18 September 2013
Book review: Wealth and poverty of nations (1999), by David Landes, *****
The history of nations is a history of haves and have-nots, and as we approach the millennium, the gap between rich and poor countries is widening. In this engrossing and important new work, eminent historian David Landes explores the complex, fascinating and often startling causes of the wealth and poverty of nations. The answers are found not only in the large forces at work in economies: geography, religion, the broad swings of politics, but also in the small surprising details. In Europe, the invention of spectacles doubled the working life of skilled craftsmen, and played a prominent role in the creation of articulated machines, and in China, the failure to adopt the clock fundamentally hindered economic development.
The relief of poverty is vital to the survival of us all. As David Landes brilliantly shows, the key to future success lies in understanding the lessons the past has to teach us - lessons uniquely imparted in this groundbreaking and vital book which exemplifies narrative history at its best.
Why are some nations so rich and some so poor? One usually hears a... wealth of common sense reasons which however are rather ...poor explanations! Some rich nations are big, some small, and many poor countries are also big or small. So size, in this case, does not matter. Same for natural resources: some rich nations are well endowed but many poor nations are too. Geographic location also seems pretty much irrelevant: some rich countries are in hot regions, some in cold ones. Same for poor countries.
What makes the difference, according to landes, is mostly cultural and ethical factors. A provocative and most informative book. Travelers will find many ideas in this book to understand the economy of countries around the world.
10 July 2013
Viaggio o vacanza?
Un viaggio invece è una trasformazione, un impegno. Tornando da un viaggio si è diversi da come si era alla partenza. Viaggio (dal latino viaticum, provvista per un lungo tragitto) indica un percorso, una trasformazione. In inglese, travel ha la stessa origine etimologica di travaglio, lavoro appunto. Io viaggio per compiere percorsi, per cambiare me stesso.
09 September 2012
Book review: The Dark Tourist (2010), by Dom Joly, ***
|Sinister looking WW I artillery on Monte Grappa|
'Dark tourism is the act of travel and visitation to sites, attractions and exhibitions which have real or recreated death, suffering or the seemingly macabre as a main theme'
Ever since he can remember, Dom Joly has been fascinated by travel to odd places. In part this stems from a childhood spent in war-torn Lebanon, where instead of swapping marbles in the schoolyard, he had a shrapnel collection -- the schoolboy currency of Beirut. Dom's upbringing was interspersed with terrifying days and nights spent hunkered in the family basement under Syrian rocket attack or coming across a pile of severed heads from a sectarian execution in the pine forests near his home.
These early experiences left Dom with a profound loathing for the sanitized experiences of the modern day travel industry and a taste for the darkest of places. The more insalubrious the place, the more interesting is the journey and so we follow Dom as he skis in Iran on segregated slopes, picnics in the Syrian Desert with a trigger-happy government minder and fires rocket propelled grenades at live cows in Cambodia (he missed on purpose, he just couldn't do it).
12 January 2012
Book Review: The Skeptical Environmentalist, by Bjorn Lomborg, *****
|Pollution in the Maldives|
Lomborg, an associate professor of statistics in the Department of Political Science at the University of Aarhus and a former member of Greenpeace, challenges widely held beliefs that the world environmental situation is getting worse and worse. Using statistical information from internationally recognized research institutes, Lomborg systematically examines a range of major environmental issues that feature prominently in headline news around the world, including pollution, biodiversity, fear of chemicals, and the greenhouse effect, and documents that the world has actually improved. He supports his arguments with over 2500 footnotes, allowing readers to check his sources.
01 July 2010
Book Review: A Sense of the World. How a Blind Man became the World's Greatest Traveler, by Jason Roberts, *****
When Lieutenant James Holman sailed to Russia in 1822, intent on crossing Siberia on his way to circumnavigate a globe still largely uncharted, the authorities of the Tsar arrested him on suspicion of espionage. Their scepticism was understandable: James Holman was completely blind. Holman returned to London and wrote a bestselling book about his abortive trip. But the wanderlust remained: as he put it, "In my case, the deprivation of sight has been succeeded by an increased desire for locomotion." In 1827 he set off again, this time for Africa. He would not return until 1832, having visited India, the Far East and Australia en route, and indulged in seemingly suicidal adventures such as stalking rogue elephants in Ceylon and helping blaze a road through uncharted New South Wales.
Maps courtesy of Jason Roberts. See more info on Jason Roberts' website.
It would be difficult today with all the modern conveniences that technology provides, but it was much much harder to do two hundred years ago. Yet James Holman did it. After blindness interrupted his naval career at age 24, he started a new life as a world traveler and became a well know writer and highly paid of his adventures. In this, I am sort of envious of him, though in the end he ran out of money and readers and died a lonely man, his funds having dwindled and his fame all but vanished.
In my view the main point of the book is that Holman sang an hymn to curiosity for the world which I find admirable for anyone, all the more so for a blind person. Whereas others might have been discouraged and would have given up after disease cut short one career, he had the energy to pick himself up and start again on a completely new path. A path more challenging than the Napoleonic wars he had been fighting at sea.
Perhaps not so amazingly compared to his travels themselves, he kept a diary of parts of them, which he wrote with the help of an ingenious writing device, and the text is available for free at Project Gutenberg.
The book may have some holes in the facts here and there, but that does not distract from the main aim, which is to convey an extraordinary life through a high readable prose that makes it hard to put down.
06 April 2008
Recensione: La Democrazia degli Altri, di Amartya Sen, *****
Le difficoltà incontrate dalla coalizione angloamericana nel secondo dopoguerra iracheno hanno portato alla ribalta il problema della possibilità di "esportare" forme di governo democratico, di matrice occidentale, in paesi che ne sono privi. Inserendosi in questo acceso dibattito Amartya Sen, premio Nobel 1998 per l'economia, illustra in queste pagine l'esistenza di secolari tradizioni democratiche in paesi attualmente oppressi da regimi totalitari, e invita a non commettere un ulteriore peccato di "imperialismo culturale": l'appropriazione indebita dell'idea di democrazia. Piuttosto, Amartya Sen ci suggerisce di esplorare e sviluppare quegli aspetti della democrazia che sono valori condivisi dalla storia dell'umanità intera.
01 December 2006
Book Review: Identity and Violence, by Amartya Sen, *****
In this penetrating book, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen argues that we are becoming increasingly divided along lines of religion and culture, ignoring the many other ways in which people see themselves, from class and profession to morals and politics. When we are put into narrow categories the importance of human life becomes lost.
Through his lucid exploration of such subjects as multiculturalism, fundamentalism, terrorism and globalization, he brings out the need for a clear-headed understanding of human freedom and a constructive public voice in Global civil society. The hope of harmony in today's world lies in a clearer understanding of our sheer diversity.
This book makes one supremely important argument very well: to identify ourselves with an identity, no matter which, is both incorrect and dangerous. Most of us don't have ONE identity, but many. If one of them takes excessive precedence over the others, and we therefore identify ourselves mainly with it, we start down a slippery slope of exclusion of those who do not belong to it, even though we may share several of our other identities with them. The step from this process of exclusion to conflict and war is a short one to take.
17 December 2005
Book Review: Neutral Buoyancy: Adventures in a Liquid World, by Tim Ecott, *****
A brilliant mix of vivid reportage, history and science. Historical diving bells, greek sponge divers, world war two frogmen and record-setting breath hold divers compete for space with misunderstood sharks, weeping turtles, smiling dolphins and erotically shaped sea slugs. From Ireland to Florida, Papua New Guinea to Vienna and the Bahamas to Seychelles, Neutral Buoyancy is travel writing of the most fascinating, readable kind; providing a window - or a view from a glass bottomed boat - on a rich, unfamiliar and unique destination. Travel writing of this quality makes Neutral Buoyancy a must for all armchair travellers, not just divers.
03 December 2005
Book Review: Investment Biker, by Jim Rogers, *****
Wealth does strange things to people. It can either control them or set them free. Jim Rogers falls into the latter camp. Like an angst-free Marlon Brando, this Wild One quit his Quantum fund job alongside George Soros at the age of 37, saddled up a powerful BMW and revved his way into a personal dream.
02 December 2005
Book Review: Adventure Capitalist, by Jim Rogers, *****
|Jim and wife Paige at the end of their tour in 2002.|
The bestselling author of Investment Biker is back from the ultimate road trip: a three–year drive around the world that would ultimately set the Guinness record for the longest continuous car journey. In Adventure Capitalist, legendary investor Jim Rogers, dubbed "the Indiana Jones of finance" by Time magazine, proves that the best way to profit from the global situation is to see the world mile by mile. "While I have never patronized a prostitute," he writes, "I know that one can learn more about a country from speaking to the madam of a brothel or a black marketeer than from meeting a foreign minister."
01 October 2002
Why travel: country collectors, eternal romantics and modernizers
I believe that a journey, like a work of art, should ideally be either enjoyable or interesting – and preferably both. But if traveling is neither enjoyable nor interesting, why bother? Better stay home, unless one is forced to travel unwillingly by some sort of force majeure, like business, natural calamities or war.
If a work of art neither appeals to aesthetic taste, nor conveys any message, the viewer probably will not remember it for long, and will not make an effort to go see it again. On the other hand, if a work of art is considered by a viewer to be beautiful, he or she might wish to buy it if that is an option, or to see it again in a museum, even if it does not carry any particular message with it. Likewise, if a work of art is not really beautiful, but does convey a philosophical, religious, political or any other type of message, it will be worthwhile to study it, maybe buy it, and anyway retain it in our memory and go back to it for future reference.
Much in the same way, travel makes sense if it gives pleasure to the traveler (or explorer, or tourist, I will not get into what is the difference between them here) even if one does not learn much – say a trip to Disneyland. However, travel might be just as worthwhile, and arguably more so, if one learns from it, even if it means going to places which are not especially beautiful or enjoyable to visit – say a tour of a war zone.
In an ideal journey, in my view, one would both enjoy beauty and find interest. My journey to Cambodia and Laos, which constitutes the object of this book, definitely falls into this third category of travel. These countries host absolute natural splendors and sophisticated cultural and artistic traditions. But they also reveal many patterns and problems of modern development, some of which are unique, while others might be applicable to other developing countries around the world.
There are three categories of people who choose to travel to distant, exotic, and often poor places like Cambodia and Laos. Each has perfectly legitimate reasons to travel and it is not my intention to criticize any of them. It might be useful, however, to describe these different approaches.
The first group I would call the country collectors. Though they may not admit it, they go to these countries with the same mental attitude they have when visiting an exhibit, a zoo, or Disneyland. The are curious, but not really interested. They hear the sounds of a country, but do not listen; the see the sights, but do not really look carefully at much.They like ticking countries off their checklist, one year in Laos, the next in Guatemala, then on to in Central Africa. They enjoy travelling but have no real drive to even begin to understand. At most, they will go on some shopping spree, to bring home the modern equivalent of the trophies of old, such as some fine cloth or funny clothes, a cute artifact or possibly some piece of antiquity which is often all the more exciting as it is usually forbidden to take it out of the country.
There is nothing wrong per se with this group. However, people belonging to it are unlikely to be interested in this book, and while as the author I hope some will buy it anyway I think there is little hope they would get much out of it. I would love nothing more, of course, than to be proven wrong here! Well, perhaps they can pass it on to some of their friends who belong to one of the two other groups!
The second group is made up of what I would call the eternal romantics. They like distant, mysterious places almost by definition, before even setting foot on their soil. This is especially true of poor countries where subsistence agriculture is a major component of the economy. When they get there, they fall in love with almost everything they see, and tend to blame any obvious problem they witness (poverty, illiteracy, disease, etc.) either on past colonial rule or on current World Bank driven and inevitably ill-conceived development projects, ruthless Western big-business greed, male-dominated globalizing influences – or on all of the above.
Ah! if only these people had been left alone to mind their own business and live life at their own pace, they way they had always done it, how much better off they would be, the romantics think. When they see an illiterate child playing in the mud, or an open sewer in a malaria infested jungle village, they think it is sooooo beautiful, take a picture, perhaps dispense a pen or a candy here and there, try to establish some sort of communication to prove the happiness of their interlocutors and move on. When they see an ox-driven plow their eyes brighten, it is something they instinctively think is good, genuine, authentic, traditional and that should be preserved. By contrast, when they see a tractor, their shoulders drop in resignation, this is the local culture and civilization being spoilt by careless Western interference, and being lost forever.
The eternal romantics tend to see the glass always half empty, and fear that, as history keeps drinking at it, it will soon be completely empty. They are at heart conservatives (though few would accept to characterize themselves as such, except perhaps in the strictly environmental sense of conserving nature), their main desire being to slow down the pace of change, to preserve tous cours what is old and traditional. They would rather see a developing country sealed off to foreign trade, investment, advise and tourism than being influenced – they would say "spoiled" – by any of them. They always regret that after opening to the outside world the country in question will never be the same again. In this, of course, they are right, it won’t. The question is: will it be better off or worse off? The eternal romantics assume the latter, but they do not always have a strong case.
In reality, idealizing the past and hoping it will come back is just not good enough, especially in developing countries. In the history of western civilizations, romantics have produced great literature and art, but rarely useful policy-oriented ideas, and I fear the same applies when present day romantic travelers. Again, there is nothing wrong with romantics except for the fact that they are much better at nostalgically regretting or recriminating than they can ever be at proposing better alternatives to the reality they do not approve of. Because of this attitude, eternal romantics are often unable to enjoy travel, as they more often than not suffer at seeing the places they visit losing their old “true” nature and acquiring new, foreign traits.
I would call the third group of travelers the modernizers. They see the glass as half full and think history is always pouring more water to fill it up but are never satisfied that it does so fast enough. Modernizers are usually critical of the status quo they witness in the countries they visit – as well as what they leave behind in their own. They see international contacs, be they scientific, economic, political, or at the personal level, as a way to exchange experiences and improve everyone's lot. They see international tourism playing an important role in these exchanges as one of several ways in which countries can benefit from knowing each other a bit better.
The problem with the modernizers is that, as they work for their ultimate goal of open international communication, they often pay too little attention to where each individual countries is starting from and what specific circumstances might require their balanced development not to emulate the experience of others but to acquire tailor-made approaches of their own. Like the eternal romantics, but for opposite reasons, the modernizers are rarely pleased with the half-full glass, and as a result suffer during their travel at what they perceive to be an endless string of missed opportunities for improvement.
The aim of this book is to tell the story of that journey through my eyes of eclectic traveller, critical political scientist and avid photographer. I will try to convey both what was beautiful and what was interesting.
I hope this book will appeal to the eternal romantics as well as to the modernizers. Both groups might find stimulus for further developing their own thoughts. I do not expect these readers to agree with all of my impressions and assessments. Indeed, I would be worried to hear that anyone does. I will have been successful if during this virtual trip through to the last page the reader is stimulated to share some of my enjoyment, to think through some of the issues I raise, to do some additional reading and, most importantly, to travel to Cambodia and Laos.
As a political scientist, I have learned to beware of situations in which everyone agrees. Free thinking, the basis for democracy (which Winston Churchill brilliantly characterized as the worst political system except all the others) needs civilized polemical confrontation like fish need water. Just so the reader knows where I am coming from – it is only fair – I tend to fall among the modernizers myself, though on occasion I find myself in agreement with the eternal romantics. I do not think I really fit the profile of the country collector, though I must concede that sometimes they seem to be the ones who seem to have the best time traveling, and that is also a lesson to be learned.
01 January 2001
Today the new Millennium starts
Some, like Dick Teresi, have argued that this is the result of a number of errors in year counting committed in the past, in the middle ages in fact. There never was a year 0, we went from 1 B.C. to 1 A.D. He says there should have been a year 0 however between those two years, just like there is a year 2000 between 1999 and 2001.
However, others argue that because years B.C. are counted starting from -1, there is no room for a year zero, just like on a Carthesian coordinate system, where zero is a point, not a time interval.
Be that as it may, we are stuck with that, unless we decide to renumber all years from 1 B.C. backward, so that 1 B.C. becomes the year 0, 2 B.C. become 1 B.C. and so on.
Since we are likely to stay with the current counting system for a while... pop the Champagne today!
01 January 2000
Today is not the start of the new Millennium!
Much of the world celebrates the new Millennium today, but it will actually happen in a year's time.
The year 2000 is the last year of the XX century, not the first year of the XXI, and thus also the last year of the 2nd millennium AD...