Archive for December 2004
This evening the death toll in SE Asia is just shy of 60,000, with a few fatalities on the coast of Somalia too, thousands of miles away. 1/100,000th of the population of this planet. For the other 99,999/100,000 of us, heartless as it may sound, life goes on. Take a pair of dice, and count the number of dots on both, before you roll them. That number is the answer, of course, and Nature is asking the question.
Five people – an Englishman, Russian, American, Frenchman and Irishman were each asked to write a book on elephants. Some amount of time later they had all completed their respective books. The Englishman’s book was entitled “The Elephant – How to Collect Them”, the Russian’s “The Elephant – Vol. I”, the American’s “The Elephant – How to Make Money from Them”, the Frenchman’s “The Elephant – Its Mating Habits” and the Irishman’s “The Elephant and Irish Political History”.
A joke I found while cleaning up my website Quotations file this morning – and I thought I was alone in thinking the Irish were obsessed with the little history they have? Last night I decided to bundle in the contents of the Linux Fortune files, most of which was an automated process of replacing the pure text formatting with psuedo-XHTML. The file I use is Tab-delimited, and there were stray Tabs everywhere that had to be stripped out. I only want them in there to separate each quotation from its source, and never for formatting. To complicate matters, sources of quotes were delimited with –, but – appears in other places too, so there was a fair bit of manual cleanup to do, and spell-checking. Here’s another fun finding:
I went to my first computer conference at the New York Hilton about 20 years ago. When somebody there predicted the market for microprocessors would eventually be in the millions, someone else said, “Where are they all going to go? It’s not like you need a computer in every doorknob!” Years later, I went back to the same hotel. I noticed the room keys had been replaced by electronic cards you slide into slots in the doors. There was a computer in every doorknob.
– Danny Hillis
23,700 and rising. It seems the tsunamis didn’t fan out equally in all directions, leaving Myanmar almost unaffected. News was slow to come in from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which took the waves head-on, and whole islands full of people are unaccounted for.
A funny thing: the word Tsunami 津波 is one of the few Japanese words in common use in English, and it’s a phenomenon that Japan, historically, is very familiar with. The Kanji breaks down as “harbour wave”, a 美称 (euphemism, “beautiful name”) if there ever was one.
No snow today; Nature isn’t doing much in this part of the world, but She has been having her fun in South East Asia, hasn’t She? Undersea earthquakes off the coast of Sumatra have triggered massive tsunamis that swamped the Maldives and the coasts of Sri Lanka, south-east India, and Indonesia. The official death toll has just passed 10,000, in those areas we have communication with. When I looked at a map of the region, one thing struck me straight away: large coastal areas of Myanmar (Burma) are right in the firing line, yet we have no information coming out of there at all, I suspect because its totalitarian regime does not allow foreign journalists or communication with foreign news services. I expect the death toll to rise considerably over the next few days.
Speaking of communication: the western affected areas could have had over two hours of advance warning, considering how far away they were from the epicentre of the earthquakes, the largest of which was estimated at 8.9 (Richter scale). What about satellites monitoring the oceans, radioed reports from ships in the region, anything? No, the first warning received by the people on the east coast of Sri Lanka came from the good old Mark I Eyeball, which did not leave much time for evacuation. Bangladesh was only mildly affected because it is even further away than the other areas, but that was luck.
In these areas, with their histories of monsoon-related flooding, I have to ask: why on Earth do people continue to live near the treacherous coastlines, or on the banks of flood-prone rivers like the Brahmaputra, Ganges, Mississippi, or Yangtze? Nature’s not a bitch, this is simply all she can do to relieve her stresses, she takes as much notice of us as a freight train would.
White Christmas? Slightly, with the occasional snow flurry, but I’m too close to the coast for any snow to stay on the ground so far. I have the apartment to myself, and am baking bread again, with better results than last time. It’s not a long job, unless you include the time it takes to clean the kitchen afterwards, the flour tends to go wherever it wants.
December 16 in South Africa used to be Voortrekker Day, celebrating the pioneering spirit of those settlers who pulled their wagons into the unknown interior of their great country, meeting strange tribes and offending them. This culminated in the Battle of Blood River, on this day in 1838, when a few dozen Voortrekkers took on about 4000 Zulus, next to a river. They had guns, the Zulus didn’t, which explains how the river got its new name. It looked the normal colour when I was taken in the late 70′s, but I don’t think they celebrate the Battle of Blood River in the New South Africa any more, actually.
When I tried looking up a little more info on Blood River, one of the first links took me to what appeared to be a simple description of the preparations for the battle. It soon turned into a bluntly racist screed on how the Battle of Blood River represented a victory of honest, God-fearing White folk over the Black hordes of darkness. It didn’t stop there, going on to attack the modern South Africa, accusing a notional Jewish Liberal movement of selling out to the same hordes of darkness, featuring blatant anti-Semitism at its worst. Sample: “Dr. Shapiro (Jewess) said …” Enough about that, then: you bigots aren’t going to get the “good old days” of 1838 back, are you? Deal with it.
Silly Movie of the Week: Drop Dead Gorgeous, which tries to do for beauty pageants what This Is Spinal Tap did for rock bands, and mostly succeeds. A documentary crew follows a group of small-town teenagers taking part in a beauty pageant “sponsored” by a make-up company, with Kirstie Alley as the local pageant organizer. Her equally-competitive daughter, played by Denise Richards, enjoys firing a variety of weapons and dancing on stage with a crucified dummy, before winning the pageant, then going up in smoke after her parade float’s fuel tank leaks. Woof!
Other highlights include Kirsten Dunst practicing her tap steps while making up the corpses in the local funeral home; her mother lands up in hospital after her trailer is mysteriously blown up, needing surgery to remove the beer can welded to her hand. A neighbour (Alison Janney of The West Wing fame) helps out, flirts with the film crew, and gets all the best lines. After getting to the national finals, by virtue of being the only one not to eat poisoned shellfish, Dunst joins the other 49 contestants at the sponsor’s headquarters, to find the doors padlocked and IRS seizure signs on the doors. Oh well; back to Minnesota.
You just know when death is coming, because you start remembering your life more than you actually live it.
– Cameron Duncan, Strike Zone
Cameron Duncan was a talented young New Zealand film-maker who was a bit like Peter Jackson in his early days – they shared a penchant for bizarre gory humour and blowing things up. He even played around with special effects, such as a PC-edited “light sabre” sequence and a trick shot of him shaking up some unmentionable chemicals in a bottle, holding it up to his head, at which point it goes off with an almighty bang. He came to Peter Jackson’s attention as an aside to the production of The Lord Of The Rings, and Peter recommended him for a small job, a commercial campaign to encourage people to become organ donors.
It soon emerged that Cameron had been ill with cancer, but was in remission, and was happy to take the job, understanding the personal connection. The cancer returned, and spread, but he was able to complete the job and make another final short film, Strike Zone, in which he played a terminally ill softball coach. The film is remarkable for its visual honesty, with Cameron imagining his character’s death and subsequent funeral. His friends and family were able to use his ideas when his own funeral was held, just two months later.
Cameron became the inspiration for Into The West, the Annie Lennox song that closes The Return Of The King, which is why he and his work has a spot on the extended DVD edition. The title refers to the end of the story, when the last of the Elves sail away to their homeland, taking Bilbo, Gandalf and Frodo with them. It is open to interpretation, of course, but it’s not hard to equate “sailing into the West” with a final passing from this life into another, a poetic way of talking about death, like riding into the sunset. Bilbo was old, his life unnaturally prolonged by the Ring that had now been destroyed; Gandalf was also immensely old and worn out from the struggle; the Elves, not being fully of this Earth, showed little regret in leaving, with the exception of Arwen. Frodo had never fully recovered from the wound inflicted early in the Ring saga, when he was stabbed by the Witch King while wearing the Ring; his time had also come, though the movie appears to have glossed over twenty years of his life, somehow.
I’ve only been talking about the ending, but the rest of the film is hardly less shattering. With the release of the Extended DVD version of The Return Of The King, I have finally seen the whole saga; I deliberately didn’t go to see the theatrical release or buy it on DVD, happy to wait for the “proper” version. The story builds tension gradually, with Frodo, Sam and Gollum struggling into Mordor, while its forces closed in on the great city of Minas Tirith. Then the rocks start flying, with some gleefully grotesque shots that follow chunks of masonry all the way from the defensive trebuchets, through the air, onto the heads of a score of Orcs at a time. Anyone scared of spiders can skip over Shelob’s Lair, or course.
Well, I’ve worked up quite an appetite, writing all that guff, so it’s time to hit the kitchen:
Kinoto-na Wasabi Chilli
- 1lb (450g) beef mince
- 300ml beef or vegetable stock
- 400g tomatoes, chopped, or small can or tomato puree
- 2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced (to taste)
- 2-3 whole mixed peppers, coarsely chopped (to taste)
- Your Chilli Sauce*
- 400g can Chilli Beans
- Wasabi: 2tsp paste or 1tsp powder
In a large pot, brown the mince in the stock for about 5 minutes at high temperature.
Add tomatoes, cook for 5 minutes at medium.
Reduce to low temperature. Add the remaining ingredients in roughly the order above, over the next 20 minutes.
Keep the Chilli at a low simmer throughout, stirring gently with each addition.
The Chilli can be served as little as 10 minutes after the last ingredient, but it’s better to allow more time for the sauce to thicken.
Serve with rice, corn, nachos, or any bread (pitta, cornbread, tortilla)
* Chilli Sauce: finely chop ~50g Jalapeno peppers in a little vinegar, or use ~2tsp of bottled sauce. Good sauces to use here include Santa Maria Pepper Sauce or Nando’s Hot Piri-Piri, a sauce made from Birds Eye Chilli, popular in South Africa but also available in Europe now.
Hint: freeze the garlic in advance for easier chopping with less smell;
Wasabi is Japanese pickled horseradish, the fiery green powder or paste that is definitely not meant to snorted the way Steve-O did in Jackass: The Movie, with results you might be better off leaving to your imagination. This recipe is the tame version: for more of that good old fire-engine factor, use the seeds from the peppers, and crank up the other accelerants, at your own risk!
Word of the day: Jacobin n
- a Dominican friar [ME, fr MF, fr ML Jacobinus, fr LL Jacobus (St James); fr the location of the first Dominican convent in the Rue St-Jacques (street of St James) in Paris; ]
- a member of a radical political group advocating a democracy in which all should be equal, and engaging in terrorist activities during the French Revolution of 1789; broadly a member of an extremist, radical, or terrorist political group [Fr, fr Jacobin Dominican; fr the group's meeting in the former Dominican convent in Paris;]
- a type of pigeon with a cowl-like crest of feathers about the head [Fr Jacobine, fem of Jacobin]
– Penguin Hutchinson Reference Library, Copyright (c) 1996 Helicon Publishing and Penguin Books Ltd
Leave it to Dr. Jerry Pournelle, once again, to effectively articulate something I have long understood but never written down. This is from an essay on the current and previous Iraqi conflicts, Jacobinism and the Principle of Pursuit.
The notion that “all men are created equal” is a noble concept, and useful when establishing a government by the middle class which has only begun to wrest political control from an aristocracy that controls most of the wealth. It is useful as a legal principle in a nation governed by the rule of law. Objectively, though, it is nonsense. All men — and women — are not created equal. Some are smarter than others. Some are so stunted as to be counted human only through religious assumptions and legal definitions. If we expand our horizons beyond our own borders, the notion becomes even more absurd. Be it heredity or be it culture or be it a combination of both, nothing is more clearly false than the assumption of the equality of cultures, societies, and the people who live in them. To say otherwise would be to say that a culture of death and destruction which seeks to enslave as sub-human all those outside that culture; which says that there can be no peace with outsiders, only conquest; is the equal of the liberal democracies that believe in the notion of equality. Carried to extremes, the assumption of general equality states that the only thing the Nazis did wrong was to lose.
The essay is well worth reading itself, but I’d like to say a little more about the notion of Cultural Relativism, the idea that all cultures and ideas are equally valid. I often hear it said that we can learn from Native American or African cultures, because they are somehow “closer to nature” and thus in touch with some essential cultural principles that we in the West have forgotten. It could be true, and we can gain what knowledge that is there to be gained, but are primitive cultures worth preserving, if they can not fight for themselves? How can we even talk about a culture being under threat, today? What does that say about cultures, and what do we do about it?
Some cultures have been essentially unchanged for hundreds or thousands of years, while others underwent “progress”. Are they all equally valid? I have heard exactly that proposition from the kind of academics you see on TV. The first question I would ask of them is: does that mean that the idea of progress is invalid? Have we really gained anything from thousands of years of discovery, invention and cultural evolution, or was it all a waste of our time? The discussion generally does get around to that point, eventually, and I have heard some say exactly the latter, which shows a wilful, blissful, obstinate ignorance of the real costs of a backward, primitive culture, the unspeakable waste of life that went along with them.
The desire to breed large numbers of children was once justified by high infant mortality rates and the need to stave off tribal conquest by weight of numbers. A larger population is more difficult to displace or subjugate, and will have more young men to defend its borders. This has worked well for the Chinese peoples, examples of successful cultures, in my opinion: not only have they survived, with the core of their culture intact, but they have not wallowed in primitivism. Communism is a temporal abberation that is already on the way out: in China it resonated with the need for national unity, in the face of external threats, but the new enemy, Western culture, is already inside its borders and undermining its foundations. I don’t believe that Communism in China will live to see its centenary, but China will remain. Its core culture is ancient, but not primitive, because it has adapted, evolved, dare I say: progressed?
The next stage, however, is to deal with the consequences on a global scale. China has already suffered the effects of its population explosion, that started with the drop in infant mortality fostered by Western medical principles. Is Western medicine flawed, because it led to huge population increases? Not if you consider population excess as a medical problem: its prevention is always better than any possible cure. To prevent population explosion means a change in culture, to move away from the idea that procreation is always good.
Isn’t it great to have children? To bring a new life into the world, raise it as best you can, to feel that swell of pride as he or she matures into an adult person? The thing is: everyone else feels the same way. Your child is unique and precious… like everyone else’s. We feel the way we do about children because it was good for their survival in a harsh world, and evolutionary selection favoured children who were brought up that way, so they would feel that way about their own children. If parenting is so necessary and valuable, why is it so hard, and becoming more and more difficult? There is a clear conflict between our desire for procreation and the life we live today, and we see it clearly in our culture and economy, with no easy way out.
The Abortion issue is one example; it is not an easy question to face, but why has the question even arisen? Do we have to consider such an unpleasant option? I support a woman’s right to choose, but her choices start long before the prospect of abortion needs to be asked: it is preventable. There are two complimentary ways to avoid the question, but it requires an enlightened, open, healthy culture to find the balance between them:
- Avoid pregnancy, which means a mixture of contraception, self-disciplne, and the discarding of the “go forth and multiply” religious doctrine that has resonated with our natural inclinations;
- Lighten the burden asociated with having a child, so that pregnant women will not feel the need to have an abortion at all.
Point #2 must work hand in hand with point 1, because no amount of religious dogma, government support, or ignorance will counter the intractable burden of overpopulation that increases the cost of living while reducing the value of each life. If this is a war, then the Abortion Issue is only one battle that is being exaggerated for ideological reasons, like Hitler’s misguided obsession with defeating Britain quickly in 1940.
Am I exaggerating? If recent news reports are correct, the Xmas presents you are buying for your children may have been made by other children. Each of those children is just as precious to his or her parents as yours are to you, but they live in overpopulated societies where they need to work alongside their parents to survive. The years I spent in school, studying science, maths, history, and where I gained the fundamental knowledge I draw on to write this, are not available to them.
In Inuit culture, at one time, it was acceptable to kill a baby girl at birth, because she would not be as productive as a boy would. The latter is an example used in the Encyclopaedia Britannica in its description of Cultural Relativism, and the author goes on to say this:
The view that elements of a culture are to be understood and judged in terms of their relationship to the culture as a whole–a doctrine known as cultural relativism–led to the conclusion that the cultures themselves could not be evaluated or graded as higher and lower, superior or inferior.
If it was unwarranted to say that patriliny (descent through the male line) was superior or inferior to matriliny (descent through the female line), if it was unjustified or meaningless to say that monogamy was better or worse than polygamy, then it was equally unsound or meaningless to say that one culture was higher or superior to another. A large number of anthropologists subscribed to this view; they argued that such judgments were subjective and therefore unscientific. It is, of course, true that some values are imponderable and some criteria are subjective.
Are people in modern Western culture happier than the Aborigines of Australia? Is it better to be a child than an adult, alive than dead? These certainly are not questions for science. But to say that the culture of the ancient Mayas was not superior to or more highly developed than the crude and simple culture of the Tasmanians or to say that the culture of England in 1966 was not higher than England’s culture in 1066 is to fly in the face of science as well as of common sense.
– Copyright © 1994-2001 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
Today, in Western Europe and Japan, both parents need to work to afford somewhere to live, which means a demand for childcare, which thus also goes up in price. In some countries governments provide financial assistance to parents, as if just having a child alone was a service to society; in extreme cases that leads to people having children for a temporary financial gain, a short-sighted policy on the part of such people and the governments that support them at the expense of other, more responsible people.
Employers also pay the price when employees become such a financial burden that they either reduce employee numbers or collapse. Germany, today, has the most Socialist employment laws in Europe, with high taxes, heavy Union influence, and policies that make it difficult to lay people off. Germany also has the highest unemployment rate in Europe. Painful as it is, it is necessary to get this lesson across, that we need to balance our desires with the harsh physical realities of life, because we can not keep on breeding, expanding, and consuming more resources. We have nowhere else to go.
We must also realize that the hardships and tragedies we endured in the past, just to survive, are now preventable by the application of intelligence to all aspects of our lives. Life is no longer a struggle for survival, and a culture’s members need to recognise that they do not need brute force or sheer weight of numbers to keep their culture alive. We can now be reasonably certain of a long life, where it once was “nasty, brutish, and short”. We don’t need more life, more people; we need fewer, better people, to create a better world, and a better life, one that we can do more with. In conclusion: like it or not, the old cultural values are no longer fully valid in our shrinking world.
This is exactly why it is important to compare cultures, intelligently but with compassion, to understand what we need from a culture, and judge how well each is able to deliver what we need. In this, all cultures and ideas are clearly not equal, and a culture’s ability to manage change is a measure of its success and value today. I have seen Primitive human nature, during my time in Africa, and while my Western culture is not perfect, I know where I would rather be today. I write ideas like this to remind myself that I can’t take it for granted, and I aim to be part of the solution, not the problem.
Record companies never want to take risks, they want to repeat the formula, and good artists don’t do that, good artists look for something new every time, and try and build on what came before. So you don’t listen to record companies, and you don’t listen to frightened members of the band.
– Sir George Martin
This from a documentary on Brian Wilson’s Smile project, which was released this year, nearly 40-years after its composition.