Sunday, October 26, 2014

Time for smut

This morning I woke up to discover that during the night the clocks had been set back an hour back to standard time. This gave me an extra hour. Why not share my latest adventures in cuisine? I bought some huitlcoche yesterday. At 20 peso an ear it's not cheap and its nickname is Mexican truffles. More properly it's called corn smut. It's a kind of fungus that infests corn. I'd read of huitlacoche but I don't believe I'd seen it in the market place and certainly never eaten it. Here it is:

I fried the huitlacoche into a hastily improvised salsa and enjoyed with tortilla chips. Unfortunately, neither my wife nor my dogs were willing to do much more than sniff at the results.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Libertarianism, Children and Smoking

I follow, with increasingly less interest, a libertarian website called Libertarians believe that people should be free to do as they choose as long as they don't hurt anyone. A laudable principle, I think.

So Brendan O'Neill, a libertarian writer who posts at, posts this article recently about the Totalitarian Crusade Against Second Hand Smoke. It's all about the attempts to ban smoking in cars where children are present. Brendan argues these attempts "show what shockingly low esteem the ideal of autonomy is held in these days, so that anyone who stands up and says "I think adults should be free to choose what vices to indulge in and pleasures to pursue" is either laughed at for being naive or branded a wicked stooge for Big Tobacco."

Brendan also derides the 'Nanny State' and questions the sincerity of anyone who would speak on behalf of the children. Those commenting on the article take up this line of, let's be generous, argument and we find those disagreeing with Brendan mocked with  cries of "IT'S FOW DA CHILLDRUUUUNZ!"

What I found noteworthy in this exchange is how it squares with Libertarian ethics. Libertarians base their ethics on the sanctity of people to do as they choose, and the honouring of contracts freely entered into by parties who enjoy equal standing before the law. On the surface, it's fairly compelling, but for the fact that children are overwhelming the largest class of society that is systematically, legally prohibited from entering into contracts and fully taking part in society. IT'S FOW DA CHILLDRUUUUNZ only makes sense when one accepts the second class nature of children's participation in society.

Not only do most self-styled libertarians seem to accept this state of affairs, they revel in it. Why are children and the causes that benefit children treated with such contempt? To me, this illustrates the underside of Libertarianism. On the surface, it's all about reason and freedom. Only on the underside does it show its ugly nature: bullying, smugness, cheap-jack cynicism and spite. Children are society's weakest members, legally only a few steps away from a woman's or a slave's position a couple hundred years back. Rather than try to draw children into the circle of freely choosing people that constitutes a Libertarian society, libertarians seem content to kick a man (even better a child) while he's down.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Visit to Potaltik

Last Sunday, we enjoyed a visit to Potaltik, a large garden/nature reserve on the outskirts of Comitan, Chiapas, not far from the border with Guatemala. It was not the best season for viewing flowers as the garden was in a quiet period, but I look forward to another visit in a few months when the plants are blossoming. The owners of the garden, Ceci and Jorge, are especially interested in orchids and bromeliads, and they are dedicated to preserving and promoting these plants more than anything else.

Jorge is proud of his garden, gave us a tour and told us about the orchids. I'd come across the orchid/wasp mimickry in A Thousand Plateaus by Deleuze and Guattari. They use this example of the orchid relying on the wasp, (or with other varieties, other insects and spiders etc) to illustrate their key notions of rhizome and territorialization. (Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal) An interesting read but apparently these authors don't nearly do justice to the bizarre complexity of orchid sexuality. I learned from Jorge that orchids can't reproduce without the presence of a certain fungus, and wikipedia backs him up. The orchid's parasitism on the fungi is critical to germination.

It's important to note, that unlike the honey bee, the wasp doesn't feed off the orchid. His attraction is purely sexual, and it is often the case that the visiting wasp will actually ejaculate into the orchid. He'll be fooled again by another orchid and spread pollen in the attempt to find a true female wasp. Another parasitic relationship.

Despite all the fuss and bother, human sexuality is a surprisingly simple affair. Typically, a male and female of the same species get together and they produce offspring.

Orchid sexuality is anything but simple. Life on earth is divided into kingdoms. For those of us without microscopes, there are three kingdoms: plants, animals and fungi. What's significant to me about the orchid's sexuality is that it involves a collaboration spread across three taxonomic kingdoms. I wonder if there is any other living thing, so beautiful and close to us, that enjoys a sexuality so heterogeneous, wide-ranging and dispersed.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Malcolm, Maya and Me

Just a few loosely connected items I want to bring up in this post, the first being the recent biography of Malcolm X by Manning Marable. I'd bought the original autobiography years ago but never got around to reading it. My knowledge of Malcolm came from watching videos of his speeches and the Spike Lee film. What surprised me about his life is the role of his family. His father was a dedicated political activist for Marcus Garvey, a conservative black separatist. Malcolm's conversion to Islam came about from the suggestion of another family member, one of his brothers, who told Malcolm that if he stopped smoking and eating pork, he would get out of prison. Not sure why his family playing such an important role in shaping his career should surprise me; perhaps its due to the heroic myth making that surrounds him.

Maya is the name of the 13th Mint Linux release. Number one was given a name starting with 'a', two 'b' etc. But before I go further, I have to bring up a problem I had with Windows.  Anyone not interested in a slightly technical discussion, or those who have not monkeyed around with the factory installed partitions on a Toshiba laptop may wish to skip the following paragraph.

I have a dual boot system, and my Windows partition was functioning extremely slowly. Even installation was painfully slow, and installing the automatic updates on shutdown took hours. At first I thought it was malware that I'd picked up along the way, but this couldn't have been the case. Then I discovered in the Linux disk utility programme that my Windows partition was misaligned. Never heard of that problem so I checked the forums, and indeed this is an issue that Toshiba hard disks are prone to, as well as a few others.  The terminal command "sudo fdisk -lu" will show if there is any problem with a misaligned partition. The forums didn't really give me any solutions, so I came up with my own. Very easy and quick once data is backed up. Using Gparted, delete the partition, and create it again, only this time, in the tab at the bottom of the page where the choice of align to CYLINDER, MB, or NONE is given, choose NONE, not the default option it should be noted. Run fdisk again to check the partition is properly aligned once Gparted has done its thing. If everything looks good, install Windows again. I did and the installation and all other read/write operations are some three or four times the previous speed.

Maya comes in to this because in the course of all this bother, I needed to reinstall the Linux. I'd lost the original Olivia 15 files in the shuffle, and decided to try the latest: Mint Linux Petra 16 KDE. (I was also keen to create a third partition, for data, accessible to both Windows and Linux.)  I found Petra a very unsatisfactory choice, and I decided a 'downgrade' was needed. It's not possible to downgrade a Linux version to a previous version. A clean start is necessary. The forums pointed to Maya, number 13, the most recent Long Term Release, where support will be continued for some years into the future. Not partition alignment, but some cosmic alignment issues also seemed to point in that direction, what with me living in the heart of the ancient Mayan civilization, as well as coinciding with my reading of Malcolm X's biography. 'mx' has long been my user name when dealing with Linux. Originally it had been simply 'm' but somewhere along the way, I ran into a release that insisted on my using at least two characters. I've been mx ever since. Malcolm X played no part in the choice, but it is noteworthy that he was shot and killed on my birthday and he was born on my sister's birthday. I hope these alignments make my choice an auspicious one. So far I am pleased.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The New Luddites

I thought I'd close of the old year with some thoughts about what I think of as the new Luddism. In the popular mind, Luddites are anti-technology. I think this misrepresents the purpose of the original Luddites who make their mark in England some two hundred years ago when industrial techniques were first introduced.

The original Luddites were craftsmen such as weavers etc who broke the power looms that were dispossessing them of their livelihood. They were opposed by the powerful and slandered as being haters of technology and Bonapartist spies. Over the years, the Napoleon calumny has died away, but the notion of them being anti-technology lives on.

In fact these craftsmen couldn't have been anti-technology. They used technology in their daily lives and their work. They often constructed and maintained their own equipment and indeed were probably more technically adept than their contemporaries. What motivated them was the issue of who was in control of technology. They wanted to maintain control of their work and its organization and realized that with the introduction of industrialization, they would lose this control.

So who are the new Luddites? It's not those who oppose technology but the hackers who dedicate themselves to making devices such as smart phones do their bidding rather than remaining under the control of their manufacturers. 'Jail breaking' is the term used and it often comes up in the press. Here's an announcement of the successful jail break of an Apple device.

I'm sure there are people who explicitly identify these hackers with the Luddites of old, but they seem to be extremely rare. Yet the Luddites of old and the hackers share the same motives: keeping the control of technology from slipping into the hands of others.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Coffee Klatch at Kiki's

The high point in my social calendar for this week came early. I was invited to the home of Kiki Suarez for a coffee klatch on Wednesday afternoon. Coffee, cakes and some stimulating company sitting around a table in front of a warm fire on a surprisingly chilly day. I'd never been to a coffee klatch so I wasn't sure what to expect. I had in mind one of the 'wednesdays' from a Proust novel, and though the events of the novel were far away and long ago, the day at least, Wednesday, was the same. I think Kiki also managed to capture the same spirit of elegant hospitality evident in the best motives of Proust's hostesses.

Kiki Suarez was born and raised in Hamburg, Germany and came to San Cristobal decades ago. In San Cristobal, she has been working as a therapist and hotel and restaurant owner. She's a prolific artist and also tirelessly supports the local scene by providing gallery space to artists and arranging free lectures and film screenings. She is a singular person and I feel privileged to know her.

Want to meet Kiki? The best I can do is to introduce her website. There are lots of paintings, photographs and stories. Her interests are wide ranging and there's something for everyone. Meet Kiki here.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Chaos and climate change

Complexity is a branch of mathematics that deals with phenomena that are not random but not predictable. It's a relatively new study that came into being back in the 1960s as a result of using computers to forecast weather. We all know how a pendulum works. It swings back and forth in a routine and predictable manner. Scientists for centuries have thought of nature as working in a similar way. Complexity, or chaos, on the other hand can be neatly exemplified by this counter intuitive computer animated model of a slight wrinkle on the simple pendulum, the double pendulum.

Not random, but not predictable. That's the essence of complexity or chaos theory, and it's popularly captured by the idea of a butterfly flapping its wings on one continent setting off a cyclone on another. Compare this to the old Newtonian conception of nature where every action is followed by an equal and opposite reaction.

I've been following the 'debate' over climate change and have been surprised at some of the arguments put forward by self-styled skeptics. I've seen a lot of people rejecting climate change because while CO2 gas continues to be emitted into the atmosphere, temperatures over the past 15 years or so have not appreciably increased. The very same people often also reject climate change because of the failure of the computer models to predict this 15 year hiatus. I don't take this objection very seriously because using computers to accurately predict the weather or climate is probably one of the most mind numbingly difficult intellectual challenges we have ever faced, and the failure of computers to accurately predict the weather or the climate is nothing new; it's been the norm ever since the problem was first taken on. To reject climate change out of thwarted expectations that computer models would suddenly give accurate predictions seems either naive or disingenuous.

The other objection, that we've been continually emitting billions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere without any appreciable increase in temperature over the past 15 years, is more interesting. I think it comes from a linear, Newtonian mind set that underestimates the complexity of the climate and the physics of the atmosphere. It's intuitively satisfying that every billion tonnes of gas emitted should raise the temperature by some fraction of a degree, in some kind of lock step, action/reaction fashion, but our double pendulum showed us that intuition will only take you so far, and perhaps in the wrong direction.