Saturday, December 5, 2009

Transportation Trauma

Jakartan traffic is notorious.  The streets are a constant tangle of cars, trucks, semi-roadworthy bajaj, and the ubiquitous motorcycle and even a few lunatics on bicycles.  As someone without their own vehicle, I am forced to rely on the various forms of public transport.  These are numerous and varied
1. Blue Bird Group taxi
This is basically the best way to travel.  Safe, air-conditioned, RELIABLE (a big factor, more on that later) knowledgeable, and if you remember the cab number, you can even retrieve items if you happen to leave something in the back seat.  Starting price 60 cents, which takes you a certain set distance before increasing by 30 cent intervals.  5 minute trip is about a dollar.  Not cheap here, but by TO standards its a real bargain.  Going from my area to downtown is about 5-7.50.  
2. Non-Blue Bird Taxi 
These guys are cheaper and start at 50 cents but their reliability is highly suspect.  They might not genuinely know where they are going, as many rural people have migrated to the city and don't necessarily know their way around.  They might take you around the entire city, or not turn on the meter and try to hustle you.  Cheaper but riskier, and even the locals tend to avoid them.
3. Ojek
This is a motorcycle taxi.  A guy with a motorcycle and sometimes a spare helmet spends his day ferrying people around the city.  They hang out at these stands indicated by a hand-drawn sign, with a platform bed or bench where they play chess and nap.  The cost is highly variable and basically depends on your negotiating skills.  Quick tip, be prepared to walk away, and always agree on the price in advance.  The one advantage of the ojek is that it is not really affected by traffic jams, which are constantly a looming threat in Jakarta.  Conversely, most ojek drivers are also not 
4. Angkot
This is a third-world thing through and through.  It is a small, SUV shaped vehicle, but riding low to the ground.  There is no door, it is an opening into the back, lined with benches and no AC.  The open windows provide natural AC.  There are no stops, you just flag him down.  To get off, you yell out "kiri" or knock on the roof/window.  Again, no stops, he'll let you out as soon as he can when he hears you knock.  The big advantage, it costs only 20 cents flat fee!  This is my favourite mode so far due to the price and the fun.  And, you get to briefly mingle with the people, and you all know me, a man of the people!  
5. Bajaj
These guys are the champions of the city.  They drive these old two stroke three wheel covered motorcycles imported from India (you know you're in the developing world when they import vehicles from India!).  These little orange devils will shake your eyes right out of their sockets as you slowly rumble along, inhaling more fumes than you ever thought possible.  Price on these is a total crapshoot and there isn't as much room for negotiation.  I rode around with an Indonesian guy and on the way we payed double what we payed on the way back and he didn't blink. 
Getting from point A to B is not a small matter, but instead a herculean feat of patience, and bravery.  When you step out into the fray, every form of transport greedily stops, assuming that you want on.  Every shady cab and scruffy ojek calls out to you, beckoning you into their conveyance.  You see the coveted Blue Bird wiz by in the far lane, knowing that he won't see you in time.  Crossing the street is a nightmare, a game of chicken where you as a pedestrian need to act like a car, with the same confidence and aggression, but with the full knowledge that you are delicate blood and bone, while those you compete with are fatal metal and shearing plastic.  Further, the roads are a tangle of non-existent urban planning and I have seen born and bred Jakartans get lost driving around their own city! 

Celebrating Eidol Aza

So, last weekend was Eidol Adha.  This is a muslim celebration which commemorates the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice Isaac/Ismail (in Islamic tradition it is Ismail) to God.  At the last minute, god magically replaced Abraham's son with a sheep.  So, for Eidol Adha, sheep/goats are sacrificed, as well as cows and buffalo (if the community can afford it) and the meat is then distributed to the poor and shared amongst those who participate in the ritual.  So, I was picked up by Agung, a great guy who worked in Vancouver for 4 years and is the bf of one of my co-workers.  He lives about an hour from me, in a place called Tengerang, just outside W. Jakarta.  He was adamant that I wear a jacket so that I didn't "Masuk Angin".  In Indonesia, the people firmly believe that if you Air (angin) enters (masuk) your body it will make you sick, and further, that the air could become duduk angin (sitting air) which will cause your death!  So, even when you are in 32C weather, when you ride a motorcycle, you need to wear a jacket.  They also sell these things which are best described as bullet proof vests, which ostensibly will save you from getting scraped if you fall off your bike, but sell here due to there defensive powers against masuk angin.  Anyway, I slept over at his house, where I took my first Indonesian shower.  In Indonesia, they have a big square basin, about a metre high, filled with water, and a scooper.  You scoop water out of the basin and pour it onto your body.  The whole bathroom is one big shower stall, so you water just goes everywhere.  At first, I didn't spot the train, and was panicking as to where to dump the water?  Then, I noticed the drain in the opposite corner.  Next day, we woke up, went to the pasture to pick up the goats.  I personally led a goat down the road to the flat area which had been set up for the sacrifice by the way, the whole days activities were accompanied by traditional Indonesian music for Eid called Beduk Lebaran.  It is a fast, rhythmic drumming and Islamic praises sung by a group.  This cassette was played THE ENTIRE DAY!  There were 7 goats, 1 cow and 1 water buffalo.  Buffalo are really muscular and kind of scary to be honest, seems like they could easily kill you.  The goats were trying to hump each other, even though they were all male, as we led them down the road.  Then, a butcher came and started setting things up.  Long story short, they butcher the animals and the whole community helps cut up the meat into portions for distribution.  It takes eight men to flip a buffalo.  I didn't see the buffalo or cow get killed, but i saw two of the goats get butchered.  I was a bit worried that I would pass out and everyone would think I was a wimp, but I was fine.  Then I sat down on the dirty, bloody ground and cut the hot meat, meat so fresh, that when you cut into it the muscle would still flex!  One of the butchers, a thick, muscle bound guy who fit the perfect stereotype of a butcher then showed me the raw, skinned balls of the goat and said "you like?"  I thought this would be a prelude to me having to eat the balls, but luckily, the guy just dropped the whole "set" right into his mouth and swallowed it down.  Balls are highly prized here because they give you "man power" and not in the labour ministry sense.  Finally, the day was over and we all headed back to Agung's house.  There, I ate and talked to his family and his mom said if I ever needed anything, I should consider her as my mother in Jakarta.  Very nice family.  Then, I headed back to my apartment on the back of Agung's motorcycle.  Worst thing was, I literally almost fell asleep!  I never would've believed that I could fall asleep while darting through the traffic of Jakarta but there I was.  I just gripped the back of the bike hard and flexed my legs, you know, get the blood flowing.  Fell asleep around 8 pm back at my Apartment.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Day to Day

I realized that I haven't really touched on the biggest part of my day, my job!  So, for something which at this point has become rudimentary and uninteresting to me, but is probably of interest to those not doing it 5 days a week, here is a general outline of my job.  
Students or "Who Needs English in an Enormous Country Where Very Few People Speak the Language?"
The students are great, they are mostly high school or uni students with a few older businessmen and housewives thrown into the mix.  Some are very rich and don't have jobs or school so they just hang out at the centre all day.  The way it works here is we have a language centre with a very big lounge area with free coffee and tables and couches and a big tv.  Then, there are a few classrooms.  The normal class is max 4 students and the teacher and you have a folder with the lesson plan.  the students hypothetically should know all the info before the lesson due to workbook and solo computer practice.  The lesson is more like a test/interview where they run through a few drills to test their knowledge of the material.  If the students really don't know some key elements of the material from the unit, they must repeat that unit.  The other kind of class is called a complementary class with 8 students max.  This is more like a regular class but again very little teaching, mostly review and monitoring of student errors.  Then our other duty is called social club, where we do fun/educational activities with large groups of students such as jack o'lantern making or bollywood dance or, on the more educational end of the spectrum, a pronunciation workshop.  
My Boss or "Who Owns My Soul in Indonesia?"
The boss is good (very laid back and has the interests of her centre's employees at heart)  for example we recently had a policy shift whereby teachers now have only 3 paid sick days, the rest are from our vacation or they become unpaid.  She said that she will do her best not to deduct any sick days beyond the three and that if we can get another teacher to cover for us, she will overlook the whole thing and assume it is a shift trade.  
The School aka "The Centre (dun dun duunnnnn)"
Location is good too.  Even though we are basically stuck at work from 1:00 to 9:00, we only work 6 of those hours.  Because its in a mall, we can just go hang in the mall during our free time, or use the net in the teacher's room.  Btw, the Indonesian concept of a mall is quite different from the Western concept, so don't get too turned off.  That being said, it does nonetheless contain some of the horrid traits of a mall (temple to consumerism etc) but it is much more open concept, in that there are many outdoor areas you can sit around in or for example, just below the centre is a snack bar which is basically a giant open terrace on the second floor.  Just saying its better than a language school in the middle of nowhere where you'd be stuck in basically a school all day with nowhere to go. 
-the thing about accomodations is that the decision is basically yours.  I opted for the slightly more expensive option because there was no sign of roaches.  All the apt.s I saw were two bedroom, cheapest was $2600 for the year, mine is $4300 for the year. Down side is, there is some kinda funk in the apt. which I don't know how to get rid of.  If you saw the other apartments I saw, you probably would have chosen mine too.  The building has an awesome pool, like frickin incredibly elaborate (no deep end though because most Indonesians don't know how to swim) and a wight room which I have made good use of.  Bottom line, because I've gotten glimpses of how the regular Indonesian lives, I really can't make any legitimate complaint about my apt.  A bank worker here gets $150US while I get $1330 so... basically I feel like a complete piece of human filth if I complain about most things.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Kelapa Gading: Glutton's Paradise

The area I live in IS food. Everything about Kelapa Gading is infused with culinary touches. The name itself means Ivory Coconut, which is a species of coconut known for its deliciousness. The area is home to Kelapa Gading Food City, which is a courtyard of decent restaurants conveniently located in the mall where I work. A note about malls, when I say "in" I don't mean indoors. In Indonesia, most malls have not only indoor shops, but also a courtyard area filled with food stands, and walled in on all sides by restaurants. At these food courtyards, you can find any kind of Indonesian food (more on that later) as well as Indian, Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese food. The variety of food to be found here is not quite on par with Toronto in terms of geographical breadth, but, this place quite possibly gives Toronto a run for its money on number of dishes available. For example, under the umbrella of Indonesian food can be found literally a dozen different regional foods. There is Betawi food, which is the name of the ethnic group that traditionally inhabited the vicinity of modern day Jakarta and West Java. One Betawi specialty is sun dried beef, which is basically like thick beef jerky. The sound of it slightly turned me off when I heard about it (sun dried+beef=??? rotten beef?) but it is in fact amazing. Also hailing from Betawi comes the wonderful beverage known as Wadung Ronde (I think?). It is comprised of ginger juice, tapioca bubbles, grass jelly, roasted peanuts, mung beans and small pieces of sweet bread. Served warm, it is the perfect way to get cleanse your palet and help your digestive system (via the ginger, and trust me, your digestive system needs help in Indonesia). Then there is Acehnese food, Sunda food, Sumatran food, Padang food, Bandung food and the list goes on. Padang food is worth mentioning. It is spicy, greasy, salty and gets right down to the heart of what culinary indulgence really is. The Padang restaurant 'system' is also worth describing. You can spot a Padang restaurant easily by looking for the two hallmarks of this region. One is the sloped roof, usually just sticking out of the facade of the storefront over the door. Then, there is also the bowl pyramid. Padang restaurants store their food stacked up in brick-like layers formed into a pyramid. When you order, a number of these dishes are brought to your table, and any bowls from which you touch, you pay for. Fried chicken, grilled fish, dried fish quiche (better than it sounds), marijuana marinated beef and green chilli salad (incendiary) all sit before you, challenging you not to sample them. For example, for lunch today, I ordered what I thought was Padang beef jerky only to be informed by a 'helpful' co-worker that it was in fact dried cow lung. It was actually pretty decent, if a little bubbly and grisly. The only bad culinary experience I've had so far also involved offal. It was a pho-like soup laden with msg, and like pho, it contained slices of semi-cooked beef which cooked in your bowl. Also like pho, it had additional goodies like tripe, tendon, something unidentifiable and sprouts. UNLIKE pho, it had no noodles, and lots and lots of the tripe, tendon and 'other'. It was really a bowl of awful/offal.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Big Durian

That is the moniker by which Jakarta is affectionately known.  First, how did I get here?

I took a flight from Toronto direct to Hong Kong, which is about 14:30 hours.  As expected, I was subject to the "random" body search by security at Pearson.  The irony was, the guard was Pakistani, and asked where I was from.  When I said Canadian/Persian dad, he started speaking some Farsi to me.  It was almost like he himself felt a touch guilty about what he was doing.  Then, I stayed a night in HK (I'm an idiot and I booked it that way) and from HK to Jakarta, another 4 hours.  So, a total of 18:30 hours to get here.  In HK I stayed in a place that was literally a roach motel.  Every time I picked up my back pack to get something out or put something back, several roaches would scatter from under my bag.  I was really worried that I would carry some stowaways into my residence in Jakarta, but luckily, there only seem to be ants there (more on that below).  It was hilarious, the room had a bathroom and shower, which were both in the same area, about 4ft x 4ft.  A sink, a toilet, and above both of them, a shower head.  On the plus side, it was nostalgic to go back to HK, good memories from my study abroad experience.  I was in a part of downtown which is pretty exciting called Tsim Sha Tsui,  a stone's throw from the notorious Chung King Mansion.  This is a huge apartment/business building that is home to the marginalized members of HK society, such as Africans, "South Asians", and some fairly rough looking South East Asians.  To those from TO, buildings (10 stories+) in HK don't house just offices, but if go upstairs, you'll find any number of establishments such as guest houses, massage parlours (the suspicious and legit kind) restaurants, electronics stores... basically anything that is relegated to street level only in Toronto.  So, I was on the 10th floor, which had not only at least 4 other guest houses, but also apartments, a web cafe and some other unidentifiable places.  Anyway, street level TST is pretty fancy, so I just strolled around there several times, looking for some food and some other familiar sights.     Arrival in Jakarta was panic inducing.  Now, if you hadn't had the experiences I've had, you wouldn't be phased by anything other than the rather quaint appearance of the airport.  But, having read a few (in hindsight) fear mongering guides on Indonesia, I was expecting to get the 3rd degree.  The airport is nice, and has some simple yet earnest Indonesian motifs and statues spread around.  But after the impressive monoliths to the future that are the HK international airport and Pearson International, the low ceilings and narrow hallways at Soekarno Hatta IA inspired more of an "awwww, that's so cute" rather than a "WOW..."  But, I had no need to worry, the incredible bored looking immigration officials simply stamp and fill in the appropriate forms as fast as they can.  I was picked up at the airport by Grace, one of the WSI employees who also booked me a hotel.  The hotel was pretty nice, and a welcome respite after the squalor of my HK place.  It was a bargain at around $47 a night for two twin beds, free breakfast buffet (which was my first taste of Indonesian food and it was terrific) pool and good service.  Finding an apartment was a bit of a challenge and I think I fared poorly.  Oh well, I still ended up with a pretty decent unit, and with a bit of personal flare, I'm sure it will look great.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Life in the Bubble

First, a note about life in Jakarta. In Toronto, if you want to go to a given destination, you can walk there, drive there, bike there or take the TTC. The sidewalks are broad, the TTC is reliable, safe and fairly direct (if not extensive) and if your in a car, the roads are wide and parking is plentiful, if a little pricy. In Jakarta, the sidewalks are either non-existent, or absolutely taken up by street vendors called "abang-abang". This means that walking even a short distance, say 15 minutes, becomes difficult (you will get hassled by the vendors and other types trying to hawk their wears or maybe pick your pockets) and the sidewalk might suddenly end and become the gate wall of the next building. So, rather than walk somewhere, or park near your destination and walk the remaining distance, you take a taxi directly to the door, or park in an underground garage of a mall. Consequently, there is quite a lot of shuttling between one enclosed area, such as a mall which may have an extensive open air courtyard but is still sealed off from "the street" and another, such as a restaurant in a strip mall complex, again sealed off from the streets. All the mall entrances have security checks, ostensibly for bombs but also to restrict access to the priviledged. I was in a car that dropped a local off in her area and at the entrance to her neighbourhood, there was a gate and three watchmen, again restricting access. This is a huge adjustment from Toronto, and to those who complain about inequality in TO, they should see this city, where the elite are hermetically sealed off from the "masses".

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ecology and Tyranny: a Salvationary Partnership

In Collapse, by Jared Diamond, the haunting fate of Easter Island is expounded upon. On this isolated Pacific island, the spiral of power politics and ecological devastation progressed to its logical conclusion. The main cause of the collapse of Easter Island was deforestation, as lumber was a vital resource for survival on Easter. Would provided boats, ropes, and heat and thus fish, cooked food and heat. Trees also served the function of anchoring the soil to the ground and after the loss of this anchor, the Pacific ocean became the main beneficiary of the scanty amount of fertile top-soil on Easter. Lumber also had another value in Easter society, which relates to the well known stone heads which look out into the Ocean. While it has been shown that wooden rollers were not used, other elements in the construction of the monoliths were very lumber intensive. The monoliths served as a prestige project for the various clans which vied for power on Easter. The key question asked by Diamond is "What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last tree think?" Although Easter did make contacts with Europeans at some later date, the period coinciding with the deforestation of Easter precedes European contact by several centuries. In addition, the original migration to Easter was a one off event. No new Polynesian colonists came to Easter, nor was there any trade with any of the other Pacific Islands. Thus, the Easter Islanders knew there was no other source of lumber, even as they felled the few remaining trees on the Island. With that in mind, we can speculate that the elite very likely refused to relinquish power or end their ecologically suicidal building projects, even as the Island was being obviously denuded of its trees. If we accept this picture, it is clear that the elites interest in retaining pre-eminence over rival clans and the individual leaders' desires to remain pre-eminent over their subjects trumped even the drive to survival. If we compare this picture with our own present day situation, we find that there are marked similarities, an entrenched myopic elite more concerned with its own retention of power and prestige than with the survival of the species. My argument goes as follows: dicatatorship is the only solution to the world's environmental problems due to its ability to execute long term plans. A Democracy is fine at dealing with human scale problems, a war, the economy etc. because these kinds of problems can usually be solved/resolved (resolved in the sense that even if the gov't itself does not solve the problem, it will reach its climax and resolution on its own momentum. Take for example, the defeat of the gov't in question or the natural rebound of the economy in the wake of a financial crisis) within a single electoral cycle. A dicatorship on the other hand assumes that it will be in power indefinitely and thus acts in light of the fact that it must not only defend its present and short-term interests but also its long term interests. A tyranny can trample over dissent to force those difficult sacrifices which no rational constituency would submit themselves to, such as a one child policy, or any other loss of freedom/prosperity. The destruction of its own ecology, the metaphoric deforestation of its own isolated island would be an irrational policy for a tyranny if its power was secure. But then again, who said tyrants were rational?

Anarchy and Incarceration

So, to those of you who know me well, I have very recently had first hand experience with the "system". I'm as skeptical as the next person and despite my suspicions surrounding power relationships and hierarchy, I was also unwilling to uncritically accept the position taken by young radicals in regards to anarchy and being progressive in the reductionist, oppositional way. But, having had the experience of actually being in a cell, stripped of dignity and given some time to reflect on this, I have come to the realization that hierarchy is in fact a reality. All the idealistic, starry eyed university radicals and all the bleary eyed, disillusioned ranks of the older generations who have opposed state power were on the money. One realization that dawns on you quite forcefully when in a cell for no reason is that all the human rights, pieces of identification and preconcieved notions you have held about your immunity from arbitrary state violence were ephemeral curtains, brushed aside as easily as my fathers fears about racial profiling. All the high minded disputations on Human rights and freedoms and the state operating in the interests of the citizens are a farce. Even going back to the first Democracy in Athens, one of the first institutions implemented under the new system was the ostracism. This storied Athenian innovation whereby the citizens would vote some unfortunate soul into exile is confirmed by archaeological evidence. What is this practice if not a state sanctioned attack on an individual percieved negatively by the majority of citizens. Racial profiling is a reflection of this ostracism. Security services, composed of citizens from the lower socio-economic echelons victimize individuals based solely on their perception, fostered by some of the baser elements of society. Middle Easterner = Terrorist, an inescapable conclusion if you have been immersed in American hegemonic culture for your entire life. So, anarchism may be on to something, freedom of the masses from the masses. Or are all isms inherently flawed?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Black Mass: so if we can't have a Utopia then...?

Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia sets out to make two major points.  Firstly, that the secular political ideologies which sprung out of the Enlightenment, such as liberalism, capitalism, communism and more recently neo-conservatism are all deeply rooted in Christian notions of history as a narrative process.  In other words, the Judeo-Christian legacy views history as an unfolding story, with a beginning and more importantly, with a definite end point.  Different ideologies have taken this endpoint to be different things, either a bloody final battle between good and evil, or a catastrophe followed by a restoration of harmony or even Communism.   Unlike in other cultures (which are very vaguely defined by Gray) which view history as a cycle which repeats, the Judeo-Christian model is set on the idea of progress and movement towards a final destination.  Secondly, Gray wants us to believe that this is not the case and that history is headed nowhere and that any attempts at creating a Utopia will merely end up in bloodshed.  As a result, he advocates a purely real politik form of small c conservatism, whereby we make changes as they are needed, stay pragmatic and embrace pluralism and religion without enforcing any one creed or ethnic identity.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Zombies and the Coming Ecological/Energy Catastrophe

I’ve just finished listening to the audiobook “World War Z” by Max Brooks.  It is a BOOK recounting the stories of survivors of the Zombie wars, and I mean zombies in the tradition of George Romero.  Now I know what your thinking, a BOOK about Zombies?   How can such a purely visual topic be rendered into literature?  Well, aside from saying that Brooks did a great job, here is my bit of insight into what a book about zombies and our culture’s general fascination with zombies say about us?  Well, it is important to note that the book takes place in the near future.  Additionally, certain elements, such as Cuba becoming a superpower in the post-Zombie world immediately bring to mind doomsday scenarios relating to the looming (real) oil crash and other forms of ecological catastrophe.  From a cultural studies point of view, this made me realize that we as a society can’t get away from the traditional adversarial way of thinking.  A zombie both “humanizes” the enemy in the sense that it represents a concrete manifestation of an enemy capable of posing an existential threat to humanity. In fact, I think this is a signal that mankind at this moment is coming to terms with the existential threat posed by the environment/energy.  By environment, I mean pollution and the depletion of energy resources.  These are not adversarial threats in that there is no definable enemy against which we can fight.  But ironically, the zombie hordes in a sense represent a literal metaphor for the revenge of the dead.  The generations before us, which we can in some ways blame for putting us in our current predicament, by wasting resources and polluting with reckless, abandon are the source of our contemporary ecological problems.  By turning them into zombies, we perhaps are subconsciously acknowledging the role they play in the current ecological crisis.  Man needs an enemy, it is difficult to oppose and/or feel threatened by an enemy that is not easily identifiable, in a sense, an intangible enemy like lack of energy or pollution.  Further, a zombie is very much an “instant gratification” kind of threat.  If it gets you, you will suffer the most agonizing death imaginable, be eaten alive.  Contrasting this horrible fate, the destruction of this enemy is also very visceral, destroying the brain, which is a symbolic destruction of the very identity of the “other”.  (“On Killing” by D. Grossman cites the analysis found in feminist discourse for why porn has an obsession with the “facial”, whereby the male actor symbolically obliterates the identity of the female by obscuring her face, the true locus of human identity)  Clearly, sci-fi always gives us huge insight into where we are as a culture/species at this moment in time.  It seems these are our biggest concerns at the moment, dealing with a threat, which is existential and yet not human (although it may be caused by humans) and with no instant consequences.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Gender and the English Language

Recently, I have learned through my TESL course a great deal more about the English language than I ever knew before, especially the grammar of the language.  As someone who speaks some Farsi, I can appreciate aspects of the English language which give it its unique character.  For example, you cannot give an extended account of a given situation (particularly an interpersonal interaction) without revealing the gender of the persons involved.  In Farsi, we use "u" (say it like "ooh" or the u sound in "to") for the third person singular.  For my fellow grammar illiterates, 3rd person singular is he or she in English.  So, if you tell a story in Farsi, you can obscure the gender of the participants since you can refer to them simply as "u".  Naturally, you might reveal this info at the beginning of the story by saying "some guy..." or "This woman..." but you could also choose to keep it ambiguous by using Farsi equivalents of things like "someone" or "a person" etc.  For fun, try telling someone a story about some strangers (strangers to the listener if not to you) without revealing their gender.  You will find that you have to resort to numerous awkward grammatical structures in order to preserve your screen over the subjects gender.  
I'm sure English isn't the only language which forces the categorization of subjects by gender, but it is certainly an interesting aspect of an otherwise largely gender neutral language.
What does this say about the English character?  

Monday, July 27, 2009

Democracy: the Only Option?

Recently, I have been reading a book called "Iraq: the Borrowed Kettle" by Zizek. If you've never heard of Zizek, go to youtube and search pervert's guide to cinema and you will get a decent sense of what he's about. The main thrust of the book is... well, if you know Zizek, you'll know why that's a difficult question to answer, but to give you some idea, the title is a reference to the classic Freudian joke that goes as follows, someone asks if you broke their kettle and you reply in a panic "a) I never borrowed a kettle from you, b) I returned it to you intact c) it was already broken when I borrowed it." As you can see, the reasoning behind these denials exposes the true fact that you broke the kettle. At one point, Zizek quotes an interesting poem written during the 1954 worker's strike in E. Germany. I quote it here in full
After the uprising of 17th June
The secretary of the Writer's Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinalee (main st. I think)
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts.
Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

This poem was intended as a sarcastic jab at the supposedly Democratic gov't in E. Germany. But this strikes at an interesting notion, the idea that the government can modify the people's approach to politics. Two such ideas already exist, the concept of the Vanguard party in Leninism, whereby a staunch, communist element of society (eg, urban proletariat) will bring about the initial changes leading to communism, and then remain in the vanguard of society pulling up and educating the other classes (eg, rural workers). Another manifestation of this idea is found on the right, whereby a strongman will remain in power while the country slowly liberalizes its markets and develops its civil society in preparation for the introduction of democracy. Do either of these models really work? In the former case, obviously not. The current state of nations that followed this path adequately demonstrates this, and I have trouble buying the argument that it was only due to Western interference that not a single one of the former Soviet aligned countries remains. If you want to say "Ah! but what about Cuba" my reply will be that, while the country does survive, the Vanguard did a fairly poor job in guiding the people due to the overwhelming disaffection of Cubans with socialism. In the latter case of the regent/dictator, we have also seen some pretty abject failures. Amy Chua points out the dangers of sudden democracy in countries which aren't prepared and don't have the appropriate (in her view) preconditions necessary for democracy. At the same time, I feel compelled to challenge this view, not on evidentiary grounds (of course the events in the Balkans in the 90's and the land seizures by Mugabe were terrible events) but on ideological grounds. Zizek defends populism on the grounds that democracy is made up of its constituents, not of an idealized but non-existent body politic that behaves in ways which we support.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Book Review- The Lost Millenium

The Lost Millennium:Histories timetables under siege by F. Diacu
Could the Peloponnesian Wars have occurred in the 12th century AD?  This and other outlandish claims are given serious credence in this book and investigated in earnest.  Seemingly, that is reason enough to put the book down (this comes up first on page 13) and move on to a more worthwhile read.  But, that would do a disservice to the positive elements of this book.  Basically, the Lost Millennium is a look at the science of chronology, or dating events and putting them in some kind of order.  How do we date events?  Sounds like a simple question, right?  We just look at old sources and calculate the date.  In fact, the techniques used to date events are quite complex.  Sources cause numerous problems, such as dating based on dynasty.  If we can't ascertain the date of the dynasty... and so on.  So, a more concrete tool historians have used have been things like records of eclipses.  Because astronomy is a fairly well developed science, we can determine when eclipses occurred and what kind of eclipses they were (lunar, solar, full or partial).  Then, we merely need to find a reference in the texts which correlates to that kind of eclipse.  For example, the Peloponnesian Wars coincided with a series of eclipses.  Thus, the Peloponnesian Wars have been used as somewhat of a standard by which to date other events.  Some scientists have questioned the dates which the scholarly consensus has arrived at, including heavy weights like Isaac Newton and modern revisionists like Velikovsky and Morozov (one of the main theorists discussed in this book).  The heart of this book is basically a scientists attempt at chronology, without using "unreliable" historical records such as political histories but instead, utilizing "reliable" records such as eclipses and other astronomical phenomena to the exclusion of any other historical sources.  This approach leads to some ridiculous conclusions (above).  In the end, the author himself basically debunks Morozov's theories (although rather gently I felt).  The impression I was left with was that scientists who want to ignore the entire corpus of historical knowledge are just as out of place in history as a historian would be who wanted to ignore the corpus of scientific knowledge.  One thing which I immediately realized was that all the European records could easily be checked by referring to Islamic sources which mention events in Europe.  Because the muslims dated things based on the Hijra, which we can ascertain and kept careful records after that point, due to the ritual importance of the lunar and solar cycle for things like Ramadan and prayer times, their records are rock solid.  Another feature of this book which history buffs will enjoy is its summary of various techniques for dating events.  In addition to the astronomical information, there are brief summaries of carbon dating, dendrochronology (tree ring dating, which is apparently not as great as I thought, for example, trees gaining 5 rings in one year in some cases!) and thermoluminescence.  I found these to be very concise and helpful, not only explaining the actual methods, but also the critiques leveled against them.  A good read and I feel guilty that I got it on sale for a pittance of $2.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Well, a debate... Gladwell vs. Kingwell

Here's a link to a debate became Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Blink, and Mark Kingwell from UofT.  Maybe some of you have had Kingwell as a Prof?  What was he like?

The debate centres around how to best deal with tackling societies problems, a rather broad topic.  Gladwell attacking awareness raising programs vis-a-vis concrete action, supporting the latter as a much more effective method of tackling problems while Kingwell suggests that the root of the problem is... well just listen and find out.  The debate gets heated by Canadian standards and its great to hear two great minds politely clash.  Enjoy and feedback is welcome.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Blink with your ears

I am currently experiencing my first audiobook, Malcolm Gladwell's Blink.  This book was a huge hit a few years ago and as I've been on a big audio lecture kick over the past few months, I decided to try listening to an audio book.  I chose Gladwell b/c he's easy to digest, and from what I've heard about blink, I knew the book would be captivating without being too dense.  Blink is about making snap decisions, or as it is apparently really called, "think-slicing".  Studies have shown that people have a remarkable ability to reach accurate conclusions rapidly, with only key amounts of information.  For example, the first example is describes how art experts were able to detect a fraud at first glance, even though careful research on its background and chemical tets to determine its age all indicated that it was authentic.  One conclusion of this book is that amount of info is much less important than the quality of info and excess info can actually impair correct decision making.  I think the implication of this is that in the internet age, info quantity is no longer an issue.  In the Pre-net era, info was treasured due to its scarcity and no accurate info was seen as "bad".  But today, paucity of info is never a problem and so we have a contradiction between the old values which prioritize amount of info vs the new reality, where accurate info is readily available.  I've often thought about this in reference to music.  If you can download basically every song ever for free, the question becomes, which songs are worth listening to?

Why Blog?

What will this blog bring you?  In the past, I have posted notes on facebook, partially to elicit comments and thoughts from others, and also to indulge myself.  Here, I seek to do that in a more organized and consistent fashion.  Further, I will be posting links to audio lectures that I find, bboy and martial arts videos as well as book critiques (/reviews).  Don't worry, I won't post all the latest viral videos, only the more obscure ones that are difficult to find, or the ones about which I have something worthwhile to say.  To start, I'll give you a preview of the books which I plan to critique.
The Lost Millenium: History's Timetables Under Siege
Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle
The Rebel Sell
Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia

In the words of my favourite Kwik-E Mart employee "Thank you, come again!"