Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Why are there 60 minutes in an hour and 24 hours in a day? Because of the Sumerians, the Babylonians and the Egyptians. Here is a short and very interesting article about how it all started with the way Sumerians counted to 60 on their fingers.
Monday, June 29, 2009
From The Daily Galaxy
"In 1000 A.D. Cordova, Spain was the largest city. By 1500, Bejing began its rise to power, and 300 years later it was the first city to be over a million people. By 1900 London emerged the world's supercity with over 6 million people. In 1950 New York was proclaimed the first "megacity" with a population of over 10 million people in the greater metropolitan area...
In 1950, there were 83 cities with populations exceeding one million; by 2007, this had risen to 468 urban areas of more than one million."
Interesting, but historic population sizes are tricky. I believe, for example, that Rome hit 1 million or more around 100 AD and may have peaked at 2 million. Various cities in China reached the 1 million mark at various times before 1500, including Bejing. But let's not allow facts to spoil a good story, even if this is fun facts to know and share. The last point is the most important because it is not the biggest city that matters, its the increasing and relentless urbanization of the human race.
Two weeks ago, it looked like street protests might bring down the Islamic Republic. Then it looked like repression had worked and things would go back to "normal".
Now it looks like neither is a likely outcome. There are no other obvious alternatives, but the street protests have not brought down the government and the repression has not put the genie back in the bottle. Instead, the botched stealing of the election has exposed deep political fault lines.
The most serious of these seems to be over who is running the government. There appear to be many in the establishment who worry that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC, commonly called the Pasdaran) have functionally taken over the republic and that they will run it in a manner that favors the expansion of their power. Or put another way, Iran may no longer be an Islamic Republic, but a military dictatorship masquerading as an Islamic government.
There has been widespread anger at the way protesters have been handled. Many conservatives, even conservative clergy, apparently feel that the election was obviously stolen and cracking heads is not the best way to deal with the problem. What is clear is that the Iranian military and police had no appetite for killing protesters. The repression has been carried out almost entirely by the Pasadaran, and especially by their brownshirts, the Basij.
That casts the political upheaval in a new light. The Pasadaran has become something like the SS in Germany. Not, and I mean this most seriously, in any way like the criminals who made up the SS or the horrendous crimes they committed. But in a structural sense. The SS became the most powerful institution in the 3rd Reich. It was a party institution, not governmental, answerable only to the leader of the Nazi Party. They had their own army, their own industrial operations and controlled all policing, security and intelligence apparatus. They were also widely appointed to bureaucratic positions in government. Likewise, the IRG has their own army, their own industrial and commercial operations and control the Republic's nuclear weapons. After the 2005 election, many Pasadaran were appointed to beurocratic positions in the government. Also like the SS, they are theoretically controlled by the Supreme Leader. But, Khameni's disastrous speech on Friday, June 19 has many wondering if he controls the Pasadaran or they control him.
Ahmadinejad is an IRGC man and it is widely thought that the Pasadaran skillfully stole a close election in 2005 to put him in power. However, the scale and blatancy of manipulation in the recent election is something else entirely. It violates the deal between the regime and the populace. People can do pretty much whatever they want in private, but must observe Islamic principals in public. The government demands a minimal level of compliance, but does not insist on belief. One aspect of this deal is that Presidential and Parliamentary elections are supposed to be free and fair. Neither institution has much power in the Islamic Republic, and the mullahs won't let anyone they don't like run for office. Positions taken by the President or Parliament can be overruled by the clergy, but they can't be ignored. This providing an outlet for the otherwise powerless population. The arrangement was effective and durable. But the Pasadaran just broke the deal.
As a result, everything may be in play. There are lots of powerful people and political blocks in Iran. If enough of those players get scared by the Pasadaran, real change may be in the air. However, the best case scenario may be a return to a more liberalized version of the status quo. The worst case scenario would be a civil war with the Pasadaran on one side and the regular military on the other. Despite fear mongering, nuclear weapons would not be an issue. Nobody is going to nuke anyone else. Remember what we learned in the Cold War, you can't actually use them, you can only threaten to use them. Also, there is no outside country with an ability to intervene in a meaningful way. This is an Iranian problem and will be solved one way or another, by the Iranians.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Monday, June 22, 2009
There's a very interesting side-story developing in the Iran situation. The linked article is really good.
The position of Supreme leader, as defined by Ayatollah Khomeini, is a new idea. Traditionally, Shia clergy have avoided politics as a matter of doctrine. Both the most traditional and most progressive wings of the clergy regard such a position as unsupported by tradition. Khomeini could get away with it. He did so partly by starting small and then bit by bit expanding the power of the position. The position was first supposed to be based on the role of the the leader in being the concionce and spiritual leader of the country. Then it expanded to become the spiritual gurardian of the country, then the highest arbiter between civil and spiritual matters, and finally something like a king.
Through caution and a light hand, Khamenei has managed to also get away with it. However, his ill-advised speech on Friday has stirred up clerical opposition. For the first time in many years, people are discussing if a Supreme Leader with defined political powers is appropriate in Shia Islam.
This is where it gets interesting. Some hints have emerged of discussions in Qom (the religious capital of Iran) and Najaf. Najaf is, of course, in Iraq. Saying it is being discussed in Najaf is a reference to the man who lives in there, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. al-Sistani is the most senior and revered of all Shia clergy. Although Iranian, he has lived in Karbala for decades. Saddam Hussein didn't dare touch him.
al-Sistani is a fascinating figure. His word is law to Shiites, but he is very careful about what he says. Twice since the fall of Saddam's government, al-Sistani has saved Iraq from total meltdown by acting as adult supervision for the Shiite militias and then the Shia government in Baghdad. This is not to say he is everybody's best friend. He is completely opposed to the American occupation, has never met with the Americans and famously didn't open a letter sent to him by President Bush. I think that just on the basis of stopping an all-out war between the Shiite militas and the Americans in 2004, al-Sistani should get the Nobel Peace Prize.
He functions in Iraq the way the Iranian Supreme Leader was first defined. He is an un-elected, non-office holding supreme religious authority. There is no role for him under the Iraqi constitution, but as long as the government is run by Shia, his advice and fatwas cannot be ignored by any politician.
If al-Sistani wanted to become the Supreme Leader of Iran, they'd kick Khamenei out in a minute. But of course, al-Sistani doesn't want to run a country. His work is more important than that. That his attitude is gaining some traction in Iran is bad for Khamenei. Although they love the perks and riches of power, some Iranian clergy may remember that it didn't always used to be this way. That this is not the traditional order of things. In al-Sistani's way of looking at things, the Iranian clergy is in dire risk of becoming just another political regime. To the extent Khamenei publicly shows his power, he reduces the moral and spiritual authority of the clergy. In the long-run, these are far more important than holding power in a government created by men.
People are talking about the current unrest as a potential second revolution. However, with his poor handling of the election and the unrest, Khamenei may be tempting an entirely different revolution from within.
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
Thursday, June 4, 2009
Adolf Hitler was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1939 by a Swedish parliamentarian. The nomination was withdrawn after a few days. Hitler, needless to say, never had his Nobel moment. It seems to be unknown if the parliamentarian; E. C. G. Brandt, was drunk, having a joke, or was hit subsequently by a clue stick.