Travel


Red sky at night … nostalgia’s delight

I have long held a special fondness for China, for two reasons. The first is that it has overcome enormous obstacles to get where it is today. The last two hundred years of Chinese history are a catalogue of horrors sufficient to sink any nation: From the depradations of the Emperors in the 19th century, to the Taiping rebellion, then British meddling and the opium wars, then the civil war, the destruction of the Japanese invasion, then the cultural revolution and the great leap forward – China has had barely any time to come to terms with itself in the last 200 years, and it is only in the last 30 years that China has been free of major conflict, famine or disaster and able to focus on development and peace. Against that backdrop, China really is the Little Country that Could, and despite the various repressions and problems of the recent communist era, lifting half a billion people out of poverty in just 20 years is a huge achievement for any country, let alone a country emerging from the ravages of 150 years of war and chaos. As someone who works in public health, China’s achievements in this field are something that any country should be proud of, and for this reason I have a soft spot for the country.

The other reason I look fondly on China is that it was the first developing country I visited for an extended period of time, and my first real holiday destination as an adult. In 2002 I spent a month traveling in China with my friend Sergeant M, starting in Beijing and traipsing through Xi’An, Xiahe, Langmuir, Songpan, Chengdu, Yangshuo and Guangzhou before finishing in Hong Kong. I studied a little mandarin before I traveled and went on a small group trek with a company called Intrepid Travel, and it was an amazing trip. Back then China was definitely still a developing country, and I visited places that still had not achieved adequate sanitation or regular electricity supplies, and I met people whose life experience was a world away from mine. It was eye opening for many reasons, and I still carry many powerful memories of that trip. It also was my first real opportunity to see that the way the west reports on East Asia is extremely shallow and superficial, and that almost everything we think we know about “distant” countries (like China, Japan, Iran) from the outside is wrong or distorted. I don’t believe that traveling makes anyone a better person and I’m not a big fan of travel – I usually only travel for work and don’t make a big effort to go on holidays – but this was a really important and I guess life changing trip for me, so for that reason I view China very fondly indeed, and I am always supporting the efforts of the Chinese people (as opposed to their government) to make their situation better, against occasionally incredible odds.

So it was with some pleasure that I had the chance last week to visit Guangzhou for work, to spend five days in a city that 15 years ago I just passed through on my way to Hong Kong, and to see how much China has changed over the past 15 years. This blog post describes some of the ways in which China has changed in the past 15 years while I was away, and also some of the many ways in which it has not.

Everyone obeys the traffic rules: Driving in China 15 years ago was a terrifying prospect, involving bouncing along decrepit roads in a barely-functioning rattling vehicle with no seatbelts or suspension, driven by a barely sane man who had a reckless disregard for lanes, speed limits or common sense, in a world where everybody shared his signature traits. The car horn was used as a means of communication – most commonly, warning – and things like lanes, traffic lights and traffic police were treated primarily as loose guidelines rather than strict rules. I spent 8 hours hurtling down a two lane road in Sichuan on the edge of a cliff, first watching in horror as our driver overtook slower cars exclusively on blind curves or hill crests, and then finally not watching at all – but looking out of the side window was not an option either, since every couple of hundred yards we would pass a section of barrier that had been torn away, and stare down into the looming abyss as our driver took another screaming turn, horn blaring, playing chicken with a massively overloaded truck. This time I hopped into a taxi at Guangzhou airport to find the familiar lack of seatbelts, but was shocked to find that my driver strictly obeyed the speed limits, drove within lanes, followed rules, and did not use his horn even once. Indeed, even when we hit the traffic crush of the city itself almost no one was blaring their horn, and the main time I saw someone use their horn was to admonish someone else for not following the road rules. I even realized that if you sit in the front seat of the taxi you get to wear a seatbelt. This is a huge change, that made me feel safer on the roads and as a pedestrian even though the traffic in Guangzhou was much more aggressive now than 15 years ago.

No one needs pachinko here

Old men still play chess on the street: In the Hutongs of Beijing 15 years ago I saw groups of middle aged men everywhere, huddled over game boards on the side of the road, playing cards or Chinese chess while other men gathered to watch, yelling advice and opinion. If I spent time watching I would even see the players arguing with the spectators over the right move. I was taught Chinese chess by a cheerful man from Xinjiang on the sleeper train to Xi’An, and after that Sergeant M and I would break out our chess set on long journeys, only to have everyone else on the train gather round to move the pieces for us and advise us. This doesn’t seem to have changed at all, and you can still see groups of men doing this now, as in the group pictured above who were enjoying a Sunday afternoon in Shamian by the water front, arguing over cards.

The portable tea jar is still a thing: Only now the jar is a hipster design. Back in 2002 everyone was carrying a jar of tea, in which the leaves or flowers just floated loose at the bottom of the jar. Often this was literally just a jar, repurposed from some other use, or a battered glass bottle that might have once held alcohol or juice. Everyone still carries that jar, but now everyone’s jar is a well-made, fancy construction, with a design emblazoned on it and a specially-made carry strap or handle. Somethings never change, even though they stay the same.

Smoking is worse: Everyone (male) smokes, and I guess now no one is so poor that they can’t afford to. China needs tobacco control badly. But it does appear that China has introduced indoor smoking laws, or at least lots of restaurants and shops have decided that is the best thing to do, and so in that regard it’s doing at least as well as Japan. Also compared to Japan women still don’t smoke much at all, which means that the tobacco companies haven’t made progress on half the population, and now that tobacco control efforts are beginning to happen, they probably never will. It’s good to see that half the world’s population still remains relatively safe from Big Tobacco’s evil schemes.

China has digitized incredibly: 15 years ago when I entered a restaurant my only concern was “did I bring cash”? But now when I enter a restaurant I have to worry “did I only bring cash?” Not because the restaurant only accepts cards, but because the entire process – from viewing the menu to ordering to paying – happens on your phone. I went to a restaurant with my collaborator where this whole process happened by scanning a QR code with your phone. This brought up the menu, from which we placed our order, and then we paid using a bank account linked to my colleague’s WeChat account (which is like the Chinese social network equivalent of Facebook). This also happened with the cafe next to the university, with a food order from my hotel, and with paying for small things everywhere. Somehow China has become a country that hasn’t yet got clean drinking water, but has skipped credit cards straight to a cashless society. Imagine if every daily transaction was handled by a QR code and a bank account attached to Facebook – including the bottled water you had to buy because the tap water is not potable. Weird!

Everyone rides a bike but no one owns one: 15 years ago the roads in Beijing had separate multi-lane bike sections, and all of life happened on bicycles. This is still the case, but no one rides their own bike anymore. Instead there is a network of QR code-operated disposable bikes, such as Mobike, which are just dumped anywhere around the city and which you access with your phone. Scanning the QR code unlocks the bike, which you can ride anywhere you want. You dump it at the destination and scan again, and the money is deducted from your account. There is no pick-up or drop-off point, like in many European bike share schemes, and no rules at all about how to use it. The bikes are simply there, everywhere, waiting to be used. This means that if you go somewhere far from public transport you can just pick up a bike at the nearest station and ride to your destination – as everyone did at the university I was visiting, which is equidistant from three railway stations. (You can see an example of one of these bikes in the picture above). This is a brilliant scheme that is really useful in a big urban conglomerate like Guangzhou, and makes perfect sense. I doubt it will ever be properly implemented in Tokyo, because the digital payment system won’t be and Tokyo is (comparatively) really strict about bike parking. It’s great to see China finding a way to make such a simple and liberating invention as the bicycle even more useful and liberating, using another uniquely liberating device (the mobile phone).

The security state is more intrusive: 15 years ago my only encounter with the security state was the (super stern) guards at Tiananmen Square, and the almost comically inept security official in Tibet who tried to interfere with our guide. This time around they were much more visible, with guards standing around every railway station scanning your bag when you entered or left, and public security police even stationed near roadway toll booths and other basic public infrastructure. It’s my understanding that there has been a lot of spontaneous local uprising in the past 10 years, not directed at central government but at local corruption and poor local decisions, and I imagine that the security state is quite scared that these spontaneous local expressions of discontent might link up and become national, so I guess this might explain it – along perhaps with fear of (or cynical use of the fear of) terrorism from Xinjiang, where there is a bit of an insurrection going on. There is also a lot more internet interference than 15 years ago, though this is probably a function of the internet being more integral to ordinary life (15 years ago press censorship in China was omnipresent, and it would have been impossible for a foreigner in the country to get access to foreign news sources that had not been approved). Interestingly no newspapers were blocked to me – the Australian ABC, the Guardian, the Washington Post, even the Daily Mail were freely available without using a VPN. It’s telling that China’s Great Firewall is directed at social media networks, not news. What does that say about the relative importance of those two forms of media?

Collect the set!

Socialist values have diversified!: 15 years ago there were big signs on public buildings announcing socialist slogans like “Postal workers united to build a revolutionary China” and stuff like that. These were huge banners in red with the slogans written in Chinese and English, presumably intended to inculcate the proper spirit of socialist fervour in this (intensely free market oriented!) society. This hasn’t changed, but it appears that the set of core values has diversified to 12, which include democracy, freedom, justice and the rule of law (see the helpful guide above). Who knew! Strangely I couldn’t find anyone who had recently voted … I’m a little sketchy about the equality value, since it’s pretty obvious that inequality has grown over the past 15 years, but I can certainly believe prosperity and patriotism, and Chinese people remain as civil as they ever were. There are a lot of building sites in Guangzhou, and their outer walls are all covered in this propaganda. I have to say the font is pretty cool, and the propaganda is quite swish (further along the wall I photographed they have a detailed exposition of each value, with pictures – patriotism has a picture of a bunch of children doing kung fu, with (of course) a QR Code in case you need more information.

On this point it’s worth noting that British newspapers often talk about “British values”, the British government is planning to (or has?) included “British values” in its citizenship test (do potential citizens of Mao-Mao descent have to answer questions on the British value of “Colonialism”?) Australian politicians also ramble on about “Aussie values”, including the reprehensible focus of a past conservative government on “mateship”, so I guess it’s worth noting that identifying core values and blasting them into the minds of your citizens is not a uniquely Chinese trait. But I will contend that it comes in a better font.

Under stranger skies

The sky bleeds: And it is cool. I follow a woman called Marilyn Mugot on Instagram whose shtick is pictures of China’s vivid purple-red urban night skies, and in Guangzhou I really understood the fascination that led her to run that account. The sky really is red at night, I guess through the pollution and also the Chinese fondness for vivid red and yellow light. Guangzhou is constantly misty and rainy too, which I guess helps to give the evenings a real Bladerunner feeling. Fifteen years ago it didn’t feel like that all, partly because the cities I visited were not yet megalopolises, and partly because the air was cleaner. It’s a pretty striking phenomenon and I have never seen it in Tokyo. Bright lights and strange skies – that’s modern China.

Chinese service is still ditzy, chaotic and effective: In my experience of getting any service in China it happens, it happens reasonably quickly, but it doesn’t happen always in the way that you expected, and often during every stage of the process everyone is confused about what they’re doing, and happily expresses their confusion while they find a workaround or a new way to do what they should, one assumes, have been doing forever. It’s also very cheerful, if not always very friendly, which makes it an almost perfect contrast with Japanese service, which is often cold or not friendly but always formal, polite, efficient, and organized. This aspect of China doesn’t seem to have changed at all – and neither does the inordinately large number of people required to provide service anywhere. The cafe near the university had 10 seats and five staff, so at any time three staff were standing around doing nothing. In Europe that would be one person, in Japan two. In terms of social cohesion and engagement I can’t say I think the European or Japanese way is better, but I guess I should kick up a stink because my coffee cost 240 yen, and if they employed half as many people maybe it would only cost 200 yen? That’s surely worth sacking three humans, right? In any case, it seems like this is a social contract – companies hire extra people, and there’s no unemployment, and everyone’s happy. I guess … I’ll be interested to see whether the productivity gains implicit in reducing those staff loads happen in anything like the time frame in which China has digitized, since it seems like the excess staff thing hasn’t changed at all in 15 years, while in every other way China has changed radically. Interesting, that … but I hope in any case that the ditzy chaotic service style doesn’t change, because I like it.

So that is my China after 15 years. My work fate is now entangled with China’s, as I am involved in an ongoing project here and hope to become further involved in working on public health in this amazing, growing, booming and innovative country, and some of my best students have come from there and now returned there to pursue their own futures. So I’ll be continuing to cheer China as its people negotiate the complexities of development and growth under communism, in an increasingly uncertain world. I hope they can do as well in the next 15 years as they have in the last 15!

Little tiny worlds

Little tiny worlds

Last weekend I took a brief trip to Osaka to watch the 13th day of the Sumo. The following day I visited Saihoji, the Moss Temple, on the outskirts of Tokyo. Of course the Sumo was good, although there’s something wrong with Hakuho at the moment that is throwing an overpoweringly negative aura over the whole thing, but the standout experience of my weekend was moss viewing at the Moss Temple.

Moss viewing is exactly what it sounds like, the act of appreciating moss in its full furry glory. In Japanese the phrase for this is koke kansatsu, strictly speaking the “appreciation of moss”, and it is a little-known companion activity to the famous viewings of cherry blossoms (in late March/early April) and Autumn leaves (in November). Moss viewing has been developing a following recently, that can be witnessed quite well on instagram with the #苔 hashtag and is described in detail at this website. One very good place to do this is the Moss Temple, Saihoji (西芳寺), a Buddhist temple near Arashiyama in Kyoto that is within walking distance of Kamikatsura station (signs clearly mark the path to the temple), and which has extensive Japanese gardens devoted to the furry green stuff.

Precarious plantations

Precarious plantations

My friend in Osaka told me about the temple so we visited together. You can’t just turn up at this temple; you have to book in advance by sending a postcard to the temple requesting a time, and waiting for them to send you back a reply postcard that tells you when you can get in. It costs 3000 yen each to enter the temple, and once you get in you don’t get to go straight to the moss garden you’ve been waiting for. Instead, you have to attend a prayer, where you sit in front of a small desk along with about 50 other people in the temple’s inner sanctum. The monks provide you with a calligraphy brush, a wooden votive stick and an ink block. They then sing the haramita heart sutra, which they sing at high speed and great intensity. You can hear a slower rendition of this sutra here, though I stress it is slower than the version I heard. You then have to write a prayer on the votive stick and take it to the altar to make your wish. Apparently during weekdays you are expected to copy out the whole sutra on a piece of paper before you leave (from the video you can see this would be a pain). Unfortunately my hand-writing is terrible and I have no experience with the brush, so my prayer was a blurred monstrosity. However, I’m sure whoever or whatever I’m offering my prayer to can read my heart, right …?

There's unobtainium in them there hills!

There’s unobtainium in them there hills!

After the devotions are over you are free to wander the temple, which takes probably an hour if, like me, you stop to take a lot of pictures. The garden is a sprawling patch of moss around a couple of interconnected lakes, most of the garden roped off to protect the moss. From the edges of the path it’s easy to take a variety of close up pictures of different landscapes, and everything they say is true – the moss really is like its own tiny world, with a diverse range of landscapes and structures in the micro world of its curlicules and spores. If you get in close and zoom in it resembles forests, plains, hills, deserts – you can see all the structures of the earth recreated in miniature within its strange fractal shapes. It’s great! I went at probably the wrong season (the rainy season, in June, is apparently best), and on a bright day which is  not the best day for moss-viewing, but I still saw a wide range of colours, patterns and strange wildernesses on the verge of the path.

The Saihoji temple is a great place for viewing moss. It’s only an hour from Osaka and the complex booking system means that there aren’t many people there, so you aren’t always jostling to see things as is often the case when you visit anywhere near Tokyo. The heart sutra is a really interesting experience and is sung with heartfelt power by the monks, and provides a powerful backdrop to the full enjoyment of the peace and tranquility of a mossy Japanese garden. Then, there is moss. Which is great. I strongly recommend this travel experience in Kyoto, although I think it may be impossible for people without a connection in Japan who can send the postcard. If you can arrange it though, I strongly recommend trying to get to this temple – and I recommend moss viewing anywhere, if you have a magnifying glass or a good camera, and a willingness to look really, really nerdy … Which, if you’re reading this blog, I’m sure you do!

 

Date: 2nd November 2166

Weather: Sunny! I got laughed at for carrying an umbrella by all the old ladies in the square …

Outfit: Yoga pants and a jacket. I thought Venice was meant to be the centre of fashion so packed all my shortest skirts and my coolest tights, and I had such a selection of fake haut cauture blouses and one pieces, but then I discovered that not only is Venice entirely stairs and men looking up your miniskirt but every girl here is wearing just yoga pants and a jacket and I felt so out of place except for the old ladies going to church who are so stylish but who does that so I had to run out and buy a set of yoga pants and a jacket (because I couldn’t wear the jacket I took to Rome since it’s covered in blood and that was such a nice jacket but Dirty Rum says he’ll replace it, I get expenses for this mission!). So now I’m walking around Venice wearing these super thin yoga pants and I can see every other girls panties through the fading patches on her bum and I’m super paranoid everyone can see mine but if I wear anything better I feel like everyone’s looking at me which you don’t want just after you have killed a major religious figure and left him in the bath with his big old man’s stiff prong getting stiffer before the polizia find him. Better to be incognito but I don’t feel incognito running around this ancient, crumbling crowded city in what is basically underwear, but no one notices me now because that’s what everyone else is wearing. Maybe I should download a yoga chipset to match this dodgy culture chipset that keeps making me go into boring museums!

Mood: Betrayed! Not because of the job, which went perfectly although the old man begged at the end and I felt like I was killing my grandpa, but then I saw the videos on his phone and realized that his night of lechery wasn’t ever intended to end in a big fat payout which I probably should raise with Dirty Rum but I guess since I was only in the bathtub so I could kill the old man there’s no use getting overly anxious about the fact that he was only in the bathtub so he could kill me. How does a crusty old dude like that kill a young woman anyway? I guess I learnt the reason when I toured the art galleries which is also why I’m feeling so betrayed! Because Dirty Rum said to me “you’re going to Rome to kill a man, and after that you should take a couple of days’ holiday. Go to Venice, soak in some culture,” so I thought when he said “soak in some culture” he meant to download a chipset on the renaissance, which I did, but why would I go to Venice just to download a chipset? That’s what the husk is for, I could have walked all of Venice’s crowded, crumbling streets right here in my bedroom! But Dirty Rum and I really needed this job so I went, and I downloaded the chipset from a cheap roadside vendor by the Fondamente, and at first it was fine but then it kept making me want to go to museums I didn’t want to go to even after I’d been in one and realized how much I hate this “art” these Venetians are peddling but it kept pushing me to go to more which is when I realized someone had bugged my chipset to make me spend money on museums I don’t like, and squished it under my (not high!) heel. So now here I am sitting by the canal with a crodino, thinking it’s probably good that Italy fell apart, because this whole place is just living in the past, and feeling betrayed by that chip-seller at the Fondamente. I would go back and drown him, but it’s bad enough wearing dry yoga pants – wet yoga pants would be just the worst!!! There’s some old Italian prince-dude called Machiavelli who probably has something good to say on this now, but since I ripped out that chipset I can’t remember any of the details of this place. I don’t speak any Italian or English either, and the only New Mandarin speakers are leading tours by that god-awful church by the lake, so I guess I’ll be staying right here by the canal until I go home.

I went to Rome to kill a man. Some old dude who runs a cult, an old cult that’s been around since humans were riding around on horses and dying of smallpox and blaming it all on some old dude in the sky. Rome used to be in this place called Italy but the old dude lives in a kind of summer house to Rome that has these really big walls. Anyway after Italy got carved up by the corporations and broken up into different little bits, this old dude was raising hell about it and saying it should all be put back together, and his little cult have some kind of influence all around the world, kind of like Nestle but through preaching instead of baby powder, and nobody really cared but then this little sect of his cult, called Optical Day or something, decided to get all terrorist and start blowing corporate assets up (why would a contact lens company blow up another company? Contact lenses are like a contract to print money, you don’t need to start any corporate wars if you’re a contact lens company! But Italians seem to be a hot headed bunch, must be all the typhoons in the mediterranean that drive them crazy). So finally the corporations decided to kill this old dude but he drives around in like a bullet-proof, rocket-proof AV and has his own personal guard of bad-arsed swiss dudes, and he lives behind these big walls all the time, and they couldn’t afford to nuke him (cheap!) so they needed to find another way in. And it turns out – shock! – that this old dude has a thing for young girls, but he likes variety, and he’s never had an inuit, and so here is Dirty Rum trafficking me into those high walls to some special place in there with a big bath and a very fancy day room and wall-to-wall porn of like the scariest kind, and my job is simple: kill this old dude in the bath and then shoot my way out.

So I did that, and on my way out I happened to kick his phone where it was plugged into one of his porno screens – I slipped, there was a lot of blood – and it somehow flicked to a new channel and that’s when I spent half an hour watching videos of the previous girls he’d had in the bath, and it wasn’t pretty and I suddenly had this big urge to send Dirty Rum a message saying “this job’s on me” but then I remembered that I’m not stupid, so I used the old dude’s dead finger to bypass his security, and mailed the whole lot to a couple of TV stations. Then I left, and went to Venice.

I only went to Venice because Dirty Rum said I should soak up some culture. I’ve never really been on a holiday before unless you count an afternoon of girls talk in Mister Donut, and I don’t really get why people go all the way to another country to pry into its dirty past. I mean, every culture is built on a bunch of horrible things and bad old ideas, and it always seemed to me like a lot of unnecessary effort to go halfway across the world to go prying into someone else’s bad secrets, like a kind of cultural voyeurism. Not that that’s the reason I never went to Disneyland – I just can’t afford it. Also Disneyland got nuked, so probably isn’t the best place to visit and who wants to go to America anyway? I’ll never meet an American I trust, I’m sure! But Dirty Rum said this one was on him, and have you ever seen Venice in the Autumn? So I took a train from Rome to Venice, and Dirty Rum arranged a nice hotel for me that rises above these narrow cobbled streets like an angel of steel and glass, and I can look over the whole thing, its pools of pale light and deep canyons of shadow, and think – I killed your stupid cult leader. You owe me.

Of course the bells are ringing a lot now he’s dead, and the TV stations are kind of frantic with all this talk about his paedophilia and his necrophilia, but me, I’m taking in the airs. Strolling the canals in my yoga pants, listening to my chipset tell me about how such-and-such a rich dude from the same cult built this building, and so-and-so rich dude from the same cult built that building, and oh by the way did you know that this piece of crumbling mosaic was dedicated to some poor sappy guy who was killed by enemies of the cult? This whole town is built on this stuff.

So I was kind of interested to find out a bit more about this cult, so I went to the big church in the square by the lake, where they have this tour that you can see the old church that is still running, and it’s meant to be impressive but really it’s only impressive because a bunch of people from 500 years ago could make a small house and put some badly shaped gold crust on the ceiling. You walk around and think it’s kind of pokey and what would these people have thought if they’d been taken to a Fay Ling Moon concert 500 years ago, they’d probably have died. It was kind of nice when I stood near the edge of this group of people who were praying, they sang a little song of devotion in pure and beautiful voices, the candle light wavering on their yoga pants and jackets and the voice of the crusty old dude ringing clear and faithful through the church. But then I turned away to walk out and there was this series of three little weird curtained booths with names over them that my chipset told me were confessional booths, where you can go in and hide your face while you tell the old man whose name is over the booth about bad things you did or even thought and he collects your stories so that he can go home later and imagine you without your yoga pants on doing those bad things that really aren’t bad at all, and I thought that old man leading the prayer was actually a kind of sleazy old man wasn’t he, just like his boss. And I looked at those booths and the curtain hanging limp there waiting for a person to sit inside it feeling bad for being natural and I thought it’s kind of like the biohazard suits we had to wear in the Indo zone, only to keep the hazard in, not out. And suddenly I felt kind of tired and sad looking around at the weary old gold-crusted ceiling, thinking about all the thousands of women who’ve trooped through here, entering those little booths of biohazard shame feeling like what happened in their yoga pants was okay, and leaving ashamed of themselves because some slimy old man told them so. And then I walked out kind of fast because I was getting angry and I didn’t want to do anything stupid to blow my cover.

… and then I got this desire to go to the old art gallery, which is called the Academy or something but the locals have got surprisingly bad English so they mis-spelled it and it took me ages to find it in my dictionary (why did I download a culture chipset instead of a language one?! I think I should upgrade my neuralware next time I’m in Russia, it’s cheap there and reliable). It cost a small fortune for an Inuit girl to get into the Academy, but I kept a receipt because Dirty Rum is paying for all this, and so in I wandered to look at all the art, and the chipset was full of all this knowledge about how great it all was, but as the rooms passed me by I started to get this really bad feeling about it all, like … these people really have built their entire artistic heritage on a pretty rough foundation, haven’t they? And I trust Dirty Rum but I’m starting to give him a good bit of side-eye now because I’m wondering why he thinks it’s culture to be painting a bunch of poorly-rendered pictures about some chick who had a baby without having sex which is like impossible, and a dude whose dad killed him just so he could be famous, and everywhere these really nasty, scary-looking babies that sometimes have wings and sometimes look really skeezy. And every time that virgin mother is in the picture there’s a bunch of super old dudes staring at her in this really dirty way and it’s like for 400 years the artists of this entire country couldn’t work out how to paint a finger or an arm or let alone a baby but they were like pre-eminent masters at getting that sleazy look so perfectly captured that it beamed on down through the ages to where a young girl looking at it today is like “that is the universal embodiment of sleaze!” What a lucky virgin mother this Mary chick was … It’s really weird too how the only reason she’s special is that she had a baby whose dad killed it just to get onto some ancient talent show, but then everyone thinks that she couldn’t be special at all if she had actually done some sweaty tussling with a man to get that baby going – that’s some real dirty double standards shining through right there and you can see that double standard in every roughly drawn picture of her carrying her stupid baby that’s gonna die, looking so stupid and innocent while a bunch of old men are leering at her thinking they want her but they’re dirty for thinking they want her.

Which I think is why that old dude I killed had to kill the girls after he’d diddle them, because he hated himself for doing what everyone knows is really just natural, though kind of gross, and his stupid religion tells him he’s bad for doing all the things that his body needs to do, and somehow on this peninsula that bad way of thinking got to be a thing, until the guy who represented that thing was so special that he could fly a bullet-proof AV and get to strangle any Inuit girl he wants, because he feels bad about wanting to be inside her.

Of course all these crazy ideas came up before people invented guns and contraception and cyberware, and now the world is different and any girl with a dentata and a pair of rippers can do away with some sleazy old strangler who wants what he doesn’t deserve. And now the whole cult is in tumult, I guess, because girls can run around in yoga pants killing their idols or other people’s idols, or having sex with them if they want though why you’d want to has always been a mystery to me, and doing the things that girls naturally want to do like chatting with their friends freely in public and shooting people for money. And those old pictures now they’re just relics of a time when nobody knew any better and girls like me couldn’t be free to do what we wanted, but there’s still people in the world who think the bad things that we were are important to the good things we’ve become instead of something we should be ashamed of, and I was sitting there on one of the benches while all the pretentious arty fashion types were walking past me talking about colour and light (probably – they weren’t talking Mandarin or Inuit so who knows if they were but they seemed to be!) and thinking, no, this is just dross, it’s old paper with bad scrawlings on it, let’s take some photos sure so that the people who like history can study it but maybe we should just burn this stuff down now? Because this building would make a great shooting range, if we cleared a few walls away. Or a dance club!

What we could be

What we could be

And then I left. But that chipset still had me thinking I needed to go to another weird old museum of skeezy dudes, and it led me across this bridge and then there was this museum of modern design that I managed to get into even though the chipset was really making me feel uncomfortable about it. And the museum had a special display about glass sculptures which was mostly terrible but I found this little side door that led into a dark room that had these two pieces of glass hanging in air like shreds of angels, and they were pieces of glass moulded in the shape of the lower torso and legs of people. They glowed there in the air, suspended in silence and darkness and carrying their own luminous flesh so powerfully that I could feel my own cyberskin moved and moving to the same colour. And I just assumed they were male torsos because all the art I had seen was about men but then I saw the little secret slits and the smooth beauty of their parts and I realized that these were some kind of floating embodiment of femininity, and I stood there entranced and my thoughts briefly washed away from me except the chipset was nagging me to go, go, go and watch some real art about men and their needs so I ripped it out right then and crushed it on the floor and just stood there thinking yes, we are in a better place, this world we’re in now where girls can hang luminous in the darkness, their skin flawless and glowing and their power complete, just like mine was when I strangled that nasty little man in the bath, one hand around his neck as his eyes bulged and my rippers sliding in and out of his sagging, filthy belly, the blood mingling with the bubbles in the bath and the spilled champagne, his gasps like a kind of choir singing hosannas to the perfection of modern womanhood in gurgling, ragged sighs.

And I didn’t go to any more museums. I’m going to enjoy the sun by the canals and watch the tourists wander by, until my flight lifts me out of this crumbling kingdom of old ruins and ruined old men, and takes me back east, where the future is.

Welcome to Turkey, Land of the Imperial Cat

Welcome to Turkey, Land of the Imperial Cat

I’ve been in Istanbul for three days, and aside from getting tear-gassed on my first night in town it’s been a nice experience. The city is frustrating, however, and I’ve experienced a cavalcade of disasters (mostly of my own making), so as a balm for my frustrations here are three cute Turkish things I found while I was here.

  1. In the Grand Bazaar, a gallipoli-themed chess set. One side is the forces of the Ottoman empire, the other the invading allies – and the pawns are ANZAC diggers, unmistakable in their slouch hats. This is maybe just one of many examples in which Turks and Australians share a common political sense
  2. Nescafe! In a quite sophisticated restaurant today, two Germans came in and ordered coffee, and were asked “espresso or nescafe”? Many restaurants and cafes have nescafe on their menu, not necessarily for less than the espresso. I also noticed this in Greece, where it was even more pronounced – cafes would put up signs saying “We have NESCAFE!!” Why? What are these people thinking? Especially in Istanbul – the Starbucks below my hotel[1] tells me that Istanbul’s first coffee shop was established in the 17th century, and Wikipedia tells me that the Turkish word for breakfast means “before coffee”[3] – how can such a culture voluntarily serve Nescafe?!? This is like going to France and finding every bakery advertises croissants “made with pure margarine.” The only explanation I can think of that is not embarrassing for Turkish culture is that it represents the pernicious effect of British tourists on local cuisine.
  3. Mussels with lemon! All down the main street from Taksim square you can find men selling mussels from the shell, with lemon. These seem to be raw, though I can’t tell (the shell is closed so I guess they’re raw), and they’re on sale late at night. This means that when people come piling out of the local pubs and bars they suck down a few raw mussels with lemon. Which is particularly strange because Turkey is, obviously, the land of the kebab. While in the UK or Australia the kebab is the late-night drinker’s food of choice, here in Turkey kebabs are food and the late night drinker has a penchant for mussels with lemon. Truly, some cultural differences cannot be understood, and must simply be accepted.

Overall I’ve enjoyed my stay here and I can recommend Istanbul as a holiday destination. I also recommend coming for more than two days, get one of the museum passes (you can skip queues and save money if you push your museum visits within a 72 hour period), and don’t stay in Taksim – unless you want to get tear-gassed on your way out the door. Also, familiarize yourself with the transport network, it’s good, and if you like metal I recommend a visit to the metal bar in Taksim (can’t give the name or location, but it’s great and really friendly). I prefer Athens (Athens was great!) and the two seem to have a lot in common, generally, but others would no doubt disagree with me, but one thing is for certain: Turkey’s historic sites are more accessible and more impressive. And do visit the Blue Mosque, it’s awesome!

fn1: Starbucks in Istanbul is really good, incidentally. But it doesn’t serve baklava[2]

fn2: which is fine: I’m going to make myself unpopular here and state that Turkish baklava is no better than that you can find in London or Sydney; and furthermore, German beer is boring and over-rated.

fn3: what did they call breakfast before they invented coffee?

The Grounds and the Kaiji School

The Grounds and the Kaichi School

Yesterday I visited Matsumoto with my friend from London, Dr. M. We were unburdened by annoying Germans, and able to enjoy the full glories of this small town nestled in the foothills of the Japanese Alps. Matsumoto’s castle is a national treasure, as well as a deathtrap for elderly people, and like most castles in Japan more fun to view from the outside than from within. It gave some interesting insights into feudal life, including a wide selection of firearms and examples of the tribulations of daily life in Sengoku Japan. That was all fun, but Matsumoto’s real hidden gem is the Kaichi School, a museum about education in Japan that is located in the building of the old Kaichi Elementary school, next to the new Kaichi school. It seems strange to say that a museum about education and education policy can be fun (can you imagine anything more boring?) but it actually really was. I think for those of us who set our gaming worlds in the not-so-distant past, this kind of information is invaluable for creating a rich and believable fantasy setting, so I thought I’d describe a little of what I saw here. Plus, of course, we all went to school, so we can compare our own experiences with those of the children of two very different countries: the past, in Japan.

The Dragons and the Nameplate

The Dragons and the Nameplate

The Kaichi school is important in Japanese education policy because it was a leader in education policy at the time it was built, and it was one of the first schools built after the Meiji restoration. The Kaichi school was active in the Freedom and People’s Rights movement, and so important to that movement that the Emperor Meiji himself visited Matsumoto to try and calm the demands of that movement. He stayed in the school, which has a room dedicated to his memory. As a result of its role in education reform, the modern school museum is a repository of historical material on education reform in Japan. The school building is itself a very beautiful whitewashed building in a European style, with many Japanese touches – such as the dragons over the entrance and carved into doors in the interior. The old classrooms have been turned into exhibits, depicting education in Japan from the era of the samurai to the modern day.

A samurai child's schoolbook

A samurai child’s schoolbook

I was surprised to discover that education before the Meiji era was actually already quite universal, though not particularly good quality or equitable. Most education was carried out by temples, until the law in 1880 which made education mandatory for all children. Before then different children received different levels of education, with samurai receiving the most impressive while farmers simply learnt to count and write basic information. By 1880 about 90% of the population was in some kind of education and literacy rates were 45% for men and 15% for women. The museum had examples of the schoolbooks of the pre-Meiji era, and some woodcuts depicting children being educated; it also had photos from the late Meiji era, showing for example girls from poor families who were paid to work as baby-sitters, studying with their charges slung on their backs because their master was required to pay for their education. They learnt to write things like “Thank you master, it is due to your kindness that I am able to learn to read.” The museum had lots of photos of the school over time, and also woodcuts depicting education before that era. It also had a selection of documents from the opening of the school, showing what gifts were given. When the school was opened, they held a Shinto ceremony to sanctify it, and the local farmers and citizens donated rice, sake and fish (Bream) as gifts to the shrine and the school. The school opened in 1876 and universal education was mandated in 1880, so until then parents paid the teachers gifts of rice, fish and other farm products. Looking at these exhibits, one is reminded of how incredibly poor Japanese society was before 1873, and how incredibly rapidly it developed after the restoration.

Destroy!

Destroy!

Of course, Japan’s development in the modern era is bracketed by two extreme events, the Meiji restoration in 1873 and the Pacific War from 1931-1945. The museum spends a lot of time on the Meiji reforms but doesn’t shy away from the role of education in promoting and supporting war in the Pacific War. It has a room devoted to the Pacific war, in which it shows the activities of the school and its students during the war. The picture above is an example of what students learnt during that time. On the right of the lower picture are two caricatures of American and English soldiers (the American is smoking, and the Englishman looks suave); on the left of the (female?) soldier with the naginata the two kanji say gekimetsu, destruction. In the picture above this, a sad-looking man salutes under the caption “Young men going to the sky” (Japanese depictions of the war in the air often use this romantic language of the sky, rather than more technical language about “air war” or “aerial”, I don’t know why – maybe there’s a clue in the new Ghibli movie).
DCIM0087

The second to last room of the exhibition is a room full of different textbooks over time. This includes textboooks from the war and the immediate post-war period; the picture above shows a textbook from the war era, while the picture below shows a textbook from immediately after the war that has been censored to within an inch of its life. The textbook is open to a page that says the following:

Mr Soldier, please look at the words and pictures I draw

Please also show them to the children of Korea

When you capture new lands, please wave the flag of Japan and yell “banzai.”

Mr Soldier, please work hard and happily.

We visit the shrine to pray for you on the first day of every month

I guess the Japanese were too poor and there was too much policy chaos after the war to write new textbooks, but they couldn’t exactly deploy the war-era textbooks untouched, since they would have been full of the worst imperialist and racist tripe, and the kind of disturbing language used in the textbook above. But I can’t help thinking that this kind of heavy-handed censorship would merely encourage children of that era to investigate the “truth” about the war. (Which they would have to do – the Japanese explanation below indicates that in some cases 30% of the text book was censored!)

How is this helping Yamato kun learn?

How is this helping Yamato kun learn?

Of course life after the war changed a lot, and the next set of textbooks shows this: they are luminous, beautifully-written affairs. As far as I can tell the same age of children would be expected to read the textbook shown in the picture above and in the picture below. The text on the picture above is all about asking soldiers of Japan to struggle in war – it is supplicative and futile. The text in the rightmost book below simply states that “the sky glowed, the sea glowed, the roofs glowed” – it describes a pastoral idyll. Which is it better for children to learn?

A sudden change for the better ...

A sudden change for the better …

These installations really show how text books can vary rapidly across time, and how closely education policy supports and reflects national policy at any time. I guess if the education system had been allowed to continue in its chaotic private form after 1880, it would have been a lot harder for the government to exert a common propaganda line – though the counterfactual would likely have been little better, since by 1940 all arms of society had been sucked into the war economy and it is unlikely that the private educators would have been able to escape this trend to the glorification of war (not to mention that the state was basically seized by the army, who probably would not have tolerated freedom in educational curricula after 1931). I guess one of the downsides of a standardized curriculum that enables a country to go from post-feudal rural basket case to world power in 50 years is that it is vulnerable to misuse as a propaganda tool…

After its “textbooks through the ages” exhibition, the single biggest room in the school was devoted to a “desks through the ages” installation, shown in the picture below. The desk furthest at the right is from before the Meiji era and is called a 天神机, heavenly desk. It doesn’t look heavenly. Some of these desks were quite ornately made, though they looked rather uncomfortable. I think most nerdy types have spent a lot of our childhood crouched over a desk learning what makes the world tick – it’s interesting to see how people in a completely different time and place were doing it. Mostly worse, by the looks of things.

A desk! A desk! My empire for a desk!

A desk! A desk! My empire for a desk!

This picture also gives a sense of how beautiful the inside of this school is. I really recommend this little museum for a visit if you are in Matsumoto. The castle is also interesting, and the town as a whole is a pretty little place full of old buildings – it is apparently one of the few cities in Japan that has maintained its old buildings, and so riding around in it is a really pleasant experience. For foreigners visiting Japan it is an excellent side trip. It is 2.5 hours from Shinjuku, it is close to skiing, monkey onsens and highland walks, the town itself is pretty and it has an excellent website. There are many old warehouses in the town that have been converted into shops or restaurants, and it is very easy to get around. If you are looking for somewhere to stay I recommend the Dormy Inn – the staff are excellent, the breakfast delicious, and the onsen relaxing. If you go, try to spend at least two nights here so you can explore the surrounding countryside, the castle and at least one of the museums or galleries. And head to the 女鳥川 (a river whose English translation I don’t know) because there is a cute set of streets lining it that have really old buildings and interesting restaurants, overlooking the river. It’s a really nice escape from the hustle and bustle of the big city, nestled equidistant between Tokyo and Osaka, with a lot of cultural information to keep you interested. And if you go there, visit the school!

[Updated late at night on 26th September to correct the spelling of Kaichi school (how dumb am I?) and to include the translation of a textbook page, which I checked with a friend].

Horses have never really liked me ... this one has just caught on.

Horses have never really liked me … this one has just caught on.

Last week I was invited by collaborators to attend the Nomaoi horse festival in Minamisoma, Fukushima. This festival dates back 1000 years, to the warring states (sengoku) period, and appears to have arisen from some kind of training ritual. It was cancelled in the year of the Great East Japan Earthquake but has otherwise been held every year, even during the war (as far as I know). It is a big event for the towns of Soma and Minamisoma, and I and other collaborators were invited as guests of our local project collaborator. He arranged us excellent seats for all the events, souvenirs and a formal dinner, so overall it was an excellent event. It’s a major tourism event for the town, but it’s also clearly of huge importance for the town itself, with (I think) this year 504 horses and riders participating, and probably an equal number of footmen.

Summoning the beasts

Summoning the beasts

The ceremony lasts three days, but I only saw the second day. This day starts with a parade through town by the samurai, all mounted on their horses and wearing their ceremonial armour. They are arranged in groups according to their sponsors: the most important sponsors are the three shrines that are the focus of the day, but other groups – suburbs, companies, etc. – can also sponsor a squad. The squads are arranged in the style of the armies of old, with a general, colonels, etc. Higher orders wear flags on their backs, and ride ornately decorated horses. They stop at regular intervals along the parade to announce their purpose, and occasional small dramas of military life are played out (with comedic overtones) during these moments.

A peasant's last sight

A peasant’s last sight

This parade is surprising for the amount of activity it involves – in addition to general’s conferences, there are occasionally lieutenants charging up and down the line, drummers announcing the arrival of a new squad, announcements of names and faces over a loud-speaker, and occasional tumbles – I saw one man thrown from his horse, and the people opposite me nearly got run down. The riders are all ages and sexes and all classes – I saw one of my collaborators (an internal surgeon) on horseback, followed soon after by a heavily made-up girl who would probably be judged to be pretty low-class by the locals (I’m not a good judge of these things). Very elderly men rode by on plodding draught horses, followed by children on ponies. The trappings were largely traditional, with the stirrups, saddles and girth all apparently modeled on the ancient fashion. We’ll come back to that …

After the parade we returned, with military precision, to our base camp for a 10 minute rest, and then headed to the racecourse. Here, the braver warriors gathered to race each other around a 1000m circuit as a huge crowd watched. This racecourse would also be the venue for the final battle, so I was to spend several hours here in our covered tent, enjoying my obento lunchbox and my free beer, and watching warriors try to kill themselves.

The battleground and warriors in transit

The battleground and warriors in transit

I say “kill themselves” because the races were incredibly dangerous. I watched 6 races, with 6 participants per race, and out of the 36 participants identified the following events:

  • 3 fallen riders
  • 2 hospitalized riders
  • 4 escaped horses
  • 1 injured horse

Fun for all the family! The riders fell because they were hurtling around a tight track on horses without proper stirrups, with massive flags strapped to their backs. The horse fell because it tripped over its rider. No one was wearing a helmet. This is the most dangerous festival I have ever seen in Japan, by a long shot, and with an injury rate of 1 per 12 participants would have to be one of the most injury-prone sports I have ever seen. It was at times quite hideous to watch.

Finally after the races were (mercifully) finished we got to enjoy the final battle. This battle is a mad scramble to catch flags falling from the sky, in which all the (surviving) samurai gather in the centre of the racecourse and charge after the flags. The flags are, of course, hurled aloft by fireworks, shot out of a kind of mortar, that explode with a huge roar high above the gathered horses. Standing on the hillside, I could look behind me to some of the resting horses and see how they panic when the fireworks cracked. Horses and fireworks mix so well, why not start a battle with a massive explosion? And then do it 10 times? The warriors compete for 40 flags, fired into the air over 10 bouts. I left after 4 bouts, and in that time I saw two warriors fall from their horses – and when they landed they were still wrestling over the flag they had caught. Now that’s commitment …

Capture the flag, samurai style

Capture the flag, samurai style

This festival is a thoroughly engaging and entertaining event, well worth taking the opportunity to view. It’s edgy, exciting and historical, and everyone gathered there is really involved. I strongly recommend, if you’re in Japan at the end of July, making a trip to Minamisoma to experience this unique Japanese event. Just don’t participate if you value your life!

 

Imagine our planet sends out a colony ship, to colonize some distant planet. It’s flying at near light speed, but the journey is still expected to take about 300 years; time dilation effects on the ship mean shipboard it’s only, say, 150 years – 5 or 6 generations. While the ship is speeding to its destination, development continues on earth, and about 100 years after launch they discover faster-than-light travel. By the time the colony ship reaches its destination the planet has already been colonized, populated, developed and matured. The colonists arrive to a huge party, to discover their mission was pointless.

If you were one of the middle-aged residents of that colony ship, would you be happy with the society that sent your great-grandparents out into the dark? You spent your entire youth and young adulthood in a tin can, for nothing except the promise that soon – in your lifetime – you would arrive at a new world and have the chance to make a unique contribution to human history. Instead, some bunch of cosseted earth-siders got their first, because they had the good fortune to be born 200 years later. Your contribution becomes a footnote, for which you waited 40 years in the freezing dark, drinking your own piss.

Crooked Timber has an interesting discussion about the viability of colonizing interstellar space, started from one of John Quiggin’s economists’ assumptions. In amongst all the technical jiggery-pokery about giga-joules and the Great Filter, a few people have pointed out the moral bankruptcy of colony ships, based on the simple and obvious fact that the children are being born into a tin can, and have no way out. Thinking about this at the gym (which, presumably for weight purposes, a colony-ship wouldn’t have), it occurred to me that the moral issues associated with colonization are getting a lot more real than those discussed in the Crooked Timber post, and that we need to be aware of a serious risk of moral hazard, and of serious ethical challenges, in our lifetime. I speak, of course, of the Mars One private mission to Mars.

Mars One and moral hazard

Mars One aims to settle up to 40 humans on Mars by 2025, on a one way mission. The mission will be financed by some kind of Big Brother style TV show documenting the (no doubt fascinating) process of colonizing Mars. The settlement is intended to slowly develop, even to ultimately be able to expand using local materials – hopefully to even build a dome of some kind large enough to grow trees. But it is likely that for the foreseeable future it will be dependent on supplies from Earth, and that these supplies will be coming through the parent company – which is financing itself through the sale of research opportunities and the TV options. For a few years this seems like a pretty viable source of income, but people will get bored of the Mars TV, and anyway we don’t know what will happen to that parent company. This all raises the very real possibility that the company will fail, at which point those people on Mars are ostensibly going to be cut off from their supplies. There is also the possibility that they will breed out there in the Red, and that their children won’t be happy about their birth situation. Which raises two scenarios demanding attention from the people of earth:

  1. The company goes bust, and suddenly the task of supplying those 40+ people (80 if the adults have been breeding efficiently) falls on … who? A government will have to step in and bail out those people, because no one on Earth is going to tolerate the possibility that 40 or more people in the world’s first ever interstellar colony will starve to death because of a corporate bankruptcy. This project is too hope-y to fail. Once the company gets those shmucks onto Mars, the rest of the world is going to be basically strong-armed by morality and sentiment into backing the project no matter what. And given that currently there are only three groups – NASA, ESA and Russia – capable of getting stuff to Mars, this means it will be Europe, the USA and Russia that foot the bill if anything goes wrong. This is classic moral hazard, banker bailouts on an interstellar scale (if not financial magnitude): the private company raises a couple of billion bucks to sink into a stupid high-risk project and then, when it collapses, for reasons not predicted by the regulatory authorities, it can’t be allowed to go down.
  2. The company continues, and the settlement is a success, but the Children of Mars decide they would like to swim in the sea. They point out to their earthbound cousins that they didn’t ask to be born in a Mars colony and they would like to go home. If the original company is gone under this problem will be even more pronounced: not only is the ESA and NASA supplying the adults, but now the kids point out (quite reasonably) that they want out of their squalid little collection of domes. But nobody has the means to get them out. That wasn’t planned for. To get them out, space agencies will have to send the component parts for a rocket, then the fuel, and the folks on Mars will have to assemble that rocket, and with no option for test flights, the kids will hop on and come back to Earth. That’s a hideously expensive project, but someone on Earth is going to have to foot the bill and it’s going to be very hard to deny that responsibility. Of course, once the kids start going back, the adults will demand the same right. Which means that Earth has to either tell them – we’ll keep supplying you till you die, in a society with no children (who’s going to care for you?), or “sure, you made this decision 20 years ago when you were young and stupid, but we’ll bail you out now.” That’s classic moral hazard.

You can see the way this will play out on earth, but in case 2) it is possible that the original inventors of the project will be dead. No one will even be around to be angry at. And, in a really visceral way, no one is going to be able to say no. Of course one can imagine other scenarios: imagine that the first settlement was made by the USA under Kennedy, and they were willing to spend 2% of their GDP on it; 40 years and a couple of financial crises later, with an increasingly oligarchical and corrupt government, suddenly Americans have a huge public debt and a weird resistance to growing more, their economy is declining, economic power is shifting east – but they still have to commit to sending supplies to That Stupid Colony. The kids of the new era might think they had been shackled with an unreasonable burden (“we could spend that money on Obamacare”) but of course, their choices about it are restricted to either abandoning the colony to starve, or paying some fantabulous amount of money to bring them back. This is hardly a fair choice to saddle your grandkids with. And of course, the original colonists are the people who made the stupid choice to go there, but even if you made them pay they wouldn’t be able to – no human being can work off a debt that size.

Note also the costs of supply will escalate if there are unforeseen medical problems associated with low gravity: then money will have to be sunk into solving the problem, and not by the company that sent them up there. And who is going to educate the kids? That is usually a state responsibility, but no one is going to be setting up a school on Mars. A solution will have to be found based on some kind of school of the air.

But there are other, unpleasant moral issues that will arise in the future of such a colony.

The morality of forced interstellar stardom

Mars One aim to pay for their project through some kind of television project, that will start from 2025. No doubt for a short time this will be hugely popular, but after a few years of watching people wandering around in a couple of inflatable domes the viewers are going to get tired. Revenues will decline. The company will have growing costs though, as the colony needs supplies to feed more members. What will the company do? It might be able to make up the shortfall in research services (“you want to investigate that crater? We’ll send a rover”) but there will be a limit to this, and of course as they try to sell more research services the price will go down. So then, naturally, they will begin to try to make the TV show more appealing. And how are they going to do that?

Zero-G porn.

Of course, for starters they’ll use the usual run of Big Brother-style offerings: stupid game shows, conflict, diary-room confessions, titillating shower scenes (well, maybe not, on Mars). But this will pale after a few years, and we all know what will happen next. Pressure will be brought to bear. Things will be done. People’s relationships will be laid bare. The failing relationships will be filmed; the young couples getting together; people’s most private moments. And the colonists will face an unpleasant choice: the person who supplies your water is telling you you need to make your tv show more “appealing” by doing X. Will you refuse? Probably not. And then, of course, there will be children in all this. Will they even be told about the cameras? At some point they will realize that all their earliest years of development were being filmed against their will by some arseholes a billion kms away, and watched by a million more arseholes. When they come of age, into their tiny domed town of 100 people, they’re probably going to have some righteous wrath saved up.

What will they do? What should we do about what they’re going to do, what has been done to them? When these kids, who have never been to a prom (but have seen prom-date movies), who have never been to a nightclub (but have watched music videos), who have a choice of, like, 6 partners (but have watched a thousand rom-coms) demand to return to a land with trees and standing water, what are the people on earth going to say to them? “We enjoyed watching you grow up on a strange planet, but we can’t afford to have you back”?

What does a riot look like, in a domed city made of plastic on a world with no atmosphere?

There is also, of course, the endless possibility for horror in this settlement. Suppose a dome blows, and the usual emergency systems don’t work properly: the colony loses its farm section, and no matter how hard we try we can’t get the food to them in time because it’s physically impossible. There’ll be no eating grass roots and insects and watching children with swollen bellies but knowing a precious few will survive, like Ethiopia in the 1980s. Everyone will have the certain knowledge that they will die. Will we be forced to watch as they turn to cannibalism? Who will turn off the tv feed? What if they have a broadcast installation? Then the videos will be going up on youtube no matter what the company does, and anyone with a dish will be able to see the sordid terrible end of our first stellar mission. We can all imagine hundreds of similar scenarios, and all of them on film by design.

Preparing for the moral hazard of Mars One

It’s not looking likely that anyone is going to ban Mars One, but it seems to me that as a society we need to come up with a plan for what will happen as a result of it. This isn’t Jonestown or even Greenland in the 15th century: whether we as individuals agree with the project, once it is in place on Mars we will all be watching it and cheering it on. Which means that we need to recognize that there is a risk that things will go wrong, and future generations – or us, in 30 years time – will have to bail out at enormous cost a project which was marginal from the beginning. I think governments need to find a way to prepare for that, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that the first step in that preparation is to make Mars One think about the future. At the very least, some of the capital they raise needs to be put aside against eventualities. Some possible uses for a Mars wealth fund include:

  1. Simple investment, to ensure that by the time things go wrong there is a stock of money available to finance special projects
  2. Trust funds for the kids. They’re going to want stuff, and we’re going to need to provide it, so we should prepare
  3. Funding directly to government-run space research projects, especially projects for deep space propulsion and Mars exploration. If the funds are used to develop alternative ways of getting to and living on Mars, it improves the options for those people in the future
  4. Contingency funds for if the Mars population grows too fast
  5. Profits could be invested in sending extra supplies to Mars, to build redundancy and stockpiles

With mechanisms like this in place, bailouts will be less costly, and there will be insurance against risk.

Laws also need to be passed. Governments need to look very carefully at the contracts these colonists are signing, and add clauses about the rights of colonists to refuse new entertainment demands, and the way that those contracts might extend (or be inferred to extend) to children. Anything involving porn or cam-girl type stuff needs to be carefully discussed. Some kind of dispute resolution system is going to be necessary, possibly even independent oversight. Imagine, for example, that a Mars colonist is being pressured to do some semi-nude stuff, but doesn’t want to: what options does he have to resolve that? What if the company refuses him access to a workplace rights lawyer? The company at the very least should be forced to establish an independent communications system, guaranteed by government, so that people on Mars can have a reliable and independent way to contact friends, relatives and conciliation bodies. Otherwise they will essentially be slaves.

I don’t think any of this has been considered.

Are Mars One taking the piss?

I’m noting that there is an application fee of between $5 and $75 for potential Martians, and they are hoping to recruit a million applicants. If the Mars One people are planning to fold before the project is initiated they will make a lot of money. It seems like a lot of aspects of this project are going to run on a very tight deadline, and haven’t been thought through. Is it possible that the whole thing is a get-rich-quick scheme that is never going to see reality? It seems very possible to me. But if not, we as a society need to be thinking very carefully about what we want to tolerate up there, and how we’re going to manage the ethical challenges and moral hazards of a private initiative to colonize Mars.

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