Jul 30, 2008

On Jet Lag and Insomnia

(Barcelona) I have never been a person who adapts particularly well to change, and my sleep habits are especially prone to disruption when I travel. As I write this I have been up for three hours in the middle of the Iberian night, waiting for the dawn.

Part of my problem is that I just cannot sleep on an airplane, and my transatlantic trip yesterday was no exception. By the time I arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG, for those of you who like airport acronyms) in Paris, I had been awake something like 45 of the previous 48 hours (I also slept little my last night in Ohio). I managed to get about four hours of sleep last night, but I awoke about 2:00 am local time.

Thus, I will take some more sunrise pictures, disinterestedly watch CNN Europe and Sky News for the third consecutive hour, and wait impatiently for the hotel´s breakfast cafe to open so I can get some coffee.

And I will curse the sleep gods who mock me.

Jul 29, 2008

Blogus Interruptus

I am en route to Spain and Portugal to spend some time in the archives, as well as to stick my feet in both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Thus, my blogosphere contributions for the next few weeks will be limited by: a) wireless access on the Iberian Peninsula; and b) the level of motivation I have for blogging when surrounded by the culture, cafes, and cuisine of said region.

Hoping all of you find some time to relax this summer!

Jul 28, 2008

Tips on Running a Struggling Small Business

This is part of a series of posts in which - for what they are worth - I dispense with the knowledge and wisdom I acquired in a decade of slugging it out in the trenches as a small business owner.

While I enjoyed a number of financially-rewarding years as a business owner, I also experienced the unenviable trauma of having to fold a business I built up over a decade. In addition, I made a number of critical mistakes during the downward spiral my business took that - in hindsight - might have doomed me.

It is with this caveat that I offer some advice intended to help struggling small business owners understand their situations and - more importantly - their options. Feel free to with in with any of your own experiences or advice.

1. Know what your absolute limit for losses is. In one sense, owning a small business is just as much of a gamble as rolling dice on a craps table or playing poker. While you are probably an expert in your own niche, there are all sorts of unforeseen calamities that can turn a profitable business into a losing one. When you reach your limit of red ink, you must be willing to get out of the business, even if this means you will lose a ton of invested money. Otherwise, you are no better than an addicted gambler who runs up credit cards and cashes in life insurance policies to feed his addiction.

2. Never, ever, ever use withholding taxes as a short-term loan. Ever. I personally made this mistake when a new competitor came to town and my sales nosedived for a few weeks, and I convinced myself that things would shortly return to normal. Instead, this additional competition simply cut the market share of the existing competitors, and sales were slow to rebound. By delaying the payment of withholding taxes, I simply added the IRS to my list of creditors, and the feds charge the kind of interest rates that would embarrass a Mob loan shark. Moreover, as the company president, I was subject to the Trust Fund Recovery penalty, and it took me seven years after the end of my business to pay off the IRS. No matter how tempting it might be to "borrow" such tax monies to ease a cash flow crunch, don't go there.

3. Reduce inventories to an absolute bare minimum. In my old business I had unit managers who placed weekly supply orders. While I had some reliable folks working for me, it was nothing for these individuals to order quite a few extra few cases of expensive supplies. When I anticipated cyclical cash flow problems, I found that micro-managing inventory could free up many thousands of dollars that belonged in the bank.

4. Make the tough decisions on personnel. I always struggled with being the sort of owner who could make payroll cuts, especially with employees of long standing. However, in retrospect my loyalty to my high-priced senior employees contributed to my business not being able to withstand competitive challenges and unexpected commodity spikes in certain supplies. When I finally threw in the proverbial towel, such unwillingness to make needed payroll cuts brought me nothing beyond the gratitude of these ex-employees, and that ended the day I was no longer the owner.

5. Keep open your exit strategies. Never get so wrapped up in a business that you are not in a position to be successful after the business fails. In my case, I left with almost no cash, few prospects for similar work, and with the tag of "entrepreneur," which is the kiss of death in the corporate world (ex-business owners are seen as too independent and too resistant to authority). Swallow your pride and quietly put the word out to trusted contacts that you might be looking for a "real" job soon, and never spend your last nickel on a dying business. While I am not advising business owners to loot the corporate bank account on the way out, be sure to have access to a few months' worth of cash until you get some kind of work.

6. Remember - it's just a f**king business. A large part of my identity was once intertwined with my business, and after I got out, I no longer knew who I really was. You can always start another business, should you be a glutton for 80-hour workweeks, or you can use the end of the business as an opportunity to find a more fulfilling career. I found writing and academia to be a million times more satisfying than I ever did as a business owner, and - while I felt lousy and almost suicidal in 1999 when I started over - having my business fail was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

Jul 26, 2008

True Confessions: I've Never Watched a James Bond Film

While waiting to watch the new film The Dark Knight last evening, a trailer appeared for the latest James Bond film, which carries the title Quantum of Solace, and which will open in US theaters on November 7. It occurred to me - and I am almost ashamed to admit this - that I have never watched a James Bond film from beginning to end.

I've watched snippets of the films here and there, but never a complete 007 film.

This glaring example of cultural ignorance would perhaps be understandable if just declared that "I think James Bond is a sexist and an elitist" or "I despise action thrillers" or "James Bond merely perpetuates social and political violence" or some other pretentious haute couture silliness.

Yet, I just seemed to always have had something better to do, and I would gladly watch some James Bond films, except I don't know where to start.

Thus, feel free to chime in with your recommendations about the essential Bond films for the clueless like me: those who know very little about Secret Agent 007, or those who spend their waking moments seeking deals on Fenphedra. I look forward to reading your suggestions, as well as those films in the Bond canon that might be skipped.

Jul 25, 2008

On Barack Obama, Perceived Media Bias, and PWNing John McCain

Senator Barack Obama in front of a crowd of more than 200,000 in Berlin on Thursday (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

While surfing the local blogosphere I came across a post at Glass City Jungle about the flurry of fawning media reports in light of Barack Obama's successful tour of Europe and Israel the past week. A local columnist named Marilou Johanek - certainly not a part of any arch-conservative, anti-Obama cabal - took to task network anchors for their almost sycophantic coverage of the Illinois senator in his various campaign events overseas, a sort of collective adoration of Obama that seemingly borders on veneration.

Part of this Obama-mania might indeed be some media bias, but much of it is undoubtedly the highly skilled Obama campaign team and the relatively inept John McCain bunch. Simply put: the Obama team is flat-out schooling McCain's advisers.

The reason why Obama defeated Hilary Clinton has less to do with any laudatory characteristics of the Illinois senator (excepting his oratorical skills) but that he simply ran a superior campaign, while the Clintons never seemed to be able to consistently articulate messages that resonated with voters.

I know that the Republicans reading this post might not want to hear this, but McCain will get stomped in November with his current menu of tired and worn-out strategies. Obama can be beaten, but the existing mantra of "John McCain is a great American, an expert on Iraq, and a political maverick" is going nowhere fast.

Give the media something interesting, and they will cover it. Give the media chicken dinners and high fives with auto workers, and they will snooze.

Now, we might complain with justification that Obama's people have been working hard overseas to get these crowds for photo opportunities, but John McCain could have done the same thing. Instead, he's staging the same sorts of predictable and mundane events he's been known for.

Now, I'm not an Obama fanatic by any stretch, but I have to give his campaign staff credit for getting their candidate an unprecedented amount of global coverage at a time of the election year when presidential candidates normally can't even bribe their way into very much airtime. This is the middle of the summer vacation season, when typically candidates only make news when they shoot themselves in the metaphorical foot or when they get caught in flagrante delicto with a lover, a congressional page, or while tapping feet in a restroom stall.

John McCain: you are getting PWNED, and continuing on the same course will all but guarantee an Obama victory in November, barring the appearance of a photograph of Barack Obama walking around the Ka'aba seven times and kissing the Black Stone.

Jul 23, 2008

Book Review: The Quest for an African Eldorado: Sofala, Southern Zambezia, and the Portuguese, 1500-1865

Elkiss, Terry H.
Waltham, MA: Crossroads Press, 1981, 121 pages

Left: Map of the kingdom of Great Zimbabwe, circa 1400

An outgrowth of dissertation work by the author, The Quest for an African Eldorado examines the development of the first Portuguese settlement in what would become Mozambique. Elkiss argued in particular that the concept of a “Golden Sofala” – a mysterious land of incredible wealth – was “largely a myth created by Arab and Persian writers and perpetuated by the Portuguese.” The author also maintained that this mythical African El Dorado changed the nature of Luso-African relations, as the Portuguese obsession with finding the source of the gold that trickled down to Sofala influenced their regional interests for several centuries. This out-of-print and rather short text nonetheless contains a solid overview of Portuguese colonial history in the region Elkiss described as Southern Zambezia, and – more importantly - the author recognized the importance of myth and legend in the early centuries of European expansion.

Elkiss dated to the thirteenth century the fascination that Muslim writers developed for the idea that Sofala and its hinterlands were a region of unparalleled wealth. He included accounts from the Arabic historian Ibn al-Wardi, who claimed that “‘one of the wonders of the land of Sofala is that there are found under the soil, nuggets of gold in great numbers.’” Noted Muslim scholar Ibn Battuta visited Kilwa, and learned from a passing merchant that “ʻthe city of Sufāla lies at a distance of a half month’s journey from Kūlwa…and from Yufi, gold dust is brought to Sufāla.’”

Elkiss argued that the fifteenth-century exploration voyages of the Portuguese – culminating with the 1488 rounding of the Cape by Bartolomeu Dias and the 1497-99 expedition of Vasco da Gama - changed the political and economic dynamics of the Indian Ocean. The author attributed the near-decade that elapsed between the Dias and Gama voyages to a “desire by the crown to await the detailed reports of two agents [Pero de Covilhã and Afonso de Paiva] dispatched overland at the same time Dias was setting sail for Africa.” Elkiss, quoting Portuguese historian João de Barros, noted that Gama viewed with apprehension the Mozambican seaboard:
Vasco da Gama feared the waters would draw him in and that it was some deep bay from which he would not be able to get out. This fear made him so cautious in keeping far off the shore, that he passed without seeing it, the settlement of Sofala, so celebrated in these parts.
The author described gold mining by Shona societies in Sothern Zambezia as a “high-risk, low-return investment.” The influx of New World bullion, maintained Elkiss, drove down the value of Sofalan gold, and the Mutapa imposed strict controls to reduce unauthorized mining. The reason why the Shona did not put forth a high level of energy toward gold mining had little to do with use-values or economic backwardness, argued Elkiss, nor did it represent what a seventeenth-century English writer attributed as the Shona “being extremely lazie themselves.” Instead, the work of mining gold carried with it significant health and safety risks from mine flooding and cave-ins, and the simple fact that the gold trade was not especially lucrative for Shona miners:
Yet, the Shona laborer’s output of gold rarely exceeded a few ounces for an entire season’s work; in return he obtained only a few pieces of cloth or some beads. This unequal exchange was in itself a natural disincentive to gold working, even without the influence of royal prohibitions.

Left: sixteenth century map of the port of Sofala

The text is not without its problems, however, such as an examination by Elkiss of the 1569 voyage to Mozambique by Francisco Baretto, who was expected to lead an attack on the Mutapa in retaliation for the execution of Jesuit priest Gonçalo da Silveira. Elkiss described Baretto’s decision to stop first at Brazil as “unnecessary and unusual, since few vessels sailing to the orient stopped in Brazil,” and the author cited a 1565 Crown prohibition prohibiting India-bound ships from wintering Brazil. Yet it is precisely because of the Crown prohibition that we know this was not a rare practice, as the Crown would not be likely to enact a law in response to an activity that did not exist. Moreover, most historians on the Estado recognized that such stops in Brazil were indeed quite common; CR Boxer noted that the Crown’s decision to try and prohibit Brazil landings by Carreira vessels was “fear that the Indiamen might lose their voyage by doing so, and the high rate of desertion from such ships as did call there.” Glenn J. Ames identified such stops at Brazilian ports like Bahia as an “increasing allure” that interfered with the “swift and successful completion of Carreira voyages,” adding that such Brazilian visits “often facilitated illegal trading of products like cinnamon that were ideally a Crown monopoly.” More importantly, though, this remark by Elkiss ignores the fact that Portuguese ships routinely sailed on a southwesterly course toward Brazil on the outbound voyage to take advantage of the prevailing winds, as a voyage due south will send a ship directly into the dreaded calms off the Gulf of Guinea. Moreover, the Portuguese discovery of Brazil by Pedro Álvares Cabral was a direct result of this sailing tradition, and Baretto was thus behaving in a well-established (if indeed officially-prohibited” manner by stopping in Brazil.

The Quest for an African Eldorado is a useful book for undergraduates needing a brief summary of the early Portuguese colonial efforts in southeastern Africa, and general readers will find the text accessible. However, graduate students and specialists in the Estado da India will find little new in this text, and would likely find texts by other historians to contain a greater depth of narrative and a wider variety of sources. The book would have also benefited from more than its brief treatment of a related theme of European obsession – the medieval legend of priest-king Prester John and its effects on European exploration and expansion – but Elkiss elected to pass up this opportunity to compare the ways in which these legends were similar.

Jul 22, 2008

Red Sunflower

I've been up to my eye-teeth in work this summer (a good problem, given my underemployment the past two summers), so I have not been as diligent in supervising my gardens this year.

Actually, that last phrase should read "so I have not been micro-managing my gardens this year."

Anyways, the red sunflowers I planted started blooming when I was buried in some editing that a lurking deadline prevented me from ignoring. This is the first attempt in three years to nurture these plants to fruition; one year my dogs trampled the baby sprouts, and another year my "guaranteed" seeds must have been duds.

Thus, I am proud to look out my office window and see the first of these flowers majestically swaying in the wind, standing some 6-1/2 feet from the ground. I suspect that - when this flower is joined by others - I will have an impressive row of scarlet-tinged orbs keeping watch over my third of an acre, and I will thus have no need to be scouring the Internet for listings on Wilmington NC real estate, or not until the nest blizzard.

At least until the squirrels notice the sunflowers, that is. We have a friend who insists that planting sunflowers serves only the gastronomical urges of the genus Sciurus, and she swore to never plant sunflowers again.

But I saw them in her yard last week, and now I know she's a dirty rotten liar. By the way - the original Wikipedia image for "red sunflower" was kind of lame, so I replaced it with the image I snapped this morning. Now my red sunflower is world-famous.

Jul 19, 2008

A Weird Burglary Story

My wife works a part-time job one day a week as part of a group of caregivers for an elderly woman who lives on a quiet cul-de-sac in the relatively low-crime city of Sylvania, OH. She worked overnight last evening, parking one of our rusty-but-trusty clunkers in the driveway of the house.

As there was nothing of value in the vehicle - and due to a door lock that sometimes sticks - my wife left the car unlocked. When she opened the car in the morning, she noticed that someone had been rifling through the glovebox in search of valuables.

The thief did steal one of those cassette converters that allows you to plug in another device, like a CD player or an iPod, so I guess we were out about $10 from the crime. This is nothing to even waste time filling out a police report, of course, but I was puzzled by another find: the crook put out a cigarette in the ash tray.

What kind of goofball sits in the cars of other people, looking for merchandise to steal, and takes the time to have a cigarette? My understanding is such thieves are typically of the get-in-get-out variety, smashing windows and grabbing anything they can steal, while splitting before anyone notices them.

This weirdo casually puffed a smoke and neatly crushed the butt in the ashtray. I imagined that the idiot probably thought he was beyond the attention with his "hey, just smoking a cigarette here" ploy, but it is kind of bizarre to think of a complete stranger sitting in your car like he owned it.

I think I want to take this old clunker to the car wash now. I don't know about the car, but I feel kind of dirty at the moment and in need of a good scrubbing, though I'm not really thinking about moving services.

Jul 18, 2008

Return of Jesus Christ - in Toledo?

(Toledo, OH) While stuffing my face full of kibbe, lamb, and baklava at the St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church festival this evening, I saw a curious bearded man in white robes listening to a Greek pop band warming up. He said not a word to the people around him, and then he walked away, the crowd parting in front of him as he walked toward the church.

I'm not jumping to any conclusions here, but the guy looked pretty familiar, and he looked awfully serious.

Up the front steps of St. George the barefoot stranger climbed, and into the narthex he disappeared. I think I like this image of the man better than when I saw him go into the Port-a-John. My wife frowned when I suggested taking a picture of this Christ-like person coming out of the outdoor toilet, and I suppose it would be poor form had I gotten up the courage to take a picture of Jesus leaving the can.

But it still would have been pretty funny, and I'm suspect that God has a sense of humor about these things.

Jul 17, 2008

History Slivers - German Atrocities: Their Nature and Philosophy

This is a recurrent feature on the site in which I briefly describe some arcane aspect of history that I came across, but about which I am too busy or lazy to write in greater depth, yet which - sliver-like - I cannot simply ignore.

War, as they say, is hell, and the First World War certainly ranks among the bloodiest, most vile conflicts in human history. In addition to the tens of millions of dead soldiers and civilians killed by then-new inventions such as the machine gun and chemical weapons, World War I was also noted for advances in the field of war propaganda.

One of the most effective propaganda campaigns waged during the war involved alleged German atrocities in Belgium and France. Let there be no doubt: innocent civilians were shot in cold blood and women were raped by German soldiers, and widespread looting was the calling card of some German units. Yet the German forces were hardly unique in this respect, nor were they any more prone to savagery than any other army of the time.

The Allies effectively sensationalized criminal behavior by German soldiers, and one of the most notorious books in this genre of war propaganda was the 1917 book German Atrocities: Their Nature and Philosophy, by Newell Dwight Hillis, a Congregationalist writer from Brooklyn. Hillis never initially spent time overseas, instead gathering information from "friends who escaped from Belgium... bringing stories of German frightfulness that filled all hearers with horror." He later traveled to France with a New York banker named Lawrence Chamberlain as "guests of the British and French governments."

What is especially interesting about this hysterical collection of salacious war rumors and outright lies is that Hillis freely admitted that his decision to write this dubious text was based upon his belief that this was "vital to the success of the second and all subsequent Liberty Loans, and for the full awakening of the American people." Thus, here we have an example not of direct government propaganda as much as hyped war atrocities for the benefit of New York bankers making hefty commissions selling war bonds.

Below is a typical excerpt from the Hillis book: no documentation, sensationalized speculation, and the ultimate in creating barbaric stereotypes about an enemy. I sure am glad that we Americans have evolved away from this disturbing behavior of demonizing our enemies (irony alert).

Many Americans have looked with horror upon the photograph of the mutilated bodies of women. Sacred forever the bosom of his mother, and not less sacred the body of every woman. Not content with mutilating the bodies of Allied officers, of Belgian boys, they lifted the knife upon the loveliness of woman. The explanation was first given by the Germans themselves. When the Hun joins the army, he must pass his medical examination. A few drops of blood are taken from the left arm, and the Wassermann blood culture is developed. If free from disease, the soldier receives a card giving him access to the camp women, who are kept in the rear for the convenience of the German soldier. If, however, the Wassermann test shows that the German has syphilis, the soldier bids him report to the commanding officer.

German Atrocities: Their Nature and PhilosophyLeft: Title page of "German Atrocities: Their Nature and Philosophy"

The captain tells him plainly that he must stay away from the camp women upon peril of his life, and that if lie uses one of their girls he will be shot like a dog. Having syphilis himself, the German will hand it on to the camp girl, and she in turn will contaminate all the other soldiers, and that means that the Kaiser would soon have no army. Therefore, the soldier that has this foul disease must stay away from the camp women on peril of his life. Under this restriction the syphilitic soldier has but one chance, namely, to capture a Belgian or French girl ; but using this girl means contaminating her, and she in turn will contaminate the next German using her.

To save his own life, therefore, when the syphilitic German has used a French or Belgian girl, he cuts off her breast as a warning to the next German soldier. The girl's life weighs less than nothing against lust or the possibility of losing his life by being charged with the contamination of his brother German.

Jul 15, 2008

On Washington DC and Urban Evolution

Pierre Charles L'Enfant's 1791 plan of the City of Washington, as revised by Major Andrew EllicottPierre Charles L'Enfant's 1791 plan of the City of Washington, as revised by Major Andrew Ellicott

I have traveled to Washington, DC many times in my life, and despite my familiarity with the federal district, I still maintain a sense of awe about the place. Yet only two centuries have passed since the region was an undeveloped stretch of hinterland, and the growth of the metropolis in that period is quite remarkable.

The idea that America could have once been considered a cultural backwater probably comes as a surprise to many contemporary citizens of the United States. American culture has become so pervasive that there are few people alive who can remember a time when it was not dominant, or when the United States was at best a second-rate power.

We grow up with the iconic images of such luminaries as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson branded upon our collective hides, and the impressions passed on to us of these noteworthy forefathers are those of erudite, preeminent statesmen. While these particular individuals were, indeed, great leaders, they were but a tiny percentage of the population. Most of the American citizens of the late colonial and early republican period would be considered ignorant rubes by their European contemporaries.

The impressive city that is now our nation’s capital began as farmland and rolling hills, and later degenerated into a mosquito-infested, swampy region with its haphazard development. Our early congressmen lodged in seedy boarding houses during the months they were in session, and extant accounts of these early legislators demonstrate a noteworthy distaste for life in the new capitol city. Margaret Bayard Smith, a woman who grew up in an era in which diet pills were not yet a fad, provided this view of DC as it looked to an outsider in 1800:
At last I perceive the capitol, a large square, ungraceful, white building, approaching nearer I see three large brick houses and a few hovels, scattered over the plain. One of the brick houses is the one where we lodge. We drive to it; it is surrounded with mud, shavings, boards, planks, & all the rubbish of building. Here then I am. I alight, am introduced to Mr. Still & led into a large handsome parlour. I seat myself at the window, & while Mr. Smith is busied with the luggage, survey the scene before me.

Immediately before the door is the place from whence the clay for bricks has been dug & which is now a pond of dirty water. All the materials for building, bricks, planks, stone, & c., are scattered on the space which lies between this and the Capitol & which is thickly overgrown with briars and black berries & intersected with foot paths. The Capitol is about as far from here as Col. Freeborn's from you. Some brick kilns & small wooden houses & sheds occupy the scene. About half dozen brick houses are seen at a small distance. The Capitol stands on a hill which slopes down towards the Potomac, from the bottom of this hill, to the river extends a thick & noble wood, beyond this you see the river & the scene is then closed by a range of hills, which extend north south as far as the eye can reach.
This stands in stark contrast with the distorted (and largely modern) historical reputation of the District of Columbia being an international hub of political, cultural, and educational activity. I try to visualize such accounts when I visit DC, but the urban sprawl and the city's innovative architecture make it difficult to imagine the place once being a muddy, uninviting hamlet.

Jul 14, 2008

The Quote Shelf

Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

As long as the centuries continue to unfold, the number of books will grow continually, and one can predict that a time will come when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from the direct study of the whole universe. It will be almost as convenient to search for some bit of truth concealed in nature as it will be to find it hidden away in an immense multitude of bound volumes.
-- Denis Diderot

Jul 12, 2008

It's Raspberry-Picking Time

Pictured on your left are the first raspberries of the season, freshly picked from the bushes in my backyard. Though only about four ounces in weight, they will make a tart accompaniment to tonight's fruit salad.

This is the earliest I can recall seeing ripe raspberries, which usually start ripening the last two weeks of July and into the first few days of August. Our friend Microdot over at The Brain Police informed us recently that he picked over two kilograms of raspberries in late June, a full three weeks before mine started to ripen. Of course, he lives in the French region of Aquitaine, which follows a different seasonal pattern than here in Northwest Ohio, and in which the residents spend much more time in physical labor than walking on digital treadmills, but that's another story.

Also, Microdot must have tough skin to have picked so many raspberries, as I had an annoying case of itchy skin after being poked by a myriad of raspberry stickers in only fifteen minutes of picking the fruit. Perhaps there is a special technique to picking them of which I am unaware; feel free to offer your raspberry-picking secrets in the comments section.

Jul 11, 2008

Book Review: The East India Company - A History

Lawson, Philip

New York: Longman, 1993

Lawson was an eminent historian of British overseas expansion who unfortunately died in 1995 at the relatively young age of 46. The East India Company: A History represents Lawson’s efforts to produce a useful synthesis of the history of the British East India Company (EIC) that offered scholars a brief overview of the Company and its metamorphosis from a trading firm into a de facto state. Lawson noted that his purpose in writing the book was to “take stock of what has gone before, synthesizing the old and new research and making the story accessible to readers of all backgrounds and interests,” and the author, to his credit, succeeded on all of these methodological and rhetorical fronts.

The author challenged readers curious about the origins of the EIC to shake off the semi-mythological assumptions of the “nationalistic cult” associated with the story of “a warrior queen [Elizabeth I] taking the fight for the spoils of the new worlds outside Europe to her catholic enemies.” Instead, noted Lawson, the development of the East India Company represented “the culmination of almost a hundred years of erratic attempts at securing direct access to eastern markets.” Lawson added that a number of factors were responsible for the rise of the EIC beyond the surface desire of the English monarchy to break up the Spanish-Portuguese monopoly on global trade. The rise of London in the sixteenth century as a “great port and financial centre,” noted the author, significantly improved England’s ability to raise the necessary capital for long distance voyages. In addition, Lawson argued that the late sixteenth century was a period in which a “wave of propaganda about opportunity in the new worlds of the Atlantic and the East Indies” swept over the country, influencing generations of future adventurers and aspiring merchants. Finally, noted Lawson, the English benefited from the gradual decline of Portugal as an imperial power, which he claimed gave the English “an opportunity for supplanting this ailing power in eastern waters.”

The Crown, moreover, took a dim view of creating a single organization to carry on sea trade with eastern markets, and Lawson argued that a number of factors brought about a change of monarchical heart. Chief among these was simple finance, noted Lawson, as “the granting of monopolies was attractive because monopolies provided much-needed capital to a monarchy verging on bankruptcy.” The Crown, which simultaneously faced a weak domestic economy in the last decade of the sixteenth century, believed that monopolistic trading firms might supply a much-needed stimulus in a period of economic depression. In addition, noted Lawson, the Crown gradually moved toward a favorable position on a monopolistic enterprise due to the growing availability of literature on eastern trade, especially the 1596 publication of the English version of the Itinerario by Dutch merchant Jan Huyghen van Linschoten.

The resultant East India Trading Company, which received its charter from Queen Elizabeth on 31 December 1600, quickly emerged as a profitable concern. Lawson attributed the early successes of the Company to several reasons:
The Company that evolved from the original charter succeeded because it possessed a sophisticated administrative structure that paid attention to details, and a mandate that everyone understood as being focused on trade and profit. The governor and committee system permitted speedy executive decisions to be taken; an absolute necessity in a trading endeavour where resources were tied so closely to fleets returning from voyages of over two years’ duration.
Yet the first century of the Company’s existence was not without its difficult years, especially the decades from 1640-60. Certainly the English Civil War proved to be problematic for the Company, especially in trying to curry favor with the various political factions. However, Lawson argued that a number of other factors contributed to this period of decline, including the commandeering of Company ships for the war effort, the relocation of trade away from Eastern luxuries and toward basic foodstuffs to feed the population, and finally the national political split that also drove a wedge between individual Company investors and officials.

East India House on Leadenhall Street in London as drawn by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd in 1817Left: East India House on Leadenhall Street in London, as drawn by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd in 1817

After the Restoration, the fortunes of the Company improved again, particularly with the acquisition of the port of Bombay, which the British Crown received as a dowry payment from Portugal for the marriage between Charles II and Catherine of Bragança. Lawson argued that the natural fortifications of the island enclave, especially its excellent harbor, helped ensure Bombay’s rapid rise as a center of regional trade. More importantly, noted Lawson, it was the “inspired leadership” of Gerald Aungier that paved the way for Company successes at Bombay and beyond:
Aungier was a remarkable man with a vision of what constituted successful English governance on foreign soil. His achievements included the setting up of courts of judicature in Bombay; the establishment of a stable currency; and the formation of a militia, together with the bare bones of a naval defence force (later called the Bombay Marine). He insisted on religious tolerance for Catholics, Hindus, and Muslims; local taxation was set by a general assembly of landowners on an equitable basis, and petty disputes were settled by elected magistrates in accordance with local community tradition and practice. Accountability of this sort, along with the ideal of representation and acknowledgement of local custom, represented innovative rule of the highest order.
The rise of Bengal as an additional center of trade has been the subject of historiographical debate for over two centuries, and Lawson argued that there were several reasons for this impressive ascent, not the least of which was pure luck. In addition, noted Lawson, political and economic stability in Bengal worked in the Company’s favor, unlike the more volatile situations in and around Bombay and Madras. Most important in the evolution of Bengal as a major locus of Company activity was the 1717 firman by the Mogul Emperor Farukhsiyar that granted the EIC the right to unlimited trade in Bengal without the payment of customs; Lawson described this as a “huge coup for the Company,” and noted that many historians regard this as an “unprecedented privilege for any European power operating under Mogul rule at the time.”

Major-General Robert Clive, 1st Baron Clive of PlasseyLeft: Major-General Robert Clive, 1st Baron Clive of Plassey

Lawson argued that the period dominated by the forceful personality of Robert Clive as something of a watershed for the Company, and that this was the period in which the Company unquestionably evolved into an entity much greater than a mere trading organization. The author, however, disagreed with historians who view the period as one of naked empire-building, and he instead argued that the “initial advance lacked precise deliberation or forethought.” Still, noted Lawson, the “final outcome of Clive’s legacy had been postponed, not resolved,” and the realities of what had been an unintentional but indisputable movement toward empire “would become chronic maladies for the Company and the state over the next two decades, that not even the finest pekoe teas could cure.”

The British government unwillingly became involved in Indian affairs, maintained Lawson, due to a number of reasons, not the least of which was the disinclination of the Directorate toward “putting Company affairs in order.” Lawson criticized what he described as “ineptitude of Company leadership in London and the wayward behaviour of many of its servants in India” as another contributing factor in the eventual direct role of the British government in Indian questions, adding that the “immense value of the Company’s activities to British tax and custom revenues could not be jeopardized” by inaction on the part of the government:
When Clive and his imitators had delivered territory and tax revenues to the Company and the state, there seemed every reason to celebrate at the expense of Britain’s rivals. After the full measure of Clive’s legacy became apparent, however, the Company’s iron will to succeed collapsed. As a result, the state had to intervene to salvage its own taxation sources and the Company’s overall finances. In this outcome the Company found itself without allies to defend its old powers and privileges which fell away like discarded clothes...the Company’s loss of control over its own trading policies and dalliance with territorial expansion had ruined its finances and left it exposed to the whims of politicians.
The East India Company, which was composed for Longman Publishing’s Studies in Modern History series, is an excellent overview that is well suited for general readers, non-specialist scholars, and graduate students seeking an abbreviated summary of the EIC that also includes relevant historiography. Lawson added an impressive 10-page bibliography with both primary and secondary materials, as well as a number of useful maps to aid understanding. The text would also serve as an exceptional component for a university-level course in European expansion, British imperialism, or modern economic history and it should be considered an essential addition to a basic modern history library.

Jul 10, 2008

On Unexpected Storms

The weather forecast for today called for sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-80s, conditions favorable for an evening of lawn mowing. I checked the oil on my mower, filled up the gas tank, and started cutting, oblivious to the dark clouds that rolled in.

About ten minutes into my landscaping maintenance, I felt a few raindrops, but I momentarily dismissed this as perspiration from my graying head. A look to the skies, though, confirmed that a goodly storm was a-brewing.

I doubled my pace of cutting, but a heavy downpour drenched my neighborhood, dropping perhaps an inch-and-a-half of rain in 45 minutes. As you can see from the accompanying photograph, this was much more than my saturated lawn could absorb, at least in the short amount of time before dusk. Thus I had to park the mower until better weather returns, and I settled down to watch the rain from my front stoop instead of plopping down like a zombie in front of a viewsonic monitor.

I was not alone in trusting the weather forecasters, and quite a few people in trotted or cycled past my house in the rain. One harried woman ran with her Labrador retriever; she tried to use a jacket to keep her head dry, while her water-loving dog enjoyed stomping through the accumulating puddles.

The sun returned shortly before it was due to set, and the world was wetter but no worse for the heavenly deluge. Steam rose from the still-hot pavement, and I was glad to be watching it from the relative dryness of my porch.

Jul 9, 2008

Rapid Rhetoric: EMPHYTEUSIS

Raphael's depiction of Plato defining the difference between true and false rhetoric This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

emphyteusis (EM-fih-TOO-sis) n. (civil law) a long-term lease of land and/or buildings, including the exclusive enjoyment of all products of the land and the exercise of all property rights usually reserved for the property owner; a contract granting possession of land for a long period of time under certain conditions.

This legal term has its origins in Roman law, and emphyteusis can be traced to the lengthy or even perpetual leases of lands siezed in war by which the Roman State wished to raise revenue. The word emphyteusis is of Greek origin, derived from the Greek word ἐμφύτευσις (literally, "in-planting").

Laws of emphyteusis made a resurrection of sorts in postcolonial Latin America, and there was an attempt in the new nation of Argentina to use this practice to develop lands seized during the independence movement, something that at the time must have seemed to be old hat.

Jul 7, 2008

Points of Light Foundation's eStore: A Horror Story

My wife and I booked a travel package to Spain and Portugal with the Points of Light's eStore on eBay after we won an auction. We were scheduled to leave later this month for our first real vacation in quite a few years, but it turns out today that "significant financial and operational irregularities" with the third-party vendor have caused a complete shutdown of thousands of travel packages purchased by travelers across the country and around the world. As yet I have been unable to find any stories beyond the organization's press release.

As it stands, we are currently out several thousand dollars with no certainty that any of this will ever be refunded, though the Points of Light folks assure us that they have "created a customer care center to help customers apply for their refunds." This "care center," however, essentially consists of an online form to send off, and we cannot speak with a live human being about the mess into which Points of Light and their vendors have tossed us, just when we had all but packed our Rimowa luggage.

In addition, we also booked a number of non-refundable hotel reservations for which we already paid, so it looks like we will have to scrape up an extra three grand or so in order to purchase new plane tickets for our trip. Otherwise, we'll be eating about five grand, unless the trip insurance we purchased manages to cover this fiasco(doubtful, but one can always hope).

Now, losing a few thousand dollars will not break us, and we can probably still manage to find a way to make this vacation happen if we tap some emergency funds, but I urge everyone reading this post to stay the hell away from the Points of Light Foundation until they get their act together. True, a third party appears to have been the one running a scam, but Points of Light still has the responsibility to monitor what their vendors are doing and to make good on their promises.

And to the sleazy "independent contractor" who has screwed up so many vacations? Better hope a few disenchanted customers and their Louisville Sluggers don't meet up with you in a dark alley, pal.

On Libraries, Circulation Records, and Personal Privacy

Left: I'm pretty sure there's nothing dangerous in my library record...at the moment

A university library system I use just announced a new feature called "My Reading History," which allows users to keep track of the books that they have previously checked out. This is helpful to a researcher like me, because I sometimes forget about texts I have used, despite my efforts to develop ever-larger bibliographical lists.

Yet the service comes with a catch, as those who make use of this record-keeping function will also find themselves subject to potential unwanted scrutiny from the government. Listed below is the disclaimer for the service:
My Reading History Disclaimer
By opting in to My Reading History, you can track your circulation history. Participation in this feature is completely voluntary and you may opt out and/or delete records from your history at any time. If you choose to start recording "My Reading History", you agree to allow our online system to store this data. The library staff does not have access to your reading history, however, it is subject to all applicable local, state, and federal laws, and under those laws, could be examined by law enforcement authorities without your permission. If this is of concern to you, you should not use the "My Reading History" feature.
Now, I already knew that public libraries were subject to Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which allows federal agents to look at public and university circulation and computer-usage data. Any books a person checks out - along with magazines requested, Web sites visited, or email messages sent via library computers - are all fair game for federal investigators, who have limited oversight in their functions.

Still, merely possessing a vague awareness of Big Brother's presence is a bit different than reading such a disclaimer in black-and-white. By choosing this seemingly innocuous electronic service, I cede just a bit more freedom to the already Leviathan-like federal government.

Now, as a historian whose work deals in all sorts of research materials that could be taken out of context, I find this more than a bit disconcerting. One of my research interests is in epidemiological history, and I spend more time than the average geek reading about such historical pests as smallpox, anthrax, and bubonic plague, among other deadly pathogens. Suppose a Fibbie on a virtual fishing expedition decides to start compiling lists of people who check out books on smallpox - should I then expect a knock on my door or a visit to my office just because I have a legitimate research query into the pathology of particular microbes?

Will I one day have to defend my research because I happened to check out a book that raises red flags?

And remember, too, that what is perfectly acceptable today might turn out to be a "dangerous" or "subversive" book in ten years. Human history is littered with lists of books prohibited by churches, states, and dictators, and a text I read today might one day serve to brand me as a suspicious person.

Or worse.

Jul 6, 2008

On Creating a Peaceful Space

Over the past few years I have learned the value of quiet meditation as an antidote to stress, and one of the ways in which I meditate is by moving to a peaceful space in my backyard that we have created.

Complete with a faux doe and my Miracle Statue of St. Francis, this miniature patch of tranquility provides me moments of respite from worldly concerns, and it is here that I often venture to gain perspective on a vexing problem. Under the shade of a 100-foot oak tree, this place seems impervious to the "real" world: no phones, no Internet, no television or radio, no worries about finding the best buy in electronics - just the sounds of birds and the occasional vehicles that pass by.

Moreover, squabbles between my children rarely spill over into the backyard, and this quiet space offers serenity even in the most trying parental moments. A few minutes listening to the gurgling waters of the pond at the center of this sculpted plot can clear my head and help me to maintain a calmer demeanor. I walked barefoot to this spot today during a moment of temporary annoyance and allowed the cool earth under my feet to quell the frustrations, and I would have to work hard now to even remember what it was that previously troubled me.

I hope that you too have a place in which your daily aggravations can be set aside, even for just a few moments. Sometimes just removing yourself from stressors can give you the time and tranquility needed to think clearly.

Jul 4, 2008

Icelandic Poppy at Sunset

I purchased some Icelandic poppies for my yard this year, not really knowing much about these flowers beyond the fact that they are perennials and that I enjoy other varieties of poppies. Known to scientists as Papaver nudicaule, these plants produce delicate, papery blossoms that are rather short-lived.

I am more puzzled than disappointed with the relatively meager number of blossoms that appeared. I certainly need to experiment with environmental conditions, and perhaps successive years may prove more bountiful than my results this summer.

Or maybe this ephemeral nature is just how poppies are: here one day, gone the next, just a short punctuation mark of color before the petals drift to the ground.

Jul 3, 2008

Rapid Rhetoric: DURBAR

Raphael's depiction of Plato defining the difference between true and false rhetoric This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word I came across that I have never previously used.

durbar (DUHR-bahr) n. (Mughal India) a court or audience chamber, as well as a formal assembly of notable persons called together by the government; (British India) formal imperial assemblies called together to mark state occasions.

Derived from the Persian word دربار (darbār) the term durbar originally applied to the nobles of the Shah's court. Durbar later gained use as a general term in India and Nepal for the courts of the various provincial rulers.

I came across the word in a four-volume set of books I am editing for the publishing house Brill, which is celebrating its 325th anniversary this year. The pay is decent, but I really could not pass up the opportunity to stick my feet in the door of this academic publishing powerhouse, which does not possess a modern equivalent of a durbar by which aspiring authors might seek corporate benevolence.

Jul 2, 2008

Strange Devices Used as Instruments in Pop and Rock Songs

Left: the humble washboard, whose best practitioner is the inimitable Skid Roper, who I bought a shot of whiskey for in 1985

We live in an era in which digital technology allows for the artificial creation of an infinite range of sounds, and one in which audio experimentation is often a matter of computer technicians.

Yet it was not so long ago, kids, when musicians sometimes searched for all manner of unusual ways to create unique sounds on pop and rock records. Back when I once considered a career in music, I spent countless hours with my four-tack analog recorder capturing odd noises that I one day hoped to mix in my songs. Unfortunately, life and middle age caught up with my aural experiments, but I remain fascinated with artists and engineers who can find musical value in unexpected places.

Listed below are a few of the curious implements that musicians and studio whizzes have used to create memorable sonic moments when they were not recharging their respective batteries during Las Vegas vacations. Feel free to leave any others of which you are aware.

1. Lovin' Spoonful, "Summer in the City." This essential hot weather song features car horns and a jackhammer, and I distinctly recall reading an interview with John Sebastian in which he discussed recording a number of jackhammers before finding one that sounded particularly "flatulent," though I did not pull up this interview in a Google search.

2. Roxy Music, "Love is the Drug." If you listen closely, you can hear the sound of ripping paper being used as a percussion device every fourth beat. No kudos to the band for the sound of a roaring car at the beginning of the song, though - this had been used many times before the recording of the 1975 album Siren.

3. The Supremes, "Baby Love" and "Where Did Our Love Go." OK, you can credit Lamont Dozier and Brian Holland for the idea, but I still think it is cool how Mike Valvano created the footstomping sound by jumping up and down on wooden boards that were suspended in the air. I recall an interview with a member of the Funk Brothers who said that the crisp, martial sound was improved by the addition of sand on the wood.

4. Guns N' Roses, "Paradise City." About 1:20 into the song, Axl Rose lets loose with a - of all things - a referee's whistle that screeches and kicks the song into high gear. Yes, sometimes GNR was a bit derivative, but this is hands-down the best referee whistle solo in rock history.

5. The Beach Boys, "Good Vibrations." Among the other studio wizardry in this song is the inclusion of a musical solo played on the Electro-Theremin, best known for making creepy sounds for science fiction B-movies.

6. Beatles, "Lovely Rita." Far too many memorable studio oddities to mention in this post, so I'll just close with this song. The strange noise after the lines "And the bag across her shoulder/ Made her look a little like a military man" was created by John, Paul, and George dragging combs across paper.

Jul 1, 2008

On the Merits of Hammock-Sitting

I came across a passage in Ivan Turgenev's Virgin Soil that caught my eye this morning. The protagonist Nejdanov, pondering in a letter to a distant friend, assesses the state of relationships with women, especially that of marriage:

Are there really any good-natured women other than stupid ones?

Ouch... bitter stuff, that.

I know in my own case that these words do not ring true, as I am lucky to be married to a terrific woman who is brilliant, practical, and who always has an eye for a good bargain, like the hammock she purchased last fall. We fitted the device with some sturdy synthetic cording rated to handle over twice my bulk, and there the hammock sat for a few weeks, wafting in the summer breeze between a pair of cherry trees.

Now, I have never really been a hammock person, and truth be told: I spent far too many of my first four decades chasing the chimera of material wealth to have seen the value in laying on a hammock on a sunny day. There were always better and more productive ways to be spending a summer day, most of which involved the pursuit of money.

Yet over the past few weeks I have found the time to hammock (I believe this word should also function as a verb, despite what my dictionaries say), and I find the activity quite pleasurable. This evening I started out reading a few dozen pages of a history text on the British East India Company, but found my attention diverted by the avian dramas that took place in the cherry trees between some robins, grackles, blue jays, and cardinals. There appeared to be quite a battle over arboreal rights, and the situation did not resolve itself by the time I ended my hammock session.

Still, had I followed as a younger man the advice of a cynical person like Nejdanov, I might never have married my wife, and would have missed out on this particular moment on this particular hammock. That factor alone should negate the Nejdanov thesis, though I suspect a character like Nejdanov is too full of himself to bother with such lowly pleasures as hammocks, anyway, and he probably would spend his time these days wasting away in some campy home theater seating instead of living as a would-be Russian radical.