Friday, 26 December 2014

Why Columbus Didn't Write Italian

     Although it is as well established as anything can be that Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa, there has been a lot of foolish speculation about his nationality, particularly by those hoping to claim him for their own. In this debate, the question is often raised: why didn't he ever write anything in Italian?
     Well, for a start, most of his most important correspondence was when he was resident in Spain, and writing to people who spoke Spanish. However, one commentator has pointed out something that would have been as obvious to his contemporaries as it is forgotten today: his native language was not Italian; it was Genoese! Genoese is not a dialect of Italian; it is a dialect of Ligurian. It is as different from Italian as Occitan/Provençal is from French.
     Over the last few centuries the centralisation of political power has also meant the centralisation of national languages, leaving the regional languages to wither on the vine. However, they were still very much alive five centuries ago. Indeed, Italy itself did not exist then as a political entity. Genoa in those days was one of many independent republics which patterned northern Italy at the time like a big jigsaw puzzle.
     Genoese is not dead yet, but it is withering on the vine. In a couple of centuries it will be forgotten, and people will still be asking why Columbus never wrote in Italian.

Reference: Paolo Emilio Taviani, Cristoforo Colombo, Genius of the Sea (2nd edition, 1991)

Monday, 22 December 2014

Do We All Have a Double Somewhere?

     The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope (1894) is, of course, the classic novel about a protagonist who closely resembles a stranger. The genre has been done to death; I don't know how many stories I've read or watched with this as the theme. But could it happen in real life? There are people who make a living impersonating celebrities. Mostly, the resemblance is very close, but not perfect. However, one of those doubles, Janet Brown was the splitting image of Margaret Thatcher, so much so that she was able to take part in an elaborate practical joke in which Joan Rivers thought she was meeting the British Prime Minister. Logically, the variety of human facial features is not infinite; duplicates must turn up at times. Do we all have a double somewhere?

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Of Course There Is Such a Thing as Race!

     In my younger days I enrolled myself in the bone marrow registry, as a part of which I was asked to state my race, or ethnicity. An impertinence! you may say, so they provided a reason. Matching marrow types is much more complicated than matching blood groups, and the various types are not spread randomly throughout the human race. If a patient requires a marrow donation, a search will first be made among members of those races where the required match is more common; it might not be the patient's own race, though it usually is.
     The major races of mankind are as obvious as different breeds of dogs. So why do so many people insist that there is no such thing as race, that it is merely a "social construct"?

Saturday, 13 December 2014

What You Didn't Know About Shaving

     There are so many things we just take for granted, but never question: like men shaving themselves. We've always done it, haven't we? Well, at least since we decided we didn't like our beards? Not exactly. In ancient Rome, men didn't shave themselves; they went to the local barber (from barba, a beard), who wielded his razor at a streetside stall while the crowds jostled around. They also went only every second day, which meant that most males sported a five o'clock shadow - something Hollywood never cottoned on to. So why didn't they shave themselves?

Friday, 28 November 2014

Why I Didn't Wear a White Ribbon

     I see that another special day and another good cause has come and gone: the United Nations' White Ribbon Day, 25 November. People were encouraged to wear white ribbons to protest violence against women. T-shirts bearing slogans like "Stop Violence Against Women" were worn at demonstrations. Groups of men were encouraged to get up and swear never to offer violence to women, and to speak out if they ever heard of it from others. The statistics quoted were quite frightening: 52 women murdered per year - one a week - by a current or previous partner, amounting to three-quarters of those women who had died by homicide, with one in three women a victim of violence in their lifetimes. I myself know women close to me who have suffered horrifying violence from their husbands. This is obviously a very good cause. So why do I refuse to get involved?

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Ned Kelly

           [Little] John smote off the monk's head;
    No longer would he dwell;
                   So did Much [the Miller's son] the little page,
    For fear lest he would tell.
               (Robin Hood and the Monk, verse 52)

     This tale of the cold-blooded murder of an unarmed man and boy, presented with modernised spelling, is an early illustration of society's tendency to glamourise criminals. Of course, the best-known example today is the way we whitewash those drunken, foul-mouthed cutthroats known as pirates. (A realistic pirate movie would be R-rated for the filthy language alone.) In modern times, of course, America has Billy the Kid and Jesse James. And Australia has Ned Kelly.
     The image of Ned Kelly with his guns and armour (which he wore only once) has become iconic in Australia. To many people he is a hero, even a victim. In reaction, there has been a tendency for some others to regard him as a black-hearted villain with no redeeming features. As for myself, I prefer a more nuanced assessment. A truly evil person presents as pathetic in his depravity. To be an effective villain, it is necessary to possess a certain ration of virtues, of which courage is the most important. Ned Kelly was the sort of man who, under different circumstances, and with different life choices, would have become a model citizen and a pillar of society.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The Science of Sexual Morality

There are some things which sound good at the time, but many generations of experience have shown that they don't work.
     That was a comment made by my mother when I was a teenager, with a veiled reference to sexual morality. There is a tendency is some circles, I have noticed, for what is termed "traditional sexual morality" to be regarded as some collection of irrational taboos, or at least something no longer applicable to modern circumstances. Sometimes it is called "Christian sexual morality", but that is a misnomer. It would be better to call it "human sexual morality", for it is the basic default system from which individual cultures tend to deviate. What Christianity introduced is a add-on: the idea that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Committed as it is to sexual equality, Christianity has always been negative towards polygamy, divorce, and the major exception to the default system practised by civilisations: the idea that it is acceptable to have a pool of degraded, low status women ie prostitutes, as an outlet for otherwise "respectable" men. However, the desirability of chastity before marriage and fidelity afterwards is the general rule of all human societies.
     Some cultures, believe it or not, have sexual moral standards stricter than ours used to be, and attempt to restrict nearly all communications between the sexes. Where their standards are slacker, it usually means carving out exceptions to the general rule - exceptions which, as the proverb explains, imply that the rule exists. The unusual exceptions - the ones which titillate anthropologists - tend to disappear when we leave the small tribal societies and examine the major civilisations, and the reason is obvious. These are the successful societies; they have been around a long time, and each occupy a large section of the world's area and population. They have discovered, as we are now having to relearn, that if you don't keep sexual relations within the bounds of marriage, things start to fall apart.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Murder Most Ineffective

Ten minutes later I knocked on the door of his stateroom.... He lay dead, sprawled face-downwards on the floor, and a dark patch of blood oozed up through his dinner-jacket, round the knife that was buried up to the hilt in his back. (Dennis Wheatley, 1939, The Quest of Julian Day)
    The evening after I read those words, I watched a TV program in which a person was killed - instantly - with an arrow in the back, apparently in the lower part of his ribcage, in the middle of a crowded park.
    This is typical. Writers of novels and films deal in violence with which, fortunately, they have no practical experience. What makes them think you can kill a man so quickly using such methods?
    Warning! Anatomical descriptions coming up.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Geert Wilders Speaks

     Geert Wilders is a member of the Dutch Parliament. In fact, he is the leader of the fourth largest party in that admittedly fragmented chamber. Yet his parliamentary office is located in a remote area of the building, accessible by only a single corridor, all the more difficult for assassins to reach it and for his bodyguards to protect him. He must leave in an armoured police car to a safe house especially designed to be bullet proof. He can meet his wife only once a week. When he wants to go out, even for electioneering, he must give his protectors one day's notice, and then wear a bullet proof vest and be accompanied by six plain clothes policemen. So why do so many people talk and act as if he were the villain, and not a victim?

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Where Do Kids Get These Ideas?

     I suppose it is now time for something not so serious. A few minutes ago I was laughing myself sick revisiting one of the more interesting and humorous websites, I Used to Believe. The brainchild of a webmaster called Mat Connolley, it is a forum where grown-ups can confess the bizarre ideas they had about the world when they were too young to know better. Please, check it out. Once you're there, click on "Best Beliefs". The one I like was the child who believed there were little ant people dressed as peasants in huts in his/her stomach. Then you can go to the strange ideas under the heading, "Common Beliefs".

Friday, 27 June 2014

Flogging the Dead Horse of the Republic

     Things are getting slack in some quarters. We've had a royal tour and the long overdue return of knighthoods, and now the Queen's Birthday holiday has come and gone without the republicans getting out their whips to flog their dead horse. Normally, we would expect the media to at least head for a prominent republican spokesman, then convey his opinion to a monarchist spokesman for a reply, then announce that such-and-such had "re-opened the republican debate". Of course, it did no such thing. The comments had been elicited; they had not been volunteered. All that was happening was the media again stirring the possum. But this time, all we had had is the occasional statement, often made in sadness, that a republic is further away than ever.
     What makes me say that Australian republicanism is flogging a dead horse? Let me put it in a simple sentence:

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Dreams, Visions, and Muslims

The man in a white robe that you met in your dream has a message for you. Call this number. . .
     That was a newspaper advertisement which appeared in the West Bank town of Ramallah in 2011. How interesting that the writer could assume that someone out there was dreaming about a man in a white robe! It is far from unique. In my post of January this year, I recorded seven cases of remarkable Damascus Road type conversions. No. 6 was about a lapsed Lebanese Christian who went to Saudi Arabia on a business trip and received a visit from both an angel and from Jesus himself. At the time, I took the story from a review of Tom Doyle's book, Dreams and Visions; Is Jesus awakening the Muslim world? (Thomas Nelson, 2012). Since then, I have acquired the book itself, which has proved a real eye-opener.

Monday, 19 May 2014

It's "Just a Theory"

     Quite often you hear people say that the theory of evolution is "just a theory", and not an established fact, or a law of nature. When you hear this, you know two things about the speakers:
  1. They are absolutely correct; and
  2. They haven't a clue what they are talking about.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Why I Am Not a Liberal - Or a Conservative

Take heed to the path of your feet, then all your ways will be sure.
Do not swerve to the right or to the left.  (Proverbs 4:26-27, RSV)
     "You're a Party X supporter, Malcolm," a cousin said to me, "only you don't want to admit it."
     No, dear cousin, I am a policy supporter. If Party X supports more of my policies than Party Y, it will continue to get my (possibly grudging) vote, but I don't believe in party loyalties. In my opinion, once you identify with a particular political party, you come under internal psychological pressure to support its policies, rather than judge its policies by an objective standard. (I take the same attitude towards theological positions, which are worse, in that they are usually poorly defined.)
     It is a peculiar conceit of this world that there are only two political pigeon holes you must fit yourself into: liberal and conservative. At least it makes life simple. Instead of thinking for yourself, all you have to do is decide in which pigeon hole you want to build your nest, and the rest follows. The corollary, of course, is that those who manage to take control of the movement can lead all the rest of the flock to wherever they want to go.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Walking Through Walls and Rationing Days

     When I was learning French at high school almost fifty years ago, one of the short stories we studied was L'Huissier ["The Bailiff"] by Marcel Aymé, about a hard-hearted bailiff who, having died, is sent back to earth because he had not received a fair trial at the Pearly Gates. The commentary explained that it came from a book entitled, Le Passe-Muraille, and that Aymé's method was to take a fantastic and whimsical idea - in that case, a person returning from the dock of heaven - and build a completely logical story around it. Astute readers may recall that this was H. G. Wells' prescription for science fiction: let the reader accept a fantastic proposition by a suspension of unbelief, and then play it straight. The only difference was that Aymé's propositions were more whimsical.
     I therefore considered myself fortunate to discover, while rummaging around a second-hand book exchange, a copy of the original book in French - with the corner sliced off to indicate that the bookseller would not be prepared to exchange it again. It was written in 1942 and published in 1943 ie during the German occupation, which is significant for some of the stories. If you ever get a chance to read it, either in the original language or in translation, I would highly recommend you do so.

Monday, 31 March 2014

The Behaviour of the Koala 1. Background

     If you had visited Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary during the years, 1971 to 1973 you may have seen a strange young man sitting on a foldable cloth stool outside the main enclosure scribbling notes onto an exercise book. If the Sanctuary was quiet, he might be reading a book, his eyes flicking up to the koalas every few seconds. At other times, he might have been sitting inside one of the enclosures, or he could have been handling the koalas, or waving a camera or the microphone of a tape recorder at them.
     That strange young man was me, and I was undertaking the thesis for my Master's degree at the University of Queensland. The managers of the sanctuary, Patrick and Paul Robertson were involved in martial arts, and had a special attraction to all things Japanese. They were thus friends of my supervisor, Dr (later Prof) Jiro Kikkawa, and it was he who gained permission for me to use the Sanctuary as a centre for making the first detailed study of the behaviour of this unusual marsupial.

The Behaviour of the Koala. 2. Basics

     The first thing a visitor to the Sanctuary will notice is that most of the koalas are curled up asleep in a fork of a tree. Sleeping is their major "activity", followed by eating. Typically, the head is down and the arms folded, or clasping the tree, but the whole of their weight rests on a small section of the rump where the skin lies right next to the bone. The photo at left demonstrates it perfectly. (Yes, I know it's not 100% in focus, but please understand that this was the first time I had ever used a single lens reflex camera.) On hot days they will sprawl out in all sorts of odd positions, always taking the weight on the same spot. Cubs curl up in much the same way in their mother's laps, and adults may even sit like that on the ground, or sit like a dog, or sometimes squat like a man. When it is really hot, some of them spread out on their bellies.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Behaviour of the Koala. 3. Bringing Up Baby

     One of the most peculiar myths, which may or may not still be current, is that these gormless marsupials spank their children. I don't know where it started, or how, but it was certainly reported as a fact by Ambose Pratt in his 1937 book, The Call of the Koala. Once a visitor to Lone Pine told me, in all seriousness, how she and her husband had once heard heard a loud crying or wailing in the bush, looked up, and saw two adult koalas - Mummy Bear and Daddy Bear, no doubt - chastising Little Baby Bear. The little offender would be turned over one parent's knee and, after that parent had finished paddling its posterior, it threw the child to the other parent for a repeat performance. She recounted it with such visible sincerity, that I would have been tempted to believe it, if it weren't obvious nonsense, and it became a lesson to me for the next time I heard some other improbable tale related convincingly. It is not just that I never observed such a thing myself. It is that, first of all, nothing a baby koala could do could possibly merit punishment and, secondly, the animals do not possess the fixed motor patterns which would enable them to do so. So, with that in mind, let's look at what really happens with bringing up baby.

The Behaviour of the Koala. 4. Communication

     Even a solitary, antisocial animal needs to be able to communicate, if only to say: "Get off my turf!" and the three methods of doing so are vocalisations (sounds), facial expressions, and scent. So let us start with the first one.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Behaviour of the Koala. 5. Sex

     In my younger days, when I was giving speeches on the subject, I used to say that the koala's sex life was rather similar to that of humans: the females get jumpy and chase the males, while the males assail every available female and bellow like a bull if they don't get any. Of course, that was spoken in jest, but there was a certain amount of truth in it. The sexual behaviour of koalas contains many interesting features.

The Behaviour of the Koala. 6. Fighting

     In captivity, koalas are mostly very placid, easy-going creatures, but when they fight, they really fight. In all cases the basic pattern is the same: an arm is thrown over the victim, which is then bitten on whatever part of the anatomy is closest.

Friday, 28 March 2014

The Behaviour of the Koala. 7. Comments and References

     It is possible to become much attached to koalas. On my last day at the Sanctuary I took photos of all my favourite characters from a sense of nostalgia. I left with a feeling that I had opened a door on a social system and behaviour repertoire which was both deceptively complex and deceptively simple.

Friday, 31 January 2014

Some People's Damascus Road Experiences

Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with Me. (Rev. 3:20)
     No doubt that is how it is for most of us. But sometimes the Lord does not simply wait patiently outside the door. There are times when He comes with a battering ram, smashes the door down, and drags the occupant, sometimes kicking and screaming, to the feast. St Paul knew all about it; it happened to him on the road to Damascus. Here are a few other examples of other people's Damascus Road conversions. No doubt there are many more out there. God only knows how many.