Camel greeting

Thursday, 25 August 2011

UK Riots and the Istanbul Grand Prix - The End of the Golden Rapture?

Faith and belief are marvellous things, aren’t they? I’ve never been one for millenarianism or doomsday predictions. I never doubted for a moment that my Apple Mac would see me through to the 21st century. I’m content to meet my Maker when He (or She) decides the time has come, and I’d sooner not know the date in advance, though I can see how some might want to. I don’t have a great deal of faith in politicians – but I do have some sympathy for the impossible situations democracy puts them in. They have to promise heaven and earth to get elected, then have to back-pedal rapidly when post-election reality bites. Hands up who really thought Barack Obama would be allowed to close Guantanamo and stop the water-boarding.

So I’m not generally one to point the finger at politicians and accuse them of breaking promises. I was pretty sceptical in the first place. And I’m certainly not generally given to laughing at the misfortunes of others. Those recent riots in cities across the UK looked pretty scary, and nothing can excuse the burning of property and looting of businesses large or small. David Cameron’s government re-established the rule of law, and good on him, you have to say. However, I couldn’t help noticing that he pre-empted criticism by referring to his own pre-election promise to mend Britain’s ‘broken society’. It seems that ‘There are pockets of . . . society that are not just broken but frankly sick’ which seemed to suggest that mending society might be just a tad trickier than British voters had been led to believe. We need a medical professional rather than a simple repairman. But then most of us knew that already, right?

I’m not going to join the ranks of those who suggest that inequalities of wealth distribution are the root cause of these riots, and other forms of violent social unrest. I certainly do not intend to suggest that burning and looting are understandable or acceptable responses to social injustice. In fact, I want to agree 100% with Dave Cameron in his belief that pockets of modern society are sick. On the other hand, I’m not sure he and I would agree totally on which ‘pockets’.

Istanbul Park - former home
of Turkey's Grand Prix
My work-place is located on the southern outskirts of Istanbul, on the Asian side of the city. It’s a pleasantly green spot still, despite the building of airports, industrial complexes, monstrous shopping centres and acres of two-storey villas with private swimming pools. A kilometre or so across the fields from our campus stands Istanbul Park, the venue for the Turkish Formula One Grand Prix. Most of the time it sits there, in patient torpor, waiting for the one weekend a year when it will spring to life, and the hills will echo to the whine of high performance engines operating at rpms that would cause our Honda Jazz to melt down to a blob of metal and plastic.

I couldn’t help wondering what sort of money went into this project, so I checked it out, and I can tell you that Istanbul Park was built in 2005 at a cost of €80 million (about 200 million Turkish Liras at today’s rates). I went to the Grand Prix in Auckland once. We didn’t see any spectacular crashes, and we weren’t sitting in a corporate box being served chilled Dom Perignon and crab claws, so maybe I didn’t get the full effect, but honestly, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Still, I’m not one to spoil other people’s fun. Sadly for those other people, however, it seems that the 2011 Turkish Grand Prix may actually be the last one to take place at Istanbul Park. Apparently Bernie Ecclestone, head honcho of international Formula One racing, decided to double the fees Turkey would be charged for hosting the race. The Turks said ‘%&$#?@ off!’ or words to that effect, and that, it seems, is that.

Well, of course, running a business like Formula One racing costs money, and no one would begrudge Bernie his right to make a living – but this spat did come to mind when I saw a news item in July that the most expensive house in the USA had just been sold to . . . Bernie’s 22-year-old daughter Petra. Reports say the 5600 m2 house in Bel Air, Los Angeles had been on the market for two years for $150 million, but some tough negotiating got the sellers down to $85 million. I just hope Petra’s making a generous donation to help those starving kids in Somalia. By the way, for the sake of comparison, I read that Mr and Mrs Brad Pitt have just put their California mansion on the market for a relatively modest $13.75 million. I guess at that level, the 0.75 is still important.

Nevertheless, one swallow doesn’t make a summer – and one sick billionaire doesn’t make a sick society, right? But did you see that film, ‘Inside Job’ that won the 2010 Oscar for best documentary? As the Time reviewers said: ‘If you’re not enraged by the end of the movie, you weren’t paying attention.’ I’ve read a number of articles about a gentleman by the name of Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of the Blackstone Group. Most sources agree that he is a major player in the world of finance, and he has been quoted as saying in a speech in March 2009, that 45% of the world’s wealth had been destroyed by the global credit crisis. However, he took heart that the US government was committed to the preservation of financial institutions (like his, one assumes) and would do whatever it took to restart the economy. It’s hard to establish exactly how much money Mr Schwarzman earns. Some sources say he made $5.1 billion in 2007, down to $702.4 million in 2008. Some say he took a 99% pay cut in 2009 down to a paltry $350,000. Whatever the truth of it, it’s a fair bet that a good chunk of that missing wealth ended up in his pocket. But somehow, I suspect that’s not one of the ‘pockets’ David Cameron was referring to.

Getting back to Petra Ecclestone, and her generosity to the kids in Somalia, don’t you find it interesting how a girl (or a guy) can make mega-tanker-loads of money from some dodgy enterprise, then, at some later date, donate large sums to a pet charity, and suddenly she’s on the fast track to benefactor’s heaven? Back in 1992 a Hungarian born gentleman of Jewish parentage by the name of George Soros achieved fame (or notoriety) as ‘the Man who broke the Bank of England.’ Surprisingly, the ‘breakage’ didn’t involve safe-cracking, ripping ATM machines from walls, armed holdups, or, in fact, any violence at all. The technique is known in the trade as ‘short-selling’, and, according to well-informed sources, it allowed George to pocket a cool $1.1 billion (whatever that was in sterling at the time).

Well, Wikipedia tells me that Mr Soros is ‘a financier, businessman and notable philanthropist focused on supporting liberal ideals and causes’, but it hasn’t always been so. Back in 1997, when Asian economies suddenly began to crash, the Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad, went public with his opinion that the crash of Asian currencies had in fact been caused by Mr Soros and his short-selling ilk. To be fair, it seems George didn’t actually invent this dubious financial activity. That honour goes to a Dutch merchant named Isaac le Maire, who, it seems, came up with the scheme in 1609. Subsequently, the British Government banned it totally in the 18th century, but more recently un-banned it. Some economists blame short-sellers for the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and the US Government passed regulations controlling it – which, apparently, were also repealed in July 2007. Any significance in that date, I wonder? Still, you can’t blame a guy for making a buck any way he can – but again, I feel pretty sure that Dave Cameron wasn’t referring to George Soros’s pockets when he sought the cause of the UK riots. Interestingly, one of united Europe’s attempts to save their common currency has recently involved the banning of short-selling in Belgium, France, Italy and Spain.

If you don’t live in the Southern Hemisphere, you probably don’t care overmuch, but New Zealand is about to play host to the 2011 Rugby World Cup Tournament. Old guys like me can actually remember when rugby was still an amateur sport, but these days, it sure as hell isn’t. Professionalism, as you know, means a whole lot more than merely paying the players to play. Commercial sponsors are the life-blood of professional sport – but there are times when they seem to lose sight of the fact that, without the nameless millions of supporters, blood wouldn’t flow. Sportswear giant Adidas is one of the major sponsors of the Rugby World Cup, and they have recently upset rugby fans in New Zealand by offering to sell replica ‘All Black’ uniform jerseys for $NZ220. Quite steep, you might think, especially with the current strength of the NZ dollar – and most NZ rugby fans thought so too, more so when they found the jerseys were available online for about half the price . . . until, that is, Adidas managed to close the sites to purchasers in New Zealand.

Still, manufacturers are entitled to earn a fair living too, and, as the Adidas people have pointed out, they invest a good deal of money in New Zealand rugby. On the other hand, most Adidas products are produced in Asian factories where workers typically earn around $1 an hour. It’s been estimated that the cost of producing the replica All Black jerseys in a Chinese factory is approximately $8 – which leaves a tidy profit for the owners and shareholders of Adidas to pocket. But I don’t suppose David Cameron was referring to those ‘pockets’ either.

Back when I was a lad, science fiction was a popular literary genre. There were some prophets of doom, but, on the whole, there was a strong feeling around in those days that science had, or would soon have, the answers to most of the world’s problems. Labour-saving devices would remove the drudgery from human existence, the green revolution would do away with famine and starvation, and anyway, if by chance we weren’t able to solve all the problems on earth, such as over-population, it wouldn’t be long before we set up colonies on the Moon, Mars, or other extra-terrestrial real estate. The future was generally expected to be Utopian.

Well, somehow, it doesn’t seem to have worked out that way. A recent Time magazine article[1] on rapidly increasing global food prices suggests that the only way for prices from here is further up. Increasing population, climate change, the channeling of food-growing land to bio-fuel production and falling water tables will all contribute to a continuing rise of demand over supply. ‘Enjoy your dinner tonight,’ the writer concludes. ‘While you can still afford it.’

So it seems that technology isn't going to save us after all, and you’d have to think that most of the major techno-companies in the world have figured that out. Make your buck while you still can, they seem to have decided. Get cell phones into the hands of the Somalian public, and at least they’ll be able to keep in touch while they’re dying of starvation. I guess it’ll be a while before they can afford self-driving cars, but the rest of us have that to look forward to – once the automobile industry gets the bugs ironed out. Despite the entry of Google into the market, I’m backing the Germans to sort out that technology first. Apparently Google’s self-drivers are still tail-ending each other on the testing circuit.

Well, if technology hasn’t got the answers after all, what’s a person to do? Surely there must be hope somewhere. Luckily, there is, and, according to another recent Time article [2], a lady by the name of Michele Bachmann has the matter in hand. Michele has stormed on to the scene as the possible Republican nominee to contest the US Presidency, and she’s hot! Apparently God Himself thinks so, because, so she says, ‘She’s hot for Jesus Christ.’ This divine support has clearly struck a chord with Middle America – probably some of those recently disappointed by the failed doomsday predictions of Harold Camping. The Time writer quotes one of Ms Bachmann’s supporters, a certain Becky Magee, as saying, ‘I think Jesus is coming to get us. I think we’ll be raptured soon.’

Now I’m going to make a confession here, and confide in you that, until May 22, the day after Harold Camping and his flock attracted media attention because the world didn’t end as they had expected, I had always thought rapture had something to do with sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. But the world has changed in many ways, and even my MS Word dictionary hasn’t caught up with the new usage, as evidenced by the squiggly red line underneath the word when I typed it. Microsoft’s best suggestion was, in fact ‘ruptured’, which may not be far from the truth. My trusty old Chambers lexicon at least provided a range of options:

Rapture: a seizing and carrying away [it says], extreme delight, transport, ecstasy, a paroxysm (a fit of extreme pain, laughter, passion, coughing, etc)
From Latin – to seize and carry off [3]

Well, much as I’d like to think Jesus or some other omnipotent immortal would come and save the world from the consequences of our greed and stupidity, I just can’t seem to get my head around the concept. I have to say, it seems more likely to me that we’ve had the ‘Rapture’; the good old days are over, and we’d better start figuring out ways to save ourselves and Planet Earth, because time, I reckon, is running out.
[1] Time, July 25, 2011
[2] ibid.
[3] Chambers English Dictionary, 1990)

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Returning the Treasures of Turkey - Credit Where Credit's Due

One of the things I love about the ‘blogspot’ site is the statistics page. I check it obsessively at least twice a day to see who’s reading me, what country you live in, and which of my posts attracted the most attention. Interestingly, the page which consistently receives the most visits is one I wrote more than two years ago, entitled ‘Where are the Ancient Treasures of Turkey?’ Well, I was very new to the blogging business in those days. In my attempts to create an identity for my blog, and to be provocative, some of my implied criticisms may have been a little unfair. It has been suggested to me that modern nations with ancient treasures weren’t looking after them properly – and anyway, the governments of those nations gave permission to foreign archeologists to carry off their finds.

Those claims may in fact be true, and I don’t intend to examine them here. What I do want to do is bring to your attention, in case you may have missed them, three recent instances where a major museum in a western country has decided to return an important artifact to its place of origin.

Seneb and his wife
Some years ago I visited the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It was a marvelous experience, to see those fabled statues and relics of ancient Egypt that I was so familiar with from pictures and films. There was the eleven-kilogram solid gold mask of Tutankhamun sitting in a glass case. More interesting, though, for me, was a statue representing a gentleman by the name of Seneb, with his wife and children. This Seneb was, apparently, head of the royal weaving factories in the Sixth Dynasty (around 2200 BCE), and he was a dwarf. His wife, however, wasn’t.

Perhaps you haven’t had an opportunity to visit Cairo, but you may have done the next best thing, and toured the Egyptian section of the British Museum, which is also pretty impressive. I haven’t actually been able to establish which of the two museums houses the greater number of mummies – but my impression was that the prize might go to the institution in London. Now it may be, as my critics suggest, that these mummies were all legally obtained, and anyway, they were just rotting away back there in Egypt. Nevertheless, I was heartened to read, in a New York Times article that the Metropolitan Museum in New York has decided to take a lead in returning some disputed artifacts to their place of origin.

The British archeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. Most of his major finds can be seen in the Cairo Museum, but it seems he did retain a number of nice pieces for his own private collection. On his death, these were bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum which, at the time, maintained an ‘expedition house’ in Egypt. When this was closed in 1948, the pieces were, it seems, ‘transferred’ to the New York location. Discussions have, according to the report, been continuing for some time, but in July, the director of the ‘Met’ announced that nineteen artifacts, including a miniature bronze dog and a sphinx-shaped bracelet ornament, would be sent back to Egypt.

Well, pretty much everyone knows something about Ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh Tut and his tomb’s discoverer Howard Carter. It’s a high profile case, and not altogether surprising that the dispute received international media attention. Less well known are similar disputes between the government of Turkey, and other renowned museums holding priceless antiquities found within Turkey’s borders. Just a week before the Met’s gesture, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston announced that it would return the top half of a statue known as the ‘Weary Herakles’. Apparently the MFA had bought the piece in 1982 without thoroughly checking its provenance. Turkish authorities had finally convinced them that it was a perfect match for the lower half unearthed in Perge in Southern Turkey in 1980 – not so difficult given that the two halves of the statue were broken cleanly on a diagonal line.

Two months prior to this, the Prussian Cultural Foundation agreed to return a 3000-year-old Hittite sphinx. The sphinx was found by German archeologists excavating the Hittite capital of Hattusha in 1907, and had been in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin since 1934. It was one of a pair of sphinxes forming part of the gate of Hattusha, dating from the 2nd millennium BCE, and will now be reunited with its mate in the Istanbul Archeology Museum.

It’s a vexed question whether antiquities are better left in situ or taken away for safekeeping. Few would argue that irreplaceable relics of ancient civilizations should not be taken to museums where they can be restored and preserved by experts. Further, not everyone has the opportunity to travel to distant parts of the world to see the original locations, so it is undoubtedly desirable that exhibitions of relics should be presented elsewhere. It is also true that not all nations are equally interested in preserving their historical and cultural heritage. The Buddhas of Bamiyan received international coverage when the Taliban government of Afghanistan dynamited them in March 2001. The missing genitals and breasts of classical Greek and Roman statuary are more a result of the prudishness of early Christians than the ravages of time. Similarly, the picturesque ruins of monasteries and abbeys dotted around the English landscape have been that way since Henry VIII, in his reformist zeal, decided to ‘dissolve’ them.

However, these days, most civilized countries recognize the need to restore and preserve their antiquities, and to build modern museums in which to house them. Museums and art galleries all over the world are part of a community that organize sharing and exchange of relics, artifacts and works of art for local exhibitions which are well publicized and well attended. It is undoubtedly best that five Caryatids on the porch of the Erechtheion at the Acropolis in Athens should be plaster copies, and the real ones displayed in the Athens Museum. More debatable is whether the British Museum itself might make do with a plaster copy, and return the sixth one to its true home.

Anyway, hats off to the Americans and the Germans for making a start!