Thursday, January 27, 2005

The Outsider (by Albert Camus)

I just finished reading The Outsider (also called The Stranger), a book I had heard of for a few years and bought a few months ago (at a 30% discount!). It is a short book, barely 118 pages but is neither too long nor too short. And unusual for me, I ripped through it in three days.

It is written very simply and clearly, predominantly one clause sentences. And in that way, the story just breezes into your mind with little resistance or misunderstanding. And that style is suiting the mind of the simple, honest protagonist, Meursault, who cannot help but being a man of few words. And because of the intimacy with his thoughts you can't but help sympathise for him. He gets annoyed quite often with other people, and when that happens he just ignores what they say. Many things pass him by. He is clumsy with speech and his meaning, but honest in total completeness. He is an "everyman", who lives his life truthfully.

The story itself is somewhat contrived, but in a way, the story is subordinate to the message. A man lives, inexplicably kills, is judged and executed. In a way, the fact that he killed is superfluous but a dramatic element to bring him to the point of death, and to be judged by others. Camus's explanation at the end of the book makes it clear that the protagonist is a character representing the "only Christ we deserve". With that statement I found a lot more clarity of the story. And such a statement is useful, as the story is amusing but the story is there for the interpretation but lacks a clear statement.

I liked his interpretation through the analogy. Specifically, Meursault is sacrificed for being himself and he is afraid of his impending death (even though he knows logically realises that he would die at some stage anyway). It is unextraordinary, as it should be, a simple ode to the obvious 'sacrifice' we could all make, and should make, to die as ourselves. A poignant book indeed.

Dawkins' God (by Alister McGrath)

This non-fiction book was a criticism of the ideas and theories of Richard Dawkins. Richard Dawkins is a prominent evolutionist, who produced books such as The Blind Watchmaker, Climbing Mount Improbable (which I have!) and the Selfish Gene. To relate to this book, you would need to know Dawkins or be quite familiar with the arguments for evolution or atheism.

The author, Alister McGrath, is Doctor of Biochemistry but also an Anglican minister and qualified theologian. His biggest qualm is not specifically with evolution (which he thinks is probably a possible representation of the true development of life on earth), but rather the deductions Dawkins makes based on his belief in Darwinist evolution. You see, Dawkins vehemently declares that the theory of evolution is inherently atheist, and that the religious are deluded. You can understand that Alister might disagree with Richard on some points!

I was quite pleased with the logical exposition McGrath did to critique Dawkins' views, saying that despite the logic and clarity of Dawkins' earlier work, most later essays regarding religion are only based in his personal anti-religious beliefs.

The book also attacks the theory of memes and memetic cultural change, which is a topic I am quite enamoured with. This and my knowledge of Dawkins are what drew me to this book and I found it a rewarding read.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Politicially Correctness (started on Sunday)

Aue. The problem for a mediaphile like me at this time of the year is the number of programmes that start late or the number of show hosts who take an extended holiday. One of them was MediaWatch on National Radio, with hosts Colin Peacock and Russell Brown. Russell Brown, in particular, also features on the Listener and has his own blog, Hard News.

The best aspect about MediaWatch is that the writers are massive consumers of all sorts of media and find the contradictions, the slanted reporting and the curiosities of the New Zealand media. What annoys me is that I may have missed the first one of the year today!

Anyway, I went to Hard News (which is usually more of a disconnected but interesting rant) and it discussed a theme that I think about a lot: The obsession with Political Correctness as an issue within New Zealand politics, the media and, if you listen to 1ZB, talkback callers.

But this flows back to what exactly Political Correctness is. When Russell Brown asked National MP Murray McCully (who also tends to go overboard on the anti-PC rants) what it was Murray didn't even try, or he couldn't.

Political correctness for me is: "Is the state, achieved by social engineering, where perceived or real inequalities are removed."

Social engineering is: "An effort to socially engineer the current perception or situation to effect intended changes that seem to removed perceive or real inequalities. This can be from the government or the people. It is always an artificial technique because it is an active attempt to change the status quo."

Social engineering is often seen as some form of evil indoctrination but there is no reason to say that it is necessarily negative or necessarily left-wing. Not many people would consider that giving women the vote as a negative move (from a modern perspective). And although it is pandering to women, it fits in either ideology (but not male chauvinism!).

So let's have a look at the examples of political correctness of New Zealand that is often raised:

The $700,000 woman-of-the-moment Judy Bailey welcomes everyone at 6pm saying "Kia Ora, New Zealand", a point often raised in the Herald letters to the editor. Many people are also starting to think that referring to New Zealand as Aotearoa is equally silly. The corollary of this is the perception that anything Maaori is by nature "politically correct" which is to say it is not on. Te reo Maaori is one of our countries national languages and has been for quite some time, so how can it be seen as PC? The only thing it challenges is the existing tradition of not using or accepting Maaori language.

And that is where it really stands, it is is attempting to change a tradition.

Raised by Muriel Newman (an ACT MP) on the ACT website, there was the point that political correctness as against the Kiwi way. I think this is an interesting statement, just because comparatively speaking, we would seem to be more suited here to Political Correctness than many other countries. Our history displays many moments to be proud of that would be considered Politically Correct at the time, yet are now accepted as "the right thing to do". The movements at many times in our history were attempts to change the status quo, which was seen as unfair. It is the Australians or the Americans whom you could safely say are not culturally suited to being 'politically correct'.

On the ACT website too is the essay The origins of PC by Bill Linds. One good thing about the article though is that it stops appealing to the movement of political correctness but breaks it down into political forces. A comical point of arrogance eventually broke through that reduced the whole essay to a joke, e.g. "I would note that conservatism correctly understood is not an ideology." It then goes rapidly downhill when the authors anti-communist zeal goes into full tilt. One interesting analogy though was that he labelled political correctness as 'cultural marxism', which fits in with my interpretation too.

In some ways, I wish I had the patience to read "1984", which is the fate that anti-PCers would consider the final destination of the current 'trend'. I believe what marked the discourse of that story was a totalitarian regime that controlled language, altered history (to suit its ends), acted as thought-police, watched the citizenship and generally controlled all aspects of life. This is definitely a fate we don't wish, and one that we need to be aware of although it would seem underrated.

To be sure, there ARE abuses of liberal political correctness. I would consider anything breaking freedom of speech and expression (including racial slurs) to be an abuse as it, but that is what our government and indeed the British government would like to do regarding hate speech and inciting racial disharmony etc. But conservatism also has abuses too, which result in the same poor results.

Conservatism, by definition, retains its own interpretations regardless of the reality (just as Bill Linds suggests ideological political correctness can be different to reality). In a way, non-political correctness or retaining the unfair status quo is the norm. America is a wonderful case-study for this. How they sustained overt racism in the southern states without any institutional attempt to change things and hold their constitution dear, I will never know.

Conservatism also has moments that seem to resemble 'political correctness' too. The fury of McCarthyism exhibited all the worst aspects of Political Correctness that conservatives give to liberalism. It created a situation similar to "thought police" etc. and prevented freedom of expression.

Bill Linds would insist that Political Correctness is an inaccurate view of reality. But if we look at topics in New Zealand one by one, we can see a different appearance. The recent anti-smoking legislation was viewed as a PC-caused change. But the reality of this was that negative externalities were being forced upon non-smokers. Bar workers worked in a hazardous work place. The ONLY thing in favour of retaining smoking in bars was that it was the existing traditional way.

There were some unreasonable aspects of the legislation to be sure, that you might say were guided by ideology, after all, many of its proponents were more inclined to do create the law to make it more difficult for people smoke, rather than just to protect the health of non-smokers and bar workers (in which case you can see they were not seeking to redress the health problem, but to influence smokers). The insistance that all bars and RSAs (but not prisons) do so, with no exception, also strikes one as being a bit excessive.

So I think when the words 'political correctness' are raised, it usually just hides the insecurity with change, regardless of the rectitude of the change.

But going back to the idea of mandate raised in other posts. It is clear that regardless of the rectitude of these 'politically correct' decisions, the actual implementation of these changes is not ethical or politically wise.

If I were to take a libertarian point of view (as I enjoy doing), I would say that the freedom to raise ideas must always be free, from there the battle for the truth of these ideas should be decided by the people. Once there is a consistent groundswell of opinion, to constitute a majority, only then should a government be able to actively change the situation. This way social engineering is an organic procedure where the ideas are in public debate produces changes; rather than impending change creating desperate debate.

Our current government has a strong ideological system of fairness, which I mostly agree with. But it is not wise to institute your own ideology when the people are not supportive of each part of that ideology. Regardless of the rectitude of civil unions, legalised prostitution, anti-smoking legislation and the demolition of links to the Privy Council, the reforms that have been done are not necessarily in favour with a majority of New Zealanders. Since they have attempted to radically change the traditional structure of New Zealand to an ideology, it has been labelled 'politically correct'.

I would just think that it is politically unwise... Either way, I don't think that labelling things politically correct can help anyone but rather understanding what the essential things that are happening, and changing and why is the most important.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Damnit Squared

I got an e-mail today saying that the position that I had most of my hopes pinned on has been taken by someone other than me. Time for a big re-evaluation of what I am going to be doing.

I am brewing a large blog or two, but haven't finished them satisfactorily. In the middle of the day I had a little moment of political enlightenment on the difference between left wing and right wing. There is one point that is different on which everything else is built: It is the understanding of equality.

Left-wing ideology says that equality needs to be attained, sometimes through artificial contrivances. Equality should always be the goal, anything else is unfair and against human rights.

Right-wing ideology says that we have equality already and we are all free to break forth and seek to create inequality by achieving, to put ourselves ahead. Inequality should be your goal.

All other things flow from this perception of equality.

On a slightly different tack, a curious situation cited in the Saturday Herald reflected back to the nature of these systems. It described the situation in South Africa since apartheid, saying that the change over has not alleviated poverty in any way, it has just meant that there has been the creation of a black elite and the impoverished are growing poorer. The quote, I believe from Desmond Tutu, was (paraphrased): You cannot expect capitalism to deliver socialist outcomes. This is very interesting and true. Why would you expect that the economic liberation of the blacks to alleviate the poverty?

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

If a tree falls in the forest and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Did you hear about the earthquake that struck on Boxing Day? I mean, Boxing Day, 2003? A 6.5 richter scale earthquake struck Iran, killing up to 30,000?

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Language Bug

Well, after a pause since my New Year travels, I have again resumed my language studies, first with a dose of Maaori, followed by another taste of Spanish, and now back to the security and ease of Mandarin.

My big discovery of the last few days is another programme on Maaori television that appeals to me and I can learn language from. It is called Mind Your Moohio, a quiz show which they mix English and Maaori in a way that you can understand everything regardless of your proficiency. Amusingly, they have a few cool sections, such as the waiata (song) section, where they take an English or maaori song, with the guitar tune played, sing it in the other language. Then questions are asked. Following that is the kiriata section (Movies) where they act a little bit of it but saying the script in te reo Maaori! It is see Morpheus from the Matrix say one of his speeches in Maaori!

Spanish was a nice lingual interlude between Maori and Mandarin. Mi llamo es Daniel. Soy es de New Zealand. Me gusta comer Chocolate. Mucho Gusto~ 100% accuracy is hard because it is a details language with inflections and changes in every sentence but it is a nice sounding language.

My mandarin burst came when I realised that I hadn't returned an overdue Chinese book. Now I should get as full value as I can from it before I run it back into the city tomorrow and pay the accompanying fine.

For me, learning languages is quite relaxing. I sometimes forget that and choose my relaxation in less productive ways.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Political Outpouring No.1 - NZ's Tsunami aid

I have found a lot of political issues stirring around my mind, busting to get out. New Zealand aid money. No weapons of mass destruction. Farenheit 9/11. Hmmmmmm I better start with the aid money and then work from there.

New Zealand is considering giving NZ$100 million to the relief effort. The government had found itself politically stuck between a rock and a hard place; donating too little would be seen as too stingy, and donating too much is seen as "keeping up with the Jones's" or dipping into the surplus when they were unwilling to consider such benevolence at home.

On this topic, I think libertarian ethics should come to the fore. Simply put, the money any country donates is not given from the Government, but from the people. Tax money is ours. If taxes were low, and the government was small, I would suggest that if the people individually donated, then there is no reason for the government to do so too, as we are giving beyond our own charitable intentions. Why should we give 'twice'? (Once privately, then once publicly). In a small low tax, small government country, charity would come purely from the individual, and the Government would have no mandate to give money internationally. That would allow a 'pure' expression of charity rather than the government assuming our good nature or underestimating it.

In our country, we have a high tax rate and a large social democrat government. In some ways, this puts the emphasis on the Government to direct some of our charity e.g. social welfare is regulated charity to the unemployed or unable, foreign aid is too. We don't necessarily have a choice about the things that they donate to and in some ways that is good, as sometimes only the "eye-catching" appeals get money from the public, and there are other causes that maybe we wish to donate to but can't because the causes exceed our ability to pay (well the country is donating money to me currently, who would give me charitable money??). Public donations do not distribute according to need. So the Guide Dogs may be flooded with money while the Cystic Fibrosis foundation may lack. Social welfare also lowers the chance of begging etc. or disabled people showing the extent of their injuries to get pity and money (like in Taiwan and China). Government funding is more efficient too, when we consider that relief agencies need to spend money to promote their cause and facilitate the money getting to the right place. Governments can give a large lump sum with one administrative fee.

But the point remains that it is our money and should be directed by our intentions. My idea would be to strictly make such extra aid donations in proportion with private donations. Since we are highly taxed and have a surplus, the Government could say that it will triple or quadruple the amount privately given. This gives donors more power to use their money. Also, it takes out all accusations of the government wasting our tax dollar or being too stingy. The government will be as stingy or generous as the citizens and there would be no need to attempt to be compared with other countries.

Of course, the government may see aid as having power beyond just a sign of charity, it could be an act of investing or diplomacy. It has been suggested that giving to South-East Asia is for our collective good due to the interdependence of economies and world trade. For a government to give more would be prudent if the ensuing economic difficulties infect neighbouring countries too. Australia may give more to reduce the chances of a hundred overloaded refugee ships heading for the coast. Some people see America's aid as, an act of diplomacy, to make friendships with an Islamic country like Indonesia.

There is a more sinister sign of aid too. Japanese aid to poor International Whaling Council members and USA's aid to Israel are the repugnant forms of aid. They are both forms of aid that few citizens would deem worthwhile and are hence unethical. It is when you look at it that way, that the perception of government as an entity with its own intentions comes to the surface; something that is not representative of an electorate but a superior entity which knows better. And this discussion can go to so many other areas (like how Spain could participate in the Coalition of the Willing with an 90% unwilling public etc.). The ethics of government and what is regarded as a mandate to conduct its actions is brought into view.

So back to our NZ$100 million of 'aid', why is it being given? How is that number calculated? Is it an ethical use of our money?

Monday, January 10, 2005

Road Trip~

For the previous 6 days I have been roadtripping with Xin~ It is a fine way to get around to places you wouldn't ordinarily see and with great flexibility too, no need to plan more than a basic itinerary or list of wishes to be fulfilled.

The first destination was the town of my birth, Thames and the track leading to the Pinnacles. We camped overnight in the Kauaeranga Valley at a nice little campsite next to a river which rewards temperature-hardy people with swims. The climb was good till the hut which is a base for the '50 minute (one way)' summit climb. Due to time-restraints, only I raced to the top and back (in less than 60 minutes!).

The second was Te Aroha and its mineral spas. The weather precluded the chance of climbing Mount Te Aroha but it was a nice town to wander around and the YHA had a great kitchen which we should have taken better advantage of.

The third was Hamilton and its awesome gardens (I never throught a garden would be so interesting). It was also the site of my biggest memory slip up, leaving my razor, a tomato, a cucumber and some 'interesting' Te Aroha water. It could be worse, I almost left our umbrella behind at Kathmandu.

Then fourth was Cambridge with a gypsy fair and Blueberry French Toast. Berries of all kinds were plentiful between Cambridge and Hamilton and we scoffed strawberries, blueberries and some sour plums.

And finally through Te Awamutu to Mt Pirongia (south of Raglan), which we camped at for free before attempting a summit climb. The track could be said to be neverending. Starting at 9:06am, it was a gentle ascension but a long one. After almost 5 hours of boggy drudgery going up, and still being two peaks away from the highest peak, we called it a day so that we could descend safely. The peak we were on was only slightly shorter than the actual peak and the view would only get worse as the weather was foul for most of the day. We only got back to the car shortly before 7pm which meant that we were in motion for close to 10 hours. What was worse was that through another bit of Daniel magic I left the chocolate and pocket knife in the car for that time. So Pirongia lies in wait for me another day (and now that I know it better I can plan the execution better).

Particular joys were that the car was never stolen (something which we always expected), wandering amongst fields of lavender near Te Awamutu, doing amateur botany on the tracks (with insectivorous plants, fern pretenders) and entomology in our tent at night (the weevil that likes staying with Xin) and on the track (with the 'weevil flies', native ants and stick insects), mineral bathing in Te Aroha, swimming au naturel in the cool Kauaeranga River, a mouse circus in Cambridge, practising our Dutch, cooking the Blueberry French Toast, eating splendid meals in backpackers (when other people ate biscuits) and just spending time in a world out of the ordinary.

My only side-effect is a sore back which I am resting now, and a big clean-up job now.

Monday, January 03, 2005


In the past week or so, I have done a lot of hiking and mountain-climbing with my friend James. First of all, reclimbing Ben Lomond in Queenstown and then walking the 4-day Kepler Track (including Mt Luxmoore).

Now that most of my aches from it have gone, I can now say with surety, that it has done wonders for my fitness and I feel great right now.