Friday, 30 August 2013

Iain Banks, Seamus Heaney, Louise Manson-Hing

It's been a horrid month for deaths.

Iain Banks was also known as Iain M. Banks. He used the two names to distinguish his persona as a science-fiction author from that of a practitioner of more conventional forms of fiction. I am far from an expert in his work, but I have read the science fiction novels Consider Phlebas, Player of Games, and Use of Weapons. 

The three novels can be considered space opera because of their setting, in which a partnership has been established between organic beings (their various species do not matter so much) and artificial intelligences who are considerably more intelligent but, on the whole, like having us around. The partnership is known as "the Culture." It is space-based, insanely rich, and both libertarian and liberal. It also tends to meddle in the affairs of many less advanced peoples to lead them in the direction of being more libertarian, more liberal, and richer. All for their own benefit, of course. As we know from recent history, such efforts are not always appreciated and sometimes cause more damage than good.

The artificial intelligences have long lifespans and a wide range of personalities. They generally appreciate irony. For example, when a non-Culture ambassador commented on their "lack of gravitas," many of them chose names for themselves that proudly advertised the lack: Experiencing a Significant Gravitas Shortfall, for example. Other names express the ship's attitude, such as Poke it with a Stick, or sense of humour, such as Ultimate Ship the Second.

Even though the Culture novels have a space-opera background, and space opera does not have a reputation for exploring ethical problems or developing rounded characters (may I mention Star Wars?), they do ask if individuals would suffer and grow, even in a liberal, post-scarcity utopia. The answer, very clearly, is yes.

Although Iain Banks is one of the best novelists of our time, I think I can call Seamus Heaney the best poet of our time. I first came across his work, oddly enough, in a Grade 12 English Provincial Exam. The poem was called "Digging." In it, the poet is attempting to write, but hears his father working in the garden outside. The sound of digging causes him to flash back to his father's digging of potatoes, twenty years before, and the children's love of the round roots he exposed for them to collect. Then a further flash back to his grandfather, "the best digger on Toner's bog," hard at work. Then back to the present. Although he is proud of them and their work "I've no spade to follow men like them." So he looks again at his pen and thinks "I'll dig with it."

I've summarized the poem so you can appreciate the delightful pride he expresses in his ancestors and his humility towards his own profession. You should read the poem itself, however.

I was taken enough with it to look up the author, something which I have never done for another poet that I've met in a Provincial Exam. I discovered that he had a Nobel Prize in literature and was often called the best Irish poet since Yeats. You'll have to make your own judgement of that, but how many poets could make it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list with a translation of Beowulf? If that is not sufficient to impress you, consider that "In 2009,...two-thirds of the poetry collections sold in the UK the previous year had been Heaney titles."

I will include my favourite poem by Heaney as my last word on the man.


Seamus Heaney
Fishermen at Ballyshannon
Netted an infant last night
Along with the salmon.
An illegitimate spawning,

A small one thrown back
To the waters. But I'm sure
As she stood in the shallows
Ducking him tenderly

Till the frozen knobs of her wrists
Were dead as the gravel,
He was a minnow with hooks
Tearing her open.

She waded in under
The sign of the cross.
He was hauled in with the fish.
Now limbo will be

A cold glitter of souls
Through some far briny zone.
Even Christ's palms, unhealed,
Smart and cannot fish there.
Finally, I come to Louise Manson-Hing. She is not famous. "She dwelt among the untrodden ways." For about fifteen years, she was the most important person in my life. She would have remained one of the most important, even after my marriage, if I had been able to keep up my contact with her. For reasons that I will not go into, I could not.

I met Louise in the back row of a university class. She offered me a muffin. Not a come-on; just simple fellow-feeling. She was not given to playing games with people's minds. She was very protective of her heart, however. She would sometimes reject people, push them away, to find out if they would go. Even when she was doing this, she was one of the best people to talk to for hours on end, and she never hung up. Her voice was well-modulated and beautiful. Her loyalty was intense.

Her personal courage was immense. For example, at one point in her life she enjoyed taking out her little dog for walks through the streets and parks at two or three in the morning. When she was warned that this was not safe, she simply did not understand why she should have to be afraid. Years after, after she had made contact with women who had been hurt by men, she said she felt ashamed for not understanding their point of view. She never adopted it, though. She could look after herself.

After years out of contact, after my own marriage had changed enough to allow it, I tried many ways to contact Louise again. I phoned her workplace a few times, but was told that she did not work there any more. I found her sisters on Facebook and left inquiries with them. Finally, though I knew that she would never have a web page or blog of her own, I simply searched the internet for her name and I found her obituary here. She had been dead from cancer for over a year.

I am ashamed that I was not there for her when she was dying. I wish, more than anything, that I could apologize to her.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Lights without Electricity; Better Shelters for Refugees

Early on, I accepted Buckminster Fuller's idea that we do not need to accept scarcity of resources because we could do more with less. His example was communication from continent to continent: one could do it using tons of copper laid in transoceanic cables, or one could launch less than a gram of copper into orbit in a communications satellite. The second choice is not only cheaper, it is better, but it requires that we focus our attention on the problem. That is what, most often, we fail to do well.

When we do so, the result cheers me up immensely and gives a little hope for civilization's ability to survive. Two stories have recently appeared that show how such ingenuity can improve the lives of the poor.

The first was a better solution for a vast problem: finding suitable shelter for refugees, who number about fifteen million now. At the moment, many are leaving the violence in Syria and need basic shelter, fast. The traditional solution is to put them in tents.

Tents are solutions, but not good ones. They are dark, cramped, cold, and last only about six months before needing replacement. The better solution emerged when the UN High Commission for Refugees asked the designers at IKEA to create a refugee shelter. As one would imagine, they designed a basic home that can be made in a factory, shipped in flat packs, and assembled with included tools in a few hours. It is bigger than the tents that were used, is wired for electrical lights and small appliances, is designed to last for years, includes insulation, and will cost only £655 ($1066.55 Canadian) once mass production starts, and perhaps a tenth of that later, according to PRI. It is now being tried in Ethiopia. Here is one report on it  on Dezeen and another from MSN News:
It can also be upgraded with, for example, solar panels for the electricity and earth walls for extra insulation.

The other story comes from Alfredo Moser, a Brazilian mechanic, who designed a way to light up homes during the day without using any electricity. It is simple and cheap enough for people to install it themselves. It goes like this:
  1. Collect a number of two-litre water bottles.
  2. Clean them, remove labels, and fill them with water and two capfulls of bleach, to prevent algae from growing in them.
  3. Cut holes in the ceiling that the bottles can fit into.
  4. Push the bottle up into the hole, so the top third or so protrudes beyond the roof.
  5. To improve the evenness of the light, put an opaque cap on the bottle, such as the plastic container for camera film.
  6. Seal the bottle in place with polyester resin, so no water can enter.
The result is that the sunlight that strikes the upper part of the bottle refracts through the clear water and provides an even light in the house. On a sunny day, each bottle provides as much light as a 40 to 60 watt bulb.

It is easy to dismiss this idea if one lives in a developed country where electricity is available, reliable, and cheap. However, it makes a difference where it is not, as Mr. Moser says:
There was one man who installed the lights and within a month he had saved enough to pay for the essential things for his child, who was about to be born. Can you imagine?
A good idea like this spreads. Mr. Moser did a few installations of his lights. Other people saw them, thought "good idea," and did their own installations. Now, the Moser light is being installed by charities in the Phillipines, Bangladesh, and about fourteen other countries. By the start of next year, Moser estimates that over a million people will have installed his lights.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

"Breaking Bad" and "Ozymandias": Movies, TV, and Poems II

My son and I watched the first few episodes of the show Breaking Bad, and he went on to watch all the rest. I found them too depressing to watch. That is sometimes the problem with making something too good: It may depress the heck out of its potential audience.

I mention the show because I had put up a posting on poetry used in movies and on TV. The trailer for Breaking Bad's last season would have fitted that posting perfectly.
The poem in the trailer, for anyone who did not have to memorize it in high school, is "Ozymandias" by Percy Bysshe Shelley. The BBC discusses the trailer here.

Another fine example of poetry in a movie is from the last James Bond film, Skyfall. Here, M recites the ending of Tennyson's "Ulysses." Quite appropriate, since the movie's theme, like the poem's, is how to react to age and the decline of one's powers.
Here is an inspired recital of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" from Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. True, not all the words are there, and those that are, are sometimes in the wrong order, but Johnny Depp's Scottish accent here adds a sinister, menacing touch that makes up for any flaws.
Finally, here is the wonderful Emma Thompson reading "Holy Sonnet X" ("Death, Be Not Proud), by John Donne, which ends the movie Wit.