Personal Strategies On Dealing With Too Many Choices

One of the issues we have to deal with in life is the presence of too many choices, which can make it difficult to decide what one wants to do in the face of the need to choose and to choose now.  If you have ever stood in an aisle in a supermarket and stared at dozens of choices for crackers or root beer as I have, or if you have been told that within a week you have to choose somewhere to go in less than a couple of months because your original option was closed due to the roni, you know what I mean.  When you are at an unfamiliar restaurant and stare at a menu, how do you choose what to eat?  On what grounds does one select among the choices available with a minimum amount of regret, and what are the standards for coping with so many options as many of us, especially in the affluent world, have to deal with?  What sort of strategies can one use to approach this problem?

One strategy one can offer is the strategy of novelty.  If one has to choose, for example, between different destinations for the Feast of Tabernacles as a second choice because one’s first choice is closed down, or one is faced with dozens of similar options to eat, one thing that one can do is pick among options that one is not familiar with.  I consider this sort of thing to be more than a bit of an experiment.  To make an unfamiliar choice is to add to one’s list of things that one has tried out and that one can compare with previous options.  Is the option better or worse than others?  Perhaps it is possible to rank it among available options or determine what sort of mood one would enjoy it in, or what tradeoffs it presents when compared to what one is already familiar with.  Whether one likes it or doesn’t like it or finds other options better, one can at least know where to rank it when compared with something else and that is knowledge that can useful in making choices in the future, at the worst as something that can be scratched off and avoided in the future, and at best something that can be a new go-to choice when available at the right price.

Digression:  An alternative to the novelty strategy is the rotation strategy, in that one can choose among available options that one knows that one likes that one has chosen the least recently as a way of keeping the various options that one knows one likes fresh and avoid having something enough to get sick of it.

One strategy that is directly contrary to the strategy of novelty and also distinct to the rotation strategy is simply to pick one’s favorite option.  If one has either tried enough options to have a good idea of what one likes or one has an option that is good enough that one judges other options not worth trying as they are unlikely to be preferred, one can simply choose something that one likes and make the same choice over and over again, essentially ignoring the novelty that one is presented with in various options.  This is certainly a strategy I adopt sometimes, and it can be comforting to have a regular order that one knows one likes and that one can stick with, to appreciate the comfort of the familiar in a world that is constantly seeking change.  There are, of course, risks with such a strategy in that the familiar may not always be an option for one reason or another, but there are certainly times and places where this can definitely be an enjoyable option to make sure that one has made a choice that one will like without having to worry if one might like something better.

Digression:  There are other ways that one can make a choice among favorites that allows for a little more flexibility than that of rotation or favorite, and that is adopting a strategy of gamification, making a game out of choices and allowing them to be made with a sense of play.  This is particularly worthwhile when one is making choices with others for snacks.  One can divide up the requirements for a meal based on courses and have a different person make one, or one can give basic parameters to choose from and compare what people choose among the available options, so as to provide choices as well as plenty of opportunities to find amusement and conversation about the different ways that people approach the same task.

There are strategies that one can adopt that do not focus at all on the options themselves but on the context of those choices.  The most obvious of these strategies is to adopt a price strategy that chooses the cheapest among those options, or that provides a budget for the choices that one makes that encourages trade-offs to splurge on one thing but to pay for that by adopting a stricter price approach to other things that one judges as less important.  One can adopt variations among this strategy, such as choosing a given item that one will get and then choosing the least expensive brand option within that segment or set of items.  One could even adopt a maximum price option and then choose one’s favorite option within those constraints, which is a variation of the budget approach applied to just one item instead of a basket of items.  Depending on one’s circumstances there are many options that one can choose based on budgets that allow for some flexibility in one’s choices while reducing stress over the choices that must be made to an acceptable level.  Whatever choices one makes, one can deal with the choices that life presents, and the habit of developing strategies can help one to cope with reality and maybe, on occasion, even improve it.

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Book Review: After Mandela: The Struggle For Freedom In Post-Apartheid South Africa

After Mandela:  The Struggle For Freedom In Post-Apartheid South Africa, by Douglas Foster

Among the more unfortunate aspects of this book is the way that it demonstrates the sad fact that we do not write history, or current events for that matter, as they are, but as we are.  Had the author been a better man, or at least a less morally corrupt one, than he happens to be, he could have written a better account.  The best thing that can be said for this work is that the author is conscientious about getting things write as far as they relate to other people, and that the author seeks to be somewhat broad in wanting to understand the opportunity and the danger in the period of the 2000’s as it related to the history of South Africa.  A major disappointed that cannot be blamed on the author is that, at least in the copy of the book I read, the last 30 pages or so of the book were missing because pages 503-534 were simply copied twice, and the remaining pages not included in the binding at all.  It is a shame that the printing of this work was not as conscientious and as focused on getting things write as the author professes himself to be.

This book is more than 500 pages long and covers the period from 2004 to 2012.  Beginning with a sense of unease at the complexity of contemporary South Africa, the author spends the first seven chapters of the book discussing the optimism that existed in the country in 2004 as Mbeki’s presidency is at its midpoint.  Here the author introduces the people who will be central to his story and sees them at this point.  After that the author discusses the stalled revolution from 2005-2006, discussing the AIDS problems, the political and rape trials of Zuma, and the way that it seemed as if things should have progressed but instead were regressing (II).  After that the author examines the pivotal year of 2007 in seven chapters that look at various people in diverse parts of South Africa, showing the divide between cultured urban areas and more traditional rural areas and people who were able to move back and forth and the populist appeal of Zuma that won control over the ANC (III).  After that the author discusses the end of magical thinking from 2008-2012, showing Zuma’s presidency and the way that life had treated various people in the narrative over the course of a period of unease and hope for a better future and increasing frustration over the way things were and the lack of progress made for ordinary South Africans.

When you strip away the author’s unfortunate obsession with issues of AIDS and sexuality and the power politics of the ANC, all of which reflect the author’s privileged liberalism and moral decadence and his dislike of moralistic appeals to abstinence and sexual restraint–even if he solemnly paints the negative repercussions of that lack of restraint in the lives of South African president Zuma and many others, what you get is a work that casts some serious doubts on the ability of South Africa to educate its youth and prepare them for a better future.  The author gives the sense that the elites, white and black, that are able to utilize their contacts as well as tap into the advantages of their background, are able to find a better place in contemporary South Africa if they want it.  The author’s prognosis for others is grim, as the affects of sexual trauma and economic exploitation and the lack of education as well as good family models of working and being educated appear to be creating general patterns of failure that are taking place within an atmosphere of rising fear, tension, and violence.  If the author seems strangely indifferent to the fate of minority whites, except for those progressives who are a part of the political opposition, he does convey the sense that South Africa is on top of a time bomb and seems to lack the ability to disarm it before generations go to waste.

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Book Review: The History Of South Africa (Greenwood Histories)

The History Of South Africa (The Greenwood Histories Of The Modern Nations), by Roger B. Beck

If it cannot be said that the reading of the history of South Africa is a pleasant matter, this book at least is a reasonably pleasant and brief discussion of that history, going back from ancient history to the turn of the twenty-first century and allowing at least some way for the various issues and struggles of South Africa’s history that have been characteristic over the past few centuries to be handled thoughtfully.  The author certainly provides plenty of discussion as to the arrival of first the Bantu and then the Boers into the region, which allows the reader the chance to ponder upon who, if anyone, can be said to have original land claims for the territory in the contemporary period, and ponder the relationship between politics, demography, and power and how fears and longings have long been a strong influence on how it is that people behaved in South Africa, with possible implications for other settler colonies where similar factors may be at work.  All of this may not be fun to think about, but it certainly makes a book like this worth reading as a way of better understanding not only South Africa and its people but also a great deal else besides.

This book is a bit more than 200 pages and is divided into 10 chapters with a strong sense of chronological snobbery in terms of the development of the material.  This book begins with a series foreword, a preface, a timeline of historical events, as well as a list of abbreviations to be found in the book.  After tat the author discusses South Africa today (1), or at least about twenty years ago.  A chapter is then devoted to the entire prehistory of South Africa between 4 million BC and 1488AD, with the arrival of the Portuguese (2).  After that there is an exploration of the European settlement of the Cape region (3) and British rule over the area from the Napoleonic Wars to 1870 (4).  The author explores the relationship between African States, the Afrikaners, and British imperialism from 1770-1870 (5), somewhat parallel to the previous chapter, and then the British Imperial age up to 1910 (6).  The next three chapters of the book serve as a discussion of apartheid, with a discussion of white union and black segregation in the lead-up to apartheid (7), the apartheid years (8), and the decline of white domination in the face of internal dissension and external disapproval (9), as well as a look at the Mandela years from 1994-1999 (10), after which there is a discussion of notable people in South African history, a glossary, a bibliographical essay, and an index.

One wonders what this book would be like if it was updated to reflect the period after Apartheid.  This particular book has somewhat of a teleological person, examining the period of apartheid in light of its end, but what happens when it is over?  The author seems to suggest that the ending of the racial superiority of the Boer will have positive affects on the well-being of blacks, but how much responsibility is being placed on them as to earning their own well-being through acquiring a good education, avoiding sexual promiscuity, and building the habits of hard and smart work.  Justice is by no means an easy thing for mankind to attain, and it is even more difficult to prosper justly in such a way that one does not depend on grift and corruption in order to find a better future, for there are few people who have the connections to make such elite status possible to attain.  And yet many societies, including perhaps South Africa’s, lack the broad byways to bring people into a better place after having provided them with the tools to thrive.

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Book Review: Affluence Without Abundance

Affluence Without Abundance:  The Disappearing World Of The Bushmen, by James Suzman

There are a host of issues with this book, none of which prevent the book from being enjoyable as a sympathetic (perhaps overly sympathetic) guide to the Bushmen in their contemporary existence, but which keep it from being as insightful a book as the author thinks this is.  This book takes the complaints that the civilized peoples of the world have had for hunters and gatherers and simply looks at things from the other side of the picture, with the essential stereotypical picture intact.  So rather than castigating the Khoisan people of Southwestern Africa for being lazy, the author celebrates them for it.  Instead of blaming them for short-term thinking and the inability to refrain from present pleasure for the sake of future benefits, as farmers and capitalists and the like have to do, the author praises this tendency as being possible if one has a nomadic hunter and gatherer lifestyle with the commensurate low amount of population density allowed for minimum burden on a given particular area.  The author notes that hunters and gatherers and farmers made very different choices with very different consequences, but in light of that, can hunters and gatherers like the Khoi and San the author lovingly chronicles be considered civilized at all?

This book is three parts and eighteen chapters long and is about 250 to 300 pages in length.  The book begins with an author’s notes, some comments on names and clicks, and some maps that show the limitation of the Khoisan range due to Bantu expansion.  The first six chapters explore old times and the author’s attempts to interview people who might have some understanding of those times so as to provide a picture of how life was like before the expansion of populations of whites and Bantus in Southern Africa constricted the range of the Bushmen to such an extent that it was impossible for them to live as free nomads (I).  After that the author gives a picture of the beneficent relationship between the Bushmen and their environment given low population densities and low demands on that environment (II).  Finally, the author closes with five chapters that provide a look at the contemporary experience of the Khoisan peoples as small and oppressed minorities in Namibia, struggling to be respected and find a place in a world that seems to have no more room for them.

There are at least two levels that a critique of this work can take.  For one, is the author being fair-minded to the people he is discussing?  The author certainly makes himself a friend of the Bushmen and a partisan for their cause, such as it is, but at the same time the author admits that he simply does not understand the approach of them and is at best a friendly observer and chronicler of their ways and not an insider in their culture.  As a result, this book and others like it, which serve to use the Bushmen as a means of critiquing the attitudes and behavior of contemporary Western culture, are inherently dishonest because what we are getting is not an account by the subjects themselves, who have their own opinions and their own insights, but rather an agenda that uses the subjects as a means by which to promote an agenda about anti-capitalism, anti-agriculture, pro-drastic family planning to lower the population, and so on.  This fundamental dishonesty makes a book like this greatly suspect, because if it could be enjoyed as a clueless white man visiting the bush and seeking insight, as cliched a view as that would be, it most certainly cannot be respected as a guide to how it is that contemporary Westerners could and should live ourselves.

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The Unspoken Conversations

One of the things that fascinates me is conversations that are left unsaid.  And being a person who both talks a lot and does not talk nearly enough simultaneously, it is perhaps unsurprising that I would notice the unspoken conversations that exist in between and around the spoken conversations that I have and that I witness and that I hear about from others.  It is perhaps obvious, even a bit too obvious, that despite my own stark limitations when it comes to communication that I have an intense interest in the communications that others engage in, and this is one of those examples where that is the case and I would like to share at least some observations with you, dear reader, about this phenomenon so that you may better understand it in your own life if you should happen to find it.

During the course of enjoyable conversation yesterday, I was able to hear a fascinating conversation that contained a major unspoken element.  The talk I was having with a couple of other people involved the Feast of Tabernacles and our own plans.  I discussed the fact that my original plans had changed and that I had made plans to travel to another country instead, and one of the people I was chatting with thought that the place I am planning on going to at this point would be worthwhile for her eldest daughter, who had wanted to go to another all-inclusive tropical site that had been cancelled because of the roni.  The unspoken part of the conversation, though, involved where the people I was talking with were going to the Feast.   One of the people wanted to go to Rapid City, South Dakota, because the person had missed the chance to go previously with family.  The other person wished to go to St. George, Utah, and had previously had a negative experience in South Dakota and did not appear to want to go back.  There were also some humorous comments about driving, as it seemed the person who wanted to go to Utah despite the lengthy 16 hour trip did not want to take advantage of the fact that the family had three other drivers who could help take turns in shifts to make the driving burden less difficult.  The sheer multiplicity of unspoken conversations about the importance of bad experiences in shaping expectations and the presence or lack of trust when it came to sharing responsibilities of driving the family on a long road trip were quite fascinating to watch and listen to.

These are elements that many people share when it comes to conversation.  When we make plans, we are all subject to a variety of hopes and expectations and thought processes that shape what we want to do and how we want to go about it.  Some of us are profoundly motivated to go to places we have not been to, or if that is not possible, to go to places where we have positive memories that we wish to enjoy again.  My stepfather, for example, loved Jamaica and highly approved of my efforts to encourage us to travel there, and as I missed out on the chance to go there earlier, it was somewhere new for me to visit that I was enthusiastic to see.  On the other hand, such pull factors are not always decisive, as there are negative push factors that may drive us away from wanting to go to a certain place or to do a certain thing.  Some people are willing to give a place or an activity a second chance, but I am seldom likely to give a bad food dish or a terrible restaurant a second chance, and this is not an uncommon response.  To the extent that we recognize the factors that influence us to do things or to not want to do other things, we can better understand why it is that other people who do not share our experiences may have different wishes or opinions.

Why is it that we have unspoken conversations?  I cannot speak for other people since I do not know what drives them, but knowing myself I can speak from my own point of view.  There are quite a lot of things that I simply am disinclined to talk about with other people, and if I get the sense that other people are highly critical of things or have a negative attitude or are not good listeners, I am less likely to want to tell them things.  Looking around, it does appear as if there are quite a few people who are simply not good listeners, do not treat other people and their thoughts and opinions with a high degree of respect and consideration, and tend to be relentlessly critical to people who do not appreciate or desire to be criticized.  In such circumstances it is little surprise that so many conversations remain unspoken, because the path that would allow those conversations to become spoken simply never occurs, because not enough trust and respect are present for that conversation to occur in the first place.  Since people who do not listen well and do not respect well tend to miss signs that other people feel disrespected and not listened to, it is hard for the proper conditions for these conversations to occur to exist, since to communicate the lack of trust and belief that someone is a disrespectful or impolite listener is not likely to lead to the sort of response that will increase trust or good feelings.  And so things remain unspoken because the will to speak them and the ability to listen profitably to them do not exist.

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Book Review: International Dimensions Of The Western Sahara Conflict

International Dimensions Of The Western Sahara Conflict, edited by Yahia H. Zoubir and Daniel Volman

There is an air of unreality about a great deal of what has been written about the Western Sahara conflict.  During the 80’s and 90’s there was a period of hope with the end of the Cold War that the various parties involved would be encouraged to make a reasonable peace.  And it is not as if the conditions for a reasonable peace would have been all that hard–work with the Spanish 1974 census and get people in Western Sahara and the refugee camps in Algeria to vote on whether Western Sahara wants to be a free country or part of Morocco, then go and enforce the decision with some developmental aid and assistance from other countries and encourage Maghrebian unity in the aftermath of a successful plebiscite.  Yet it is now the 2020’s and progress has not been made for decades in the Western Sahara issue.  Morocco seems content to try to wall itself in and occupy most of the area and leave the more remote desserts to a POLISARIO regime that it refuses to recognize, and no referendum has been made as far as the fate of Western Sahara is concerned.  And none of these books written by academics about the conflict can explain why.

This book is between 250 and 300 pages long and it is divided into ten papers.  The book begins with a foreword, and then has acknowledgements and an introduction.  After that the first paper discusses the origins and development of the Conflict in the Western Sahara (1), after which another paper discusses the historical narrative and study of national transformation involving late Spanish and French imperialism in the region (2).  After this there is a discussion of America’s low-intensity intervention in the Saharan War with support to Morocco (3), after which another paper discusses America’s strategic interests in the region (4).  Another paper then discusses the subtle neutrality that Moscow sought to maintain in the area (5) given its interests across the Maghreb, which meant a distinct lack of support for POLISARIO relative to its support of other anti-imperialist revolutionaries in Africa, as in Angola.  After that there is a paper that examines the international legal issues relating to Western Sahara (6), one that discusses the role of foreign military assistance in the Western Sahara war up to the book’s writing (7), as well the role of Western Sahara in discouraging the greater unity of the Maghreb as a whole (8).  After this there is a paper on a proposed and abortive referendum in Western Sahara (9) as well as a look at the conflict in the Post Cold-War era (10), after which there is a glossary, selected bibliography, index, and information about the contributors.

It’s not as if this is a bad book.  It certainly does what it sets out to do, and that is to explain some of the angles involved in the Western Sahara.  It does go over the same sort of material that many other books do, especially those which come from a relatively pro-POLISARIO perspective, and seems to assume that Morocco can be gently nudged into playing nice and that the various parties involved want to solve the dispute.  What seems most obvious to me, albeit as an outsider without any personal interest in any of the sides, is that no one involved appears to be motivated to resolve the problem.  Morocco has a de facto but not a de jure occupation, there remain tens of thousands of refugees in Algeria that hardly anyone knows or cares about, and this book was written more than 20 years ago and would need very little updating to bring the reader up to date on the state of the Western Sahara dispute.  It is immensely embarrassing that things have gone on for this long with no hint of resolution, but that is the benefit of a dispute being obscure in that there is no pressure for people to do anything about it.

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Book Review: War And Refugees: The Western Sahara Conflict

War And Refugees:  The Western Sahara Conflict, edited by Richard Lawless and Laila Monahan

This book is not a particularly long one, but it is a good effort in demonstrating the broad level of interest that at least some academics have in the often-forgotten conflict in Western Sahara.  The book was written in the 1980’s, and so there is a lot that has gone on since then in the area, but although the book is more than thirty years old not a lot has changed about the situation of Western Sahara within Morocco.  The area still suffers from poor infrastructure and a focus on security matters, there has still been no definitive peace between Morocco and POLISARIO, there still has been no referendum on what it is that the people of Western Sahara themselves actually want as far as whether to govern themselves or be a part of one or the other nations around them.  Morocco still faces economic problems and the area is still a postcolonial mess that has never been resolved, quite possibly because many of the people or groups involved are unwilling to address the concerns of others or to face up with the decades of trouble that have found their way to the neglected and obscure part of the African coast that this work discusses.

This book is about 200 pages long or so and it is divided into nine papers in three parts.  After a list of contributors and an introduction by one of the book’s editors, the first part of the book discusses matters of nationalism, frontiers, and decolonization (I).  The first paper argues that Western Sahara is a case of a disaster of decolonization, and it is hard to argue with that grim prognosis (1) given the fact that Western Sahara’s status is still in dispute more than 40 years after the Spanish left.  After that there is a paper on the International Court of Justice and how it has ruled on the Western Sahara problem (2), as well as  discussion on the origins of Saharawi nationalism (3).  After that there are a couple of papers dealing with the war, the Maghreb, and world powers (II), one of which discusses the role of world powers in providing support to one party or another (4), and the way that the prolonged war has harmed Morocco in many ways (5).  Finally, the rest of the book contains papers that deal with refugees and human rights (III), including papers on the disappearances in Western Sahara (6), the origins and organization of Saharawi refugees (7), some lessons and prospects from their fate (8), and a paper on the women of Western Sahara (9).

This book, like many books on subjects of international relations, has a variety of essays and papers written by a wide variety of writers with a wide variety of perspectives.  As is frequently the case when one reads about international relations, people come to a subject like the Western Sahara conflict with certain research interests in mind and certain perspectives and those perspectives shape the work that results, making some of these essays rather tangentially related to others.  As a reader with a good deal of interest in the subject but not a profound knowledge in the goings on of Western Sahara, I found much of interest in these essays despite the fact that they presented very small snapshots of a much larger conflict.  It has been the unfortunate fate of Western Sahara, like many areas, to have been but lightly affected by colonialism, have a small and poor and nomadic population, and only be of interest to those who would want to rule it because of the value of the resources that are on the land, while no one seems to think to ask the people of the area themselves what they want to do with their land and the resources on it.

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Book Review: The Western Sahara (The Washington Papers)

The Western Sahara (The Washington Papers), by David Lynn Price

It’s interesting to read a short book like this that seeks to present a very obviously slanted view of a somewhat neglected and forgotten corner of the world.  To be sure, I am interested in Western Sahara [1], but this interest is rare and few Americans know much or care much about the area.  Indeed, even the African nations involved tend to keep the matter low-key, and the whole Western Sahara mess itself appears to have resulted from a series of secret diplomatic deals between different parties that has never fully been sorted out to anyone’s satisfaction, least of all the people in the area.  To be sure, few people would care who ruled the area if it did not have a massive amount of phosphate, but mineral wealth seldom brings happiness to the people involved in an area and that is true here.  If the book has little kind to say about the desires of the Saharawi people themselves to be independent, it certainly does put a pro-Morocco slant on a problem that has been unresolved for longer than I have been alive, and that does not look like it will be resolved any time soon.

This book is a short one at less than 100 pages.  It begins with a preface and then an introduction that discusses the territory, people, and economy of Western Sahara (1).  After that the author discusses the local nationalism and Spanish politics that were involved in Spain’s withdrawal from the area in the 1970’s (2).  This led to a series of rival claims over the area from Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania (3), as well as the rise of a native nationalist pressure group formed from expatriate Marxist students (4), the usual troublemakers in our contemporary world, which drew an obvious response from the nations around them to try to crush them, make peace with them, or co-opt them depending on their own strength and their own goals (5).  The author also discusses the external influences on the Western Sahara problem from the Arab world, Africa, Europe (mainly Spain and France), the Soviet Union, and the United States, after which the author offers some conclusions with a hope for mediation and economic cooperation, after which there are two appendices as well as some references, and with that, the author is done.

In reading a book like this, it is obvious that a lot of attention must be paid to who is creating the book and for what audience.  This particular work was created by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 1979 during a period of rising tensions in the Cold War, and it is unsurprising that the plight of the people of Western Sahara is viewed in that light.  Morocco was a valuable American ally during the Cold War and certainly used its status as a relatively enlightened Muslim monarchy to gain a lot of money from the West, including France and the United States, even if it did not do very much good with that foreign aid as far as its own people is concerned.  The book has a marked anti-POLISARIO and anti-Algerian slant to it, which is unsurprising when you think of POLISARIO as a Marxist organization, but still transparently obvious.  My own perspective is hostile to Marxism, but also generally favorable to the desire of little peoples to escape oppression, which tends to make me somewhat sympathetic to the Sahraoui people themselves, even if I would wish them to have better leaders than those who want to lead them from any side at present.

[1] See, for example:

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Travel Planning In The Time Of Coronavirus

Let me assure you that as a seasoned globetrotter that 2020 has presented some of the strangest situations as far as travel that I have yet to experience personally in seeking to make plans.  There is a passage in James that says that one should not say that I will be in such and such a place except if God wills it, and that is certainly the case this year more than it has ever been the case before.  The issues are multifarious in nature.  For one, there is the question of being able to afford such travel.  This is seldom a pressing issue personally but for a great many people it would be, and it certainly was for my folks at least through much of this year when health issues and problems getting enough hours for some of my family members made the cost planning a struggle.  Before one can travel one has to make sure one has the means to travel, and that involves making sure that one’s own personal business is going well enough and that one is able to earn and save enough money for one’s plans.  This is not always the case and can be a real struggle when unemployment is high and the economy is generally not looking very good.

Generally, I have seldom found my travels inhibited by diplomatic issues, though I do remember a case where some friends of mine wanted to visit Syria and so they could not visit Israel first or they would not be allowed to do so.  There are, of course, some nations that are dangerous for Americans to visit, but even if my family has had some wild luck when it came to visiting countries experiencing civil wars or recent coups or the occasional terror attack, we have been remarkably fortunate so far in not causing a problem in most of the countries we have visited.  There has occasionally been concern about how my prolific writing would play with the government of a given nation (Thailand and Russia, for example) where I was visiting, but seldom has it been made clear that I was unwelcome in a place.  This year, though, has presented a case where the public health concern of covid-positive Americans has made it so that many countries do not in fact want Americans to visit.  If we have been politically unpopular around the world for some time, this year has provided us with the painful reality of being viewed as potential plague vectors and thus decidedly unwelcome in many areas around the world, which has caused a drastic change to many of my own travel plans this year.

For a few reasons, then, travel planning in the times of Coronavirus has been different than usual.  First, one has to determine if the place one is going actually wants you there or at least is willing to accept you there.  Second, if you are welcome, it is time to determine the terms under which you are welcome.  A fourteen day quarantine means you are not welcome at all and it is best to look elsewhere.  Other places specify by nation or by state which people are required to have Covid-19 tests in a short enough time before one arrives in said country so as to minimize the risk.  Nearly every place one would go has some kind of requirement for social distancing and/or the wearing of masks in many public areas, and the like.  Regardless of how we may feel personally about such matters, and rest assured most of us (myself included) have strong opinions about such matters, it is our responsibility as ambassadors of our church and our state to be good examples of law-abiding and rule-following people when we travel, because in a time like these when fear and concern are widespread, building a reputation as a thoughtful and considerate person can go a long way, and the opposite can have major negative repercussions.

Of course, the biggest change that travel planning has presented this year has been the far greater uncertainty.  One cannot simply know how conditions will be in a year or in a few months, and what the rules will be where one happens to live and where one would want to go.  As a result, more than usually, one cannot afford to be too attached to one’s plans because it is possible that they will change in the blink of an eye.  If this is less than ideal, it is simply an aspect of reality that has to be dealt with, and hopefully can be dealt with as cheerfully as possible.  So if you want to reserve those hotels or flights, and make those plans, one has to be aware that those plans are not set in stone.  To be sure, they never are, but now more than ever there are a lot of factors that we know and can recognize as being in play that make things more complicated than they would otherwise be.  And that need not be a bad thing; it can make the experiences that one gets to enjoy all the more treasured because they are so fragile and so uncertain.  Perhaps we ought to get used to such things, or at least to know that we can handle the uncertainty.

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Book Review: Proof: How The World Became Geometrical

Proof:  How The World Became Geometrical, by Amir Alexander

There is something deeply ironic in this book.  The irony exists on several levels.  Some of the book’s ironies are intentional, such as the way the author spends most of his time talking about the way that geometry of a precise and planar form informed the artistic and gardening and architectural worldview of an absolutist European kind that also serves at the basis of Washington DC’s own design, demonstrating its imperialist ambitions in spatial organization, with a surprise ending of sorts that discusses non-Euclidian geometry as destroying the supposed perfection of planar geometry and its assumptions.  Not all of the book’s ironies are intentional, for all of the author’s desire to show himself superior to the supposed imperialism of the Euro-American tradition as enshrined in artistic perspective, formal gardens, and city design, the more notable irony that is not recognized is that the Europeans were by no means the developers of these connections, for among the first ever appearances of geometry comes from India, where geometry was viewed as a pivotal part of the art of making religious altars properly, and from India a great deal of mathematical knowledge spread to Europe through the Middle East, a connection that the author barely acknowledges in a perfunctory way.

This particular book is a bit more than 250 pages long and it is divided into three parts and seven long chapters.  The book begins with an introduction.  The first part of the book then explores the author’s view on how and when it was that the world became geometrical in the sense that the author focuses on, namely the Italian renaissance (I), with chapters on the importance of the mirror image (1), and the mathematical code that was related to the art that followed the revolutionary discovery of the focal point (2).  After that the author discusses Euclid’s Kingdom (II) and pays attention to the attempts of the late Valois kings to utilize royal geometries developed in Italy (3) that were found when these French kings repeatedly invaded Italy (4) to build their own fancy royal gardens in various palazzi in France upon their return, culminating in Versailles (5).  Finally, the author closes with a discussion of the enormous influence of Louis XIV’s design of Versailles (III), looking first beyond Versailles to the gardens and civic architecture of other European empires (6), and then looking to Washington DC and its importance as a Euclidian and imperial Republic (7), after which the book ends with a conclusion about non-Euclidian geometry as well as notes, acknowledgements, and an index.

In a sense, it is not that the world suddenly became geometrical during the renaissance and early modern periods, only to become more chaotic during the postmodern period as different geometries were discovered.  It is that the world itself has always been geometrical and mathematical, and different aspects of this have been chosen for different reasons at different times.  Specifically, the development of artistic perspective was easy to exploit by absolutist early modern royals because they wanted to be viewed and to view themselves as the focus of the state and the larger society, with everyone revolving around them.  Once such a technique was discovered its obvious political importance could not fail to be utilized by rulers.  And it should not surprise us that these insecure monarchs (like the French rulers the author emphasizes in his study) should be so intensely aware of the symbolism of orderly gardens and focusing, and how it is that such designs can endure in cities like Washington DC and New Dehli long after the original designers of those places are dead and gone, giving a symbolic meaning that casts a heavy weight in the world.

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