Monday, July 13, 2009

Bad Library Books

The new "Awful Library Books" weblog reminds us that while nothing ages faster than modernity, some aspects of the modern world - computers, celebrity biographies, youth fashions, and conventional wisdom regarding gender roles, for example - age faster than others.

Some of the books featured on this site will be of great interest to cultural historians in another 75 years. At the moment, though, none of them is particularly useful, except for a few cheap laughs.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

How Empires Die

I've written before in these pages about the fall of the Soviet Union, and referred to Yegor Gaidar's provocative thesis about the long-term economic causes of Soviet decline. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the actual collapse of communist power in Eastern Europe, and one of the most significant, if more obscure, episodes in that narrative of collapse occurred twenty years ago today.

As Michael Meyer recounts in his Slate Magazine article "The Wink That Changed the World," by the summer of 1989 the communist regime in Hungary had pursued more far-reaching reforms than any of its neighbors, drafting a new liberal constitution and planning multi-party elections. (The party also gave Imre Nagy, leader of Hungary's 1956 revolution, a formal reinterment and state funeral, and began cutting down the border fence with non-communist Austria.) Alarmed and outraged, the party bosses of the other Warsaw Pact nations scheduled an emergency summit in Bucharest, where they angrily denounced the Hungarian premier, a 40-year-old economist named Miklos Nemeth, as a traitor to the socialist cause.

Fearing a repeat of the Russian invasion that destroyed Hungary's 1956 revolution, Nemeth turned to look at the man who held everyone's leash, Mikhail Gorbachev. To his surprise, Gorbachev seemed ready to laugh out loud at his blustering satraps. He and Nemeth, Gorbachev's expressions implied, were on the same page, and old-guard communists like Erich Honneker were not. Realizing that the Soviet Union had no intention of intervening in Hungary's internal affairs (not that it could even afford to do so), Nemeth went home and doubled down on his party's radical reforms. Hungary removed the hammer and sickle from its flag, and on September 10th fully opened the border with Austria, which allowed East Germans - who could travel freely to Hungary - to escape to the West. The Berlin Wall, which the Hungarian government's decision rendered obsolete, fell less than two months later. (See also Patrick Brogan, The Captive Nations [New York, 1990], 140-142.)

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Are There College Professors on the Moon?

Apparently so! Consider the following excerpt from a radio transmission by the esteemed Mr. Cavor, describing the various social castes among his Selenite hosts:

The erudite [class] for the most part are rapt in an impervious and apoplectic complacency, from which only a denial of their erudition can rouse them... [moreover] some of the profounder scholars are altogether too great for locomotion, and are carried from place to place in a sort of sedan tub, wabbling jellies of knowledge that enlist my respectful astonishment.

Apparently, there are graduate students as well:

I have already mentioned the retinues that accompany most of the intellectuals: ushers, bearers, valets, extraneous tentacles and muscles, as it were, to replace the abortive physical powers of these hypertrophied minds. Porters almost invariably accompany them. There are also extremely swift messengers with spider-like legs and 'hands'...and attendants with vocal organs that could well nigh wake the dead. Apart from their controlling intelligence these subordinates are as inert and helpless as umbrellas in a stand.

(From H.G. Wells, First Men in the Moon [1901], Chapter 24.)

Friday, July 03, 2009

Your Monthly Apocalypse: Famine

We've had a respite this year from the high food prices that led to widespread hunger and riots in 2008, but that reprieve (if you can call it that, since some of its causes are economic depression and deflation) may be about to end. In "A 'Time Bomb' for the World Wheat Crop," the Los Angeles Times (14 June 2009) reports on the Ug99 stem rust fungus, a potent strain of wheat rust which originated in Uganda in 1999 (hence the name) and has since spread throughout eastern Africa and the Middle East. One Mexican crop-research institute estimates that about 20% of the world's wheat crop is now in "imminent" danger from the fungus, and since the spores are airborne it will eventually spread around the world. Agronomists are trying to breed wheat strains resistant to Ug99, but this could take a decade, by which time the blight could destroy 80% of the world's wheat crop.

And if you were thinking "Well, that may be it for bread, cakes, and cereals, but at least we'll always have fish and chips," consider this report, which suggests that the world's fisheries are perilously close to 100% depletion. While the world fish supply isn't absolutely doomed - fish populations can, after all, replace themselves, as oil and other minerals cannot - it is certainly troubling that advanced fishing fleets have been able to wipe out 90% of the world's large fish (tuna, cod, marlin) since 1950.

Neither of these articles portends global famine, but neither is good news for the developing world. Those of us in the richer countries will just have to learn to get by on corn dogs and Spam.