Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category

Campra is a tiny place, evidently no more than a few houses and a restaurant and guesthouse, along with the building we stayed in, in the Italian-speaking Swiss canton, Ticino. We took a couple of trains and a couple of buses to get there from Basel, passing some stunning rock formations and a huge dam along the way. We arrived on a Saturday, the day before the official start of the work camp – and the only duty required on Sunday was to attend the meeting in the evening – so it was a relaxed start to our time there.

My girlfriend – my <i>ex</i>-girlfriend; I still haven’t quite got used to that (we basically split up in Basel, but there wasn’t any question on my part of us not going to the camp together) – took on a partial managerial rôle in the kitchen. Cooking was done on a voluntary basis; some people didn’t cook at all, some – like me – cooked two or three times a my ex-girlfriend helped prepare one meal a day (apart from weekends). Also, she was tasked with keeping an eye on the food in the pantry, what was going off and should be used, what needed ordering and so on. Some brave souls volunteered to do breakfasts – which involved getting up at the crack of dawn and also preparing the morning and afternoon tea breaks; the quid pro quo for this service was having half a day off.

The work was to set up the structures for the forthcoming four-week camp, the Zenith Institute (a name that sounds like something out of <i>Lost</i>). These included about a dozen large platforms, on which pavilion-like tents were erected. Actually, as we left after two and a half weeks, this was all we saw, and it wasn’t finished at that. There were also a greater number of a smaller platforms holding accommodation tents to be put up later.

(Our original plan had been to spend three months there participating in the build, the camp itself and the take-down stages. When my now ex-girlfriend was planning her flight home, I did some research into the Schengen Area and found that doing so would have gone well beyond the 90-days-per-180-days limit for non-EU/EEA citizens (most of the places we’d been to on the trip had been within Schengen). Technically, we also both needed visas to do voluntary work in Switzerland, but we had neither time nor inclination to apply for them.)

Weekdays began with breakfast being announced at 7:30 am. (This announcement took the form of a single toll of a bell – made from the top part of a heavy gas cylinder; the clapper was a big mallet; they hung just outside the front door. The announcement itself was announced by two gongs five minutes beforehand, and those were prefigured by three bells ten minutes earlier still. So it went fifteen minutes before the meal or activity, three rings of the bell; five minutes before, two rings; one ring at the start. If you were standing near to it, the bell could be extremely loud – there were a pair of protective headphones hanging with the mallet for the bell ringers. On the one occasion when I rang the bell, the first peal surprised me with its volume and I overcompensated with the second toll, making it much too quiet; my third ring was nearly the same volume as the first. I wasn’t the only person who experienced this.)

Work officially began at 8:30, although not with work. Everyone gathered in a circle outside the building, held hands and sang a song. Then, continuing to hold hands, the details of the coming period were announced by Nirtan, one of the three staff members organising things. The twenty to thirty people present were divided into groups – those working in the house making lunch, dinner or preparing the tea break drinks and snacks; and those working on various tasks relating to the camp: constructing platforms, loading beams, boards and equipment from the garages and into the small, flat bed lorry and so on. The morning circle ended with the Sufi invocation.

We worked until 10:30 then had a tea break. This consisted of lots of urns and flasks of teas and coffee, along with bread and sandwich fillings, fruit, vegetables and often biscuits and chocolate. The we worked from 11:00 to 12:30, I think, with lunch at 12:45. Lunch was usually salad and soup and maybe another dish. Meals were laid out on a long table inside the house, buffet-style. They were usually eaten at the tables and benches outside.

Afternoon work started at 2:30 with another ring o’ hippies meeting. We worked till 4:00, had tea break till 4:30, worked till 6:30 (usually more like 6:15) and had dinner at 7:15. Then there was sometimes an activity in the evening, starting at 8:30.

All of these began with the circle meeting, which began with a song. I didn’t like – or even agree with – these songs and I didn’t join in. They were acts of worship – and there’s not a real or imaginary thing in the universe that deserves to be worshipped. Some of them were in Arabic, the tunes of which had an undoubted exotic beauty, the words generally revolved around ‘Allah’ – which makes you realise how close the Arab word for God is to the singsong syllable ‘la’ (surely not an etymological coincidence). ‘Allah, Allah, Allah’ has a much better ring to it than ‘God, God, God’.

Others were in English and basically went, ‘Happy, happy, nice, nice, la, la, la.’ One had the words, ‘Woke up this morning with the sun in my eyes/Praise the name of the Lord.’ I wanted to reword it, ‘Woke up this morning with the sun in my eye/Marvel at the thermonuclear reactions that make the sun a luminous ball of plasma around which our pale blue dot, the Earth, orbits at an ideal distance for life to evolve and thrive.’ Or maybe just, ‘Woke up this morning with the sun in my eyes/Someone draw the fucking curtains!’

As you can see, I thought these songs were pretty lame – and a fulfilment of the stereotype of hippies as people who stand in a circle holding hands, singing bland, platitudinous songs. One that I kind of did like was what may have been a Native American chant and simple dance about the four elements – I can imagine teaching it to little kids in Korea.

I could easily have avoided them altogether – they weren’t mandatory and I did, in fact, do that a few times – but they weren’t that unpleasant, really. As a way of instilling group identity, I suppose you could do worse. There are not many groups that I identify with.

One of the evening activities was zikr, a kind of meditation. I took part in the session in the second week. It involved singing in a circle again, this time seated in the ‘carpet room’ (a big room above the office and some of the storage space; it had a carpet). It was more in-depth than that at the regular meetings. An Arabic phrase, something to do with God, is repeated over and over – the number of repetitions counted off on beads.

Although it’s essentially a continuous repetition of one of those haunting Middle Eastern melodies, it’s given depth by improvised changes of harmony. The fifteen or twenty people taking part might all start off in unison, then someone might sing thirds, someone might sing a slightly different tune and so on. The result is pretty amazing.

The singing was led by Nirtan with directions such as, ‘Just the men’, ‘Just the women,’ ‘Quietly’, ‘Rock back and forth’. At the beginning he directed people to imagine the ghost of prophets in the room. At the end he asked us to hold hands and imagine positive energy flowing into us from the person on the left and out of us to the person on the right. I tried to do this for a moment then gave it up as pointless and rather ridiculous.

So I think this is what spirituality is – a combination of beauty, imagination and emotion. The zikr was enjoyable enough, but I wasn’t passionate about it. With practice, I’m sure I could call to my senses the feeling of some sort of energy moving through my body, the same way evangelical Christians train themselves to have conversations with ‘God’. But that’s not a goal I’m interested in directing my imagination towards. I have no reason to think that ‘spirituality’ is anything other than a specious concept, used only to put certain experiences on a pedestal beyond the reach of critical examination. The zikr was beautiful, but it was also nothing more than a bunch of voices making a bunch of noises – in the same way that the <i>Mona Lisa</i> is just a bunch of dabs of paint and <i>Moby Dick</i> is just a bunch of words.

Another evening programme was something called sharing. I took part in this in the first week. Everyone sat in a circle in the carpet room and, one by one, volunteered anything they wanted to share with the group. The first few people talked about how happy they were to be there. I said something similar: everyone was very nice, I was happy to be there, the landscape was great – the way it rose up in a steep slope on the other side of the valley reminded me of <i>Inception</i> where the city folds up in front of the characters (I’m not sure anyone was impressed with this last point). My ex-girlfriend had some heartfelt things to say about our relationship. The difference between us being, I suppose, that I was sharing with a bunch of strangers and she was sharing with a group of friends.

Still, the exercise seemed like potentially a very helpful one. It reminded me a lot of workshops I’d been in in writers’ groups and seminars at university.

Other things going on in the evening included a sauna once a week and a campfire on Saturday evenings. At weekends, there were also opportunities to go hiking in the region. One weekend, we were driven round the back of the mountain ridge that looked over the camp and we walked to a little hut right on the edge – we were able to look down on the camp a kilometre or more below. It was like playing <i>Populus</i>. Then we walked along the ridge. We headed off by ourselves to return to Campra; the trail – marked by red and white stripes painted on rocks – seemed to go too far the wrong way, so we went cross-country along animal trails, climbing through tree branches and over muddy slopes; we saw a couple of very large deer. Eventually, after a long and moderately arduous trek, we got on a track that led to the road that led to the camp. The following weekend, we went swimming to a stretch of river – well, I kept my clothes on and read my book on the river bank.

The work itself was quite enjoyable, although tought at first. The tough bit involved carrying lots up wood up hills. The camp was a short distance from the house at Campra. When we walked up there together we were confused, as there was no apparent area for tents and suchlike. Instead, there was a handful of cottages (if your hands were big enough to hold entire houses) and an uneven slope leading up to a wooded area. There were cows.

On the first Monday, the cows were taken to greener pastures by their owners, and we started work. Most of the platforms were to be built among the knolls and hillocks of the uneven slope, with a few others in clearings further off in the trees. While others were loading the truck down near the house, I was part of the large team sorting and carrying wood from the pile they were left in front of one of the cottages to the locations of the various platforms. It was exhausting. If you get the balance of a beam, joist or board right, it’s not difficult to carry, but it’s hard work walking up hill with all that extra weight.

After all or most of the timber was put in the right place, construction started. Short, vertical beams formed the legs and long ones, the basis of the floor. Parallel floor beams were carefully aligned with measuring boards, kept in place temporary boards and hammered level with big mallets. Then joists were put into place while the temporary connecting boards were removed and attached diagonally between the legs. Floor boards or wider, shorter floor plates were then screwed into place on top, and a ten erected on top of that. Everyone was armed with a ‘green machine’ – a green, battery-powered power drill – and handfuls of screws of various lengths.

The one tent I helped erect was the tea tent. We put together the roof structure first – lots of metal poles. Then the roof fabric was placed on top. Then, starting at one end with everyone helping, we lifted it up and put in the legs. Then the tent walls were attached. One other task I took part in was a day of clearing saplings and small trees from areas that were supposed to be open. In one area, we carried them along a track to the side of the little road leading to the camp; in another location, we simply tossed them over a cliff.

The people, as I indicated, were all very nice. There were lots of German-speakers – lots of Germans and Swiss and one or two Austrians – a handful of Spaniards (a couple of whom I disliked at first – they were loud and overly happy, annoyingly full of beans – but I grew to like them), a couple of Poles, and the odd Frenchwoman, Dutchwoman and Israeli. The aforementioned Nirtan was Belgian (and probably still is). There were plenty of young (or at least youngish; I suppose I might just fit into that category) people and a moderate spread of people of middle-aged and older. The person I liked most was a German woman in her fifties – she was very friendly, sweet and easy to talk to.

Being who I am, with all my prejudices and fears, I’m not surprised that I didn’t make any geniune friends there. I’m pretty picky about people I befriend and spending a brief time with someone, or a group of someones, who I’ll likely never see again doesn’t inspire me to make much effort to socialise.

But, on the whole, it was a good experience. I tried some stuff I’d never done before – construction work, the zikr meditation – and the environment was pretty spectacular. The cooking was generally great, too – despite there being problems with food going off in the un-refrigerated larders. I began the camp with the biggest beard that I’d ever grown and, halfway through, shaved it off in stages, taking daily pictures of the different styles. In terms of our relationship, it was a complex time and one that I may talk about in the future, but, for now, it’s too soon.

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I just read an interesting couple of articles. Firstly was a piece on the Guardian website by Edward Docx (possibly named after a Microsoft Word document) decrying the state of literature today and basically saying that genre fiction (fantasy, thriller etc) is bad and literary fiction is good – actually, he doesn’t quite say that, but he does say that good genre fiction cannot be as good as the best literary fiction.

R Scott Bakker, author of The Darkness that Comes Before and other excellent fantasy books as well as a pair of techno-thrillers, posted a response on his Three Pound Brain blog, in which he expounds his view that critics and writers subscribe to the Myth of the Vulgar Cage, which basically amounts to a specious justification literary snobbery towards genre fiction.

To be honest, the Docx article struck a chord for me. It’s great that people are reading, but is it not a problem that people are reading the easy stuff like Harry Potter and Dan Brown in such huge numbers and not reading the challenging stuff, whatever the genre, by authors such as (picking a name completely at random) R Scott Bakker?

Most stuff is crap. I love fantasy, but I wouldn’t touch a Feist or a Goodkind novel with a barge pole. I’m sure most literary fiction is crap, too (I don’t read enough to pick some bad authors). But I think it’s true that it’s easier for publishers to put out badly written genre fiction because it ticks all the boxes or it cashes in on a current fad (Harry Potter rip-off, The Name of the Wind comes to mind). Literary fiction sells so little, that I would guess publishers have to really make sure it’s worth it before risking publishing a new literary author.

I found myself agreeing with both critiques – any worthwhile area of human endeavour or thought is complex enough that it allows multiple contradictory viewpoints, all of which have some validity. All genres have their conventions and limitations, including literary fiction. The job of a conscientious reader is to be aware of them and to read the best, whatever shelf of the bookshop it’s stocked on. The job of a good writer is to work within genre conventions and to transcend them at the same time.

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I resigned from my job the week before last. My last day is scheduled to be Monday the 25th of October.

About time, too. I haven’t been happy there for some time. One of the things that attracted me to coming to Korea in the first place back in 2006 was the hours. Before Korea, I’d worked in offices doing administration work, and even with flexible working hours – getting out of bed and to the office on time was a hell of a struggle. Plus, sitting in front of a desk all day when you haven’t had enough sleep is one of the most exhausting things I’ve ever done.

A normal hagwon job sees you working something like 2pm to 9pm and on your feet talking to your students much of the time – it requires more energy, but is somehow less tiring.

My current job is not a normal hagwon job. While I’ve made a good fist of getting up at 7:30 to 8 every morning, I can’t go on with it any more. Especially since my non-teaching workload has dropped off to practically zero the past couple of weeks. Even when I did have other work to do – mostly proofreading – it proved utterly infuriating. While the women who work on the Contents team writing the workbooks my company sells speak good English, their written English leaves a lot to be desired.

Their work is full of basic mistakes like using ‘the’ in front of proper nouns, or missing articles where they’re required (for example ‘The Sean bought cup of tea.’) – errors that one would expect of an elementary school student. Even more enraging is when they pick out a vocabulary word and give it the wrong definition (such as where the vocabulary word is ‘bright’, the example sentence is ‘John was a very bright boy’ and the definition is ‘having a strong light or colour’). And then there are those instances when I just don’t understand what they’re trying to say.

The one thing I like about my job is the teaching. I have very small classes – I also have a lot of control over the curriculum. Although we’re supposed to do a certain number of books per term, effectively, if I want to spend two months on one book because that way I know the students will be reading it all and getting the most out of it (and I’ll be able to read the whole thing, too), I pretty much can.

My colleague Andrew, the Korean guy whose role is to manage the Learning Center as well as teach, has also not been enjoying his job, so, while I don’t think there’s any real problem between us, we end up not communicating much with each other.

I’d be happy to continue working part-time just teaching, but our bosses don’t want that. Partly, I believe, because of Korean business culture of screwing every last bit of usefulness out of every single employee; partly because the management don’t really believe in the Learning Center and would happily close it. Which is probably what’s going to happen when I leave.

My plan is to find a few private classes to keep my finances in the black and, once my E-2 visa expires to leave the country briefly and come back on a tourist visa. If my employer doesn’t say anything to Immigration, then I’ll need to do this a couple of time before Habiba and I are ready to say goodbye to Korea – according to our current plans, anyway. This is not strictly by the book, but not an uncommon practice.

I’ve been trying to up my writing game over recent months and there is a work-shaped ceiling beyond which I can’t reach at the moment. Although I still find writing extremely hard work, I’ve been thinking more and more about what I want to write about, about what I want to achieve. Recently, I’ve written more than I’ve ever done before; I’ve rewritten more than I’ve ever done before. Although, naturally, I am inclined to give myself as easy a life as possible, what I’m proposing is not that I exchange my current job for a life of loafing, but that I exchange it for another job – writing. Once I leave Korea for good, I may not have another opportunity to dedicate myself whole-heartedly to my vocation – until I actually start to get paid for it.

I only wonder why I didn’t resign before now – or why I even took this job in the first place. Money, I suppose.

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US anchorman Keith Olbermann presents an essay on the controversy over the planned ‘mosque’ (it isn’t a mosque) ‘on’ (it’s a few blocks away from) the site World Trade Center in New York. His words are incredibly potent and percipient, and highlight the danger of the world’s most powerful nation turning into the kind of state it has taken up a crusade against.

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On Friday I and most of the people I work with left work at about midday to set off on a rafting trip. As well as most of the people who work at the Gangnam office/bookshop/hagwon, there were people from the warehouse/financial and logistics office outside Seoul. The location for the away day was near Cheorwon, an area of Gangwon-do close to the border with North Korea – an area I’ve now visited three times (it’s where I met Habiba). Our accommodation was a one of a set of pensions near some rice fields and next to the Hantan river – the venue for the rafting.

The first part of the trip there was OK. I went with my friend Ji-hyeon and our boss Min-seon in the latter’s car to the Ilpye-dong offices. We had to wait a while for some orders to be despatched and it was moderately interesting to see the how the other half lives. There are two warehouses containing the bulk of our products, which are sold to schools and hagwons. The premises there are old and crappy – the Seoul site is far, far nicer.

After that everyone piled on a bus. We had been divided into four teams, black, white, red and blue, and had to wear appropriately coloured clothing. In the bus, we had to sit in our teams. We were given some gimbap and drinks. Then it was noraebang time. The men, evidently already giddy on their free can of beer, got very excited about the singing, yelling along with the singer and chanting people’s names, encouraging them to get up and sing. I heard my name a few times, but I was already feigning sleep and regretting coming.

Once at the pension, we had a few spare minutes before the games began. The games weren’t optional. The four teams competed to collect little green rubber apples, which were awarded for winning games, lining up speedily and so on. At first, the competition wasn’t too bad. There were games like Korean-style keepie uppie (with a little puck-like object with short, tinselly streamers attached), tug-o’-war and a race carrying a balloon wedged between two people’s backs.

Then, after dinner, it became seriously annoying, and not a little sinister. The noraebang was also a competition, not of talent, but of enthusiasm. Teams were awarded rubber apples for cheering and dancing. Earlier, after about an hour of resistance, I’d finally caved in to Min-seon’s request (ie, demand) that I perform a song for the team. As Ji-hyeon explained, it wasn’t about skill – nor evidently about personal choice – but about showing that one is a team player. I eventually sang ‘I Want to Break Free’ – badly, hating myself and everyone and everything. Somehow, I won the team ten points – a victory that felt utterly fraudulent.

Eventually, I felt able to leave the noise and activity and go to bed. The night was perhaps the worst part of the two days. There was not a time when there weren’t people up and talking – loudly – in the next room. And, of course, I had to share a room with a bunch of the other men – some of the snoring was terrible. Worst of all, a guy who was sleeping near me periodically ground his teeth. I’ve experienced this once before – at a hostel in Ottawa – and it’s far worse than the loudest snoring. Snoring is annoying, but ultimately natural and understandable, but grinding one’s teeth is just wrong. It doesn’t even sound like hard objects like teeth grinding together; it sounds like hard, wet rubber being firmly squeezed and rubbed.

Throughout the night I gave this guy – one of the salesmen – sharp nudges to jar him out of it. Later on, he even moved his futon so he was lying right next to me. He rolled on to mine a few times so I firmly pushed him back.

At around seven o’clock I went for a walk along the concrete lanes through the rice paddies. The air was thick with mist – which burnt off gradually through the morning. There were hundreds of dragonflies around, buzzing through the air singly or, occasionally, coupled with mates, or perching on plants or twigs, heads cocking. I found a little frog on a leaf; it was light green, the colour of the rice in the mist. Closer to the pensions there were grasshoppers in the grass – green ones and brown ones – and dark frogs that hopped away so quickly that I could barely make them out. As I was reading in the food tents before breakfast I saw a family of cats – three adults, two toms and a bitch with an unusual pale grey and white marbled patterning, and three or four active kittens whose coats didn’t match the adults at all.

There was a little free time after breakfast when the men who had been up all night were given some time to sleep – some of them were still talking, though. Strangely, I didn’t feel all that tired in the morning. The games started up again. This time they included dodgeball – in the rain. Clearly, the idea of taking a break and going indoors to wait for the weather to improve is beyond Koreans. Instead, everyone has to do what is expected of them. The first game of dodgeball I played with my umbrella up, standing pretty much stationary in a corner – and was completely ignored. Unfortunately, the weather did improve and I was able to put my umbrella away and take part.

Eventually, the competition came to a close. My team, the white team (I wore my white Ask Enquired top with the Union Jack and my England shirt), came second with 34 rubber apples. For this we won 170,000 Korean won. Except we didn’t – Ji-hyeon told me later we’d be bought a meal the following Monday evening. The red team – the owner’s team (not so coincidentally, I assume) – came first with 46 points and received 460,000 – or didn’t receive it.

There was a little shop on the site. I bought three two-litre bottles of water there. The first two times from a lad who spoke English well and charged me 2,000 won. The last time, as we were leaving, from a woman who charged me 1,500. I told her that a boy the previous day had charged me more.

Finally, we were able to leave to go rafting. We arrived at the rafting company’s site and got kitted out with paddles, helmets, life jackets and dayglo rubber slippers. The rafting company’s bus took us to the river. The activity is clearly a popular one – there were hundreds of people there all doing the same thing. On the little stretch of beach as we launched there were four or five other rafts, each with eight or ten (but not nine) passengers launching at the same time.

The rafting was good fun – it made the misery of the previous twenty-four hours just about worthwhile. I’d been rafting once before, also in Korea, though at a different location, with Habiba. Then, the water had been calm and low. This time, in the middle of the rainy season, the river was fuller. There were parts where the current cascaded over hidden rocks where the boat rose and fell alarmingly. The sense of danger was palpable – without a firm grip on the foot loops on the raft’s floor, people would certainly have fallen in.

The river gorge was pretty interesting. There was a water-eroded rock that, from one angle, looked very much like a huge skull with a gaping mouth. Other parts had sheer walls that showed no signs of erosion; instead they were all jagged chunks and blades of rock. These parts had bats’ nests in caves – we could just about hear the chirping of the bats, but we couldn’t see any signs of them.

Throughout the ride, whenever there was a rough bit, Ji-hyeon, who was sitting next to me, translating the guide’s words, would grab my sleeve in a way that was very pleasing to my manly ego (don’t tell Habiba). Later, she counteracted this by pushing me into the water. (In a part of the river near the end of the ride where the guide encouraged/tricked people into taking a dip.) She earlier told me that you weren’t supposed to drink the water because of all the fertilisers in the runoff from the fields that entered the river via numerous waterfalls down the walls of the gorge. I didn’t drink any, I think, but I did inhale a little.

After that, we headed back to the rafting HQ, to drop off our equipment, shower and change. Then we were finally off home. The ride back was quieter than the ride out. Also longer. At the warehouse, everyone got off the bus and into various employee’s cars. I shared the financial director’s car with Ji-hyeon and one other person.

As I said, the rafting was good enough that it made the rest of the trip worth putting up with – just about. In some ways, the idea of a company trip like this is a very good one – it lets people who don’t normally work closely get to know each other, it shows that the owner wants to promote relations with and among his staff. However, the way they implemented it, it felt like a cross between a kindergarten and a prison camp. You must play games. You must sing. You must drink. You must show what a good sport you are. Doing your own thing is not an option.

The Koreans seemed to enjoy it – at least the men. The men’s enthusiasm seemed slightly manic – drink as much as possible, shout as loudly as possible. I think the women were more ambivalent – some of the looks I saw from them were of tiredness and toleration. I don’t think I made a good impression – I probably came across like a sulky teenager – at the age of thirty-four, that’s not terribly becoming. I gather that people made allowances for my lack of enthusiasm because I don’t speak the language, because I’m a foreigner. I wonder if my lack of enthusiasm might signal the beginning of the end of my employment at EducaKorea.

I kind of hope it does. I’ve been thinking lately that I can’t continue with things the way they are. I get up between 7:30 and 8 every weekday morning and sit at a desk from 9, often doing little more than browsing the internet and feeling exhausted. One of the main reasons I came to Korea in the first place was to get away from that. I hate it. It doesn’t seem to suit my biological rhythms. I got up today at 7:45 feeling headachey and a little nauseous from dehydration. I couldn’t face going into work, especially not feeling like that, so I’ve taken a sick day. After another couple of hours sleep I feel fine.

When I broached the subject of quitting or reducing my hours to just my afternoon teaching to Ji-hyeon on Saturday night she was very concerned about my breaking my contract and being penalised. Overly concerned – especially given that Koreans generally don’t regard contracts as little more than the printed version of an verbal, mutable agreement. I find it hard to care.

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Skimming Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist today, I found some information on R Scott Bakker’s next book, The White-Luck Warrior, which I eagerly await. Said information was in a post on the author’s own WordPress blog, Three Pound Brain (beloved of zombies everywhere). His post concludes with a list of principles he regards as self-evident, and which resonate strongly with my own opinions. Bakker’s ‘No-Dogma Dogma‘ is:

1) Not all claims are equal.

2) The world is ambiguous because it is supercomplex.

3) Humans are cognitive egoists. We are hardwired to unconsciously game ambiguities to our own advantage – to make scripture out of habit and self-interest.

4) Humans are theoretical morons. We are hardwired for groundless belief in invisible things.

5) The feeling of certainty is a bloody pathological liar.

6) Science is a social cognitive prosthetic, an institution that, when functioning properly, lets us see past our manifold cognitive shortcomings, and produce theoretical knowledge.

7) Contemporary culture, by and large, is bent on concealing the fact of 2, 3, 4, and 5.

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Numismatics. Oldmismatics

While I’m a bit of a news junky, it’s not often that something in the news surprises me. Today saw the unveiling of the new designs for UK coins (except the £2 coin). Despite the fact that the competition to find the new designs was launched in 2005 I had no idea that such moves were afoot (or a-hand or a-any other body part).

I like these new reverses, though. The penny through 50p piece show details from the Shield Royal of Arms, while the pound coin shows the Shield in its entirety. They look like this:


as opposed to the previous Emblems of Britain designs which look like this:

Emblems of Britain Coins

The concept of the new design is an interesting and pretty groovy idea, but individually they’re likely to seem rather odd. The old designs – like every other coin in the history of coinage – were self-contained; each of the new coins refers to and can only be appreciated in relation to the others. You might even say these are post-modern coins.

According to the Royal Mint website for the new coins, the reason for the change is simply that there hasn’t been a change of design recently – since decimalisation in 1971, in fact. This seems a rather weak excuse for such a radical overhaul – and isn’t entirely true, as our coins have been evolving continuously throughout the subsequent period.

For my non-British listeners, there now follows a synopsis of modern UK coins (and the Brits among you might learn a thing or two, as well).

1966 Chancellor of the Exchequer, James Callaghan, announces the end of Imperial currency.

1968 5p and 10p pieces are released to circulate as shilling and two-shilling coins, whose dimensions they mirror.

1969 50p piece – the world’s first equilateral curved heptagonal coin – is issued.

1971 ½p, 1p and 2p coins are issued on 15 February, marking the advent of decimalisation.

1982 20p piece – another equilateral curved heptagon – is introduced. The word ‘NEW’ on coin designs is replaced with the value of the coin (ie, ‘NEW PENNY’ becomes ‘ONE PENNY’).

1983 £1 coin is issued; the pound note is withdrawn the following year.

1984 ½p is withdrawn.

1990 New 5p piece, smaller than its predecessor, is introduced.

1992 New, smaller 10p coin enters circulation.

1997 New, smaller 50p piece replaces its older incarnation. The bi-metallic £2 coin is minted, but does not enter circulation until the following year.

2008 New designs, based on the Shield of Royal Arms enter circulation.

As I said, I like the new designs, but I also like the old ones (apart from having the face of a hereditary head of state on it – but that isn’t changing, and is a different issue, besides). I’m a little torn between the instinct for change and the instinct for conservation, but at least it’ll give me new things to collect.

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India, Day 46 – Delhi

As I noted yesterday, a taxi to the airport ought to cost 225 rupees (according to Lonely Planet, anyway). This morning, the Indian currency I had left came to 325 rupees in paper money, and 6 rs in coinage. A driver accosted me at the end of Pahar Ganj Main Bazaar and offered to take me for 300; I said OK. I sat in front of his shop while he went off to presumably get his taxi. After a minute or so, I though, Bugger this, and walked over to the taxi stand at the railway station.

The driver who intercepted me there wanted 450 rupees. I started to haggle, and he said something about a new toll. He seemed to accept my offer of 325, laughing when I showed him my remaining cash. He made a point of mentioning the toll, implying that it was incredibly expensive, once we were underway. The taxi went on to an elevated highway – evidently new. The toll point at the other end had a sign displaying the prices for various types of vehicle; I think cars were 7 rupees.

At the entrance to Terminal 2 of Indira Gandhi International Airport, it looked very much like I’d have to queue to even get into the building. There just happened to be a lot of people going into one entrance; I entered elsewhere (a guard looked at my flight details first). The interior here wasn’t terribly impressive – partially under construction and generally a bit aged and grotty; the long ceiling panels were warped.

I found the Emirates counter, then had to backtrack a little and have my backpack scanned and tagged. Then I checked in. I had a bout a litre of water with me, so I hung around drinking that before going through security. There was a bit of a wait here, but the process was reasonably painless – I’d transferred the contents of my pockets to my laptop case. The guard who scanned me told me, ‘It will be better for you if you take off your shoes.’ So I did.

Currently there are about twenty minutes until boarding starts at 10:35 – but I’m sure that won’t start on time. Feeling a little hungry, but I’ll survive.

I’m happy to be heading back to Britain (for however long), but has my trip to India been a success? There’s no Yes or No answer to that – in fact, even Yes and No probably isn’t accurate. While my original plan of three months in the country hasn’t come to pass, a) I’ve been here for a month and a half and that’s not bad, and b) I always had an inkling that I might change my plans partway through – at least, I was always aware that it was a possibility.

The pivotal moment was just after New Year’s. I’d had a really good time with the two American chaps at the New Year’s party – better, really, than I’d expected. Consequently, all the shitty aspects of travelling in India were thrown into (the now legendary) stark relief. I got depressed – too depressed than I ought to have. By the time I got to Delhi I was feeling pretty positive again. The whole sequence of up-down-up was almost bi-polar in its intensity. I think I made about the right decision to come home now; I could have borne a little longer, but three months would have been pushing it.

I’ve visited Delhi, Agra (and Fatehpur Sikri), Lucknow, Varanasi (and Sarnath), Goa (including Margao, Colva and Old Goa), Trivandrum and Mumbai. I probably should have at least gone to Jaipur as well, but I’ve seen a fair old slice of India. I’ve started writing (thank you, Drew). I didn’t do any yoga (my apologies, Savasana) – but I may well look into that in the future. I’ve taken a shit-load of photographs. I’ve kept my blog. I’ve seen one of the world’s most famous buildings (the Taj Mahal) and been on one of its most famous rivers (the Ganges). I’ve learnt more about the world, and, more importantly, about myself (about things I can and can’t tolerate, and how to deal with them … or not, as the case may be).

So, actually, I’m going to spin this as a successful journey. Just not amazing. But then, nothing I do is ever amazing.


Boarding was a slow process. When the queue finally got moving (no section by section announcements here), my hand baggage tag was checked by someone, then a guard looked at my boarding pass and bag tag, then an attendant took the pass and gave me back the stub, then someone else checked the stub and my passport. The plane took off about fifty minutes after it was scheduled to. It was all very Indian.

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Why is freedom so confusing?

Now I’m safely in Delhi – and I have the prospect of an easy exit – I’m feeling a whole lot more positive. So much so that I can consider staying on longer. Not for another two months, but long enough to go down south and see how it differs from the north (I’ve heard and read that it’s an awful lot more relaxed than the tourist hotspots here). So at the moment I’m not sure. I don’t want to keep flogging a dead horse, subjecting myself to something I don’t enjoy, but I also don’t want to cave in when the going gets tough.

If you’ll allow me to be self-analytical, I’ll say that it may all be to do with me being a fantasist – in more ways than one. Imaginary reality is so much better than real reality. Putting it another way, while I have a lot of negative tendencies, I am, deep down, an optimist – strange as that may seem. Or maybe I’m just naive. Who knows? Self analysis is like a fingertip trying to touch itself, like an eye trying to look at itself.

I’ve been in India a month (nearly) – and that’s not a bad stint in such a challenging country. A reasonable compromise may be to change my flight to the end of January and book all my train travel for southerly areas in advance (worry and procrastination about travel has been perhaps the major headache).

I never got round to mentioning (until now) that I’ve had a cold. I’m still a little bit snotty, but it’s mostly done with now. As well as being inevitable when you travel abroad for any length of time, it seems such a trivial matter compared with everything else.

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The last few days have seen the story of Gillian Gibbons broadcast over the airwaves. She’s been charged with insulting Islam in Khartoum, having named her students’ teddy bear Mohammed (or having allowed it to be named this). And today she’s been sentenced to fifteen days in jail.

Having taught English in a foreign country will almost certainly do so again, I have a feeling of there but for the vagaries of chance go I. She also has the same surname and is from the same place as someone I know, but it turns out there’s no relation.

She could be accused of being naïve, but it’s difficult to comprehend how seriously and personally people from other cultures take religion – especially when you come from a secular society like Britain where religion is almost an afterthought. Nevertheless, the reaction of the Sudanese authorities and religious groups seems completely wrong to me. Even taking into account that Gillian Gibbons’ ‘crime’ may be more serious in the context of Sudanese society than it would be here, the Sudanese have taken the opportunity to make a crisis out of a mistake.

I don’t understand why someone at the school didn’t deal with this before it got out of hand. Gillian Gibbons can be forgiven for not appreciating the sensitivites involved, but another member of staff could easily have quietly fixed things. Instead, the school sent letters about Mohammed the bear home to parents. Were they trying to get her arrested and deported?

I’m not surprised that Muslim representatives in Britain have been saying they’re embarrassed by all this – the last thing relations between Isalm and the West need is for parts of the Muslim world to live up to the fundamentalist stereotypes that people in the West have.

The sooner everyone becomes atheist, the better. Can you wait a few thousand years?

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