Humpty Dumpty at the Kyber Pass

Posted in History, Politics by Arasmus on December 1, 2009

At the outset, it is worth mentioning that as I watched President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan tonight I realized that the luxury of not being governed by an idiot has yet to wear off. Obviously, the entire Iraq War has been a complete distraction from the efficient prosecution of the war in Afghanistan. On somewhat of an aside, I also appreciated Obama’s reference to Eishenhower’s principle that every issue of national policy must be placed in balance with every other issue. I thought his short-list of our present challenges as (1) the economy and (2) China, showed the proper focus, or at least one with which I agree.

Now with respect to Afghanistan, I see 2 challenges.

The first is the definition of success. In this speech Obama defined success as destroying Al Qaeda’s ability to act. He did not include in the definition of success building a vibrant and successful Afghanistan. That was wise. Although I am only half-way through Ahmed Rashid’s excellent book on the Taliban (Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia), I can already appreciate just how far behind Afghanistan is in terms of thinking of itself as a single nation and possessing national institutions that command the loyalty and support of the civilian population. The problem is whether you can quench Al Qaeda’s ability to operate and avoid having to suckle a fledgling Afghanistan. Didn’t Al Qaeda select Afghanistan precisely because it was unable to hold itself together? (By the way, there is no shortage of failed states, which has always led me to wonder why we define the theatres in the “War on Terror” with such a geographical emphasis). I agree no nation can afford to bankroll Afghanistan, especially the United States in its current condition. But the ability of Afghanistan to have a concept of itself as a multi-ethnic nation and rise up from the ashes of ethnic and tribal violence does not at this point look promising. There will have to be some nation-building, the question is how much time and how much money will it take to get to a critical mass that can effectively police disrupting influences like Al Qaeda.

The second issue is Pakistan. An Al Qaeda or Taliban leader watching tonight’s broadcast will probably go through the following considerations if he hasn’t done so already. An enlarged American force is on its way. The first rule of guerrilla warfare is to avoid all confrontations with a superior force and to instead wear that force down by hit and run tactics, draw it into situations where its size becomes a disadvantage and target its weaknesses. In his speech tonight Obama said that he would start pulling troops back from Afghanistan in 18 months. This weekend I briefly caught an interview with Reza Aslan who has written the book, How to Win A Cosmic War, God, Civilization and the The End of The War on Terror. He captures quite well the perspective that Islamist fundamentalists have of this conflict as one which they don’t see ending any time soon. So for them, it is a viable option to withdraw forces from Afghanistan, probably to Waziristan in Pakistan, wait there for 18 months and return once the Americans start to leave. The question then becomes whether Pakistan will attack them in Waziristan. Pakistan is an anemic state. Since partition it has failed to build up the type of democratic institutions that might have at this point afforded it greater economic growth, reduced poverty and inequality, rule of law, a military under civilian control and reduced corruption. It has none of these things so it has little ability to act. Pakistan is also disinclined to act because their number one priority is to counter their heightened sensitivity to Indian influence in Afghanistan. Given the precarious position in which Pakistan finds itself (specifically the the high water mark of concern re the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons during the Swat Valley insurgency) this obsession with India seems to me a poor choice of priorities. But Pakistan believes that the Americans are not in Afghanistan for the long haul. And they are right. So Pakistan sees the relationship between its security services and the Taliban as a potential pawn that they can use in a post-American Afghanistan to counter Indian influence in the region. If Pakistan does not prosecute the war on their side of the border Al Qaeda will not be neutralized in Afghanistan. They will merely move to Pakistan and lie low. Pakistan is key. And the key to Pakistan is India.


Road Trip To Maine

Posted in New England, Travel by Arasmus on November 25, 2009

Some photographs from my trip this Fall to Five Islands, a fishing village on the island of Georgetown, along the Maine coast. I was drawn there by repeated reports of a bumper crop of lobsters this year and a consequent drop in prices to verily proletarian depths. Eager to reap the whirlwind and enjoy buttery yet prudent excess, I headed north out of Boston with some friends. We dined handsomely at the water’s edge under the rustic auspices of the Five Islands Lobster Company.  If you would like to repeat the adventure then make sure to stop at the Five Islands Farm Gourmet Store on your way out to the shore so you can pick up a nice bottle, or two, of white wine and some local goat cheese.

Wild Hurts and Larksong

Posted in Essay, Literary by Arasmus on August 14, 2009

My grandfather was a farmer, by which I mean he was endowed with all the wisdom and knowledge that one can only absorb through a childhood and several decades spent in dialogue with nature in all her many forms. I used to spend my summers on his farm. He would greet me at the start of my school holidays with the same expression; “you are free to do all manner of things, from pitch and toss to manslaughter, and if anyone says anything you should tell them to come and talk to me. I will tell them that you have my authority and all my blessings.” And with that as my ambassadorial seal, I headed for the mountains.

There was always something new to be found where the earth met the sky as if all things were drawn by an upward magnetism towards the heavens, momentarily delayed only by gravity and larksong. And so all things gathered there to wait and drink hot sweet tea from re-purposed jam jars. “Nottingham.” I ran my fingers over the raised glass at the bottom of the jar, rapidly cooling now as it filled with mountain-top emptiness. Between bites of soft white fresh and thickly cut bread I would pick small blue berries from among the heather that covered the slopes. The berries were both sweet and tart at the same time. They were delicious. They were mysterious too because we could never translate exactly what they were. In Hiberno-English, drawing from the old Gaelic language, they were called hurts. They were known throughout the mountains as such and if you asked people they would speak of them as a half-remembered blessing, an unexpected generosity of nature, like an old 50 pound note found in a tea-caddy. But when I returned to the city, no one knew what I was talking about. I told them they were called wild-hurts but the teachers would stand mute, their black ties as long as their suspicion. I tried looking up the word in botany books in the library but I could not find them there. These ambiguous berries remained the exclusive fruit of a linguistic oasis in the sky.

Between the summers I dreamed of those berries, crushed with the back of a fork, sprinkled with sugar and transformed into an instant smile-producing, eye-closing, white-shirt destroying jam. From some angles they looked gray. From another dark blue. Some were more sweet, some more tart. They were wild – untamed and only ever to be consumed in locations where the wind rushed through your hair and you had to turn your face in on yourself to catch a breath. They were to my childhood tongue and memory the taste of freedom.

As I added the final full-stop to the final answer to the final question in the final exam of my school year, red-curtains, like those on the Muppet Show, would separate in my mind’s eye and I would see myself in the arms of the mountain eating wild hurts. As I grew older and my head became more and more filled with thoughts of progress, standardization, output and the machine, I thought that these wild hurts had frolicked in freedom long enough and that I would bring them down from the mountains and grow them in the low-lands, on flat ground where machines could run through them in summer and we would have hurt-jam – an elixir, the absence of which in the commonwealth to that point befuddled my understanding and inflamed my greed.

My grandfather interrogated me as he saw me heading up the mountain with shovels and equipment with which to dig out the root-balls.

“I am going to see if we can grow them down here and perhaps make something of it.” I replied.

“You can’t. No one ever has.”

“Tosh – I will.”

The wild hurts didn’t have a root-ball like most other plants. The soil on the mountain-tops was less fertile and so the roots spread out close to the surface and were feathery with only an occasional stem here and there aspiring to any sort of woody permanence. It was frustrating, but in the end I had what I thought might be enough – six or seven clumps of roots. I imagined that they would be a little shocked when I took them to the lowlands but that once they adapted they would bask in the nutrient rich soil and grow into cohesiveness. The violence of my labors would be overlooked and a rich bounty of those magical blue berries would come with the harvest.

They died within days. It was not for want of water or sunlight. It was not for want of fertilizer. It wasn’t even for want of their original soil because thinking as much I brought sufficient enough of it that their roots must have been ignorant of their new surroundings. And yet they dried out and faded.

My Grandfather, in passing, said there are things that cannot be cultivated. There are things that are born wild and it doesn’t matter what anyone does, once that freedom is taken from them, they die.

I remember the sight of larks soaring in the sky.

The Trough Makes Pigs of Us All

Posted in Business by Arasmus on May 8, 2009

This morning I read a report of the BMW Design Talk at Concorso d`Eleganza, an annual vintage car-show in Italy. Set in the context of the current deep global recession, the participants talked about a redefinition of the concept of luxury and luxury goods. Photographer Thomas Demand described his view that luxury must now be more inwardly focused rather than outwardly expressed. I was heartened to see this self-reflection by the luxury goods community because for several years I have had a difficult relationship with the industry. I now want to take this opportunity to note my current thinking.
Why is the luxury goods industry relevant? The luxury goods industry is relevant because luxury goods are tools and they can be used as such to improve society. There are two currencies in society; money and status. The two do not always co-exist. You can make a lot of money in the pornography business but most people don’t want to do it, and for some the reason is that they perceive a consequent loss of status in the eyes of their society. Accordingly, they willingly fore-go/exchange money for status. On the other hand high political office often carries a great deal of status but a relatively low amount of money. For example, Vice-President Joe Biden could make more money as a mid-level law firm associate than he did as a U.S. Senator. As a state, we manipulate money to create what we feel is a better outcome for society as a whole. We place a tax on earnings and convert those taxes towards a legal-system, infrastructure or better schools. But whereas, we intentionally decide how much money to spend on bridges etc. we don’t employ the same degree of consciousness to how we assign status. I think we should.

There are precedents for the use of luxury goods to transform society. Throughout the 1970s and 80s PETA fought to make the wearing of animal fur socially unacceptable. They succeeded. Luxury goods companies themselves have used their products to effect social change. One of my heroes, Anita Roddick used her company’s marketing to raise awareness and reverse a proposed European Union Directive that initially required animal testing of all cosmetics into a final Directive that banned animal testing throughout the Union. I remember during the height of what the diamond industry privately called “the blood diamond crisis,” numerous commentators within the industry pointed to the PETA fur campaign and said that unless the industry responded by developing a diamond origin-tracing system, there was a danger that diamonds could be stigmatized out of the market. Today we are in the middle of another example. BMW Design Director Adrian van Hooydonk argued at Concorso d’Eleganza that the next major design movement, ”Sustaethics,” will grow out of a foundation of sustainable thinking. Time will tell whether this is fad or fulcrum. But these examples do support the thesis that status is a creature of social consensus and an intentional, directed and well-executed campaign can change that social-consensus, leverage consumption, and change society.

So what’s my beef? The problem I have with the luxury goods industry is that the traditional “Madison Avenue luxury goods industry” uses its power to divide people, from each other (rich versus poor, cool versus non-cool) and from themselves (by encouraging greed, vanity, vapidity and superficiality). I feel the world has changed and this traditional approach is outrageously out-of-touch with the way we live now. A thought-experiment. Imagine if you will a small group of very rich people, say 3 or 4 households. They are a very tightly-knit group and they often have wonderful dinners together. They have been life-long friends through ups and downs. They live very well in a very wealthy neighborhood. Imagine that one of the couples is celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary and they commemorate it with a beautiful ruby set elegantly in a pendulum setting. Aesthetically, that’s a beautiful picture. Now let’s pull back the camera. Instead of this tight-little group of 3-4 houses, let us imagine these diamond-dames clinking their glasses at a restaurant overlooking the favelas of Rio or the slums of New Delhi. Set aside the security issue for a moment and imagine if they went for a walk through those impoverished neighborhoods. What would that be like – to see such abject poverty and then feel that ruby around your neck? Is it still a thing of beauty in that context? The effect of modern media and the internet is equivalent to that pulling-back of the camera-frame. In a world where we are increasingly intimately connected to the rest of the human family, favelas and slums no longer surround foreign cities – they circle our collective consciousness.  Of course we can reject that new reality but we do so at the cost of dying as humans, both to others and to ourselves. At the deepest level, there is an unavoidable truth; it is impossible to love yourself and not others.

But there is a place for luxury goods. Their role and mission should be to preserve, protect and advance human culture and encourage humanism through aesthetics. Now that was phrased in such lofty terms that everyone can agree on it but none of us may share the same understanding. Let me illustrate by an example of something I recently observed. Three generations ago, there was a strong local tradition in Ireland of making a type of sausage known as “black-pudding” from pig-blood and pearl rice (my apologies to vegetarians but it is delicious). This example could just as well be about handmade pasta in Italy, an almond liqueur in Romania or Pu-erh tea (some of which is more expensive per gram than solid gold) in China. Two generations ago the tradition of blood-sausage began to die out in Ireland. It was considered crude and not at all as fashionable as continental gnocchi or espresso etc. It seemed that the local traditions had to die; a necessary sacrifice to progress in a globalized world economy. But then a movement began to bubble to the surface. It began in 1986 when McDonalds tried to open a restaurant at the Spanish steps in Rome. An Italian, Carlo Petrini, established the organization, Agricola to oppose the opening of the fast-food restaurant. Agricola quickly grew into the Slow Food movement. Today the Slow Food organization has 83,000 members and 450 regional chapters in over 122 countries, all aimed at preserving local food traditions. The consequence of this social movement in Ireland is an increased respect for local Irish food traditions. I witnessed the third-generation interviewing grand-parents, documenting their recipes and contributing these efforts to a national online database. There are now several brands of black-pudding for sale in Ireland and throughout the world, eg Clonakilty Black Pudding. And for all the hand-wringing and fashionable despair in previous decades, it was the conscious decision by the Irish to assign a higher status to their local cuisine, that lead to the change in social behavior, the emergence of companies and brands, and the preservation of this cultural artifact.

There is so much beauty in the world that its hard to sit still. The luxury goods industry should aim to provide viable business models to protect that authenticity. The French have been the masters at this process for centuries and much can be learned from observing how they achieved their success. From the development of the Appellation d’origine contrôlée in the 15th century to the successful legal defence of that system in the courts and in the legislature of the European Union in the 21st, they have successfully defended their culture through the deliberate cultivation of status. It is a lesson for all peoples everywhere.

So what is my definition of luxury? For me, now, luxury is an homage. It is a conversation I have with the creator of the product. It seems impossible to me, to progress as a human being or as a society and maintain the definition of luxury as something I have and you do not, as something that makes me in some way better than you, or as something that affirms either heaven or society’s approval of my position in society and their indifference to yours. That concept of luxury disgusts and depresses me. It preserves people at a school-yard level of maturity, nobility and enlightenment. But rejecting that ugliness does not mean that we must reject luxury.  I believe, paradoxically, that the appreciation of luxury should be bathed in humility. Humility on behalf of the recipient at their good fortune in being the object of such generosity. Humility on behalf of the producer that their hard work is being appreciated, their ideals understood and rewarded. We don’t always walk around with this humility, because it requires concentration (at least for me) and life is busy and full of stress and distraction. But luxury goods should take us to that mindset as might say a Japanese tea-ceremony. Beauty should excite our higher self, not our greed. A Ferrari should not be marketed as a bauble of the idle rich but as the child of an artisan, a shared love of beauty brought to an uncommon fruition. If this then becomes our new definition of luxury, we will sow seeds of humility, egalitarianism and humanity in the mind of the global consumer. We will turn the torrent of global consumption in a more noble direction. We will lift our eyes towards heaven. The trough makes pigs of us all.

Playgrounds of The Imagination – A Graphic Novels Short List

Posted in Art by Arasmus on May 6, 2009

My relationship to “animated story-telling” can be divided into two distinct periods, one separated from the other by about 20 years. The first spanned my childhood from about the age of 6 to 14 years and focused on what are generally known as “comics.” The second period was much less intense and came to the fore during a trip to Japan in 2005. It has continued sporadically thereafter in a kind of semi-frustrated state.
I grew up in Europe and the comics of my childhood were over-whelmingly of British origin with of course the obligatory inclusion of the continental Asterix and Obelix and to a lesser extent Tintin. This period can be divided into two phases. There were the “kid’s comics” and the “war comics” and I graduated from one to the other as any red-blooded young man would. The kid’s comics included the classic Beano (first published on 26 July 1938 and continues today) and the Dandy (first issue published on 4 December 1937 and continues in name to the present). These two comics are the central-core of British comics. As you can see from the publication dates they represent an intimate nostalgic cornerstone of several generations and are often thought of in a particularly loving way for their constancy and protection of innocence through the Second World War though both switched to a fortnightly publication schedule due to ink and paper rationing. I was a member of the Dennis the Menace Fan Club and when the comic sent me my membership certificate and two badges, it was the first letter I received from someone who was not family. Around this core were three or four other kid’s comics such as The Beezer (21 January 1956 to 21 August 1993, when it unofficially “merged” with The Beano) and one of my favorites The Topper (7 February 1953 to 15 September 1990, when it merged with The Beezer). There was also The Buster (28 May 1960 – 4 January 2000) and the awesome Whizzer and Chips (18 October 1969 to 27 October 1990, when it merged with Buster). These comics were timeless in the sense that they did not comment on the outside world. These were just pure silly fun and contained no references to adult themes or issues. They were quintessentially – pure childhood and I remember curling up in bed reading through hundreds of them. Interestingly, I rarely ever bought comics as a child, there was always someone somewhere departing childhood as one might leave on a train for London and suddenly a large bundle of comics would appear with a thud.

Then war arrived or rather (thankfully) war comics. I don’t know how it happened. Maybe it was that fortuitous pipeline from older boys or maybe young boys grow into war-related stuff, I can’t remember now. It started with comics that retold the adventures of World War 2, specifically The Victor (25 January 1961 until 21 November 1992), Warlord (1974 until 1986, at which point it was incorporated into The Victor) and Battle (8 March 1975 to 23 January 1988). I was a particular fan of Warlord which featured the spy character Peter Flynt. I joined the Warlord Club and in addition to a badge and wallet-ID, I got a code-book with which I, and other Warlord Club members could translate the secret messages that Flynt would tell us in the comic. It was the highest level of cool on earth at that time. It is noteworthy now, as I look back on it, that these World War 2 comics never mentioned the holocaust (which I guess is understandable given their target audience) and always depicted the Germans as honorable opponents. The Japanese were depicted as cruel and harsh. I don’t recall their characters being fleshed out in any way or episodes equivalent to the “good-German” occurring in the Asian theatre. Over time I moved onto the Battle comic, which had great stories within it such as Rat Pack, Johnny Red and Charley’s War. Charley’s War was so popular that it took 5 years to depict the final two years of World War 1. In July 1983, for four weeks, a new storyline, called Action Force, appeared in Battle. It was an instant success. On October 8, 1983, Action Force joined the pages of Battle full-time and the magazine was re-titled Battle Action Force. Battle Action Force consumed my life and my pocket-money. The story was set in 2011. A world government ensured peace and democracy around the world. Baron Ironblood was the last criminal on earth and his goal was to take over the world through his terrorist organization Cobra. Cobra had awesome uniforms and innovative weapons. And so at the age of 11, I was torn between aesthetics and morality. My response after some very deep reflection, under a tree, was to establish my own organization that was as cool as Cobra but not evil. Inspired by the modern Japanese military, I called it the SDF – the Self Defense Force. Now who could have a problem with that? I recruited my sister. We built a lookout tower in the trees and drove our bikes around the house keeping our eyes peeled for any suspicious activity. And then all of that faded away as I drifted into war-novels and then novels and all that. It seemed natural – comics were for children and I had new words to think about like semester, curriculum and “final exam.”

I think it was my life-long interest in Japan that brought me back to animation in my late 20s. During my trip to Japan in 2005 I read Frederik L. Schodt’s Dreamland Japan, Writings on Modern Manga, got to visit several manga stores in Tokyo and watched the prevalence of manga in people’s day-to-day lives. At the outset, I was incredulous at the idea that adults read comics of the type I saw. And yet the sheer scale of the industry in Japan is mind-blowing. Manga comprised 40 percent of all the magazines and books sold in Japan in 1995. In that year 2.3 billion Manga books were produced in Japan, and 1.9 billion of these were sold – that’s 15 ($50 US) for every man, woman and child in Japan. The value of all Manga produced in 1995 is estimated at somewhere between $7-9 billion US.  Nonetheless, I must admit, I am personally disinterested in most of the Anime and Manga I have seen thus far. The themes and presentation seem quite childish to me. I am however fascinated by how much the Japanese love it and I am interested to a point in learning more about the otaku (fanboy) culture around it. Although I am always up for a gripping story rendered with artistic skill, my interest in graphic-novels has been focused thus far on cyber-science-fiction graphic novels, specifically those that explore where our society may be in the next 300 years. I want to use these as seeds for thought-experiments that try to imagine the hyper-technological life and societies of the future.  I enjoy then looking at technology we have today and imagining how it will develop. Alas, my ulterior motive dismisses most of what is produced as too fanciful.

This weekend, after pho, and wired on Vietnamese coffee, I found myself trolling yet again for suitable graphic novels. I came across Gene Kannenberg’s 500 Essential Graphic Novels – The Ultimate Guide and decided to use this guide as part of great push to see where in this medium I might find the kind of stuff that I was interested in reading. At this point I have gone through all 500 and created two short lists, those that are gripping stories worth reading generally and then those that may be relevant to my narrow cyber-science-fiction focus. Alas, the latter is as short as it always is and I am already familiar with 2 of the 3 works on the list. I am reproducing both lists here so that others can benefit from my whittling and perhaps make suitable recommendations for my cyber-science-fiction list in the comment section. I have not included Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta because I have already read it. The story, which you will probably know from the movie, is good but the 1990 version of the graphic novel that I bought in Japan (ISBN 0930289528) is printed on less than adequate quality paper, resulting in a murky print that detracts from the overall experience.

My Short List of Graphic Novels About Various Topics:

  1. Dead Memory – it appears this could be quite a cerebral exploration of some interesting ideas, which is supposedly the norm for author Marc Antoine Mathieu. In this work a civil servant is given the task of mapping an infinite city (hello Kafka) but soon learns that walls are being built through it. As the walls go up the vocabulary available to the citizens decreases. I am extremely interested in the role of cities in intellectual life, culture and what they may evolve into in the future. This is at the top of my list.
  2. The Salon – a fascinating story idea by Nick Bertozzi. The painter George Braque discovers that his illustrious contemporaries are using a blue liquor to enter and briefly live in their paintings. The cast includes Gertrude Stein, Picasso and Paul Gauguin. The latter apparently is hiding a big secret!
  3. Berlin: City of Stones – this is a story set in Weimer Germany, which has always appeared to me to be a tragic moment in history because it was one so full of life and creativity yet cut short by the darkness of the Nazi Reich.
  4. Transmetropolitan – I’m hooked by the combination of cyberpunk and gonzo journalism in this work. The traditional but extremely detailed illustration by Darick Robertson looks great and underscores this very American work.
  5. Blade of the Immortal – Kannenberg describes it as “the most beautiful Manga you will ever see.”
  6. Mister X – this appeals to me interest in the intellectual significance of cities. In this work Mister X is a city designer and his job was to design cities that produced better mental states in the inhabitants (well there is a useful idea!) but the developers cut corners and now his cities dehumanize and unsettle the inhabitants. Mister X returns from his own nervous breakdown to haunt the city he designed.
  7. Glacial Period – illustrated and written by Nicolas De Crecy this work explores a world thousands of years hence when a group of explorers unearth the Louvre beneath a snowy wasteland and make amusing conclusions about the works they find.
  8. Persopolis – I have seen this everywhere and I must turn to it because its surprising to see a graphic novel reach this far into popular culture. I was also interested to learn that this is not Marjane Satrapi’s only graphic novel. Indeed the talented Ms. Satrapi is also producing the film version.
  9. Pyongyang – I am very excited to explore the work of Guy Delisle who like Joe Sacco uses the graphic novel as a type of journalism. In this 2007 work Delisle describes his trip through North Korea.
  10. Shenzhen – another of Guy Delisle’s works, this is an examination of the effect of globalization on one of China’s free-trade zones as seen through his Western eyes.
  11. Palestine – illustrating his 1991 journey to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, in which he interviewed over 100 Israeli and Palestinian residents, with this work Joe Sacco apparently invented comic-book journalism. A similar work by Sacco is Safe Area Gorazde describing the war in eastern Bosnia from 1992-1995.
  12. The Time of Botchan – this work depicts the life of the Mejii Era Japanese writer Natsume Soseki (1868-1912). It deals with the theme of Japanese identity in the face of creeping Westernization. In my opinion, Japan is one of the most successful non-Western countries that has modernized yet reinterpreted and preserved its own culture at the same time. It stands as an interesting repost to the cogent claim that globalization threatens cultures. So how did they do it? I am very interested in reading anything related to this topic.
  13. Understanding Comics, The Invisible Art – this is a graphic novel about graphic novels. I am a big fan of the illustrated praxis, a la the Introducing series by Icon Books. I find them the most efficient medium to communicate information in terms of information communicated per second. Accordingly, although this is not an Icon Books publication, I think it could really teach me a lot about the medium in a short amount of time.
  14. Human Target, Final Cut – the story line itself is less interesting than the manner in which it is told. Kannenberg describes it as “a postmodern romp with critical theory and bullets.” Intriguing. Orient Gateway – this story by Vittorio Giardino seems to cover the same adventure themes as Indian Jones and should be fun.
  15. Fables: Legends in Exile – a wonderful concept here in which characters from fables and fairytales live out their lives after the “happily ever after”-line in a noir urban setting. For example, Snow White has divorced Prince Charming for sleeping with her sister, works long hours and wears a perpetual frown.” An interesting mash-up of two genres.
  16. American Born Chinese – I think this will be an irreverent exploration of what it is like to grow up in Chinese American culture, something in which I have a personal interest.
  17. Get A Life – I am anticipating some rather sassy observations in this tracing of a man’s life through bachelorhood into marriage and I think there will be a funny contrast between the story and the simple line-drawing of Phillipe Du Puy and Charles Berberian.
  18. Corridor – I have never experienced a graphic novel from India so I am very interested in seeing Sarnath Banerjee’s description of modern urban life in Delhi.
  19. OldBoy – a guy is kept in a cell by himself for 10 years, then drugged and released onto the streets. What would that be like? Apparently this was made into a movie in 2003, of the same name by Chan-wook Park.
  20. Ring of Roses – this is an alternative history story by Das Petrou in which England stayed Catholic and neither of the World Wars ever happened. In the modern era a lawyer searching for his brother and missing clerics unearths a conspiracy. I wonder what such an alternate Europe would look like?
  21. Rex Mundi – apparently there is a rumor that Johnny Depp may be playing a role in a movie production of this work in which Doctor Sauniere is woken by his friend, a cleric (the Da Vinci Code character was called Jacques Saunière but this work is not by Dan Brown) who suspects that someone is stealing ancient documents from beneath his Church. This story line is getting well-worn but the art work looks good so I’ll check it out.
  22. Bookhunter – just a funny concept – its 1973 and books are the most precious commodity in the world which gives rise to the Library Police that try and chase books down. I think if nothing else this would be fun for a librarian friend of mine.
  23. Ballad of the Salt Sea – an adventure story set in the South Pacific just before World Ward 1. Apparently the storytelling and the illustration by Hugo Pratt are superb.
  24. Global Frequency – I want to read this work by Warren Ellis because unlike most other works involving the rescue of the planet by a group of people, this group has 1001 people around the world with unique skills – sounds like crowdsourcing to me!
  25. The Lone Wolf and Cub – one of 28 volumes, it is extremely popular in Japan where it has spawned 6 films. The story seems interesting in a Zaitoichi kind of way and I think it would be good insight into some of the better quality output from Japan.
  26. The Yellow M – story seem interesting and it is drawn in the ligne claire style that Edgar Jacobs developed while working with Herge on Tintin.
  27. Criminal Volume 1: Coward – basic story here is that an intelligent criminal is hired to organize a heist but his superior intelligence and organization becomes apparent when others try to double-cross him. I love that twist where the tables are turned and smarts wins out.
  28. Why are you doing this? – Jason has written several completely silent (i.e. no words) graphic novels and I want to see in this one how he executes what appears to be an interesting plot using minimal text.
  29. Three Fingers – a funny idea – a mockumentary in graphic novel format that explores the sinister reason why so many classic cartoon characters only have three fingers.
  30. The Yellow Jar – first in an occasional series from Patrick Atangan describing myths from different cultures. This volume describes two stories from Japan. The illustration technique is not extremely fine but sufficiently so to reference Japanese woodblock with an occasional nod to Hiroshige.
  31. Bardin the Superrealist – this work describes a man’s search for enlightenment across a series of surreal landscapes. I will either love this or hate it because the illustration style is very simple so the content is going to have to do the heavy-lifting. According to Kannenberg it does; “Max’s images and ideas will remain with you long after the laughter.”
  32. The Tower of Bois Maury –Hermann Huppen’s stories revolve around ethical choices but avoid heroes and try to present very realistic and complicated characters – should be a break from Hollywood.
  33. Lady Snowblood – apparently the inspiration fro the Quentin Tarantino’s film, Kill Bill. Apparently the artwork by Kazuo Kamimura does a good job of supporting the story by Kazuo Koike.
  34. Morbus Gravis I: Druuna – main reason I want to check this out is to see the signature artwork by the renown Georges Pichard.

My Short List of Graphic Novels About Cyber Science Fiction:

  1. Akira – probably one of the first Manga that someone in the West is likely to have heard of, this was a significant work because it was the first Manga to be taken seriously in the West. I have seen the film but was underwhelmed by the plot. Nonetheless, I should read the original work.
  2. Ghost in the Shell – this is pretty widely known in the West at this point because Shirow Masamune’s work has led to a very popular video game of the same name. This appeals to my interest in the future fusion of human and machine. One of the interesting themes here is how one, in an age when humans are intimately connected to a common network, can hack a human. If you think this is unlikely, last month a test-subject in Europe twittered by thinking about it. The signal was relayed to the internet by a probe connected to his brain. I have Ghost in the Shell and am currently reading it.
  3. Ronin – this work by Frank Miller appeals to both my interests in Japan as well as the fusion of man and technology, the ronin in this work being a fusion of flesh and circuitry.

We Get What We Deserve

Posted in Politics by Arasmus on March 25, 2009

The progressive view today is that America needs to invest in its infrastructure in order to dig its way out of the hole in which it has placed itself. And when we think of infrastructure we thing of bridges, roads and broadband – physical things, divided into the shovel-ready and those that at some point will require a shovel. This ignores an important fact. One of the main reasons why the United States finds itself in its current predicament is because of the weakness of its intangible cultural infrastructure. If this is not fixed then it is just a matter of time before we find ourselves, albeit surrounded by windmills and fiber-optic communications, in another mess, entirely of our own creation.
Culture matters. People, especially en masse, respond to incentives. We often think of this when we talk about economics but wealth is not the only incentive. Status can also be of at least equal importance. In his novel, Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway observed “[t]his honor thing is not some fantasy, that I am trying to inflict on you . . . I swear it is true. Honor to a Spaniard, no matter how dishonest, is as real a thing as water, wine or olive oil. There is honor among pickpockets and honor among whores. It is simply that the standards differ.” The value of honor, which is just one type of status, is not limited to Spaniards but is something we all feel and appreciate. The cultures of the world are replete, not only with examples of those that chose honor over wealth, but often those that choose honor over life itself. Friederich Nietzsche takes this idea one step further. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra he argued; “[a] table of values hangs over every people. Behold it is the table of its overcomings; behold it is the voice of its will to power.” I have always been fascinated by this quote because for me it captures a powerful idea – a society can decide where it will go tomorrow by the values it chooses to live by today. The Roman poet Virgil said it best; “we make our destinies by the gods we choose.” I think the important word is “choose.”

It is not always easy to choose the things that a culture values because we often think that culture is something that emerges over time. But to leave it at that is as irresponsible as saying that wealth emerges over time and to make no further inquiry into the conditions in which wealth develops and to try and create the most favorable environment for such growth. We perspire to no end to ensure that we create the right conditions for economic growth yet we seem fecklessly indifferent when it comes to encouraging a culture that will drive us to a favorable destiny. I am not saying that the United States does not have a table of values, it very much does. The problem is that some of the values are out of date. They are mismatched in the modern world and this mismatch is crippling the nation. I like to think that it is a unique observation of mine, that with respect to people and nations, it is often that which made them great that also unravels them. The headstrong entrepreneur pushes through all the naysayers and makes his vision a reality only to lose it all by ignoring everyone who tried to tell him the end was nigh. The culture of the United States values individualism and self-reliance but these values also contain within them America’s greatest weakness.

Times have changed. Individualism is all well and good when what happens to you doesn’t affect me. As I sit on the stoop of my Texan ranch and watch my children and cattle grow strong on the back of fertile soils, it matters little in fact, that my neighbor seems unable to thrive in God’s Country. But with industrialization, the people exchange their pastures for a paycheck. Now my destiny and security are inter-connected with that of my colleagues in joint-venture. As our society evolves the inter-dependencies increase. I receive and make payment with pieces of paper, relying on the expectation that my fellow citizen will do likewise. I connect my home to common networks of energy and communications. I send my children out of the home for their education and hope that they will return safely in the evening. I even allow others to have an equal say in how I can live by participating in a democracy and obeying the rule of law. As this process continues, a tension emerges between the values of independence and responsibility and the reality of my inter-dependence and the fact that I am increasingly affected by the actions of others for which I am not responsible. In 2009, the American citizen stands on the balcony of his urban condominium and surveys a nation that has lost fifty percent of its wealth on the stock exchange, one in 70 homes foreclosed, several millions unemployed and the nation bleeding billions of dollars and thousands of lives in an unnecessary war that we started because of a lie. A Re-run of the film Wallstreet plays with dripping irony in the background and the Talking Heads ask “how did I get here?”

For the sake of dramatic effect, let me answer that question in one word: education. The American educational system is corrupt. It is the footprint of a culture that is too in love with values of independence and self-reliance applied to the absolute.  Therefore, the system was considered optimal if my kids got a good education. What happened to your kids was your problem. And so the system spread across the continent with good schools for the rich and the illusion of an education for everyone else. The outcome was obvious. In 2003 the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development compared the performance of American 15 year olds with that of other nations. Americans came 24th in a table of 38 competitors in mathematics, 19th in science, 12th in reading and 26th in problem solving. In a 2006 assessment the US came 35th out of table of 57 in mathematics. And everyone who lives in the United States knows that the national figure masks a huge range in educational performance. For example, in the capital of the United States, only 46 percent of elementary school students were considered proficient in reading and 40 percent in math. In high school only 39 percent were proficient in reading and 36 percent in math. And it gets worse. The desperation for a good education became so intense that even the prestigious schools could not resist the fortunes that parents were willing to spend to rescue their children from falling into the growing underclass. Soon, prestigious universities realized they could make more and more money from stamping people’s heads with labels like Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Just ask a law graduate from either Harvard Law School or Yale Law School what they learned during their time there and they will freely tell you that they discussed only vague jurisprudential concepts and policy considerations. One friend of mine told me recently that her entire tort law class involved applying the idea of societal cost and benefit to various scenarios. Merely saying that ensured that you passed the class in a program in which grades were never disclosed to employers.  I learned that much at the kitchen table. Don’t get me wrong, some of the smartest people in the country graduate from these schools, but if they were among the smartest people in the country going in, what did the school do for them? It doesn’t matter does it? Because the goal was to get a high paying job when you graduated. Indeed, just in case there was any doubt, the cost of the education is so high that you have no choice but to search feverishly for a high paying job just to get the bank off your back. In 1999, lawyers’ salaries at the top firms jumped 25%. The next year law school tuition went up as well – did the quality of the education jump that much or was it just the cover charge?

Again and again you see the culture cutting its own throat because of a mis-guided belief that all that matters is that I get ahead and education serves no greater purpose than to allow me to climb over you. Your fate is irrelevant. The problem is that as we become more and more interdependant through systems that become more and more sensitive, what happens to you is almost as important as what happens to me. For example, in a democracy, a great measure of my fortune is decided by a committee composed of every single person in the United States. If a sufficiently large number of the people on that committee are badly educated, if they cannot tell the difference between responsible media and idiots, between populist rants and logical arguments, between the better judgment and the idiotic, then they are going to get me in trouble. And that’s exactly what happened. 85% of Americans believed that Iraq was involved in the 9-11 attacks and so the United States invaded a nation that had zero relevance while the rest of the world looked on in disbelief and horror. The Iraq War has now lasted longer than World War 2 and has cost the Republic trillions. The handful of media companies completely failed to unearth the truth at the time because it had no incentive to do so – the educated are a minority – to reach the majority they have to dumb it down, which was easy and cheap. And so the cycle perpetuates itself. A man fired from a job managing a horse-association is put in charge of national emergency planning and everyone expected that to work. As if in some biblical tableau, the corruption increased such that the just were smitten and the ignorant raised high. Financial news networks failed to ask how long a nation can borrow money or how long real-estate prices can continue upwards without end because the majority didn’t care to know. Political candidates went on television and argued that they were qualified to handle the foreign policy of the world’s most powerful nation because they could see another nation off the shore. And the educated knew it was ridiculous but they voted for that party nonetheless because they still believed that it was more practical to ensure their individual independence than to share an intelligent government. And then the music stopped.

And there you are. You thought you could go it alone didn’t you? You thought all those test scores and foreign policy adventures were irrelevant to your life didn’t you? How is your 401k now? I am being severe to make an urgent point. Whereas taking care of your neighbor may have been a religious precept thousands of years ago, in today’s interconnected society concern for your neighbor’s welfare is a necessity. I am not advocating a nanny-state where initiative is crushed and the lay-about is rewarded the same as those that work hard. I am advocating that we acknowledge that we are more interdependent today, as a neighborhood, a nation and a globe than at any time in history. Issues that were once either yours or mine are now ours. And the most important; our most vital national infrastructure, is our respect for education, for better judgment, for wisdom. Because it is from the status that we give to education, that a better education system will emerge. And today, our respect for education is as dilapidated as any bridge in Pennsylvania. If it were otherwise how could we live with the shame of our poor performance in international educational comparisons? If it were otherwise how could television news networks have the audacity to put forward a level of programming that is so intellectually impoverished that it is laughed at in the rest of the world? If it were otherwise how could demagogues like Rush Limbaugh, a man who makes more money the more outrageous he can be, emerge as the pre-eminent voice in a conservative tradition replete with great thinkers? If it were otherwise how could NBC get away with having Keith Olberman throwing pieces of paper at a television camera in lieu of content? America does not value education because if it did how else could we explain a nation that has managed to create the perception of an even debate on global warming when the vast majority of scientists are lined up on one side? How can a nation that values education put the theory of evolution and a fairytale told to an ancient people on an equal footing?

So how about we stop it? Please. Let’s turn this ship around now while there is still time. Enough, with the pretty twinkies and the chiseled-jawed news anchors that can’t tell Iraq from Iran without a tele-prompter. Enough, with the two-car garage and the half-witted offspring. Enough, with the erectile dysfunction ads and the worship of gaudy vulgarity. Enough, with seeing political candidates struggling to distinguish foreign factions and then arguing that we should kill one or all of them. Enough, with the ridiculous argument that an American life is worth more than a human life. Enough, with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.  Let us pause for a moment and realize we took a wrong turn somewhere and that we need to recover our course. Let us start with our values. Let us value reasoned discourse. Let us encourage learning because it is dignified and makes our society better in a myriad of ways. Let us communicate to children the value of reading, music, art, science, justice and making a difference in the world rather than bling-bling, tits and ass. Let us have some sense of shame and a more appropriate sense of honor.  Let us speak highly of teachers, especially in the company of children. Let us each, in our everyday lives communicate the value of education and the model of an educated life. That seems to me to be the stimulus we most urgently need.

Words Maketh

Posted in Essay, Literary by Arasmus on February 26, 2009

When I realize something, I often look back and see a path connecting things I previously knew so that my realization becomes at once revelatory and obvious. Several neurons in my brain rush to meet each other and then slow as they approach, realize that they have been neighbors all this time and then conclude with a sheepish “wazzup.” Nonetheless, I fantasize that this consistency belies a deeper profound significance and that my unlocking of it has unleashed a universal truth. The trailer for my imagined biography depicts my purchase of a seamless robe and my holding forth on the trading floor of the Chicago Commodity Exchange, converting commodity-traders with every word. That broadcast is soon interrupted by a public service announcement to the effect that I have been such a terrible dolt for so long that a law has been passed prohibiting my consumption of quality meat. I had just such an experience this morning in the bathroom. I was standing in front of the mirror, my mouth open, my eyes staring through themselves. A toothbrush rested on a shy molar and a long stretching minty flavored stalactite of spittle flowed out of my mouth and reached slowly, I would say elegantly, for the exasperated sink-bowl below. Upstairs a number of thoughts were coming together.
In my family, my Grandfather is held in the highest esteem and thoughts of him to this day instantly flood us all with feelings of undiluted love. His profound modesty insured his immortality in our hearts. I think that as a boy I must have been either aware that I was in the presence of a great wisdom or that some day the sun would simply not rise in quite the same way. During one of the magical summers I spent with him I hounded him daily with a single question. That summer I was reading about Alexander the Great and the role of his great teacher Aristotle. I fancied that I was Alexander the Great and so clearly I had need for an Aristotle.

“What advice would you give me that I can keep with me throughout my life?” I asked my Grandfather.

For weeks he avoided answering the question.

“What little do I know of the world that you should ask me for advice about it!” he replied.

But nothing can stop a tenacious child with an endless summer and eventually he spoke.

“I wish I had said less,” he replied.

Not quite getting the tone and suspecting that it was his indirect way of suggesting that I pipe-down I pushed him to assess the sincerity of his suggestion.

“Sometimes I’ve said such stupid things,” he continued, “and I knew once the words had left my mouth, but there was no way of taking them back and if I only had stayed quiet, everyone would have been better off.”

The gaze in his eyes was not fixed in the present. He was in some place before me, perhaps before my father if not before himself. I now felt like my search for Aristotle had cost too much and incapable of bearing a second of anything less than his happiness, I nudged him and tried to make light of the whole thing and said;

“Sometimes we all say things and they are just words, its just talk.”

He was not regretful or sad but the feeling seemed more like a craftsman looking back on something he had made and being a little annoyed by some aspect of it.

“Sometimes its better to say less,” he concluded.

I took this, wrapped it in my own ignorance and placed it inside my heart for a future where perhaps I would understand it better. As the years passed I added to that inheritance something my father told me as I became a young man;

“All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to stay quiet.”

And something my mother said:

“Never use the word hate.”

These three wisdoms are my inheritance. I often unfold them from their napkins at times when I need either guidance or courage. I have looked at each, sometimes excluding the other. I’ve balanced them, favored some and discounted others, often to serve my own ends. But lately they have become in my mind, like the stars in Orion’s Belt; aligned.

In my first lecture at University, my English Literature professor began:

“The world is made of stories. Stories we tell each other about the world around us and ourselves about that which lies within.”

If this is true, and I increasingly believe that it is vitally so, then words are the building blocks of what we call reality. All three pieces of advice, given to me by my family, center around a belief in the potency of words. In alignment they read;

“Words have power, use them with judgment and justice, otherwise you will create a hell for yourself.”

Neuroscience supports the statement that consistently repeated thoughts create neural pathways in the brain that makes it more likely that subsequent thoughts will follow the same path. But consistently used words can also create consistent thought patterns. Change your words and over time you can change your thoughts. Hateful words preserve hateful thoughts and end with our becoming hateful. Right speech can create right mind and words can maketh the man.

In Camera

Posted in Essay, Literary by Arasmus on February 25, 2009

For now, it is not important why I am in a wooden crate in a warehouse on the outskirts of Toronto. And you should not let your curiosity fool you into thinking that the series of events that led me to being in this situation is anything other than banal and commonplace. Some of your assumptions you can rely on. This voice is the voice of a fully grown man and not some art-school experiment where you have to appreciate the inner monologue of a mangosteen. You may also rely on the assumption that this event is happening today and that by crate I mean a wooden box of cuboid form of the type in which you might expect to find the Ark of the Covenant. With those three confirmed assumptions and the aforementioned geographic location, everyone will understand how you thought that this was about a curled-up man in a box in Canada. Within that frame, all that matters are my thoughts. It may seem a little brusque to say so, but without wanting to seem any more rude than necessary, let me remind you that there are other boxes.

One of the obvious luxuries of being in a crate is that it affords a perfect theatre in which to enjoy one’s own thoughts. Some people said that cinema was finished once the VCR came out. Now we live in the age of the video and yet cinema thrives. Only mice realize that cinema is a ritual and the screen an inter-ontological elevator of uncertain direction. When four or five people stop in the street to stare at something, say the ever-increasing shadow cast by a suicidal piano, they are soon joined by several more and several more etc. Evolution has schooled us to obtain information as soon as possible, which is why we have rubber necks. Imagine then how that little nubbin deep in our brain reacts to a room of two or three hundred people voluntarily placing themselves in a darkened space, all looking forward, in the same direction, at a single screen. That act is cinema, or mass. In both cases, this ritual tells that primordial nubbin, one single, urgent, undistracted message; God is going to come out of that wall. You see this effect most noticeably in children. With adults it is tempered only slightly by the fact that when it comes to dates, no one can stand you up like God. Hence the crate.

I imagine that all across the United States, in the various technology companies that we have come to think of as secular-Santas, engineers and pre-postal employees in white coats and nipple-rings are trying to develop a single storage solution in which one can keep all of one’s movies, photos, music, and experiences. I already have one of these devices attached to the end of my rubbery neck. It is divided into sections with a common motherboard. The first section contains recordings of everything that I have ever known. A red admiral butterfly caught flapping in a spider-web in the dark wooden corner above my cot as a baby and the sound of that desperate flapping. My first taste of sushi and how the term “raw fish” kept flashing in front of my mind’s eye in the most gag-inducing incarnations of the serif font. Then there is my imagination, part two. It uses a fair amount of the data contained in memory but either augments or synthesizes it to such a degree that it can create images and feelings about things I have never known.

When I am in a wooden crate . . . I should tell you that this is not the first time. (Door-to-door its difficult to find a more economical way to see the world.) When I am in a wooden crate, I spend much of my time imagining because its simply fantastic. Nobody says fantastic anymore because its become too fantastic but for me fantastic will always be fantastic. A whole host of new scenery, sights, sounds, sensations and all filmed superbly, just so, as I would like to be able to do myself; though the time to devote to acquiring that skill has to date eluded me.

Normally at this point I would be naked. Liberally? No . . . urgently. Yes. Applying sun-block in one of either two states of mind; rushing to get it done as fast as possible and consequently missing a spot or, channeling the conscientiousness of a Swiss watch-maker to ensure that I cover those awfully painful spots I previously missed. Its such a pain because its so predictable – down to having to wash your hands because they become so slippery, down to the high likelihood that the molecules in the cheap soap will be too large to get under the film of the cream so that in the end you are just wiping it off on the towel. Guilt, sun-glasses, sandals and out the door. Panic and pants. Relief. I now avoid all that.

Google Software Update is about to be installed. Accept and Install. Loading myplaces.kml. Adding overlays. Toronto. Latitude 43.655830 degrees, Longitude -79.459649, Elevation 101 meters. But in my mind; Lembongan, Bali, Latitude -8.693265, Longitude 115.435745, Elevation 2 meters. Beach. Sometimes, especially when I am alone on a beach, I imagine that I have a personal relationship with the Gods. The Gods are usually Greek, and tall, and on their way to a party at which I will be discussed in passing. I am Achilles and I have been brought to this table of sand and sea, as one does with a hero now and again. Alone on a beach, or in a box, it is easier to imagine one’s own importance. The sea hypnotizes me, swinging the pendulum of the tide back and forth in my ears. Everything melts. Quiet. Warm gentle sun. The Gods are telling me something but I am so out of it. I am lost, drifting in a quiet womb in which time is marked only by the rhythms of my mother’s beating heart. Deus ex machina, ex ante.

Satoyama – or How Things Should Be

Posted in Environment by Arasmus on January 30, 2009

Here is the first of six YouTube videos that relay a beautiful documentary by the Japanese broadcasting service (NHK) that recently aired on the BBC. Narrated by the great David Attenborough it looks at a particular landscape that the Japanese call “satoyama” (‘where the mountains give way to plains’). It is a gorgeous study of a pattern of human life that is harmoniously integrated with the systems and rhythms of nature.  Whereas for the last 20 years people have been commenting about how we are becoming a global village, I think that the recent financial crisis coming on the back of almost a decade of internet connectivity has moved us beyond the metaphor of a village to a much more delicate interconnectivity.  As our social networks get mapped through Facebook and ideas and observations are shared instantly through Twitter, I think of us sharing a common nervous system rather than a village.  And this awareness that we are each so interdependent on one another opens a door of humility that also allows us to consider the other systems that we are dependent on, nature herself of course being the most ignored and the most urgent.  I was quite touched by the value of ‘stewardship’ that was apparent from the outset in this documentary, for example you see a bird of prey taking a fish that the local fisherman had left out for it.  This was a value that my grandfather taught me as a child but one that I feel is quite alien to to the culture and mentality in which I have spent my adult years.  In thinking about this value of stewardship it is easy to get lofty and metaphysical but there is also something very tangible and matter-of-fact about it.  In some way the value is like when a man opens a door for a woman, it doesn’t really matter who the woman is, a man does it because of his own concept of honor.  Similarly, a man must protect the environment, as he must anyone who needs protection, because his honor requires it.  There is just no other way.

A Meaning To Things

Posted in Literary, Travel by Arasmus on January 24, 2009

When I was a young boy, my Uncle gave me his stamp collection as a gift.  He had spent much of his childhood in Africa and the album was full of stamps from exotic places and many more were over a hundred years old.  Sometimes I would open the collection and run my fingers across the embossed squares of paper and slip into day-dreams of times before my own and countries whose names had long since ceased to exist, like Aden, Ceylon and Sarawak!  These stamps had come from these foreign lands, and times before, smelled spices in the air and heard river-boats depart in the steamy morning.  They had been affixed to epistles by the banks of the Nile or had rubbed the coarse skin of an elephant along the dusty red-earthed road to a village.  They had borne Kings and Queens and dictators and freedom-fighters and, with equal bearing, their successors.  They had felt things I never knew and knew things I never felt.  They had smelled fragrances so pleasing and beautiful that those that have never known those flowers have never known the true extent of happiness.  In short, they were witnesses to great adventures and were respected as such.

How different it is today.  While traveling through Asia I blogged, Twittered and Flickrd my way through tropical islands, jungle, permafrost and palace.  I SMSd my thoughts to loved ones and these communications were received instantly.  I recall a friend of mine receiving a photo I uploaded in Northern Thailand while she was in an airport in Atlanta, Georgia.  That was amazing to me.  But while the content of the photo communicated the message that I am riding elephants in Thailand, the thing itself had no meta-data.  Indeed there was no thing – there was her cellphone and my photo on it but nothing else.  There was no frayed edge because someone in Singapore had thrown my letter roughly into a ship.  There was no bent corner where a customs official in San Francisco had stepped on the mail bag containing my postcard as he searched for contraband durian.  There was no thing.  It ceased to exist so that we could share a moment in an instant.  Yet something extra was lost.  And though I have saved the photos that I took and backed-up the Twitters that I sent, when I print them, they print on new paper. Ignorant, blank and stupid.