Archive for May, 2011

The end is not quite nigh

I spend too much times reading about the end of the world, whether it be peak oil, population growth or nano machines turning the world to goo. This addictive habit of mine is supported by the fact that I have many equally pessimistic friends. After reading my friend Sean’s post on the end of society I have decided to turn over a new leaf. Here is an attempt to explain why the game is not over yet.

In spite of the many problems humanity faces in the world today, I think that there are two main reasons to hold back from coming to pessimistic conclusions.

1) People in developed economies stop breeding exponentially. Birthrates across the board in these countries are below replacement levels. Population growth is supported by people from predominantly agrarian societies. Current trends suggest that eventually all people in the world will become city dwelling knowledge workers. This only requires that we have technology to completely automate production, which is no stretch. This means that population growth will eventually stop, who knows when this will happen, perhaps too late to stop the damage, but my point is that the assumption of unmitigated population growth does not fit with the observed facts of human behavior.

2) Technology is difficult to predict, now more than ever. In previous eras technological development was so slow that an expert could foresee some of the coming innovations. Turing for example conceptualized machines that didn’t exist, and he foresaw many of their implications that are still being realized. In the current world we are experiencing technological innovation across many fields and many societies, creating synergies and crossover effects.

The only thing we could be certain of is that with current technology and current population growth rates we are doomed. As we have no evidence to suggest that either of these will remain stable, then we can not come to firm conclusions.

The future of our society hangs on whether our technological development is fast enough to mitigate the resource demands of the rest of the world playing catch up.

Being Owen Wilson

It is happening again.

Random people have started asking me if anyone has ever told me I look like Owen Wilson. It stopped for several years, but now that I am jobless again and feeling positive about the future, it has started all over again. Somehow my relaxed state of mind is correlated with people perceiving my inner Owen-ness.

It started five years ago when my friend Mark insisted on showing me graphic images of dead bodies he had acquired on some god-forsaken bulletin board. I didn’t want to look, but by the time I escaped I was already feeling faint. I tumbled forward onto the floor as I lost consciousness. When I woke, Mark was looking down at me, ‘are you ok man?’. At the time it was just a little bloody nose and a sore face. It wasn’t until later I realized the shape of my nose had been irrevocably changed, and with it I became the other Wilson twin.

So today I am sitting here thinking about Owen, wandering what his life is like, and how fate brought our noses together. He is a funny guy and I am not at all unhappy to be compared to him, although he occasionally picks some dud roles. I also wonder if one day he will get sick of having such a unique proboscis and get plastic surgery to correct that flat bit. On that day will people start saying to him, “Hey Owen, do you know that you look like that John Normal guy, before he fell on his face and started looking like you.”

Treacherous Shoes

Yesterday we hiked for two and a half hours along a small and treacherous trail to reach one of the unrestored sections of the great wall near XiZhaZi in JianKou. We arrived as the sun was on the verge of setting. The walk had taken longer than we expected so we were relived to arrive with light. We bought iced tea from one of the local old ladies that hiked up there every day and set up shop in an abandoned watch tower. Several Chinese university students were there as well preparing to camp the night. We hiked along the wall for almost an hour as dusk settled, turning to watch the sun disappear over the mountains behind us. We reached one of the highest watch tower ruins in the last of the light and layed out our mat and sleeping bags. We sat inside them and ate the boxes of strawberries we had lugged with us while staring at the lights of the towns in the valley below.

We slept on and off through the night. The wind grew in strength through the night and howled and shook the shrubby trees growing through the broken bricks. It was a little cold, not too cold for me but my girlfriend could only sleep after we joined the sleeping bags together and I could wrap myself around her.

In the morning I walked around the watchtower, peering out over the mountains and taking photos of my sleeping girlfriend. When she emerged from her cocoon we breakfasted on cold sausages and bread then packed up to continue walking. The next section of the wall was a very steep downward slope and the stones were all slippery. We were moving slowly and talking. My girlfriend was telling me about some of the tourists she had seen at the wall during her last visit. She was telling me about an Italian women who had walked the wall wearing enormous high heels, ‘like this’ she exclaimed. I turned to look, and in that moment I lost my footing. I began chasing my own center of gravity, trying to find my footing. I gathered speed and spun toward the wall. I reached out and grabbed the stone wall, but my own momentum tore me away. My girlfriend was screaming as I spun back toward the center of the path. Seeing a pile of gravel and a shrub approaching, I slid onto my side and grabbed the bush with one hand, bringing myself to a stop. I had ripped a great deal of skin off one of my hands, I stood up and examined the streams of red blood that were now dripping onto this ancient wall.

It all just confirmed an ancient piece of masculine folklore that I had somehow forgotten: when your girlfriend starts talking about shoes, don’t listen.

Dead fat things

Chinese is the first language I have encountered in which there is a colloquial expression that is both an insult and a term of endearment. The expression translates as “dead fat thing”, and although it is an unpleasant thing to call someone it is also commonly used by Chinese girls to refer to their boyfriends. This alternative use is restricted to to the ladies, the men are not allowed to use it in return. This is a remarkable achievement by the women of China.

For comparison consider the attempt by African American men to have the terms bitch and ho accepted as terms of endearment for their lady friends. One could say that within the limited scope of gangster rap stars, their female companions of low self esteem have accepted these terms. However, I believe that in general these terms have not found widespread acceptance.

Chinese women are obviously capable of considerable feats of social engineering. This is something I should be concerned about.

Meet the Parents

My girlfriend’s parents arrived from the south of China today. I am being forced to use my malformed Chinese continuously, which is great for my memory. Her father speaks the most slow and clear Chinese I have ever heard, so I am going to learn a great deal from him. He is a very relaxed and happy guy, so much so that he is already walking around the apartment in his underwear.

We just got back from the supermarket, where we bought supplies for the week so they can show me the traditional dishes from their region. At the checkout, her father beat me to the punch in getting his money out. So I had to wait until we were home to thrust a handful of cash into his palm. He then preceded to chase me around the apartment trying to give it back to me, thankfully he still had his pants on at this time.

Her mother is busy rearranging things in the kitchen. She is talking most of the time, I think she is complaining about our dismal array of utensils. I may soon be sent out on another shopping trip.

Sunday afternoon in the Tattoo Parlor

I just finished getting a new tattoo done in the local tattoo parlor. The design has been bouncing around in my head for the last three years and finally made it onto paper last year when I was in Croatia. The drawing has since been floating around in my computer bag so I finally went ahead and got inked. The tattoo studio is tiny and disheveled, there is a makeshift bed at the back where the owner or his employees sleep during their long shifts. After the first few minutes under the needle I passed out. I came slowly awake looking into the concerned face of my girlfriend who was proffering water for my consumption.

I have had a tendency in recent years to pass out whenever I have to give blood, the first few times it was a shock to come round slouched in my chair in front of a bemused doctor. Since then I simply tell people that if they take blood out of my I am likely to loose consciousness. It is really not something that comes up regularly.

I had not expected the tattoo needle to have the same affect. I went outside and rested for ten minutes, drank water and then jumped back in the chair. I am pleased to say I remained conscious for the rest of the process. During my inking, the studio was visited by an array of young guys who came to see the foreigner getting tattooed. They practiced their one or two sentences of English and found much mirth in my terrible Chinese. After finishing the outline of the design the owner took a break from inking me and handed the gun to his young apprentice, then he preceded to have his friend take photos of the two of us together. I sat there half undressed with the tattoo gun on my arm holding my fingers up in a V, like an Asian tourist in front of a European monument, and smiled for the camera.

Osama Follows Your Tweets

Even if you have been living under a rock with Osama Bin Laden you probably know that he is now dead. Apparently, one of his wives helped identify him as a priority target as the strike team that will not be acknowledged stormed through his secret compound. Sadly, Bin Laden lived his last days without access to the Internet, so if he was ignoring your friend request on Facebook it really wasn’t personal. It numbs the mind to think of all the LOL Cats and free music that he denied himself in order to avoid leaving a digital trail that would betray his location. Ironically, it was exactly the absence of Internet access that created enough suspicion to identify his hideaway. Had Bin Laden been kicking back surfing the web, he may have been able to avoid his premature expiry as his neighbor Sohaib Athar was merrily tweeting a complaint about the attack helicopters hovering over his secret compound. However, this would have only helped him if he had been explicitly following Athar’s tweets, or if Athar was using GPS based location mapping for his tweets. So while you are all complaining about Apple and Google grabbing too much of our data, just take a moment to think about that poor little terrorist, who kept us all entertained for the last decade, and how he might have at least gone out with a decent chase scene if he had just embraced the end of privacy.