Sunday, June 26, 2011

Superiority Simplex

I was flicking through the society pages of the Sunday paper today. I'm not sure why I did this but the possibility of gaining material for a patronising blog entry can't be excluded as a motive. I find our fascination with what the famous or rich (or at least the richer or more famous than us) are doing at any given moment to be rather odd. If friends give a party or other social event which one is unable to attend I can fully understand the desire to see pictures of it and hear all the details. These are, after all, people you know. It is understandable to be interested, or at least morbidly curious. It gets a bit stranger when people are interested in the antics of people they don't know at all.

I suspect, however, that at least part of the reason is that it allows us to make value judgements about people we've never met. This is much safer than doing it about our friends. For starters ones friends might get a little upset if we label them as skanky, morally depraved freaks (or not, it depends on the friends) and secondly such a judgement may reflect badly on ones choice of friends (or not, it depends on you). Making such judgements about complete strangers is much more fun and has the added bonus of allowing you to criticise people who are (however undeservedly) richer, more successful or famous than you.

The simple truth is nobody likes egalitarianism. There must always be someone a little higher up the social tree than ourselves so that we can bitch about them and feel superior. Of course we could do this about people below us on the ladder but it is much less fun feeling superior when you actually are superior. It's also a little cruel. This is why I derive so little pleasure from the society pages and gossip magazines. After all, someone as flawless as I can hardly be expected to gain delight from the behaviour of such people.

From my lonely eminence gazing down on the common herd of humanity struggling through its day to day existence I can feel no pleasure in my superiority, merely a sort of pity. This is, however, great for everybody else. Gossip about me, smear me, form value judgements about me. It is your right and my way of giving something back. You're welcome.

Don't Bother Me, I'm Tracking My Pizza Delivery

OK, this internet stuff is getting out of hand. I had no problem with the internet when its principal uses were to enable you to keep in touch with people you couldn't bother keeping in touch with, to effectively access pornography and to assist people in cheating on university examinations. Now, however, things are just getting ridiculous.

Domino's Pizza are currently having a promotion part of the attraction of which is the ability to track your home delivery pizza on line. This means you can watch it leave the store, drive in circles for twenty minutes, stop to buy some drugs, get lost and then break every speed limit in an attempt to reach your home while still moderately warm. Exactly how empty and wretched does a life have to get before tracking a pizza delivery on line is the most exciting thing in your day? Although I will grant you it is still a better option than eating it.

People are rather funny about the internet and by funny,of course, I mean stupid. On the one hand we love social networking sites yet we moan about the lack of privacy. We enjoying buying things on line but then stagger back in astonishment when our credit card details become the property of Romanian gangsters or gun running goatherds from Tajikistan. It would appear that people have difficulty connecting actions to consequences.

There is, naturally, a very good reason for not connecting actions with consequences. If everybody did that nobody would ever do anything. Take Australia for example. Do you really think the British would have colonised the place if they had known that a little over two centuries later we would be beating them at cricket and introducing a mining tax? Its much more likely that Captain Phillip would have quietly dumped his load of convicts overboard somewhere around the Isle of Wight and then taken his fleet on an extended cruise to the south of France for six months.

Almost every ground breaking advance occurred because those involved were more interested in the discovery than with what the consequences of that discovery might be. It is unlikely that the inventors of the internet were thinking "this will be great for stealing credit card details - note to self; invent credit cards". So, an inability to accurately predict the consequences of ones actions is by and large a good thing. Except when it isn't; then things tend to get very nasty very quickly. On those occasions there is no shortage of knowitalls (like me) who will cheerfully point out that the consequences were predictable. One particularly ghastly consequence of being able to track your Domino's Pizza order on line is the realisation that pretty soon you will be eating the damned thing.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Freeze or Fry? Why Choose When You Can Have Both

Winter has finally arrived much to the surprise of global warming proponents. I always find it strange that people point to a hot Summer as evidence of global warming. Summers are supposed to be hot, at least in this country. I would me more convinced of climate change if we had cold Summers. However there is good news on the climate front. Apparently planetary temperatures are about to plummet. The cause is the Sun. It would appear that we are moving into a period of minimal sunspot activity. This will cause global temperatures to drop (why? I don't know). The last time we had such a flatline in the sun spot stakes medieval Europe (and probably the rest of the world) underwent an event that future scientists with an eye for a soundbite (ear for a soundbite?) labelled the mini ice age.

Now, one can, if one is so minded, consider this a fortunate coincidence. I prefer to see it as evidence of a self correcting system. As we bake the planet the Sun dials it back a notch to compensate. What could be more elegant or convenient. Or, let us face it, intrinsically unlikely. Mother nature doesn't have a great track record of balancing things out like this. Normally when something gets out of balance things hideously die. I rather suspect that instead of a nice even temperature pattern we're going to get both extremes at once. The equatorial regions will boil while the glaciers are advancing in the northern latitudes (they'll be advancing in the southern latitudes too but fewer people live there so, who cares?)

When these twin disasters hit there are going to be huge problems which will fortunately solve themselves. Yes millions of people will flee from flooded regions like Bangladesh, Florida and Venice but these desperate refugees will fortunately be eaten by the newly rampant polar bears now marauding as far south as France. The great coastal cities will be drowned of course altering human life forever but on the other hand the appalling death toll will be relieve a huge burden on our diminished food stocks. Predicting the weather will become nearly impossible but on the other hand we'll be able to enjoy both Summer and Winter sports all year round. We will be able to use the same venue for ice hockey and water polo at different times of the day.

This sort of bimageddon could well be the making of the human race. We will emerge from our trial by fire and ice leaner, fitter, tanned and furry. We will be a hard core, kick arse gang of bear killing, frost loving, water skiing, sun worshipping survival machines. Best of all we will finally have a practical use for the fur lined bikini.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Seven Thousand Tons of What???

Seven thousand tons of shit doesn't really sound terribly exciting unless you're a dung beetle with a glandular condition. For a certain type of scatologically inclined archaeologist, however, it is the best thing since sliced bread. Of course its entirely possible that some of it was sliced bread. This is no ordinary shit, this is Roman shit.

Apparently when Mount Vesuvius blew its top in 79AD one of the things preserved under the ash was the contents of a sewer in Herculaneum. Archaeologists are now sifting, somewhat gingerly one suspects, through the contents of said sewer to gain a better understanding of how ordinary Romans lived and more specifically what they ate. Apparently they ate dormice.

Off topic slightly, how fortuitous was the eruption of Vesuvius? Not for the people directly involved of course; for them it was a hideous disaster full of screaming, darkened skies, falling ash and the death of loved ones. People must have been shitting dormice all over the place. From a distance of a couple of millennia though we can be grateful that the eruption preserved things so well. It is amazing how much of our knowledge of ancient times comes from freak occurrences which stopped the usual processes of decay and demolition from happening.

Since we owe the preservation of Pompeii and Herculaneum to the eruption of Vesuvius it is interesting to note how we treat more contemporary volcanic ash clouds. Do we go into paroxysms of delight at the thought of Icelandic and Chilean culture being preserved throughout the ages. No, we bitch and whine about our travel plans being wrecked. I wonder if anybody living in Roman times saw the plume of ash rising from Vesuvius and thought, "That's going to bugger up the arrival of the grain fleet". Actually, being Roman and therefore practical, somebody probably did.

Nevertheless we seem to have very little regard for the problems that future archaeologists are going to encounter when they try to find out what life was like in our times. Nowadays when disaster threatens we selfishly evacuate the area, carrying whatever we can and when the danger has receded we either repair the structures in the area and go on using them or demolish them completely. Don't even get me started on recycling. As recycling takes a greater and greater hold on our society we will be leaving less and less behind to remember us by. Even sewage is being recycled these days and one can see the trend increasing. There will be no conveniently preserved sewers for the archaeologists of the future to sift through.

I genuinely believe that in a couple of centuries time it will be almost impossible to find any evidence that the human race existed as recently as a few decades before the time of checking. Everything will have been recycled into something new. Good for the planet yes but modern history is going to be a bit of a bitch to study. For archaeologists the eruption of Mt Vesuvius was a blessing in disguise. Well, for archaeologists and the dormouse population of central Italy.

Call Me Gunnlaugur

I'm thinking of changing my name. I came across a name at work the other day which appealed to me. Gunnlaugur! How awesome is that name? Seriously wouldn't you like a name like Gunnlaugur? It rolls off the tongue like a block of cement. Gunnlaugur MacPherson, now there's a name you could break rocks with. You could slip that name into a sock and mug somebody with it. Gunnlaugur makes one think of wolves and glaciers and exposed granite cliffs. Neil is the sort of name you associate with silly blog entries.

Not many people take the opportunity to rename themselves, possibly because of all the paperwork involved. In some cultures, of course, it is understood that whatever a child is called is only a placeholder until the child comes of age and gains a more appropriate moniker. I'm not sure that's a great idea as it only takes one embarrassing incident near the crucial date for you to be a practical joke for the rest of your life. Still its probably at least as good as the current naming conventions in our society which seem to mine equally from the bible, Hollywood and the covers of porn DVDs.

In Indonesia there is a tradition of giving a child a name and then watching it like a hawk for a few years. If the child seems to have an unusual amount of illness or misfortune it is decided that the name is too "strong" for the child and the parents will rename it. One can't help thinking that a particularly sickly or accident prone child might go through half a dozen names before reaching puberty. Can you imagine if the same thing happened here?
"Good morning Mrs MacPherson, how's young Neil?"
"Oh he broke his arm so now he's Gunnlaugur."
"Great, he won't break anything with a name like that"

Of course a short, snappy name like Neil has its advantages. Given the Australian predilection for shortening any name to its first syllable it is kind of useful to have a complete name that only has one to begin with. If I had been called Sebastian (or for that matter Gunnlaugur) its entirely possible I could have lived my entire life without learning what my full name was.

Names have always been imbued with a great deal of power. You can't effectively sue, stalk or arrange the assassination of someone unless you know their name. At least it helps a great deal if you don't have to set a hit man onto his target by pointing out the potential victim in a shopping and shouting,
"That's him, that's the guy I want you to kill."
There are probably more wholesome reasons why names are good as well. Personally I rather suspect that the entire idea of naming children can be traced back to the first couple who had more than one child. "Hey you!" is a perfectly adequate form of address for parents with only one kid but after you have a couple it starts to get difficult. The earliest children's names were probably something like, Child 1, Child 2, Child 3 and so on (I believe they still do something like that in Bali) but infant mortality being what it was in those days there must have been a constant shuffling of positions. How did parents break the news of a sibling death to their children back then?
"Congratulations Child 4 you are now Child 3. Better luck next time Child 2."
Possibly part of the reason the child mortality rate was so high was because status hungry youngsters were looking to move up. Finally when Child 2, formerly Child 9, was found standing over the body of Child 1 with an expectant grin on his face his exasperated parents probably said something like, "To hell with it. I'll just call you Gunnlaugur"

Sunday, June 5, 2011

At Last, the Owl As You've Never Seen it Before

I've been thinking about owls lately. To be more honest I have been thinking about owls since about midday today when a friend mentioned that he saw one once. I must admit that this rather surprised me. One doesn't normally think of owls as something one sees. One merely assumes they are there because we aren't waist deep in rabbits and field mice. It has to be admitted that we take owls rather for granted.

Well, no more! Let this blog entry be the first shot in a positive artillery barrage of owl affirmation. If pressed I will freely admit that I am not, perhaps, the best person to lead the serried ranks of owldom across the no mans land of ignorance into the machine gun fire of public awareness but it would appear that the mantle has fallen to me. The reason for my unsuitability for the role is my complete lack of knowledge about owls. So I'll just make some shit up.

Owls were invented in 1735 by Nils Holfsjerk a little known Danish painter who was tired of his canvasses being eaten by rabbits and field mice. Holfsjerk's initial delight at his creation soon turned to despair when he was sued by his neighbour, Lars Olfstrum the owner of Oflstrum's Rabbit and Field Mouse Emporium. Holfsjerk was driven from his native Copenhagen and died a lonely and embittered exile in Buenos Aires in 1740.

Despite this unpromising beginning owls struggled on for the next century or so supporting themselves mainly in waiting jobs and the occasion supporting part in arthouse theatre productions. Their big break came in 1854 when Denmark got into a war with Prussia and the Austrian Empire. Rumours swept Denmark that specially trained rabbits and field mice were being used to carry messages to the advancing Prussian and Austrian troops. An elite interdiction squad of highly trained owls was swiftly raised and by the end of the war the invaders were reduced to relying on the telegraph.

Unfortunately for the Danes this corps of owls was possibly the most efficient part of their army and Denmark was swiftly defeated. In the aftermath of war many owls emigrated seeking greener pastures (well stocked with rabbits and field mice of course) above which to swoop. Now of course owls can be found everywhere except Costa Rica for some reason which has never been fully explained.

In Australia owls have a long, if shadowy, history. Migrating at the end of the Second World War owls were encouraged to settle to assist farmers in combating a rabbit (and possibly field mouse) plague. There are dark rumours than in their desperation to get owl assistance the government overlooked the fact that some of these owls were wanted for war crimes and indeed provided said owls with new identities on arrival. Of course that was all a long time ago and today's Australian owls are upstanding model citizens that we can all be proud of, unless we are a rabbit or a field mouse of course.

I hope the preceding entry has done a little to redress the conspiracy of silence which seems to surround our feathery hunters of the night. I encourage parents to read this blog to their children to encourage them to become ornithologists or at least to get a realistic view of the reliability of internet sourced reference material. Tune in next week when I reveal the astonishing truth about tapeworms.

At the End of the Day Somebody Has to Mop A Bear Off the Street

As I crossed an open space to get to my office the other morning I was confronted with the sight of a rather large block of ice shaped (very) roughly like a bear. There was at least one person engaged in chipping bits off it, no doubt in an attempt to make it more ursine in appearance. I saw it again at lunch and it definitely looked more like a bear if only because wombats have stumpier legs. Finally I saw it again on my way home and it looked like a somewhat smaller bear.

Ice sculptures seem a little self defeating to me. There can be few other artistic endeavours where a blown thermostat can lead to you literally drowning in your work. Granted some people have little choice in the materials they use for their artistic expression. The Eskimo woodworker can sit for as long as he likes staring at the permafrost praying for just one little tree but we all know he's going to have to go home and ask the neighbours if they mind him doing something creative with their spare igloo.

Yep, when you spend all your life north of the Arctic Circle your sculpture options are pretty limited. It's really either ice or whalebone and I don't honestly think we can blame our anonymous sculptor for picking the medium that doesn't involve paddling out into icy waters in a kayak in an attempt to spear a seventy tonne sea monster. I can't help thinking these guys must be desperate for global warming.

Forget the Northwest Passage and newly exploitable oilfields can you imagine the breadth of Inuit art we're going to experience once the variety of sculpting materials increases? It isn't just sculpture either; once movement can be something other than a desperate attempt to keep your feet warm I think we will see an explosion in Eskimo interpretive dance. Poetry readings, too, will become more popular once the author doesn't have to worry about the audience freezing to death in mid recital.

It won't only be in the artistic sphere that the Eskimos will benefit from what is being marketed as the greatest environmental catastrophe of all time. Property values will rise, communications will become easier and best of all those ferocious bears will become a thing of the past seen only in non melting stone or wood sculptures. There are going to be so many upsides for the Inuit people once global warming kicks in that it will quite make up for the fact that their houses have melted.