The fickle Earth

Beauty and the sound of artillery

The fickle Earth

We have just had a great holiday in Japan, during which we took a trip up to the lakes at the foot of Mount Fuji.

We were blessed with gorgeous weather so my wife got this great photo and several others but what the photos cannot tell you about Fuji is the noise. Every few minutes, the volcano or one of the spouts in the surrounding hills explodes. The effect is like being in the middle of an occasional artillery exchange. We humans inhabit a very thin mantle that floats precariously above a tortuously energetic sea of energy. Volcanoes are the holes in the mantle through which the energy that lurks below escapes.

It was a timely reminder of the power of the planet because on the night before we were due to return home, a magnitude 6.4 earthquake hit about twenty kilometres from our home city of Hualien. Seventeen people died and two large buildings tipped on their foundations and now lurch precariously at impossible angles. The fault that runs through the city moved and allowed some more of the earth’s energy to escape to the surface.

Most people who are reading this will never have felt an earthquake. If you could imagine living directly in the middle of a half dozen railway lines on which the heaviest freight trains were travelling at full speed, you would have a decent general idea.

In Hualien, it starts with a deep rumble. This rumble is not usually a feature of quakes in other parts of Taiwan. It frightens the life out of me because the rumble for a small earthquake is as loud as that for a large one, so the degree of dread before the shaking starts is the same for both. The house then begins to shake. This shaking is not the low amplitude rattle that accompanies passing rail traffic: the very building weaves dangerously on its foundations and the windows and doors shake as if a legion of invisible jackhammers is being applied to the walls.

We are no strangers to this experience as our city is right on top of a fault but the regular small quakes are usually fairly well dispersed. The dozens of aftershocks that we have been experiencing for the past week and a bit are the real torture. The term, ‘aftershock’, implies a comparatively benign idea of a baby tremor but aftershocks are proper earthquakes and when they come hourly, as they did in the first few days after the big quake, they wear the nerves like nothing else I know. The risk of a Tsunami is thankfully low here because Tsunamis travel along the bottom of the ocean and the east coast of Taiwan is protected by a coastal sheer wall that plummets two kilometres not far from the shore and acts as a mirror.

Scientists predict that the sea to the south of Japan is due an earthquake of magnitude nine or more. I really hope that we are safely back in Ireland by then.





New Year’s resolution: make the worst possible investment, repeat that genuine stupidity often and become wealthier than ever

At the dawn of the age of artificial intelligence (AI), 2018 s the year when we should be campaigning for more G.S. (genuine stupidity).

I have been running my own small business teaching local children and adults to speak English so that they can be understood easily for seven-and-a-bit years and I have been a father for slightly longer. I have found that the key to success in both ventures is simply to be genuinely stupid by investing in things that no sane financial advisor would countenance.

The world is currently ruled by businessmen who connive at corruption, chase money and make spectacularly successful investment decisions that are based solely on the bottom line. These are the sort of people who go to bookshops and read the last chapter to save themselves the expense of buying the book.

If you want to be genuinely stupid, you have to raise your eyes a little to the lines that are above the bottom line and look at the actual story, which is the reason for the book in the first place.

My family makes enough money to have a good life. In comparison to the majority of Taiwanese, our life is exceptionally good, although they probably would not see it that way. Our bottom line is not nearly as healthy as most of the middle and working class parents whose children we teach, but the other lines are definitely a more interesting read. They tell a story of value: not profit.

We know that parents rarely add up the financial cost of children because if they did, the world’s population would not be increasing at its current rate. Parents know how to read an emotional spread-sheet properly. The key to enjoying the read is to cover the final tally with a well-placed finger. Only then, does the story make sense. In the context of today’s values, finding a way to be happy means that parents must be genuinely stupid. Artificial intelligence could never be used to understand the logic that values experiences higher than it values returns.

My family’s bottom line is the amount that we have to save for our ambitions. The entries above the bottom line testify that we have a business that provides us with enough for our current needs and wants. The details of those entries of those entries make no financial sense. The amount of money that buys the full set of the How to train your Dragon” series of books for my son would also increase a stake in a hedge fund that might give a six-fold return over a decade in the wrong hands, but that money translates as an excuse to spend a half hour each night with my son curled up beside me on his bed listening to tales of impossible bravery that send him off to the land of nod with a smile, feeling that he can conquer the world. Seeing his smile when I go in to check on him later gives me a thrill that money just cannot buy.

In those same wrong hands, our business could make double the money that it does now, but we would not have the feeling that we are at the centre of a small community that puts children’s needs above those of adults for a couple of hours each week and produces young adults who are eloquent, fulfilled and, hopefully, as happy as it is possible to be.

I have known the majority of students who have passed through this school for more than four years and a large percentage have been coming here for six or seven years. We are a part of their lives and they are a part of ours. Some occasionally bake cookies for my wife and some dream of my imminent violent demise, but they all know that we love them and my wife knows that they love her. As the author of their educational enhancement, I am the subject of occasional grudging gratitude but gratitude does not matter because I get a lot more than I give. Measuring that difference is impossible if mathematics is the lingua franca, as it is for A.I. You have to use a G.S. language that values the things that cannot be counted using a calculator.

Most lives are only money pits if you measure the input and the output in terms of the input (money and effort). If you measure the input in terms of the output (joy and illogical fulfilment), the input becomes infinitesimally small and the mathematics of G.S begin to make sense.

As business owners, we are the curators of a community of a few hundred people who all seem to genuinely care about some of the same things that we do. As parents, we are at the hub of a system of goodwill and love that really is overwhelming at times.

You can take your artificial intelligence and stuff it where enlightenment, kindness, politeness and love do not shine. This year, I’ll be taking the Genuinely Stupid approach every time.



No Santa, no manger and no alcohol: just the spirit of Christmas in eight-eight keys

Eighty-eight keys to happiness

The spirit of Christmas is alive among Daoists, Buddhists and heathens in this part of the world.

Last Saturday we all went to my son’s piano teacher’s Christmas concert in a neighbour’s living room. The eight-eight keys of an unassuming upright piano were hammered or tickled by kids of various ages and abilities stumbling through carols that they had never heard until six weeks ago and which had no spiritual or cultural relevance to them, other than as a collection of notes on a stave that had to be delivered accurately on the black and whites. There was not an angel, a manger, a turkey, alcohol, or a magus in sight and the presents were modest and symbolic in a way that paid tribute to the occasion more than any grandiose gesture could and it felt more like the Christmas of my childhood than anything that I’ve experienced since reaching adulthood.

I’ve been letting this society get to me recently. For seven months, I had all but given up going out because I’ve reached the stage where just looking at the rudeness and aggression that is paraded on a daily basis makes my blood boil. For a few months when things were really bad, I stopped going out altogether. However, last Saturday I finally realised that the people whom we elevate to social positions that are worthy of our attention are not representative of the society in which we live, just as Christmas is no longer defined by the story of an infant in a manger for more than a few of us.

Our societies are contracting around us as the spaces in between those whom we admire for their courage, kindness and patience expand to accommodate the seemingly endless supply of aggression and bad manners. Long may we preserve the bubbles of decency and kindness and banish the circling, vulgar vultures whom we cannot ignore to rightful obscurity.

A small group of decent, ordinary Taiwanese people has shown me that common decency and a good time are still possible. The secret to sustainable happiness seems to be narrow your horizons occasionally. Kindness is everywhere. Seeing it is just a matter of developing selective myopia. I wear glasses to correct being long-sighted. My New Year’s resolution is to get a stronger prescription.


Believe in the fat man: believe in yourself

Believe in him: believe in yourself

As I get older, I become more inclined to believe in Santa, even as my son, who has just turned eight, begins to show the first signs of doubt in the fat man’s existence.

This will probably be the last year that we will be putting flour footprints under tree and the last year that we will see the abandoned glee that comes with Christmas morning. Christmas does not have the importance in Taiwan that it does for the western world so this year we will have to celebrate the feast on December 24th, because December 25th is a workday and a day off school means that my son has double homework the day after, which is enough to take the shine off any holiday.

I have been thinking recently about the origins of Christmas and what it gives adults. The best way to discover the effect of something is to discover the effect of its absence and so I accidentally find myself in the ideal environment to assess the benefits of Christmas because Christmas has little or no effect here.

The Christians hijacked the pagan feast that celebrated the winter solstice, when the days begin to lengthen. Nobody knows the exact birth date of Jesus but early recruitment campaigns for Christianity among the pagans ran into a significant problem because they had nothing to replace the abandoned romps with which the pagans marked the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice and the arrival of the fertile abundance of spring soon after the vernal equinox. The spring romp became Easter and the new life theme of the resurrection tale was nicely symbolised by pagan eggs. The solstice celebration became Christmas and mangers with snow beneath the old pagan lighted tree lent a Christian presence to the pagan symbol.

The Christmas nativity story provided a spectacularly apt means of symbolising the cusp of new life that is the midwinter solstice. The old customs of bringing nature into the home in the form of a tree and the use of lights to signify the beginning of the end of winter darkness were deemed to be harmless and were carried over unchanged. The romps remained and the stories that could be told as families huddled at firesides were even better.

Then, in 1931, from the depths of the American depression, Coca Cola gave us our modern image of Santa Claus as a fat man with a sack that was brimming with good cheer, sugary water and, more importantly, merchandise that symbolised the aspirations of a desperate nation that was mired in unmitigated penury. Santa represented ambition. A job meant money and money meant things that made life easier and along came this benevolent vision of a Santa who was fat, bearded and expensively swaddled in fur on a cold winter night: the very embodiment of the country’s wish for itself. The birth rate began to climb again and people began to drag themselves out of the doldrums of despair and put things back together because the future seemed brighter than the past.

If you look at the world, you’ll see that the effect of this comforting image is greater than you might think. In the nations whose children believe in Santa, the populations are rising and sustainable. In developed eastern Asia, where Santa and Christmas and the beginning of the end of darkness are not celebrated, life continues in the same rut and the populations are shrinking to the point where most societies will be under severe to critical financial stress within the next decade.

Making babies is the last truly free method of making adults happy and children are a source of happiness and fulfilment for their entire lives, so why are there significantly fewer Asian babies and fewer personal nativity tales? The reason is simply that there is no feeling that the future for children is better than the past so parents who decide to procreate usually stop after one child because money is the best way avoid misery and spreading money too thinly between many children gives significantly less bang per buck. Many Asian parents see no difference between their own unfulfilling childhoods and the options that are available to children in their societies, so they seem to have summarily decided not to inflict a similar pain on the next generation by not producing it.

Contrast this with the stable growth of European populations and the unprecedented migration of humanity who have followed a hypothetical star from Eastern to Western Europe in the past decade.

Belief in Santa is belief in yourself, in a brighter future for your society and in a world in which your values, whether materialistic or spiritual, have a chance of thriving.

Now where did I put the eight-year-old that I was forty-six years ago? I think that I’ll ask my son. He is the only one who knows where everything is in this house.


Fear the TImid Man: update

Despite my best efforts, I’m still only half way through this story on December 11th,  2017. I know the plot and I know all of my characters really well but I’m really enjoying the process of writing this one in a way that I have not experienced since I wrote my first novel. There is a real urge to get this one perfect before I let it go into the wild.

Bear with me. It won;t be long.

Happy Holidays

Sex at six

When I was six, my uncle ejaculated into my mouth while I was half-asleep in his house. It happened at least twice that I remember and probably more often. Children sleep so deeply that sometimes not even such a disturbing event wakes them. In the morning,

I vomited my Corn Flakes and milk over the table the next morning. This was interpreted as homesickness, believe it or not. In the white vomit, there were sticky globules whose exact consistency I remember to this day. Semen also has an unmistakable smell. It was mixed with the milk that I disgorged and I drank milk only reluctantly after that.

When I was fifteen, I became severely ill. No medical reason could be found for the illness, which caused me to lose 17kg of body weight in two weeks. I was delirious at night and began to wander in my sleep, screaming incomprehensibly. Children did not have nervous breakdowns in those days so such a thought would have been ludicrous, despite the fact that there was not a single medical abnormality to be found. After the episode, I told my mother that I no longer liked milk. I have never drunk milk since. She assumed that it was a side effect of whatever frightening illness I had just escaped and counted her blessings and mine.

My uncle had come from outside the family and was somewhat revered by many within it. My uncle and aunt had no children at that time and used to entertain me in their home at the weekends. This was viewed by my parents as a sort of training for when they had children of their own. It is not difficult to persuade a six-year-old to stay the night in a strange house. I was given a present of a toy car each time I agreed. To a six-year-old, the threat of the removal of a new toy is enough to ensure their silence and so I did not tell anyone what was happening. I had absolutely no doubt that I would not be believed.

Harvey Weinstein has been exposed. However, even after he had made out-of-court settlements with numerous women and the New York Times had published the famous article, Oliver Stone and others said that they would not denounce him until it had been proven in court that he had perpetrated the crimes of which he was accused. Even Harvey Weinstein could be heard referring to his entitlement to a second chance. After a half dozen out-of-court settlements, it would actually have been a seventh chance. Only when the evidence became overwhelming did Oliver Stone finally denounce Weinstein. His statement referred to overwhelming evidence. It was not the quality of the evidence or of those giving it that finally swayed him, but the sheer amount of it.

When faced with irrefutable evidence from a sting operation by the NYPD that involved a young model, the New York district attorney judged that there was no case to prosecute. Because the evidence came from a single individual, it lacked the weight of multiple testimonies, even though it was so obviously damning.

In this age of information, we have all fallen into the habit of disbelieving what we read or hear until it is corroborated multiple times and with sufficient consistency in terms of method and opportunity. If one person speaks up, we simply do not believe him or her.

This was the situation in which I found myself as a six-year-old. I was alone in a world of adults, one of whom was doing things to me that I could not comprehend. Adults became the group that I feared most of all, so I could not look to that group for help.

Sexual assault is a difficult situation to explain. The best that I can do is to compare it to the deposition of a filthy, indelible black mark on the soul. The victim whom nobody believes has nowhere to go but inside him- or her self, where the filthy black mark resides. They gradually assume possession of this foreign object and take it in as their own, for the simple reason that it will not leave. They provide a haven for filth that is not theirs, but is something that they have inherited.

The mark is indelible, as I have said. It never goes away. The best that any of us can do is to learn to live with it, get it out now and again and look at it and try to derive some meaning from it.

Nobody would have believed me if I had tried to speak forty-eight years ago. It does not matter now. What matters is that the next time you hear a single individual cry foul, try believing them first and not ignoring the cry as fake news.

I applaud all of the women who spoke out and the journalists with the New York Times, not only for their courage, but for their understanding of human nature. We do not believe the lone voice in the wilderness any longer. We need a chorus of voices. We do not even rate stories of individual personal harm when there are so many stories of genocide and human suffering on a colossal scale. We only have time for the big symphonies.

I am a part of another very large group of humans who can’t get together in one chorus because their stories concern many individual predators. They lack that resounding choral harmony that makes their stories palatable to the court of public opinion.

I am very happy that the women whom Harvey Weinstein abused have one song to sing because at least they are getting justice. At the same time, I also know that there are others who may not sing very well and who have no accompaniment. In this great Britain’s-Got-Talent competition for fairness, we do not even make it past the door of the regional trials.

The man who assaulted me is still alive and living a fine life of retirement by the sea. He has gone unpunished. When I thought about reporting the incident, a very nice, calm barrister who was a friend of a friend came to my home and spelt out the hurdles that we faced in gaining a conviction. The assault had taken place thirty years previously and a child’s memories are not always reliable. It would be my word against his so the Criminal Prosecution Service would probably not even entertain the case. There was even a chance that the man would take pre-emptive action and find a friendly member of the media who would expose me as a hysterical fanatic. He was not imagining these events and warning me. They were recounted as historical fact.

In the end, I decided not to take things any further. The single biggest problem with my case was that the evidence came from one person. If even one more victim had come forward, the case would have been a more likely prospect. I needed a harmony line for my song to make it palatable.

The person who ejaculated in my mouth and ruined some very important parts of my life for forty years has never been punished. He may even read this article and decide to sue me for libel. Frankly, I could not care less. I am no longer afraid. I am still a weirdo, but I am not a frightened weirdo. If he took me to court, others might find a voice and then we would have a choir to which people would finally listen. I am sure that there are others out there who have the same song to sing. The evidence of the Weinstein case shows that this sort of animal is a recidivist.

Isn’t it about time that decent people started believing each other as a first option?




Northern Heat

Rain is a gift. It washes the land of dust and grime and it permeates the soil to feed the plants that feed us: well, most of the time it is.

The small city on the east coast of Taiwan where I live has just had 900mm of rain in three days, after one of the longest dry spells in history and after the longest prolonged period with temperatures in excess of 34 degrees since records began. You might think that rain after such a long drought would be welcome. You’d be wrong.

The average annual rainfall for the city, which is approximately 60km north of the Tropic of Cancer, is 2000mm. We had almost half our annual rainfall in three days. When rain falls as it did over the past weekend, it does much more harm than good. Many people have never experienced tropical rainstorms so if you need a reference, think about walking through a waterfall and you’ll have a rough idea. To give you an idea of the amount of rainfall that we had, the average annual UK rainfall is about 800mm and the wettest cities in North America get an annual rainfall of about 1100mm, so in three days we had the amount of rain that most of you see in a year.

You might think that the farmers would love it. You’d be wrong. Rain that is this heavy destroys crops and washes millions of tonnes of soil into the rivers and off to the sea. That is soil that cannot be used to grow crops in the future. The most vital farming real estate literally floats away. It also rushes straight to the rivers and down to the sea. Unlike rain that falls in more manageable amounts and which is stopped before it reaches a river or the sea and sinks to replenish the water table, the rain that we have just experienced creates rapid torrents that rush straight off the top of the land and leave the water table unaffected. The water table, which is falling annually, is not replenished, so next year’s crops will have less water than this year’s.

If the farmers don’t love it then surely the authorities must be glad that the reservoirs are full again. I’m afraid not. The water that fills the reservoirs is full of debris because of the destructive power of such a large body of water moving at high speed across the surface of the land brings dirt that clogs filters and larger pieces of agricultural detritus that smash them, so the repair bill is astronomical. The only solution is to remove the filters for a while and allow the filthy water to flow into the water supply.

Ten years ago, when I first came to Taiwan, there were one or two big storms a year and a rainy season, during which the water table was maintained at a fairly constant level. Most of the rain fell outside the times of storm and although the showers were extremely heavy, rain fell in manageably small amounts and a high percentage of the groundwater was retained by the land. In the recent past, more of the rainfall has occurred in short bursts that destroy more than they feed, so it is wasted rain. The steady supplies of rain that feed the land have not been seen for many years.

Water is not always the gift that it seems. Vietnam, Laos and southern China are experiencing similar problems with rain that is useless, so the price of vegetables is rising. Instead of a steady supply of rain in the early summer and fairly regular downpours throughout the hot months, when the crops need it, the typhoons are coming later because the seas are hotter and the rain falls at a time when many of the fields are fallow.

There are still sceptics who do not believe in global warming. One of them is the president of the United States. A factor that most of these sceptics share is that they live at latitudes that are far from the Equator. The greatest effects of heating are naturally first felt in the areas of the earth that are hottest. The more extreme effects of climate change are now being regularly felt in Northern California and Portugal, which are at latitudes of about 38°N. By my calculations, the most extreme effects of climate change in the Northern Hemisphere are moving northward at about a degree of latitude per year, so northern Europe has about another 12 years of grace.

Many people tell me that we are mad to think about returning to Ireland, which is at 54°N, and has weather that still produces natives who have a strangely pale blue complexion. We are not mad. We are just doing what most humans do naturally in that we are gravitating towards heat. One subtle difference in our strategy is that while we still can, we are moving a full thirty degrees of latitude northward to swap searing heat that creates chaos that is beyond any human control for heat that is still manageable and a climate that is still bearable, although imperfect in other respects. I have come to the conclusion that the reason why the sceptics so obstinately refuse to believe what is right before their eyes is that it is not before their eyes: It is all happening ten to thirty degrees south of them.

Go north young man.