There’s Something in Absentia

14 July 2009

On Absence and Return

Ozone Playground, by Pulpolux !!! with Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic licenceAbsence is often considered an intentional void, a failure to be rather than the result of a distraction or restriction. There is often a condemnation involved, at least implicitly. A list of absentees, absenting oneself from a vote, being absent without leave – none of these measure or define behaviour deemed appropriate. Yet an absence is simply the lack of an expected presence, a disappointment only because it defies what we want rather than determines what is probable, or perhaps even possible. Absence speaks to our suspicion, whispers that someone else has erred.

How, then, do we rein in our expectations, or the presumption that a regular presence is necessarily and alone a good presence? One way would be to appreciate the aggregate rather than the individual. What do we achieve together more meaningfully than alone? Teams tend to outperform the combined capacity of their individual members, and societies – by and large – maintain the trajectory of their change despite emigration and remigration. It would be difficult to define either of these examples as a form of stability, yet they both indicate that a certain type of continuity has greater value than even the most identifiable absence. Sure, any sports fan could cite a team that failed after one member left (Michael Jordan’s first retirement, anyone?) but on a social scale, even with an increase of absences, the dilution is barely measurable.

Of course, this all goes to prove that my recent lengthy absence from the blogosphere is a small nothing in a vast ocean of somethings. But it’s so often difficult to escape self-censure, which is ultimately the whisper of the ego against the roar logic. No wonder I have ringing in my ears.

No @$#*% Way!

13 July 2009

A Word or Two about Swearing

Broken, by Aeioux, with Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic licenceAge, a family and a sneaking suspicion that things can be better said are often what push people to swear less often than they might. There is always a sort of opprobrium to cursing, or what my grandmother (and yours, no doubt) calls ‘foul language’. Cue images of stench and decay, of wrongness of language that must indicate the decomposition of thought. Perhaps there’s a point to the moralising, but it often seems a convenience, a judgment of what’s proper and prudent without any indication of how that position has been attained. There are undoubtedly situations in which swearing is unnecessary – variations of the word ‘fuck’ used an adjectives can range from the emphatic (as in “I really fucked up”) to the needlessly vulgar (as in “oh my fucking God”). Yet, as it happens, swearing does have at least one purpose – to mitigate physical pain.

In the current issue of NeuroReport, Richard Stephens, John Atkins and Andrew Kingston describe the results of an experiment in which subjects were asked to immerse a hand in icy cold water and “repeat a swear word”, and then asked to undergo the process again while repeating a “neutral” word. The result? When the subjects swore, they tended to keep their hands immersed longer. Stephens and his associates explain it this way: “swearing increased pain tolerance, increased heart rate and decreased perceived pain compared to not swearing”.

As an interesting aside, in an interview with the London Telegraph, Dr Stephens mentioned that he first thought about the link between swearing and pain when his wife was in labour; it would be difficult not to imagine why. His findings could well have verified what delivery ward nurses already know, and there’s a fitting counterpoint. It turns out that “swearing did not increase pain tolerance in males with a tendency to catastrophise”. Drama queens, in other @$#*% words.

What is Inspiration?

4 April 2009

Notes on an Unassuming Man

Fire walk with me, by by chaosinjune, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution 2.0 Generic)I have often wondered what it means to be inspired, pondered the mechanisms by which a state of subdued awe can be generated, and in turn generate action in me. Inspiration seems to be ethereal, the purely subjective identification of a best case scenario according to which we might live, or at least aspire to live. The word actually comes from the Latin inspirare, to breathe in, and in that time-worn connection we should be able to grasp its significance. Something or someone who inspires us makes us breathe in new ways of understanding, or at least ways of understanding the common place anew.

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of interviewing a man who did just that for me, a professor at one of Hong Kong’s universities. He’s a chemist, which might not sound inspiring in itself, but it is when seen in its proper context. As a child he wanted to be a doctor, to help and to heal, but it soon became obvious that the blood and associated gore doctors have to deal with would make him squeamish, to say the least. So, in his youthful enthusiasm, he decided to become a chemist, to research the means by which diseases might be cured.

That might sound like all too much idealism but the professor is in his 50s now, still searching, still working on molecules that might yet attack and kill cancer cells. Like all good scientists he doesn’t have a timetable for achievement, just a desire to search, try and fail, and then try again. Despite decreases in funding each year over the last 12 he continues because he has never forgotten that he set out to make a difference.

And recently he made a breakthrough in another disease. His university wants him to patent his efforts, to show that the institution is leading the advancement of knowledge no doubt, but he has quietly deflected the requests. When I asked him why he said it was simply because research wouldn’t progress if anyone had to pay him royalties before a form of medicine could be developed from his work. As always, his object was to help, to play a role in healing one day, somehow. As I left his office I realised what really inspired me the most – selflessness.

Cosmic Flight School, by nflorence2012, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)It’s somewhat ironic that the most inspiring people sometimes have to remain anonymous, cloaked because they need to dance a delicate little jig in doing what it is they do that inspires others. Inspiration is about the shifting of perceptions, the act of influence by deed and not necessarily by name. But, of course, I know who the professor is and each time I read his name I’ll be cheering him on. It’s kind of personal now – having spoken to him, my life has changed.

Not All Sugar Tastes So Sweet

8 March 2009

Two Perspectives on Cane Growing in the Philippines

SUGARCANE, by who.log.why, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution 2.0 Generic)Difference need not end all conversation. Allow me to offer a rather personal example. My wife and I were raised in difference countries, subjected to different environments and shaped by very different experiences, but there is one thing we each know something about. Sugar. My understanding, such that it is, comes from a proximity to the industry in northern Australia, knowing people who worked in the mills during the season, tramping through the fields as a kid and watching the fires and the harvesters as an adult after I moved away. My wife, in important contrast, was born into the sugar-growing areas of Negros Occidental in the Philippines, saw the suffering of the tenant farmers and their labourers, and joined the revolution against Ferdinand Macros as a teenager to right those wrongs. Worlds apart, you might think, but sometimes different perspectives on a common theme draw minds together.

I’ve long thought that mechanisation could break the vicious poverty associated with sugarcane growing in my wife’s home province. Most landholders keep tenant farmers in a kind of feudal grip, paying very little for the crop they produce six months of the year and extending loans with high interest rates for the other six months, tying whole families to indenture. If these families, spread out across five or six haciendas, could hire cane harvesters they could massively decrease the time it takes to get sticks to the mill and likewise decrease the delay between planting and payment for their crops. This obviously wouldn’t solve the problem of six months’ employment in every twelve but it would reduce labour costs and thus the size of loans, and the associated favouritism, handed out by the hacienda owners.

There are numerous flaws to this argument, as my wife is quick to point out, even though the premise of mechanisation is sound. I mentioned a reduction in labour costs, but the cane cutters, known as Sakadas, are also very poor people relying on seasonal work. Mechanisation would be the death of their meagre hope, pure and simple. The provincial economy couldn’t absorb them in other roles – step off a plane at the provincial airport in Bacolod and you’ll immediately see the prevalence of unemployment. The city has a permanent air of Depression about it, as though better days never really managed to come. There’s certainly no future there for out-of-work Sakadas.

Perhaps more significantly, if the hacidenda owners didn’t try to sabotage mechanisation – and their political clout relies on the control of people, not machinery – they could very well take up the idea themselves, doing away with tenant farmers and Sakadas in one fell swoop. As my wife argues in equal measures from experience and conviction, the situation is delicately poised, with small changes likely to have large repercussions. The only certainty is that the levels of poverty induced by these feudal relations are not sustainable; as the sugar land shrinks and gives was to urban subdivisions, as the remaining land yields less each year and the soil becomes increasingly salted, something will have to change.

When nature speaks, by My DrEaM SHOTZz, with Creative Commons Licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)We agree that mechanised harvesting is the only humane way to get a sugar cane crop to the mill, and the sort of collective action that it would entail is the great hope that pushed my wife into action against Marcos and his cane-growing cronies all those years ago. But the ensuing dislocations would be horrendous. Greater minds than ours, and more committed political actors, have tried and failed to break the grip of the hacienda owners – people, not incidentally, who rarely hold all of their estates legally, and who bankroll their own militias. Opposition often means death.

But maybe mechanisation is somehow the key, perhaps combined with diversification into other crops. For now, it’s certainly something to think about.

And a Week Went By

2 March 2009

Farewell to a Brave Friend

Vanishing, by alicepopkorn, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution 2.0 Generic)Time has stretched and bent in the Poole household recently, pushing events out of sequence and priorities in new directions. Of course, these are just perceptions, but they affect us though clocks had truly run awry. Our friend Y, who lives with us, is returning to Indonesia tomorrow after seven months that no person on this earth should be forced to endure. A domestic helper here in Hong Kong, she was beaten severely by the wife of her employer, treated with contempt by the police and dismissed as unreliable by the Department of Justice. In the last seven days she’s had to relive that in an attempt to gain recompense through the Labour Tribunal. We’ve all been living with one eye on the past, stepping cautiously through the days.

Y now has a little money, dragged out of her employer only because he forced her to work two years without a single day of rest. But justice and a sense of resolution? Well, that’s not quite possible. Y returned to the police station two days ago to retrieve money held as evidence – money, I should add, that had been ‘confiscated’ by the woman who beat her. The police would only grant the release if Y rescinded part of her original statement, and it takes no genius to imagine the legal consequence of a statement that has suddenly become a false allegation.

Nice trick boys.

Over seven months we’ve seen this woman suffer simply for doing her job, and then for standing firm and shouting NO MORE! The flight home should have been something of a release. But when she leaves tomorrow she’ll be carrying two suitcases of clothes and a whole plane-load of disdain. That’s a greater burden than anyone should bear.

The Limits of Tolerance

21 February 2009

Or, the Spam Filter Waits

The Argument, by Thomas Hawk, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)The Internet is sometimes a haven for fools. “Multiculturalism is a form of self-hating genocide”, wrote ‘Drew’ in response to my post on multiculturalism and China, apparently in ignorance of the conditions for genocide and displaying an unwillingness to engage in the debate that ‘yourfriend’ had initiated. The best he could manage was a rant about cultural separation that I deleted. Had he bothered to read anything else on Greetings Earthlings, including the end of the post he was commenting on, he would have known that my household usually contains two different cultures, and at the moment three. I’m not sure what I find worse, the intransigence or the ignorance. In any case the comment pushed past the limits of my tolerance.

Not incidentally, that raises an interesting question. On what is intolerance based? I wrote a post last year about eugenics, which is a convoluted attempt to justify intolerance using pseudo-scientific methods and a good deal of bluster. But any form of intolerance begins with a simplifying premise that like should only attract like, that cultural, social, political and personal boundaries are impermeable. There is no inherent logic to follow this premise, no immutable law of human dynamics that proves it must be so.

Circumstances do tend to separate people into groups based on language, outlook and other greater and lesser perceptions, but absolute separation is neither natural nor likely. Apartheid failed because it was improbable given the demographics of South Africa, ‘ethnic cleansing’ is condemned because it is immoral. The human condition is one of admixture, whether on a local, regional or global scale. ‘Yourfriend’ admirably outlined that admixture in southern China two weeks  ago.

The intolerance of other people’s social and genetic conditions is a form malcontent, which is much of what my debate with ‘yourfriend’ was about, from my perspective at least. And I was happy to engage someone who disagreed with me in certain ways then because there was no insistence on absolute separation and or anything like the asinine comment that ‘Drew’ left, whereby diversity could only be achieved on a global scale by reserving each country for its own homogeneous and unchanging people. It was “not too complicated” he said, which I took as meaning ‘simple’ in the sense of being limited and dumb.

Blog trolls like ‘Drew’ compress complexity into irrelevance, offering solutions to ‘problems’ only they imagine without bothering to test and re-test their own logic, to learn. A little intolerance rebounded back their way never hurts. ‘Drew’, meet the spam filter. I’m sure you’ll get along just fine.

Welcome to the Real World

20 February 2009

It’s So Serious Here

La Jolla, CA (San Diego), by JohnnyRokkit, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic)As a relatively naïve undergraduate in the early 1990s I made a statement born of my experience in the hardware and building industries. My political theory lecturer, who might well have been wiser than I imagined, had just returned from six months of deep, solitary research in the British Library. “Welcome back to the real world”, I said, to which he replied “what is the real world?” Damn, a philosopher. But it’s an interesting and rarely considered question. Just what is the real world, and how does it differ from those unreal, surreal or presumably imaginary places that we otherwise inhabit?

I ask this question because I meet the leading phrase again and again, almost daily, here in Hong Kong. There is an element of  ‘hard work is worth’ to it, but also a judgement – only certain types of hard work have value. As an undergraduate I first considered manual labour a ticket to the real world, which must have been a rather sweaty and unpleasant place, given that I lived in the deep tropics. I think now, perhaps only a little ironically, of the icy Gulag in Alexandar Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, or at a more gentle remove the bleak, disappointing reality of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s “Zima Station”. Real life was tough – real life hurt.

And it certain did when I installed roofs for a living, but an 8 ½ year stretch of study allowed me to see this ‘reality’ in a different way, helped me to understand that effort, often prodigious effort, need not be physical. I retained my lecturer’s scepticism about real life, understood that the phrase was a demarcation rather than an observation. It says ‘On this side of the line I stand – real, working hard in some way, lending value more to some parts of life than others, ultimately disparaging a few ill-identified pockets of the surreal, the unreal, the lazy’. And so on.

It’s particularly interesting that this realisation came to me in the transition from work to study, as I shifted from being a wage labourer to a scholarship recipient. The imposition of the ‘real world’ on public discourse usually happens in observations of people moving in the opposite direction – from study to work. I constantly read it in academic descriptions of what happens after university, which is presumably some sort of primordial and carefree playground that I completely failed to notice while I was there. And, for that matter, what do such appellations say of academics? I imagine that they think more of their own efforts than they admit as they wave their students goodbye.

So, what is this ‘real world’ if not the result of a relational con? If Hong Kong is anything to go by, ‘reality’ is not the realm of hard work for personal gain as I first imagined, but a state in which capitalism triumphs over the individual will, pushing workers harder for no increased benefit (and no, Elizabeth, I’m not writing about myself now). It’s the $10 wage slave compelled to work overtime as the company slides into debt, the middle manager covering two or three positions after retrenchments. And it caries a sort of resolute morality within itself. The real world is deadly serious – you might want to check out.