Thursday, October 18, 2007

In Our Time: Opium Wars and the 2008 Olympics, Spinoza's radical determinism and the new feed page

Melvyn Bragg's BBC show, In Our Time, has begun a new season. I'm a fan.

The bad news is that the BBC is sticking with its execrable latest-episode-only download policy. So if you want to listen to the superb Opium War episode on your MP3 player you need to either use Audio Hijack Pro to capture the RealAudio stream or (if you know me) ask me for a DVD with the entire series [1]. Incidentally, this is a good time to write a quick email to set IOT free.

The good news is there's a new page that makes it easy to subscribe to a feed. I used to subscribe via iTunes, but if I went a week without using iTunes I missed the show. Now I subscribe via iTunes and Bloglines; I use Bloglines at least daily so it's easy for me to save the MP3 and email it to myself.

On to Opium War. Alas, it's from last season, so you're stuck with theft or RealAudio hijacking [2]. Wonderful episode that cleverly features 2 UK professors with Chinese names [4]:

Yangwen Zheng, Lecturer in Modern Chinese History at the University of Manchester
Lars Laamann, Research Fellow in Chinese History at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London
Xun Zhou, Research Fellow in History at SOAS, University of London

That was a politically astute decision as well as didactically informed. These 3 are willing to say things that people with non-Chinese surnames are going to pussy-foot about. Even the one contributor who's voice trembles slightly when describing her parents outrage at the "unequal treaty" more or less concedes that her feelings reflect modern sentiments rather than the historic record.

In brief (sorry, you need to listen, these are my interpretations):

  • To understand this as a 19th century person might, think 1920s prohibition or 2010 cigarette management. Opium was an over the counter remedy into 20th century America; Opium was the now-lost secret to well-behaved children around the world. [3]
  • Tobacco smoking, introduced to China by the Portugese, was the technical innovation that built the opium trade. Smoking opium is much more entertaining than eating eat, so, as is forever true, tobacco was the gateway drug.
  • Lin Tse-Hsu, the Chinese intellectual, modernist, and bureaucrat who triggered the smoldering conflict, might have been pleased with the long term impact of the enforced opium trade. Lin Tse-Hu wanted China to modernize and be able to stand independently. These scholars agreed that China's defeat in the Opium Wars, and the resulting trade agreements including later trade in industrial goods, was a major contributor to the rise of modern China. So Lin Tse-Hsu lost his battle, but in losing he did achieve his true desire. I wonder if he ever realized that. History has strange lessons indeed.
  • For 19th century China the Opium War was something of a sideshow and trading Hong Kong was a trivial cost to placate the transiently powerful foreigners. The Dynasty had much bigger internal problems to worry about.
  • Opium was a currency in the China before the war, especially after the introduction of smoking (which must have increased the value of the currency ten fold), an alternative to copper. From an economic perspective the war resulted from a balance of trade problem. England was industrializing, and like all industrial nations they were switching from alcohol (locally grown) to caffeine (tea, imported from China -- coffee was not yet widely available). Alcohol was handy for dulling the pain of pre-industrial life, but industry required shorter sleep periods. England was hooked on uppers, but pre-industrial China was hooked on anesthesia. Prior to the Opium War England sent new world silver to China to buy tea, but Chinese trade restrictions meant England had nothing to sell in return. China was the "silver drain" of the world. The cost of tea was rising fast, and something had to be done.
  • Britain's attack was a mixture of governmental and private sector action. In those days the boundaries between industry and state were even thinner than in modern America -- and they're pretty darned thin here.
  • After the 1920s the Opium War, previously an annoyance primarily to Chinese intelligentsia, was transformed into a populist causes to further nationalist movements. So the Opium War not only transformed China economically, it did double duty in creating the modern Chinese nation. So it remains today, there is no doubt that many Chinese leaders, and most of the Chinese nation, bitterly resent what they know of the conflict. This is very human of course. Americans who say "Remember the Alamo" typically know very little about it, and no Chinese leader can possibly be as ignorant of history as George Bush Jr.

It's a great show and really, required listening for anyone living in the Decade of China to come. The 2008 Olympics are near, and, assuming the news is not entirely about athletic asphyxiation, you'll hear more about the two Opium Wars.

On the other hand, last season's Spinoza episode, while better than the immensely dull "William of Occam", was still disappointing. Spinoza was a radical determinist, but none of the speakers put this into a 17th century context of Calvin and Newton (billiard-ball determinism), or in the 20th century context of Einstein (non-quantum General Relativity implies rigid determinism), post-modern physics, transactional interpretations of quantum physics or even the Tralfamadorians. Melvyn was asleep at the switch on that one.

Oh, Occam? Don't bother. It reminded me too much of my work.

[1] Note to BBC. I'm just joking of course.

[2] Do any of the file sharing sites do IOT? If they do I might just try out an OS X client.

[3] One of the most memorable drug seeking patients I've encountered asked me, incidentally as our routine visit was ending, for an opium containing remedy that I think was a prescription med for children in the mid-20th century. I had no idea what it was, but of course I looked it up before prescribing. I recall she was very professional about it, she didn't get too upset when I pointed out that it wasn't really a good idea.

[4] I originally wrote "3" because I swear Laars sounded like he had a slight Chinese accent. I wonder which was his first language. The other profs pronounced his name something like "Lau".

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