundays”, I said, “as far as I can work out, because I don’t follow the days too closely any more, I play golf, go shopping, eat dinner, have sex and don’t feel bad.”

supermarket from above by Bunny Hero

supermarket from above by Bunny Hero

She replies, ‘Isn’t that perfect?’

It was of course but that was not his point nor the point. Apparently, the heaven of psalms and hallelujahs, ‘Old Heaven’, had ‘sort of closed down.’ because ‘after the new Heavens were built, … there was . . . little call for it.’ The inhabitants, the ‘Old Heaveners . . . gave up speaking to anyone but other Old Heaveners. Then they began to die off.’ New Heaveners also had ‘the option to die off if they want to’. In Mr. Barnes’s heaven, people can’t stand being happy all the time and like a medieval king die of a surfeit.

An Intellectual’s Heaven . . .

Frazier, too, is equally unfit for a life of perpetual bliss. In ‘Door Jam’ he and Niles lust after an oh-so-discreet spa, which proves to be very heaven, UNTIL they found that they had had the mere Silver service, and there was the oh-so-exclusive Gold service. Their quest for heaven results in their discovery of the garbage area, and they exit pursued by bees.

The Matrix

Perhaps it is as Agent Smith says in that one good Matrix film:

Agent Smith: Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization.

The problem of pain

Relief from Persepolis by Paul

Relief from Persepolis by Paul

Barnes quoted Flaubert – the quote I cannot find – that to someone in chronic pain that pain is forever new, forever worthy of attention, but to those who care for the invalid and witness a lifetime of agony, it becomes over time duller, more of an obstacle to be negotiated, an annoyance, even a self-indulgence. Flaubert forgets that love never tires of caring and never become inured to the problems of the beloved.

Paradiso

A good candidate for heaven would be Fiorenza (Florence, Italy), until you see the fortress town houses and learn of the terrible practical jokes the creatives would play on one another. In the science museum there, there is one of Galileo’s telescopes. When I wax lyrical about this little black tube and mention the Starry Messenger , the book he wrote about what he saw through such a little thing; a book which describes an imperfect sun pockmarked by sunspots, the Medicean Stars flocking around Jupiter, that for each of the multitude of stars we can see without a telescope there is a multitude more, and that the face of the Moon “is not robed in a smooth and polished surface but is in fact rough and uneven, covered everywhere, just like the earth’s surface, with huge prominences, deep valleys, and chasms.”, I usually get a slightly pained look and ‘Oh, really’.

Firenze Duomo by Franek N

Firenze Duomo by Franek N

There I was able to wander in the footsteps of the great Tuscan poet Dante Alighieri. His Divine Comedy actually has three parts although Hell is by far and away the best known, regurgitated endlessly in horrible films and derivative TV drama. Dante, the supreme poet working in a language of angels and Mafiosi, did so much better describing the damned and their torments than the dubious pleasures of heaven. His profound of hell is a sea of ice where Satan is rooted waist deep, chewing forever on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius. He should have a dozen or more mouths for the wicked of subsequent centuries. They are far more deserving of the worst that Hell can dish up.

(I like the idea of putting the shades of Hitler and his stooges in the front row of every Broadway performance of ‘The Producers’. As the reaction of Pyongyang to the advanced publicity to Seth Rogen and James Franco’s film ‘The Interview’ shows, nasty tyrants have no sense of humor. I hope the Seth/James film will be a runaway success.)

Unfortunately, when it comes to heaven the best that Dante – the daddy of them all –  can come up with is the thought of a white rose and an old man’s opiate blissing,

In forma dunque di candida rosa, . . .
ma l’altra, che volando vede e canta
la gloria di colui che la ’nnamora
e la bontà che la fece cotanta,
sì come schiera d’ape che s’infiora
una fïata e una si ritorna
là dove suo laboro s’insapora,
nel gran fior discendeva che s’addorna
di tante foglie, e quindi risaliva
là dove ’l süo amor sempre soggiorna.
Le facce tutte avean di fiamma viva
e l’ali d’oro, e l’altro tanto bianco,
che nulla neve a quel termine arriva.

Fiorenza is great and should be on your bucket list, but, for me, the number one, tippy-toppy experience was an open-topped bus trip out past the Belvedere, made so famous in Silence of the Lambs, and into the sumptuous summer Tuscan countryside.

Doctor Lecter and Agent Starling

Clarice Starling: Did you do all these drawings, Doctor?
Hannibal Lecter: Ah. That is the Duomo seen from the Belvedere. Do you know Florence?
Clarice Starling: All that detail just from memory, sir?
Hannibal Lecter: Memory, Agent Starling, is what I have instead of a view.

Persian Palaces

 

Hasht Behesht Palace Musicians

Hasht Behesht Palace Musicians

Just after finishing university, I took a journey through Iran, Turkey and Greece. The first leg of the plan was to head south from Tehran to Shiraz, and visit the summer palace of Xerxes the Great known to the West by its Greek name, Persepolis. Had those ancient Greeks not been so parochial, and had they not wrecked it, the awesome complex would have made an eighth Wonder of the World. For a journey like this, I was not exactly prepared. I compounded the hazards by taking with me a cute teen girl. We survived more or less intact, due to the goodwill of the many generous, kind folk along the way. I’ll write up these adventures sometime, but now I would like to tell of the Palace of Oranges.

Shiraz is called the City of the Oranges and is the home and burial place of Hafez, the Persian Dante. For breakfast we had fresh baked bread, olives and tea and then walked into town and the delightful jewel of a tea house, to which we had been taken on our first day in the City. After a wonderful glass of Sherbot (Iranian lemonade) we set out for the palace. It did not look promising. We walked down narrow, dusty medieval streets penned in by high ocher walls. The entrance was a low unadorned door, which opened into a gloomy, dusty, medieval vestibule. We walked around a corner and the garden exploded at us.

Al Hambra by Tania & Artur

Al Hambra by Tania & Artur

Gardens like this are long and narrow, and shaded by high walls. Down the middle was a pool lined with blue and white tiles. Between the walls and pool was row upon row of orange trees. At the far end of the garden was the summer house into which was inset a Moorish alcove, lined with mirrors. How lovely it must have been to sit in that alcove on cushions with friends on a balmy night savoring the scent of orange blossom.

Ta Prohm in Siem Reap by Daniel Mennerich

Ta Prohm in Siem Reap by Daniel Mennerich

 

In the Quran, heaven is liken to a garden and in Islamic countries there are many gardens. Two such gardens are in the Taj Mahal, Agra, Uttar Pradesh, and the Alhambra, Cordova, Andalusia. Both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites aka Wonders of the World and there are many more than seven. I have been to the Taj which is as beautiful in real life as it is on the picture postcards. I hope to see the Alhambra someday. I know that Jacob Bronowski loved it.

Hotel de la Paix

So what would be my idea of heaven?
I’m glad you asked me that.

It is in Siem Reap, Cambodia and was called Hotel de la Paix (Hotel of Peace). It has an undistinguished outside, hidden like the Palace of Oranges, something like a white washed Art Deco cinema in small town America. On the street side is the glass windows of the hotel’s café and a porte-cochère, into which our taxi pulled late on a July evening in 2009. The revolving doors let into a cool minimalist atrium centered on a Brancusi take on the figure forms of Angkor Wat. Above the figure floated  the tiered balconies  of the upper floors.

The Foyer Goddess by Reico

The Foyer Goddess by Reico

Behind the figure was the reception and the concierge. There we were asked one of the best questions any traveler can be asked: Would you like an upgrade?  We gladly accepted a suite for the price of a double room. Apparently, the bankers who had just broken the American credit system had also confined most of the hotel customers in other countries, so the hotel’s best rooms were vacant. So next time there is a glitch in the economy pack your bags because there will be some really good deals to be had to things normally way beyond your budget. Like this suite.

It was split level. Downstairs, the main room was divided by an enormous swivelable flat screen TV into the sleeping area with a comfy king size, bedside tables lights and so on, and sitting area with a comfy sofa, a desk and view of the central garden veiled by gauzy white curtains. The upper level was a balcony with two massage tables – les massages privés, bien sûr, and french windows which let out  on to a private sunning terrace and a huge marble plunge pool. The levels were joined by wrought-iron spiral stairs. From the sleeping area a short passage led to a huge sculpted washbasin around which were piles of wash clothes, bottles of water and what appeared to be old fashioned cruets but could be split open to reveal a unguents and oils.

Figure at Angkor Wat

Figure at Angkor Wat

To the left were your walk-in closet, a stack of teak draws and the safe, and to the right was the wonderful shower room. I think it is the best shower I have ever seen. The floor and walls and ceiling were varieties of brown biscuit in color, dimpled tiles on the floor and veined marble for walls and ceiling. The shower system was worthy of German engineering. System A was a split cylinder of shower heads to give the all-round shower, with a handheld hanging from a copper hook for those hard-to-reach nooks and crannies. System B was a huge – perhaps 20 centimeters wide – flat copper doucher capable of an excellent emulation of a tropical downpour.

Next: the pool. The pool was on the 2nd floor. To call the pool a pool gives the impression of a public building laced by a superabundance of chlorine, a pool of milky water there in, cavernous echoes, slightly scummy grout, and monstrous temperature differences which are best left to Walruses. This pool is more like a garden. To reach it, one takes the lift and then walks down the minimalist corridor, along which were niches presenting backlit Kymer reliefs, which led out into the explosion of tropical sunshine.

pool at Hotel de la Paix

pool at Hotel de la Paix

The doorway lets into an area dominated by a little canal running across left and right. You have arrived at the bit where the rooms which let out onto their own small sun decks, all of which have loungers and the like. The canal continues under the building, each side lined with alcoves with benches and cushions for quiet reading, and ending with an infinity. To reach the rest of the garden there is a little wooden bridge over the canal. There among the beds of succulents and palms are more loungers and more of the industrial sized showers. Some have stone frogs sitting around them. They reminded me of the Gorf who created the heaven called Calf Island described in Salman Rushdie’s 1st book, Grimus.

The rest of the pool had a checkerboard of water inset with small square islands sprouting fronds and palms.  Away from the loungers, several hot tubs bubbled. Another little bridge lead to the spa and the gym. The cool lavender scented spa has plush massage couches, the most expert masseurs, and all the while quietly Khmer chimes tinkle. As it was late, we opted for an early night and – of course – watched Tomb Raider.

Hôtel de la Paix by Reico

Hôtel de la Paix by Reico

Breakfast, on the morrow, was served in the restaurant. The inside of the restaurant is dark teak, its tables covered with stiff fin-de-siècle tablecloths. You are welcomed by courteous, handsome staff. The al fresco part of the restaurant lines two sides of a courtyard centered around a spreading deciduous tree and pools and flag stones. In the evening, it is candle lit. The side nearest the restaurant has conventional tables and chairs of a colonial style, the other side has five or so suspended bowers, on which you would sit or lie propped up by triangular pillows, little button shaped pillows, and shapeless pillows as soft as clouds; and supplies of comestibles furnished on teak trays on little legs. These were much to the delight of the children.

Breakfast, itself, was a vast array of breads, fruits, juices, meats, and cheeses. Tea was bought in a white porcelain Brown Bessie. On that first day I treated myself to an Eggs Benedict which I’m delighted to say was made with fresh Hollandaise.

Showers at Hotel de la Paix by Reico

Showers at Hotel de la Paix by Reico

On the opposite side of courtyard was the spacious bar about the size of decent dance hall, discretely lit with pools of blue light, huge divans and modern Khmer art. The bar itself was biscuit stone inscribed with a homage to the reliefs of Angkor, lit in blue and white. They even did a decent vodka-martini.

The last part of fine dining was the café. We had most of our lunches there. They did very well with fresh handmade ice cream, and wonderful ham and cheese croissants. The servers were handsome, efficient and courteous. I recall one in particular: a beautiful girl with long, long shimmering hair.

Outside was the Khmer capital dominated by the World Heritage Angkor Wat. Its very nice but we preferred the brooding magnificence of Beng Mealea and Ta Prohm, still claimed by the forest by the lava-like flows of Tetrameles nudiflora trees.

和平飯店 by chloe Q

和平飯店 by chloe Q

 I had a massage every day of our visit. Tough, hun? I did have lobster and I did pay more than a dollar. I bought a lovely silver bangle decorated with elephants for the wife, who added silver elephant earrings and a pendant. We sat in the night market and had our toes nibbled by minnows while drinking beer and accosting strangers to come and join us. It was undoubtedly a good trip. Could the hotel bear improvement; everything can. The massages were great but the very tippy-top best is to be had at the Le Meridien, New Delhi.

I like this hotel and I’m far from being alone. Although the name has changed, I do hope its spirit lives on.

 

Palm

Palm

Cohen Bros. Moments: How Japan met America at the end of the Pacific War

Geisha Makeover at the Katsura Studio,Tokyo by lu_lu

First scene: the Imperial Palace, Tokyo, Japan

In the end it was the Tenno, 天皇 (てんおう), the Son of Heaven, the divinely appointed ruler of Japan, who made the decision. The credo of Budō, the Japanese Way of the Warrior, demanded that a warrior surrender his life whenever his lord needed it. That had been the cornerstone of the Empire’s zeitung, its imperishable spirit of conquest. The Empire’s armies had beaten the British and the French, and ground down the Chinese. Those British had treated the emperor with contempt. That ex-King had mocked him and his impeccable Western clothes, as a “prize monkey”. The news that a British battleship Prince of Wales had been sent to the bottom by Japanese torpedoes, had given the emperor grim satisfaction. That ex-King had been Prince of Wales when he gave such insult. During the siege of Singapore, the British soldiers thought that the Japanese bicycles running on stripped steel rims were tanks, and the civil servant in charge had meekly surrendered what Churchill thought an unsinkable battleship. Unfortunately, all its guns pointed out to sea.

"Budō" shuji, brushed by Kondo Katsuyuki, Menkyo Kaiden, Daito ryu

“Budō” shuji, brushed by Kondo Katsuyuki, Menkyo Kaiden, Daito ryu

Then the Empire had taken on a greater foe. That foe should have fallen apart at that first crushing victory. Its leaders had let the country rot for over ten years, leaving it to gangsters and film starlets to run things. They were a mongrel horde without discipline. But it hadn’t worked out like that. What should have been an easy next battle turned out to be a disaster. Somehow the mongrels knew and were ready. They had conjured aircraft carrier after aircraft carrier from who knows where. Their airmen were ferocious. At least as committed as our warriors who had been given Bushido souls with their mother’s milk. The mongrels never ever gave up, and kept coming on, hit after hit, until we started to lose aircraft carriers, the proud victors of the Battle of Pearl Harbor; first Soryu and then Kaga. We lost four irreplaceable ships and so many men. In the end Admiral Nagumo had to give up. The rout was hidden for a while. The eyewitnesses who might have spread discord, those soldiers and the airmen who had survived were interred. Our propagandists announced a great victory. But that was a lie.

Now the Tenno and his generals were down to just two options. Super weapons had vaporized the downtowns of two medium sized cities, apparently left intact by the Super Fortresses just to see what these weapons could do. And who knew how many more super bombs the enemy had and where they would be used? One thing was for sure, there was nothing that the army, navy or airforce could do to stop them. The slimmest, deluded hope was an agreement signed back in the glory days. The fact that it had been a cynical matter of convenience, at least by the ally who sponsored it, didn’t seem to matter much. He had gone to break the farcically named “non-aggression” treaty with a spectacular invasion, which he had called Barbarossa. The snows of the Steppes and the bloody minded persistence of the Untermensch, had turned it into a hellish rout which had rolled all the way back to his Fuhrerbunker under his chancellery in Berlin. Now he was dead, suiciding not by honorable Seppuku but a quick bullet and glass vial of prussic acid, while around him raged Gotterdammerung , a monstrous parody of Wagner’s tale of the Nordic gods. Hitler’s war had shattered European imperial power forever, at an incalculable cost in resources and some fifty million lives. (There is an excellent film on those last days called “Downfall”. The drawback is that it’s in Deutsche but is nonetheless an absolutely compelling tale.)

Empress Sadako with Prince of Wales in 1922

Empress Sadako with Prince of Wales in 1922

That other Axis ally had always been a flake and was dead too, shot by peasants and his corpse urinated on by their women. Now Uncle Joe, the Tsar in all but name of the Soviet Union, had unequivocally torn up that ‘non-aggression’ agreement by formally declaring war. The Russian army had already beaten the Imperial Army once before, and was now on its way down the Trans-Siberian railway. The great Soviet General Zhukov, who had seen off the Wehrmacht and had commanded that first defeat of Japanese forces in Manchuria, would steamroller the last vestiges of Japanese Imperial might and, if the Soviet Army behaved as it had done in Germany, would fulfill every horror story concocted by our propagandists. The Imperial Army had a lot of hidden skeletons like those tales back in Korea and China.

The options were simple: trust General Anami’s Ketsugō plan, which included arming children with sharpened bamboo sticks, or surrender to the Americans. Hirohito, Divine Son of Heaven, Tenno, chose door number two. The Tenno, divinely appointed ruler of Japan, the pinnacle of Bushido, had decided that he preferred to live and take his chances.

:Namban Attributed to Kano Naizen

:Namban Attributed to Kano Naizen

The Atomic Bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th 1945 and Nagasaki on August 9th which was the same day that the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. After trying to get a concession or two the Empire of Japan signaled that it accepted the Potsdam declaration, which demanded total and unconditional surrender. On August 15 the Japanese people heard the Emperor Hirohito’s radio broadcast telling them that they would have “to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is unsufferable”. Few of them understood what was about to happen due mainly to the archaic form of Japanese he used, which was something like FDR or Churchill using Chaucerian English, and in part to the scratchy recording made by NKK and the Emperor’s thin reedy voice. Japan waited for the victors.

Second scene: Flashback

tengu statue by the station by erysimum9

tengu statue by the station by erysimum9

The Japanese do not call themselves Japanese. Their name for themselves is Nihonjin and the name of their country is Nihon (日本), the sun’s origin. Europeans first learned of this country from Marco Polo’s book where he described an island known to the Chinese as Zipangu. Our name Japan was garbled from the original by filtering it through Mandarin and Italian or maybe Cantonese and Dutch. Any which way, one would be hard put to find more dissimilar languages.

Until 1945, Japan had never been successfully invaded, although Genghis Khan had a couple of goes back in 1274 and 1281. They are a homogeneous insular people, courteous and intelligent, and minimalist by necessity and by taste. They also think very highly of themselves.

When in the 16th Century Europeans arrived, the few Japanese who met one were not impressed. Yes, the Europeans brought interesting ideas like muskets which the Japanese readily copied but the men themselves were appalling. They were ketto yabanjin(けっと 野蛮人), dirty hairy beasts just like the goblin tengu 天狗 with huge long noses, enormous penises and venal tastes. During the war, the Imperial propagandists had capitalized on these prejudices. And now these barbarians would have the run of the place.

Third scene: Atsugi Air Base, Japan

Ase o fuku onna by Utamaro

Ase o fuku onna by Utamaro

It wasn’t long before those dreaded Americans arrived. On August 28, 1945, only 13 days after Hirohito’s broadcast American troops arrived at Atsugi Air base, just south of Tokyo, with orders to secure Yokohama for General MacArthur and his staff. The troops formed a convoy of trucks and ventured into enemy territory. They were soon met by a Japanese convoy sent by a new organization set up by the helpful Japanese government called the Recreation and Amusement Association (RAA), and these trucks were carrying Japanese women in elegant kimono, who had “volunteered” to service the horny Yanks. Well, for many of the women sex was their day job anyway. The American officers were shocked and offended, and said so but, no doubt, some of the GIs would have been game. And so began a fascinating bit of human history, replete with every human vice but also much sweetness.

Atsuji wasn’t the only airfield which had to be commandeered. In early September, fifty Marines were sent to secure the air base at Omura near Nagasaki in Northern Kyushu. They too were welcomed by a party of geisha, and finding the base adequately secured, the men, lead by their fearless first sergeant, moved on to commandeer a nearby geisha house which they chose as their billet — while they waited for reinforcements — as it was well supplied with beer, ‘hibachi-grilled fish’ and girls. The doughty first sergeant of MAG-44 commandeering party was 22-year-old Nick Zappetti who already had a colorful history. He had grown up in the Italian enclave of East Harlem on Manhattan, New York. His cousin was Gaetano Luchese aka “Three Finger Brown” and Zappetti knew lots of other guys with nicknames, “Boss of Booze” Joe Rao, “Trigger” Mike Coppola and Joe Stretch whose real name was quite melodramatic enough.

Fourth scene: Hikari wa Shinjuku Yori, Japan

Bob Johnson of Reading, Mass. cordially greets Tamiko San by Okinawa Soba (Rob)

Bob Johnson of Reading, Mass. cordially greets Tamiko San, by Okinawa Soba (Rob)

Japan, of course, had its own wise guys. They called themselves ya-ku-za, the numbers 8-9-3, a term for a losing hand in cards. In other war torn countries black markets had flourished and Japan was no exception. While the Emperor and his cronies mourned, and the people feared the impending hordes of yabanjin, the yakuza reaction to the cessation of hostilities was let the good times roll. Only three days after the Emperor’s speech, they placed an advertisement for a black-market market called charmingly Hikari wa Shinjuku Yori (Shinjuku has more Light) and a couple of days after that the market in Shinjuku opened with supplies which had been destined to support General Anami’s Ketsugō army and then liberated and repurposed by the Yakuza. It was not long before the victors and vanquished were able to make working arrangements about the economic facts of life.

Tokyo was a shanty town of lean-to huts; some folk were even living in bomb craters, and nobody had enough to eat. The point that the government ration was totally inadequate was neatly, if inadvertently, made when a Tokyo District Court Judge who had refused to eat anything bought illegally died of malnutrition. So, despite “not overly successful” attempts to rout out American involvement, the light of Shinjuku AKA the black market boomed. Some eight million dollars worth of remittances were sent back to America, more than “the entire military payroll”. Naturally, the Yakuza claim that they saved the people at the beginning of the post war period.

Fifth scene: Rikidozan in the Ring

Fascinating although this is, it isn’t really Cohen Bros. material. For that we have pro-wrestling. After years of being told how tough the Japanese fighting man was (true) and how victory was inevitable (not so true) the post war Japanese male felt something of a letdown. The depth of such feelings were discovered on the night of February 19, 1954 in a puro-resu bumu held on Tokyo.

In the blue corner representing America were the Sharpe Brothers, Ben (6’ 6”, 240 pounds) and Mike (6’ 6”, 250 pounds). In the red corner representing the Land of the Rising Sun, Home of Sumo were Rikidozan (6’ 2”, 220 pounds) and Kimura (5’ 8”, 170 pounds). A Japanese journalist wrote, “The difference in physical size, especially in Kimura’s case, triggered painful memories among the spectators of Japan’s devastating loss in the Pacific War.” The ring announcer agreed, “Those Americans are huge. How can they possibly lose?”

The American Goliath, Mike Sharpe, climbed into the ring to confront tiny Rikidozan. Then Riki, as he became known, ‘flew into the ring and began pummeling Mike Sharpe with powerful karate blows.’ Mike backed down towards his corner and was quickly worn down by the furious Jap. To escape he tagged his brother. Ben received the same warm welcome. The blitzing attacks of the feisty Riki dazed him; he collapsed and Riki held him down for the count.

Rikidozan in action

Rikidozan in action

The audience went wild, jumping to their feet and throwing cushions, hats and anything else into the air. The crowd of some 20,000 gathered at Shimbashi Metro Station to watch the match on a 27 inch “General” went bananas, stopping traffic outside. Folks who had climbed trees to get better view of another jumbo TV in Ueno Park were so jubilant that they fell from their perches, “incurring serious injury and … ambulances shuttle[d] back and forth …. to the nearest hospital for much of the evening.”

It was estimated that between 10 and 14 million Japanese had watched the show live, and when it was broadcast 24 million, around a third of the population, watched. Riki was now a celebrity adored by millions including the media mogul and owner of NTV Matsutaro Shoriki who said,”Rikidozan, by his pro wrestling in which he sent the big white men flying, has restored pride to the Japanese and given them new courage.”

Alas, it was pro-wrestling and pro-wrestling is not known to be much of an actual contest, and this wasn’t at all. The match had been “scripted, rehearsed, and staged with the full cooperation of the Americans, who had been extremely well compensated for their trouble.” Nick Zappetti realized that was money to be made and was recruited to be a fall guy along with fellow American, one John MacFarland the Third.

Sixth scene: The Imperial Hotel Diamond Incident

MacFarland was not exactly inconspicuous in a nation of shortish, black haired people. He was 6’ 4”, 250 pounds, his red hair was cut into a duckbill, and he went by his wrestling name of “Gorgeous Mac”. As well as being a prize on the pro wrestling league, he had issues. He had been hospitalized for manic depression and treated with insulin shock therapy for his shocking temper. Gorgeous Mac was also in debt and an illegal, as his tourist visa and his passport had expired, so he need a lot of money fast, so he talked with Nick, with his connections and all, how this could be achieved.

Geisha Makeover, by lu_lu, at Katsura Studio in Tokyo.

Geisha Makeover, by lu_lu, at Katsura Studio in Tokyo.

The plan MacFarland came up was a doozy. He wanted to rob the Diamond Shop in the arcade of his swanky hotel. First off, this was some hotel. It was called the Imperial and had been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and had survived the great Kanto earthquake in 1927. It was a home-from-home to high-ranking officers from GHQ, senators and Hollywood stars and was ‘generally acknowledged as the Greatest Hotel in Asia.” The plan sounded simple enough. The Diamond Shop offered ‘private showings’ of its merchandise to certain qualified guests. Gorgeous Mac would establish his credentials with a suitcase of cash, which in reality was newspaper with a thin overlay of bills. He would get chummy with the salesman and offer him a drink. The drink would contain ‘knockout drops’, rending MacFarland and the salesman unconscious, Zapetti would emerge from another room and swipe the diamonds. It seemed plausible until Gorgeous Mac said, “I gotta have a gun”.

Zapetti tried to argue him out of his questionable request by pointing out that he was an enormous pro-wrestler and could easily handle any salesman. All Gorgeous Mac would say is “I gotta have a gun”. Zapetti had seen MacFarland totally lose it before, so declined to be part of the venture. He did however provide a .38 revolver which he gave, sans bullets, to one of   Gorgeous Mac groupies. This teenage boy was nicknamed the “Mambo Kid”, “M” for short, on account of  his taste in clothes: ‘black rhinestone-studded Latin clothes and big pompadours’. Should you doubt that Japanese folk love Latin dance you should go to the Asakusa Samba Festival.

So, on “January 15, 1956, at 10:20 AM, Imperial Hotel arcade jeweler Shichiro Masubuchi carried a briefcase filled with . . . diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and rubies to MacFarland’s room.” He was relieved of the case by MacFarland and M who then chose to take the elevator to the main lobby, “where MacFarland agreeably stopped to sign autographs. Then he stood in line for a taxi in front of the hotel …” That evening MacFarland made front page news and had a team of seven detectives “- one for each leg, one for each arm, one man to grab his torso, another for the neck and a detective to snap on the handcuffs on” – on his trail. It didn’t take long to find, and when they caught him he came along quietly. MacFarland got eight months in a Japanese jail for his trouble.

So there you are.

This is but a taste of the wonderful Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster. As the wise man said no one could make this stuff up. and Cohen Brothers would have a field day making it into a film.

Featured Image: Geisha Makeover, by lu_lu, at Katsura Studio in Tokyo.