There is something irresistible about lists, maybe because they make the world look more orderly and manageable. If there are only 20 Best English Novels of All Time perhaps one can become fully literate in a year. Or two. If there are only Seven Habits one needs to be a Highly Effective Person, perhaps one can knock those off at the rate of one a year if one puts one’s mind to it. And who could resist the 100 Things You Really Don’t Have To Do, Ever?
But today’s hot list orders the world in an entirely different way. In what has become an annual event Forbes has ranked the 72 most powerful people in the world, and the Pope has come up one to fourth place (Benedict was in fifth place last year). It’s basically about numbers: Pope Francis is the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics. But it is also about his relaxed and engaging personality – illustrated by the little boy who made himself so at home with the Pope as he presided over a Family Day in St Peter’s Square this week. Forbes says Francis has “breathed new energy” into the Catholic Church. And of course, there’s the ultimate vote of confidence -- 10 million followers on Twitter.
The militant atheists must be spitting tacks. The Pope is popular, and respected, not because he has much in the way of worldly power (the Vatican’s is usually a lonely voice at UN meetings), thank goodness, but because he is the living proof that a really spiritual man is also a very attractive human being and a magnet for the spiritual yearning that lies in every human heart. Hopefully, other world leaders can learn something from him.
Mr Xi Jinping, for example. The general secretary of the Communist Party of China, who is No 3 on Forbes list, presides over a totalitarian system which, despite the appearance now and then of loosening up, shows its true colours regularly in what human rights activist Chen Guangcheng calls “barabaric means” to restrict the freedom of its own citizens. Among our articles today you will find the text of a lecture given by Mr Chen at Princeton University recently which is an earnest plea for the US and other democratic nations to take real practical steps to bring human rights abuses in China to an end. I recommend it. We cannot just keep trading with and borrowing from China and ignore the fact that there is no real freedom there.
Before signing off I want to pass on a message from Sheila Liaugminas. If you are missing her posts it is because her father passed away last weekend in Ohio, where she has been this past week. Sheila also has a speaking engagement that can’t be put off, but she can tell you about it all herself next week. Those of you who are friends on Facebook will have seen her post there. Keeping you in mind, Sheila…
Recently in this space I was showcasing my erudition with the word suprepreantepenultimate. This week’s word is prohebdomadation, which means putting off until next week. Procrastination (from cras, the Latin word for tomorrow) doesn’t exactly capture the strength of some people’s ability to defer work, tax returns and gardening. Prohebdomadation (from hebdomas, a Latin word for week) denotes a more ample and determined approach to deferred responsibilities.
I should know, because I just made the word up to describe the state of my Gmail Inbox -- amongst other things. The last time I looked, there were 97, no, 98 unanswered emails. Those are just the ones which Google sternly marks “urgent and unread”. The count seems to be growing, as last week there were only about 80. In the “everything else” category are 54,769 unread emails.
One of the things which I have prohebdomadated for, um, three years, is our Facebook page. Facebook and Twitter are terrific communication tools but they need diligence and constancy to succeed. Last week, however, I attended an excellent workshop in Melbourne on social media and we hope to be rolling out our strategy over the next couple of months. I hope that this won’t be like World Procrastination Day, which was celebrated on September 6, but I put it off and then missed it entirely.
We are still revising our newsletter. Perhaps I could highlight one of the many stories below, a moving defence of unborn children with anencephaly by Dr Peter Saunders, who writes from London. These children are born with only a brain stem and have a life expectancy of a few hours, if that. But do they still deserve to be treated as members of the human family? He says Yes, most emphatically.
This afternoon, as I published Michael Cook’s cool interview with Mike Aquilina on the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan, I was confronted with a technical problem. Actually, that is putting it mildly – after four attempts to upload an image in our editing programme I was furious with the thing, fired off an email whining for help – and almost immediately solved the glitch myself. As the editor said, in these situations it’s better not to try and understand what’s going on; just log out and then log in again. Exactly. When in doubt, log out.
The incident demonstrated once again that I work daily with tools that I barely understand, and not just my computer and the various kinds of software we use on MercatorNet. I have never, for instance, grasped all the capacities of a microwave oven, although we’re on our fourth or fifth. Even the analogue clock/timer on the electric range defeats me and each time I lose the digital setting on my car radio someone else has to fix it for me.
The solution for a technophobe such as myself is obvious: total automation. Life is too short to understand all the stuff. One push, one click, one swipe of the finger or blink of an eye – that’s the kind of technology I need.
Or is it? This morning I read on The Atlantic site a terrific article by Nicholas Carr, who has been writing about the effects of computerisation for several years now and has a new book coming out called The Glass Cage (alluding to the “glass cockpits” that have reduced hands-on air piloting time to just three minutes on a typical passenger flight!). Carr argues that ever-increasing automation not only gives us a false sense of security (computers break down, you know) and bias towards auto-generated information, but turns us from active agents into mere observers, screen watchers, and inhibits the development of expertise. Here’s the last paragraph of his essay:
One of the most remarkable things about us is also one of the easiest to overlook: each time we collide with the real, we deepen our understanding of the world and become more fully a part of it. While we’re wrestling with a difficult task, we may be motivated by an anticipation of the ends of our labor, but it’s the work itself—the means—that makes us who we are. Computer automation severs the ends from the means. It makes getting what we want easier, but it distances us from the work of knowing. As we transform ourselves into creatures of the screen, we face an existential question: Does our essence still lie in what we know, or are we now content to be defined by what we want? If we don’t grapple with that question ourselves, our gadgets will be happy to answer it for us.
I find these observations very persuasive, but maybe because they make my phobias appear in a vaguely virtuous light.
Also in our new features: Frederick Dyer outlines the career of a pioneering American gynaecologist and hero of the late nineteenth century move against abortion. George Friedman examines how/whether current United States foreign policy measures up to the Founding principles. And Rich Polt of citizen philanthropy website, Talking GOOD, interviews young American woman Maggie Doyne, who at 19 set up a home in Nepal for orphans -- and stayed as their mother.
As I write, it is overcast, cool and still, with a soft drizzle. Normally there is nothing more boring than weather-chat, but for the past week or so, the outskirts of Sydney have been battling bushfires fuelled by stiff winds and unseasonal heat. The cool change has brought a welcome respite.
Dramatic images appeared on the evening news all over the world. More than 200 houses have been lost and some small townships were evacuated. The value of the word “apocalyptic” has depreciated with much use, but if the real Apocalypse doesn’t look like these fires, I shall ask for my money back.
The UN’s Costa Rican climate change chief, Costa Rican Christiana Figueres, says that this calamity proves the folly of repudiating a carbon tax. Sydney’s heatwave is just an introduction “to the doom and gloom that we could be facing,” she told CNN.
But bushfires don’t necessarily prove man-made climate change. Australia in the summer is a hot and fiery place. It always has been. In 1790, an officer of the First Fleet, Watkin Tench, described conditions in the first European settlement: “December 27th 1790. Wind NNW; it felt like the blast of a heated oven”. In February, he saw bats and birds drop from the sky like stones, “unable longer to endure the burning state of the atmosphere”. In 1851, a single bushfire is said to have killed one million sheep.
The Australian landscape is so prone to fire that its unique eucalypts have evolved to propagate best after a good scorching. Before European settlement, Aborigines used to manage the landscape by burning it regularly. The spread of houses through the bush now means that there are fewer bushfires. But when the fires come, they are hellish.
So I wish UN bureaucrats in their air-conditioned offices would only stir their oars in when they know what they are talking about. Climate change may be real, but bushfires, even apocalyptic ones, are just part of the cycle of life Down Under.
This week so far. Francis Phillips reviews Permanent Present Tense, a fascinating book about a man whose memory was limited to what happened within the last 30 minutes. Karl D. Stephan reminds us that scientists do have feelings and that sometimes their emotions bias their opinions.
The unconventional new Pope is generating an enormous amount of media coverage. From England, Father Andrew Byrne, ponders what to make of him. Finally, surely you must be aware of the recent release of Grand Theft Auto 5. It’s a new video game which grossed US$1 billion within three days of its release. But it contains explicit and vile scenes of torture. This is a disgrace, says Mary Rice Hasson.
A final note for readers in Sydney. Portico Books, near Wynyard Station in the CBD, is transitioning to an online book supplier. Its manager, Clare Cannon, who is also head of the Good Reading Guide, has been a terrific book reviewer for MercatorNet. Portico is having a great clearance sale. It’s well worth checking out – it ends on November 2.
It seems rather unlikely to ever happen, but I would love to visit South America. I have a couple of good friends who hail from sub-continent and two relatives have had good experiences travelling there. A grand-nephew met the love of his life somewhere in the Andes (she happens to be Canadian, but no matter) and an in-law who went to Chile, Peru and Uruguay a few months ago – on a whim, as far as I can make out – found wonderful hospitality. Someone she met on a flight between Sydney and Auckland put her up in Chile, and a Peruvian lady dentist she met on a bus insisted that she stay in her (modest) home and gave her a free dental treatment for good measure.
As for Latin politics, they are much more colourful than in your average Anglo country. Not comfortable to live with, but fascinating to behold. These thoughts are prompted by a piece I wrote today about Rafael Correa, President of Ecuador, and the most popular one, probably, in quite some time. When members of his own left-wing party made a move to liberalise the country’s fairly strict abortion law last week, what did he do? Tell them they could have a conscience vote? Rehsuffle their portfolios? No! He denounced them as traitors and said that if they kept up that sort of thing he would resign. Catch a Western counterpart making a threat like that – he might be taken at his word.
Still on the subject of heads of state, a piece by Robert Kaplan poses some interesting questions about what makes a dictator. A moment’s thought shows that the answer not quite as simple as “someone who’s not elected by the people”; arguably there are dictators who have done more for their countries than bad democrats. I wouldn’t go as far as the wit who suggested that the best form of government is dictatorship tempered by assassination, but there must be a few people in the United States at the moment who find the idea appealing.
Joking aside, the issue of gun control in the US has to be addressed and William Stearman has started the coversation with a piece making the case for allowing Americans to have and carry guns.
Finally, two articles on human dignity and rights at the beginning and end of life: in an excerpt from a longer essay Richard Stith argues that laws allowing abortion and assisted suicide are more likely to empower oppressors than to liberate the oppressed; and Michael Cook shows how euthanasia in Belgium has steadily widened its reach to include new classes of people. Michael’s piece was published in the main Tasmanian newspaper on Wednesday. Today a euthanasia bill was defeated in the Tasmanian House of Assembly by just one vote. Draw your own conclusions.
Spare a thought for Australia as you read this – scorching Spring temperatures and high winds have set off the worst bushfires in 40 years in south-eastern New South Wales, some of them quite near Sydney. It makes me grateful to be sitting in Auckland on 18 degrees centigrade.
Yesterday, on the suprapreantepenultimate day before the economy collapses, Republican and Democrat Senators were slowly converging on a deal to raise the American debt ceiling.
Sorry, I’ve done it again.
Every once in a while my lexicographical snobbery breaks out of its cage. It’s affected and self-indulgent to use words which send readers scurrying off to dictionaries and whose only purpose is to showcase the writer as a Superior Person. Short words in short sentences: that’s the golden rule of English prose. Writing is a bit like boxing: short, hard jabs beat long, wild swings.
But (a lot of you must have stopped reading by now but once on my hobbyhorse, it’s hard to dismount) it was love at first sight when I met suprapreantepenultimate and I have been dying for a chance to introduce her to polite society. In my lifetime it may never come again.
Slinky, long Latin words are so much more fun. I can even recall the very moment when I was introduced to some of my favourites. Stercoraceous (of or pertaining to dung), for instance, as in “the stercoraceous reek from Congressional grandstanding”, was a jewel I discovered in one of William F. Buckley Jr’s columns, a lexicographical snob if ever there was one. And polyphiloprogenitive (fond of having many offspring) has proved useful in occasional essays on demography. I gleaned that from a poem by T.S. Eliot.
The one I am dying to use is rebarbative. It only surfaces in book reviews by Very Superior Persons, so it is definitely ripe for the picking. Problem is, although I have looked it up in the dictionary several times, I can never remember what it means. If anyone knows, would you be so kind as to tell me?
Oh yes, suprapreantepenultimate. The ultimate day is the last day, the penultimate is the day before that, the antepenultimate is the day before the day before, preantepenultimate is the day before the day before the day before, and suprapreantepenultimate is the day before the day before the day before the day before the zombie apocalypse breaks out.
So now you know. No need to scurry off.
We have a wide range of features this week. Jenny Leigh writes from the UK about growing opposition to the government’s plans to legalise the creation of three-parent embryos. Marco Navone argues that giving and taking bribes and other unethical behaviour ultimately affect company performance.
Religious freedom is once again an issue in the West nowadays. Cardinal George Pell, of Sydney, contends that we have to make some hard decisions about what deserves protection in our societies. A new contributor, Megan Hodder, reviews the first volume of Richard Dawkins’ memoirs. Not bad, she says, but not very illuminating.
And finally, our Deputy Editor, Carolyn Moynihan, reviews a new book on the Pill which dissolves its sugar coating and exposes its harmful, anti-woman core.
On the blogs: Tamara Rajakariar on a surprising fact about 50% of modern weddings; Anthony Glees on the damage done by The Guardian and Edward Snowden; and Sheila Liaugminas on the Pakistani schoolgirl who should have won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Here is a warning for 35-year-olds still living with their parents, the American government and anyone else who can’t get their act together: your days are numbered. A new study shows that life on Earth will be able to exist for just another 1.75 billion years. That’s all. Given the billions of years since the first squiggling whatsits appeared in the primeval soup it seems that the planet is already about 70 percent through its gig as a place where you can watch television, debate budgets and wonder what to have for lunch. In no time at all, cosmologically speaking, we’ll have to be outta here.
Just thought you ought to know, so that you can make plans. I’m making mine. I am definitely not going to plant anything (else – there’s a couple of them already in the garden) that takes a billion years to grow. That would be completely futile. I won’t buy shares in the New Zealand’s government’s latest powerco float, because the rivers are going to dry up and, bingo, the bottom falls out of the electricity market. But I will do that university extension course on space travel, because Mars is looking like a good place to scout for real estate…
One shouldn’t mock scientific predictions, I suppose. Scientists can’t help finding out things and putting them in front of us, even if it’s so far in front as to have no practical consequences for anyone alive now or probably for a few hundred millennia to come. If it’s true it is somehow relevant to our humanity, even for a scientific ignoramus such as myself. If nothing else, these things stretch the imagination, as Laura Cotta Ramosino’s review of the movie Gravity illustrates.
That is why I must have another go at reading Professor Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time; first time round I think I got to page 12. However, that’s likely to be after reading his short autobiography, wittily entitled My Brief History, which is reviewed by Patrick Cusworth in one of our new features. (There’s a fascinating little anecdote in there about Prof Hawking and Pope Paul VI, by the way.)
In other features Canadian economics professor Douglas Allen answers MercatorNet’s questions about his controversial (of course!) new study on children raised by same-sex couples; Andrew Harrod draws attention to a major scandal that’s erupted in Germany over the Green Party’s attitude to paedophilia in the 1980s; and George Friedman exposes the roots of the American shutdown.
On the blogs: Marcus Roberts has some surprising facts about Indian slums, and Shannon Roberts highlights demographic changes within the EU; Sheila Liaugminas asks whether Obamacare can actually work, even if it’s politically cleared; Tamara Rajakaria draws attention to an important new article on the harm of porn; and Paul Russell reports on the political battle in Tasmania over euthanasia. All links below.
One reason why I have had to resign myself to never becoming a celebrity is that I lack a photogenic smile. “Say cheese!” does not work its wonders for me. Occasionally I have had one before my morning cup of coffee but that just about exhausts the day’s quota.
Which is why I recently became an admirer of Vicki Sara. Professor Sara is the Chancellor of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). She made her reputation at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and subsequently became CEO of the Australian Research Council. A very distinguished lady.
No doubt university chancellors have many weighty responsibilities, but the most visible one is to hand students their degrees, shake their hands and pose for photographs at graduation ceremonies.
Last week I attended a “congregation” at UTS because a friend of mine was to receive his PhD. About 400 students walked across the stage and Professor Sara gave each a word of congratulation, a firm handshake and a warm smile – 400 of them. The rhythm of the ceremony was relentless but her smile never appeared hurried or insincere.
And that was just the first of ten graduation ceremonies at UTS this spring (Australian students graduate by faculties, rather than by year). I simply cannot imagine smiling for the camera 4,000 times. Where did she pick up a skill like this? Not, I suspect, in Sweden, which has made an industry of grim crime novels about serial killers. Is there a Smiley Face Academy that chancellors attend? Or is it just a gift? Whatever it is, in the Olympics of Cheerfulness, Vicki Sara is a champion.
This week, we have posted several must-read articles.
Roger Pielke Jr reviews The Bet, a fascinating book about a wager on the future of the planet’s resources make in 1980 by pessimist Paul Ehrlich and optimist Julian Simon. (Simon won.) News just doesn’t stop coming about the new Pope. Edward Pentin reports from Rome about a new book which documents his role in saving dozens of people from the Argentine military during the “Dirty War”.
Tom Mortier writes from Belgium about the latest developments in euthanasia there. If you live in a country where this is being debated, it is essential reading. And from Norway Egil Asprem gives some background on one of the leading figures of transhumanism, Ray Kurzweil, who was recently appointed director of engineering at Google.
I have met some staunch mothers in my time, and none more so than those looking after handicapped children. Margaret, widowed, cared for two disabled sons, one of them heavily dependent. Two other acquaintances have adopted infants with Down syndrome. My own (widowed) mother took on the care of my eldest sister again when she developed Parkinson’s disease at an early age. Others, often with great, supportive husbands, appear regularly on current affairs programmes.
Today we have posted an article about another of these mums, a plain, simple woman, also a widow, whose son is so severely handicapped by Trisomy 18 and complications that he has to be tube fed, carried, and changed several times a night. But you know what, don’t you – she loves that boy to pieces. I don’t want to spoil your experience of reading the superb article by Tampa Bay Times writer Lane DeGregory so I won’t say any more about it.
But I will say this: The well-meaning doctors who want to “prevent” lives that appear burdensome have to realise that they are also preventing the increase of a marvellous kind of love in the world. I can hear the objections already: not every parent is heroic; many handicapped people may be eneglected or abandoned; they themselves will fell their lives as burdens… But these are all self-fulfilling prophecies. The more these rationales are propagated, the more likely they are to materialise. Doctors need to get out more. They at least need to read more widely. Send a copy of Ms DeGregory’s piece to anyone you think needs it.
Michael Cook is away at present so we are having an editorial holiday. However, you can find links to our new articles below. They include several on marriage, a thumbs down for religious studies in schools, further comment on climate change, a look at the latest UN population forcasts, and a review of the movie Elysium.