Monday, July 31, 2017

15 Things Science Got Totally Wrong

Thursday, July 27, 2017

What is the moral compass of “Game of Thrones”?

Being good doesn't get you to the top. But neither does pure evil. What does it take to run the Seven Kingdoms?

THE obvious mystery at the heart of “Game of Thrones” is which major characters will survive, take the Iron Throne, unite the seven kingdoms and vanquish the White Walkers. But the most intriguing question posed by the show is a secondary one: Why will the winners have won? What principles of politics and morality are the creators trying to demonstrate? What is the political philosophy and moral compass of “Game of Thrones”?

George R.R. Martin first raised these questions brilliantly in the books, by killing off characters that readers had assumed would be the tale’s heroes. Each death carried its lessons. Ned Stark lost his head for failing to use it; honour and dignity are meaningless without wisdom, common sense and any kind of strategic thinking whatsoever. His son Robb was stabbed in the heart that betrayed him; there is no place for romantic love in a war of fragile alliances. Jon Snow was killed once for failing to appreciate how making the right decision would make the wrong enemies among his own men.

With the show in its penultimate season, the stakes have grown more deadly and the character’s choices more interesting. Each character’s journey raises questions about the soul of “Game of Thrones”. Arya Stark is in danger of morphing from a vigilante into a sociopath. Her erstwhile frenemy, Sandor Clegane, “The Hound”, has walked a path from selfish, remorseless killer to soulful citizen of Westeros, questioning why bad things happen to good people. Daenerys Targaryen’s sense of duty and justice competes with her sense of entitlement and power; what are we to make of her lust to burn enemies alive in dragonfire?

Jaime Lannister, introduced to readers and viewers as an incestuous kingslayer who throws a boy out the window, appears troubled by his sister Cersei’s turn from mere monster into monster of history. For now he stands by what is left of his family (Tyrion aside). Despite blowing up half her city, Cersei positions herself as the protector of Westeros from a murderous madwoman in Daenerys, her treasonous partner Olenna Tyrell (whose family Cersei slaughtered) and hordes of foreign barbarians. She has already tried to use religious fundamentalists to get the upper hand, and now has made an unholy alliance with one of the realm’s most despicable figures in Euron Greyjoy. She is incredibly unpopular and seems doomed to lose in the end. Yet in real life the bad guys do win sometimes—and so too in the show, as Euron demonstrates in this season’s second episode with his bloody triumph at sea.

Indeed, the baddies of “Game of Thrones” have something to teach the “heroes”. Sansa Stark, once the show’s naïf, has become the show’s aspiring Machiavelli, a transformation borne from her suffering at the hands of people like Cersei, from whom she learned much. To her frustration, Jon is still making what he thinks are the “right” decisions with insufficient  regard for how much they may alienate his own people, appearing not to have learned much from his first death. Jon is unlikely to die again, but will his courage to make unpopular choices be his glory, or his undoing? Conversely, Littlefinger’s incessant plotting, deal-making and deal-breaking, while fiendishly clever, seems likely to alienate him in the end from everybody, leaving him with no friends. What lessons for Sansa in this? Her hard-earned strategic wisdom is admirable, but will she team up with the sinister Littlefinger against her own half-brother (well, cousin, but she does not yet know that)? Or will she manage to play Littlefinger at his own game and double-cross him at the perfect moment? If she does, will that mean she is playing the game of thrones the right way?  Or will it mean that she has become another Cersei? If so, has she won, or lost?

It is clear that just as “Game of Thrones” does not reward good for good’s sake, it also does not reward evil for evil’s sake. King Joffrey, Ramsay Bolton and Walder Frey have all met grisly demises. Cersei seems certain to die soon as well, whether at her brother’s (remaining) hand or at Arya’s. Cersei famously told Ned Stark in the show’s first season, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” She echoed that sentiment in the premiere episode of this seventh season. But that does not mean that the evil path to victory is the right one, or that a pure path is either.

The lesson of “Game of Thrones” is that although it can be stupid to be good, like Ned Stark, that doesn’t have to be the case. After all, good rulers may make fewer enemies, and forge stronger alliances. But as Sansa warns Jon in this season’s premiere, one must go about things intelligently. That means being ruthless and unsentimental when necessary, not standing rigidly on principle or tradition. “Game of Thrones” definitely has a moral compass: it demands flexibility, not stubbornness, cunning rather than guilelessness. Divining the show’s true magnetic north will be one of the greatest rewards of watching it.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

"The Grim Reaper's Scythe" Creepypasta

There is no fear as potent as the fear of the unknown. No monstrous visage discovered yet has been as terrifying as the infinite potential for horror which exists before the mask is removed.

That is why we humans, in our naive misunderstanding of the universal order, are gripped by the mortal fear of death. We think it the final frontier - the greatest imaginable unknown from whose penumbral shores no traveler may return. And so we cling desperately onto even the most dreary and anguished lives, suffering any known evil over our release into the beyond.

But death is not to be feared, because death is very well understood. We have witnessed it, caused it, measured and recorded it to the last dying spasm of neuronal flickering. Even as I lay dying, it seemed silly to me that I should be afraid of the emptiness which reason promised to expect.

While I was alive I wouldn't experience death, so there was no reason to be afraid now. When I was dead, I wouldn't be capable of experiencing anything, so fear still had no cause. That thought brought me great comfort as I felt the last erratic struggle from my heart against the inevitable conclusion I approached. It wasn't until I was finally drifting off to sleep that a final intrusive doubt bubbled in my brain:

What if it isn't death which is to be feared? What if it is what lies beyond?

And so troubled did I slip beyond mortal understanding, stepping into a world as far forsaken by reason as I was now from life. I was still in the hospital room, but the bustle of nurses and the beeping machines lost their opacity as though I was mired in swiftly descending dusk. It seemed as though every sound was an echo of what it once was; every sight a reflection. With each passing moment, the world was becoming less real...

But all that sight and sound - all that being - it wasn't simply disappearing. It was transforming into a figure beside me. The less real my room became, the more real the figure was, until presently it existed in such sharp actuality that nothing beside it seemed real at all.

His cloak was black. Not the color black, but its essence. It was as though seeing a tiger after a lifetime of looking at a child's crude drawing and thinking that's all a tiger was. Reality flowed around his scythe like a brush through water colors, and I could see each elementary particle and time itself sunder across its blade.

Surely this, I thought. This is why we were taught without words to fear death. I clutched at my hospital blanket to cower from the intensity of the Reaper's presence, but the once soft cotton now flowed like translucent mist through my hands. I knew in that moment that nothing could hide me from the specter's grasp, for he was the only real thing in this world.

You're late.

They weren't words. My head ached from the strain of this knowledge as my lateness was burned into my awareness, imparted like an inescapable law of physics as unequivocal as gravity.

We don't have time for the usual speech. Hurry now.

I felt myself swept up around him like dirt in a hurricane. Before I knew what was happening, we were outside the hospital, moving at such a frenzied pace that the world around me blurred into a dizzying tunnel of flashing light.

If you're lucky, IT will have gotten bored of waiting for you.

I had too many questions, all fighting for attention in the forefront of my brain without any making their way out.

You're quiet. I admire that. Usually people ask too much.

"What's the point?" I asked. My voice felt flat and dead compared to his overwhelming substance. "How can I try to comprehend something so beyond mortal knowledge?"

You can't. But it's still human nature to ask.

We weren't slowing. If anything, our pace was increasing. I wasn't running, or flying, or anything of that nature. It was more like the rest of the world was moving around us while we stood still. A vague darkness and a heavy damp smell made me guess that we'd gone underground, but I couldn't say for sure.

"One question then," I asked. "What else is here besides you?"

And that is why questions are pointless. Death is not a place, or a person. It's all there is.

Troubling thought, but made more so by the growing howl which began reverberating the rocks around me. We still seemed to be descending into the Earth, and the air was growing warmer and denser now. The sound continued to mount as though the world itself was suffering.

"Then what is IT?"

What I'm here to protect you from.

The rocks split from a flash of his scythe, and the ground opened further into a sprawling cavern dominated by a subterranean lake.

"But I thought you said you were all there is."

No, I said Death was all there is.

We weren't moving any longer. Light glinted off the scythe from some unseen source and streamed into the lake like a tributary. Once inside, the light didn't reflect or dissipate, but swirled and danced like luminescent oil.

"I thought you were Death."

Death is not a person.

The light was taking a life of its own inside the water. The still surface began to churn with the enigmatic energy. It took my scattered mind a long while to realize that I was the energy flowing into the lake. I still felt tangled up with the figure, but we now existed as a beam of light boiling into the water.

I knew I wouldn't understand, but that didn't stop me from feeling frustrated. If Death is all there is, then what is IT? What was waiting for me? The water pressed in around me and I couldn't speak, although I could still draw breath somehow.

IT is here.

Something was in the water around me. Hands grabbed me by the legs and began dragging me downward. I was amazed to even discover I had limbs again. They felt so alien to me that it was almost as though this body was not my own. Light flashed from the scythe - then again. The hands let go, and the howling rose once more. The Reaper was fighting something, although I couldn't make any sense of the battle except for the madness of thrashing water.

The howling Earth reached its crescendo, and the screams made the water around me convulse and contract like living fluid. Had the Reaper cut it? Was I safe? I began to explore my new body in the water, but just when I thought I was beginning to gain control the hands clutched me once more. I lurched downward, struggling in vain against their implacable grip.

"What is here?" I tried to shout against the suffocating liquid. "What is happening?"

But I couldn't sense the Reaper's presence any longer. The heat was unbearable, but the cold depths the hands were dragging me toward was even worse. I became aware of a blinding light at the bottom of the lake, and though I struggled, the hands dragged me inexorably onward.

I'm sorry. I couldn't fight IT off. It seemed to be coming from so far away now. We will try again next time.

The pressure - the heat - the noise - the hands dragging me into the blinding light. I closed my eyes and screamed. I was free from the water now, but I just kept screaming. I couldn't bear to look at IT - whatever had stolen me. Whatever was Death but wasn't - whatever even the Reaper could not defeat.

Then words spoke. Real, human words from a real human mouth. My senses were so distraught that I couldn't make sense of them, but I'm guessing they were something like:

"Congratulations! He's a healthy baby boy."

Most people can't remember the day they die, or the day they were born. I happen to remember both, and I know that they are the same.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Ways of getting along

Can theists and atheists live together in any sort of mutual respect? That is far more than an academic debating point. Throughout history, theocrats have punished dissidents who rejected the state religion. In the 20th century, atheist regimes subjected religion to bloody repression, and a few, like North Korea, still do. And in recent years, especially in the Islamic world, there has been a resurgence in the persecution of those who reject the prevailing form of religion, or all religion.

The rise in religious repression is one of the factors that galvanised "new atheists" like the late Christopher Hitchens, who thought "religion poisons everything" and Richard Dawkins, the biologist who has argued that religion has a unique capacity to make good people do bad things. But there is another sort of cerebral atheism. John Gray, one of Britain's top public intellectuals, is a strong advocate of the view that theism and atheism can coexist in freedom and a sort of amity. (Yes, Britain does have intellectuals, even though it would be a kiss of death if, as happens in France, "100 intellectuals" were to declare their support for a particular party or candidate for British office.)

In his latest trope on that theme, an essay for the BBC website, Mr Gray cited the examples of two non-believers who were, for different reasons, respectful of religion. One was the Italian thinker and poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837, pictured), who rejected the conservative Catholicism in which he grew up. Leopardi intuited, correctly as it turned out, that militant secularism would take forms that were even bloodier than the French Revolution whose aftermath he saw. In Leopardi's view, religion as he knew it was preferable to the sort of armed atheism that would one day take shape. Mr Gray's other example is Llewellyn Powys (1884-1938), one of several members of a clerical family from England's West country who became lightish popular writers. Dogged by poor health, Powys was a hedonist who believed in seizing the moment and enjoying the pleasures of nature and love; but he still acknowledged religion as "a kind of poetry which fortified the human spirit in the face of death."

Mr Gray could have chosen more contemporary eggheads. Giuliano Ferrara, an Italian newspaper editor and friendly interlocutor with the Vatican, is an atheist and erstwhile communist who admires the Catholic church for defending Christian culture. Terry Eagleton, a British-born literary theorist influenced both by Marxism and by the Catholicism in which he was raised, is not formally religious, but is sharply critical of the new atheists for misunderstanding religion. A similar line is taken by Karen Armstrong, a former nun and best-selling writer, who became badly disillusioned with Catholicism. She insists that the word God refers not to a true-or-false proposition but to a human quest for meaning and transcendence. Like Leopardi, she seems more preoccupied by secularist brutality than the religious sort. 

What about the theist side of the discussion? Can people who believe in God live amicably with those who don't? Perhaps that raises a harder question. For those who see the existence of God as not merely true but, in a sense, truer than anything else, how is it possible to respect people who disagree? In a western world that no longer burns heretics, most religious people would probably say something like this: faith in God is an existential choice which only has value if it is made in absolute freedom, and that freedom must also imply the right of people to say no. From this viewpoint, the right to atheism underpins faith. In liberal readings of Islam, meanwhile, the Koranic statement that "there is no compulsion in religion" is taken as a statement of value more than mere fact; religion has no merit if it is embraced under duress.

David Jenkins is a maverick Anglican cleric who was accused of atheist tendencies when he was bishop of Durham. He denied the charge, but he did once argue that theism and atheism were, in some paradoxical way, two sides of the same coin. In a 1966 book entitled "Guide to the Debate about God", he minutely explained the theological ideas of brainy Teutons like Friedrich Schleiermacher, Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Barth, and then concluded, enigmatically: "In the end there are no adequate reasons for God's existence. He is. The atheist also understands this. He does not believe."

If the clash between theism and atheism were merely about metaphysical ideas, personal choices, or even quests made by consenting adults, then it should indeed be a negotiable difference in societies which allow for many other kinds of diversity. Thinkers like Mr Gray or even Bishop Jenkins may help us negotiate. But they do not entirely solve the problem. It is striking that the most intractable disputes between believers and non-believers concern the treatment of children: how and by whom they should be raised; what they should be taught about the origin of the world; whether, in the name of religious custom, their bodies should be mutilated; whether the education of boys and girls should be separate and in some way differentiated, as conservative Islam mandates; and at what point in their biological development one can speak of a life which cannot morally be terminated. With or without the guidance of brainy public intellectuals, these are hard arguments which lead to hard choices.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

No one is well-served by sexism in Japan

At first glance, Sora Tob Sakana is aimed squarely at the pre-teen market. After all, the pop group’s four members are 14- to 16-year-old girls who sport ponytails and cutesy frilly dresses and pump out bubblegum tunes accompanied by wobbly dancing. Yet at a festival of similar “idol” bands in Yokohoma on July 9th, the fans were mostly single men aged between 20 and 50 who might well describe themselves as otaku—nerds. When asked, some men say they do not need to marry; their idols give them the romantic fulfilment they need.

Creepy? It is true, says Rei Kazama, one of the band members, looking slightly uncomfortable, that many of the fans are ojisan—middle-aged blokes. She would prefer a younger audience. But, she adds, the ojisan are supportive: “It’s like they’re nurturing us as we grow up.” Purity, a band manager says, is a selling-point. The girls are under contract not to have boyfriends—presumably to encourage fans to project their own fantasies onto their favourite band members. (When a member of Japan’s biggest-selling idol band, AKB48, recently announced that she was leaving to get married, fans were as outraged as jilted lovers.) Also essential is offering fans the chance to meet band members, including photographs and 20-second handshakes. It is all part of the setto, as in a set menu, and can cost ¥4,000 ($35) a pop. The promoters have found lots of ways to part otaku from their money.

This is the more palatable end of Japan’s striking knack for transmuting sexual urges into efficient industries. Akihabara, Tokyo’s mecca for manga and anime, is also the heart of a fetish for schoolgirls and their uniforms. There, in “JK salons” (joshi kosei means high-school girl) a young woman in uniform will tell your fortune. Or, for ¥3,000 for 20 minutes, you can lie next to her. In many places that is all you may do. But sex is on offer if otaku know where to look. A new city ordinance barring girls of 17 or younger from working in the JK business may serve only to drive it underground—or onto the internet.

It is, to many, proof of the misogyny of Japanese society: often demeaning and sometimes dangerous to women. Yet some sociologists argue that life in Japan is not much fun for men, either. As evidence, they point to the decline of marriage and romantic relationships. Three-fifths of men between the ages of 25 and 35 remain unmarried. A survey by the research arm of Meiji Yasuda, an insurer, found that 53% of men in their 20s had never gone out (vaguely defined) with a woman; in contrast, 64% of American men claim to have had sex by the age of 20.

Labour practices forged during a high-growth industrial era do men no favours. Male-dominated workforces are expected to put in long hours, often without overtime pay—and then stay drinking in smoky bars with the boss until the last train home. The assumption is that employees have a spouse who is a full-time housewife back home. But even young employees lucky enough to be on permanent contracts now struggle to raise a family on a single income.

As for the growing “precariat” of young Japanese men on non-permanent contracts—forget it. Now that women have more, if hardly stellar, work options, they can afford to hold out for a better partner, ie, one earning a good salary. In canvassing opinion among unmarried women seeking a partner, ¥7m a year seems a common floor among the better educated. The price tag on love and marriage, says Kaori Shoji, a social commentator, seems to go up by the year. Who wants to marry a loser?

Japanese marriages are surely the least fulfilling in the rich world. Open affection is in short supply. Once they have children, sociologists say, mothers feel under intense pressure to go into overdrive at mothering. Lunch boxes are scrutinised critically by other mothers; hiring a babysitter or cleaner is frowned upon. In conventional households the husband has few responsibilities—and offers little help in raising the children or doing housework.

But he also accepts a diminished role. His salary goes straight to his wife, who manages the household finances and hands him back a little pocket money. A wife will often discourage her husband from coming home until after she has put the children to bed. Japanese children sometimes sleep with the mother until they are ten or 11. Toko Shirakawa, who sits on a government panel on gender issues, says: “I don’t know if a separate bedroom for the husband is the norm, but it’s certainly typical.” Sexlessness among married couples appears to be increasing.

Mother’s boys

For many a young male, a doting mother is his chief experience of women. He may feel it is unlikely to be bettered. When young men are asked why they are not looking for a girlfriend, the word they most often use is mendokusai—too much trouble. That covers a multitude of issues. One, says Masahiro Yamada of Chuo University, is the power of the in-group in Japanese society and the fear of gossip, or even bullying, amplified by social media, if you draw attention. A related factor is Japan’s striking social segregation by sex. As Ms Shoji points out, it is common in pubs to see a table of young company men complaining about their bosses next to one of young single women moaning about the lack of suitable men. Yet each group keeps to itself, rather than spying a chance to seek new friendships and possible mates. Japan does lust and passion well, but sucks at love, she adds.

Here the market can be of assistance. With self-esteem among young men low, and fear of rejection by women high, you can see the appeal of teen idols. But why stop there? Orient Industry, Japan’s oldest maker of love dolls—which now have removable heads and genitalia and remarkably tactile silicone skin, and sell for ¥800,000 or more—wants buyers to think of their purchases as works of art. Cheaper than that come curvaceous pillows (also with add-ons) intended to invite their human users into a fantasy dreamworld. After all, a pillow will never humiliate you.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Why homeopathy is nonsense

Visit any health shop and you are likely to see them: packages of homeopathic remedies claiming to cure whatever ails you, from coughs and fever to insomnia and asthma. Flip the package of medicine, however, and you may be confused by the listed ingredients. Some claim to contain crushed bees, stinging nettles and even arsenic, as well as sugars such as lactose and sucrose. Americans alone spend some $3 billion a year on homeopathic medicines. What are they thinking?

The history of homeopathy – literally, “similar suffering” – dates back to the late 18th century. Samuel Hahnemann, a German doctor, was unimpressed by contemporary medicine, with good reason. Doctors used leeches to let blood and hot plasters to bring on blisters, which were then drained. In 1790, Hahnemann developed a fever that transformed his career. After swallowing powder from the bark of a cinchona tree, he saw his body temperature rise. Cinchona bark contains quinine, which was already known to treat malaria. Hahnemann considered the facts: cinchona seemed to give him a fever; fever is a symptom of malaria; and cinchona treats malaria. He then made an acrobatic leap of logic: medicines bring on the same symptoms in healthy people as they cure in sick ones. Find a substance that induces a symptom and it might be used to treat that symptom in another.

Hahnemann then decided that ingredients should be diluted and shaken repeatedly, a process called “potentiation”. The smaller the amount of the active ingredient, the more powerful the medicine would become, he believed. Homeopathic remedies use various bits of terminology to convey their supposedly potency. One common designation is “NC”, where C signifies that a substance is diluted by a ratio of 1:100 and N stands for the number of times the substance has been diluted. So a dilution of 200C would mean that one gram of a substance had been diluted within 100 grams of water, with the process repeated 200 times. At this dilution not a single molecule of the original substance remains when the water is used to make pills; most homeopathic pills thus consist entirely of sugar. However, the water and the pills are supposed to retain a “memory” of the original substance.

This is nonsense. Studying homeopathy is difficult, points out the world’s biggest funder of medical research, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), because it is hard to examine the effects of a medicine when that medicine has little or no active ingredient. Researchers can neither confirm that the medicine contains what it claims to nor show the chemical effect of the diluted medicine within the body. The most comprehensive review of homeopathy was published in 2005 in the renowned medical journal The Lancet. Researchers compared trials of homeopathic and conventional medicines. In the bigger, well-designed trials, there was “no convincing evidence” that homeopathy was more effective than a placebo, they found. Meanwhile, in similar trials of conventional drugs, medicines showed specific clinical effects. As the NIH drily notes: “several key concepts of homeopathy are inconsistent with fundamental concepts of chemistry and physics”. That is putting it mildly.

Monday, July 17, 2017

If you think sci-fi is about the future, think again

Walking through Barbican’s new science-fiction exhibition, “Into the Unknown”, is like walking through a nerd’s dream bedroom – and I say that as a nerd myself. A long, low-lit gallery, with black walls and a black floor, it’s cluttered with display cases of toys and trading cards, books and comics, film props and costumes and more. Over here is Darth Vader’s helmet, over there is Godzilla’s head. Over here is a screen flickering with film clips, over there is a mock-up of the set of “The Martian”.

Anyone who grew up reading “2000AD” and watching “Star Trek” will revert instantly to their 12-year-old self, but that’s not the only kind of nostalgia swirling around this Aladdin’s cave of geekery. One curious theme is that while the term “science-fiction” suggests robots and ray guns and the shape of things to come, a huge amount of it fixated on the past. This is a genre fuelled by nostalgia.

The proto-sci-fi novels of Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Ryder Haggard often sent their heroes over the sea and under the earth’s surface to discover new worlds. But these worlds, rather than being futuristic, tended to be populated by ape men and prehistoric monsters. Ever since, science fiction has been obsessed by creatures which died out 65m years, and “Into the Unknown” has terrific fun with this obsession. The first screen you see shows Laura Dern and Sam Neill gawping at a Brachiosaurus in “Jurassic Park”. Nearby is a herd of dinosaur models fashioned by the master of stop-motion animation, Ray Harryhausen. (They all have a mean look in their eyes, even the plant-eaters.) And further on you can peer at a Frank Hampson “Dan Dare” comic strip from 1957, in which Dan’s arch-enemy, the Mekon, explains his latest nefarious scheme: “Here, in New Guinea, my scientists have created a replica of the Earth, twenty million years ago, stocked with wild and prehistoric animals and plants from my Earth museum reservations on Venus.” The Mekon may have got his dates wrong by several million years, but what do you expect from a Venusian?

Poke around a few more exhibits, and you start to see science fiction less as a means of envisaging a fabulous future, and more as an excuse to throw together every schoolchild’s favourite bygone eras. A sketch drawn by Harryhausen for 1961’s “Mysterious Island” has a cowboy on horseback jabbing a Styracosaur with a lance – so you get the Wild West, jousting knights and dinosaurs in one picture. And James Gurney’s sunny “Dinotopia” paintings are set in the 19th century, but the cityscapes hark back to ancient Rome – and, yes, the citizens are riding on dinosaurs.

Prehistoric monsters aside, much of the sci-fi in “Into The Unknown” yearns for earlier, simpler times, when men were men, and women were waiting to be rescued.  The helmets from “Stargate” are modelled on Egyptian gods. Kane’s spacesuit from “Alien”, with its overlapping pads and plates, is like samurai armour. And in the concept art for “Star Wars”, when it was still called “The Star Wars”, Luke Skywalker is a sword-wielding swashbuckler. Inevitably, time-travel stories are especially prone to fetishising the past. On video screens, there are clips from “Back to the Future”, released in 1985 and set in 1955, and “Donnie Darko”, released in 2001 and set in 1988.

Where is the future in all of this? There are some technological utopias dotted around “Into The Unknown”. Posters from the 1940s and 1950s try to associate Firestone tyres and Seagram’s Canadian Whisky with the bright, clean, modernist “homes of tomorrow”. But these hopeful tableaux are far outnumbered by the dystopias. The majority of science fiction, it seems, has been inspired by a dreadful anxiety about the future rather than a desire to live in it.

The “homes of tomorrow” are usually located in hellish mega-cities: dirty, dangerous, semi-derelict and fit only for demolition. One screen has a montage of these concrete jungles being sluiced by tidal waves in various apocalyptic films, and an adjacent array of magazines has two topics: “Future Cities” and “End of the World”. (The final shot of a half-buried Statue of Liberty in 1968’s “Planet of the Apes” can be spotted on the covers of two different magazines, one published in 1953 and one in 1964.) And what happens after these overcrowded megalopolises are wiped off the face of the earth? Invariably, the survivors are depicted returning to a primitive existence of hunting with spears. Once again, the past trumps the future – although the fact that these scenarios involve lots of women in skimpy fur bikinis may account for some their appeal.

It’s true that “Into the Unknown”, with its emphasis on 20th-century pulp fiction, disregards the genre’s more optimistic and progressive works. But when I think of the sci-fi blockbusters I’ve seen recently, it’s striking how many of them fantasise about times gone by rather than what lies ahead. “Alien: Covenant” begins with its colonist heroes finding a lush wilderness where they can lead a pioneer lifestyle; “War for the Planet of the Apes” finishes with a similar image. “The Mummy” mashes up the Egypt of the pharaohs with the England of the Crusaders, and the opening scenes in “Wonder Woman” are set on an idealised Ancient Greek island. Even “Transformers: The Last Knight” has a prologue in the Dark Ages.

Maybe, then, the curators of the Barbican’s exhibition are onto something. Maybe what we crave from science fiction isn’t a journey “Into the Unknown”, but into the known. Maybe we don’t want a trip “Back to the Future”, but forward to the past.

The Economist

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Archaeologists discover a gruesome tower of skulls in Mexico City

The Aztecs were not gracious victors. Their prisoners of war were frequently used for human sacrifice, as part of spectacles in which their hearts would be ripped from their bodies by priests, to be offered, still beating, to the gods. Their heads fared no better, usually ending up in a kind of skull wall, called a tzompantli in Nahuatl, the Aztec language. In its typical form it consisted of a platform, with posts connected by crossbeams onto which skulls would be threaded. Tzompantlis were generally placed in front of temples, so that friend and foe alike would be awed by the state’s power.

In 2015 archaeologists identified the Huey (Great) Tzompantli, a particularly impressive version. It stood near the main temple of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital on whose remains Hernán Cortés founded Mexico City after the Spanish conquest in 1521. As the digging season wrapped up last month, researchers announced their newest discovery: a gruesome, circular tower of skulls, which stood at one end of the 34-metre (100-foot) platform. It is thought to be one of two such towers cited in an account of the Huey Tzompantli by Andrés de Tapia, who fought alongside Cortés.

Today, the tower is around six metres wide. Researchers have uncovered less than two metres in height, but in its heyday, it was probably far taller. The skulls, stuck together with lime and clay, are mostly male, as would be expected of enemy warriors. But others belonged to women and children—groups whose skulls had not been found before on a tzompantli, according to Raúl Barrera, the archaeologist in charge of the excavation.

Even so, their use in the tower ties in with current understanding of certain Aztec ceremonies. Women were sacrificed at feasts and festivals where they were chosen to represent goddesses—on occasion by decapitation followed by flaying. And children were offered to the rain god, Tlaloc, as the tears they shed on the way to their deaths were considered an omen of plentiful rainfall. The adult skulls have holes in the sides, says Mr Barrera, indicating that they were previously displayed on the crossbeams before being moved to the circular tower.

 So far, 450 skulls have been identified in the tower. The total in the Huey Tzompantli is likely to be in the thousands. However, the Spanish colonisers probably exaggerated how many they had seen. The squeamish would certainly hope so: de Tapia estimated the number of heads on the crossbeams alone at 136,000.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Excerpts from ‘Carpe Jugulum’ by Terry Pratchett

It was indeed beautiful, but Agnes felt that beauty was even more likely to be in the eye of the beholder if the feet of the beholder were on something solid. At ten thousand feet up, the eye of the beholder tends to water.

In fact Lancre's position and climate bred a hard - headed and straightforward people who often excelledin the world down below. It had supplied the plains with many of their greatest wizards and witches and, once again, the philosopher might have marvelled that such a four - square people could give the world so many successful magical practitioners, being unaware that only those with their feet on rock can build castles in the air.

She was not, herself, hugely in favor of motherhood in general. Obviously it was necessary, but it wasn't exactly difficult. Even cats managed it. But women acted as if they'd been given a medal that entitled them to boss people around. It was as if, just because they'd got the label which said "mother", everyone else got a tiny part of the label that said "child"...

The smug mask of virtue triumphant could be almost as horrible as the face of wickedness revealed.

All witches who'd lived in her cottage were bookish types. They thought you could see life through books but you couldn't, the reason being that the words got in the way

My granny used to say if you’re too sharp you’ll cut yourself

Once you gave a thing a name you gave it a life

There was practically nothing that he wouldn’t attack, including architecture.

The reward for toil had been more toil. If you dug the best ditches, they gave you a bigger shovel.

The result would have been called primitive even by people who were too primitive to have a word yet for ‘primitive’

Granny Weatherwax had a primal snore. It had never been tamed. No one had ever had to sleep next to it, to curb its wilder excesses by means of a kick, a prod in the small of the back, or a pillow used as a bludgeon. It had had years in a lonely bedroom to perfect the knark, the graaah, and the gnoc, gnoc, gnoc unimpeded by the nudges, jabs, and occasional attempts at murder that usually moderate the snore impulse over time

Monday, July 10, 2017

How to stop money from ruining your relationship

There comes a moment during a couple counselling session with Donna Laikind when the clients tend to swallow hard and wish they were somewhere else. It is the moment when she touches on the most intimate aspects of their shared life. She goes further, she readily admits, than most have bargained for. “My questions are so probing, and touch on areas of their life that are so private,” she says, “that it’s often a real shock to them that I’m daring to ask them.”

You could be forgiven for thinking that she is talking about sex. But, according to Laikind – a therapist in private practice in Manhattan and Connecticut, and a member of the faculty of NYU medical school – the questions she focuses on at this point cut deeper and are even more exposing than sexual ones could be. They’re about money: and they pull no punches. “I ask them, how much do you earn? How do you organise your money? Who makes decisions about how the money is spent in your house? I even ask them to tell me about all their bank accounts – every single one.”

Are they surprised? “You bet they are. Some of these questions are things a couple have never discussed before. You get people who don’t know how much their partner earns. You get people who admit they have accounts their partner doesn’t know about.” And most importantly, she says, you get a lot of inside-track information about what’s really going on in this relationship. Laikind believes a couple’s financial arrangements are a window into their world – perhaps the best there is. How they organise their finances, whether they fight over money, how they prioritise spending, and whether they have any financial secrets from one another, are all indicators of the health of the relationship, and the balance of power within it.

But if money is a metaphor, it’s a lot more besides. No relationship, after all, is immune to market economics. If a couple’s finances are rocky, or crumbling, there comes a point when the firewall starts to buckle. There is no relationship that doesn’t have a breaking point somewhere – and money can break most things. So, with the threat of recession in the air, marriage-guidance therapists in Europe and America are bracing themselves for increased demand – unless, that is, counselling itself becomes a victim of panic cost-cutting.

Mo Kurimbokus, a Relate counsellor in Britain, is one of many who expect the storm clouds gathering over the markets to cast a shadow over relationships. He has listened to hundreds of couples picking over the bones of their relationships. If it has taught him anything at all, he says, it’s taught him that what makes a couple strong is the ability to communicate and – crucially – to negotiate. Life changes all the time: marriage and relationships change all the time. The people who sail through are those who can express themselves and articulate their needs, as well as being able to make their own adjustments and, just as crucially, tolerate change in others.

When money problems become more of an issue in a relationship, stronger couples are able to ride out the storm by putting their biggest asset – their ability to talk and to adapt together – to good effect. Weaker couples, on the other hand, face a double whammy: not only do they lack the skills and habits to carry them through choppy seas, but a financial crisis is likely to cause further fractures in their already-cracked battlements. Economic instability, for an unstable relationship, can be very bad news indeed.

The depressing truth is that you really don’t have to be googling divorce lawyers to get a flavour of the damage economic turmoil can cause. After 20 years and counting I can testify that there are plenty of scary moments in a marriage: but one of the most white-knuckle of them all – a moment when you’re at the top of the rollercoaster staring down into the abyss – is the moment when, after weeks or even months of swallowing the gnawing worry that all isn’t quite right in your balance sheet, you finally pluck up the courage to share your concerns with your partner. What you need – what you desperately crave – is reassurance; but what you’re much more likely to see is that the fear in your partner’s face matches your own. Mostly, marriage thrives on one partner being strong and confident when the other feels weak and scared. That’s less likely to happen with fiscal than with emotional or other woes: it’s one of the reasons, perhaps, why the last person many individuals talk to when they need to talk about money is their beloved. I was once surprised to find, while researching an article about couples with serious debts, that none of those I interviewed had shared their thoughts with their partner; thoughts they were happy to share with a total stranger, and a fair number of readers.

There’s another reason why couples don’t share money worries: a reason Donna Laikind would immediately understand. When you come clean about the shortcomings of your bank balance, you’re often coming clean about everything else in your life, warts and all. So my friend Eddie, who put on a suit and went out to work rather than tell his wife of 15 years that he’d been made redundant, wasn’t really avoiding telling her that he had no income. He was avoiding telling her something more fundamental: I’ve failed you. You thought you’d married a provider, but it’s not worked out. I’ve not been able to give you what you wanted. You’re not in the marriage you thought you were. I’m not at all sure who I am and what my life is about any more. Think about it that way, and you see why Eddie opted to sit on a park bench in his suit.

But it’s not all tragedy and tears. Laikind believes we can see our financial arrangements as an interactive barometer to help us first understand our behaviour patterns, then subtly but crucially adjust them. “Just talking about how and why you organise your money the way you do can be enormously enlightening,” Laikind says. “And it doesn’t matter whether you’re a millionaire or a pauper – there will definitely be issues that you’ll benefit as a couple from discussing.”

What kinds of issues might arise? The root issue, for most, is power: who holds it, and who’s getting what they want out of the relationship and who isn’t. Other times, it’s about seeing the situation for what it really is – an issue around money may be obscuring a deeper truth about a relationship. Or, money issues might remove blinkers to patterns that emanate from childhood, and from the way the person’s parents conducted their relationship.

“There was one couple I counselled,” Laikind says. “He was a big-shot in a software company, and then he lost his job. And she had a hobby in interior decorating, and so she started doing more of it, and in no time at all she’d built up a business. It made lots of money, so their financial worries were over – but their relationship worries weren’t, because the turnaround emasculated him. It affected how he felt about himself, it affected their sex life. They had a good lifestyle, but the husband could barely look his wife in the eye because he felt a failure. And it wasn’t just the man who felt shamed. The wife, as proud as she was of her business accomplishments, was shamed also, because her mother had told her to find a man who would ‘provide for her’ and the fairy tales exhort us to find a prince who will ‘save you’.”

Mo Kurimbokus, too, can reel off tales where what seemed like a conversation about a couple’s finances proved to hold the key to deeper truths. “I had one couple who came to me in which the man earned a lot more than the woman and they were putting the same amount of money into a joint account. But after they’d paid their bills separately, he still had enough money for lots of holidays and weekends away, whereas she didn’t. And they were arguing over the fact that he said they weren’t spending enough time together – but what it was really about was the fact that he wanted her to give up her job and be around more, so they could travel more and be together more. The problem there, though, was that she didn’t want to give up her job – she loved it, even though it didn’t bring in lots of money. He wanted more of her than she was prepared to give, and it was being played out as a financial battle.”

Kurimbokus says he is seeing more and more couples who organise their finances entirely separately, and who each have their own bank accounts and their own responsibilities – he may pay for the holidays, she for the groceries. This model can be enriching and empowering: like the changing role of women it mirrors, and the fact that more and more couples consist of two earners, it can reflect a more equal and sharing partnership that’s, yes, more complicated – but also richer and, ultimately, more fulfilling.

Sometimes, though, there are issues, like the one confronting Anne and her husband Tom. They have never even mixed their loose change in the same tin, let alone had a joint bank account. “Keeping my individuality has always been fundamental – I’ve never changed my name, or worn a wedding ring, although we’ve been married for 20 years,” says Anne, a likeable woman in her mid-40s. “And Tom very much lives his own life too. We’re not one of those ‘joined at the hip’ couples, and we’d never want to be – we both enjoy our own space, although I think we’re very loyal to one another and we’re very committed to raising our three children together.”

But raising three children in London is expensive, even when both partners are earners – and as she is freelance, Anne has found herself worrying more and more about money over the past few months. “I tend to worry on my own about it,” she says. “Because we’ve never mixed our money, it feels like it’s my problem that I’m worrying about paying my bills, whereas in fact it’s really our problem as a couple.”

This is interesting given Laikind’s analysis, because she believes that, although most models of financial management can work in a relationship, it’s a bad idea to set any model in stone – flexibility is required. For Anne and Tom, the time has probably come to review the model: and, as usual, a lot more than just money is involved. Perhaps, Laikind suggests, Anne feels lonely in her relationship – being semi-detached has suited her hitherto, but now that her children are growing up she may be more in need of an involving and supportive relationship. “And the truth is”, Anne says ruefully, combing her fingers through her hair in a gesture almost of defeat, “that I don’t think Tom would want to have that conversation. He’s not at the same point in his life; he’s not looking for us to be closer, he quite likes us being semi-detached. The model that used to suit us both still suits him – it’s me who’s changed.”

Other friends reveal what Laikind says are extremely common patterns of behaviour: differences over whether to save or spend. One friend, Simon, speaks for many when he admits to being a “tight git”, especially in comparison with his wife Freda’s “bling spending sprees”. Chat to him for a while, and it’s clear that – as usual – it’s less about the actual money being spent, and more the philosophy that lies behind it.

“Freda likes a bottle of Sancerre, whereas for me cut-price Pinot is just fine,” he says. "She thinks I’m being stingy and says to me look, it’s only £3 a night more – what does that matter? And I say yes, but the £3s add up."

The problem for couples like Simon and Freda, Laikind says, is to stop resentment creeping in, which can be corrosive and hard to shift. At the moment Simon thinks things aren't too bad, but he doesn't underestimate the damage money could do to them. “One thing I don’t like is that Freda’s spending sprees invariably push me further into the spendthrift corner – I feel I can’t spend any money because she's spending so much, and I do feel a bit resentful about that.”

He gets more pensive. “Freda and I have been together since we were 14 – we were childhood sweethearts,” he says. “And looking back, the differences in our attitudes to money have always been the biggest rift between us. If anything was going to split us up, it would be this.”

The fact that it’s Sophie, not Mark, who does the financial admin reveals a fairly widespread generation gap between couples now in their 60s and 70s, and couples today – and, as ever, it’s a difference that is played out in the fine print of their relationship with one another. Ted and Donna, for example, are now in their 70s: they were in the same mould as Sophie and Mark in that Ted was the sole earner, but he was also the money-manager. Donna admits to living most of her life without having much idea of what a mortgage is, and she has never had to deal with investments or had an appointment with a financial adviser. Their relationship was run along similar lines: Ted called the shots, and Donna ran the home front. Today’s couples, even where they’re in the traditional model of male earner and female homemaker, tend to have a more even balance of power, thanks to the huge changes that have come about in women’s lives over the last half-century.The most stable couple I know – or the couple I perceive as being most stable – have a very straightforward approach to their finances. Sophie and Mark, who are in their late 30s, are unusual in that he’s an earner and she’s not: but all his money is paid into a joint bank account, from where Sophie deals with all the bills and all the household finances. “Mark definitely sees his money as our money, and I feel exactly the same,” says Sophie. But there are a few niggles; she’d like to be a bit less cautious, while he’s ultra-careful. “Mark always wants to have a year’s school fees in the bank,” Sophie says, “whereas I feel we’ve got to enjoy life a bit now and spend on things like family holidays.”

For some people, merging your finances once you’re a couple is as much a part of being united as the marriage vows themselves. Helene, a Norwegian friend, thinks of keeping finances in any way separate as “the English way”, and finds it “extremely odd”, even when it’s only part of a couple’s income that’s in separate accounts. “I feel very uncomfortable about the idea of not having all my money in one account with James, my husband,” she says. “As far as I’m concerned we’re a going concern, we’re like a business – and you wouldn’t get a business with partners who operated separate bank accounts, would you? If I found out James had a separate account I didn’t know about, it would be like finding out he was having an affair. I’d feel betrayed.”

Some separate accounts, of course, are more innocent than others. Separate and secretive ones have always suited partners having extramarital relationships, which almost always involve further expenditure. “Finding out that Oliver was spending money on another woman was almost as difficult to take as finding out he was having sex with her,” says my friend Milly. “He was spending what was mine as well as his on someone else, and that was extremely hurtful.”

In fact, Oliver’s and Milly’s marriage was all but over before his infidelity. Milly now acknowledges this and, interestingly, can trace it through financial as well as emotional events. “I got to the stage where I started to think of our relationship in solely fiscal terms – how much was it going to cost to split up, how was I going to be able to get the money I needed from him once we’d parted, and so on,” says Milly. “Once you start thinking of your relationship in those terms, with no feelings at all for the other person beyond their bank balance, you know it’s over.”

For many couples, though, it’s quite different. Finances can be a launchpad to a better relationship, better communication. “It’s a way to get a handle on what’s going on,” says Donna Laikind. “We could be talking about sex, we could be talking about aspirations, we could be talking about attitudes to raising children. Money is just another way into a relationship, but in my experience, it’s an extremely good way in.”

Saturday, July 08, 2017

The birth of Canada

Undecisive Voters

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

How Martin Luther has shaped Germany for half a millennium

The 500th anniversary of the 95 theses finds a country as moralistic as ever

Set foot in Germany this year and you are likely to encounter the jowly, dour portrait of Martin Luther. With more than 1,000 events in 100 locations, the whole nation is celebrating the 500th anniversary of the monk issuing his 95 theses and (perhaps apocryphally) pinning them to the church door at Wittenberg. He set in motion a split in Christianity that would forever change not just Germany, but the world.

At home, Luther’s significance is no longer primarily theological. After generations of secularisation, not to mention decades of official atheism in the formerly communist east (which includes Wittenberg), Germans are not particularly religious. But the Reformation was not just about God. It shaped the German language, mentality and way of life. For centuries the country was riven by bloody confessional strife; today Protestants and Catholics are each about 30% of the population. But after German unification in the 19th century, Lutheranism won the culture wars. “Much of what used to be typically Protestant we today perceive as typically German,” says Christine Eichel, author of “Deutschland, Lutherland”, a book about Luther’s influence.

Start with aesthetics. For Luther this was, like everything else, a serious matter. He believed that Christians were guaranteed salvation through Jesus but had a duty to live in such a way as to deserve it. Ostentation was thus a disgraceful distraction from the asceticism required to examine one’s own conscience. The traces of this severity live on in Germany’s early 20th-century Bauhaus architecture, and even in the furniture styles at IKEA (from Lutheran Sweden). They can be seen in the modest dress, office decor and eating habits of Angela Merkel, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, and of Joachim Gauck, Germany’s president and a former pastor himself. Both may partake of the glitz of the French presidency while visiting Paris, but it would never pass in Berlin.

Luther shared his distaste for visual ornament with other Protestant reformers. But he differed in the role he saw for music. The Swiss Protestants John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli viewed music as sensual temptation and frowned on it. But to Luther music was a divinely inspired weapon against the devil. He wanted believers to sing together—in German, in church and at home, and with instruments accompanying them. Today Germany has 130 publicly financed orchestras, more than any other country. And concerts are still attended like sermons, sombrely and seriously.

Luther’s inheritance can also be seen in the fact that Germany, the world’s 17th-most populous country, has the second-largest book market after America’s. After he translated the Bible into German, Luther wanted everyone, male or female, rich or poor, to read it. At first Protestants became more literate than Catholics; ultimately all Germans became bookish.

Finally, a familiar thesis links Luther to German attitudes towards money. In this view Catholics, used to confessing and being absolved after each round of sins, tend to run up debts (Schulden, from the same root as Schuld, or “guilt”), whereas Protestants see saving as a moral imperative. This argument, valid or not, has a familiar ring in southern Europe’s mainly Catholic and Orthodox countries, which have spent the euro crisis enduring lectures on austerity from Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s devoutly Lutheran finance minister.

Yet on money, too, Luther differed from other reformers. When Max Weber wrote of the Protestant work ethic in 1904, he had in mind Calvinism and its relatives, such as American Puritanism. Calvin viewed an individual’s ability to get rich as a sign that God had predestined him to be saved. To Luther, Christians were already saved, so wealth was suspect. Instead of amassing it, Christians should work for their community, not themselves. Work (Beruf) thus became a calling (Berufung). Not profit but redistribution was the goal. According to Gerhard Wegner, a professor of theology, this “Lutheran socialism” finds secular expression in the welfare states of Scandinavia and Germany.

Luther’s “subcutaneous” legacy keeps popping up in surprising places, says Mrs Eichel. Germans, and especially Lutherans, buy more life insurance but fewer shares than others (Luther didn’t believe in making money without working for it). And everywhere they insist on conscientious observance of principle and order. They religiously separate their rubbish by the colour of glass and are world champions at recycling (65% of all waste), easily beating the second-place South Koreans.

Holier than thou

Luther also shares blame for some negative qualities ascribed to Germans. He was deeply anti-Semitic, a prejudice his countrymen have shed at great cost (he blamed evil stares from Jews for the illness that eventually killed him). Germans’ legendary obedience to authority is attributed to Luther’s insistence on separating spiritual and worldly authorities (which princes in his day found useful in suppressing a peasants’ revolt). And although personally fond of boisterous jokes, he was among the founding figures of Germany’s rather humourless and preachy tradition of public discourse. Germans today are the first to bemoan their national habit of delivering finger-wagging lectures.

Such rigid moralism can make Germans hard to deal with, especially in Brussels, where the EU’s problems demand a willingness to let misdemeanours slide. But there are worse traits than excessive morality. Besides, 500 years on, Lutheran Germany is being transformed by globalisation. Germany today has not only devout ascetics but everything from consumerist hipsters to Om-chanting yogis. A growing Muslim population is pushing the country towards a new kind of religious pluralism. Mrs Eichel herself finds German churches “too serious”; she attends one headed by an African-American gospel preacher. If the downside of Germans’ Lutheran heritage is a difficulty in lightening up or accepting alternative lifestyles, they seem to be getting over it.


Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Office 7734 by IPostAtMidnight

Welcome to Hell, my friend. No, it’s not what I expected when I first arrived, either, but it’s true.

Hell is an office job.

Doesn’t seem too bad for Hell, does it? Practically a dream job, compared to lakes of fire and all that. I mean sure, it’s not one of those hip offices with funky feng shui and trendy colors and organic juice bars. It’s not even a cubicle farm, where at least you get a tiny scrap of privacy while you work.

No, it’s just an office with an open floor plan. Nothing but desks, row upon row of gray metal desks beneath sickly fluorescent lighting. These people sitting at the desks are your new co-workers. You may hear an occasional cough or sniffle, but for the most part, we’re all very quiet.


Because we’re thinking, that’s why. We are thinking very, very hard about the blank piece of paper on our desks.

You’ve got one, too. It’s a standard 3x5 index card, with one red line at the top and ten blue lines underneath. No fancy computers to work on here, just a plain, simple index card.

But it’s a very important index card. You get a new one every day, and if you write something on it, then you might get the evening off.

What’s so great about an evening off?

Well, a day in Hell may be like working in an office, but the nights are another thing entirely. At night, we could end up with fire ants poured into our ears, or dancing barefoot on broken glass. We’ve had our eyes lanced, our tongues shredded, and our intestines unwound. And those were the easy nights. Normally it’s much worse.

That’s why these index cards are so important.

Did you think devils and demons would be creative with their punishments? Try telling a bunch of humans that one of them will get the night off if they come up with the most inventive torture of the day. Demons can’t even compete with our creativity.

But hey, it’s almost quitting time. We’ve got to drop our cards in the suggestion box before the 5:00 deadline. I’d wish you good luck, but that would mean really bad luck for me, wouldn’t it?

Oh wait, I see that look in your eyes. You’re thinking about getting everyone to band together and write down easy tortures, like runny noses and stubbed toes, right?

Well, forget about it. No matter what you do, there will always be that one guy, you know? Usually more than one, but there will always be at least one stupid, selfish, or just plain evil asshole who ruins things for everyone else. If you don’t believe me, then you don’t know your fellow humans very well.

Or you never worked in an office.

But I wouldn’t worry about it. After tonight, I’m sure you’ll fit right in.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Words can hurt you!

A greek proverb says: Η γλώσσα κόκκαλα δεν έχει και κόκαλα τσακίζει = The tongue has no bones but can break bones.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

A compiled list of collective nouns

A group of ants is called a colony.

A group of aunts is called a book club.

A group of sparrows is called a host.

A group of men named James is called late-night hosts.

A group of millennials who look different is called a marketing campaign.

A group of millennials who look the same is called a brunch.

A group of millennials who have laptops is called a co-working space.

A group of gorillas is called a troop.

A group of white men is called an improv troupe.

A group of buzzards is called a wake.

A group of liberals calls itself woke.

A group of geese is called a gaggle.

A group of crows is called a murder.

An informal gathering of members of the media by the White House press secretary used to be called a press gaggle. It is now called a press murder.

A group of murders is called a “Game of Thrones” finale.

A group of donkeys is called a drove.

A group of scenes featuring Ryan Gosling behind the wheel of a car is called “Drive.”

A group of whales is called a pod.

A group of fish is called so gross why are all these fish here?

An angry group of pedestrians is called New York.

An angry group of traffic is called Los Angeles.

An angry group of states you can’t name is called the Midwest.

A gathering of cows is called a herd.

A gathering of random strangers is called Hell.

A cancelled gathering is called sweet, sweet relief.

From The New Yorker

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Barbershops as confessionals, newsrooms and therapists

A play looks at black masculinity through the prism of barbershops

A young actor settles into a chair and tells the barber he is nervous: he has an audition for the part of “a strong, black man”. The barber laughs and tells him he is overqualified, but the actor is convinced that he won’t fit their notion of masculinity: he doesn’t know what the description entails. The barber asks what his father thinks. “Never really knew him” comes the reply; there were no uncles or other male role models, only his mother. “Jesus” mutters the barber. “No, not him either.”

This is a snapshot of the humour with which “The Barbershop Chronicles” tackles hefty subjects. Written by Inua Ellams, a Nigerian-born British poet, it is a piercing examination of black masculinity as seen through a prism of barbershops in Accra, Harare, Lagos, Kampala, Johannesburg and London.  Mr Ellams once described himself as a “Muslim-Christian, Libra-Scorpio, Irish-English-Nigerian skinny, black immigrant” and so his play—perhaps unsurprisingly—is very much concerned with identity and self-expression.

The action bounces energetically from city to city, and each scene reveals a unique set of social and political concerns. In Accra, Abram the barber calms the nerves of Fiifi as he prepares for fatherhood. In Kampala, Simon tries to change Brian’s attitude towards gay men. In Johannesburg, Simphiwe has become a drunk, unable to overcome the torment of his country’s past. In London, Samuel is blinded by his loyalty to his father while the men around him talk of one-night stands, religion, respect towards elders and the disciplining of children by a generation of men who spoke with their hands.

It is not the first time the barbershop has been held up as a focal point for the black community. There are documentaries (“Barber Shop City”) and anthropological studies (“Street Dreams and Hip Hop Barbershops”) as well as a trio of American films. In “Barbershop” (2002), directed by Tim Story, the film’s protagonist is told that it is “the place where a black man means something…our own country club”. In the play, it is likened to an Englishman’s pub. Mr Ellams has explained how the vulnerability of a man having a shave, with a razor to his neck, creates “a place of delicacy, of gentleness, of absolute trust”.

Mr Ellams first considered the topic a few years ago when a friend told him about an idea for a project to teach barbers the basics of counselling so that they were prepared should a customer want to discuss mental health issues. It felt necessary to strengthen this outlet as so many men, especially those in the black community, associate poor mental health with “weakness” and suffer in silence. Keith Dube, a radio presenter, has argued that there is a “mental health crisis ongoing in black, British communities” (it formed the subject of his documentary “Being Black, Going Crazy?”). Mr Dube struggled with depression but found it difficult to talk about because “black people don’t really do mental illness”. When he started looking into it he found that black men were 17 times more likely than their white counterparts to be diagnosed with a serious mental health issue and that young black men were six times more likely to be sectioned. A distrust of the authorities, as well as a fear of the reaction of peers and parents, leads many to the barbershop chair as the safest space to talk.  

As well as his interest in London’s African and Caribbean diaspora, Mr Ellams wanted to see whether the barber’s chair held the same power across Africa. He travelled to Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana to be a fly on the barbershop wall. The characters in the play are based on his real encounters, from a man in Uganda who believed romantic love could not be trusted to the young actor in London who questioned the meaning of black masculinity. And because the views expressed are real, they can make for uncomfortable viewing. Simphiwe gives a particularly pained account of South Africa and his complete disillusionment with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up to heal the wounds of apartheid. Western viewers may think there’s been progress in South Africa. Not for Simphiwe: he believes “Mandela failed”.

Mr Ellams juggles plenty of weighty topics but he brings a lightness of touch, peppering the play with humour, music and dance. Each transporting scene is interlinked by an afrobeat song, choreographed dance or football commentary under the lighting of a different barbershop sign. There is a life-affirming joy about the play that has made it a hit with critics; after its sell-out run at the National Theatre in London ends on July 8th, it will get a second run in November. In the “Barbershop” film a character says that “a haircut can change how a man feels on the inside”. In “The Barbershop Chronicles”, watching a man have a haircut achieves the same thing.

Originally posted at THE ECONOMIST
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