Tuesday, May 27, 2008


The railway cat in Japan.

Interesting morning

First the computers were nearly unuseable thanks to condor jobs going nuts and hammering the AFS server into the dust. Now I'm getting a weird visual effect: blurred vision with a jagged prismatic boundary. I've had this a couple of times before, and a quick bit of research suggests that this is related to migraine auras (though fortunately I've no headache). Makes it pretty doggone hard to read/write, though.

Friday, May 23, 2008


What happens when cultures blend?

Most people seem to think you can generate a “cafeteria culture” picking the best of this and that just as easily as you can select the dishes most to your taste from a palate of ethnic restaurants. I gather the notion is accepted unexamined.

If you think about it a little, it seems less obvious. A culture is an expression of the values and beliefs of a people, together with things that have hung on for tradition's sake. An outsider who does not share the traditions or the values misses the connections that give a custom meaning and the balancing that helps keep it from becoming a problem.

Recently I spent a few days in Senegal. That's hardly enough to have made definitive observations, but I did notice a few things. One was notable by its rarity. Senegal is famous for men holding hands as they walk down the street. It is an immemorial expression of friendship there. I saw just one such couple.

Maybe I was watching at the wrong time of day, but given the debates I've been reading about on the news web site I think the change is real. And I think I know why.

Their culture is no longer simply local, made up of the customs and values of their tribes, their neighbor's tribes, and their religions. It is also inevitably influenced by the Western entertainments and news that not just the rich but the middle class imbibe. One of the features of our hypersexualized amusements is the convention that adults don't kiss or hold hands unless they are in a romantic/sexual relationship.

So in the cities now (and perhaps the countryside) a couple is aware that what had always before been simply a signal of friendship might be interpreted as being effeminate or homosexual. That used to be unthinkable, and because it was unthinkable men were free to be expressive about their friendship. But now the bright line is gone, and so is the freedom.

There's a lot of public debate about homosexuality there now, with some people claiming that it doesn't exist in Senegal. I think part of what they're trying to do is oppose the (very recent) notion that homosexuality is a nature and not a distortion of nature. They're also trying to retrieve the social landscape that allowed men to express friendship freely. (And there's the religious prohibitions, and what I described as a sense of betrayal)

The mere fact that they're having the debate says there's been considerable Western influence in this area.

Beggary is another issue. In the tribal culture you are entitled to rely on family and clan. There's theoretical reciprocity—they can rely on you when you've something they need. That sets some limits on beggary with expectations that you will do your share if the time comes. But if you are in trouble you can even hand your children over to other family or even neighbors to be raised for you.

The emphasis Islam places on alms makes it easier to be a beggar, but also requires that even the beggar think about alms.

Now bring that into prolonged contact with Westerners, who are from much wealthier societies with a much different approach to alms. Alms are individual to individual, based on perceived need. The Westerner is the obvious person to get money from—he has relatively a huge amount. If he recognizes the need and gives, that establishes a relationship between them.

From the tribal point of view the Westerner has now implicitly admitted that he is willing to be “of the clan” with the beggar. But since the ability to do favors is so heavily weighted to the rich Westerner, there is very little possible reciprocity. There's not that much the tribal man can do for the Westerner. The beggar may take the money once and leave, but the chances are very good that with such a “rich relation” and what the tribal man sees as an obligation on the part of the “rich relation” that he will not just hang around, but escalate the requests.

Of course if he picks up on the Westerner's expectation of need, he'll amplify his needs.

Result: The Westerner sees the beggar becoming a wretched and ungrateful parasite. The tribal man sees the Westerner as greedy and anti-social.

In a polygamous society women are supposed to be submissive and obedient—make waves and hubby might go looking for a newer edition. Mix that attitude toward women with expectations from Western promiscuity and you get a very unpleasant environment for women, who may very well not buy into either the promiscuity or the submissiveness but who get hassled none the less.

Sometimes the results can be better, though I'm having trouble coming up with examples off the top of my head. Shared technology isn't what I'm talking about, but about what happens when different beliefs and expectations meet to form either a nice hybrid culture or a bastard culture.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Malleable brains

Susan Greenfield says modern technology is changing the way our brains work. The article runs off into science fiction about half of the way through--be polite and ignore that part. But the issue she worries about is significant--the technologies we use (and the entertainments we fill our minds with) must have effects on the way our brains wire themselves. For the brain does rewire itself. The brain of a piano player will be different from that of a taxi driver who doesn't play piano--not because of innate gifts (though they may be there) but because of the years of training: of the fingers and ears for the one and of directions and mapping for the other.

Will training ourselves to respond to computer screens and stylized information effect our ability to respond in person? Will it change the repertoire of responses?


Probably everybody's read Code Pink Tries Witchcraft at Berkeley Anti-Marine Rallies by now. Obviously they're desperate for publicity. But it says something very sad about the nation that the protesters are not only not embarrassed by the headline, but can expect understanding sympathy for bringing witches into the picture. It wasn't that long ago when that would have damned the group as complete loons in the world's eyes, and brought shame on their goal of ending the war. For some of us it still does (or would if they and the Berkeley city council hadn't reached that point already). But I run into so many people for whom "witchcraft" is neither superstition nor "invent your own religion," but a respectable approach to spiritual life, that I worry for the spiritual sanity of the country.

Thursday, May 08, 2008


He said it well. Pray for the people of Burma.

And the situation may be worse than it appears. If the rice crop was lost--that's a lot of rice to buy on an already tight market.