Monday, January 31, 2011

I don't know anything, do I?

I've grown addicted to the sensation of realizing how much there is I don't know.  Let me give you some metaphors.

It's like origami- you start with a plain piece of paper, but as soon as you start in on folding it, it becomes a million different things.

Any way you turn, you can dive down as far as you care to snorkel.  

This is why I can never learn anything about wine - there are so many categories, and subcategories, and trained wine tasters can't even give consistent answers about the subject.

God, I just want to hook my brain up to Wikipedia and go from there.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

History of India

There is so much I don't know about the history of India. I've studied the history of the US, Japan, and China, and of course the European history you pick up in the normal course of US schooling (and in the context of art hstory, actually). But somehow my knowledge of India shows up in little blips along the path, without any kind of larger context. Here is my complete knowledge of India; under one page of 12pt Times New Roman:

Way back in the way back, some of the first cities on earth were built in the Mohenjo-daro valley. They had a grid plan and public sanitation, including sewers. The art from that city is distinctively stylized.

This bit is disputed, but Joseph Campbell says that sometime in the thousands BC, light-skinned mounted warriors (“Aryans”) invaded from the North. They instituted the class system, either inventing or co-opting the idea of reincarnation to support the segregation and superiority of their descendants. The Upanishads represent something of the earlier pastoral spirit of Hinduism, while Mahabharata is a collection of stories and songs of the conquerors, including the Bhagavad Gita (an odd but beautiful celebration of killing your family if they cross you).

Gautama Buddha lived around 300-500BC. He rebooted the Hindu franchise with a more egalitarian outlook, a focus on individuals rather than obligations, and more accessible spiritual practices. The big idea was that you don't have to undergo the endless round of reincarnation and get rewarded in an awesome heaven and then start over. You can escape the drudgery of, well, being alive, by simply awakening to the truth, here and now.

Buddhism started strong in India, but had more long-term success in China, the Tibetan highlands, and Japan. Today Buddhism is barely a minority in India. Buddhism had something of the genius of Christianity for recognizing and incorporating elements of existing religions when it moved into new lands: Tibetan Buddhism incorporates the veneration of traditional saints and spirits; Zen Buddhism incorporates Taoist philosophy.

During the British colonial period, India was conquered. Like everywhere else under British rule, they got shafted. I have some confused visions of Rudyard Kipling and The Secret Garden in here, British officers and their families served by silent Hindi servants. Several different kinds of ships plied the waters between India and China and Great Britain under the aegis of the East India Trading Company, including the monstrous Indiamen, the largest wooden sailing ships ever built. They were illegal to build in England, I think? So they were built in India, in huge, efficient shipyards that astonished first-time visitors.

Anyway, when the British empire was falling to pieces, India eventually wrestled its autonomy back from England. Something to do with Gandhi fasting. There was a line drawn between India and Pakistan, to separate the largely-Hindu population of Indida from the largely-Muslim population of Pakistan. The valley of Kashmir lies in between, and has been a sticking point ever since because it's prosperous and has a mixed population. It's also convenient for India that it has Pakistan as a plausible-deniability buffer between itself and Afghanistan. Pakistan and Afghanistan blend into each other in the desert mountains at the border, and the isolated tribes out there don't give a fuck about the larger political situation, in general, they just want outsiders to leave them alone.


The blog post above directed me to this speech about Gandhi's last fast, given last year on the anniversary of Gandhi's death. It moved me deeply. But one of the things that moved me was that large parts of it are incomprehensible to me. It's like coming in at the 500-page mark of the third book in a fantasy series, where all the names of everything are made-up words and you have no idea what the political factions or main players are.

Gandhi gave a speech January 18, 1948. Look at just this one paragraph of the summary of the speech: 

He spoke to Sikhs warning them never to misuse the kirpan. The day he ended his fast was Guru Gobind Singh’s birthday and Gandhi sent a message to Sikhs congratulating them for their victory over anger and ending with the slogan ‘Waheguru ji di fateh’. He sent a special message to fellow Gujaratis. He discussed the issue of a national language and his preference for Hindustani. He spoke to caste Hindus about the evil of untouchability. After recounting the painful experience of oppressed castes of Rohtak he admonished Jats and Ahirs for tormenting them and treating them as slaves. He talked about the Meos, renamed 'criminal tribes' by the British who had been forcefully evicted from vast areas in Delhi’s hinterland and called for their rehabilitation. “

Things I didn't know, just in that paragraph:
  • Sikhs (embarrassingly, I had this confused with Sufi mystics >.> ) I had no idea Sikhism has more followers than Judaism. “Often mistaken as a combination of Hinduism and Islam, the Sikh religion can be characterized as a completely independent faith: they have their own holy scripture, Guru Granth Sahib.”
  • kirpan Okay, I had actually heard of a controversy about a kid who wasn't allowed to take his ritual knife to school with him, but I didn't recognize this as the name of the ritual knife.  It is one of the marks of a practicing Sikh, a member of the khalsa.
  • Guru Gobind Singh The 10th and last human Sikh guru; he declared that on his death that the only guru would be the holy scripture, Guru Granth Sahib. He was a warrior-prince who fended off a bunch of invasions and spent the second half of his life on the run from Mongol invaders. Like Genghis Khan, his life has the sound of a myth; it seems odd to keep coming across historical dates in the narrative. When all his sacred literature was lost crossing a flooded river, he dictated the Guru Granth Sahib from memory.
    •  ‘Waheguru ji di fateh’ (Same link as above.) This is kind of weird. Guru Gobind Singh had a political rally in 1699 to re-establish his authority over the Sikhs. He called for a volunteer to have their head cut off. On the third call, a guy volunteered. (!) The two went into the tent, and only the Guru came out, with blood on his sword. He got four more guys to volunteer to have their heads cut off, just by asking. (!!) Of course, he didn't kill them (bad PR), he brought them out and baptized them and made them the first five members of the Khalsa (the new, casteless, congregation). Then he told the crowd, 'Waheguru ji ka Khalsa, Waheguru ji Ki Fateh' (Khalsa belongs to God; victory belongs to God). So, Gandhi was calling the Sikh's backing down an act of faith equivalent to volunteering for dismemberment. A high compliment. I wonder how many of his listeners got the reference? Is this a common story or is it the sort of thing that would get history professors chortling up their sleeves?
    • (I was just reading a bio of Genghis Khan talking about how he conquered most of Eurasia except the Indian Peninsula and the western half of Europe. I didn't realize the Mongols made it to India in the 1700s.)
  • Gujaratis  The name of a region, a language, and a caste. Gujarat is on the western edge of India, between Pakistan and the sea. It was controlled by India from ~1300-1750AD, then by the East India Trading Co., then by India again. It was briefly part of Bombay state, from 1947-1960. The language Gujarati is in the Sanskrit family, and many speakers also speak Hindi. This is Gandhi's home state, and though it was once identified with the non-violence movement, periodic clashes between Muslims and Hindus still break out into violence.
  • Rohtak  a city, or perhaps a district, in Haryana. Mostly agricultural, but developing some industry.
  • Jats  Ye gods, my attention span is running out. I've been doing this for three hours and I can't keep track of all the new vocabulary I'm getting in the course of reading these articles. Anyway, a fairly prosperous tribe/caste possibly related to the Romanis of Europe, divided into three major groups: Muslim in Pakistan, Sikh in Punjab, Hindu in the rest of India.
Okay, I was only gonna spend an hour on this today, I have to give up with these three un-researched:
  • Ahirs
  • Meos
  • British relocation of natives.

Hopefully I'll get around to finishing this at some point. Hooray for realization of ignorance!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Omens and portents

Of course I heard of the bird and fish deaths so far this year in the southeastern part of the US.  But I had no idea the extent of the problem: this map is the most comprehensive I've found.

The last few years have seen a panic about bee die-offs, and the news keeps getting worse.  The first comprehensive study shows declines in bee populations by 85-95%.  This summer I smiled every time I saw a bee, even when on one memorable occasion the damned thing buzzed around my face and hair for twenty minutes.

Even if this is just the beginning of the manmade climate disaster, I've gotta say; this doesn't sound good.  I've always been stubbornly scientific in my thinking, and certainly none of the prophecies of the end of the world sound particularly authoritative.

But I'm making extra time for my friends and loved ones (you can never do too much of that regardless).

Monday, January 3, 2011

Interesting bits of legislative action

The US House of Representatives has a much nicer website than the Senate. Their list of legislative resources includes Thomas, "in the spirit of Thomas Jefferson," which gives a ton of information from the Library of Congress about bills currently in progress.  You can also get a pretty comprehensive collection of information about enacted laws and treaties, plus other interesting legislative documents, from the Government Printing Office.

Private bills govern only a specific person, group, or corporation. For a current example that I found picking through Thomas, H.R.6499 is specifically for the relief of Celina Hernandez.  It allows her to stay in the US for another year despite her illegal immigration status in order to care for her two sons, who are both US citizens.
 Private bills are always discriminatory, but the US constitution prohibits Bills of Attainder, or any legislative action to declare people guilty or to retroactively declare an act criminal.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

US Senate

A guy at work was horrified that I didn't recognize the name of some politician  who was going to give a speech, so I'm remedying my deficiency.  Then I embarrassed myself by not being able to remember the Vice President's name (standing there going, Joe somebody... not Lieberman...). I did cough up Hilary Clinton for Secretary of State, so it wasn't a total loss.  Not gonna lie, the politicking this past three months or so was so ugly that I averted my eyes even more than I usually do; I know even less about the incoming politicians than I knew about the ones we already had.  So I figure I'll start from scratch, one branch of government at a time.  Sadly, I forgot the name of whatever politician was going to give a speech, but I suppose you can't have everything.

The President of the Senate is the Vice President of the US (currently Joe Biden, thank you very much).  The Vice President's only constitutionally mandated governmental power is as President of the Sentate- casting the deciding vote in any Senatorial tie.  The first Vice President, John Adams, set the precedent for the office by keeping his nose out of most Executive Branch duties - he was reluctant to challenge George Washington's newly-minted authority.  But Adams had anticipated that, as President of the Senate, he could be the guiding hand and general leader of the Senate.  He bitched at them endlessly until apparently the rules were changed and the day-to-day senatorial governance was delegated to the President pro tempore (in general the most senior senator of the majority party). See this article under the heading "President of the Senate."

The Dean of the Senate is different - an informal title with no official duties, given to the senator with the longest continuous service.  Currently the President pro tempore and the Dean are both Daniel Inouye, D-HI, born 1924(!) and in office since 1963 (!). If he serves until June 29, 2014, he will become the longest-serving Senator in history.

The current senate Majority Leader is Harry Reid D-NV (since 2007), but after the January swearing-in it will be Eric Cantor R-VA.  The leaders of each party are selected by general vote from all the members of the party caucus, not by seniority. Seniority is used rather to decide who gets to sit in which committees, who gets to sit closest to the floor, and who gets the best offices.

The rules governing seniority in the US Senate are more complex than I realized. If I thought about it at all, I suppose I assumed that seniority was simply based on cumulative time spent as a Senator.  Instead, it's based first on current consecutive time spent as a Senator, then whether you've previously been a Senator and for how long, then what other kinds of political offices you've ever held.

Second-to-last is which state has the highest population.  If the newest census reversed the population ranking of two states, I wonder if their seniorities would retroactively switch?  After you get down the list of all 11 criteria, final ties are broken by alphabetical order by last name (in case two senators came from the same state on the same day and have identical credentials).  Has that ever happened?

It sounds like there is considerable rule-making for the purpose of preventing pettiness.  According to Wikipedia, John Cornyn's predecessor, Phil Gramm, "resigned early, effective November 30, 2002, so that Cornyn could take office early, and move into Gramm's office suite in order to begin organizing his staff. Cornyn did not, however, gain seniority, owing to a 1980 Rules Committee policy that no longer gave seniority to senators who entered Congress early for the purpose of gaining advantageous office space."  Seriously.  They had a problem with people resigning from the Senate in order to give their successor a nicer office.

Anyway.  The US Senate.  Soon I will learn something about the actual Senators.  After that, the world.