Two years ago, we were in Iceland for a short time and saw the sights, so to speak. There were glaciers, waterfalls, hot springs, ponies, a whole lot of empty land. and more blondes than a TV news anchor convention. But one sight I really wanted to see was only accessible by ferry of small plane.
The Westman Islands off the southern coast are the home of a Volcano called Eldfell. In 1973, on the main island port of Heimeay, the volcano erupted and started raining fire and ash down on the adjacent town. What was worse, however, was the steadily growing river of molten lava that started spreading out and engulfing nearby homes. As the eruption continued, it looked as if the entire town would be wiped out, and even if it somehow wasn’t, the lava would soon block the narrow harbor entrance, destroying the local economy and everyone’s livelihood.
With so much at stake, people sought a way to fight back. Fight back? Against a VOLCANO?
Well, yes, in fact. Lava is molten rock. What if it could be cooled enough to slow down or even solidify? Using a number of heavy duty pumps mounted on barges and on the land, people began pumping rivers of seawater onto the lava, creating clouds of scalding steam rising into the sky. At first, nothing happened, but as more pumps were brought on line, the Icelanders found they could actually divert and direct the lava away from their homes and the harbor by cooling the edge to form a sort of dam that would divert the rest of the flow away. This epic struggle of man vs nature went on for days, and the outcome was often in doubt, but finally, the Eldfell slowed down and stopped. Half the town was destroyed, but half remained and the vital harbor was still clear. As you can see by the aerial photo below, the lava (the dark gray area) was stopped just short of destroying the town and blocking the harbor entrance.
I think about Westman whenever I read or hear of someone talking about how nature or Gaia is everyone’s “mother” and gives us sustaining life and happiness, so we should all recycle, limit carbon, walk to work, go Vegan, or whatever else is currently fashionable to worship out “mother”.
Well, sorry, but nature is not our mother. What sort of mother is completely indifferent to whether her children live of die? What sort of a mother would kill her own children? Oh, nature is a wondrous thing. It is capable of great beauty and provides food, water, medicines, building materials, and a lot more, because we have learned to utilize it. But come on. Nature also provides thousands of varieties of poisonous insects, sea creatures, animals and plants. Nature features tornadoes, hurricanes, droughts, killing frosts, and countless ways of visiting death on her “children”. Nature provides Pandas and fuzzy bunnies, but also rats, poisonous snakes, plague germs, and stinging insects. Some animals look cute, but most animals live lives that are short, hungry and uncertain and die horribly as prey of other animals, hunger, thirst, exposure, or disease.
Still think nature is you mother? Consider: If you go out into a blizzard without a coat, you real mother will scold you and probably come after you with a coat for you to wear; nature will kill you. If you go out in the ocean in a rowboat during a storm, your real mother will call the Coast Guard; nature will kill you. Your real mother will make sure you wash your hands to avoid germs; nature IS the germs, and if you get the wrong type of germs, nature will kill you.
Well, you get the idea. Nature is not something to be worshiped; nature is something to be overcome, or at least, accommodated. Many of man’s greatest achievements are ways of overcoming the brutal effects of nature. We create buildings and clothing to keep nature from killing us due to exposure. We build bridges because if left up to nature, we could only cross rivers by swimming. We refine agriculture because nature would not provide a sufficient quantity of pest free food for us to survive. We developed dams to protect us against nature’s floods and irrigation systems to protect us against nature’s droughts. We developed medicine to fight sickness and injuries that would otherwise kill us. We developed weather forecasting to protect us against the murderous fury of nature.
So by all means appreciate the majesty and complexity of nature, and well as its wonder and beauty, but never think nature is your mother.
Advocates of multiculturalism take it as an article of faith that all cultures are created equal, just a little, well, different. Regardless of the relative “worth” of cultures, one thing is unmistakable; cultures can be very different and can cause people to think and act in strange and counterproductive ways.
Here is a case in point. During World War II, warring nations set up prisoner of war camps to house those captured on the battlefield. Those confined to such camps often tried to escape. We’ve all seen movies where the plucky POWs dig tunnels, or sneak out hidden in trash trucks, or find some other devious way of slipping away from their captors. The deception was necessary because here was no other way of getting past the barbed wire, guard towers and guns of the captors. The POWs did this to keep up morale and to tie down the enemy by making them assign troops to security. It was almost a game at times. Germans escaping from US camps knew they would be quickly recaptured, but did it anyway. This was pretty much universal. Americans and Brits tried to escape from the Germans, and the Germans and Italians tried to escape from camps in England, Canada and the US. As long as there was a possibility of escape, there was a chance to fight another day.
Except for the Japanese. Here is where culture comes in.
American and European troops regarded captivity as simply a fortune of war and figured they still had a chance to contribute to the war effort, but to the Japanese, captivity was a disgrace. Raised in a “Face” culture and schooled in Bushido, the warrior’s code, the Japanese preferred death to surrender, often committing suicide rather than be taken prisoner. If they were unconscious or wounded, however, they could still wind up as POWs. If this occurred, many would give false names so the people back home would not know they had been humiliated by captivity. Death, even by suicide was honorable. Surrender was not.
Once in a POW camp, this dishonor ate at many Japanese prisoners to the point that they would do almost anything to redeem their honor, and this led to the biggest and bloodiest POW escape of all time.
The Australian POW camp at Cowra held about 4,000 Axis prisoners, including a sizable Japanese population. After some unrest, the Japanese attempted a breakout the night of August 4, 1944. Instead of digging tunnels or engaging in deception, however, hundreds of Japanese POWs attacked the barbed wire fences and guard towers directly with bare hands and homemade weapons, even charging directly at two machine guns. The point was less about escape than it was about the Japanese redeeming their honor in combat. Of the attackers, 359 escaped. Four Australians and 231 Japanese were killed. Eventually, all the remaining Japanese were rounded up by the army, the police, and gun wielding civilians. Of the Japanese dead, however, many died by committing suicide to avoid recapture and some who were unable to escape committed suicide in the camp to regain face. This suicidal escape was a direct result of a Japanese culture that valued death above surrender.
The Great Escape it wasn’t, and all because of culture.
In Life, Eddie Murphy has a famous scene where he’s trying to impress another, much bigger prisoner with how bad he is. If anyone messes with him, Murphy blusters, there’s going to “consequences and repercussions!”.
In real life, the consequences and repercussions tend to be more subtle, but they are still there.
Case in point: the Oxford Ferry.
The Oxford Ferry runs between Royal Oak on one side of the Tred Avon River to the town of Oxford, Maryland on the other. It’s a favorite with both locals and tourists because it’s handy and picturesque. On a recent weekend, we were making the trip and got to talking with a number of visitors from Pennsylvania who asked us for a local restaurant recommendation. The choice was down to two local eateries and we had been to both. Our experience was that restaurant A had good food and a friendly and attentive staff, while restaurant B featured so-so food and a waitress that seemed very put out when we asked about a menu item. Guess which one the Pennsylvania party of six patronized?
Word of mouth is great advertising, but it can spread unpleasant facts just as well.
Consequences and repercussions.
Back in April I was interviewed by the people who produce the TV series Mysteries at the Museum, the show that travels to museums and tells the stories behind strange and historic objects in the collections. The location was the Burlington County Prison Museum in Mt Holley, NJ, and the subject was detective Ellis Parker and his part in the Lindbergh kidnapping investigation. While the state police were conducting the official investigation, Ellis Parker was doing his own detective work and, just before the scheduled execution of the man convicted of the crime, produced a signed confession from someone else! The convicted man, Bruno Hauptmann got a stay of execution and a media frenzy ensued. It’s a fascinating story; just made for a TV treatment.
As the author of a book on the subject, Master Detective, I was the “talking head” of the Mysteries at the Museum segment. The picture above is of a monitor during the shooting. Notice how the stark one side lighting achieves a look somewhere between sinister and “deer in the headlights”.
Well, the show aired last night on the Travel Channel and they did a great job. It isn’t easy to do a self contained concise segment in only around ten minutes, but MAM is good at it. The combination of narration, archive footage, a talking head/expert, and dramatized segments is absorbing and compelling. The actors portraying Ellis Parker and his suspect Paul Wendel were very good, although the Ellis Parker actor was a bit on the trim side compared to the original. All in all, a sound effort to tell a fascinating story.
If by chance you missed it and would like another crack at it, the show will be rebroadcast on the Travel Channel this Sunday morning (Oct 27) at 10AM. Of course it will also be repeated occasionally after that.
At the risk of sounding geeky, I should mention another aspect of the big website/small website issue I wrote about earlier. Almost half of all web searches are now done by cellphone, tablet, or other small screen device. That is why you need a compact version of your website to keep these people from being scared away by a densely packed screen on their device. Well, there is another complication (isn’t there always?) Typing in a URL (website address) on a smartphone is a tedious business and easy to foul up, so many people won’t bother. So how do you get them to check out the compact website you just sweated bullets to create. The answer is a QR code.
Say what? QR codes are those funny little checkerboard-looking things that are cluttering up signs, ads, and even consumer items. A QR or quick response code is a nifty way of transmitting encoded data, sort of a bar code on steroids. So what does that mean? Well, there is a free cell phone app that allows you to easily scan these rascals and the phone does the rest. If you see a QR code, scan it with your smartphone and the link encoded in the QR will enable your phone to go directly to that website. No typing, no memorizing, and no fumbling for a pen to take a note.
You can place a QR code with a link to your website (or a video, or whatever you want people to see) on a business card, print ad, handout, or even a tee shirt. You may have even seen these things on ketchup bottles and on the side of buses. It’s easy; someone scans it and is magically transported to your website.
Of course, some people get carried away with these things. QR codes have appeared on ads in subways where there is no Internet service, making them useless. They have appeared on the side of buses, giving a scanner a moving target. People have put them on websites. (Who is going to scan a computer screen with a smartphone? Use a link.) Another pointless use is to send them in a text message; how is the recipient going to scan it when it is appearing on the very device he uses to scan?
That aside, a QR code is a great thing if you are boosting a product or website. So how do you get these little miracle checkerboards? Well, they are free for the most part. Lots of Internet sites feature free QR generators, or a modest fee for large amounts. Just type in the URL you want people to go to and the proper QR code appears. If nothing else, you can at least demonstrate you are up to date with the latest web marketing tool.
My previous post was about the lady who recently moved to California and found someone else’s possessions in boxes she had previously packed with her own stuff. Since my name and cell number appeared on one of the interloping items, I was able to figure out the real owner (A movie producer who has been in contact with me about my book, Master Detective) and put the parties in contact to sort things out.
Well, they have compared notes and found that the journal, the letter to a child at camp and several of the strange books do indeed belong to my movie producer friend, but several other books written in Korean do not. That means that the woman who contacted me has had items from at least TWO other people packed in her boxes! How is this possible? Was it a zealous, but sloppy customs official? Or is there a transit/shipping warehouse somewhere in which some of the employees view the items in their charge the way most people view garage sales? I’d like to think that the Homeland Security people are faithfully checking boxes for dangerous contraband, but if so, are we trusting our security to people who can’t even put stuff back where they found it?
Anyway, that’s the update; one mystery solved, another created. Sort of like life.