Friday, June 22, 2012

Ode to the Greek Spirit

To my readers: the following is a book review I wrote some years ago, but I find it as relevant (and as surprisingly well written) as when I originally published it.


Who were the ancient Greeks and why do they still move us? Their society is as alien to us as their language. Yet Greece still beckons us more than two millennia since the fall of Athens. The pinnacle of Greek culture lasted a mere century, yet it has left its mark on all of western society. The great intellectual institutions, such as philosophy, science and literature, originated in Greece. Beyond these marvels, however, lies a value so fundamentally important - and enduring - that a basic understanding of the Greeks is as important today as ever.
In The Greek Way, author Edith Hamilton covers the height of Greek culture in the 5th century BC. She begins by contrasting the east and west - an approach that becomes clear as one reads along. The east, according to Hamilton, stood for faith and force, while Greece embodied the opposite values of reason and freedom. Early in the book, Hamilton writes: ‘In a world where the irrational had played the chief role, they (the Greeks) came forward as the protagonists of the mind’. Thus, the Greeks introduced to the world the idea that the universe was orderly, that man's senses were valid and, as a consequence, that man's proper purpose was to live his own life to the fullest. These are discoveries that many westerners take for granted today, but not Edith Hamilton. Throughout the book, she constantly reminds the reader of the awe and beauty of the Greek spirit.
An important corollary of the Greek view that the world is knowable was their belief in the supremacy of independence. Hamilton paints a vivid portrait of the major Greek writers, statesmen and philosophers, all of whom possessed just such an intransigent commitment to independence. She writes: ‘Authoritarianism and submissiveness were not the direction it (the Greeks' spirit) pointed to. A high-spirited people full of physical vigour do not obey easily…’ and further: ‘...each man must himself be a research worker in the truth if he were ever to attain to any share in it…’
5th century Athens was also the birthplace of political freedom. Though Hamilton does not provide a thorough analysis of this great development, she does offer hints throughout. In her chapter on the historian Herodotus, she explains his view of the Greeks during the war against the Persians: ‘A free democracy resisted a slave-supported tyranny’. ‘Mere numbers were powerless against the spirit of free men fighting to defend their freedom’. Why did Herodotus believe that free men were more powerful? Hamilton answers: ‘The basis of Athenian democracy was the conviction...that the average man can be depended upon to do his duty and to use good sense in doing it. Trust the individual was the avowed doctrine in Athens, and expressed or unexpressed it was common to Greece’.
The Greeks, contrary to popular myth, were not a particularly religious people. While it is true that they had their gods, it is important to note that they did not place great importance on mystical beliefs. Indeed, what gods they did revere were the opposite of the Christian doctrine that man was made ‘in God's image’. The Greek gods were made in the image of man. They were neither omnipotent nor omnipresent. Hamilton contrasts the Greek and eastern views of religion: ‘Before Greece, all religion was magical’. She further illustrates that mystical beliefs were based on fear of the unknown, whereas the Greeks ‘changed a world that was full of fear into a world full of beauty’.
A minor flaw in Hamilton's book is her overuse of examples, particularly in the chapters where she discusses the playwrights Aristophanes, Æschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Though she deftly contrasts the Greek way of writing with the eastern and modern approaches, the reader drowns in the minutiae. Hamilton was perhaps attempting to impress the reader with her depth of knowledge, but given the tone of the rest of the book, these examples disrupt her otherwise clear and concise writing.
The Greek Way is a joy to read. In it, Hamilton presents an integrated view of ancient Greece and the important legacy left for modern man. She successfully shows that the Greeks were rational, purposeful and happy people, intent on achieving their values in this world. If one could choose a single expression that characterises the essence of Greek values, it is man worship. The Greeks worshiped man for what he was and what he could be. In Edith Hamilton's The Greek Way, we see that spirit shine brightly down through the ages. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Goodbye, Irascible Girl

Mollie Martinelli: 1982 - 2012

Today I got some sad news. Really sad news in fact. An old friend from Phoenix died suddenly at barely 30 years old.
I first met Mollie Martinelli at The Wild Card, a little club in Chandler, Arizona. The ‘Card’, as regulars came to know it, was the kind of place where anyone was welcome. Nobody cared about your background, rich or poor, employed or not. Nobody cared whether you were straight, gay or somewhere in between. All who frequented the Card considered it a comfortable home away from home where the drinks were strong, the menu better than most American bars provide and the shows and events always entertaining.
My ex-partner Randy and I became regulars there in 2005, around the time Mollie did. She sported a masculine look, festooned with tattoos and piercings that young people do today. I admit neither are my cup of tea and consequently when I first saw Mollie, I must confess I was put off by her look. But then I got to know her. Underneath the spiky hair, the tattoos and piercings lived a bubbly girl. While her anger sometimes shone through, the mood I remember most was positive and smiling. She was friendly and chatty to just about anyone she encountered at the Card. Over time she began to host karaoke nights and DJ’d for shows.
Over my remaining years in Arizona, I spent many many evenings at the Wild Card and therefore came to know Mollie well. She had loves and losses like the rest of us, but always seemed quick with a kind word. For as long as I knew her, she was studying in college while at the same time working and enjoying herself with friends. Whilst I did not know her intimately, she struck me as ambitious and driven to success. On the occasions I made the trek back to Phoenix from Sydney, Mollie would give me a big bear hug when I saw her again and ask about how my life was going in Australia. She genuinely was interested in what I had to say.
I cannot begin to imagine what her close friends and loved ones are going through now. It would be trite of me to offer the usual platitudes, so instead I am writing this short tribute to her.
Mollie, you were sometimes irascible and sometimes difficult, but what I admired in you was your spirit, your get up and go, your moxie and your devotion to your values. I think you even aspired to greatness and I would have loved to have seen you succeed in life beyond your wildest fantasies. As it stands, I will remember the fond times at the Wild Card, your wonderful wit and everything else that made you an original.
Rest in peace, my irascible one. I will miss you greatly.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The End of...

During a trip to Southern California more than a decade ago to visit some good friends of mine, I had the opportunity to visit the Computational Biology department at CalTech University. My friend Stephen had worked there for many years and his profession intrigued me greatly. Now, I am no scientist by trade or vocation, but I revere good scientists and the results of their exacting work: the application of science to create the incredible products we all enjoy and often take for granted.
On this particular day, Stephen explained to me what computational biology meant in terms I could grasp:
‘Do you see those blips on the screen moving closer together?’ he asked me. ‘Those blips represent genes’.
‘What is the purpose of the computer program?’
‘To track movement of genes, but also, it frees the scientists to engage in higher level thinking’.
‘So it’s like office automation in a way, right? Instead of having to perform tedious office tasks, secretaries can now focus on more interesting things’.
‘That’s exactly right! Scientists can focus their energies on solving even more complex problems because the computers are now performing the menial work of gene mapping’.
This exchange many years ago got me thinking about human progress, and more specifically how technology enables us to think better and to come up with ever more innovative products. What is technology but the rational mind applied to the creation of the tools we need to thrive and advance?
Not everyone loves technology the way I do, but everyone surely benefits from it. Nevertheless, over dinner conversation recently, a friend of my partner’s was discussing how he thought all the iPhones and iPads were great gadgets, but sooner or later they would eliminate work. His theory was that with our lives so completely automated, there would be no jobs left for people to do.
Does this viewpoint sound familiar? It isn’t a new one. For a century or more, one pundit after another has declared the end of work, the end of education, the end of reading, the end of relationships - all due to technological advances. After all, with everything done for us by machines, why bother making any effort to live productively at all?
The problem with this thinking is it limits the person who believes it from considering the infinite possibilities for working and living. Who could have imagined just 15 years ago that many of us would be enjoying our lives with fantastic, always connected computing devices that perform an ever more dizzying array of tasks. Thanks to the iPhone and smart phones in general, the charming expression ‘there’s an app for that’ has crept into our modern vernacular. We may use the phrase with irony, but we also love the ability to get things done quickly and with seemingly little effort. We have scientists and technologists to thank for this happy existence.
So what is the future of work? What kinds of productive endeavours will our children and grandchildren engage in decades from now? Who can say? We are only limited by our ability to think and by political systems that erode our freedoms, with the latter being the greatest threat we face today. The late, great economist, Julian Simon, titled one of his books The Ultimate Resource. He was not referring to the natural resources we convert to make the products we need to survive, but to man himself. Man is in fact the only resource whose protection we ought to cherish, for it is the reasoning mind that makes everything we enjoy possible.
Every day, I raise my glass in silent thanks to those men and women, who, through their active minds, make my very existence possible and my life worth living. The end of work? Not by a long shot.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Signal That Motivates

‘Six meat pies for 10 dollars’, noted my partner while we were driving in Newcastle, New South Wales recently. He had read it on a sign and I replied that it was a great deal. This seemingly insignificant event got me thinking about why it seemed cheap. Nothing about meat pies as such would provide a clue (and especially not for those of you who live outside Australia), but something does provide the context for knowing how to declare whether something is cheap or expensive. That something is the price system.
Now, if you visit a pie shop in Australia, you will likely pay four or five dollars per pie. Therefore, six for 10 dollars is indeed inexpensive by comparison. None of this is interesting in isolation from the entire network of prices we live with every day. If you pause to consider how prices motivate a great number of your choices in life, it is instructive to think about how you would live if there were no prices.
A story from my year teaching English in Slovakia provides just such a backdrop for what happens when prices are eliminated from daily life. A Slovak friend discussed with me on a number of occasions how he would run a bread kiosk on the main street in Prešov. For starters, he would not charge the same prices as the other kiosks because none of them made any money. My friend had spent a certain amount of time in the US and therefore ‘knew’ how the capitalist system worked. He would charge at least twice what the other bread vendors did.
‘Would you sell the same bread?’ I asked.
‘Of course! Why would I trouble myself with different bread when I know what kind people like to buy’.
‘Then why would you charge so much more?’
‘Because I want to make money!’
‘But how will you persuade people your bread is worth twice the amount they can pay elsewhere?’
‘I don’t need to. They will know that my bread is better because it is more expensive’.
‘But if it is exactly the same bread, why would people buy yours? Wouldn’t people think you’re just ripping them off so you can make a quick buck?’
‘People are not smart enough to know this!’
This exchange brought home to me the idea that it is not an individual business that sets prices in isolation from all other businesses. Indeed, the price one charges for anything must reflect what people are willing to spend based on their values and incomes. Therefore, if a loaf of bread in Slovakia typically cost the equivalent of 50 cents, charging a dollar would not motivate a buyer to change vendors - or not for long.
I did not fault my friend for his faulty reasoning. After all, he had grown up in a socialist country where prices did not exist and thus he had never learnt their function. To him, a price was an arbitrary figure to be chosen at whim. Additionally, the habit of comparison shopping was only beginning to take hold.
I spent months discussing the western system to him, even though I myself was far from an expert on the subject. I based my knowledge not on theoretical study but on decades of living in freer countries. I knew what an average loaf of bread cost in various countries and I also knew that a more expensive loaf cost more because of better or specialised ingredients. And so it went for everything from cars to stereos to bicycles. I realised over time that prices are how people make the simplest decisions about how to conduct their lives. Will I go out for dinner Friday night with my friends to the hot new cafe in Sydney? I’d better check their menu online and decide if it’s worth the cost, versus staying home and cooking. Will I spend the weekend away with my partner or will we stay home and do something locally, instead? A check of hotel and restaurant prices will determine our choice to go away or not.
Now consider the resulting chaos if no price system existed, as I experienced in Slovakia. What if, instead of individual buyers and sellers setting prices constantly, we had elected officials decreeing what things ‘should’ cost, and not just for the things some of us think of as ‘free’, but everything. To those of us brought up in the semi-free nations of the western world, we would quickly find out what life was like under the Soviet bloc dictatorships. I found out myself what that system did to people on a daily basis. Since then, I have made myself the solemn promise that I would never take my freedom for granted again.
Since returning to the west nearly two decades ago, I’ve spent years learning about history and economics. From my studies, I have concluded that I revere prices in the same way I am devoted to my loved ones: they reflect the rational choices we all make to ensure our lives are better and happier.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Banana Incident

As I trudged up the hill away from my dormitory in Prešov, Slovakia, I noticed something odd on the train tracks below the viaduct. There were unusual bits of some yellow substance strewn at random intervals all over the place. After a minute, I recognised them as banana peels. I thought to myself how bizarre a sight, especially since I hadn't seen bananas for sale once in the city since I’d arrived the previous September. Why now? And why so many banana peels? Had passengers thrown them out the windows of the trains as they passed through the city? I was at a loss to explain it.
Later in the day, after I’d finished teaching at the local high school, I went to the shops in town. I found that bananas had indeed come to Prešov, but how? Yes, the communist era had officially ended nearly four years before, but there were many remnants of the command economy still in place. Notably, the system of distribution of goods had not fully been privatised. Even though I had lived in the country for seven months, I still held to many of the notions about the free movement of goods and services most Americans take for granted. Hence my confusion over the bananas.
Within less than a day, all the bananas in Prešov had disappeared, despite their exorbitant price in every shop I visited. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had already begun to grasp the principle of supply and demand, even in a distorted market like Slovakia. When a scarce item came onto the market and especially one as obviously desirable as bananas, people bought them up regardless of price. And further, I noticed people buying them in quantities I had never seen before then. Instead of a bunch or two, as one would see in western supermarkets, I saw little old ladies with ten or more bunches stuffed into their baskets and satchels. Didn’t they know the bananas would spoil before they had a chance to eat them all?
Then I remembered what I’d seen on the train tracks. The little old ladies - and anyone else who had hoarded the bananas - ate them up with reckless abandon. In a country where ‘capitalist consumption’ was still looked upon with suspicion, there was an awful lot of consumption going on. In a country whose ruling ideology had forced people to live for the sake of their comrades, I witnessed what appeared to be more callous disregard than brotherly love.
I fully admit I knew little about economics or political philosophy at the time. When I left the United States to go teach English in Slovakia, I held the typical views of the majority of liberal arts university graduates, which is to say vaguely leftwing, but not educated. I entered the country with the notion that communism or socialism had been improperly applied. When I left the country the following year, full of observations of daily life in a former dictatorship, my basic politics hadn't changed much yet, but I had primed my mind with the seeds of how my worldview was to change over the coming decades.
Today, nearly 20 years after I left Slovakia, I still think about the ways my experiences have coloured who I’ve become in the intervening years. While most of my high school and university peers have held to the same ideas with which they were brought up, my views changed because I removed myself from my familiar surroundings. I had no choice but to observe in order to try to grasp the strange habits of the people in a country I called home for a time.
In the end, what I learnt was to exercise my ability to think independently, without regard for the popularity of my conclusions. In other words, I grew up.

Sunday, June 3, 2012


Sometimes when I’m alone in the serenity of my beloved beach house, I get to thinking about the choices I’ve made in my life. With few exceptions, everything I have undertaken, whether successful or not, has brought me closer to the ideals I’ve sought for myself since childhood. In speaking about the unusual paths I’ve followed since finishing high school in 1984, I say: ‘Had I not gone to Belgium, I wouldn’t be in Sydney today’. Those who know me well understand my shorthand manner of expressing how I got from there to here.
Occasionally, in those solitary moments of reflection, I flick through the pages of my life and pause on those spikes of excitement that make me realise what I chose at that time was right for me. Those are the moments that I feel homesick.
To many, homesickness refers to that state of longing for the place one felt most comfortable and happy. Perhaps it’s one’s hometown one hasn’t visited in many years. Perhaps it’s the seaside village where one met one’s first love during the summer in between school years. Perhaps it’s even a person one loved most who always provided a sense of comfort that one could call home.
Homesickness also implies a sadness in the place one finds oneself now, where the friends aren’t as easy to come by or the city doesn’t provide the options one would like. For me, however, homesickness is not a lament or even a longing. It’s an affirmation that I have lived my life to the fullest so far. It’s also a recognition that the people and places I have left behind have marked me in immeasurable ways.
When I think of Milwaukee, the city of my birth, I feel homesick for the house I grew up in and the many good years I had there as a child. It’s the high school where I came of age and the old friends who still live there. It is also the place I knew I would leave someday, for even as a child, the city proved too provincial for my own ambitions.
As for Québec City, I feel homesick for the adventurous spirit I encountered in the people I knew there. I feel an honour in having mastered their unique brand of French - reviled by some but absolutely cherished by me. When I want a reminder of the young man I was as a university student, I put on a playlist of my favourite Québécois songs and again I am there, trudging through the snowy, sludgy streets of the city.
And then there’s Phoenix, that hot, dry and sprawling place where I found my first real love. He is still there, of course, soldiering on with his life just as I am in my current home. To me Randy is Phoenix, so all I need to do to feel that homesickness for my old desert paradise is to think of the great things we did together. Yes, it can even put a lump in my throat, but a lump of fondness, not regret.
Today, when people ask me if I miss home, I say yes, of course I do. Then I describe the exhilaration of flying back into Sydney and seeing the Opera House from above. All my new memories come rushing back to me and I smile to myself. I am home.

Friday, June 1, 2012

At 15, I Kicked a Dog

It is 2024 and I have all but clinched the nomination to become candidate for President of the United States. Suddenly, an old schoolmate from the 1980s emerges in the media with stories of me cruelly kicking a dog and apparently enjoying the sadistic act. This friend - barely an acquaintance of mine today - can vouch for the accuracy of his tale and assures the rapt-with-attention press that this character flaw makes me a dangerously bad candidate. My poll numbers drop for a time and the blogo- and twittersphere are ablaze with denunciations of my monstrousness. How could anyone trust a fellow with the highest office in the land if he abuses poor, defenceless pets?

Weeks later, a small news item appears, buried in the alternative press, clarifying the report of my cruelty: the schoolmate had dropped the leash on his pit bull, the pit bull charged after me, I kicked the dog in the one place it would stun the creature so I could avoid certain attack and I hightailed it home, reporting the incident to my mother, who then spoke with the schoolmate’s parents.

What does the above fictional story illustrate? Context matters. It also serves to highlight that acts committed by an adolescent do not often have a bearing on adult behaviour decades hence. Even if I had kicked the dog intentionally and revelled in the act, odds are I would have come to regret the act at some later point in the future and made amends with the schoolmate. Haven’t we all known people who as children were insufferable in some way only to become fine or even exemplary men and women as adults?

As we have entered another Presidential election season in America, these are the kinds of stories splashed all over the news as attempts by one side to discredit the other. The problem with this approach is it says nothing about a candidate’s actual views and policy positions. Whenever I hear about such things, my first reaction is: so what? I don’t care what a 60-year-old man did at age 15. I do care what he intends to do about the runaway spending in Washington and the increasing statism in general. I want to know what principles of government he advocates and how he plans to implement them.

Many years ago, I listened to a lecture countering the validity of showing starving children in faraway countries on TV. The essence of the lecture was that a picture is not an argument. The fact that some people are starving in Somalia, for example, says nothing about why that is so. It says nothing about why some countries stagnate for generations in grinding poverty whilst others progress rapidly and their citizens are able to lift themselves out of their miserable states and achieve great things.

And so it goes with contemporary smear campaigns during election season. A smear is not an argument. It is only a grown-up’s temper tantrum writ large. As such, I treat those tantrums for what they are: irrelevant ramblings of the irrational. If I want to know where a candidate stands on a panoply of issues, I go to the source. I don’t wait for the press to spoon feed me horror stories of dog kicking.

One of the great lessons my dad taught me was always to be sceptical of what the press presents as news. The more outlandish the story, the more likely it’s mudslinging. To my readers I suggest: do your due diligence and never let anyone else tell you how to judge a candidate. Oh, and in my fictional universe, I did clinch the nomination.