Monday, 16 December 2013

Sign into Google Docs (Google Drive) as a Non-Default User

It used to be very easy to switch from one user to another in Google Docs, back before it became part of Google Drive. You sign out as one user; you sign in as another. Duck soup.

Now, things are rather more difficult. When you, the default user, signs out, your friendly face appears, along with a prompt for the password, and there is no visible option to change to another user's account.
It took a little work to discover the solution buried in Google's help pages. You should attempt to log in from a browser window that cannot report who you are. Most browsers have an option like this. In Firefox, you create such a window by selecting "New Private Window" from the File Menu. In Google Chrome, you create an "Incognito" window instead. In recent versions of Internet Explorer, you create an "inPrivate" window. Attempting to log in from one of these windows allows you to enter both the user name you want and the appropriate password, just like in the old days when things were a little simpler.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Aircraft Carrier Vikramaditya

You can tell that a country's proud of a ship when it releases a new postage stamp to celebrate the ship's commissioning. India just did that to celebrate its controversial aircraft carrier Vikramaditya.
Critics of the "new" ship call it "too old," "too late and expensive," and "too weak to match its rivals." It certainly was not the bargain that India had hoped it would be, but it is, nevertheless, a large step in capability for the Indian navy at a price that is justifiable, or close to justifiable.

The ship has an extensive history. It was the Soviet ship Baku from 1982 until 1991, when it needed a new name: Azerbaijan had become an independent country, so its city of Baku became a foreign capital, as far as the Russians were concerned. It would never do to have a capital ship named after someone else's capital city. Consequently, Baku was renamed Admiral Gorshkov. It continued to serve the Russian fleet until 1996 when, for financial reasons, it was decommissioned. In 2004, It was offered to the Indians at what seemed an unbelievably good price: free, on the condition that any necessary repairs and reconstruction be done at a Russian shipyard and that a billion dollars of Russian fighter planes be bought for it.

As I said, the offer seems unbelievably good. No one should have believed it unless he was hopelessly optimistic, corrupt, or some combination of the two. In the end, the ship did receive extensive modifications that changed it from a Kiev class heavy aviation cruiser to a pure aircraft carrier. However, the ship arrived five years late (December 2013) and cost $2.3 billion, exclusive of the air wing.

Is that cost excessive? Well, that depends, in part, on whether an equivalent aircraft carrier could be bought for less money. There is no such carrier. The equivalent carrier that the Indians are currently building, the new Vikrant, may be $3.8 billion by the time it is finished. Like the Vikramaditya, it will arrive five years later than planned.

Realistically, the alternative to buying Vikramaditya was to defer India's dream of a two-carrier navy into the indefinite future. Without Vikramaditya, India's sole carrier in the near term would be the antique INS Viraat, still creaking on with its eleven surviving Harrier planes. In 2018, Vikrant would take Viraat's place, but the two-carrier navy would have to wait until whenever a second Vikrant-class carrier could be built.

On the other hand, if a second carrier could be brought into service now, to serve alongside Viraat, then a two-carrier navy could be achieved immediately. Its strength would only be increased when Vikrant replaces Viraat in 2018. This is the only acceptable option for India. Its navy's experience since 1957, when it obtained its first carrier, is that carriers are essential to the nation's security. India has used a carrier effectively in two wars with Pakistan. The upgrade to two carriers responds not only to Pakistan, which continues to be hostile and volatile, but to a resurgent China, which has recently launched its first carrier, Liaoning, and plans to build more. Buying Vikramaditya gives India a chance to keep up with its regional rival in the number and capabilities of its carriers.

Many critics argue, nevertheless, that Vikramaditya stands up poorly against Liaoning. The critics have a point. Although Liaoning is also a rebuilt Soviet ship, its displacement of 59,000 tons (full load) is considerably more than Vikramaditya's 45,400 tons. Accordingly, it can accommodate a larger air wing than Vikramaditya, if it uses planes of about the same size. However, China has no experience with aircraft operations from a carrier and is experimenting to gain it. In light of Liaoning's incomplete functionality, Vikramaditya is more than a match for the Chinese ship now and for some years to come.

Other critics argue that the technology for launching planes from Vikramaditya is ill-chosen. The differences between the three available technologies matter primarily because they determine what planes can fly from the carrier and how much load they can carry.

STOBAR, meaning "Short Take Off But Arrested Recovery" is the technology used by Vikramaditya, Liaoning, every other carrier built by the Russians, and Vikrant. It requires a comparatively small plane with powerful engines that will drive the plane to take-off speed over the short runway available on the carrier's deck. The plane is loaded with modest amounts of fuel and arms to keep it light enough for take off. When the plane lands on the deck, a tail hook catches a wire that slows and stops the plane quickly: that is the "Arrested Recovery" part of the STOBAR equation.
STOBAR Operations (Take Off from Vikramaditya)
STOBAR Operations (Landing on Vikramaditya)
The carriers that Britain is building now, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, use another technology, VSTOL, or "Vertical or Short Take Off Or Landing." The planes required for this technology are actually able to take off or land vertically. However, to increase the amount of weight allowed for the plane at take off or landing, it will usually have a short take off, similar to that in STOBAR, and a short "rolling" landing without need for arrestor wires. If the plane is coming in light, with its weapons expended and much of its fuel used, it has the option to land vertically, like a helicopter.

VSTOL Operations (F35B Vertical Landing on USS Wasp)
VSTOL Operations (F35B Short Take Off and Rolling Landing Planned for HMS Queen Elizabeth) 
The third technology is CATOBAR, "Catapult Assisted Take Off But Arrested Recovery." In it, a plane is attached to a steam-driven catapult that quickly takes it from a standing start to take-off velocity. A recent advance in the technology is EMALS, in which the steam-driven catapults are replaced by magnets that grip the plane and hurl it into the air. CATOBAR launches allow planes to be larger and heavier than short or vertical take-offs do, so they allow a wider range of airplane types and heavier loads to be launched than other launch technologies can manage. On the other hand, CATOBAR is the most expensive and complex launch technology and so only two nations have current experience building CATOBAR carriers, the United States and France.
CATOBAR Operations (Landing and Take Off on Charles de Gaulle)

India is considering making its second home-built aircraft carrier, after Vikrant, a CATOBAR carrier. If it had gone directly to building that ship, however, rather than building its own STOBAR carrier first, it would have multiplied its difficulties past all reason. Arguably, Vikrant is right at the limit of India's shipbuilding abilities. India has had to create the tools to build the tools to build Vikrant, such as a plant to create the right types of steel. Five years late and considerably over-budget, even as a STOBAR carrier, Vikrant would have been impossible to complete as a larger CATOBAR carrier.

Vikramaditya is probably not the dream ship that the Indian Navy could fantasize having. It is more like a used car with a good chassis and a rebuilt engine. There are times and places that such a car is the best solution for a buyer on a schedule and a budget. In addition, the ship has two notable virtues. First, it is the largest ship ever to enter the Indian navy, 16,700 tons more than the INS Viraat; second, its new MIG 29K planes have much greater speed, range, and power than the old, subsonic Harriers on Viraat and are probably competitive with the best planes in the Pakistani air force. Perhaps the postage stamp with Vikramaditya was justified.

Friday, 6 December 2013

What's in a (Geographical) Name?

There's a BBC article up on how many angry responses on Twitter followed a single reference to "the Persian Gulf." It also mentions that a reference to the Persian Gulf by that name recently prompted some Arab diplomats to walk out of a NATO meeting. For reasons of national or ethnic pride, many across the Arab world refer to it as "the Arabian Gulf," and insist that others do the same, despite a 2006 ruling by a UN panel of experts. To avoid stirring up a wasp's nest, National Geographic lists both names on its maps, and the BBC just calls it "the Gulf."

A similar situation exists with the Sea of Japan, which is a name that incenses many Chinese and South Koreans. They insist that the name which should be used in the English Language is "the East Sea." North Korea, in contrast, prefers "the East Sea of Korea." The matter of renaming it has been raised with both the International Hydrographic Institute and the United Nations.

I will note that, when I was learning Geography in school, both "the Persian Gulf" and "the Sea of Japan" were taught as the standard English names for those bodies of water. I don't see any need to change those terms. Let "the Arabian Gulf" (or its equivalent in the Arabian language) remain the standard term for the Persian Gulf in the Arabian language. Let "the East Sea" (or its equivalents in the relevant languages) remain the name of the Sea of Japan in the Chinese or Korean languages. All the fight is over the terms used in English, and that should be something that only English speakers will decide.

For inspiration, look at another potentially politicized name for a body of water which, somehow, has remained beyond any political controversy. Can you imagine a French person referring to the water between France and Britain as "the English Channel"? Never! It is as much French as English! So the name in French is "La Manche" (the Sleeve) and the name in English is "the English Channel," and no one calls foul on the other's choice. London is Londres in French, Moskva is Moscow in English, Germany is Deutschland in German, and so it goes. Surely, that's the civilized solution.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Reducing the Global Temperature in One Swell Foop

When various news items share a brain for a while, they are likely to connect. My brain holds, for example, that the existence of global warming is a consensus among scientists, but that they like to call it "climate change" these days. Those facts share brain space with knowledge that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, contributing to global warming, that greenery takes up carbon from the air and sequesters it, reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, that parts of the Gobi Desert are being reclaimed for greenery and that the Sahara Desert is expanding. I know that sea water can be desalinated, if there is sufficient energy for the job, and that a big enough supply of fresh water can cool and irrigate the fringes of a desert, driving them back. These points, connected, raise the innocent question of whether a large part of the campaign to limit global warming should be devoted to making the Sahara green. Let us investigate whether what I "know" is valid before I make up my mind.

The reality of global warming

Al Gore, a former Vice President and almost, at one time, the President of the United States, is quite convinced that the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which was due to human activity, was leading to hotter climates. In 2006, he expressed his opinions in an Oscar-winning documentary with a wonderful title, An Inconvenient Truth. The film may have helped him to win a Nobel Peace Prize the next year. It did win him a storm of controversy that can be glimpsed on Youtube as well as in print.

On the other hand, his views are widely shared, despite their inconvenience. One study of climate change studies found a 97% consensus that human activities are causing the average temperature of the world to rise. (The inevitable criticism of the study is here.  Shame on you Forbes! The reply to the criticism is here).

Even NASA takes a stand that humans contribute to global warming. It says
Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities, and most of the leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position. The following is a partial list of these organizations, along with links to their published statements and a selection of related resources.
Other respected organizations have released statements along the same line line, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Chemical Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Meteorological Society, and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. In other words, there is no controversy among the best informed scientists that global warming is real and that humans are contributing to it.

The growth (or not) of the Sahara Desert

The Sahara Desert, according to the appropriate Wikipedia article, covers over 9,400,000 square kilometres (3,600,000 sq mi). It is about the same size as the United States now, but it has been growing at the rate of 30 mi per year. That rate may slow and even reverse as a paradoxical by-product of climate change. However, there are more deserts than the Sahara, so a hotter world will be a drier world, on the whole, and one with more desert.

We Have the Technology (and Some Experience)

The expansion of the deserts could be slowed, and even reversed, by human efforts if enough clean water were available to create a self-sustaining ecology. We have the technology to provide the water and to introduce such ecologies. For example, the Desert Rose concept uses solar energy for desalination, then introduces nitrogen-fixing plants to stabilize the soil. The Seawater Greenhouse distills seawater in, as it says on the tin, greenhouses, but is otherwise similar. Other methods of reclamation focus on stabilizing the soil rather than providing the water.

An interesting and successful experiment in creating a self-sustaining ecology on a burnt-out cinder of land took place on Ascension Island, in the Pacific, thanks to an idea from Charles Darwin and the help of Joseph Hooker and the Royal Navy. I quote from a BBC News article on the experiment.
Ascension was an arid island, buffeted by dry trade winds from southern Africa. Devoid of trees at the time of Darwin and Hooker's visits, the little rain that did fall quickly evaporated away.
Egged on by Darwin, in 1847 Hooker advised the Royal Navy to set in motion an elaborate plan. With the help of Kew Gardens - where Hooker's father was director - shipments of trees were to be sent to Ascension.
The idea was breathtakingly simple. Trees would capture more rain, reduce evaporation and create rich, loamy soils. The "cinder" would become a garden.
So, beginning in 1850 and continuing year after year, ships started to come. Each deposited a motley assortment of plants from botanical gardens in Europe, South Africa and Argentina.
Soon, on the highest peak at 859m (2,817ft), great changes were afoot. By the late 1870s, eucalyptus, Norfolk Island pine, bamboo, and banana had all run riot.

The Cooling Effects of a Green Sahara

A desert turned green would curb global warming in three ways:
  1. by absorbing a major greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, and storing much of its carbon in tree trunks and soil; 
  2. by absorbing sunlight in the trees' leaves before it can warm the earth; 
  3. and by creating a region of evaporated water, which not only cools the local area but creates clouds, which then travel, cooling more distant areas by reflecting light, creating shadow, and depositing rain.
So much is the theory, but would transformed deserts have enough of an effect to counteract man's contribution to global warming?

How Much of an Effect?

The effect of desert greening depends on how much desert you green and how much cooling effect the greenery produces. Let us start with the question, "How much desert could, potentially, be greened?"

Deserts, defined as areas with "a moisture deficit" make up a substantial portion of the world--33% of the world's land--but that includes Antarctica. However, just three of the biggest hot deserts constitute a large area by any standard. The Sahara has about 9,400,000 square kilometres; the Arabian, 2,333,000; and the Gobi, 1,300,000. I am leaving out the Australian desert because, in the words of Randy Newman, "I don't want to hurt no kangaroo." The Sahara, Arabian, and Gobi deserts together give us 13,033,000 square kilometres.

If I could find a figure for the cooling effect of a single square kilometre of such a forest, we could start to have a very interesting discussion about the economics of greening the deserts. Unfortunately, that information is not available or is not easily found through an internet search. However, an article on biosequestration mentions that "The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that the cutting down of forests is now contributing close to 20 per cent of the overall greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere." If reversing the deforestation could cut 20% from the greenhouse gasses, the creation of large new forests would do even more.

Not an Original Idea

This is not a new idea, of course. Two worthy projects are operating now: the  The Great Green Wall and Sahara Forest Project. However, the first is only trying to hold the line so that the Sahara will not expand further and the second is just beginning. The fully operational Sahara Forest Project Pilot Plant was opened in Qatar only in December 2012. China's Three-North Shelter Forest Program is also focused on limiting the Gobi Desert's spread. Despite having created the world's largest artificial forest, this project would have to operate for three hundred years to reclaim the desertified land.

Problems, Political, Economic, and Cultural

There are problems with the idea of taking responsibility for tweaking the Earth's climate. First and foremost is the idea of taking responsibility. There was a time when cities dumped raw sewage into the sea, not knowing or caring where it would travel. "Nature would take care of it." Ask the people who live downcurrent of Victoria, BC about that and they will tell you that nature isn't doing the job. Billion-dollar sewage treatment plants are a painful alternative to blissful ignorance.

Taking responsibility for the climate would be an even longer-term, more international, and more expensive responsibility. The countries covered with desert could not pay for the project that turns bare sand and stone into soil and trees. The money would have to come from more fortunate countries, a difficult trick to manage.

The local problem, putting aside the political instability and corruption of many states near the great deserts, is that people whose cultures grew up in desert would have to change their ways. The Bedouin, for example, know how to live in desert. Though their numbers are not great, their antagonism could make the project impossible. Would they be willing to adapt to a new environment?

I think they might. The desert landscape may be appreciated best by those who live somewhere else. I recall Alec Guinness, playing an Arab leader, lecturing an Englishman in the film Lawrence of Arabia, making this point: "I think you are another of these desert-loving English...," he said, and listed a few of them; "No Arab loves the desert. We love water and green trees, there is nothing in the desert. No man needs nothing."

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Comparing "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood with "If This Goes On..." by Robert Heinlein

The novel The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood has attracted great attention since it was published in 1985. Some of the attention was in the form of awards--the Governor General's Award among them--and some in the form of adaptations, such as a Danish opera. I am sure that the most financially rewarding attention it has received was the film adaptation, released in 1990.

The book's setting is in an indirectly specified near future. Judging from the book's epilogue, the Handmaid wrote her tale at least 150 years before 2195, i.e. before 2045 (pg. 315). The Handmaid was a young woman at the time of the coup, working as a librarian, and she was still in her reproductive years during the story. A defensible estimate is that the Handmaid was born in the late 1990's, that the coup took place about 2020, when she when she was in her early twenties, and that the events of the story transpired around 2030 to 2040, when she was in her thirties.

The story is set in a dystopia instituted by a group called "The Sons of Jacob Think Tanks" which had seized power through a coup and reinvented the United States as the Republic of Gilead. Its repressive policies include a caste system, disempowerment of women to the point of depersonalizing them, deportation of blacks to areas contaminated with radioactivity, and death penalties against Catholics and other dissenting Christians. 

The coup is an unrealistic fantasy. Atwood states that the President and members of Congress were all killed by a massive conspiracy (pg. 318). Some unspecified person then suspended the Constitution, then a mysterious army of "Angels," which is not the US army (which is unaccountably absent from this story) suddenly appeared out of nowhere, "like Martians."
The political system of the Republic of Gilead is equally vague. Atwood never mentions whether there is a council of elders or a Supreme Leader or an Inner Party at the helm. Instead, she tells us that the heart of the Republic of Gilead lives within people (pg. 33). It is thus a state of mind, or a system of belief, rather than a place. In that, it resembles the Kingdom of Heaven, which cannot be pointed at because it is in our midst (Luke 17:21, Atwood 204). This vagueness transforms Gilead's leadership from a government as we know it in the real world to a symbol for a mode of thought.

Though Gilead's heart was unchanging, its boundaries had shifted. Originally, the Republic expanded to include Central America (pg. 35). Now, all that territory has been lost, and Radio Free America is based in Cuba (pg. 221). Some of the original United States are not part of the Republic, either. For example, the loss of California and Florida has imperilled the supply of oranges.

Beyond being a dystopia, it is tempting to classify the book as "science fiction" because it takes place in the future. However, in a radio interview, Atwood called it "science fantasy" rather than "science fiction." For what reasons is it not "science fiction"?

To answer that question, I'd like to compare The Handmaid's Tale to a science fiction story called "If This Goes On...," written by Robert Heinlein and published in 1940. In it, the USA has become a theocracy under the control of a Prophet. "If This Goes On..." is not greatly concerned with how the theocracy was established, but an odd essay called "Concerning Stories Never Written"--the postscript to a book called Revolt in 2100--fills in many details. Heinlein was clearly concerned that such a revolution was plausible.
I imagined Nehemiah Scudder as a backwoods evangelist who combined some of the features of John Calvin, Savonarola, Judge Rutherford and Huey Long. His influence was not national until after the death of Mrs. Rachel Biggs, an early convert who had the single virtue of being the widow of an extremely wealthy man who shared none of her religious myopia--she left Brother Scudder several millions of dollars with which to establish a television station. Shortly thereafter he teamed up with an ex-Senator from his home state; they placed their affairs in the hands of a major advertising agency and were on their way to fame and fortune. Presently they needed stormtroopers; they revived the Ku Klux Klan in everything but the name-sheets, passwords, grips and all. It was a "good gimmick" once and still served. Blood at the polls and blood in the streets, but Scudder won the election. The next election was never held. 
Thus, the first Prophet gained power due to television preaching (like that of Serena Joy in The Handmaid's Tale) plus violent support by a paramilitary force (like the army of Angels in The Handmaid's Tale), plus a rigged or, at least, controversial election. These methods are similar to those used by Adolf Hitler in his rise to power, with the exception of television, which could be replaced by other forms of mass communication. Heinlein clearly thought that these methods could work as well in the United States, under the proper circumstances, as they had worked in Germany.

The society in "If This Goes On..." shares many details with that in The Handmaid's Tale. Soldiers are called "Angels of the Lord." The "Virgins of the Prophet" are kept for sexual services, and are thus holy prostitutes, like Handmaids. In the Heinlein story, the principal enemy of the regime is a group called the Cabal, established by the Freemasons. Its natural allies include Mormons and Catholics, whose faiths had been suppressed, and a group called Pariahs, who might be Jews, although this is unspecified. In The Handmaid's Tale, the internal enemies of the regime include Baptists, Catholics, Quakers, and gays. 

Both books state how some groups are persecuted. In Atwood's book, blacks are exiled to Homelands, Jews are sent to Israel or death, and Baptists, abortionists, Catholics, and gays are killed in "Salvagings" (= savagings) or sent to the Colonies, which are war zones, ghettos, toxic dumps, or radiation spills (pg. 260). Also there went old women, sterile women, incorrigible women, and gay men. Similarly, Heinlein's book has this news report: "The Minnesota ghettos have been closed and all local pariahs will be relocated in the reservations in Wyoming and Montana in order to prevent future outbreaks."

In both books, parts of the old United States had become independent of the central government. I have already discussed the mentions of civil war in Atwood's book. Heinlein's mentions that a Republic of Hawaii exists.  

In both books, places are renamed to reflect the new regime. Atwood's theocracy has renamed the United States as the "Republic of Gilead" while Heinlein's has renamed the capital city, "New Jerusalem."

Another similarity between the two stories is that the theocratic faith is not Christian. Even the Wikipedia article on The Handmaid's Tale states that it is, but there is no evidence to that effect. The Handmaid's Tale has no references to Christ except, a couple of times, in swearing (pp. 168, 228). Its only references to a cross are as part of the female symbol (pg. 130) and the upside-down cross on executed Catholics (pg. 210). Even the graveyard has no crosses. The symbol of the faith, instead, is the winged eye.

The Handmaid's Tale has quotations from the Bible, of course, even though the Bible itself is kept locked away (pg. 98) where it cannot be consulted. As a result, many of the references to biblical passages are misquoted. Those references are, in addition, almost all from the Old Testament (pg. 99), though some are from St. Paul (72, 233), the most misogynistic source in the New Testament. The only quotation from Jesus, the beatitudes, is expurgated and altered. Accordingly, the Handmaid's prayer, though in Latin, is hardly Christian: "Nolite te bastardes carborundam" (pg. 101), means "Don't let the bastards grind you down."

Like the Bible itself, certain hymns are forbidden (pg. 64) as being too dangerous. Other hymns are deemed innocuous enough to be used (pp. 92, 94).

The Heinlein story, similarly, makes no reference to Jesus or to Christianity, even though people quote the bible often and correctly. However, the official interpretations of the biblical passages distort their meaning in order to justify the non-Christian practices of the official faith, such as the keeping of women for the sexual use of the Prophet. As a result, the only explicitly Christian groups in the story, Catholics and Mormons, largely oppose the state religion.

Despite their many similarities in setting, The Handmaid's Tale and "If This Goes On..." have some clear differences, of course. For one thing, the point of view characters are different (a man in the Heinlein story, a woman in the Atwood; a soldier, a handmaid), so only Atwood's book has the position of women in society as a major theme. It is a minor theme in the Heinlein book because two important characters are women: Sister Judith, a naive Virgin assigned to the Prophet's service, and Sister Magdalene, a strong, decisive member of the revolutionary Cabal. The protagonist is led to revolution because the misuse of Judith revolts him, but his own patriarchal views of a woman's role are challenged by Magdalene. 

The initial question set for this post was whether Atwood's book is science fiction. It is hard to argue that it is not, given its substantial similarities to Heinlein's story, which is clearly science fiction. However, it is better to avoid that argument and say that both works are twentieth century dystopias. We can save the larger argument about whether dystopias are a subset of science fiction for another time.

I have always wondered if the setting of Heinlein's dystopia directly influenced the very similar setting of Atwood's. In fact, I once wrote to Margaret Atwood, care of her publisher, to ask her whether she had read Heinlein's story before she wrote hers, but I received no reply. If Atwood had been influenced by Heinlein, it would be no surprise and no shame. He is a widely influential writer and "If This Goes On..." is a part of his largest literary project, the Future History.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Asian Help for the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan

The recent typhoon that hit the Philippines has affected about thirteen million people. The international response has been quick and generous. For example, the US has sent the aircraft carrier George Washington and its escorts to help. The George Washington will triple the number of helicopters available to authorities and can produce 400,000 gallons of fresh water per day. (That's 1.5 million liters). Food and supplies can be moved from the US Marines' pre-positioned stores. The 1000-bed hospital ship USNS Mercy is being activated to go to the Philippines, too, although it will take a while to arrive. The US has also given twenty million dollars in relief money so far.

A British relief organization raised £13 million in 24 hours. The British government has dispatched two relatively nearby warships to help out. One of the ships is the helicopter carrier HMS Illustrious, whose helicopters could be especially helpful in distributing aid.

The Canadian government will match the $15 million dollars (Canadian) raised through charity on top of the $5 million in aid it has already committed. Australia is donating $30 million (Australian). South Korea is sending $5 million in aid and a team of relief workers. Japan is providing a thousand soldiers, three warships, several planes, and over ten million dollars of aid so far.

Even a company such as IKEA was able to offer more than $2 million.

With all of this, the government of China initially saw fit to offer only $100,000. With other sources of aid included, the total Chinese aid so far comes to less than $2 million. This puts the country in a sad light.

There are unfortunate tensions between China and the Philippines. (Such tensions, in fact, exist between China and almost every other country whose waters touch China's). The tensions, exacerbated by statements by Chinese government officials, have apparently created a hostile public opinion that sees no benefit and little virtue in giving much help to the Philippines. On the other hand, the Chinese government denies that these tensions are affecting its response to the disaster. That is hard to believe.

A person who wishes to insult a waiter does not refuse to leave a tip; he deliberately and noticeably undertips. Like a penny tip left on the table, China's minuscule aid represents an insult to its Philippine neighbours. A sad and self-defeating insult that will drive the Philippines closer to the United States than China would wish.
Update (20 Nov. 2013): China has announced that it is sending a 300-bed hospital ship, Red Cross workers, and a disaster relief team to the Philippines. The BBC report adds,
The announcement will be seen as an attempt by Beijing to repair the damage to the country's battered reputation, our correspondent says.
Meanwhile, British charities have raised £50 million for the Philippines in eight days of campaigning.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

"Social Studies": A Sonnet

I must say that my own poems don't get many views on this blog but, on the other hand, the really good ones by famous poets don't get them, either. Does this mean that we write equally well?

Perhaps not.

Here is a poem I wrote about three years ago, while watching a high school student preparing for a Social Studies test. So that I wouldn't distract her, I had moved from my usual place at the front of the class to a desk behind her. I was thus able to observe the positions of the neck and shoulder blade referred to in the poem, and I wrote the poem as she studied.

The shoulders’ stress, the angled blade of bone,
the neck—these reflect the pain that’s stencilled
clearly on her face. She bites her pencil
and faces down the world’s whole past alone.
The textbook takes a dessicating tone,
removing love and horror from the facts that still
ring changes on the world and always will,
beyond her knowledge till her world has grown.

I wish that I could find another way
to stand her in some former time and place
and see how blue the sky was on that day,
how cold the sea that splashes on her face,
how joyous dolphins, leaping from the sea,
how joyless we, so far from delphin grace.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

How to Report the News

One word of bad language here, so be warned, but this video is otherwise just a accurate and funny recipe on how to report the news on television. If you're on the BBC, that is, which means that this is how to report the news if you're actually among the best television reporters. Other stations won't do as good a job. (Scary thought!)

And just how far from the mark can journalists, editorialists, and so on go? Well, here's one example from the American author and commentator Ann Coulter.

One would think that she would be appropriately chastened when her mistake became clear, but no, not at all. And she had her supporters, too.

Has Bill O'Reilly ever heard of Godwin's Law? According to that, whoever first invokes the Nazis in an argument is considered to have lost the argument.

Here's another low point in the history of fact checking, just to give printed media the same opportunity to embarrass itself: "Stephen Hawking would be dead if he were British." Umm, the last I checked, he was not dead but was British.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Privacy and Whistleblowing

The names Julian Assange, Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, and Edward Snowden are now well known. They either publicized large numbers of documents which contain evidence of government wrongdoing or made those documents available for publication. Each of them has paid an ongoing price for their actions.

Assange has lived in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 19 June 2012. If he steps outside it, he will be arrested by the British police and extradited to Sweden. He, and I, suspect that the charges in Sweden are being pursued partially to undermine the activities of the WikiLeaks organization that he founded.

One reason to suspect the motives of the Swedish government is the timing of its interest in his case. Two women complained about aspects of consensual sex that they had with Assange in August 2010. On 21 August 2010, the investigating prosecutor downgraded some of the charges against him, dropped one, and cancelled the Swedish arrest warrant. On 18 November 2010, another prosecutor re-issued the arrest warrant and, for the first time, characterized Assange's activities as rape, a much more serious charge. Only three days later, WikiLeaks made the first large release of many secret diplomatic cables. The fuss over the warrant helped to adulterate the public's attention on the contents of the released documents and to diminish public support for Assange. It is hard to believe that the close timing of the arrest warrant and the document release was coincidental. It was too convenient to be coincidental.

Assange, and I, also suspect that he would never stand trial in Sweden anyway, but be whisked away to the United States. Many prominent people in the United States have expressed a desire to try Mr. Assange in that country and a leaked document confirms that a secret indictment exists to arrest Assange.

Because of his belief that the United States will extradite or kidnap him if he leaves the Ecuadorian embassy, Assange is essentially and indefinitely under house arrest there until such time as the Ecuadorian government can be persuaded to end its sanctuary.

Many of the documents that WikiLeaks published were provided by Private Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley Manning). She released the information to WikiLeaks after trying to release it to The Washington Post and The New York Times, which were not interested. She was arrested on May 27, 2010 and held in conditions that were identified as "cruel, inhuman, and degrading" by a United Nations special rapporteur on torture and as "unconstitutional" by 295 academics (most of them legal scholars). The brig commander was subsequently replaced. After Manning's trial, she was sentenced to 35 years of prison. She will be eligible to apply for parole after eight years although, with the number of powerful enemies she has, I believe that she has little chance of being paroled.

Edward Snowden, like Julian Assange, has escaped Manning's fate by choosing exile. He has been given asylum by Russia as a political refugee.

I think it is fair to say that the United States and its allies have struck back strongly against these three people, using whatever tools for retaliation they have. The governments presume is that is dangerous, illegal, and even immoral to reveal their secret activities to the people, even if those activities turn out to be dangerous, illegal, or even immoral, as some of them have been.

Thanks to Assange and Manning, we now know  the following facts:
  1. There is an official policy to ignore torture in Iraq.
  2. Guantanamo prison has held mostly innocent people and low-level operatives.
  3. There is, contrary to Presidential statements, an official tally of civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  4. The State Department successfully backed opposition by American companies (such as Nike) against an increase in the Haitian minimum wage.
  5. Despite its public statements to the contrary, the United States would not support Tunisian President Ben Ali against a popular uprising.
  6. Known Egyptian torturers were trained by the FBI in Quantico, Virginia.
  7. Contrary to the United Nations Convention, the State Department directed American diplomats to steal DNA samples, credit card information, and other information from UN officials, including the Secretary General, and other countries' representatives to the UN.
  8. Both Japanese and American governments were warned in 2008 by the International Atomic Energy Agency that the Fukushima nuclear energy plant would not be safe in the event of a large earthquake, but neither took any action. The damage done by the Fukushima reactor is now considered as great as that of the previous record-holding nuclear disaster, Chernobyl.
  9. The United States allowed Yemen's President to cover up a secret American drone bombing campaign.
Not highlighted in that article were other WikiLeaks revelations, such as the "Collateral Murder" video or the hiring of dancing boys (a class of people often abused as sexual slaves) by an American defence contractor.

Edward Snowden's revelations are even more voluminous and serious. (A Wikipedia article tries to give an overview). They show that, despite statements from President Obama and the heads of intelligence agencies, systematic, massive spying on the communications of American citizens, among others, was standard operating procedure. Specific revelations that the United States tapped the telephones of the leaders of friendly countries, including Germany, have affected international relations. In addition, America has had to cease its attempts to shame China for its close control over the Internet within its borders and its attempts to hack information from Western companies and government agencies: In light of American spying on the Internet and telephone communications, the American lectures on morality have been widely perceived as hypocritical.

An advisor to the White House, Dan Pfeiffer, said that Snowden should "return to the U.S. and face justice." This may sound properly respectful of the rule of law, but the reaction to Assange and Snowden and the pre-trial abuse of Manning has very little to do with the rule of law. Assange is an Australian citizen who received leaked documents (as journalists do routinely) and published them in Europe: it is hard to say that he comes under the jurisdiction of American law. Snowden, as an American citizen, does come under American jurisdiction, but his actions may be compared to Daniel Ellsberg's highly-praised leaking of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. Some people disagree with that assessment, but Ellsberg himself is not one of them.

The fervour for justice in the cases of Assange, Manning, and Snowden has an interesting counterpoint in the case of James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, who has admitted to lying about the spying programs to Congress, the courts, and perhaps to the President. There is little chance that he will ever have to face justice for his perjury. He may even receive a promotion of sorts.

The implacable rage that government officials have shown to the leakers contrasts with the impunity that they have granted Clapper. I'd like to put both of these reactions into a context provided by David Brin's book The Transparent Society.

In that book, Brin argues, first, that the technology for invading privacy has grown in power and pervasiveness over the years and that, second, governments will not give up that technology. Thus, Brin argues, if the general population insists on maintaining its right to privacy then all the spying will be in one direction: the state will spy on the citizens at but the citizens will know little about the government. This is a situation that is ripe for the development of corruption. Clapper is a fine example.

Assange, Bradley, and Snowden have done a vital service to the American people by showing them what their government does behind closed doors. If the data collection on Americans continues, we can hope that it will continue with informed consent of the American people. To date, it has not been.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Here's How to Egregiously Manipulate the Facts of a Case

I saw this poster in a subway station here in Vancouver, along with a few other pro-Israel posters.
Let's just say, I wasn't impressed. Or amused.

Let us be clear: I was not distressed by the fact that the poster was supporting Israel. I think that Israel is both a vibrant, democratic state and a canker that has eaten at the Middle East since its formation. I have no particular problem with media that support or media that criticize it. I was upset that the maps on the poster were selected to imply a blatantly false proposition.

The first map shows the United Kingdom of Israel, which lasted a hair over 100 years. It split into the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the former of which was conquered by Assyria after about 200 years, and the latter of which was conquered by Babylon between 597 and 582 BC. The elite of the Kingdom of Judah were then taken into the Babylonian exile.

The second map shows the British Mandate of Palestine in 1920, the date in which the San Remo conference supported that a "national home for the Jewish people" be set up within Palestine on the understanding that "nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine." There was no intention to commit all of Palestine to become a Jewish State, which is why the word "state" was not used at all. In addition, the land could hardly be called "Jewish land" because Jews were, at that point, a tiny minority. As the League of Nations reported,
There are now in the whole of Palestine hardly 700,000 people, a population much less than that of the province of Gallilee alone in the time of Christ. Of these 235,000 live in the larger towns, 465,000 in the smaller towns and villages. Four-fifths of the whole population are Moslems. A small proportion of these are Bedouin Arabs; the remainder, although they speak Arabic and are termed Arabs, are largely of mixed race. Some 77,000 of the population are Christians, in large majority belonging to the Orthodox Church, and speaking Arabic. The minority are members of the Latin or of the Uniate Greek Catholic Church, or--a small number--are Protestants.

The Jewish element of the population numbers 76,000. Almost all have entered Palestine during the last 40 years.
The final, current map on the poster is meant to illustrate that the Republic of Israel, even with the West Bank added in, is much smaller than the Jewish Lands were in former days. It implies a gradual shrinking over 3000 years of occupancy.

How misleading this implication is can be shown by looking at a maps of "Jewish land" in 800 BC (rather than 1000 BC), 1919 (rather than 1920) and 1967 (rather than now).

The first map shows the Kingdom of Judah in about 800 B.C. Since the United Kingdom of Israel was ephemeral and the northern kingdom called Israel was incorporated into the Assyrian Empire in about 720 B.C., the Kingdom of Judah represented Jewish Lands from then until about 590 B.C.

In the middle map, there are no "Jewish lands" at all. The Balfour Declaration that Palestine should accommodate a large Jewish population had not been put into effect. Jews in Palestine in 1919 were neither legally nor demographically in possession of a homeland in Palestine.

The last map shows both the Republic of Israel and the lands it controlled in 1967: the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula, the Golan Heights, and the Gaza Strip. It is significantly larger than the non-existent Jewish lands in 1919, isn't it?

These three maps support a different inference about the extent of Jewish lands than the maps on the poster. It shows an ancient state which disappeared from the map and a Jewish people who scattered in a diaspora, living without a homeland. It shows that a Jewish state was recently created and still exists. In fact, these maps support a truthful account, as the poster does not.

Whoever designed the poster and the "StandWithUs" group who paid for it should be ashamed of themselves.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Spoken Word Performances on (Shakespeare, Shaw, Tolkien)

I used to wander into the University of BC's record collection (pause for definition: records are 12-inch vinyl disks that each hold a sound recording of some kind). Sometimes I'd listen to something funny, such as The Goon Show; sometimes, something musical, such as sea chanteys by the X-Seamen's Institute; sometimes, something spoken, such as Bernard Shaw's play St. Joan.

The biggest name in spoken-word recordings, there and elsewhere, then and now, was Caedmon Records (now Caedmon Audio). Since 1952 it has been recruiting the top authors and actors to perform poems and plays. Check out the list of their first hundred records on this page to see what type of talent it attracted.

My unsolicited praise of Caedmon was occasioned by a visit I made to the Internet Archive site yesterday. On the off-chance that I'd find something interesting, I clicked "Audio" on the front page and then typed "Caedmon" in the Search Box. Much to my surprise, here is what I found: Caedmon recordings of several Shakepeare plays (Othello, Coriolanus, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, Pericles Prince of Tyre, The Merry Wives of Windsor) and a Shakepeare poem, "Troilus and Cressida." Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, Jack Prelutsky's Nightmares to 
Trouble Your Sleep, Kipling's Just So Stories, and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit round out the collection.

Listening to the last item, I was very impressed with how the voice actor, Nicol Williamson, altered his voice and accent to the various characters. Bilbo Baggins, as a hobbit, got a "West Country" accent, as he should, but the dwarves were northerners by the sound of them, perhaps Yorkshiremen.

Here is a link to the page my search turned up. Give a listen to one of the recordings, or just marvel at the list of actors in them. For example, the recording of The Tempest has Michael Redgrave, Anna Massey, Vanessa Redgrave, Hugh Griffith, and John Hurt. Coriolanus stars Richard Burton.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

"London Calling" (from Star Trek: Into Darkness) arranged for piano

The film Star Trek into Darkness (2013) has a scene in which a couple wake up in a future London and leave home to visit their dying daughter. The view from the window in their apartment shows one recognizable building, St. Paul's, but the spires around it are reminiscent of present London buildings such as the Shard and the Gherkin.
The piano music that plays in the background as this happens is "London Calling." A later scene continues the music. In it, the father administers what he hopes will be a cure for his daughter, kisses her good-bye, then pays the price for that cure.
The music is, I think, quite lovely, and very unconventional for a Star Trek movie. The composer, Michael Giacchino, should be proud.

The unified version for piano and orchestra that is found on the CD is nice, but a Youtube user called ThePandaTooth adapted it for piano alone. He plays it faster than it is played in the movie but is, again, worth listening to.

Sheet music of his arrangement is on-line. You can find a couple of other sheet music transcriptions if you poke around the Internet. I don't know enough about written music to tell you which is best.

Update: Well, aren't I the cultural illiterate! I didn't realize that the title of this piece, "London Calling," was a reference to an album by The Clash. It makes sense, though: Another piece from Star Trek into Darkness is "The Kronos Wartet," an obvious reference to the Klingon Home World Kronos (or Qo'noS), the Klingons' favourite activity (war), and the Kronos Quartet.

If you're not familiar with the Kronos Quartet, their rendition of "Purple Haze" by Jimi Hendrix may come as a pleasant surprise.

Friday, 6 September 2013

New MusOpen Project to Create Free Chopin Recordings

It has been three years since MusOpen concluded its project to release massive amounts of classical music as high-quality recordings of high-quality performances. The project was a huge success, bringing in much more money in donations than it intended. The additional largesse went into recording additional music.

Now, there's another project being started, the recording and release of all of Chopin's music as free files, available to be used for any purpose. Like the previous effort, this one starts as a Kickstarter campaign to raise the necessary funds. Anyone who enjoys classical music and appreciates the idea of freely available and freely reusable files should consider making a donation.

Update: More than $90,000 were raised in the campaign. Success, and the recording process can begin!

Sunday, 1 September 2013


At church today was sung a hymn with a lovely tune and, I add, good words. The title is "Let Streams of Living Justice," and the composer was Gustav Holst. I made note of that and checked it out using Google when I got home. It turns out that the tune is called "Thaxted" and is based on a theme in the "Jupiter" section of the composer's suite The Planets. The Wikipedia page on the tune lists fourteen hymns and four secular lyrics for the tune, so it seems very popular. As mentioned, though, I like the lyrics to "Let Streams of Living Justice." They remind me that Christianity is, or should be, a radical set of beliefs, not a complacent, conservative, mainstream one.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Iain Banks, Seamus Heaney, Louise Manson-Hing

It's been a horrid month for deaths.

Iain Banks was also known as Iain M. Banks. He used the two names to distinguish his persona as a science-fiction author from that of a practitioner of more conventional forms of fiction. I am far from an expert in his work, but I have read the science fiction novels Consider Phlebas, Player of Games, and Use of Weapons. 

The three novels can be considered space opera because of their setting, in which a partnership has been established between organic beings (their various species do not matter so much) and artificial intelligences who are considerably more intelligent but, on the whole, like having us around. The partnership is known as "the Culture." It is space-based, insanely rich, and both libertarian and liberal. It also tends to meddle in the affairs of many less advanced peoples to lead them in the direction of being more libertarian, more liberal, and richer. All for their own benefit, of course. As we know from recent history, such efforts are not always appreciated and sometimes cause more damage than good.

The artificial intelligences have long lifespans and a wide range of personalities. They generally appreciate irony. For example, when a non-Culture ambassador commented on their "lack of gravitas," many of them chose names for themselves that proudly advertised the lack: Experiencing a Significant Gravitas Shortfall, for example. Other names express the ship's attitude, such as Poke it with a Stick, or sense of humour, such as Ultimate Ship the Second.

Even though the Culture novels have a space-opera background, and space opera does not have a reputation for exploring ethical problems or developing rounded characters (may I mention Star Wars?), they do ask if individuals would suffer and grow, even in a liberal, post-scarcity utopia. The answer, very clearly, is yes.

Although Iain Banks is one of the best novelists of our time, I think I can call Seamus Heaney the best poet of our time. I first came across his work, oddly enough, in a Grade 12 English Provincial Exam. The poem was called "Digging." In it, the poet is attempting to write, but hears his father working in the garden outside. The sound of digging causes him to flash back to his father's digging of potatoes, twenty years before, and the children's love of the round roots he exposed for them to collect. Then a further flash back to his grandfather, "the best digger on Toner's bog," hard at work. Then back to the present. Although he is proud of them and their work "I've no spade to follow men like them." So he looks again at his pen and thinks "I'll dig with it."

I've summarized the poem so you can appreciate the delightful pride he expresses in his ancestors and his humility towards his own profession. You should read the poem itself, however.

I was taken enough with it to look up the author, something which I have never done for another poet that I've met in a Provincial Exam. I discovered that he had a Nobel Prize in literature and was often called the best Irish poet since Yeats. You'll have to make your own judgement of that, but how many poets could make it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list with a translation of Beowulf? If that is not sufficient to impress you, consider that "In 2009,...two-thirds of the poetry collections sold in the UK the previous year had been Heaney titles."

I will include my favourite poem by Heaney as my last word on the man.


Seamus Heaney
Fishermen at Ballyshannon
Netted an infant last night
Along with the salmon.
An illegitimate spawning,

A small one thrown back
To the waters. But I'm sure
As she stood in the shallows
Ducking him tenderly

Till the frozen knobs of her wrists
Were dead as the gravel,
He was a minnow with hooks
Tearing her open.

She waded in under
The sign of the cross.
He was hauled in with the fish.
Now limbo will be

A cold glitter of souls
Through some far briny zone.
Even Christ's palms, unhealed,
Smart and cannot fish there.
Finally, I come to Louise Manson-Hing. She is not famous. "She dwelt among the untrodden ways." For about fifteen years, she was the most important person in my life. She would have remained one of the most important, even after my marriage, if I had been able to keep up my contact with her. For reasons that I will not go into, I could not.

I met Louise in the back row of a university class. She offered me a muffin. Not a come-on; just simple fellow-feeling. She was not given to playing games with people's minds. She was very protective of her heart, however. She would sometimes reject people, push them away, to find out if they would go. Even when she was doing this, she was one of the best people to talk to for hours on end, and she never hung up. Her voice was well-modulated and beautiful. Her loyalty was intense.

Her personal courage was immense. For example, at one point in her life she enjoyed taking out her little dog for walks through the streets and parks at two or three in the morning. When she was warned that this was not safe, she simply did not understand why she should have to be afraid. Years after, after she had made contact with women who had been hurt by men, she said she felt ashamed for not understanding their point of view. She never adopted it, though. She could look after herself.

After years out of contact, after my own marriage had changed enough to allow it, I tried many ways to contact Louise again. I phoned her workplace a few times, but was told that she did not work there any more. I found her sisters on Facebook and left inquiries with them. Finally, though I knew that she would never have a web page or blog of her own, I simply searched the internet for her name and I found her obituary here. She had been dead from cancer for over a year.

I am ashamed that I was not there for her when she was dying. I wish, more than anything, that I could apologize to her.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Lights without Electricity; Better Shelters for Refugees

Early on, I accepted Buckminster Fuller's idea that we do not need to accept scarcity of resources because we could do more with less. His example was communication from continent to continent: one could do it using tons of copper laid in transoceanic cables, or one could launch less than a gram of copper into orbit in a communications satellite. The second choice is not only cheaper, it is better, but it requires that we focus our attention on the problem. That is what, most often, we fail to do well.

When we do so, the result cheers me up immensely and gives a little hope for civilization's ability to survive. Two stories have recently appeared that show how such ingenuity can improve the lives of the poor.

The first was a better solution for a vast problem: finding suitable shelter for refugees, who number about fifteen million now. At the moment, many are leaving the violence in Syria and need basic shelter, fast. The traditional solution is to put them in tents.

Tents are solutions, but not good ones. They are dark, cramped, cold, and last only about six months before needing replacement. The better solution emerged when the UN High Commission for Refugees asked the designers at IKEA to create a refugee shelter. As one would imagine, they designed a basic home that can be made in a factory, shipped in flat packs, and assembled with included tools in a few hours. It is bigger than the tents that were used, is wired for electrical lights and small appliances, is designed to last for years, includes insulation, and will cost only £655 ($1066.55 Canadian) once mass production starts, and perhaps a tenth of that later, according to PRI. It is now being tried in Ethiopia. Here is one report on it  on Dezeen and another from MSN News:
It can also be upgraded with, for example, solar panels for the electricity and earth walls for extra insulation.

The other story comes from Alfredo Moser, a Brazilian mechanic, who designed a way to light up homes during the day without using any electricity. It is simple and cheap enough for people to install it themselves. It goes like this:
  1. Collect a number of two-litre water bottles.
  2. Clean them, remove labels, and fill them with water and two capfulls of bleach, to prevent algae from growing in them.
  3. Cut holes in the ceiling that the bottles can fit into.
  4. Push the bottle up into the hole, so the top third or so protrudes beyond the roof.
  5. To improve the evenness of the light, put an opaque cap on the bottle, such as the plastic container for camera film.
  6. Seal the bottle in place with polyester resin, so no water can enter.
The result is that the sunlight that strikes the upper part of the bottle refracts through the clear water and provides an even light in the house. On a sunny day, each bottle provides as much light as a 40 to 60 watt bulb.

It is easy to dismiss this idea if one lives in a developed country where electricity is available, reliable, and cheap. However, it makes a difference where it is not, as Mr. Moser says:
There was one man who installed the lights and within a month he had saved enough to pay for the essential things for his child, who was about to be born. Can you imagine?
A good idea like this spreads. Mr. Moser did a few installations of his lights. Other people saw them, thought "good idea," and did their own installations. Now, the Moser light is being installed by charities in the Phillipines, Bangladesh, and about fourteen other countries. By the start of next year, Moser estimates that over a million people will have installed his lights.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

"Breaking Bad" and "Ozymandias": Movies, TV, and Poems II

My son and I watched the first few episodes of the show Breaking Bad, and he went on to watch all the rest. I found them too depressing to watch. That is sometimes the problem with making something too good: It may depress the heck out of its potential audience.

I mention the show because I had put up a posting on poetry used in movies and on TV. The trailer for Breaking Bad's last season would have fitted that posting perfectly.
The poem in the trailer, for anyone who did not have to memorize it in high school, is "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The BBC discusses the trailer here.

Another fine example of poetry in a movie is from the last James Bond film, Skyfall. Here, M recites the ending of Tennyson's "Ulysses." Quite appropriate, since the movie's theme, like the poem's, is how to react to age and the decline of one's powers.
Here is an inspired recital of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" from Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. True, not all the words are there, and those that are, are sometimes in the wrong order, but Johnny Depp's Scottish accent here adds a sinister, menacing touch that makes up for any flaws.
Finally, here is the wonderful Emma Thompson reading "Holy Sonnet X" ("Death, Be Not Proud), by John Donne, which ends the movie Wit.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Word of the day: Euonym

The movie Akeelah and the Bee is the only one that I know of that was funded by Starbucks. As a result, when it came out, Starbucks coffee shops were festooned with word cards with interesting words on them. One, I recall, had "pterodactyl," which, like the others, is challenging to spell, but familiar. The one exception, a word I had never seen before, was "euonym."

The film has a scene in which Akeelah learns how to recognize new words by recognizing their prefixes, stems, and suffixes.

I applied the same technique. "Nym" I recognized from "synonym," "homonym," and the rest, and probably means "name." "Eu" I knew from "euphoria" and "euthanasia," and means "good." Therefore, "euonym" means "good name."

I bought my coffee, went back to work, and checked in the dictionary. Yes, that's right; a euonym is an appropriate name for something.

Today, I spotted a euonym that inspired me to tell this little story. What would be a good name for a prize for the year's best book? The Booker Prize, of course.

Update 23 Oct 2013. Not quite a euonym, but in the same territory, is John Benson, a publisher of work by Ben Jonson. That strikes me as hilarious.

Update 5 Jan 2014. A marvellous euonym! The former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales (that is, the head judge) rejoices in the title and name Lord Judge! Expressed slightly differently, he is Igor Judge, Baron Judge.

In addition, any mention of euonyms should be accompanied by a reference to the famous Victorian firm of toilet manufacturers, Thomas Crapper and Co.

Far less famous, but a source of amusement over the years, is a Chinese restaurant in Vancouver called the Wong Kee. It is in an older building, in need of a spruce-up, so I thought of it as the Wonky Restaurant.