Monday, July 31, 2006

Some Thoughts...

Spoilt For Choice (Part 1)
Compared to cavemen we live like gods

I do not hate progress, only its nature
Which makes all roofs and faces look the same
…Does sameness not revolt your being,
My Daughter? – Wole Soyinka, The Lion and the Jewel

In our era, we’ve moved from telegrams to text messages in less than 10 years. We’ve gone from walking, or riding horses, to propelling ourselves in the sky, even into space in about 100. We’ve built cities and suburbia (a modern invention) and endless ribbons and roads to connect them. We’ve added all sorts of products to our lives – like t-shirts, remote controls, cane sugar, cereal and chocolate, and condoms – that we can’t imagine never being there to begin with. We may take these developments for granted, after all, they were initiated before we were born, but in fact the modern era really is a very new development.

There was a time when men, much like us, walked the earth, and there were no roads, or towns or even houses. No one had even conjured up the idea of making a home, and a town was an impossibly sophisticated concept to invent without first being able to craft, defend, and own a home. That was because they spent all their time trying to survive, trying to stay alive, trying to outwit other groups whilst somehow feeding themselves. If you watch Survivor you can appreciate just how daunting, and exhausting, these simple processes become when you have no previous infrastructure to rely on – like we do. Just finding food in the caveman era, is a fulltime job, especially if you’re operating outside the economic concept of accumulating and storing (and possibly selling) surpluses.

If we remember that cavemen like Homo Augusta didn’t develop anything new in a million years (literally, and that means not a single new development in more than a hundred thousand lifetimes at least), we’ve done plenty in just 2 or 3 lifetimes. Of course, we relied on the gradual laying down on various infrastructures (technological, social, cognitive etc) by those who preceded us. Now we are accelerating in our inventiveness, and we will need all our skill and all our fortitude to deal with the multifarious future challenges facing us. For one, we’ll have to invent new, sustainable and much better ways of producing energy.

I am not suggesting we spend all our time in the past. Cowards do that, especially when faced with a difficult road ahead. But the pace that’s taking us forward needs to be appreciated for what it is, and we will have to downscale and downsize how we live. That will happen by choice or by force. To do so by choice means knowing and choosing the best living arrangements and systems from the past, like walkable communities, a cultural mindset devoid of irony and emphasis on a sense of community.

We’ll also need to put an end to the scourge of the modern era – mass producing humanity (and its accoutrements) in a world without meaning. It’s in the anonymity of our markets, of the masses of things, and of suburban sprawl, that we’ve gotten ourselves lost. A search for meaning begins with a search for why it’s no longer there.

Spoilt For Choice (Part 2)
Compared to cavemen we live like gods

There’s plenty of sameness in society, thanks to mass production. To truly appreciate this concept, try living in Korea, where it’s easy to get lost in that sameness. Unlike South Africa, there is too little land on Korea’s tiny, mountainous peninsula for houses, so people live in standard apartment buildings. There are hundreds of thousands of them, and an apartment building in Busan (in the South) looks exactly like one in Seoul, or in a satellite of Seoul like Ilsan (where I lived). From far away these identical structures resemble a giant (and grotesque) wedding cake of human habitation.

Korea is a particularly homogenized country. Not only does almost everyone look similar (dark eyes, similar height and complexion, same tear jerked eyes), but everyone eats the same (spicy) food, drives the same cars (almost always Korean, and only the classic colors) and all of them are most comfortable clicking away on a computer, all day, every day.

While Korea is an unusually homogenized community, just because we in South Africa drive red, yellow or blue cars (made by every manufacturer from Ford to Fiat) and like outdoor pursuits more than computer games, it doesn’t mean we aren’t following similar prescriptions of materialism and consumption ourselves.

If you have internet access, the chances are you also own a cellphone. So does everyone else who has the means to connect. Advertisements (and the media) tend to steer the masses into adopting ‘same’ behaviour. But despite mass production, despite the massive quantities of standardized goods, the average person (and really, we’re thinking about people in the 1st World or Developing World) is really spoilt for choice.

Over a period of months it is common to have sophisticated machines, services and products updated and improved on a regular basis. It’s actually unprecedented in human history, this pace of innovation. We forget that innovation is a new concept. Today we – the average citizen – have our own personal transports (we call them ‘automobiles’ or ‘cars’) like the popular Japanese made Tazz which is soon to be replayed by the smaller, even more fuel efficient Aygo). That’s a radical new development.

Cell phones now fit the dimensions of business cards, and notebook computers really are as lightweight and slim as the name suggests. Every week new products and gadgets appear on shelves or in the pages of magazines. And when it comes to food, just imagine what a caveman would make of Pick ‘n Pay. All that meat, all the varieties of yoghurt and produce and row upon row of something-to-eat from faraway lands and seas. A Bushman would probably be overwhelmed, trying to imagine how a small bunch of hunters possibly could scour a desert and come up with such a treasure?

Not so long ago, tradition was de rigueur, not innovation. Entire generations came and went where survival depended on not changing things, like the blades of plough-shares, the techniques of planting ordinary crops. To experiment meant that one was gambling with one’s survival. Markets didn’t really exist, and if they did they sold ordinary staples like grain, fabrics tended to be limited to materials like leather, and combinations of consumables like eggs, milk and meat, were exchanged for some other combination of these goods, and not much besides. This went on for hundreds of years.

Another modern era invention is the idea and massive application of democracy and human rights, private ownership for ordinary citizens, and profit. Here one person can own his or her own house, own car, plus a fantastic array of other things. And herein lies the rub. Each person owns a fantastic amount of stuff. Yes we can argue that the average standard of living for the haves is pretty good, and that our life spans are going to take us beyond the 100 year mark. There’s also sexual liberation now, meaning we have the technology (and the culture) allowing us to have a bunch of sexual partners until we find someone who really suits us (or something else happens). Long ago you pretty much had one or two chances at getting it right, and both were pretty much within the mainframe of marriage.

It’s all good, except that it isn’t. Education seems to be, on average, becoming a circus of disrespect. There are incredible levels of crime (in some societies), but generally there isn’t a sense of valuing human life, and even less value for the lives of animals (where industry has developed the industrialization of death into an unpleasant artform). Many citizens, even with all their accoutrements, are spoiled and unhappy, stressed and depressed, alienated and often lonely. I think it’s because we’ve become obsessed with things, not people, slaves to consumption, instead of supportive and neighborly to each other. In short, because we attach ourselves to things instead of developing complete relationships with a number of people.

We live in a world where we’re constantly running out of time. We forget that participation in the world (the way we think it works) is not compulsory. We can choose our responses to those things that are incompatible with a conscious attitude to living and thriving in the 21st century. Just because the media (or culture) proclaims something as fact or fashion does not mean it is worth subscribing to.

One way to appreciate our toys and the kaleidoscope of shopping available now is to spend time in nature, especially pristine or extreme natural environments, like a forest or a desert or a lonely mountain top. Get your water from a stream, your heat from a fire, your food from the surroundings. Pretty soon the simplest thing in the world (a tap with running water, a light switch, a toilet) reveals itself as sheer luxury.

We ought to step away from our habitualised existence as often as we can, and find moments to find ourselves. After participating in Survivor, many of the contestants, although busy with basic technologies, confessed to feeling ‘alive’, connecting deeply with themselves and with nature and enjoying the experience. While a few steps backward on the Progress Road don’t mean we all have to live like cavemen, a more simple life may be a lifestyle that we’ll enjoy a lot more than those that currently occupy our time.

As it turns out, all these things – based around consumption – are fun, but they are not essential to the human spirit. We are. We’re spoilt for choice both in terms of our access to fellow human beings, and things. In the future we’ll need to focus more of our attention on the former, rather than the latter, as we are so prone to doing.

The Marriage Myth

My girlfriend and I recently watched Pride and Prejudice together. In summary, it’s about 5 daughters trying to find husbands. Much of the movie focuses on ardent Elizabeth’s travails, and it ends – I hope I am not giving too much away – with Elizabeth’s father tearfully giving his blessing to a daughter he obviously loves very much. And then the movie ends.

My girlfriend looked at me as the screen went black and the credits started to roll. “What? No wedding?” she complained. “She would have looked so beautiful in a wedding dress.” “Yes, but you see marriage, starting with the wedding, is the end of your life, and the beginning of misery. The happy part is what the movie is about.”

She accused me, naturally, of being anti-marriage, and then softened her position by saying: “It’s not your fault you’ve seen so many bad marriages in your life.” Yes I have. And no, I’ve never been married. But I am 34 years old and people around me are getting restless. One of my best friends has been married and divorced, and he has two souvenirs from that adventure, one is nine years old. All my best friends are married, and I’m usually surprised to find people I knew at school, or university, who are my age, that have never been married. I’m surprised because everyone seemed in such a rush to get married. I remember when a university friend of mine got married, Alex, his wife’s brother and sister both got married within months of each other. The same with my younger cousin and older cousin. There seems to be a sort of sibling competitiveness going on out there, which I think is a bit juvenile.

On the other hand, there may be something to it. After all, my brother who is 36 (and has a house and a Mercedes Benz), is not married, and my sister, who is 29, and stunning, is also in a relationship (she always has a boyfriend) but nowhere near ready (she says) to tie herself into knots. My father has said to me on more than one occasion, “I want grandchildren now. Get on with it.” A few years ago he liked my girlfriend-of-the-time so much he promised, if we got married, to give us a house. My girlfriend loved the idea (and still calls my father on his birthday), but I didn’t want to live in my father’s house, and anyway, I was much too raw and inexperienced in the world to even think about marriage. That girlfriend quickly jumped ship and is now married – without a degree – to a moneyed character who also takes care of her mother. I can’t help being grateful to have escaped that one – I just see these words in blinking red neon: Gold Digger Alert.

Don’t get me wrong. I like the idea of marriage. I like the framework where you can invest yourself into a partnership, and I think a life of loving and sharing, committing to something, believing in someone (and yourself) is a lot better than just selfish indulgence and accumulation of things. But who said we have to be married in order to share and commit?

I’m not sure that marriage isn’t just another very long, and very serious relationship, often with the added attribute (some would say bonus, others would say nuisance) of children. Given divorce statistics, and the pace at which things change in society today, as well as the demands of work, it’s hard to imagine a substrate that marriage can really grow on for an extended length of time. You have to change jobs, find a new direction, adapt, and your partner too, and I think this often happens in very different directions. You also change as a person, and with so many changes going on, in so many different areas, it’s the marriage mainframe, inevitably, that has to be bent or broken into a shape that fits. And if that doesn’t happen, one or both individuals in the marriage begin/s to unravel and then the suffering really sets in.

I think marriage can work, but then a great deal of society’s mainframe has to be blocked out. For example, the media, that presents us with scenario after scenario of adultery or simply of the temptress. We’re obsessed with our appearance, and being sexy is a priority often above all others.

If 50% of couples divorce in South Africa, I’m not sure that the remainder of married couples are really success stories. I’ve seen marriages in London, Singapore and Seoul that made as little sense as the marriages I was privy to in Cape Town and Johannesburg. I think they are composed largely out of people hanging on, resisting reality, trying to please their parents but basically living a lie and slowly wasting away in silent desperation. What else can you say about being in a position you’ve dreamed about for some years, finally being in it, and then finding oneself bored, fenced in and disappointed.

Marriage may not be for everyone, but for others it may be exactly what the doctor ordered. I had a girlfriend who, at the age of 19, wanted to get married. I didn’t think she was serious. I thought it was a nuclear crush or something, but she is married now, and I realize that she really did need the emotional and financial security that a marriage provides. Her life with her mother had being horrific and unstable – living in one (of her mother’s) boyfriend’s home after another, as a young girl. Having to pack up and uproot every time her mother broke up with another boyfriend – that’s got to be a pretty lousy childhood.

Having taught a few hundred children, I am the last person to want to add more kids to my already noisy and busy circumstances. I’m fond of children, one on one, or in a small group. But having kids is a big deal. Once they’re there they’re there for life, so you’d better be sure you’re ready. Be sure you’ve pretty much finished with all the important things in your life, because whatever’s left is going to be put on hold indefinitely. No more movies when you want to, no more going out for a run or training for the Argus when the idea grabs you. Of course, with the co-operation and understanding of your spouse, you can still pursue some of the things you want to do, but you’ll never be as free as you are now, to do the things you want to do, again.

Marriage does teach us how to sacrifice for others, and in a selfish society, that’s a valuable lesson to learn. Marriage, or at least being in a relationship, is good for us. They’ve proved that single men don’t live as long as men in relationships. Ironically, I believe that. Of course, a single man can also be a man who is divorced with three kids.

The sexual impulse overrides sanity and logical thought. It’s clear that sex is what makes marriage seem like a nice, romantic fairy tale. Sex blinds us to the simple reality that marriage is: living with one person for 30 or 40 years, and doing things for others, for the rest of your life. The Christian tradition of only allowing sex in marriage makes this even worse, because the person is getting married so that they can have sex as soon (and as often as possible). Of course, after a few months (years if you’re lucky), sex, the subconscious driving force behind getting married, falls away completely. Getting married just to have sex is a tragic death sentence you unleash upon yourself.

Mark these words when you decide to get married, and if you are already married, hats off to you.

Oil Predictions
What the corporate big shots are saying

In December a litre of petrol cost around R5. 8 months later, we’ll be paying R7 a litre. Where will we be by the end of the year?

On New years day this year I remember reading – with disbelief – that experts (people who called themselves bankers, or economists, and who are generally respected for their insights) were predicting oil prices to average around $50 a barrel this year. They maintained this delusion until April/May, and even for some time after oil prices first broached the $70 level. Does anyone know when last oil was in $60-something territory? It’s been more than a few weeks now, and it’s fair to say it’s heading north, to $80.

Right now we’re at $75.01, and we’re looking at another petrol price hike next week. I called a friend of mine, who works at Standard Bank (in the Merchant Division). He organizes finance and sets up deals between the big blue chips – most recently, companies like Sasol. I asked him, since future projections of oil prices form an important backdrop to these deals, what the industry insiders (some would say experts) were predicting. He said the feeling was that $100 was certainly possible over the short term, but that over the longer term (1-2 years) they saw oil slipping back to $50. Say what?

I asked him to substantiate the reasoning they were using, but I am under the impression they are playing with numbers, rather than astutely aware of a bottom-line in-the-desert-and-the-dust paradigm, an unshakable real-framework when dealing with oil prices.

Here’s reality: We’re in a new era. Things are different now. Two decades ago we were still in an era of Discovery. We could boost capacity when things got comfortable, because we had some West-controlled oil fields like Prudhoe, and the North Sea, and the Saudi fields were in good nick. Today we’re in an era of Depletion, meaning, as supply gets tighter, all we can do is pump faster. Unfortunately we’ve reached a stage now where we’re pretty efficient, and demand is starting to outpace our efforts at being both efficient producers and efficient consumers (if ‘efficient consumer’ makes sense).

Thus the overriding paradigm is that you have tightening supply, and demand inflation, which is simply a situation of consumers demanding more goods than what is being produced. And abracadabra, prices will increase.

And they are. There are a few headlines wailing: ‘Now for the big squeeze’ and ‘Markets stunned by 7.5% surge in factory gate prices’. There are also experts like Jim Rogers who are now openly stating the obvious: Without a major new oil discovery, prices are going to shoot upwards, and everyone (‘including me’, he confides) is going to be shocked. Merrill Lynch, for example, continue – I don’t know why – to pontificate, seeing $60 for the foreseeable future.

At the moment we have some serious things going on. We’ve got a disaster in Iraq – the country is nowhere near the production it was at Prewar, and is unlikely to come anywhere near those levels for months or years. We’ve also got a widening crisis in the Middle East, which threatens to suck in the world’s second largest supplier – Iran. And while all this is happening, China’s economy is galloping at almost 11%.

While my friend at Standard Bank suggested – even without a major discovery – that we’ll see prices somehow fall asleep at a $50 level (he’s even suggested $45) the above processes are continuing unabated. $45 would certainly be possible if 10% of the world stopped consuming at the rate they are consuming (but downscaling will happen whether we choose to or not in the future), if Israel and their enemies had a 1 year anniversary of being Forever Friends and if Hurricanes basically hovered in the same spot for days on end. It’s more likely that the Boks will beat New Zealand, cows will jump over the moon, and pigs will take flight.

So since higher – that’s much higher – oil prices are guaranteed in the near future (alarm bells aren’t ringing yet, but they will be), what are the implications?
In a word, inflation. Inflation hurts creditors, so expect banks to backfire with higher interest rates (and that’s going to hurt everyone: credit card holders, anyone in debt).
Holders of fixed assets like property can usually expect the value of these assets to increase (as inflation increases).

I believe we are moving towards a condition known as galloping inflation. Prices are going to increase too rapidly over a short period of time. Nobody expects this to happen. It’s known as a ‘hard landing’, but I prefer to call a spade a spade: it’s a crash. In a crash, people lose their jobs in the millions, and soon no one has any money. There’s a lot of panic selling, including cars and homes. Under those conditions, things that we thought had a lot of value (like a house, or a car), suddenly have a lot less value. Everyone is selling because the middle class is taking a hit. I don’t believe this is a ‘negative’ or pessimistic’ view. I honestly see a number of signals supporting this view (and I am not the only one) and I sincerely hope I’ve miscalculated.

The only class to come out of this mess more or less intact will not be the rich, but the super rich. They can pick up these properties at bargain sale after bargain sale, by dipping into their vast fortunes and expanding their empires. That’s not to say the super rich have orchestrated a crash – over the very long term I doubt whether depletion is in anyone’s interest. Perhaps major landowners who have the relics of feudalism hanging on their walls (spears, shields, coats of arms etc) might come into their own again.

While the opinion expressed in the above paragraph might seem overly imaginative, I do suggest people start to think, and use their own imaginations. Things are happening in the world now that are not normal. We are way beyond normal, and the crazy thing is, nobody seems to be picking up these signals. Oh and one more thing, I received an sms yesterday from my friend, the banker. Here’s the exact quote:

“I am busy changing my mind, thinking that the price is actually only going up from here.”

When oil does reach $100, we’ll pay about R1 extra per litre for petrol at current exchange rates.

Music Review: Katie Melua_Piece by Piece

This is the first music CD I’ve bought in about 2 years. To be honest, I only bought it for the song (number 2 on the CD), Nine Million Bicycles. I’m sorry I did. Don’t get me wrong, I love the song, but having bought the CD, I can’t help thinking it’s the brilliant music video that has catapulted Melea into popular consciousness. The Nine Million Bicycles music video is excellent, but on its own, the song is good, but not brilliant.

I discovered this only after buying the CD and listening to the song ten times without the benefit of moving pictures. It’s still is a great song. There is something very connected-to-the-world and beautiful about Nine Million Bicycles. Here’s a peek into some of the lyrics:

‘There are nine million
bicycles in Beijing.
That’s a fact,
It’s a thing we can’t deny
Like the fact that
I will love you ‘til I die.’

The best part of the song is the very first line, but the rest is also witty and touching. I have a feeling 4 years in Asia has made me into a soft target for anything with a hint of the Orient in it (in this song it is the word ‘Beijing’, and faint Eastern ting-a-ling sounds). I love the way Melua coos the word ‘Beijing’. Chinese is a language that even when spoken, sounds like soft birdsong. ‘Hello’ is ‘Knee How’, and when you listen to Chinese people talking, there are no sharp edges to their language. I should know, I had a Chinese girlfriend in Singapore who spoke Mandarin and Cantonese. She even spoke English – with a British and faint Chinese accent – better than me.

I was surprised at how beautiful and subtle the Chinese language is – on a par with English as a level 5 (that means very complicated, very difficult to learn and understand) language.
I’m sure as China grows in its influence we’re going to see more of everything Chinese, from actors to music to everything else.

S.H.E is a Taiwanese band that combines English with Chinese lyrics. When Asia becomes cool, this sort of thing is going to be everywhere, and it’s going to be big.

You’re probably wondering why I am writing about a Chinese girlfriend, another band called S.H.E. and the complexities of language in a music review about Katie Melua. Well, the reason is there isn’t an awful lot to say about this album.

I’m sorry but I found it pretty disappointing. I’m not a jazz buff. I like Sting, but I find a lot of the other songs on her album tedious listening. It still hasn’t grown on me. Just Like Heaven (number 10) is also quite nice, but my advice is to buy the download ( or and get just the piece you want.


Daniel said...

Nice entry, HOWEVER. I have referred your blog to many colleagues, asian and non-asian. When you say that all Koreans look "similar (dark eyes, similar height and complexion, same tear jerked eyes)" don't you think that is an extremely subjective point of view? It's been argued in higher courts that a causian cannot accurately identify a person of asian origin (and vice versa) due to 'lack of exposure' to the others external features. To speak of a nation as all looking similar, wow, I guess they don't have much to live for compared to the superior exterior of the white man. Please correct me if I am wrong. I apologise if I misinterpreted the actual meaning. This was actually discussed and mentioned at work by an asian who read your blog. I have Korean, Japanese, Chinese and Taiwanese students combined and there is a difference, believe it or not. Take care. I enjoyed reading the rest of the blog.

Nick said...

I think similar is adequate. It doesn't mean 'the same', obviously. and i often encountered Koreans, after I was in Korea for nsome years who reminded me of Westerners back home.

In broad strokes though it's fair to say, compared to multicultural communities that most people are used to, or even compared to virtually all other nations, the Koreans are extremely homogeneous, and I dare to say, the most homogenous of all, due to their insular way of living prior to 1950. It's a sometimes charming reality, because you can appreciate a culture here that has stood apart from the world.

I think it's a scientific fact, but my own experience is that the Koreans do resemble one another very closely. I know what Philippinos look like, and appreciate that the Chinese and Japanese don't resemble either each other or Koreans. Korean women, for example, seem to (me) prettier than Japanese women, and Chinese appear to have flatter noses than the Koreans. There are also slight variations in the shapes of their eyes, but I'm no expert in that category. I know my Chinese girlfriend had narrower eyes than many of the Koreans I encountered.

Generally though, eye color, hair color and skin color is very similar (from the point of view of a westerner, obviously)in Korea, whereas in western communities these features are very different. You could argue that eye color varies inter-Asian - yes it does, but there's a world of difference between dark brown and very dark brown, and the range from blue, to green to brown, and with hair, white to yellow, to strawberry, to brown to black. So it's in contrasting the two that I think it's fair to say that they appear - to us at least (if not to them) - very similar in appearance, are genetically very similar. I'm sure if you had to undertake blood tests, you'd find the same result, but I'm not sure why you would want to.

Being different or the same should not make a westerner or an asian feel superior - it's just a difference in composition. Both has its advantages and disadvantages, and in a community of sameness, I'm sure its easier to feel included, and part of something, than if you look different to everyone else around you and risk becoming alienated or simply feeling different because you look different. In our society there's some bias against redheads or people with freckly skin, and for some, they prefer blonde women over brunettes. Koreans, lucky for them, don't need to suffer these sillinesses.