Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Book Club Part II

The first 20 or so pages of Eric Hobsbawm's The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 constitute probably the greatest summary of the 20th century I've ever read. It's the kind of thing that I hope I remember to print out and make my children read, once they're old enough; the kind of dizzying intellectual accomplishment that makes you stop and re-read every paragraph because there's just so much packed into every sentence. It's a performance, an expertly-maintained running gag of distilled analysis that, were it a comedy routine, would have you crying and red-faced but instead, just keeps making you think, "Wow."

He begins by breaking apart the Short Twentieth Century (1914-1991; important to note that the book was written in 1992-93) into three parts, "a sort of triptych or historical sandwich." First comes the Age of Catastrophe, 1914 to 1945, in which the world cannot stop being at war with itself. Then comes a Golden Age, lasting until the early 1970s, followed by "a new era of decomposition, uncertainty and crisis - and indeed, for large parts of the world such as Africa, the former USSR, and the formerly socialist parts of Europe, of catastrophe."*

This has the effect of declaring the "Golden Age" of the 50s and 60s to be the real anomaly of the 20th Century, instead of the mean to which Western society will inevitably revert. An interesting thought, for someone who grew up essentially in a post-Communist world, a second Golden Age of the 20th Century (for a middle-class American, anyway).

From there, Hobsbawm moves on to perhaps his trippiest argument: International Communism, which took root in countries that covered 1/6th of the world's land mass, and which contained 1/3rd of its people, was able to become so dominant only because of the failure of the Capitalist system in the Age of Catastrophe. And yet, Communism (which had been created by Marx and Engels in explicit contrast to bourgeois Capitalism, and which was now succeeding because of the failure of that system) would be what ensured the survival and dominance of the Capitalist system. After all, in 1939 the ultimate triumph of democratic Capitalism was by no means assured, as fascism and authoritarianism spread. But had the Red Army not fought against the fascists (not that Hitler gave the USSR much choice), it's far from certain that Germany would have lost the war.

In discussing the general impact of the Golden Age, Hobsbawm moves on to point out, literally as an aside, that "A ... case can be made for saying that the third quarter of the century marked the end of the seven or eight millenia of human history that began with the invention of agriculture in the stone age, if only because it ended the long era when the overwhelming majority of the human race lived by growing food and herding animals."

That, for me, was one of those "Wow." moments wherein a simple, straightforward, obvious-in-hindsight argument gets made for the first time and in a split second, completely alters the way one understands the world. To say that the 20th Century is "exceptional" is not, itself, an exceptional statement. To say that it overturned eight millenia of human history is, um, pretty amazing. And, as far as I can see, completely true.

Hobsbawm's final bit of knowledge-dropping is just how extreme the moral depravity of the 20th Century really was. He notes that, with 187 million people killed in war, or 10% of the world population in 1900, this was probably the bloodiest century in human history, as well as its most progressive. And how many of those victims were civilians, bombed or nuked or tortured or terrorized (all methods of killing that, basically, hadn't even been invented (and certainly not perfected) until the last century rolled around.)

*I think it was probably only possible to thusly describe the 20th Century this way in the early 90s (which is when Hobsbawm was writing this.) Brad DeLong has a pretty harsh review of the book, which I've only skimmed (since I haven't read the book itself yet) but I think it misses this key point. DeLong basically accuses Hobsbawm of being too pessimistic about the future, and the latter part of the 20th Cent., because he's too caught up in being sad about Communism's decline. DeLong finds reason for optimism at the extinguishing of the political philosophy that produced 2 of the 3 great mass murderers, of the 20th Century.

But the unique time at which Hobsbawm and DeLong were writing encompassed the largest transfer of arms in history, the swift descent into criminal anarchy of one of the world's two major powers and the vacuum in world affairs that resulted from the end of the Cold War, the invasion of Kuwait, the conditions immediately preceding the Rwandan genocide, a war and genocide in Bosnia... In other words, I think the thesis of a 3-part Short Twentieth Century is a little on the tidy side given the events of the final decade of the literal 20th Century, but I'd say there was ample reason for pessimism at the outset of the 90s, and given the story Hobsbawm wants to tell (which, at the time of writing, really was the whole story) his structure still makes sense.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Book Club

I recently began reading Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India, and even though I've only gotten through a chapter so far, it's been extremely interesting.

I think partly this is because I'm just "ready" to read a good book that explores India's recent history and current affairs - it's something I know woefully little about, I'm going back to the country relatively soon and just came back from it relatively recently, and it's just a really interesting place, textured like no other part of the world I've ever been to (an admittedly low bar.)

But it's also because the book is really engaging, and presents some facts of which I was simply unaware, and are of the kind that make one go "Hm...maybe the way I previously thought about X was simply incorrect." For example:

Less than 10 percent of India's dauntingly large labor force is employed in the formal economy...[That] means that only about 35 million Indians [out of 470 million employed] pay any kind of income tax...Of the roughly 35 million Indians with formal sector jobs, ... 21 million are direct employees of the government. This leaves just 14 million people working in the private "organized" sector. Of these, fewer than 1 million - that is, less than a quarter of one percent of India's total pool of labor - are employed in information technology, back-office processing, and call centers. ... Fewer than one million Indians produce annually more in IT and software export revenues than several hundred million farmers earn from agricultural exports.

So in other words, the IT sector that I had kind of always assumed was the main reason for India's prosperity, especially over the last decade or so, employs less than one out of every 400 people with a job?! And the truly staggering thought is that (I haven't really done the research to back this up, but) I might not be wrong about IT being India's main economic engine. Which would imply that the division of people into the haves and have-nots is taking place in India to an absolutely outrageous extent. Those 435 million Indians employed in the "informal" sector, after all, are probably not raking it in, and while the 35 million with "formal" jobs are doing pretty well by comparison, not all of those jobs are exactly creating millionaires either.

Not to mention, the Indian government employs 2/3 of all formally-employed persons in India! WTF!? I thought China was the communist country, and India was the free-market liberal democracy...although I had recently heard that Indian Railways (the state-owned railroad) is the world's largest non-military employer, with over 1.6 million employees (i.e. almost twice the size of the entire IT sector).

As but one example of something tangentially related: At one point during my trip to Delhi, Sarita and I needed to go to the main train station so that she could get some tickets for a trip she was planning on taking (or something; the exact details are a little fuzzy.) We had to go to the foreigner's office, because the government maintains a ticket quota for foreigners on some trains (and buying tickets reserved for Indians when you're not an Indian is, owing to substantial subsidies, a pretty bad and probably illegal idea.) So we went, and after some looking around the busy station, we found the office, in a sleepy second-floor corner. It was the kind of place where you expect a solitary fan to be droning on, back and forth across the quiet, dingy room (I can't remember if there was one, but it was that kind of place.) Everything had to be filled out (literally) in triplicate. Along the back wall were dusty, overflowing, ancient filing cabinets and accordion folders, packed with 3 identical copies of thousands of foreigner applications for tickets to Jaipur and Jabalpur and Agra. In front of the cabinets were middle-aged men in no hurry, whose ancient computer terminals were similarly lackadaisical.

I still shudder to think at the armies of people it must take to process all that people, and then file it away into oblivion, and then very occasionally sift through it all to retrieve the one or two important documents contained within. As someone who's spent the last year working in a very nearly paperless office, this manner of conducting business felt even more retrograde.

But then again, and this is I think the most important point to always keep in mind (not that it's too difficult), India's just so freaking big. Any small or medium-sized country can go from "forms in triplicate" to "forms in HTML" relatively quickly and painlessly; but try doing that when you have a country of over a billion people, only 65% of whom are literate. There simply aren't many fair comparisons one can make.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

In which I play sports after work, and something interesting happens

The omens were mixed. On the one hand, I'd forgotten my shorts, so I had to play in jeans. On the other, I discovered during warmups that I had suddenly learned how to throw forehand. My game literally got 50% more versatile!

Not to mention, I'm kind of in shape for the first time in about a decade (if not more), and I was wearing contacts for the first time during a game (previously, I'd take my glasses off, and play half-blind. This was not a competitive advantage.)

The game started off well - I didn't make any mistakes on defense, was in decent position and caught a few key throws. I was feeling pretty good about this whole ultimate frisbee thing...and these after-work games are usually really competitive, since most of the Googlers that care enough about frisbee to play right after work are really pretty good, and have been playing for a while. So they know all the lingo, strategies and techniques, are in good shape, etc. Intimidating if most of your frisbee experience has been on a cement playground with like three other people in high school.

And then...disaster! Playing deep, a throw got dropped in the end zone, and as by far the nearest player to the disc, I had to throw it out. Into the wind. With someone totally guarding my backhand. I was forced forehand, my teammates (who up till then probably thought I was an ok player) assumed I had a forehand and didn't give me any choice. I knew it was going to be bad the instant before it left my hand, but by then it was too late.

The most humiliating forehand I've ever thrown flopped around in the wind helplessly before falling, limply, to the ground about a foot out of our own end zone. Everyone groaned and ran back to score/defend the unbelievably short distance.

In the event, I managed to knock down the throw (decisively; I slapped it down with the full force of my humiliation) and save the point, so I felt a little better. But not much, and my confidence was pretty shaken.

Plus, I was getting pretty winded. My stomach was kinda starting to hurt. And I've had this bruise on my shin that aches when I run on it - not much, just enough to make me think twice about putting my foot down from time to time.

So I sat out for a little bit, and debated whether or not to rejoin the game. Eventually, I decided, probably not. Didn't want to get sick or anything.

"Hey, guys," said a nasal voice from behind me. It took about a half second to comprehend, after turning around, that it was Sergey (who, hilariously and I suppose unsurprisingly, outranks Sergey Prokofiev on a Google search of his first name.) "Anybody wanna throw?"

I sure didn't, but I decided instantly that I wasn't going to leave until I'd played at least one point while he was in the game. I shouldn't need to explain why I felt that way.

At that point, for some I'm sure unrelated reason, it got a lot harder to join the game. (A brief digression: we were playing 6 on 6, lights vs darks, and since we had well over 12 players, after every point, the first 6 people who arrive in one of the two end zones play that point.) So it took me a while to get in a game with our billionaire founder.

But then, success. We stood next to each other in the end zone, waiting for the disc. When it arrived, we all trotted out, Sergey and I not really paying much attention, not expecting the throw to come to us. We turned to look at the thrower, who lofted a short slow one right in between both of us.

It hung in the air, slowly moving toward us but not picking him or I, until it was almost on the ground. Neither of us called it, or pointed at the other one, we just kind of watched it. Finally I dove, snagged it just before it sliced the tips off the blades of freshly-cut grass, and rolled in my jeans, clinging desperately to the frisbee that had just guaranteed I'd be writing this post.

"Thanks," he muttered, or something like that. I couldn't really tell. But he definitely said it TO ME! Squeal.

From that point on, we actually exchanged several passes (thrilling!) We kept occupying pretty similar parts of the field, usually we were the only two people open, and at one point he hustled back to give me an option that I gratefully forehanded directly to him.

This is so nerdy. Whatever. Anyway.

From that point on, I actually had a really solid game. Even if the net worth of all the players hadn't been about 2-3 orders of magnitude higher than any other game I've ever played, I had one of the better games of my life (especially considering how good everyone else was.) I had two sweet defensive plays, one coming about because I hustled and caught the other team being lazy (and I would've gotten a point with my resulting throw if the wind hadn't taken the disc, which wasn't really my fault but I guess kinda was). And I got one awesome point, running flat out into the back of the end zone (I mighta been out, but they gave it to me anyway)

So, bottom line, maybe this whole exercise and contacts thing is kinda working. I mean, I didn't really feel much different from how I normally do, but I definitely played a way better game than usual.

Also, Sergey's really good. He loves to throw it long, and has a pretty sweet throw with a cool spin. He runs hard, though he's not super-fast. And he's pretty modest and quiet, which is neat.

Finally, this video is hilarious. Watch it.