Monday, May 24, 2004

I stumbled upon...

There's not enough of wireframe, and the site was only part-finished, but the stuff to play with is top-class timewasting material.

Ooglegay ocksray.

You like igpay atinlay? Eckchay isthay touay.

Nothing like these wonderful animals ever evolved. But it remains one of the mysteries of the human mind how we imagine these things -- it's easy to believe we construct them from the things we do know, but how? What I love most about Borges is that he inspires thought. His work wastes nothing, his writing is beautifully spare (as is often the case with Latin Americans, their toughness with words matching the toughness of Borges' knife fighters -- if you know nothing about Borges' knife fighters, you must seek out Fictions immediately, you will not regret it), and the thought sits in packed coils.

Can you spot a faker? If you score less than I did (10), please let me know. I have a bridge you might be interested in purchasing. Lots of other tests that will tell you things you already know, but with a twist -- the Necker cube one was interesting and I have to say I was pleased to find out my brain is a dude.

Corny Creationists

The earth is four billion years old. Whether God created it or it popped into existence with the rest of the universe in the Big Bang, it is an ancient body. In its long history, life has evolved from one form to another. Anyone who doesn't think so is going to look pretty foolish trying to prove what they believe. The case of corn, which, ahem, "Revolution against Evolution" believes disproves evolution tickled me.
This is standard issue creationist tactics: find something science once got wrong -- ignoring the millions upon millions of things it has got right -- and claim that this means its whole edifice is wrong.
In this instance the creationists leap upon the fact that scientists once thought -- by observation, one presumes -- maize had evolved from teosinte. Genetic studies show them to be the same species, it seems.
So, says RAE, evolutionists got this one wrong. So... evolution is wrong.
Well, no. Science says, and has to my knowledge always said, that maize was selectively bred from teosinte. It says that they are and always have been the same species. (Actually, maize is a subspecies of one of the five species of teosinte.) Any idea that teosinte was an evolutionary ancestor of maize would most likely have been pre-Darwin.
Even if science had been wrong about maize, wrongly assuming it to have been evolved from teosinte, all this shows is the proper working of the scientific method. Science surrenders its "truths" when the evidence is contrary (sometimes it takes a while to let them go, but it happens). We revise what we "know" in the light of fresh observation, new facts. Religion does not. Its explanations of the world cannot vary. It cannot encompass any more on its thousandth investigation than it did on its first. Above any other thing, I think, this is why I could never adopt a religion. There are just too many things in heaven and earth.

I have been thinking about Genesis, prompted by Stephen Jay Gould, who points out in his book, I have landed, that there are two Creation stories in the Bible. I had never really thought about it, but there clearly are. God creates the earth and things in it in different orders in the first and second chapters of Genesis. Some of the problems can be reconciled, but others definitely are more difficult.

What struck me, though, and it's something I'd like to see one of those "the Bible is true but the word 'yom' can mean 'age' as well as day" types have a go at answering, is that God created plants before he created the sun.

Were they green?

Saturday, May 22, 2004

Come together

There are days when everyone this side of the Cleavers wishes they were not married, but the pleasures of a shared life far outweigh the small qualms that strike us. Knowing someone as well as is possible, relying on them and having them rely on you – these things enrich and nourish us. This is true whether the marriage is legally recognised or a de facto partnership – marriage is written in the heart, not in the register. What counts is that you share with the world that you share a commitment, pride even, I don’t know what you call it, but it is in any case public. Some feel the need for the public to recognise it in return (some, but only few I would have thought, would wish it recognised for the small benefits it can bring – much bigger where there are kids and issues of guardianship, or an estate that might be disputed, but at least here in Australia or in the UK not much); some just like to formalise the partnership, to realise it.
But what I feel the right forgets is that these things are formalities – the marriage is made long before anyone gets to church. That doesn’t change no matter what laws you can get passed, even if the homophobes manage to constitute their states, or even their nation, on the grounds of their intolerance. You just can’t legislate love out of existence. And I believe that you should celebrate it where you find it, and doubly celebrate it when it is strong and alive. So a tip of the hat to the good people of Massachusetts and my wishes to them that their marriages give them all they hope for, that the good days far outnumber the bad, and that they enjoy to the full the blessings of union, regardless of the sex of their partner.

Around the point

Rounding the point, I see a school of dolphins, maybe twelve, fifteen, keeping pace with me. When I first see them they are off Main Beach, 250 yards from shore, I’m guessing. By the time I am at the farthest point of the headland, they are level with me, but as I walk along the head and round, they don’t seem to gain much. You’d almost swear they can sense you, but they can’t, can they? They are made for water and I’m sure we on land are nothing to them, not even the merest dream.
There are two schools of dolphins, bay and sea, although you don’t often see them in the bay when you take the water taxi out to the island. (It’s all relative – the bay dolphins spend time in the open sea: I’ve seen the schools join to drive fish inshore.) I wonder as I watch them how their world is bounded. From where I am standing on the headland the sea seems vast and cold, limitless almost (as it practically is, its dimensions are quite inconceivable: I am sure that if I dove in and swam straight, I would not make landfall until I reached North America, unless it were on some lonely atoll, nameless, temporary and scarcely real).
I walk down on to Frenchman’s Beach. I do not know who the Frenchman was, and I haven’t yet found anyone who could tell me. In the summer, it is sometimes a nude beach where gay Adonises, oiled and buff, show off to one another (and to Grandma Zen, whom we chivvy that she takes her binoculars to see what’s to see), but now the tourist season is over and I have it to myself. The surf is rougher here than on the other surfside beaches on the island, but I glimpse a fin way out, maybe two. I climb up over the coffee rocks that lead between beaches. From the vantage point of the top of the rocks, maybe ten yards from sea level, I can see that the dolphins have split. There are only a couple now, ploughing on. A kayak is pulling out from Cylinder, the rowers working hard against the rip. Perhaps they will see my dolphins, and mistake the fins for sharks. Unless you see their backs as they porpoise, it’s possible to err in choppy water. And there are sharks – Granddad Zen has lost fish to them, hook and a foot of line.
On Cylinder, Zenella is building sandcastles. We climb the rocks and I point to the dolphins, far out now, hard to see. She cannot pick them out, does not know what she is looking for.
The wind is blowing her hair across her face. She is chasing Grandma across the sand. “Let’s run as fast as we can,” she is calling to Grandma. We have to leave the beach, return to Brisbane. As so often our agendas put the crimp on her freedom. It will always be the way, but I do not regret bringing her to Australia. I know there are things she will miss, I know there are things I wish for her that cannot be here, but watching her, running as fast as she can across the sand, I swim in something vast and ineffable, and I believe that it will not be from my doing that her merry laughter ever ceases.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

For Looney

Hey Anthony, just in case you miss the comment on your 100 dull things about how you love ice cream and footy, here's the words to the haka, and what they mean:

Ringa pakia
Uma tiraha
Turi whatia
Hope whai ake
Waewae takahia kia kino

English Translation:
Slap the hands against the thighs
Puff out the chest
Bend the knees
Let the hip follow
Stamp the feet as hard as you can.

Ka Mate! Ka Mate!
Ka Ora! Ka Ora!
Tenei te ta ngata puhuru huru
Nana nei i tiki mai

Whakawhiti te ra
A upane ka upane!
A upane kaupane whiti te ra!

English Translation:
It is death! It is death!
It is life! It is life!
This is the hairy person
Who caused the sun to shine
Keep abreast! Keep abreast
The rank! Hold fast!
Into the sun that shines!


I'm not convinced by the translation, though. Clearly it's not literal.

I die! I die! I live! I live!
This is the hairy man
who fetched the Sun
And caused it to shine again
One upward step! Another upward step!
An upward step, another... the Sun shines!!!

is another translation of the second half. Take your pick.


I find the Maoris interesting. That whole thing of setting out into the boundless ocean, with little idea what you would find. I wonder what the truth of it was. For Kupe, the navigator, an explorer of true courage, who really didn't know what he would find, the myth is probably true. But those who followed after and settled New Zealand, you have to suppose they had a good idea of what they would find. Still, it's never easy to leave home.

The fierce warrior tradition -- and cool tattoos -- impress us meek types. It's good, I think, that that energy, passion and aggression can be channelled into sports, art, music: these too are things that are worthy of men's efforts.

Why sports? Surely, I can almost hear some who know me saying, you don't think that sport is very, erm, cultural? Well, yes I do. It brings us together, huge bands of us, to sing, to shout, to love, to hate, to praise. Is this not culture? And our sportsmen are artists performing for us. They have no other purpose. They will dedicate their whole lives, make sacrifices, give their all in some cases to entertain, edify and move us. It provides glue, a means to differentiate one from another without real rancour. Like the haka, it can be fierce, but it's pantomime.

Okay, so I just got cable and can't keep myself away from it and this is my halfarsed attempt to justify that.

BTW, I wondered who "the hairy person" in the haka is and found this explanation. I won't be able to stop thinking of the wife on top of the sweet potato pit next time I watch the All Blacks.

War on the poor

Mrs Zen is buying a cork.

The Federal government has announced its budget. Having overtaxed the population it has a surplus to play with and an election to win (it certainly doesn't waste too much money on services, which are very much in decline here). As a "close ally" (read "running dog") of the Bush administration, the Howard gov't (who cunningly and quite amusingly call themselves the Liberals but are anything but) announced large tax cuts for the well-off. For the less well paid, nothing.

The big selling point of the budget was its family provisions. Instead of the current slightly confused system of tax breaks, the gov't proposes to give all new parents $3000 a child. It also offers a $600 bonus at the end of the tax year. This is to make up for the ludicrous child benefit system, where the claimant must guess their income for the coming year (easy if you have a steady job, not so easy if you're any sort of freelance or differently employed), rather than getting paid according to the previous year's income (as in the UK). Many have been stuck with a bill for overpayment at the end of the year, and this has made the whole system very unpopular.

The tax year runs from July 1, and the twins, although due in mid July, are expected towards the end of June. Mrs Zen will need the cork to keep the buggers in until July 2.

The gov't found plenty more money for its boys in Iraq. We're feeling a little left out. Our guys only torture kittens. The war is as unpopular here as it was back in the UK. Howard went to visit the troops on Anzac day and, although he grabbed the headlines, it was seen as electioneering by proxy. The opposition guy, Latham, said our presence in Iraq was symbolic (of our support for the septics, he meant) and that sent the RWC (yes, we have them in spades) into apoplexy -- "tell the guys who've been injured that their injuries are symbolic" the guy in the Courier-Mail (what laughably passes as a newspaper here in Brisbane) said.

The other day Rumsfeld admitted that the mission in Iraq might be a failure. Since the mission's objectives change every now and then, I'm not sure how we'd know, but there seem to be a fair few army voices saying that they fear it's another Vietnam. The military wins the battles, the pollies lose the war. The right wing scoffed at us bleeding heart libs when we said this would be just that -- another dismal foreign policy failure that would break American hearts, put a lot of young Americans and a hundred times more Iraqis into their graves, and solve nothing -- because the land war was so quickly "won".

You know, deep down, we know what the problem is with Iraq. We have absolutely no business there. We have no business fucking around in those people's lives. The fucking around in their lives has incensed them. It's a large part of why they bomb our trains, our embassies and our buildings. We're not fixing the place. We're mostly destroying it. We're shooting civilians, bombing mosques, bulldozing people's homes. That's a long way from getting the power back on or securing drinking water. We're doing what the rich have done ever since there were rich and poor. We're doing it in Iraq, and by the back door Howard does it here.

There are six billion of us on this planet. I don't know one good reason we should not get an equal share, each and every one of us. One six-billionth. You're simply not entitled to more. But the rich will continue the war on the poor as long as they can get away with it. They'll use any means -- bombs, tanks, cash bribes for your vote -- whatever it takes to prevent a fair deal.

My vote remains no. No to Howard, no to the war in Iraq, no to the war on the poor, yes to a world we can be proud to live in, yes to love, however flowery it is to shout it out that you want it, you want it to spread, you want it for everyone, that your world should no longer be at war.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

My nine new records

I love buying records. I especially like to buy them from Amazon, where I can linger by the racks without some kid's rucksack in the small of my back and the muzak is my choice, not some guy who thinks Evanescence rawk.
So I was delighted to get a gift certificate from my excolleagues, and spent a happy hour or two selecting nine CDs that fill gaps in my collection. Some I used to have on vinyl -- I still don't know who stole my record collection; I left it with a friend when I went travelling a few years back, and by the time I returned, I'd forgotten who, and they'd sold it, I guess -- and some I had once taped but now could own for myself. The package arrived a couple of days ago, so the house has been shaking to the sounds of the CDs I chose.
The other day I bought Decade. Someone had lent me Harvest and I realised what I'd been missing (I've known his more recent stuff for years, but I can't believe that I've never heard Cortez the killer before). It would take some time to buy up Neil Young's whole back catalogue, the guy has more records than the state archives, but I thought a retrospective might help fill the gaps. Anyhow, one of my ten was Ragged glory. I'd like to personally hand that album to the youngsters of our town, who think that the lame, whinging rawk they plague their neighbours with kicks arse. Some guy made it in a studio, kids -- usually a guy older than Neil Young, but lacking his fire and balls.
Fire and balls are what make rock. When I was a tearaway, I loved Husker Du, because they seemed to be wholly composed of them. I still do love them, and one of my ten was Zen arcade. It's a double album of first-take punk. It teems with ideas. In dark hours, I wonder why these guys don't sell millions, then I remind myself that the world is what it is, with rules by Adam Smith and Thomas Hobbes not Aldous Huxley.
Sonic Youth veer between almost -- well, actually totally -- unlistenable art rock and sublime wiggy guitar blowouts, sometimes in the same song. On Sister and Daydream nation, the inventiveness usually stays within the bounds of bearability. It's a pity they never realised how good they were.
The casual reader will be thinking Dr Zen is some longhaired rock fiend, but scrub that picture. I have a nice, tidy short haircut and I mostly don't care for rock at all. Punk yes, guitar solos no. Attitude is what it is. So yes, the Replacements' Let it be was another of my ten new records, but that's as straight ahead rock as I get. More typical would be Kraftwerk. I used to own Computer world in English and German, but these days I have to sing along in German myself, because the German version would be too much gelt for a man who is currently in the leisured classes.
I also bought a box set of Manu Chao and Billie Ray Martin's second album. Manu Chao stirs a mad melange of son, salsa, reggae and whathaveyou into world-music nursery rhymes that make Zenella dance like St Vitus. Billie Ray Martin has a great soul voice, which is pretty rare in a German, and is her huge plus, who writes her own material, which is her big minus. Her record is way overproduced and the genre -- R&B I guess you'd call it -- doesn't suit her half as much as techno used to (if you ever hear Your loving arms, you'll know what I mean).
Rounding off my new records is Get ready. New Order made the soundtrack to my life. Without question, when they film my novels, I'll have it written into the contract that they do the score. sigh...

Monday, May 10, 2004

Marching on together

Football is a man's life on grass. Mostly it's struggle -- you must put in unrelenting effort if you want success, if you slack, you will pay, finding yourself on your arse, wondering what might have been. Whenever you push forward, someone is dragging you back; sometimes, another man will hurt you, put you out of the game even, anything to stop you from taking what might be his. Nothing cushions you from defeat but money. If you have none, you must simply endure it. No one else will carry your burden.
Success is sweet. When you are riding high, it is a wonderful thing. (Whoever says that it is all the more sweet for having been down does not understand that when what you want is to win, you would be satisfied to win each and every one without needing any seasoning.
Of course, much of football is dreaming: the start of the season, the squad that could win things, the golden age that is always beginning and so quickly ends. The dreams sour, the wonder years (if they ever come) end in tears, and age and frustration overtake you.
When Kewell was skinning the best defenders in Europe, we allowed ourselves to dream of the trophies we would see our captains lift, of the glory of our team's being hailed the best. Well, when the dreams do fade, you do what you do, brush yourself down, get yourself back in the saddle and start dreaming again. Next season, Leeds return to the Premiership, bigger, better, ready for triumph once again.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Off the map

When I was a child I loved atlases. I loved to look at the names of places, and dream of one day visiting them. I had a special list -- the names that struck me most, that had most magic. They were more or less spread around the world. Some of them I've visited. Some I've still to see.

I suppose it's something extraordinary that they did not let me down. I'll share a name. Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, is a sprawling city, its centre reminiscent of Toulouse (wide boulevards, all the signs in French, well kept by the standards of West Africa), surrounded by an enormous shanty town. You realise you are approaching Ouaga when the scrubby forest that you have been travelling through disappears, replaced by a weird plain of tree stumps that stretches for several miles. I was with Mrs Zen when I visited. We stayed in the back courtyard of a brothel (most places to stay in West Africa double up). All the other rooms were the dayrooms of the prostitutes. They were friendly, open women. I suppose most of them are now dead of AIDS.

I remember eating rice and sauce arachide in a shady courtyard, haggling for hours in a market with a young guy who wanted to pass the time as much as make a sale, young women trying to sell their glass pendants, knives that you could never bring through customs, rugs that would not suit the decor of your lounge room.

I will never see Ouaga again. My life has changed and I do not think I could spare the time or money to do it. I do not regret that. Life does change.

Mind you. I went to West Africa on a 91-day air ticket -- it was very cheap -- but I could not, or would not, spare the five, six days it would have taken to go to Timbuktu (I couldn't afford to fly). It's a small regret. But isn't it extinguishing the small regrets that drives us through this life more than just about anything else?