Don’t Let Them Eat Cake

In Great Britain, the chairwoman of the Food Standards Agency, Professor Susan Jebb of the University of Oxford, is mightily concerned about the nation’s health and the obesity epidemic affecting many Brits. Among the targets of her ire are people who bring cake into the office–something she considers to be harmful as exposing your co-workers to secondhand smoke.

Professor Jebb’s basic point is that you simply can’t rely on the personal willpower of people who are exposed to the tantalizing prospect of free cake. The Times article linked above quotes her as follows: “’We all like to think we’re rational, intelligent, educated people who make informed choices the whole time and we undervalue the impact of the environment,’ she said. ‘If nobody brought in cakes into the office, I would not eat cakes in the day, but because people do bring cakes in, I eat them. Now, OK, I have made a choice, but people were making a choice to go into a smoky pub.’” She raised the smoking issue because passive smoking harms others, and “exactly the same is true of food.” The upshot, in her view, is that Great Britain needs to provide a “supportive environment” to help individuals avoid bad choices that lead to weight gain.

Although Professor Jebb specifically singled out cake at the office as an example of the prevalence of bad food options at every turn, the bottom line for her is that Great Britain needs to regulate food advertising. She notes: “At the moment we allow advertising for commercial gain with no health controls on it whatsoever and we’ve ended up with a complete market failure because what you get advertised is chocolate and not cauliflower.”

If Professor Jebb is hoping to get to a a society where cauliflower is vigorously advertised, I predict her efforts are doomed to failure. I also predict that her fellow Brits won’t look kindly on any potential restrictions on a co-worker’s ability to bring cake into the office.

Putting aside time-honored employee birthday cake events, people who bring leftover cake to the office want to get it out of their homes so they won’t be tempted by it, and people who eat cake at the office like to have a treat now and then. I’m not sure that trying to regulate cake offerings is going to prevent obesity, if that cake is then consumed at home rather than at the office. I don’t think regulating TV or billboard or radio advertising is going to get there, either, so long as cake mix is sold in stores and candy and snacks are available at the point of purchase to tempt people into taking the road to perdition.

The bottom line on obesity is that we need to build up the willpower of individuals, and incentivize them to watch their weight. Restricting cake at the office isn’t really getting at the root cause.

Identifying The First Writing

Historians generally accept that the first writing, using cuneiform script, was developed in ancient Sumer, in the region of modern-day Iraq, sometime around 3300 B.C., and that the first hieroglyphics were created in Egypt soon thereafter. In short, the prevailing view is that spoken language existed for thousands of years before written language was invented.

The consensus among historians and archaeologists is that the invention of writing began with pictures representing objects, and then the savvy Sumerians realized that they could use symbols to represent sounds in their spoken language–which is the basic concept underlying cuneiform script. The symbols in cuneiform and hieroglyphics became easily recognizable as a form of writing when the ancients began creating clay tablets and papyrus scrolls and covering them with the symbols.

But how do we know for sure that there weren’t even earlier forms of writing–forms that use symbols that are obscure to us in the modern day, and aren’t seen as obvious attempts at writing because they don’t, for example, appear to be used for record-keeping? That’s a question that scientists and historians are considering in connection with the beautiful cave paintings of Lascaux, which are believed to have been created about 20,000 years ago–long before the first cuneiform appeared in Sumer. The cave paintings include dots and dashes and geometric signs, along with the striking and colorful representations of ancient animals and hunting scenes. Could those apparently intentional, non-representational markings have been some accepted form of written form of communication, like a prehistoric Morse code? That question has generated a lively, ongoing scientific debate, with some researchers arguing yes while others are skeptical.

Of course, absent a new discovery of a Stone Age Rosetta Stone, we’ll probably never know for sure if the cave wall symbols are writing, and if so what they are meant to represent. But I suspect that the concept of writing came to early humans long before the ancient Sumerians invented cuneiform. Humans are communicating creatures, and if the creators of the Lascaux cave art used painting to communicate, as they clearly did, is it really so surprising that they might take the logical next step and use symbols, too?

Bronze Age Detective Work

What historians now view as the “Bronze Age” was a period of about two thousands years of civilization and human cultural and social development among a number of long-established kingdoms in the Middle East. With Egypt as the wealthy and ancient anchor, kingdoms with names that are familiar to those who have read the Old Testament of the Bible or Homeric poems–the Hittites, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Trojans, the Philistines, the Canaanites, and a host of other “ites”–were thriving societies. Writing had been developed and was the accepted way to record events and send messages, cuneiform script was the lingua franca of the day, artisans plied their trades, commerce among different cultures spread different goods from different places across across the Fertile Crescent, and tin–along with copper, a key ingredient in smelting the bronze that was the principal metal used in making swords, chariots, and other key items–was a highly valued substance.

But at some point between 1200 B.C. and 1150 B.C., most of these ancient kingdoms that had existed for hundreds if not thousands of years suddenly crumbled, never to rise again. What happened?

I recently finished 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, by Eric H. Cline, an interesting volume that tries to answer that question. And the ultimate answer is: we just don’t know for sure. Archaeological finds and digs give us lots of information about some of the Bronze Age civilizations. Clay tablets with cuneiform script tell us that kings of different kingdoms communicated with each other, provide information about commerce and issues like famines, and present the victors’ views of conflicts and invasions. The discovery of sunken Bronze Age ships in the Mediterranean Sea shows that trade was occurring between different kingdoms, and diggings that have uncovered objects that must have been imported from faraway places show us how extensive that interaction must have been. Telltale signs, such as tilted walls that indicate earthquakes, or layers of ash that show that a city has been burned to the ground, also provide clues. But the reality is that no one knows for sure.

Cline’s ultimate conclusion is that prior scholarship that blames “the Sea Peoples” for the widespread series of collapses is too simplistic. The “Sea Peoples” were a group identified by hieroglyphics on Egyptian artifacts that boasted of Pharaoh Ramses III’s victory over them, after the “Sea Peoples” had purportedly toppled other ancient kingdoms. The “Sea Peoples” are part of the mystery surrounding the collapses; no one knows who the “Sea Peoples” were, or precisely where they came from. They clearly played a role in the fall of civilizations, but Cline’s conclusion is that they were likely one of a series of cascading factors–that also included earthquakes, changing climate conditions that produced drought and famine, weak kings leading weakening kingdoms, and internal rebellions–that simply produced too much pressure for the ancient civilizations to bear. So they collapsed, and the Hittites, and the Assyrians, and other kingdoms fell into the historical dustbin forever.

What’s interesting about a book like this one is that much of it is speculation. Archaeologists are like historical detectives, finding clues and trying to piece together a coherent narrative, but with only fragments to draw upon, absolute certainty is impossible, and educated guesswork necessarily has to fill in the gaps. We’ll likely never know for sure what happened to bring the Bronze Age to an abrupt and deadly close, unless and until time travel is invented–but it’s fascinating to speculate about it.

A Germany Without Bakeries

If you’ve ever been to Germany, or lived in an American city with an authentic German bakery, you know that Germans love their baked goods and take great pride in creating them. German bakeries produce dozens of variations of breads and rolls and buns and, especially, fabulous desserts. Germans aren’t low-carb people, and a fine strudel, a light torte, or a beautifully decorated kuchen is as important to German culture as a perfectly flaky croissant is to France or a delicate, crunchy cannoli is to Italy.

That’s why what is happening now in Germany is so painful. Rising energy and wheat prices, caused by supply shortages resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, have put many German bakeries out of business and are leaving others teetering on the edge of closure. The bakeries have been hit by a double whammy: the cutoff of Russian natural gas has caused the cost of maintaining ovens and cooling rooms powered by natural gas and electricity to skyrocket, and the loss of Ukrainian wheat means that the cost of flour–the most basic ingredient of German baking–has surged.

We aren’t talking about modest price increases, either. One German baker in Dusseldorf quoted in the article linked above said his monthly electricity bills have more than tripled, from $6,000 a month to $22,000 a month, and the price of flour has more than doubled. A baker in Bremen says his energy costs have increased tenfold, and that bakers in his city are having to recycle leftover bread to make new bread in an effort to reduce costs. The price of the oil that is another key ingredient in German baking has tripled.

Staying in business in the face of such price increases would be a huge challenge for any business, and many German bakeries haven’t been able to manage it. Family businesses and larger firms that have been in existence for decades have had to declare bankruptcy, close their doors, and mothball their ovens. German bakers have been protesting and seeking government help to try to stay afloat, but so far their efforts have not produced much in the way of relief. And with Germany heading into the heart of winter, when energy supplies will be even more stretched, bakers are fearful that worse times lay directly ahead.

It’s hard to imagine Germany without bakeries, and without the succulent smell that greets any customer lucky enough to visit one. The plight of German bakeries is just another example of how interconnected we all are, and how the ripple effect of Russia’s unwarranted invasion of Ukraine will continue to have unexpected, unwanted consequences.

Leaving The U.S. of A.

Every election seems to feature some group of people–often celebrities–who swear that they will leave the country if one candidate or another is elected. It’s become a kind of American election tradition. But how many people actually follow through on their promises to hit the road and live abroad due to election results?

The Washington Post recently published an interesting article that tried to reach conclusions about American expatriates by crunching through some actual data. It found that, to be sure, there have been big spikes in Google searches about moving to Canada in connection with elections and, more recently, the Supreme Court’s decision to overrule Roe v. Wade. There was an especially big spike in such searches in 2016, when Donald Trump was elected, that constitutes the all-time peak in such search requests.

The Post article also notes, however, that only a tiny fraction of Americans actually leave the U.S.A., and an even smaller number do it for political reasons. In fact, the United States is the number one destination for immigrants, by a considerable margin, but only 26th in the number of emigrants. Americans are far less likely to emigrate than citizens of some other countries–but because of our size, that still means millions of Americans have moved overseas. Data from the United Nations and the World Bank indicates that about 2.8 million Americans now live abroad, although there is some dispute about exactly who to count in that category. The data analysis also shows that Americans who do emigrate go to a lot of different countries, with the top ten list being Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Israel, South Korea, Japan, France, and Italy.

The data also suggest that very few Americans leave because of election results. Instead, there are a range of reasons for the departures. For example, Mexico is number one on the list of relocations because many of the Americans who relocate to Mexico are children who were born in America and then returned to Mexico with their parents. For other emigrants, ending up in another country often is just the result of a series of circumstances that the article describes as emigration by accident, with a typical scenario being an American who goes abroad to study or work, meets and marries a native of the country of their destination, and ends up staying there. For those Americans who are making conscious decisions to move abroad, the other big reasons include retirement and a simple desire to explore.

In short, there really aren’t many “political emigrants” from the U.S., despite the fervent promises that we hear during election season–probably because promises made during the heat of the moment end up going by the wayside when passions cool, careful analysis of possible destinations occurs, and Americans realize that staying here beats the alternative for a lot of reasons. But if you do go abroad and become one of those accidental emigrants, you’ll probably find a community of other accidental American emigrants wherever you go.

Square Change

I had to gas up the Jeep before returning it, because the rental agreement was to return it with a full tank. I paid in U.S. dollars, which are accepted everywhere in Aruba, but got my change back in the official Aruban currency, the florin.

The Aruban 50-cent piece is a square, as shown in the photo above. I think it’s the first square coin I’ve ever handled. It’s actually a handy shape, because you can detect it immediately when you are fishing around in your pocket for the right change. It makes me wonder why more coins don’t deviate from the standard circular shape and go with squares, triangles, and other shapes you learned about in junior high geometry class.

The key thing about getting foreign coins in change is to be sure to use them up, or leave them in your hotel room when you depart. I managed to remember to do that, with the coins becoming part of our tip to the maid, and thereby managed to avoid adding to my collection of francs, kroner, marks, and other unusable currency kept in a wooden box on my dresser.

What Makes A Great Year?

I ran across one of those traditional “end of a calendar year” stories, recounting how people felt about the past year. This one noted that “just” one in three people surveyed felt that 2022 was a “great” year.

I was struck by the use of “just” in the description of the survey results. Given all of the really bad things that happened in 2022–war in the Ukraine and the resulting increase in the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons, an American economy on the brink of recession, a horrible year in the stock market, a fresh outbreak of COVID in China, and so forth–how could even one-third of people surveyed possibly think that 2022 was “great”? Who in the world are these people, and how do they define “great,” anyway?

And that’s just it, isn’t it? When people are deciding whether a particular year was “great,” do they consider national or geopolitical developments, or do they focus only on a smaller circle of their families and friends? Did the members of their family stay happy and healthy for the year–or not? Was a marriage joyfully celebrated, or the arrival of a new child, or a special achievement by a high school or college student? Did everyone in the family have a successful year on the job, or were some laid off in some cost-cutting exercise? Can they heat their homes and put food on the table? For some people, at least, troubling national and international news might be storm clouds on the horizon, but it doesn’t really have an impact until it directly intrudes upon that group of family and friends.

The greatness–or crappiness–of a year depends a lot on your perspective. It’s nice to think that one-third of the people surveyed experienced enough happiness and healthiness and satisfaction in 2022 to call the year a “great” one. However you define a “great” year, I hope that 2023 meets that definition.

Airing The Dirty Laundry

As anyone who has read this blog for a while knows, I don’t get the whole fixation with the British royal family in the United Kingdom, but especially here in the United States (although I did admire the recently departed Queen Elizabeth). I can’t imagine why anyone would want to waste even a few hours of their lives watching the Harry & Meghan Netflix “reality” show to hear “Harry” and “Meghan” try to build their one-name brands by telling their tales of woe about how tough it is/was to be a “royal.” I guess we’ll never be able to fully appreciate the grit and determination these two showed in the face of crushing adversity.

Apparently the most recent episode of the series goes into some detail about the the private meetings of members of the family–from the perspective of the twosome being paid to air the dirty laundry. It makes you wonder why anyone would be motivated to spill the beans about the inner workings of their family, no matter how rich and famous they might be. My upbringing taught that some things are private and must always remain private. My grandparents, for example, would observe that when someone talks about private family matters with people outside the family, it tells you something about the character and integrity of the speaker–and what it tells you is decidedly not positive.

Of course, things have changed since my grandparents’ era, and these days people of all stripes write “memoirs” about their family lives–and other people line up to buy at least some of them. Apparently that is true with Netflix shows as well, because the ratings show that people are watching Harry & Meghan–although it finished well behind a show about an Addams Family character. Still, I wonder: if you had to interact with Harry and Meghan, would you rely on them and their discretion? Would you want to serve on a board with them in a situation where a challenging decision had to be made, and there was a confidential discussion about the issues? I wouldn’t. Why would you trust anybody who would throw their own family under the bus for a few bucks and a few more minutes of fame?

Brain-Picking

Yesterday was a red-letter day of sorts. On two separate occasions, people stopped by to ask, specifically, if they could “pick my brain” about something. It was interesting that two different people used that same precise phrase, rather than saying, for example, that they wanted to ask a question or discuss an issue. It got me to thinking about the phrase–which doesn’t exactly conjure up pleasant mental images–and what we know about its origin.

On-line sources discussing the phrase focus on the “pick” part and its relevance to eating. In days when food was scarce and a roast item was a special treat, “picking” was an important part of the meal. The diners picked at the bones of the roast fowl or the joint of mutton to try to retrieve and consume every last morsel of meat–the way your Dad probably did with the Thanksgiving turkey. This use of “pick” probably was derived from the pickaxe, a tool used since prehistoric times. “Pick” then became a way of conveying a precise form of extraction, and other uses–like nitpicking, pickpocketing, and toothpick–followed. It was probably inevitable that someone would use “pick your brain” to describe the process of getting advice or information. The on-line sources cite a letter from the 1800s that featured the phrase–although I suspect that it was commonly used before then.

Interestingly, a search for the phrase also yields an article saying that some professional people don’t like that idiom, because it isn’t precise enough and describes a one-sided transaction, with one brain being excavated for information and the other brain enriched as a result. That reaction seems a little thin-skinned to me. Sometimes specific questions can miss lurking issues that will be uncovered by a general question, and in any case it’s nice to think that people believe your brain is a resource that can be mined for some useful information. Besides, any conversation, even a one-sided one, yields new intelligence to be incorporated into the memory banks, ready to be displayed the next time the brain is picked.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes–2022

Now that December is here, and the Thanksgiving holiday is well behind us, it’s time to start thinking about holiday baking. This year, I’m going to try some new recipes to with some of my traditional favorites. I’m interested in adding a bit of international flair to my baking efforts, and in doing some poking around the internet I stumbled across a recipe for sequilhos, which are a traditional Brazilian cookie made with cornstarch. So, the cookies not only have a South American lineage, they also will be gluten-free for our gluten-intolerant friends. Even better, this recipe only has four ingredients and sounds simple to make.

Sequilhos

Ingredients: 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened to room temperature; 1/2 cup and 2 tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk; 1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt; 2 1/4 cups of cornstarch

Combine the butter, sweetened condensed milk and salt in a large bowl and use a spatula to mix everything until the butter is incorporated into the condensed milk. Slowly add the cornstarch, mixing first with the spatula and then, as the process gets harder, using your hands until a smooth dough forms. (The website indicates that judgment should be used in this process, because you might not need every grain of cornstarch and don’t want to overdo it if the dough looks right.)

Roll the cookie dough (about 1 teaspoon per cookie) into balls and press each ball with your thumb. Place the balls on a two baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Using a fork, slightly flatten the cookies, then refrigerate the cookies for 30 minutes to avoid them spreading when baking.

Preheat oven to 350ºF with a rack in the middle. Bake the cookies for 15 minutes or until they begin to gain some color on the bottom but remain pale on top. Cool the cookies while still on the baking sheets for 15-20 minutes, then move them to a rack to finish cooling.

These cookies are supposed to be fairy light and addictive. Sounds like a good Christmas cookie to me! I’ll probably add some colored sugar to some, and perhaps some jam to others, just to put the cookies into the proper holiday spirit.

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2019

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2018

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2017

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2016

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2015

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2014

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2013

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2012

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2011

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2010

Calling For Christmas Cookie Recipes — 2009

Bridging The Great Soccer Divide

Today the U.S. Men’s National Team plays a crucial match against Iran in the 2022 World Cup. If the Americans win, they advance beyond the group stage into the knockout stage and keep their long-shot hopes for the World Cup alive. If they lose or tie, they are out. Since the U.S. team has played to two draws in its first two games, they face a significant challenge, and because their opponent is Iran there are obvious geopolitical overtones.

I’m not a soccer fan, but I am a fan of my country, so I watched the U.S. game against England that ended in a scoreless tie. After the match, some loudmouth commentator on another channel said that the 0-0 tie (“nil-nil” in soccer lingo) was boring, and that’s why more Americans don’t pay much attention to soccer. The guy’s comments were part of a weird dynamic that has bedeviled the U.S. soccer scene for as long as I can remember: non-soccer fans make fun of the injury-faking and the low scores and argue that the sport is a total snoozer, and soccer fans respond that the non-soccer fans are basically knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing cretins who can’t appreciate the subtleties and strategies of a game that, incidentally, the rest of the world absolutely loves.

I didn’t think the U.S.-England match was boring. The U.S. has a very young team, and the fact that they played heavily favored England to a draw and kept their chances of advancing alive was a great result for them. They don’t seem to go in for the ridiculous play-acting on the injury front, either, which I appreciate.

I clearly don’t get all of the nuances of world-class soccer, but it doesn’t take much watching to appreciate concepts like reversing the field and trying to clear things out for breakaway runs and passes. I’m still working on the penalties, what results in corner kicks, and other elements of the game, but I can watch a soccer match without understanding those issues just like I can watch a hockey game without knowing what “offsides” is or the significance of the red line and blue line. A low-scoring soccer match involves its own special brand of tension where you know one mistake could be fatal–just like in a low-scoring baseball game. And you can’t help but admire the energy, athleticism, and skill of elite players, who run hard throughout the match, can bend and place a ball with amazing precision, and then can mash it with astonishing force. Soccer may not feature crushing hits or thunderous dunks, but it definitely offers a lot to admire.

I’ll be at work today and won’t get a chance to watch the U.S. match against Iran, but I’m definitely hoping that the U.S. finds a way to win and advance. I’m also hoping that, if they do so, we can put this perversely American argument about soccer to bed, once and for all. Both sides of the great soccer divide need to understand that not every sport needs to appeal to every person, and there’s no value in denigrating either soccer or those people who just don’t enjoy it. Live and let live, sports fans!

Go U.S.A.!

Circular Sheep

The world is a wide, weird, and (literally) wonderful place. Sometimes odd things happen that defy easy explanation: things like hundreds of sheep walking clockwise, for days, in a perfect circle on a farm in Inner Mongolia in northern China. The remarkably creepy sheepy behavior was captured on a surveillance video and is so strange it has been covered by news outlets across the world. You can watch some bizarre, ghostly footage of the circular marching sheep on the New York Post website.

The rotating sheep are in one of 34 different sheep pens on the Chinese farm. According to the farm’s owner, Ms. Miao, a few days ago a few of the sheep in one particular pen started walking in a circle, then the whole pen joined in. To make the whole story even weirder, the pen where the eerie marching sheep are found is pen number 13–and none of the other sheep on the farm are exhibiting the same curious behavior.

So what’s the cause of the sheep in pen number 13 marching around like strikers on a farmland picket line? No one knows for sure. A British agriculture professor speculates that the synchronized sheep began marching because of frustration at being stuck in a pen, and that once one a few sheep started with the marching the rest of the sheep just played follow the leader, as sheep typically do. But if that is the impulse and cause, why has the behavior occurred only in pen number 13–and why have the sheep marched continuously for days in a perfect circle, using only part of their pen?

It’s the kind of mysterious conduct that leads people to indulge in conspiracy theories and fantastic explanations, like witchcraft or the sheep responding to the call of aliens who have grown tired of making crop circles and decided to make sheep circles instead. As for me, I’m just grateful to the sheep for showing, again, that the world is a pretty interesting place.

The Life Span Of A Russian Oligarch

Being a Russian oligarch these days seems like a pretty dangerous job. In fact, lately the oligarchs–generally defined as anyone who is deeply involved in running a major industry in Russia, while accumulating vast amounts of wealth–are dropping like flies.

Vox reported last month that at least 15 Russian businessmen have died this year, often under mysterious circumstances. The causes of death include murder-suicides, hangings, shootings, stabbings, and of course falling out of a hospital window. The combination of deaths is so remarkable that one tabloid ran an article this week with the lurid headlineBLOOD FEUD How ruthless Russian oligarchs are ‘MURDERING each other’ in bloody battle for power in Putin’s ‘viper’s nest’‘.” (Speaking of vipers, fatal snake bites seem to be the one cause of death Russian oligarchs have avoided this year, although one oligarch was identified as dying during a shamanic ritual that involved “toad poison.”) The tabloid article includes head shots of the dead oligarchs, with icons identifying their causes of death.

So, what’s going on? Are Russian oligarchs just having a bad run of deadly health problems and sudden suicidal impulses? Based on a long record of suspicious deaths since Vladimir Putin took over, experts generally discount that possibility and say that the official reports of what happened should be taken with a grain of salt. And the sheer number of curious fatal falls–off cliffs, from boats, down flights of stairs, and out of hospital windows–sure seems like an improbable coincidence. But no one really knows what is going on, and whether it is a combination of actual suicides, poorly disguised political assassinations, or that vicious “viper’s pit” of killings within the small circle of greedy oligarchs fighting for every last ruble. And the impact of Russian struggles in its invasion of Ukraine, and the impact of resulting sanctions on the Russian economy, just add to the uncertainty.

The only thing we know for sure is that this is not a good time to be a Russian oligarch. If you’re going to be in Russia any time soon, keep your eye out for falling bodies if you happen to be walking past any hospitals or other tall buildings.

The First Democracy

It’s Election Day in America. It’s time to head to the polls, exercise our franchise, and foolishly hope that the results will be accepted by all and will quash the bitterness that seems to accumulate, election after election, at every point on the political spectrum.

We’ve got the ancient Athenians to thank for all of this, of course. To be sure, during the ancient tribal times there might have been an election or two among members of the tribe to choose a new leader–although the strongest or cleverest member of the clan might have had something to say about that–but the Greeks were the first group to institutionalize democracy as a mechanism to govern a political state, at some time during the fifth century B.C.E. The Greeks believed that all citizens (a category limited to adult males that excluded women, children, and slaves) should participate in governance of the state. The word “democracy” comes from the combination of the Greek words demos (the people) and kratos (rule). Citizens had the ability to serve in an assembly and vote on new laws.

So, were the Greek elections friendly exercises that were less negative than our modern American version? Not really. In fact, the Athenians had a formal process called ostracism–the basis for the modern word “ostracize”–that allowed voters to vote to expel leaders from the city-state for 10 years, and they could do it for dishonesty, misrule, or just general dislike. (Imagine if the modern American system had such a process!) And the Greeks (and Romans, too) weren’t shy about attempting assassination of tyrants, either.

In reality, democracy, either in its pure or republican form, has always been a bit messy, with heated feelings, negativity, and vigorous denunciations of purported tyrants and fools–but it sure is a lot better than the authoritarian alternatives. Today, I hope Americans of every political persuasion get out and vote, so the demos can kratos.

Upside Down Or Downside Up

Piet Mondrian’s New York City I is a classic piece of abstract art, consisting of straight yellow, red, and blue lines that suggest the Manhattan skyline. It is unsigned and, like many pieces of abstract art, it doesn’t have an obvious orientation.

Now the art world believes that the way the painting has been hung since 1945, shown above on the left, is in fact upside down, and Mondrian actually created it with the orientation shown at the right.

The Smithsonian magazine tells the interesting story of the realization that an important piece of modern art may have been incorrectly displayed for decades. The story began with an Italian artist, Francesco Visalli, having the nagging feeling that the work was hung upside down and communicating his views to the German museum that owns the artwork. The curator of the museum did some digging and found a Town and Country magazine piece from 1944 that shows the painting on an easel, with the thickening lines at the top of the painting rather than the bottom. That’s also the way another, similar Mondrian painting called New York City is configured. The museum believes the thickening lines at the top of the painting are supposed to reflect a dark sky and are convinced that the orientation at the right is the way the piece was meant to be seen.

So, how did the piece come to be displayed upside down for more than 75 years? No one knows for sure, but it may simply be that whoever unpacked it when it arrived at the museum thought the thickening lines went at the bottom, and none of the people at the museum, or the many people who have seen the piece since, noticed the mistake before Francesco Visalli had the impulse that literally turned the art world upside down.

It’s pretty embarrassing to think that a painting has been incorrectly hung for decades. I wonder how many museums will now be taking a hard look at their abstract pieces and trying to confirm that they are displayed right side up?