Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Where are the Christians?

This is probably as good a time as any to comment on what appears to be a new Christmas tradition in the making. I'm referring to the renewed fighting in the 'war on Christmas' that I've noticed in recent years flaring up around this time. Someone notices a public display of a Christmas message, complains, and controversy ensues. This year, I saw it erupt in the news story of complaints over a Christmas message on the Saskatoon bus service in Saskatchewan, Canada.

The following is not an untypical reaction: "Buddy, I am about as atheist as they come. There is not even a hint in my mind that a god may exist. MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!!"

Atheists, and just about everyone else embracing Christmas. Conspicuous by their absence, however are the Christians who don't appear to have anything to say about the matter. I'm surprised to see nobody identifying themselves as Christian denouncing the public Christmas displays or defending the complainants.

I see no Christians complaining about the public displays of febrile consumerism. No complaints over public displays of elves, flying reindeer or gifts under trees. I suggest these are doing more harm to the Christian spirit of Christmas than these Saskatoon complainants ever could. I can't understand how Christians who take their faith seriously are happy with state sponsored celebrations of Christmas that muddy the message of universal love in the gospels and pollute the sanctity of their holidays with pagan symbols.

The liberal values of our society separate the church and state. It's to prevent clerical power from gaining undue influence over our lives. I think though it works both ways; the separation also protects religion from encroachment by the state. Consequently, these days we see that the more true Christian meaning is drained of Christmas, the more non Christians will speak up in defense against the (almost always) heretical public displays. When atheists defend Christmas, Christians should begin to worry.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Movie of the Year: Clint, a Chair and Petition

The most gripping drama I saw this year was Clint Eastwood's performance of an actor addressing the audience of a political convention in the late summer of this year. Eastwood's role is as an old actor who takes to the television airwaves for an embarrassing eleven minutes as he remonstrates with an empty chair, where supposedly sits the president of the United States. The actor Eastwood plays hasn't prepared his lines, and is distracted and unfocused. When he does say something, it's inappropriately belligerent and at odds with the setting. As the seconds tick by, the tension mounts as all who watch know that this moment - the climax of the convention - has cost millions and was planned month in advance, suddenly lurches into a crazy off script turn that could spoil the career of a presidential hopeful.
Well, that's not really a movie, and the next one, I only managed to watch this year. But it's real, very real. It was made over a period of 12 years and completed in 2009, and released in the United States in 2011. The movie's name is Petition and the director Zhao Liang shot the movie on digital video, much of it from hidden cameras. It is a documentary about a group of petitioners, Chinese people who have been subject to some injustice and after being thwarted at the local level, have come to Beijing where they mingle with other similar cases from all across the country.
The petitioners are fearless and determined, but lead utterly marginal lives, subsisting on found food and sleeping in improvised shelters. They show us how much people are willing to endure when they believe their (admittedly hopeless) cause is just. There's a teacher who was fired for exposing corruption in his school's administration. Another, a young man who was arbitrarily beaten and hospitalized by thuggish policeman. And a woman who's husband died mysteriously while being given a workplace medical exam and then summarily cremated. They don't sound like much, but if it's inspiration you seek, set aside your Amazing Spiderman comics and DVD and watch Petition. These are real heroes. Such people will be the kernel of any movement that arises in China to challenge the current regime. Most reviews I've seen speak only of the Kafkaesque justice system in China. They are missing the remarkable dignity of those who are fighting it.

I've uploaded this movie in a file just under one gigabyte to The Pirate Bay. It's in Mandarin with English and French subtitles. I will be seeding this over the next little while as long as interest holds. Click here to get the torrent file.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Vegan Dog Biscuit Recipe

Meet my dogs. There's a photo of them on the right. Gitajanli is 8 years old. She's a terrier mix, weighs 6 kilos and has always had a retiring and nervous disposition. I attribute this to her family background. She was bought as a puppy from the owner of a dog meat restaurant in the countryside in South Korea. Finnegan is 3 years old and weighs 4 kilos. Her father is probably a full blooded Maltese terrier whose owners abandoned in the countryside, and her mother is a local mixed terrier. She has a high spirited, adventurous character. She loves to cuddle and she loves to roll in carrion. I attribute her disposition to her being born in a roadside drainage pipe where she was found one cold winter morning, only weeks old, alone and at death's doorstep. Were they to speak, "yes" is the word you'd most likely hear from Finnegan, while Gita would say, "no, thank you."

They're living in Mexico now, in the small city of San Cristobal de las Casas. There is dog food available in the shops, but no vegan dog food. I've been making it myself for them since May this year and they've been eating little else. They are both in fine health, and I figure it's time to share my recipe. Here it is:


1 cup of beans
1 large potato
1 cup pumpkin seeds
1 heaping cup of mixed rice, lentils, oatmeal, bran, soy protein
1 teaspoon of salt
cooking oil
wheat or corn flour

Take the beans and lentils and soak them in water a day or so. Boil them in water until they soften. As they are boiling, add the potato, cut into small pieces so that it will be ready when the beans are done. Let them cool and drain thoroughly. Cook the rice and when it is almost ready, put in the oatmeal, bran and soy meal. Add the salt and a splash or two of cooking oil. Use water sparingly. The drier the mixture the better. Grind the pumpkin seeds as they are. There's no need to cook them.

Go back to the beans, lentils and potato mixture and mash it thoroughly in a large bowl. Once done, add the rice, oatmeal, bran and soy meal and mix together. Then add the ground pumpkin seeds, and while mixing, add a cup or two of flour until the mixture has a non- sticky consistency. Let it sit over night to dry further.

Next day, take small fistfuls of the mixture and form patties, and put them in a very lightly oiled frying pan and roast both sides, until the biscuits are rather hard but not burnt. Repeat until the mixture is finished. The dogs especially enjoy eating the biscuits while they are still warm from the frying pan.

Substitutions are possible. Instead of a potato, a chayote can be used. Some red beet can be added for colour. The patties can probably be baked in an oven more easily than roasted in a frying pan although not having an oven in the kitchen, I haven't tried this. Using an oven would probably save time and effort. The recipe makes enough to feed the two dogs for ten days to two weeks, depending on the dog's appetite which varies with the seasons. The recipe can easily be doubled.

Buen provecho! Enjoy, and don't be afraid to nibble on a biscuit yourself. Humans find them tasty too!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

My Education? My Business!

I remember hearing something on the radio. The details escape me now but it was an interview with, I think, a producer at the BBC. He was recalling his career and he spoke of how he got the job. He sat at the desk opposite the interviewer who sat in front of a large bookshelf. The interviewer gestured to the books behind him and asked the applicant if he'd read any. The applicant said yes, I've read that one and that one and that one. The interviewer chose a book and asked the applicant to talk about it. He was able to impress the interviewer enough to get the job. I was impressed by the anecdote and it led me, in a roundabout and not entirely serious way to offer the following proposal.

The proposal is simply that job interviewers should be forbidden from asking candidates about their educational background: how much schooling, where, when, and what was studied. All such questions should be off the table.

Before fleshing out the argument, it will be helpful to look at some of the questions that job interviewers already are currently forbidden from pursuing. This is admittedly a little United States-centric but most wealthy countries have there own, albeit shorter list of such questions:

     Where were you born?
    What is your native language?
    Are you a lesbian? Are you married?
    Do you have children?
    Do you plan to get pregnant?
    How old are you?
    Do you observe Ramadan or Yom Kippur?
    Do you have a disability or chronic illness?
    Are you in the National Guard?
    Do you smoke or use alcohol?

Please notice two things. One, the list is designed to protect privacy and prevent discrimination. Two, there is no effort to extend this protection to a candidate's education background.

It's arguable that discrimination against candidates for going to the 'wrong' school is not a big problem in our society. I will set this aside and proceed to my main point. The ban on questions concerning education would not so much benefit the candidates as it would our work places, educational institutions, and society in general.

I want to consider this illustrative example. In South Korea candidates for jobs as counter persons at department stores are expected to have a degree from a university. Not to dismiss too lightly the skills necessary to perform such a job, but a high school education plus a few weeks of on the job training should suffice. I don't think the requirement for a degree is about knowledge or expertise in a job related field. It's about docility. Those who have been able to graduate have demonstrated a desirable degree of docility - attending class, following teacher's instructions, and performing as expected. That's what's behind the requirement for a university degree for a counter person in a department store. A certificate of docility. Of course department stores have their reasons to seek out a docile labour force, but I argue that it's not the proper function of our educational institutions to help them here, and to the extent they do, the quality of education suffers.

Education should focus on cultivating knowledge and creativity in students. Our universities should be more than a spring board to a career selling perfumes and cosmetics. The understanding that the credentials offered by study at university will be of no use in their seeking employment, will allow young people to put their time and money to better use in or out of school, and allow teachers to teach those motivated by intellectual curiosity rather than a desire to pad their resumes. Students will feel freer to pursue what they want, in areas where their talents lie, unconstrained by concerns of their future as job applicants.

My proposal would open up opportunities for a greater role for on the job training. Companies requiring specific skills would train their own workers in their own way, at their own expense. Vocational schools and apprenticeships which grant licenses to those who successfully complete the programmes should also enjoy greater importance. I'm not proposing that prospective pilots should not be asked to produce their pilot license.

There have been studies showing how in wealthy nations social mobility, the ability for one born of a less privileged family to rise in status,  has been declining. Societies have become more static, more feudal. These same studies show that education, ie a university degree, is the royal road to improving one's place in society. Perhaps opening up more space for apprenticeships and the like would open up new paths to greater social mobility. Letting a university degree remain the key to a higher social standing is not helping our social sclerosis. As I point out, social mobility is declining. The quality of education can only decline as well as long as the purpose of a university is seen as something other than a place to foster knowledge and creativity.

Before I close, I should go back to the anecdote I related at the start about the interview with the prospective BBC producer. It's probably true that the interviewer had a full accounting of the candidate's educational background on a piece of paper on his desk before him. And it's quite plausible that they spend a good deal of time discussing mutual acquaintances in their 'old boys' network. But finding the right person for the job needn't involve any of this. What makes a person suitable for a position is in their head and hands, not a university diploma.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Israel and Iran Sharing Holocaust Files

If I were to pinpoint the feature of the Internet that has the greatest potential to change human society and culture, I would nominate Bittorrent.  It's a very simple file sharing application that allows you to download files from other users, while these users download from you. Copying and sharing music, movies and books has never been easier or less costly. At any moment, according the Wikipedia, bittorrent accounts for more internet traffic than Facebook and Youtube combined. I've always thought that a part of the pleasure we get from a work of art comes from sharing it with people whose feelings we care about. This pleasure in sharing is something that all humans have - we should not give up our freedom to share lightly. Property rights exist, to be sure, but we should be very careful about letting them infringe on our right to share as we see fit.

Above is a screen capture taken from my computer on December 1st. I'm using a bittorrent client called Tixati and I'm downloading a bunch of files - mostly films made in Eastern Europe in the 1960's. One in particular is singled out. It's name in English is "Father," "Apa" in the original Hungarian. It was made in 1966 by the director Istvan Szabo, the only Hungarian film director to win an Oscar for the 1981 film Mephisto. Both these films are centred on the plight of Jews under Naziism.

What I want to focus on, however, is a small part of the bigger picture. I've blown it up here:

This tells us that there is a seeder, someone who has the entire file and letting others download, without receiving anything. The seeder is in Tel Aviv, as the Israeli flag at the top and a trace of the IP address indicates. There are three leechers, those, including me - the Mexican flag at the bottom - who haven't yet completed the download of "Father." The other two leechers are from Sheffield, England, and Teheran, Islamic Republic of Iran. Yes, the third flag is Iranian.

Our exposure to the relation between Israel and Iran, exemplified by a google search of the words "israel iran" is not positive. The links I get all point to stories of conflict, threats, defamation, and distrust. Page after page it continues. Yet, with this screen capture I have pretty strong evidence that someone in Teheran is downloading and will presumably watch this work of Jewish culture, and it's thanks mainly to the generosity of someone in Tel Aviv that this is possible. It's very likely that these people don't know they are sharing. Not all bittorrent clients feature the flags, and most users don't spend much time  'under the hood,' so to speak. But the sharing is happening, whether they know it or not, regardless of the overwhelming negativity that characterizes their relations. Our new media thrive on the negative, while with bittorrent, goodwill, trust, and cooperation are built into the system. This is probably getting close to why I have such a regard for file sharing.

This is my first post of December and Christmas is coming. Instead of putting your presents under a tree, why not share them on bittorrent? You just don't know who will appreciate your generosity.