Brain Drippings 2

Well my life has gotten really busy all of a sudden, what with going back to Cal Poly to study for an MBA, trying to get a career started, and working. I haven’t had as much spare time recently as I had been used to, and I’m not sure how often I’m going to be able to post new updates. I do have a couple of things I’m lining up, but don’t be surprised if I occasionally have to skip a week. Hopefully, once I get my groove with my new schedule things will work out.

In the meantime, since I am so busy, I figured now would be as good a time as any for another “Brain Drippings” post. These are all thoughts off the top of my head I’d like to share with everyone. Hope you enjoy!

So, we’ve all seen these, right?

When Mother Jones magazine released this secretly taped speech by Mitt Romney at a fundraiser event, it seemed like every news outlet was talking about what an embarrassment for Romney this was, what a shock his comments were, how it’s going to hurt him on Election Day, and so on.

Really?

Romney’s comments shouldn’t be a surprise or shock to anyone. He is only saying the same old stuff Republicans have been saying my whole life. I’m not claiming to agree with him – I certainly disagree on his characterization of Americans on welfare (as you will have no doubt guessed by now) – I’m just not shocked by his comments at all.

I mean, a conservative politician running on the Republican ticket and trying to appeal to conservative voters actually has conservative opinions? GASP! What has the world come to!

A few months ago, a YouTube user using the pseudonym “Sam Bacile” uploaded a trailer for a film called “Innocence of Muslims” that ridicules the Prophet Muhammad, his family, and his followers. The trailer remained just one anonymous video among many until the Egyptian news outlet al-Nas publicized it. Since then, there have been attacks on US embassies and consulates, including one that killed US Ambassador J Christopher Stevens in Libya; violent protests in Pakistan that have also led to deaths; and a bounty placed on the head of the filmmaker. It is all reminiscent of the “Danish cartoons” incident a few years ago.

But you know what I am happy about? For all the violence and rage, there are also Muslims in the Middle East and around the world that are condemning the violence and calling for restraint. Pakistani newspaper Dawn published an editorial asking “Why can’t we resort to saner ways to show our anger?” and saying “We have all become the laughing stock for the entire world… the donors and sponsors [of the film] wanted us to react exactly the way we did.” One protest in Kabul, Afghanistan saw a turnout of 500 protesters marching against the film – and no violence whatsoever.

I understand that the film is offensive and that making it was a jerk move. I agree that the film and its makers should be criticized. But I also think things like this are just not worth killing over, and I’m glad I’m not alone in thinking that.

On a much happier note, The Avengers comes out on DVD today! I can’t wait to buy my copy! Literally… I am positive that if I wait too long all the stores will be sold out. The movie, after all, raked in more than $1.5 billion at the box office, making it the third-highest grossing movie of all time, if you don’t adjust for inflation, which Hollywood never does.

I think it’s a pretty safe bet that Joss Whedon now has the freedom to make whatever movies he wants now, since in today’s Hollywood, box office success = power. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next.

Another thing I’m looking forward to? There’s going to be a S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show on ABC. Yeah, that’s an actual thing that’s happening. Awesometastical!

So, J.C. Penney is in deep trouble. Their re-imagining of their business model has not paid off at all, and when I go to the one nearest where I live, it is always empty, with hardly a customer to be found.

And I totally called it!

Behind the Headline: Why is Asia in an Uproar Over Some Rocks?

An aerial view of some of the disputed islands in the East China Sea. Japan calls them “Senkaku”, and China calls them “Diaoyu”. (AP)

So… um…. okay….

Apparently Japanese athletes will not be participating in any events in China this week over safety concerns, after anti-Japanese protests in the streets of China turned violent this week. This is the latest development amid rising tensions between the two nations this past week, that have involved the mobilization of China’s navy and calls for calm by US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

And what has provoked all this vitriol and saber-rattling? Those tiny islands you see in the picture above. No, really, that is what all this fuss is about.

Looks like it’s Behind the Headlines time.

Okay, what in the world?

What is this? I can’t even…

There are actually a large number of islands just like those in the waters around Asia that are disputed by the countries around them. The islands that have made headlines this week are disputed between Japan, who calls them “Senkaku”, and China, who calls them “Diaoyu”. Earlier this month, there were protests and big diplomatic tensions over a different set of tiny islands disputed between South Korea and Japan after the South Korean president visited the islands. And there have been several tense moments this year involving the South China Sea, which is full of disputed islands.

There are actually disputed islands all over the world, and in fact the United States has a centuries-old dispute with Haiti over who owns Navassa Island in the Caribbean. But you don’t see Navassa making headlines. In fact, you probably hadn’t even heard of it. Nor, I’m guessing, have you heard of the disputed islands in Asia until this year, even though those disputes date from at least World War II, and some are far, far older. The reason islands like these get disputed in the first place is usually because they are just too tiny to care about – they were forgotten by the folks drawing the borders, or one country claimed the island but never settled it, leaving the next country to think they found an undiscovered island and claim it for themselves.

However, when natural resources enter the picture, things start to change. For example, those South China Sea islands are valuable because of oil, commercial fishing, and its strategic location along many of the world’s most important shipping lanes. That pair of shoes labelled “Made in China” you have may well have passed through these disputed waters on its way to the store where you bought them. Likewise, oil and natural gas are abundant near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. The recent wave of protests were sparked when the previous owners sold the islands to the Japanese government, which China claimed violated its sovereignty.

So, I guess this is really a dispute over natural resources, then?

Well, yes and no. As usual, things are more complicated than that. After all, if it were JUST oil and fishing rights that were the problem, a few business negotiations could solve the problem. People generally aren’t all that thrilled with the idea of a “war for oil”, so these pumped and angry protesters are clearly not just motivated by economic concerns. No, the problems run deeper than that.

Let’s start with the most recent tussle between China and Japan. Those two countries have a very long and very unhappy history. In ancient days, China saw itself as the “Middle Kingdom”, the center of the world and fountain of civilization, whose emperor ruled by the will of heaven, and thus no country could trade with China without first making a show of how much they revered the emperor and acknowledged his superiority. Meanwhile, Japan’s emperors claimed descent from the goddess Amaterasu, and that the Japanese people are a special, divine race. Not exactly a formula for good relations, and indeed Japanese pirates were a perpetual enemy of the Chinese navy. In more recent times, Japan humiliated China with their victory in the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, then invaded China again in World War II, during which time they committed horrendous atrocities against the public such as mass rape and the use of poison gas and biological weapons. After the war, Japan’s schools and media basically tried to pretend those atrocities never happened, infuriating the Chinese survivors and their descendants. Then there is the Yasukuni shrine that commemorates Japan’s war dead, but also includes convicted war criminals in its roster of “honored dead”.

Japan’s history with Korea is just as full of animosity and bitter feelings. In the South China Sea, Vietnam, one of the nations pushing a tougher line in its dispute, won its independence from China (as I’ve mentioned before) and for their efforts got a long history of being re-invaded and re-invaded by Chinese armies, right up until 1979.

The fact is, in many parts of Asia a large part of being your nationality is hating some neighboring nationality, just like how a large part of Irish identity comes from hating the English. When events like this happen, it drums up long-standing bitter resentments that get people up and marching. Even if it’s over some rocks in the middle of the ocean.

Does this mean Asia is on the brink of war?

So far, all of the nations involved in these island disputes have pledged that they will seek a peaceful resolution to the problem. Indeed, according to The Economist, making a big, hairy deal about these old disputes may well just be a distraction to divert public attention from problems at home. (Not the first time this trick had been tried, remember the Falklands War?) However, there are two big, meddling factors that might cause things to spin out of control and lead people to blunder their way into a fight:

China wants to be a major world power, a major naval power, and the biggest guy on the block in Asia. President Obama has decided that our national defense strategy and military resources need to be “rebalanced” toward Asia. China thinks that America is trying to contain it, in part because many Americans are advocating just that. Those Americans are advocating containing China for fear that it intends to threaten its neighbors. This vicious cycle of mistrust is hard to break, but so far America and China have managed to put a smile on and continue to trade and do business as normal, in the hope that this diffuses tension and promotes trust.

On the other hand, many nations in Asia, including many of the ones involved in these disputes, such as Japan and the Philippines, see America as a shield against China, and statements by our State Department that the US is treaty-bound to back up Japan if China tries to take those disputed islands by force may only embolden people to make rash, stupid decisions that jeopardize the fragile peace. The last thing Uncle Sam wants right now is to be sucked into a shootout with one of our biggest trading partners.

Indeed, just a few months ago everybody’s nerves were jangled by a naval standoff between China and the Philippines over a fishing vessel. Luckily, that dispute was resolved peacefully, but with the world still dealing with the fallout from the recession, the Arab Spring and the ongoing war in Afghanistan those tense days were one thing to worry about too many. After all, who really wants to go to war over some uninhabited rocks?

Information mainly from The Economist.

Hundreds Attend Candlelight Vigil for Cal Poly Student

Cal Poly theater arts student Brett Olson was found dead Sunday morning by some people who were fishing. Image from the Mustang Daily.

The crowd at Acalanes High School in Lafayette may have reached as many as 1,000 mourners, brought together at the school’s football field by a Facebook page originally created to keep hope that Cal Poly student Brett Olson was alive and support his family during the search for him. They were told the candlelight gathering was to be a celebration of the young man’s life and not a “sad occasion”. As the video streamed live on the internet for those who couldn’t attend in person, his father, Michael Olson, told the crowd, “He loved his friends more than anything, and he loved the events that brought them together.”

Brett Olson, a Cal Poly theater arts sophomore and member of Pi Kappa Alpha, was last seen alive at Beer Can Beach, a riverbank on the Sacramento River near Hamilton City and about 10 miles from Chico, where he was participating in an annual Labor Day “river float” that saw as many as 10,000 floaters.

He lost contact with his friends at about 1 p.m. and was reported missing the next day. Police used helicopters and search dogs in their attempt to locate him, but false leads and the dense undergrowth hindered their progress. Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong and Katie Morrow, president of ASI, the organization representing Cal Poly’s student body, issued a joint e-mail to all Cal Poly students encouraging them to help out as best they could, even if it was as little as sending words of encouragement to Olson’s family on Facebook.

A local sheriff told the San Jose Mercury News that the most likely cause of Olson’s death was drowning. One of his friends told KSBY “I wish everyone could have known Brett so that they would know he was not just a floater in the river.”

Cal Poly will be holding a candlelight vigil of its own in Olson’s honor soon. Olson’s official memorial service will be held Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Lafayette Orinda Presbyterian Church.

Information from The Tribune, KSBY, the Contra Costa Times, and the San Jose Mercury News.

Three Forgotten Revolutions that Changed History

When I was in high school, one of my history teachers remarked that “Math and science books are always about the same size, but history books just keep getting bigger.” And it’s true that sometimes, in order to make sense of how our world got where it is today, we have to take shortcuts and focus on those events we deem most important, or else our brains might get overwhelmed and explode. But sometimes we, as a society, forget historical events that were actually really important, and helped shape the world around us. Today, I’m going to do my bit to help us recall some of these events.

The Haitian Revolution

The French colony of Saint-Domingue was the world’s largest supplier of sugar and coffee in the late 18th century, and like all of the Caribbean island colonies, the economy and society depended on African slaves to do all of the work. About 90% of the population of the colony was enslaved, a ratio that was pretty typical of the Caribbean at the time. And we all know that being a slave was a horrible way to live in the 18th and 19th century New World. But in 1791, the slaves of Saint-Domingue decided to do something about it.

In the largest slave revolt in history, 100,000 slaves attacked their masters in search of revenge. Within weeks, all the white colonists in the northern third of the colony were trapped in a handful of forts dotting a countryside that was now controlled by the slaves. The revolt’s speed and success shocked the world, not only because it was a slave-owner’s worst nightmare come true, but because it happened in the middle of the French Revolution, which had not two years earlier issued the Declaration of the Rights of ManWas France’s revolutionary government going to honor its pledge to apply those rights to all people? In 1794, the answer from Paris was a resounding “Yes”: Slavery was abolished and all the people of France, regardless of race, were given equal rights. Of course, there were considerations that were not so ideological in the decision – Great Britain and Spain had taken advantage of the chaos to invade Saint-Domingue, and the French troops there were on the brink of military disaster. Once the slaves were freed, Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the slave revolt, had his army switch sides and fight for the French against the British and Spanish invaders.

L’Ouverture took advantage of the victory to make himself master of the colony, effectively ruling it as an independent nation. He rebuilt the economy, wrote a new constitution, defeated rival warlords, and invaded the neighboring Spanish colony of Santo Domingo (today’s Dominican Republic). But when Napoleon Bonaparte took over France in 1799, he didn’t like what he was seeing in the Caribbean and sent in the French military to arrest L’Ouverture in 1801. At first Napoleon’s force was successful, but when it soon became apparent that they intended to restore slavery, the people rose up in revolt again and by 1804 had won their independence, renaming their country “Haiti”.

How it changed history: It gave the United States its current size and shape.

Napoleon didn’t simply want to retake control of a Caribbean island and restore slavery. He had grander dreams of conquering a new, massive empire in the New World, to complement his new, massive empire in Europe. He planned to start by retaking the colony of Louisiana, which had been under Spanish rule since France lost the Seven Years’ War in 1763. The real reason he wanted to retake Saint-Domingue and restore slavery was to use the coffee and sugar plantations to raise funds for his conquests. When he lost the island colony, his dreams of global empire were dashed, and his treasury was on the brink of bankruptcy.

Enter the United States, which wanted to purchase the port of New Orleans because that city’s location on the Mississippi River made it vital to American trade. To the American negotiators’ surprise, Napoleon offered all of Louisiana for $15 million. To Napoleon, the colony had no further value to him; to a still very young United States, it would double the country’s size for a mere three cents an acre.

That giant green blob in the middle? That’s what Napoleon was selling.

The decision was extremely controversial to Americans. Many thought President Thomas Jefferson had overstepped his authority, asking where in the Constitution the president was allowed to take such a crazy action. But one the deal was done, the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition was sent out to survey America’s new possessions, and the stories they brought back inspired the nation’s imagination. Talk began of “Manifest Destiny”, and Americans were the ones who now dreamed of a continental empire – a dream they achieved by 1848 with the annexation of California. So, yeah, without the slave revolt in Haiti, my hometown might still be a part of Mexico.

Why we forgot about it:

It is really tempting to use the “r-word” here, but I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt because, to be honest, Haiti is a small country, and its revolution occurred in an extremely revolutionary era. It came just after the American Revolution, during the French Revolution, and just before the Latin American wars of independence. It’s easy for such a small country to get lost in that mix.

Information from Crash Course: World History

The German Revolution

The Russian Revolution of 1917 shocked the world by overthrowing a centuries-old monarchy and bringing to power the world’s first Communist government. Radical revolutionaries around the world took heart and inspiration from the events in Russia, and hoped the revolution would soon spread around the world. Of course, all of this was taking place in the context of World War I, one of history’s bloodiest conflicts and also the death knell for the social order of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe. As the British drama Downton Abbey illustrates better than anything else I have seen, the old order was crumbing, and nobody was quite sure where society was going. It was the perfect timing for a revolution.

As early as January 1918, there were massive strikes in Berlin and across Germany, as the people grew tired of years of war and the hardships that came from it. By October, the Navy was mutinying, workers were striking, and it was beginning to look like German society was crumbing. In November, revolutionary Communists took over Bavaria and declared a “People’s Republic”, the national government in Berlin fell apart into chaos, and a general strike demanded the Kaiser’s abdication. By November 9, a republic was declared, and two days later Germany signed a cease-fire agreement ending the war.

As is so often the case in revolutions, the revolutionary forces now began to turn on each other and struggle for power. In Germany, the two main factions were the Spartacus League made up of revolutionary Communists who wanted to completely overthrow the old order and establish socialism, and the Social Democrats who also wanted to establish socialism but to do so gradually and in a way that “folded in and absorbed” the remnants of the old order. In essence, the German Revolution was a socialist-on-socialist fight about who was more socialist. The Spartacus League had the advantage in the early phases, with famous Communist leaders like Rosa Luxemburg, but before long the tide began to turn thanks to the flood of German veterans returning home in defeat. Many of these veterans were angry about the way the war had gone, and believed that the Communists had stabbed them in the back. They formed roving bands of armed thugs known as Freikorps that attacked and killed the Spartacists, including Luxemburg. This gave the edge to the Social Democrats, who were able to set up the Weimar Republic and build a democratic government. However, fighting in the streets between right-wing extremists and left-wing extremists would continue for years.

How it changed history: It ended World War I, produced many of the trends that characterized the interwar years, and set the stage for World War II.

The German Revolution was born out of a demand for peace, and it was street protests in Berlin that forced the armistice more than anything the Allies did. Meanwhile, the massive national disappointment with the course of the war and the revolution gave birth to one of the most profound eras in art history, as the Weimar years saw the rise of Bauhaus, Dada, Expressionism, and Modernism among German artists, writers, and architects. Many of the styles and visual cues we associate with the period between the wars came out of Germany.

But far bigger than any of these trends was the elephant in the room, an elephant with a tiny mustache:

The Nazi Party was founded in the middle of the chaos of the German Revolution and rose to power on the back of disgruntled war veterans and middle-class Germans who felt the Communists had betrayed Germany and the Social Democrats were leading it in the wrong direction. Add in an economic mess and a crazy anti-Semitic conspiracy theory and you have World War II before you know it.

Why we forgot about it:

Because this.

Yeah, that makes for a more compelling and exciting story than some boring street protests and thugs, doesn’t it?

Information from History in an Hour, John and Claire.net, Marxists.org, and some books I’ve read.

The British Agricultural Revolution

As the Middle Ages slowly gave way to the modern age, there were huge changes rising in the British countryside. New technologies made farm work easier and more efficient. New fertilizers were discovered, and new crops from the Americas like corn and potatoes were arriving. At the same time, once-open pasture for herding livestock was being claimed and fenced-in, allowing the livestock’s feed to be more carefully controlled and thus producing a greater yield of meat. All of these trends meant that fewer peasants were needed to work the farms, and a handful of specialized farm workers could now do jobs that once required a great number of people. Feudal lords became landlords, their estates no longer a political institution but an economic one that provided the “big house” family with income from rent and from profits off the surplus crops that they were growing.

Gradually, over many years, the British landscape and social order was transformed with nothing more than the power of the free market fueling these changes. It truly was a revolution in that it completely changed how Britain fed itself. Famines became a thing of the past (well, mostly). Advances in scientific knowledge were used to make farming even more efficient and profitable. A journey across Great Britain began looking less like this:

And more like this:

How it changed history: It made the Industrial Revolution possible.

Remember all those peasants that were no longer needed? Well, many of them became Americans. But many more moved to the cities looking for work. This was the same time that the cloth-making industry was also being transformed by new technologies, and when you combined the new machines with the influx of workers, you have factories before you know it. Cities exploded in size from a few thousand residents to more than a million in practically no time at all, and all of those people had to find work somewhere. Inventions could be mass-produced and sold around the world, the machines that made them powered by steam engines that ran on coal that was mined by – you guessed it – more displaced peasants looking for work. And how were these millions of new city-dwellers fed? With food produced by those farms that were putting out record yields, of course!

Why we forgot about it:

This one is a bit harder than the others to pin down. I think a part of it is that to many Americans, all of British history is kind of a blur. When someone says “England” the first thing that pops into our heads is a bunch of “Ye Olden” stuff.

Yup. Something like this.

Besides, the Industrial Revolution takes all of the attention because our lives have now been reoriented around it. The computer you are using to read this blog post couldn’t exist without the Industrial Revolution. But the Industrial Revolution couldn’t begin without the British Agricultural Revolution.

Information from What the Victorians Did for Us