Exit And Exodus, Weaknesses Without Witnesses

Finally, Brexit! That was it. No awesome celebrations, no memorable fireworks, only recorded bongs from Big Ben. Winston Churchill was right after all. Britain will finally look to the open sea rather than to Europe. After 47 years as an important member of the European Union (EU), the Brits have decided to go their own way again and carve out a new direction for themselves – a more exciting and prosperous future that is for them to determine, not by anyone else, in Europe or otherwise. It took three governments, two elections and three and a half years to deliver to the people what they voted for in their 2016 referendum, i.e. to leave the EU. There are 21 republics and 6 monarchies left in the EU. Will Britain’s exit bring about an exodus of remaining members? It would not surprise me if this brings about a domino effect. Britain is not the only country to see a rise in nationalist sentiments. Austerity measures and immigration policies regarding refugees have also changed the economic landscape in Europe. Without Britain, the EU is £10 billion poorer every year – that is the net contribution by the Brits to help prop up the union. When there is financial stress, the divorce rate increases. It is no different for countries.

Another major event of historical significance that happened on the same day was the US Senate’s vote to dismiss the requirement for witnesses to appear in the impeachment trial of their President. It is a sad state of affairs that the lawmakers of the world’s champion of human rights can convince themselves that a trial to decide on the very serious charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress by their President can be carried out without any witnesses. Trump will be acquitted without any witnesses to provide the irrefutable evidence to reveal the truth about the quid pro quo demands on the Ukrainian President. Despite former national security adviser John Bolton’s willingness to contradict Trump’s “perfect” script that he did not tie the withholding of military aid to Ukraine pending the announcement of dirt-digging of 2020 election rival Joe Biden and his son. Despite two Republicans, Mitt Romney and Susan Collins breaking ranks with the Republican-dominated chamber. Despite retiring Republican Lamar Alexander’s admission that Trump acted improperly and “crossed the line”. It is a new low to see lawmakers concede extortions are wrong yet “are a long way from treason, bribery, high crimes and misdemeanors”. What is there to prevent the opposite scenario next time? What if a future President requires sworn testimonies to prove his innocence but his right to have supporting witnesses is quashed by those who dominate the House? To deprive the accused of their right to call witnesses to testify on their behalf? How weak will the pursuit of justice become without witnesses? Urghhlings. They never disappoint with their hypocrisy and corrupt nature. Their ability to convince themselves and then others that black is white and white is black is breath-taking. For me, it is black and white that Trump acted improperly and should have been found guilty of the charges against him.

Fortunately, later that morning, I came across an article in the Weekend Australian Magazine by Cameron Stewart. It is a feel-good story that very quickly erased the frustration caused by the American lawmakers. Maybe, it was also that I am not an American, and therefore the sense of embarrassment and dismay about the growing weakness of their legal system did not linger. The story about Tan Le is mind-boggling. That a four year old Vietnamese girl who reached Australia in 1981 could grab her opportunities whilst growing up here and become the headline news about inventing an interface between mind and machine is a fantastic story to share. Tan Le was amongst the mass exodus of refugees fleeing their war-torn country after the defeat of the mighty American army. The GI Joes were equipped with far superior high-tech military weaponry than the Vietcong who were poor and poorly armed. Despite the lack of artillery, aircrafts, tanks and a naval fleet that only boasted a few Swatow class patrol boats and torpedo boats, they were able to defeat their enemy who the world wrongly thought were their invincible nemesis. When Tan Le and her family (minus her father who remained in Vietnam in case he needed to support them) landed in Australia, her mother told her to bend and touch the ground. “Mum, it does not feel very special” she said as she touched the ground at the airport. Tan Le’s mother said, “Make it special in your mind.” Make it special, isn’t that just the most important attitude to teach a young child? Seventeen years later, Le would indeed be special – she was named Young Australian of the Year for her work in helping those in her community assimilate in their new country. In 2009 her company Emotiv Systems, headquartered in San Francisco, released their first neuro-headset – a mobile electroencephalogram (EEG) device that detects electrical activity in the brain. Since then she has been able to use this as an interface with machines. Her headsets can now translate brain signals into commands that instruct machines to operate specific functions, using computer algorithms. These machines with artificial intelligence (AI) allow people, using their thoughts only, to move objects, fly drones, command and control wheelchairs and cars, move robotic limbs and even create art and music. Mind over matter is no longer science fiction. A quadriplegic, Rodrigo Mendes was able to drive a Formula One car using only his mind. It offers life-changing opportunities especially for the physically impaired. Le says the holy grail of this technology is when her headset can self learn from its wearer and automatically feed data back to the brain. When AI becomes integrated with the human brain, it will be able to use its markedly superior intelligence and wisdom to limit the human from making stupid decisions and prevent them from committing cruel acts on other living things. This gives me hope that AI may one day curb the ugly inclinations of urghhlings.

Elgar Can’t Be Vulgar

It is written down. Irrefutable. Intended. Definitive and revealing. A permanent record. Every thing of importance to us is in writing. When we are born, we are given a birth certificate. When we graduate, we have a certificate to prove it. Soon after, we see a mountain of documents thrown our way, a contract of employment, contracts for purchases of the car, the house, and whatever that get us into debt – yes, bank loans are also in writing. Some of the most important pieces of documents in writing for me would include my passport and the title deed to my house. Without them, I won’t be able to leave the country or live in the building I call home. My marriage certificate was once important to me, it legalises my relationship with The Mrs and provides her with legal rights to half of everything I own. It is of little importance to me now, somehow. We do not need written words on a piece of paper to legitimise our lives together, not after thirty eight years of living under the same roof and under the banner of man and wife. Important documents spelling out what we own and owe. Definite and clear, it obviates the need for interpretation – there is no risk of misunderstandings. Yet, that is not always true.

Edward Elgar’s cello concerto in E Minor was written just after the First World War. Contemplative and autumnal, this elegiac work is my favourite cello music. I bought Jacqueline du Pre’s CD boxset for my sons when they were about six years old. That was the first time I heard Elgar’s cello concerto. The best time to listen to it is during the quiet of the night. Alone. It is hair raising stuff. Spine tingling. A sure way to activate the tear glands that produce the hormones prolactin that makes us cry. For me it is the one piece of music that is packed with indescribable depths of sorrow. You cannot help but feel the dark pain and heart-tearing suffering of humanity. du Pre was our idol. Vivacious and full of life, she was a giant in the cello world. We loved the documentary about her by Christopher Nupen. That was the first time I saw her play. On the VHS tape. It was in black and white. I did not know that the gown she was wearing during her Elgar concerto with Sir John Barbirolli conducting the London Symphony Orchestra was a striking red colour. For me it was her playing that made me fall in love with Elgar’s music. It was her obvious passion for the cello that attracted me to the instrument – its ability to speak to me even if it’s just an open string being played. Her lively, honest and carefree playing captivated a worldwide audience. Carefree, but never careless. Not all music is in written form. But it would be correct to say all orchestral music is written down. The composer wills it in his score. He informs the musicians how his music should be played. How it should sound. For instance, Vivaldi informed us clearly the sounds of the four seasons. His “winter” is chilly, bleak and the cold is piercing, with the strings sounding especially metallic. Gustav Holst described the planets in his seven movement orchestral work. We get to hear how our solar system sounded in Holst’s mind. They are all written down, every note, every rest, musical accidentals, articulations, dynamics, ties and slurs. The conductor reads them, understands what the composer wanted and demands it from the orchestra. Obvious markings on the score dictate what the composer’s ideas were. A pp here and an ff there. A fermata or an sfz. A fermata is a pause. But, how fleeting should we rest? The composer didn’t say. No other markings except for a dot. The same uncertainty with a dot above a note. How brief should the pause be? It was not a subito forzando that caught my attention in Elgar’s cello concerto. It was not a “ Suddenly with force” but what did Elgar ask for in his music where he had markings of ff with accent and ten. all at once? Is the effect as strong as an sfz? The one cellist who observed that unreservedly was du Pre. But, to many cellists, it seems incongruous to play that in the context of the music. In the depths of despair and melancholy, it sounds jarring and out of place to apply the note with sudden force. The accent seems wrongly placed, despite the fact that Elgar wrote it. Elgar couldn’t have been vulgar. Maybe he did not mean it. A mistake? In the midst of a stupor? But it is written down. Undeniable. Deliberate. Intended. Yet, many cellists do not observe it. They ignore that marking. They do not play it the way Elgar wanted. It sounds incongruous to the flow of the music. Over time, the players got accustomed to how it was played, without the accent and tenueto, and the listeners learned to accept that was how the music should sound. If you listen to du Pre’s recording of Elgar with the accent and tenueto, the note will sound rough, yet it was exactly how Elgar wanted. Now, I have to relearn how it should actually sound, as intended by Elgar.

On December 19, Donald Trump was impeached by the House. He blew his top at the whistle blower who told the world of Trump’s illegal use of his power to solicit the support of a foreign country to interfere in the 2020 U.S. elections. The one very important incident that triggered the case for impeachment was the phone call with the Ukraine president during which Trump asked Zelensky for a favour to announce the investigation into Trump’s major domestic political rival, Joe Biden. Major military aid had been withheld pending Zelensky’s announcement into the unsubstantiated and long debunked Biden corruption in the Ukraine. A visit to the White House was also contingent upon Zelensky doing the favour asked for by Trump. The White House issued a transcript of that “perfect” and “beautiful” phone call whilst disparaging against the whistle blower. The five page transcript is a written edited report of the July 25 telephone conversation, with many segments missing although Trump vowed to release a “fully declassified and unredacted transcript” of the controversial call. Yet, The White House and the House of Representatives are at odds with what the written words meant to their case. To the House, it was a clear case of quid pro quo, their commander in chief using his immense power to gain a personal advantage whilst risking national security. To the White House, the favour sought was a proper and diligent effort to ensure the proper use of foreign aid by the recipient country. Same set of words but with totally opposite conclusions. History will record that Trump was impeached for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, despite his top officials’ refusal to give their testimonies of what they know about the extent of Trump’s involvement in the bribery. Elgar can’t be vulgar but the same cannot be said about Trump. Now, that is written down.

Practise again. Elgar cannot be vulgar.

It’s Fake, For Goodness’ Sake

Matthew 7:15-23

“You have never been mine. Go away, for your deeds are evil”.

Earlier this week, a friend sent me this gem found in the Bible. There were ructions in our chat group about two American pastors who flew to Hong Kong to support the rioters or protestors; whichever word you subscribe to will reveal your stance on the civil unrest there.

Dr Pastor William Devlin and Rev. Patrick Mahoney, both American pastors, went to the Hong Kong Polytechnic University to support and encourage the students there to occupy the campus area in their fight against their own government. Fighting for democracy, human rights and freedom was their common catch-cry. That will garner universal support, acceptance and solidarity, right? But, even these learned and wise gentlemen of the cloth are blind to the violence and destruction that the students have perpetrated on fellow Hong-Kongers who do not share their political views or object to their destructive strategies for the past six months. In some interviews, some of these cherub-looking teenage students express their preparedness to die for their cause – for their democratic rights. Little do they know that although the notion of having democratic rights is noble and ideal, once we have won it, many of us somehow do not value it as worthy of a trip to the polling booth. To sacrifice our lives? If we are desperately hungry, yes. Less than 38% of women and 33% of men in the 18-29 age group exercised their voting rights in the 2018 mid-term US elections. Even in the 2016 US presidential election, less than six in ten eligible voters cast ballots for their president. In Australia, we have freedom of speech and freedom of information, except that voting is compulsory and we do not have the freedom to decide not to vote. Those disinterested in exercising their democratic right to vote are ignorant of the name of the Prime Minister and will have little idea what their local candidates stand for at the ballot box. Two federal seats won by the government in May this year are being disputed in the High Court. The reason? Some voters apparently did not know who they were voting for and were misled by the Liberal party candidates’ use of white and purple corflute signs that resembled the official signs of the Australian Electoral Commission. But, in Hong Kong, the young ones seemingly are ready to sacrifice their lives for democracy and freedom. Their concept of freedom is warped though, as they freely hurl verbal abuse and throw punches, bricks and molotov cocktails at those who disagree with their views.

Another friend commented, “How can they be pastors and spend most of their time as human rights activists around the world? It is contradictory! A pastor is supposed to shepherd or to oversee his local congregation…”. Maybe these men see themselves as more powerful than Jesus. They have global reach, whereas Jesus even at his peak could only preach for just over three years, in the Middle East beginning in Roman Judea and ending in Jerusalem. These men were working with members of the American Congress and Trump administration to pass the Hong Kong Democracy Act. Wait a minute. Isn’t that interference in another country’s domestic affairs? Can you imagine what the global uproar would be if America were to pass an Act that is called the Australian Aboriginal Death In Custody Act? That would surely stop the many aboriginal deaths in custody in Australia, right? Or if Australia retaliated and passed the U.S. Mass Shootings Act to coerce their Congress to stop the frequent school massacres there? At the time of writing, the bill for the Hong Kong Democracy Act has been passed, almost unanimously. No, there was not a single whimper to be heard in the West.

Not all who sound religious are really godly people. The way to identify a tree (or person) is by the kind of fruit produced. These American pastors are fake, my friend cried out. They are false prophets in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly, they are sneaky foxes. Their unconditional support for the naive and underage students and their encouragement for the youths to execute violence and destruction in the streets and malls will only breed hatred in their hearts and radicalise their thinking. Many families are broken as a result, their children running away from home to effectively become child soldiers in the fight against the government. Matthew 7:17 – Bad trees bear bad fruit. Will these young Hong Kongers become the pastors’ bad fruit? For the teenagers’ sake, they need a quicker way to identify the bad trees. “These pastors are fakes, for heaven’s sake!” my friend cried out to them.

It begs the question. Why are we so susceptible to charlatans? Fakery is rife everywhere, maybe it is the digital age that has emboldened the quacks. Could it be that the internet has provided the easy avenue for them to spin their charm in their deceitful way? I cannot help it but Trump immediately springs to mind. Apart from mad Madoff ‘s Ponzi scheme, Trump’s fakery must be up there as one of the 21st century’s biggest. His trade war with China was meant to be easy to win and he was going to rip billions back from China for trademark thefts and unfair trade practices. Yet, he is the one to block the appointment of two judges to the WTO’s Supreme Court, and so there is every likelihood that the world’s top trade court will soon be curtailed from making any further rulings.

The WTO is presiding over a record number of disputes, many of them triggered by Trump’s tariff wars with China and other nations. Trade officials say the crisis needs to be avoided because if one of the three remaining judges has to recuse themselves from a case for legal reasons, the system will break down.

China is a serial patents thief? Trump obviously has not read any of Joseph Needham’s voluminous evidence of China’s discoveries and inventions over several millennia. Larry Romanoff wrote, “It is reliably estimated that over 60% of the knowledge existing in the world today originated in China, a fact swept under the carpet in the West.” Joseph Needham, a British biochemist, scientific historian and professor at Cambridge University wrote Science and Civilisation In China, a catalogue of 27 books on Chinese inventions, before he died in 1995. During his research, he discovered there are thousands of inventions that the West claim as theirs even in the face of conclusive evidence that prove that they originated in China hundreds and sometimes thousands of years before the West copied (stole) them.” In spite of clear irrefutable evidence, it is still so easy these days for charlatans to write a different narrative, even an opposite narrative. In the current impeachment hearing, Gordon Sondland, a big Trump donor, who was rewarded by becoming the U.S. ambassador for the European Union, verified many facts from earlier witnesses, and when asked if there was quid pro quo for Ukraine president Zelensky to announce investigations that can help Trump politically, his answer was “Yes”. Zelensky was pressured by Trump to “do him a favour” in order to win a coveted visit to the White House and receive the promised military aid his country badly needs to fight the Russians. Despite Sondland’s testimony, Trump did not resile from standing outside the White House and announce that the case against him is closed. “I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zellinksi (sic) to do the right thing. This is the final word from the President of the U.S.” He read it out loudly from his notepad, his fakery well disguised by the strong conviction in his voice. Can it be that we have forgotten charlatans do exist? Or that they only con otherswe are not that gullible? Someone in my workplace said life would be boring if my prediction was to come true – that Trump would be forced to resign by the GOP rather than be impeached. Maybe, just maybe that is the reason why we have allowed these fakes to thrive today. Life’s mundane routine and unending pressures mean we actually welcome such daily light entertainment from charlatans.

This morning, Second Son happily told me he bought a dusty old Chinese vase in a shop in Bonn. “Is it an antique?” he asked with a great deal of hope. He has it displayed proudly on his dining table. I put on my fake auctioneer’s hat and proceeded to describe it. “Late Qing dynasty multi-colour glazed porcelain vase (Guang Cai). Striking pink and blue floral design with beautiful blue motifs on the base of the neck.” The Mrs pricked his hopes and officially announced it loudly “It is a fake, for Pete’s sake!”

A beautiful Chinese vase. Is it an antique?