Monday 16 January 2012

Penguins Are Jerks

I’ve always felt there was a certain nobility to nature.

Nature seems to have achieved the kind of balanced simplicity and harmony that as humans we are still searching for.

Art seems to agree.  In the early 20th century Picasso rose to fame by creating a painting style that mimicked the artefacts of tribal groups.  Even today some of the most expensive and sought-after works of art are the primal sculptures and paintings of ancient, tribal societies.

However, the more I study the natural world, the more it seems that this view of nature is not right.

I often hear things described in a negative light as ‘unnatural’.
War is unnatural.  Homosexuality is unnatural.  McDonalds is unnatural. Coating yourself in avocado is unnatural.
But what is natural?

I recently saw a nature documentary about some penguins.  I don’t want to offend any particular penguins so I’ll keep their identities secret.
Now these penguins would often lay two eggs, and feed and care for their two chicks.  Often one of the chicks will die from exposure to the cold, which leaves the parents with a single chick to care for. This is good because the parents can’t actually hunt enough fish to feed two chicks beyond infancy.
Sometimes, however, both chicks survive infancy, which means that one of them needs to be singled out to survive.
This is done in a very natural way.  The parent returns from hunting to its nest, but instead of approaching the chicks it runs away from them.  The two chicks (still covered in their downy fur) chase after the parent, pushing and shoving each other to be the first to get fed.  Eventually the weaker of the two falls over and the other one gets the food. 
The loser of the race will die of starvation.  But it won’t die right away.  It will continue to hang around the nest, ignored by the parents as it clamours more desperately for food, growing thinner and weaker while its sibling grows fatter and stronger.

To my human sensibilities the sight of this penguin slowly dying of starvation seems incredibly tragic and unjust, but this is what ‘natural’ looks like.

The penguins only have one goal; to pass on their genetic material.  They achieve this in the most logical way.  There is no interference of emotion, simply cold logic.

This is also what ‘balanced’ means.  For an eco system to be balanced, each organism must be constantly locked in a desperate struggle to get by.  It is balanced to live most of your life on the brink of starvation.

If the penguins all had enough food and safety from predators their population would grow until they covered the globe.  We’d have to swim through a sea of penguins to get to work each morning.

It is decidedly unnatural to have enough food and to feel safe.

Another example is lions.  The kings of the jungle.
Firstly I’m pretty sure there are no lions in jungles. Savannahs and deserts, but not jungles.

In any case, a pack of lions involves a group of females and one dominant male. The male impregnates all the females and they have cubs.  If the cubs are female they will stay with the group, and if they’re male they will eventually leave the group and wander alone until they’re big enough to challenge a dominant male.  If the newbie wins the battle they will become the new dominant male of the group.  The first thing they’ll do is to kill all the cubs that belonged to the previous male.  This causes the females to become ready to mate again, and ensures that the males own genetic material will be passed on.

This is natural.

In 1940 Adolf Hitler attempted to commit genocide on the Jewish people.  He wanted to create a world where a chosen set of genetic material ruled over the others.  What could be more natural?

It was decidedly unnatural for many countries of the world to unite against Hitler and put an end to his regime.

Some people say that there is no war in the animal kingdom, that war was invented by humans. This view lacks an understanding of the animal kingdom.  Most animals will fight each other over mating rights.  Carnivorous (and omnivorous) mammals will often fight each other to the death.  Just because animals lack the organization to fight full-scale battles doesn’t mean that the concept of war is unnatural.  The animal kingdom is constantly at war.  It is unnatural to be at peace.

It’s unnatural to find baby animals cute.  It’s unnatural to feel compassion.  It’s unnatural to place the needs of others above yourself. 
It’s unnatural to love other people, or to care for anyone who is not a direct descendant of your own genetic material. 

It seems to me like all the best parts of humanity are the unnatural ones.

A Gaff or Two on Death

People are a bit funny about death.

Jerry Seinfeld said that people don’t understand death, the proof being that we include a pillow in a coffin.

I love phrases like “I’m prepared for death.”
What happens if you don’t adequately prepare for death? Is there a danger of stuffing it up and accidentally coming back to life?
If you think about it, just before your death is the one moment in your life where you can do absolutely anything and it won’t matter in the slightest.

Fear of death is possibly the most important founding principal of religion, because we don’t know what happens when we die and we’d like some answers. 

But is that true?

I think we do know what happens when we die, we just like to pretend that we don’t.

I’ve been under the gas once, and it was a peculiar experience.  I was looking at the face of an anaesthetist, then one microsecond later I was looking at the hospital ceiling and soon realised that an hour had passed.

I think most people would agree that the reason I have no memory of the intervening period is that I was unconscious.  We all seem to be able to grasp the meaning of this word. 

So when we die, why can’t we become unconscious indefinitely?

When I was getting surgery I was not summoned to the gates of heaven to have a character assessment performed.  My consciousness simply did not exist.  I have no reason to expect anything else from being dead.

I think most rational people agree that when a person dies, their consciousness is extinguished. 
So why do we care so much about the dead body?

As soon as a corpse is involved people really start to lose objectivity.

Some people want to place the corpse in a box and leave the box a very short distance below the surface of the earth. 
Is that really going to help?
If I’m sad about coming to the end of a bag of chips, I don’t put the bag in a box and store it under my house.

TV constantly informs me that even this is not enough ceremony; we actually need to take out funeral insurance in order to afford adequate lodgings for our corpses.  The idea is that I pay these people a regular sum so that after I’m dead they’ll give a fraction of it back to me. 
I’ve heard a lot of dumb ideas, but that one really takes the cake.

Most people choose to burn the corpse, which makes sense, but then they start doing odd things with the ashes.  I can understand wanting a memento, but why does it have to be a hunk of dead flesh? I’ve met a lot of great people, but I’ve never felt the desire to posses burnt pieces of their dead bodies.

We want to remember our loved ones, absolutely.  I couldn’t agree more with this.  But if the most notable thing you ever did was to have your dead body burned and placed in a pot, then I’m afraid you’ve lived a disturbingly unremarkable life.
I remember people for their actions, their achievements, their company, their help and their love. None of those things have anything to do with their corpse.

A scab is quite like a dead body.  The organism of community continues after the dead skin of a person has passed on.  So do I take the scab, as a dead reminder for the living skin, and store it in a box?
Yes.  But everyone at school thought it was heaps gross, so I threw it out.

A dead body is waste matter, essential for life, but unfortunately no longer providing that life.  It is therefore very similar to a poop. Now I’m a sentimental arteest, but I draw the line at getting doe-eyed about poop.

The point of all this highly sacrilegious jocularity is that an individual should be remembered for the things that made them individual to you.  Remember what they did, not what their physical body was made out of.  And if you do want to remember their physical presence, use a photograph for Christ’s sake.

I don’t actually know anyone who keeps a person’s ashes in their house, but that seems to be a thing.  So instead of a cumbersome container of crispy corpse, perhaps we should explore some more useful alternatives. 

What about Grandpa’s old leg bones as cricket stumps?

Grandma’s skull could make a nice jewellery box.

If you know one of those old people who are constantly working on their tan, then you know where your next leather jacket could come from...

Come on people, if you can’t let go of their deceased bodies, at least get them working for you!

Wednesday 4 January 2012

My Grandfather was a Hungarian librarian.

When we visited his house I would sleep in a narrow room with large windows, lined with about one and a half thousand books.  These were mostly academic tomes of history, philosophy and poetry, and whilst I’m sure their contents had some value, there’s no way that any text could live up to the incredible, mysterious beauty of the spines.

While the strange titles, the colours and textures, the age and above all the smell, could claim to be alluring, these are all as nothing compared to the real reason that these books were so beautiful.

They were completely impenetrable.
No child could read any of those books; they had far too many pages filled with words with far too many letters.
It would take a grown-up to be able to read books like that.  A real man could crack open one of those books and receive all their mysterious secrets, but a boy would see only letters and words.

My father is not an academic, although many of his siblings are.  I think he found that behind the veil of scholarship there was a mistrust of the real world, so instead he became a great reader of novels.
I once watched in bewilderment as he read ‘The Two Towers’ in a single day. As far as I was concerned, this was the greatest feat of mental strength ever displayed by mortal man.

So for me, and many fortunate others, reading was not just a simple exchange of effort for entertainment, it was also a rite of passage.  Even before I could conceivably gain any understanding from the words I deciphered, the actual challenge of reading was reason enough to pursue it.
This made it easy, and I’ve been benefiting from that my entire life.

My mother taught me my letters when I was four.  I remember the alphabet being listed at the back of one of those books with the golden spines.  She would point to a letter and I would say what it was called.  One time she pointed to the letter R, and as I couldn’t remember the name I exclaimed ‘Argh’ in frustration, which turned out to be the answer.  I found this to be such an incredible coincidence that the entire scene was locked into my memory forever, and is now one of the few things I can actually recall from that age. 
It’s funny how we only recall the really unusual things that happened to us as children, but what we’re most interested in remembering is the everyday things.

So I learnt to read, and took it as a great point of pride.  I probably inched my way through ‘The Lord of the Rings’ at six or seven, but it might as well have been written in Ancient Babylonian for all I actually got out of it.

I was instructed to try reading the bible now and then, but I always found it to be an indecipherable pain in the ass.  If God was so smart why did he write in gibberish?

One day in grade 3, we were doing Silent Reading at our desks, and I had chanced upon some kind of abridged version of Robinson Crusoe that was completely enthralling.  I was just getting into it when I noticed that my name was being called. Silent Reading time had apparently finished; 30 students had gotten up, walked past me and sat down on the carpet and I had absolutely no knowledge of hearing or seeing anything. 
The dumbest part of this anecdote is that the teacher (Mrs Hamilton) was actually angry at me for not paying attention. I’d managed to connect so wholly with a text that I’d transcended my physical body, but this was apparently a sign of delinquency.

I went on to fall desperately in love with various books from time to time.  Occasionally I was distressed at how difficult I found it was to disentangle my mind from an engrossing tale.  One time I caught myself actually thinking in third person, which led me to believe that I would one day go insane.
However after seeing an ad on TV that claimed touching a soap dispenser would cause you to become unclean, I realised there’s no way I could become crazy enough to stand out from the general insanity of the world.

So what’s the point of this highly concise and phenomenally interesting narration?

Loving books is great.  It’s fun and it gives you smarts in the brain.
So how do you inspire a child to read?


I don’t remember being told to read, or told that I would do well to love reading. 
The people I looked up to loved books, so I loved books, and that’s been a real gift.

Moronic parents everywhere use the phrase “Do what I say, not what I do.”
This couldn’t be a more futile line. 
Kids learn by copying. There’s even a bunch of studies that prove this.

So if you have a child and want them to be a good person, or you think that society could use a few more good people, just be that person.