I have seen the future of retailing and it works! A Daiso store recently opened around the corner from the MercatorNet office. This Japanese brand offers 10,000 items, each with exactly the same price tag, $2.80. The 10,000 items all seem to be made in China and packaged in Japan. This turns shopping into retail bungee-jumping, as you will often not be sure what your purchase is and you can never read the instructions. But, you know, it’s only $2.80. The cashiers look rather bored, as all they have to do is learn the 28-times table.
Of the 10,000 products, I estimate that 8,000 are items promoting tidiness. The Japanese must the tidiest nation on earth. There are trays and shelves and bags and holders and cases and bottles and racks and bins and packages – all for $2.80 each. They are all arrayed so carefully that you feel as though you should have removed your shoes at the door and donned white gloves before touching the merchandise.
While I don’t wish to sound like a publicist (I am not being paid for this) I have become a Daiso Diehard. I did all my Christmas shopping there, with very good results for the pocketbook. If you need some retail therapy, check it out!
Anyhow, this week, we have posted three articles. I have discovered that Australia has a home-grown polyamory movement – an interesting development in view of the push for same-sex marriage. William E. Carroll explains why it is impossible for a machine to become human. And Laura Cotta Ramosino reviews the latest film version of Anna Karenina.
This week, as our latest articles and the world's media show, belongs in a special way to Benedict XVI, now Pope Emeritus, or Emeritus Bishop of Rome or whatever title is settled upon. We have his moving and optimistic parting address (text and video) on the front page. Soon, if not already, he will be rising to his first full day without the burdens of office that he has borne, not only as Pope but before that for more than two decades as head of the Vatican's doctrinal congregation and before that as a bishop and before that as an overworked professor... I hope he rested well. That he rests well, and continues to be able to give the world the fruit of his deep faith and scholarship.
We have had a few tributes to Benedict already on MercatorNet and today have another from Monique David in Canada, whose sentiments countless Catholics will share. Sheila Liaugminas is one -- see her blog -- and I have a personal debt I want to acknowledge. If I hadn't read The Ratzinger Report (a book-length interview with the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on the state of the Catholic Church published in 1985) it might have taken me a lot longer than it did to leave the ranks of what are politely known as "cafeteria Catholics" (select your favourite dishes, leave the rest...) and get a grip on my faith. It's possible I might have missed the boat altogether and ended up clicking the "Like" button on Richard Dawkins articles. Thank you, Emeritus Holy Father!
Mention of Dawkins leads me to Michael Cook's irreverent contribution to the feverish speculation about which cardinal will be chosen as the next Pope. Bookies apparently give the English atheist better odds than Silvio Berlusconi or Tony Blair -- odds, however, that do look a little, er, contrived.
In other articles law professor Dwight Duncan looks back on the career of Ronald Dworkin, “a public intellectual of bracingly liberal views" (New York Times) who has gone to meet his maker, and Brendan Malone looks at the Oscars, finding that they got the best picture and best actor right, but totally goofed on best foreign film.
There were some very nice moments in the Academy Awards the other day: Ben Affleck thanking his wife and Daniel Day-Lewis affectionately joking about Steven Spielberg. But the most eloquent words in the media this week came from a homeless man in Kansas City.
Billy Ray Harris lives beneath a bridge by night and rattles a tin cup by day. Earlier this month a young woman accidentally dropped her diamond-studded engagement ring into the cup along with some small change. Mr Harris found it, looked at it like Gollum and heard “that little devil on my shoulder saying, 'Keep the money'." But he waited until the woman returned, frantic with worry. “I kept it for you,” he said.
Finders keepers, losers weepers? No, Sir. "My grandfather was a reverend,” Mr Harris told the media. “He raised me from the time I was six months old and, thank the good Lord, it's a blessing, but I do still have some character." The news spread like lightning and US$150,000 has poured in for Mr Harris from all over the world through the GiveForward website.
Honesty and gratitude are qualities that money can’t buy. Or are they? I have reviewed Michael Sandel’s recent book, What Money Can’t Buy: the moral limits of markets, in this week’s MercatorNet. He makes a convincing argument that market fundamentalism is eroding the areas of life which are immune to the law of supply and demand.
In other articles, Carolyn Moynihan and Clare Cannon have put together a list of books to lift your spirits (to which I have appended a list of gloomy books in case you get carried away). Karl D. Stephan discusses what makes work valuable and Mary O'Neill Le Rumeur reviews the first feature film from Saudi Arabia directed by a woman.
It’s mid-afternoon in Auckland and oppressively hot. As the local saying goes, I’d rather be sailing. Which reminds me of an email I got early this week -- from Belgium, but fortunately in English; Flemish really does look daunting. Paul d’Hoine writes that he lives in Leuven (Louvain) in the Mechelsestraat, the same street in which the famous Gerardus Mercator lived for almost 20 years back in the 16th century. Paul is a great admirer of the long-deceased native of Flanders and says that, for those so disposed, “you can feel his spirit here”.
You will, of course, recognise Mercator as the eponymous hero of our website. (I have been dying to use that expression and this seems like a good opportunity.) What you may not know or remember is what Gerardus Mercator is famous for. As a spot on our website explains, he was a cartographer and invented the map of the world known as the Mercator projection -- which I won’t attempt to describe here since it’s on the website -- to assist navigation. Hence the relevance of all this to my original thoughts of the sea.
When Michael Cook was setting up the website eight years ago he hit upon the idea of borrowing the name of Mercator for its symbolic value:
Mercator's life and work are metaphors for what we aspire to: craftsmanship, setting accurate courses, opening up new worlds and venturing upon stormy, uncharted seas. His maps were accurate in the center and distorted at either side -- a good image of Mercatornet’s editorial policy of balance and accuracy.
The “net” bit had to be added because someone else had recently used the name.
Paul d’Hoine really likes our interpretation of Gerardus Mercator’s work, has signed up with us and says he will take a closer look at our site. He has named his boat after the mapmaker and is planning “a world trip to honour the man and to serve good causes that will be on my path.” Personally, I could never be that keen on sailing! But, good luck, Paul, thanks for reminding us about our namesake, and if you make it to Sydney or Auckland, look us up.
Our lead story today is a MercatorNet scoop -- Michael Cook gives the first account in English (outside Lebanon) of a bombshell report on Lebanese demography. If you have the impression that Christians are disappearing from the only Arab country where they had a substantial presence, read this story.
In other articles: Jennifer Thieme shows how conservatism is incompatible with same-sex marriage; Vincenzina Santoro explains the importance of emigrant workers to relieving family poverty back home (there’s a gorgeous video with it that will make you weep…); George Friedman writes about the “charm” and the danger of drone warfare; and Rafaelle Chiarulli reviews an action movie that doesn’t quite live up to its brand name.
Among the bloggers, Sheila Liaugminas is keeping a sharp eye on the US press and its coverage of the papal transition; Family Edge looks at why South Korea's elderly are feeling abandoned; and Jennifer Minicus on Reading Matters highly recommends a book for young people called The Stamp Collector.
One of the most heartening bits of news in recent weeks accompanied the explosion of a meteor over the Chelyabinsk Oblast in south central Russia. As it lit up the sky, it exploded with the force of 30 atomic bombs, shattering windows for miles around. Fragments of the meteor scattered far and wide, landing in snow drifts and ponds.
Not so long ago, before 1989, Soviet authorities would have denied that it ever happened, then that if it did happen, there had been no damage, and then if there had been any damage, it had been immediately repaired by heroic Red Army troops.
Instead, there were newspaper reports of school children scattering throughout the area looking for meteor fragments to sell to seedy men in black leather jackets who would onsell them to celebrities like Steven Spielberg. Eight-year-old Sasha Zarezina told the New York Times, “I will sell it for 100 million Euros.”
We tend to think that the world is always getting worse and forget that the most oppressive political system ever invented has vanished like the meteor’s contrail. The Russian people are free (more or less) to be entrepreneurs. They can talk to the media. They can search for and sell meteorite fragments to whomever they want instead of surrendering them to the government. The world has definitely changed for the better.
So far this week, we have posted four articles. Australian academic Tama Leaver suggests that privacy may be a relic of the past, as industry finds ways to track us through social media. Anthony Esolen uses a Philadelphia controversy over the Boy Scouts to reflect upon the “blessings” of the welfare state.
I have drafted a list of melancholy movies, if you are guilty of being too frivolous lately. And Carolyn Moynihan delivers a broadside at the media for being voyeurs of the turbulent relationship which ended in the murder of Oscar Pistorius’s girlfriend.
Something called the Reading Agency in Britain has come up with a novel idea for helping people suffering from anxiety, depression and related mental health problems. It has drawn up a list of 30 books which have been assessed as “effective” in helping people with relationship problems, sleep problems, social phobias, stress, binge eating, bulimia nervosa and other disorders which might land them in the doctor’s surgery.
The idea is that these people can discreetly approach their friendly local librarian who will recommend an appropriate book to read instead of going to the doctor -- an expensive and possibly embarrassing step which they might well find they can do without if the book or books recommended work their magic. GPs support the scheme and librarians are no doubt thrilled to have more to do than show people how to looks things up on the computer.
Approved titles range from the very boring Overcoming Relationship Problems (for the people having trouble getting to sleep) to feel-good old favourites such as Cider With Rosie (this is Britain, remember), Chicken Soup for the Soul, Goodnight Mr Tom and To Kill A Mockingbird.
There’s a very sound instinct behind the latter “mood-boosting” selection, it seems to us at MercatorNet. Laughter, as the old saying goes, is the best medicine. With this in mind we have been working on our own lists of “just what the doctor ordered” books and films. Today Michael Cook introduces a selection of cheerful films -- not necessarily laugh-out-loud material but films that can “bring joy into your life”. There will be more cheer and some gloom and doom to follow -- the latter as a reminder that, even when things seem bad, they could always be worse… Your nominations in both categories are welcome.
In addition today we some St Valentine’s Day good advice from Caitlin Seery of the Love and Fidelity student network; Izzy Kalman explains why someone like Christopher Dorner, a model 21st century character from many points of view, could turn into a murderous avenger; Karl Stephan tells the largely unknown story of the Navajo men who worked for two decades in a uranium mine in New Mexico unaware of the dangers of radiation; and I look at the mixed (up) world health agenda of Bill and Melinda Gates.
Please check the blogs and remember especially to sign up for Harambee. We would like to make it so famous that Bill Gates gets to know about it.
Always expect the unexpected. Abdication is not a tag which we ever used much on MercatorNet. Now, in two weeks, two heads of state have announced that they are stepping down – Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and Benedict XVI, of the Holy See.
The Pope’s resignation came out of the blue even for the most obsessive Vaticanologist. After all, no Pope had resigned for almost 600 years – and then only under duress. Benedict XVI was the first to retire of his own free will, without external pressure of any kind. Since this was the lead story in nearly every paper in the world, we have also splashed on the news.
Fr Robert Gahl Jr, an American theologian, reports straight from Rome. Alex Perrottet, a New Zealand journalist who met the Pope during World Youth Day in Sydney, adds his reminiscences. And I have written an analysis of Benedict’s legacy to the Church he led for eight years.
That’s not all, of course. Raffaele Chiarulli reviews The Last Stand, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger returns to the big screen. And from France Mary O'Neill Le Rumeur describes the impact of a stirring speech against same-sex marriage.
It’s almost certainly him. Archaeologists leading the hunt for the long lost remains of the English king, Richard III, confirmed early this week that the bones found in a shallow grave in a ruined church under a Leicester carpark are his, as far as science and genealogy and history can ascertain.
For me, the location has a special resonance as, around the time that the excited academics were making their announcement, I and three friends were wandering from floor to floor in a parking building adjoining a cinema and shopping complex in suburban Auckland looking for the car we had arrived in three and a half hours earlier to see Les Miserables. (The film was great, by the way.) Exiting to the mall and trying to retrace our steps only made us more thoroughly disoriented.
There are few things more dismal and offensive to reason than being lost in a nearly empty carpark, but I have found it remarkably easy to do and I suppose others have as well. I daresay that in another 500 years it will be common for archaeologists to find in the ruins of these devilishly confusing buildings the skeletons of exhausted customers who gave up their search in despair.
But back to Richard III. I suppose there are some people who couldn’t care less about whether Richard III Plantagenet gets properly buried in a cathedral, or whether he really was the villainous usurper who contrived the deaths of the Two Little Princes who stood in his way to the throne, as he is generally believed to be, but Angela Shanahan is not one of them. A history enthusiast, she is fascinated by the resolution of this “cold case” and has some interesting reflections in her article on the way contemporary science aids historians in the search for truth, and both of them in helping us understand our identity.
Still in England, Peter Smith writes about this week’s vote (not final) in the House of Commons on a same-sex marriage bill and the rift it has caused among Conservative MPs. (Honestly, the kings of old might have done some Very Bad Things but they have nothing on today’s politicians.) Moving across the Atlantic, Dale O’Leary backgrounds developments in the related field of gender theory. In other new articles Brendan Malone reviews the controversial film Zero Dark Thirty -- about the Osama bin Laden assassination last year, and Nathaniel Peters reviews a book about the just war principle.
We have new posts on our Africa blog Harambee (please read and subscribe) Conjugality, Family Edge, Reading Matters and Demography.
Carolyn Moynihan and I recently resolved to run more articles which put a smile on the dial, a spring in the step, a song on the lips, etc. But smiley-face journalism is hard work. The best-read articles on MercatorNet, or any other magazine, make readers boil with rage. Righteous wrath has few rivals as a propellant for reaching lift-off velocity into the blogosphere.
Anyhow, my resolution didn’t survive a train trip to work yesterday.
As anyone who went to the Sydney Olympics knows, the rail system here is a marvel, almost Swiss in its efficiency. As anyone who stayed on afterwards knows, standards have dropped ever since.
After a coffee with a friend at Wynyard, I found confusion on the platform. A recorded voice on the PA system helpfully informed the crowds that services would be interrupted next Sunday for track maintenance. The voice did not venture an opinion on the current interruption.
Finally we were directed to take a train to North Sydney (across Sydney Harbour, past the Opera House, for non-Sydneysiders) where we would catch a bus. We waited about half an hour on the Bridge while the train inched forward to North Sydney. There we rushed up to the buses.
We collided with three thousand other work-bound commuters waiting on a narrow footpath. And no buses. A few harried railway workers were making hoarse and unintelligible announcements and gesticulating to the right. We shuffled along, hoping for the best. After half an hour or so, a bus did arrive. I was nearly the last one to board. At last I was on my way.
I overheard the driver telling a passenger that his last trip, normally 10 minutes, had taken an hour and a half. All of us standing in the aisle looked at each other and rolled our eyes. Then came an announcement. The trains were rolling. Passengers were moving. The ones who missed the bus, that is. Not us. We were stuck in a colossal traffic jam.
Have you ever watched this scenario unfold in the movies? Breathlessly boarding the last train from the doomed city, the fleeing hero and his girl escape the savage avengers. While they halt in a mountain pass, the camera shifts to the city – the cavalry has arrived; the city is safe. The camera shifts back to the train -- engulfed by an avalanche; the hero and his gal are kaput. Ah, fate!
But let me don my smiley-face. With the exception of a well-groomed young woman who let fly with a few choice expletives, no one complained. No one at all. Half of the stranded passengers were updating Facebook or listening to music. The other half was zoning out, staring zombie-like into space. It was still inspiring to see how heroically Sydneysiders behave under adversity. They can cope with First World Problems with the best of them. Or was it that none of them really wanted to get to work?
Anyhow, not to worry. I did get here eventually.
So far this week we have posted three stories, none of them of the smiley-face variety, I’m afraid, but all quite informative. Carolyn Moynihan summarises the finding of a major report on family breakdown and religious belief. From Belgium, Tom Mortier has written a moving account of the euthanasia death of his mother – which should be required reading for the politicians who want euthanasia in Tasmania, as I explain in my article.
There is a story about Africa that is all too familiar for anyone who reads international news: the sorry tale of a still largely “dark continent” with horrendous poverty caused by out-of-control population growth and attended by high infant and maternal mortality, all stoked by political corruption and tribal and religious wars… You know how it goes. And while there are germs of truth in it, this story is also warped by myopic westerners with their own crabbed agendas for the world.
But there is another story about Africa, an optimistic story, and I am delighted to inform you that this week MercatorNet has launched a blog dedicated to telling it. The blog is called Harambee, which means “pulling together” and it’s edited by Eugene Ohu a Nigerian freelance journalist with a colourful CV. I can’t do better than quote him on the vision behind this venture:
Africa has more than one story. When we get to know it well and completely, we surprisingly discover a continent that is big, joyful, generous, enthusiastic and optimistic. It is today the darling of many foreign investors, and the world's superpowers are competing to lay first claim to it, not now as lords as in times past, but with a desire to be first to be regarded Africa's friends. So much has it grown in many facets, economy included, that it portends hope for many peoples.
A one-word Ibo proverb “Nkoli” loosely translates to “tell your own story”. Harambee blog sets out to contribute local brush strokes to build the real story about Africa told by Africans themselves.
There is much hope Africa can offer the rest of the world; from its love of life and family, to the heroic examples of people who have withstood great odds with a smile on their lips, and great stories of innovation achieved with limited resources.
I urge you to read Harambee and comment and -- especially if you are one the hundreds of Africans who frequent our website -- seize the opportunity to send in your own news and reflections. This is your chance to sound off about the Africa you know and love.
One of those “heroic examples” that Eugene talks about is the subject of a post on the blog today. Margaret Ogola, who died last year of cancer after an all to short life packed with service to her family, to Kenya and to the world at large, is one of MercatorNet’s heroines. She has had a fourth book published posthumously this week which is reviewed on our front page by Tom Odhiambo. My appetite has been whetted and I am hoping to get hold of it, perhaps electronically.
Just a quick mention of other new articles now: there’s my piece on Queen Beatrix stepping down from the Dutch throne; Densye O’Leary finds that the principle of subsidiarity could have stopped a spat over cats going to court (sorry, cats seems to have a way of insinuating themselves into my newsletters); Karl Stephan says universities have work harder to stop cheating; and George Friedman writes on North Korea -- there doesn’t seem to be much else one can do about that strange and sad place.
The blogs are humming again -- a special mention for Tiger Print and Katie Hinderer’s post on the weird and not very wonderful world of New Adult books. (“New Adult” seems to be a term for high school girls. How odd.)