Saturday, March 29, 2008

Zero Degrees of Separation

If you know me, you are way closer to Tibet than you are to Kevin Bacon.

In the notorious TV advertisement the actor demonstrates "six degrees of separation,"the idea that everyone is connected to everyone else in the world by a chain of only half a dozen acquaintances. The idea has been tested recently using email, and the average of six appears to hold true. Of course since this is an average it means some chains will be longer than others, while other chains may represent no separation at all.

It happens that I know someone from Tibet, so I am connected directly. This young man managed to escape to India by walking across the Himalayas, much as the Dalai Lama did many years ago. Now he makes his home on the West Coast of the United States, but he still has many relations back in Tibet, so what is happening there affects him as personally as if he were still there himself.

What can we do for this hapless country? Once the embodiment of the peaceable kingdom on earth, the very model for the Shangri-La of Lost Horizon fame, it has been occupied by its hugely more powerful neighbor and subjected to a policy of cultural extermination. It has been denied its name, its religion, its social order, its customs. It has been massively colonized while many of its inhabitants have been forcibly relocated or driven into exile.

It could be that by now it is too late. The time to get involved would have been in the late 1940's when China first declared its territorial claim to the region. But in the aftermath of World War II the United States was too busy restoring colonies to their European owners, and more worried about the outcome of the political struggle for China itself. In a few years war broke out anyway, but over Korea. Stung by this encounter, we were reluctant to get involved in the Tibetan uprising of 1959, which would have meant planting a foot smack between China and the USSR during the bleakest days of the Cold War. Seeming to acknowledge futility, not even the United Nations would recognize Tibetan independence.

It's harder to say what we are afraid of now, almost 50 years later, because it has more to do with global trade. No one wants to rock that enormous boat with the Chinese, which would send shudders deep through our own economy. It seems the most drastic action being contemplated is the withdrawal of commercial sponsors from the Olympic Games, maybe even some athletes. But this is not likely to achieve anything but a brief period of good behavior, after which the oppression will resume as brutally as before.

But can we not at least bear witness to what is happening? To their credit, both President Bush and House Speaker Pelosi have visited with the Dalai Lama to demonstrate sympathy and support. With amazing persistence, the Chinese continue to ascribe motives of conspiracy and rebellion to this kind man who has spent his entire life searching for peace, and in 1989 was awarded the Nobel Prize for his efforts.

There is still hope. It has happened before -- notably in the Irish uprising of the 1920's -- that world opinion has changed the policy of a nation and allowed an oppressed population to find its freedom. But even if the worst happens, and this defenseless people faces its end as one of the world's unique cultures, can we not at least pay tribute to the dream of peace that they embodied for so many years, one which might yet spread across the earth?

On our front porch fly some Tibetan prayer flags. Symbolic not of nationality but of the universal elements of creation, they are designed not to send prayers to the gods, but rather to send blessings to all humankind. Back in Tibet they were traditionally strung across high ground so their effects could be carried far and wide on the currents of the air.

A cold wind is blowing down from the mountains. Feel the breeze. Breath it in. Know what is passing.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Men Who Would Be King

Of all the versions of this tale, the true one is the most amazing ...

I've long been a fan of John Huston's 1975 film version of Rudyard Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King, and have watched it several times. But only recently did I finally read the original short story it is based on. The film is faithful to Kipling, but even more incredible is the real story that lies behind them both.

Starring Sean Connery as Daniel Dravot, Michael Caine as his pal "Peachy" Carnehan, and a youthful Christopher Plummer as Kipling, the film tells the story of two adventurers in the days of the British Raj in India who set out to forge a kingdom for themselves in Kafiristan. In those days
this remote province of Afghanistan might as well have been darkest Africa for all that was known of it. Foreigners who went in were seldom seen again.

Our heroes are not to be discouraged, however. Full of British pluck they set off on a pair of camels loaded down with concealed rifles, disguised as a crazy holy man and his servant. The ruse is intended to keep secret their identity and the fact that only one of them speaks an indigenous language.

Once in the country they quickly form a series of alliances by offering their services (and rifles) in support of one local ruler against another. This of course was a practice that the British, like the Romans before them, used in many places including Scotland, Ireland, and America, as well as in India. With each victory they add to their followers and the size of their territory. And they use their military experience to train a growing army.

In Kafiristan their right to rule is recognized by a fortunate fluke.
The inhabitants claim to be the descendants of Alexander the Great, whose army established an outpost there two thousand years ago. There is also a connection between Alexander and Freemasonry having to do with the Gordian knot, and the Masonic medallion around Dravot's neck is a match to the ancient and revered symbol in their temple. This is all they need to consider him a god who has returned to claim his throne.

This detail is the most marked difference between the film and Kipling's yarn. As the author -- a Freemason himself -- told it, the natives actually knew the secrets of the sect, including handshakes and the initiation rites for the lower orders. I suppose Huston and his screenwriters thought this would be a bit much for general audiences in the 20th century.

But power soon goes to the newly crowned head of Dravot. He begins lording it over his subjects, including the hapless Carnehan, to whom falls the task of training the army while his friend tells them what to do. In the story version Dravot's plans run wild. He foresees himself delivering the whole country to Britain as a perfect bulwark against Russian expansion in the region, from which his fortune, medals, and a knighthood are sure to follow.

In the end it is his desire for a queen that proves his undoing, in a way I will not mention so I don't spoil the plot for anyone. Suffice to say that only one of the pair of adventurers makes it back alive, and I won't say which one, or what is the fate of the other.

The Story Behind the Story

Kipling's story was long thought to have been based on the exploits of James Brooke, an Englishman whose foreign adventures ended with him becoming the Raja of Sarawak in 1841, a post he held until his death in 1868. But it has since been discovered that there was another possible model in the person of Josiah Harlan, whose story has many parallel details to the ones in Kipling's tale and is an even more likely source.

Harlan was an American Quaker from a small town in Pennsylvania. When his girlfriend broke his heart he left the country to seek his fortune abroad, and ended up serving as a self-declared physician with the British army in Burma. For this alone his Quaker meeting revoked his membership when they heard of it. Little did they realize what was to become of him later.

Leaving Burma he made his way to the Punjab region of India (later Pakistan) and formed the idea that he wanted to explore Afghanistan--oh, and perhaps become king of it. He was quite aware that the last European to do so was Alexander the Great, a person of particular historical interest to Harlan, and one whose mantle he saw himself taking up.

How he did so is related in exquisite detail in Ben MacIntyre's 2004 book, The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan. Through an amazing series of diplomatic encounters, Harlan managed to obtain support from both the British (as an intelligence source) and the deposed Shah of Afghanistan (as one who would create a rebellion and restore his lost throne). Armed with the Shah's money and his own chutzpah, he proceeded to raise an army of loyal supporters of the Shah and bands of mercenaries, and led them to conquest under his personal banner--an American flag made to his order by a local seamstress.

I recommend MacIntyre for the rest of this incredible story. But it is worth noting that along the way Harlan took in two deserters from the British army who were out to seek their own fortunes by offering their services as military commanders to anyone who would have them. They are Dravot and Carnehan incarnate. Like those characters, Harlan too started out by impersonating a holy man who had taken a vow of silence as a way to conceal his foreign identity until he could learn the language. He even ended up in Kafiristan where he may have married, or at least cohabited with, a Kafiri woman--though with better results than in Kipling's tale.

Harlan's exploits predated those of Brooke by several years. In fact, when the British finally invaded Afghanistan they found Harlan comfortably in residence. Now with a title, the Prince of Ghor, and claim to much Afghan territory, he found himself at odds with the imperious Brits, who refused to take his sage advice about how they should conduct themselves (ultimately with disastrous consequences). Eventually he left in a huff to return to America. Back home he penned a book that was so critical of the Empire's bungling in the region that it created a scandal all over Europe--one more reason that Kipling was quite likely to have heard of Harlan's story even many years later.

Harlan's end was less dramatic than that of Kipling's heroes, but no less tragic. Back in his own country he was an utter failure. When the Civil War erupted he took up a commission in the Union army and tried to replicate his military successes overseas. But he was now so out of touch with the customs of his homeland that his troops mutinied. After the war he spent much time lobbying the government to establish a corps of camel cavalry, putting himself forward as the only person to go abroad and bring back the camels. Perhaps he was just looking for a free pass back to Afghanistan. At any rate, this too was a failure.

His last days were spent in San Francisco, a city where he knew not a soul, and where one day in 1871 he died on the street. He might have been forgotten altogether but for MacIntyre's research. More than a century later, his curiosity aroused by the American invasion of Afghanistan, he discovered Harlan's journals in a box in a back room of a public library in Pennsylvania.

At the bottom of the box was an ornate document signed with an official seal: the proof of Harlan's royal title, and the grant in perpetuity of his Afghan lands.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

America Revisited

Campaign season -- a perfect time to reflect on our history ...

You might think with a high-tech gadget like the Sony ebook reader I got for Christmas that the first things I would try it out on would be science fiction or computer programming texts. But instead I cashed in on the free classics that Sony lets you download. So three of the first books I read were about visits to America in the 19th century--works that were between 117 and 165 years old. (Note to publishers: good books have a long life; they are not like this month's hit songs.)


First of these travelogs was Charles Dickens' American Notes, an account of his visit to the States in the 1840's. It begins with a hilarious diatribe about the extremely small size of the "state room" that he and his wife shared on their voyage across--a sentence that seems to go on for pages, during which the room continually shrinks as the sense of humor expands. From there it becomes more somber as we are reminded how arduous and perilous such voyages were, even in the early days of the steamship. And it echoes the experience of countless immigrants who made the same voyage. To cross the Atlantic then was to give oneself up for lost, and hope to be reborn at the other end of the passage.

Upon landing in Boston, being Dickens, his first order of business was to examine the institutions for the poor, sick, and infirm. The facilities of Boston passed with flying colors, and are held up as examples of their kind. It would seem that in our earlier days our nation established standards which we have forgot to maintain. If we ourselves could go back and see what was being done in the 1840's it would be hard to say where we have made any progress since, and easy to see where we have fallen behind--particularly in the area of mental health care.

One notable example is an institute for the blind, many of them children. Dickens spends a great deal of time on a single case, a girl who lost her sight, hearing, sense of smell, and most of her sense of taste due to illness at the age of three. I confess my imagination fails to be able to encompass such a degree of isolation--to think of being a mere child, lost alone in the silent dark.

Several years later the girl was brought to this establishment where the doctor, much like the woman who taught Helen Keller many years later, managed to teach her to recognize letters carved of wood, to assemble letters into words, that words had meanings and could be used to communicate, and finally how to make signs for the letters using her fingers. She quickly became proficient at this, and was able to make friends and to play with the children around her, who were merely blind. She even learned how to sew and to knit, if you can believe that.

Having accomplished all this, the doctor told Dickens that his next task was going to be to try to give the girl some conception of God. Only then did he seem to think his responsibility would be fulfilled and his work complete. It's hard to imagine a modern doctor taking this point of view. He would probably call in a specialist if he did anything at all. But I think it speaks well for this Victorian-era doctor that he would take on the challenge of treating the whole person, not just the symptoms, and that he recognized the paramount importance of the spiritual element of being human.

The remainder of Dickens' wandering about the country is more protracted. He visits New York, Buffalo, Chicago, and lower Canada, and treats us to a poetic evocation of Niagara Falls. Everywhere he goes, he visits hospitals and prisons and whatever other such institutions are available, though not all of them live up to the high standard of the ones he encountered in Boston. He also visits the brand new capital city of Washington, D.C., which apart from the public buildings is not much more than a sprawling construction site.

At this fringe of the South he first encounters the institution of slavery. The importation of slaves had been banned by this time, but this did not prevent slave owners from breeding their captives like cattle and continuing to trade in them within the country's boundaries. Needless to say, it was a practice that Dickens took a dim view of.

One of the most powerful parts of the book is a compilation of advertisements that he culled from Southern newspapers. Each contains a description of a runaway slave that the owner is seeking recovery of, and each describes the marks of physical torture that will identify his property--ears missing, brands on the face, whip scars on the back, hobbled limbs, an endless litany of abuse. Any wonder why they tried to escape?

Having praised us, Dickens lays this burden on our doorstep, claiming we will never be a great nation so long as the shame of slavery hangs about our necks.


This is a perfect segue into the second book, North America, by Anthony Trollope. The novelist followed in Dickens' footsteps about 20 years later, in 1861-2, when the country had fallen into civil war between the free and slave states. From the outset the author gives us his own prediction of the outcome. He believes that eventually the South will be established as an independent nation regardless of the outcome of the war, because the cultural differences between North and South are too great to be overcome, and because he cannot imagine that the North would readmit the seceded states to membership in the Union in the wake of all out war.

Modern readers know that he was wrong in this, but it demonstrates the magnitude of what the country has accomplished over the long years of Reconstruction and eventually up through the Civil Rights period. It may have taken more than a century, but an African-American now stands as a front runner for the presidency and even garners wide support throughout the former Confederate States. It also reminds us that the institution of slavery, once so widely held to be inevitable, has been done away with--at least within our borders. Any modern instances are rightly treated as corporate malfeasance or bizarre crimes akin to rape and serial murder. And whatever evils may remain in the form of prejudice or injustice are nothing compared to how monstrous it used to be.

Though he came along later than Dickens, Trollope still visited in a time when he could claim to have explored North America by going no further south than Washington (still acres of mud and still under construction), no further north than lower Canada, and no further West than St. Louis. He, too, visited Niagara Falls, and left behind a lyrical depiction of the experience as lush as any period oil painting by a great master--far exceeding in breadth and depth the comments of his predecessor.

In all he is an admirable observer. Learning that a detachment of Union soldiers is about to disembark from a riverboat, he has to stand by the gangway to see the men's faces and take their measure as they file past. Not content to collect statistics or to rely on interviews, he has to stand in the middle of a grain elevator as it transfers its river of wheat from a barge on one side to railway cars on the other--a process that went on 24/7 during harvest time--gaining a visceral experience of what millions of bushels feel like.

Like Dickens, Trollope had no love for slavery, yet he seems to consider it likely to continue indefinitely in the South, and to have few hopes for those who might be liberated in the border states. (His belief was that the North would take control of Kentucky, Tennessee, Kansas, Missouri, and maybe even Virginia and the Carolinas, leaving the "Gulf States" their independence with slavery intact.) In fact, his speculation about the inability of freed slaves to care for themselves reveals all the traditional bigotry that we associate today with racism.

Also like Dickens, he was concerned that his many criticisms of America and its social order would outweigh his equally strong praises for what he found good and admirable. The closing chapter is largely an apology and an appeal to his many American friends to understand the spirit of his remarks.


The young Rudyard Kipling seems to have felt himself under no such restraints when he published his own American Notes in 1891. Fresh off the boat from India (by then you could cross the Pacific in about three weeks and relative comfort) he lands in San Francisco with poison pen at the ready, and begins lashing out immediately at journalists, city planners, advertising, accents, culture or the lack thereof, and anything else that forced itself upon his attention.

An editor's forward to this slim volume explains that it has been out of print for many years and is seldom listed in bibliographies of Kipling's work, largely because of the negative reaction to it by American readers. Also, I suspect Kipling later regretted his acid tone. We know that he married an American woman, lived for some years in Vermont, and purchased a lovely piece of property there. Presumably he moderated his opinions over time.

The book has an unfinished feel to it, as if he left off in the middle and never got back to it. At the outset he tells us that he is traversing the country from West to East, rather than the usual reverse direction, yet the narrative leaves off at Chicago. There, instead of standing in a grain elevator, he witnesses the assembly line slaughter of pigs, presaging Sandburg's depiction of the city as "hog butcher to the world."

Still, the story has its bright moments. In one chapter Kipling rhapsodizes over a salmon fishing trip outside of Portland (then part of California). Like a youthful Hemingway he revels in the struggle of the sport, the glory of the outdoors, the brotherhood with his companions. The sense of satisfaction seems to outweigh all the negative impressions he collected in the city, and he claims he could now die happy and complete.

Visiting The Past

The wonderful thing about the past is that you can visit it, walk its empty streets and peer through its boarded up windows. You can pluck its newspapers from the trash and discover what was going on, how it looked and felt to those who lived there.

Each of these books places the reader into the body of its author for a first person encounter with America the way it was. Perhaps we are still as touchy about criticism, both pro and con, as we were back then. I confess my chest swelled when both Dickens and Trollope commended us for teaching everyone how to read, and observed that all Americans did so avidly, consuming multiple daily newspapers and myriads of books that dwarfed the per capita sales in England. If we have fallen away from that golden age it is only because we have moved on, ever restless, to consuming information in forms that did not exist in the 19th century. (And if you think TV is bad, you should read what Trollope has to say about our newspapers.)

On the other hand, my lips curled in disgust and shame over the depictions of universal tobacco chewing and consequent spitting that darkened the sidewalks, floors, and carpets everywhere--even in the halls of the Capitol. I suppose we replaced this national habit with cigarette smoking, and are now trying to wean ourselves from that. But we can certainly be glad that the spittoon is a fixture of the past.

Charles Dickens made another visit to America in 1868--twenty-five years after his first one, six years after Trollope, and three years after the end of the Civil War. Addressing members of the press, he expressed his admiration for how far the country had advanced in this time, particularly in ridding itself of the scourge of slavery. Indeed, he promised to add these remarks as a postscript to his earlier book, and to instruct his publishers that they must be included in all future printings.

Little did he imagine that 140 years later those words would still be included in a digital text that could be obtained anywhere through a global network of wires and painted page by page on a reading device he could only have considered magical. Kind of makes me wish I could return the favor and invite Dickens to see us now through my own eyes. But the deal only works in one direction.

[All three of these books can be downloaded free of charge from Project Gutenberg.]

Saturday, March 08, 2008

My Earnings Record

The story of my life by the numbers. Read 'em and weep ...

Recently I got my annual statement from the Social Security Administration, letting me know what I can expect someday in the way of retirement income. I look forward to these, because as a rule they are going up each year as my income and benefits continue to rise, however slightly. But that wasn't always the case.

An interesting page in this report is titled "Your Earnings Record," which is about the most cheerful phrase you will ever see in a government publication. It contains my whole life reduced to two columns of dates and figures representing my reported income throughout my entire employment history. It's interesting to note the peaks that represent new jobs and bumper years, as well as the valleys of recession and unemployment.

Most interesting, perhaps, are the three years in which my income totaled about $1,000, and how different those years actually were. The first one was not my first year of employment, either. That year (1968) I made a whopping $2,200 on which I was able to move out of my mother's house and set up in my own rented room. No, instead the first thousand dollar year was the one in '72 that I spent living in a van during the dregs of the sixties. (The "sixties" didn't really end, you know, until the Vietnam War ended in '75).

By the next year you can tell not only that I was employed again, but that inflation had driven wages up. My first job as a student had paid 1.25 per hour, but by this time the minimum wage was up to 2.40 and climbing.

However, no sooner had I found this new prosperity than the recession of '74 hit and I had my second thousand dollar year. The difference this time was that I also had unemployment compensation, so I really did a lot better than that, and was able to continue to support myself without too much difficulty.

In '76 I started my own business, and you can see its whole 25-year history in the succession of peaks and valleys that mark the progress and faltering of the company, as well as the national economy, during that period. It ends with a mild cha-ching as I sold it, though not for enough to retire on, and tried to make a go of it as an independent consultant. The result of this was my third (and hopefully final!) thousand dollar year.

This time, however, that level of income was enough to insure I was headed for insolvency if I didn't get my act together and get a real job again. The difference was partly due to my lifestyle. As a homeowner now, with a hefty mortgage and taxes to pay, that thousand bucks just didn't go as far as it used to. Not to mention that continued inflation over 25 years had eroded its value to a fraction of what it had been. Car in 1975: $4,000. Gas: 44 cents per gallon. House: $35,000. You know what those things cost now.

But it still amazes me to look back on those thousand dollar years. And how could I afford to move out of my mother's house on only $2,200? Because I rented a furnished room for $8 a week (ridiculously cheap even then). Because I owned my $400 used VW free and clear. Because I could fill it up with gas for $4.50. Because the insurance cost a couple of hundred per year. Because I could eat dinner at the deli or diner for $2.25 plus tip, a little more if I got dessert.

Ah well, those days are long gone. Now it looks like, if I work till I'm 70, the good old Social Security Administration will be paying me that $2,200 annual salary every month. And I'll need every penny of it to survive.

Saturday, March 01, 2008


I have a guilty pleasure: namely The Terminator, the series of movies--and now a TV series--that deals with time travelers trying to prevent the end of the world. Or to be precise, the end of human beings in the world.

In case you have been living in a convent for the past couple of decades, or for some other reason are not familiar with the plot, the gist of it is that humans in the very near future will invent an intelligent military computer called SkyNet which, with the aid of various robotic war machines, is intended to make the world safe from the scourge of war. Due to a tiny glitch, however--something that could probably have been fixed in version 2.0 of the software--the computer decides that humans are the enemy and sets out to destroy them all. Um, us all. It does this by launching the nuclear missiles it has been given control of and destroying all the cities in the world, and then using its fleet of flying, crawling, and walking machines to hunt down and exterminate the survivors.

So far, this is just another apocalyptic plot, but time travel provides an interesting twist. Somehow the remaining humans have got access to a time machine, and one of them goes back to the past to attempt to prevent SkyNet from being invented, thus saving the human race from the ultimate holocaust. The "Terminator" is a cyborg (hybrid robot and flesh) which is sent back by the machines to prevent the prevention, thus insuring that the machines will win. In addition, the machines want to eliminate a teenage boy named John Connor so that he will not live to lead the human resistance in the future, in which case the whole time travel thing would never have happened.

Starting with the first sequel to the original film, a further twist is introduced when the future humans manage to reprogram one of the robots so they can send it back to fight the other robot--thus preventing it from preventing the prevention--as well as to protect young John so he will still be there in the future. Convoluted enough for you? The rest of the action is just a series of chases, car crashes, shootouts, and superhuman wrestling matches as the forces of good and evil jockey for position.

What keeps the story compelling is that there is always the subtext about free will and destiny. Is the future bound to happen? If we foresee something, can we avoid it, or are we powerless to stop the course of history? And naturally, it is all about our relationship with the technology we have created, and whether it will--or already has--run out of control. Will technology destroy us, or will we at the last minute learn to reprogram it to save ourselves? Or instead, will the technology itself become "human" enough to be humane and to protect us from ourselves?

All of this was fun enough when it was only an intellectual exercise. Originally (the first film dates from 1984) the idea that "machines" would get so advanced in so short a time seemed incredible, even to an old sci-fi addict like me. Recently however, it has become known that our military is spending billions on developing "autonomous" weapons (read "robotic"). They are already being widely used in Iraq and elsewhere for surveillance and in dangerous roles like investigating possible roadside bombs. "Predator" remotely piloted aircraft are now armed with missiles which can be used to attack the targets they spot. So far it is still a human who pulls the trigger, but the military is actively seeking advances in artificial intelligence that would enable these machines to identify friend from foe and respond accordingly. (More info in this story from Scientific American.)

Not so funny anymore? I suspect it is only a matter of time before we learn of the first "friendly fire" casualties inflicted by a robotic agent. Of course, Pentagon spokesmen will be quick to apologize for the mishap, and will cite statistics about how much more reliable autonomous weapons are than humans, who are often known to make bad judgments in the heat of the moment. It will be small comfort to the victims to know that the bad judgment that affected them was made in the cool consideration of a manufactured intelligence instead. The result will be the same, and the ultimate responsibility will fall on those who decided to create the machines in the first place--all of us.

The original Terminator and former body builder, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was destroyed in the first film where he was the bad robot, then returned in the second and third ones where he was the good robot. Now Governor of California, the evil Republican who was swept into office by the "get rid of Gray Davis" campaign is now showing a human side and working for things like universal health care. So maybe there is hope after all.

But just in case, perhaps we should put the brakes on this whole robotic weapons thing now, before we need a time machine to correct our mistakes. Nor are robots the only things we need to fear. I refer you to the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, where they are trying hard to foresee what's coming and to develop a moral awareness of the consequences.

At the very least, I think we should wait until artificial intelligence is advanced enough for us to have a discussion with it about the morality of warfare. I can see this manufactured being (perhaps looking like the one called Sonny in the film I, Robot) listening carefully as we try to explain its proposed role in a place like Iraq. Then it would turn its head to one side, look at us, and say, "You want me to do what? Are you crazy?"

Then we'll know we're all right.