After one very late night this week and a very early morning (the former, the result of bad management, the latter, today, needing to meet a young visitor arriving at 5.30 am on a flight from Canada) I couldn’t help noticing the heading of an article in my latest update from The Atlantic magazine: “Thomas Edison and the Cult of Sleep Deprivation”.
Apparently it’s a point of honour among go-getters in the world of business and the professions to deprive themselves of sleep, partly to get the jump on everyone else. Case in point is Melissa “Missy” Lesmes, a Bethesda supermom who rises at 5.30 and puts her light out at midnight – by design. Before her, Margaret Thatcher, that femme formidable, reportedly bragged that “sleep is for whimps”.
Shakespeare attributed Macbeth’s sleeplessness to a bad conscience, but it was the inventor of the electric light who murdered sleep for the more or less innocent. According to a recent book Thomas Edison did his utmost to convince Americans that staying awake was the only way to stay ahead of the competition. He not only slept no more than four hours a day (or claimed to) but forced his workers to do the same.
“At first the boys had some difficulty in keeping awake, and would go to sleep under stairways and in corners,” Edison said. “We employed watchers to bring them out, and in time they got used to it.”
He called it “manly wakefulness”. I call it cruel. “There is really no reason why men should go to bed at all,” he said in 1914. And the idea continued to gain traction until the 1950s when people woke up one day and thought, we don’t need to go without anything! But the lights began burning up the night again with the economic changes of the mid-1970s and onwards. Surveys show that it’s quite common for workers to get no more than six or fewer hours of sleep a night.
Better time management skills would doubtless yield more hours of healthful sleep (note to self), but there are people who simply have so much that want to do and give that they exercise a kind of “manly wakefulness”. One of them is our American contributor Sheila Liaugminas, who has managed to write a book despite hosting a daily radio programme, acting as news director, and blogging for us a couple of times a week, amongst other things. As they say about Missy Lesmes, “We don’t know how she does it.”
I was backgrounding myself on Satanic rituals at Harvard University – yes, I know, it sounds like the National Inquirer but I couldn’t possibly make stuff like this up -- when I stumbled across something even more interesting.
Did you know that Harvard, America’s oldest, richest and most prestigious University has just endorsed its first-ever honour code? This is a polite way of saying that that there is so much cheating in a university overflowing with geniuses whose motto is Veritas (truth), that a whole new bureaucracy had to be set up to deal with it?
The move for an honour code came after nearly half of the 279 students who enrolled in an introduction to the workings of Congress were caught cheating a couple of years ago. Harvard being what it is, a good handful of these could end up in Congress at some stage.
“The impact will probably be small,” one of the students who sat on a committee which drafted the code admitted, “but I think over time it will help to create that culture shift where people really value academic integrity and personal integrity.”
How much time will be necessary, do you think? This unintentionally hilarious remark reminds me of the Groucho Marx quip: the secret of success is sincerity; fake that and you’ve got it made. Isn’t there something sad about this divorce between IQ and ethics? As I recall, some of those smart guys at Enron went to Harvard. Oh well, the honour code is going to change everything.
Plenty of good reading below! Enjoy! And, by the way, tomorrow we begin our appeal for MercatorNet. Please consider a donation to support our fight to promote human dignity.
Well, the scientists have done it at last: created the universe. It was done with computers, of course, but the results – as seen in the Nature magazine video on this page – are simply enchanting. They might be highly informative too, but for my money the scientists and their computers have a made a beautiful film that challenges Space Odyssey 2001 and Gravity (the only two space movies I have seen) for romance.
The team at MIT that produced this wonder also gave it a lovely name, Illustris, which evokes light and grandeur as well as identifying the illustrative nature of the great chunk of space-time they have modelled – some 350 million light years across. As well as giving a time-lapse picture of the universe from 12 million years after the Big Bang until now, 13 billion years later, the simulation also models 40,000 different galaxies (a mere fraction of those that exist). And so on.
Such mind-bending figures and concepts are way beyond my comprehension but I do get the message that science has taken has taken a great leap forward (or is it back?) in its understanding of how the universe evolved. The model is not perfect, there is more to come, but we can afford to be relaxed about this journey of discovery. I suppose there are some practical applications of knowing how everything happened, but to me it’s more like waiting for the next book from your favourite author: nothing vital depends on it except the enrichment of your minds and soul.
After all, the really vital question about our origins is not “how” but “why”? Why was there a Big Bang? Why did those wisps of dark matter start clustering together under the force of gravity? Why did anything happen at all? Why is there something rather than nothing? This is a question no honest person can avoid. The answer to it determines our view of the meaning of life, its value and purpose, how we should live, what happens after we die.
Religious believers have an answer to that question: God wanted to share his infinite being and love with us. As the intelligibility and beauty of the universe continues to reveal itself to scientific inquiry it is difficult to see how any other answer makes sense.
For an historical and cultural take on where we (at least in the West) have come from, read the excellent review of an important new book, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism.
But for the strangest story of the week read Eugene Ohu’s post on Harambee about the missing Nigerian schoolgirls. Did it really happen? Eugene is a Nigerian; surely no Westerner would dare have asked that question.
A lot of people have gone missing lately. On March 8, Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 disappeared with 239 people. The navies of several countries are still scouring the seabed of the Indian Ocean for the wreckage. And on April 14, 276 high school girls (the number is uncertain) in a remote Nigerian village were kidnapped by an al-Qaeda affiliate, Boko Haram (Western education is forbidden), the night before a physics exam. They have probably been taken over the border into neighbouring Chad or Cameroon.
Unhappily, Western media ignored the latter atrocity. Until the past week -- when the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, appeared on a video and announced that he would be selling the girls, presumably as sex slaves. The going rate is 12 American dollars. Although he looked quite deranged, even drugged, it was a brilliant public relations move and the story moved immediately to the front page.
The government has done a poor job of handling the crisis. It has lied to and misinformed an increasingly angry public. Three weeks on, no one knows where the girls are.
Why isn’t this vicious act of terrorism better known? Perhaps because Nigeria is not a big trading partner with the US, where most of our media is based. Perhaps there is a racial element. Newspapers are still full of stories about the disappearance of British toddler Madeleine McCann in 2007, but the disappearance of more than 200 Nigerian girls was regarded as just another dark episode in the Dark Continent.
Whatever the reason is, we in Western countries should pay far more attention to developments in Africa. With their resources, growing wealth, and burgeoning population, Nigeria and other countries will play a big role in the second half of this century. Whatever touches them will touch us, too. In the meantime, all we can do is pray that the Nigerian government gets its act together and delivers these innocent girls from their depraved captors.
I was at a bit of a loss what to write about as I approached this newsletter, which put me in mind of a situation in a clever (but a trifle unsavoury) novel I read long ago about academics on the conference circuit. One of them has reached the point of standing at the lectern to deliver a paper that he has not written. Not a word. The most frightful denouement is about to unfold when someone rushes into the auditorium and shouts that everybody has to leave the place because there has been an outbreak of Legionnaires disease. The delinquent academic escapes with his reputation, such as it is, intact.
No such deus ex machina has come to my rescue. The internet has not gone down and, exactly a year after my brush with death crossing a local street, I am safe at home with two hands that work pretty well as long as the brain is in gear. No excuses. So I turned to the universal seer, Google, for inspiration and typed in “this day in history” and top of the list that came up was a New Zealand timeline telling me that on this very day 50 years ago the very last electric tram trip took place in Wellington.
Immediately a wave of nostalgia swept over me. Trams! How well I remember the dark red and cream coloured machines that clanked and swayed down the middle of the street, carrying me to school, church, the pictures (movies), the Olympic pool, friends’ birthday parties… Unlike the nasty buses that were taking over the roads – I once stepped in front of one as it pulled out from the kerb and I crossed from the tram zone, causing a small incident from which I emerged unscathed – trams allowed you to get on at both ends, though not at the same time, of course. That doubled your chances of catching one compared to a bus, which always takes off as you pant up to the front door.
The seats were hard. The swaying could become truly frightening as the tram gathered speed, but you could take reassurance from the conductor who moved nonchalantly down the aisle as though he (or she) were taking a Sunday walk in the park. It was a point of honour with them not to lurch from side to side. And it was always worth watching when the driver had to get out and reposition the pole that connected to the overhead wire after it came off.
Yes, trams were fun, and efficient, but we got rid of them and filled the streets with buses and cars. And now we are spending a fortune in Auckland to try and get people onto rail transport again – trains this time. It’s a good move and I really do want to use them. They don’t have the romance of the tram but they are a darned sight more comfortable. If only the car were not more comfortable still.
Before ending this trip down memory lane, I should mention our Popcorn post on Batman at 75, a retrospective about the caped crusader, and a post by Shannon Roberts on Demography about a newsreel archive company that has uploaded 85,000 historical films made between 1896 and 1976 onto Youtube. One of them is a clip of Margaret Sanger being interviewed in 1947 about her call for “no more babies for 10 years”. You can see it on the blog. It’s a hoot.
From time to time, after scaling the mountains of climate change, same-sex marriage, euthanasia, Obamacare, etc, I feel brain-dead and as a pick-me-up, I immerse myself in one of P.G. Wodehouse’s comic novels. There are about 90 of them, of roughly equal quality, so it will be ages before I run out of medication.
Last week I raced through Much Obliged, Jeeves, the second-last novel in a career which ran from 1902 to 1977. Its plot, like all of Wodehouse’s plots, lay strewn over a table like the parts of a Swiss watch until the very last chapter. Then the magician waved his cape over them and, voilà, comme toujours, the watch sprang together: all loose ends tied up, all romances happy, all conflicts resolved.
The world of Wodehouse is a land of fantasy, where no one actually works, falls ill, dies or pays taxes. It lacks the gritty realism of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or the deep moral seriousness of The Princess Bride. In short, it is completely frivolous.
But what I love most is its language. If you are too impatient for an in-depth study of English literature, Wodehouse will introduce you to Shakespeare, the King James Bible, the Romantic poets, Lewis Carroll and Tennyson. Scarcely a paragraph lacks an allusion to the classics.
And like many writers at the turn of the century, he was brilliant at clever epigrams, like “To say that his conscience was clear would be inaccurate, for he did not have a conscience, but he had what was much better, an alibi.” Or, “Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.”
There are some disagreeable prejudices in the Wodehouse canon. Aunts, for instance, come in for a terrific shellacking. One of the characters who appears regularly, Bertie Wooster, seems to have an inexhaustible supply of these terrifying women. Here is a typical passage from Much Obliged, Jeeves.
“My Aunt Agatha, for instance, is tall and thin and looks rather like a vulture in the Gobi desert, while Aunt Dahlia is short and solid, like a scrum half in the game of Rugby football. In disposition, too, they differ widely. Aunt Agatha is cold and haughty, though presumably unbending a bit when conducting human sacrifices at the time of the full moon, as she is widely rumoured to do, and her attitude towards me has always been that of an austere governess, causing me to feel as if I were six years old and she had just caught me stealing jam from the jam cupboard: whereas Aunt Dahlia is as jovial and bonhomous as a dame in a Christmas pantomime.”
I fear that P.G. would be hauled before an anti-auntie-vilification tribunal were he to publish such defamatory material today. But, to tell the truth, it didn’t spoil the fun for me. I’m not an aunt.
For the second Friday in a row, New Zealanders have observed, more or less willingly, a solemn commemoration which entails public rituals and withdrawal from commercial activity. On Good Friday this lasted the whole day; today, half a day, in which to honour our war dead. Easter Sunday is the only other day on which servile work is so restricted, although a annual litany of complaints from retailers could see both religious feasts privatised, leaving only Anzac (half) Day to carry the weight of the nation’s need for public solemnity.
Anzac Day, as Angela Shanahan explains in her broadside at the turn it has taken in Australia, refers to the disastrous British-led Gallipoli Campaign of World War I in which over 100,000 Allied troops and Turks died in the course of eight months. That number included about 8000 Australians and 3000 New Zealanders. In the whole course of the “Great War” around 18,500 Kiwis died and about 41,000 were wounded, at a time when the total population of the country was just over 1 million. By the time of the Second World War the population had risen to 1.6 million and our casualties proportionately were again very high – the highest in the British Commonwealth. There are probably few native Kiwis whose family history has not been touched in this way by war.
It is understandable then, that even as the world has fallen out of love with war, many of us want to show reverence and gratitude to those who died defending our freedom – which is what most of us believe was at stake. The question for us now is, what are we doing with our freedom? It would too bad, given the high price, if we decided it was simply freedom to shop 24/7, or to invent rights such as same-sex marriage and parenting (see Robert Reilly’s article), or in other ways to focus tightly on our own personal needs and ambitions.
In an interview with Joaquin Navarro-Valls about his years working close to Pope John Paul II (to be canonised, with John XXIII this weekend) he relates the Polish Pope’s lifelong meditation on a line from the Gospel of John: “… the truth will set you free.” And he proved it by the part he played in the bloodless collapse of Soviet communism, arming the Polish people with a sense of their human dignity to the point where they could peacefully defy their oppressors, and talking to Gorbachev as a man with no other ambition than to promote human dignity.
That is the only way to prevent war: to embrace the truth about the human being which makes his or her freedom no threat to the other but the basis of respect and dialogue. If there was more of that in the dealings of the Western powers with Russia, the stand-off there could well be resolved.
There’s one more thing I’d draw your attention to, and that is our interview with Ignacio Socias about the International Year of the Family 2014. The international year of what, you ask? Exactly. Remember, you read it here first.
Happy Easter! I’ve been getting two messages about the state of religion lately. The first comes from the op-ed pages and TV, that we’re presently holding a wake for religion and the time for a cremation will be announced shortly. The second is what I see on the streets.
This struck me vividly as I walked to my local church on Good Friday (a public holiday here). The first group I encountered had come from a meeting room in the town hall, about 30 cheerful young men, probably Indians and Bangladeshis, who, as good Muslims, had just finished their Friday prayers.
The second was the crowd heading for the local Catholic church. Good thing I arrived a bit early. It is a largish building, but by ten to 3 there was standing room only. Sydney is a multicultural city, so there were many Indians, mostly from Kerala, Koreans, Italians, Chinese and Lebanese, and plenty of born-here Aussies. It was a young crowd, too.
The next evening, after the Easter Vigil, we drove back home at 11pm through back streets from a different church. We kept passing clusters of young people dressed to the nines and clutching their vigil tapers. Streets had been closed off to accommodate the crowds overflowing the footpath in front of a Greek Orthodox parish.
Around the corner from home is the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. As I was going to bed this crowd was just winding up. Young people were singing and chanting at the entrance, unable to enter the packed church. The bells rang out joyfully for churched and unchurched at 2am.
No doubt there are a lot of unchurched people out there, perhaps even a majority. But do they have the vitality and energy of people with faith? I think not. And is there anything more persuasive than joy? After this Easter, to me it seems clearer than ever to me that faith has a future. Or rather that Australia has a future and it is faith.
I believe that our Deputy Editor, Carolyn Moynihan, promised readers a cheery newsletter. This was a bit rash as mine is the only newsletter this week because of the Easter holiday. And I do doom and gloom much better than sunshine and Pollyanna.
In any case, I am reflecting on the death yesterday of a dear friend, Brian Harradine, a man known much better in Australia than overseas, but a model for politicians everywhere. He died yesterday at the age of 79 after a long illness.
Brian began as a union organiser and Labor Party stalwart in Tasmania and rose to national prominence by dint of hard work and his steely intellect. But in 1975 he was expelled from the Party for denouncing Communist infiltration. It was a bitter blow, but he immediately stood for the Senate as an Independent and was elected easily.
He spent the next 30 years in the Federal Parliament, where he fought tirelessly for his constituents and for causes that he believed in passionately – workers’ rights, Aboriginal rights, the rights of the family, and the rights of the unborn. I don’t think that there has ever been an Australian politician who fought harder and longer for the pro-life cause than Brian Harradine.
He also knew what families are all about. In 1980 his wife died, leaving him with six children. A couple of years later he married Marian, a widow with seven. The family of 15 lived in a modest house in a modest suburb.
Being an independent in Canberra was a lonely job. But all the parties respected his conviction and toughness. They had to. From 1996 to 1999 he and another independent held the balance of power and the government ate humble pie to secure his vote. He was unpretentious but he knew how to leverage his position and he drove a hard bargain. No one did more for Tasmania.
At one stage I worked in his office for a few weeks writing speeches when he was campaigning against population control measures hidden in the foreign aid budget. One evening I attended a Senate Estimates Committee hearing at which he was roasting arrogant and evasive public servants. It was very entertaining to see them squirm under his relentless interrogation.
He was also a man with a deep Catholic faith which kept him smiling through hard times at home, disappointments in politics and his years of illness. I shall miss him.
A man with a woman holding a baby boy stepped off a plane in Wellington, New Zealand, on Monday to a rock-star welcome. British royals Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and nine-month-old Prince George arrived for a week-long visit, the first state visit for the youngest “Cambridge”. Polls indicate that monarchism here is likely to die a natural death and that New Zealand will become a republic, but that doesn’t stop Kiwis going gaga over a glamorous princess, Diana’s eldest son, and their little Prince Charming.
A man, a woman and a baby – a man and a woman married to each other, with a child who is the fruit of their committed, mutual self-giving. This is the most natural thing in human society, if not in the world, and how beautiful it looks to us, whether the wife and mother is svelte and dressed in bespoke outfits, or a little rounder and softer and dressed in what a young family can afford off the rack; whether the dad has royal blood or is just a salt-of-the-earth honest bloke.
Now, speaking of honesty, I have to say that I cannot feel the same or think the same about the picture presented by two gay men and the baby girl they brought to a playdate with Prince George on Tuesday. The Royal New Zealand Plunket Society, a Kiwi institution which looks after the health of young children, was entrusted with the task of inviting 11 representative sets of parents with babies around George’s age to the intimate event, and I suppose it was inevitable, given our legislature’s embrace of same-sex marriage last year, that gay parenting would be endorsed in this way.
The media, instructed not to “make an issue of it” naturally gave the trio a special mention in the news. They were two decent looking men with a healthy looking baby girl, one of them bouncing her mother-like in his arms, but no, the image did not work the intended magic for me. It made me sad and indignant. Why should this little child be deprived of her mother? Nothing those men can do for her can replace the intimate bond between a mother and baby, or the uniquely maternal love for a child of whatever age. Is one of the men her natural father? If not she is doubly orphaned, and doubly wronged. She has been treated as an object of adult desire, not as a subject with the right to exist in a natural family.
Prince William at a state reception last night spoke of New Zealanders’ warm-heartedness, generosity, progressiveness and modesty. I’m afraid one of things is subverting the others, at the expense of our children.
The same spirit of hubris drives scientific experiments such as three-parent embryos, as Jill Burcham highlights in her intriguing exegesis of a Nathaniel Hawthorne tragic story of obsession, “Rappacini’s Daughter”. Oh, but, the designer embryos are for the greater good of society, the scientists say.
Well, for an answer to that line of argument, read Michael Cook’s article on horrendous experiments carried out by Japanese doctors at Harbin, during World War II – and the way they were excused. Once we start seeing other human beings as means to an end there is no limit to the evil any of us can do, and justify.