Tuesday, 24 November 2020

an american tragedy

What is wrong with America?

It is now three weeks since the US presidential election, and more than two weeks since it became clear that Joe Biden had won, yet not only has the incumbent declined to concede defeat, he also continues to claim that he ‘won’, citing widespread fraud for his apparent loss. To anyone who has followed US politics during the past four years, such intransigence should not be a surprise, and neither should the widespread belief among his supporters that the election was ‘stolen’, echoing their hero’s preposterous claim. But why?

There are two distinct voting blocs who continue to support Donald Trump: right-wing working-class citizens and evangelical Christians, and both groups are predisposed to believe bullshit, which Trump spouts relentlessly, especially on climate change (“a Chinese hoax”) and the coronavirus pandemic (“drink bleach to kill the virus”).

I suspect that most people in the first group also believe the QAnon conspiracy theory, which postulates that a Satanist cabal of leading Democrats and Hollywood A-listers is running a child sex ring, and that Donald Trump is leading the fight against them. I can’t prove that this is nonsense, but I can say that if you do believe it, then you clearly have never heard of Occam’s razor.

The second group was notably anti-science well before Trump came along to reinforce their ignorance, reserving particular disdain for the theory of evolution. When I was a student in Manchester in the mid-1960s, I used to listen to Radio Caroline—a pirate radio station broadcasting from a ship anchored in the Irish Sea—whenever I was back in my lodgings. As a pirate station, it broadcast on an unauthorized frequency, and in the evening it was progressively drowned out by the big commercial stations on the continent, such as Hilversum and Radio Luxembourg, that were broadcasting on nearby frequencies. Consequently, it used to close down for the day at 9pm, and because music reception was already poor by 8.30, it ran a 30-minute talk segment under the title The World Tomorrow with Garner Ted Armstrong.

To be honest, I’ve no idea why I kept listening, because Armstrong went on and on, and on about the theory of evolution, employing an almost endless stream of utterly specious arguments to demonstrate the falsity of this theory. At the time, I couldn’t understand what he had against evolution, which only an idiot would think was wrong, given the vast body of supporting evidence, but in retrospect I now understand the motive for his tirades. Armstrong was a fundamentalist Christian, someone who believes that every word of the Bible is literally true. And evolution directly contradicts the version of creation recorded in Genesis. It’s a garbled version that doesn’t bear close scrutiny:
1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
4 And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.
5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
Bear in mind that God doesn’t create the source of the light (the Sun) until the fourth day of his labours. And day and night cannot exist without the Sun! This is the belief system of a primitive tribe of nomadic herdsmen living 6,000 years ago that has no validity in the twenty-first century.

As evidence of this fundamental animosity towards and general ignorance of science, I present the following four quotations, which I culled from a Christian website several years ago, although I can’t provide a detailed attribution because I made a note of them purely for amusement:
Some things cannot be explained by science. Take for example, rainbows. Rainbows are a mystery and you cannot touch them, just like God. Despite this fact, they are still there even though there is no scientific explanation for them.

Yes. DNA can never be proven. Evolutionists are obsessed with it because they always say “chimps share 97% DNA with modern man” etc. That’s great, however you would then need to prove DNA is real.

If evolution was real, humans and animals alike would not need reproductive organs.

Let me see you take hydrogen and oxygen to make water? God can. But the smartest man ever to live can’t.
The woeful ignorance on display here is appalling. Give me unlimited supplies of hydrogen and oxygen, and I will make as much water as you want. And I’m not God!

And what about the ultimate Trump bullshit? All his ‘make America great again’ and ‘America first’ rhetoric cannot disguise the fact that he is actively working against the admirable ideal of America as a shining city on a hill, as expressed in Emma Lazarus’ poem The New Colossus, which was written in 1883 and inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903:
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
America may have been founded by disgruntled colonists, but it was built by immigrants, and it is now being destroyed by the descendants of those ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free’.

At the beginning of this essay, I posed the question ‘what is wrong with America?’ This is my diagnosis. The first problem is with education, which, like healthcare, is seen in America as a money-making opportunity rather than a basic right. Consequently, if you can afford it, you send your children to a fee-paying private school, because America’s public schools are a disgrace. I would wager that the majority of Trump’s working-class supporters attended public schools, where they might have learned to read and write, and perform simple arithmetic, but they would not have learned how to construct an argument or how to separate fact from bullshit.

The second problem is with the constitution, in particular the first amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Freedom of speech is a noble ideal, but it is no accident that Fox News is banned in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, because it presents a biased, radical, right-wing take on events. But there are far worse outlets that are permitted under the first amendment. One America News Network (OANN) is now Donald Trump’s favourite news channel, mainly because he no longer considers Fox News sufficiently supportive. The problem is that people who watch these channels don’t watch any others, so their political views are constantly being reinforced in a perpetual echo chamber.

And what about Alex Jones’ Infowars channel, which focuses on promoting conspiracy theories like QAnon and the notion that the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012 was a stunt staged by actors? Of course, the conspiracy theorist-in-chief is Donald Trump himself, who regularly accuses an imaginary ‘deep state’ of trying to undermine him and his policies.

At the same time, Trump constantly berates news outlets of which he disapproves, such as the Washington Post and New York Times, which have the temerity to point out that many of his statements are false, as ‘fake news’. Following his lead, Trump supporters then complain that responsible news outlets like these should not be criticizing his gross mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic but should instead be focusing on his ‘accomplishments’, of which there are none.

There are no easy remedies for the malaise that afflicts America, but Joe Biden can make a start by appointing someone who actually understands education as secretary of education rather than the present holder of that office, whose only credentials for the job were that her family has made billions of dollars running fee-paying charter schools. Although it is probably a bridge too far, I would also tear up the constitution, because a genuine democracy doesn’t need one. The American constitution didn’t prevent a self-regarding, narcissistic demagogue from becoming president. And fundamental human rights don’t need to be enshrined on a piece of paper. They should simply be understood.

Monday, 23 November 2020

supernova

I never used to go cycling on Sundays. Try cycling from Shatin to Taipo at weekends and you will see why. Hiring a bike for the day is a popular weekend pastime in Hong Kong, and the dedicated cycle track between these two major conurbations is clogged with ‘weekend wobblers’, who are invariably in large groups and have zero awareness of other cyclists. And the cycle track is so wide that two double-decker buses travelling towards each other would not need to slow down as they pass—it was probably once a road—yet trying to overtake a large group is extremely fraught, because these people are all over the place and seem incapable of travelling in a straight line or keeping to their side of the road.

However, this changed at the beginning of 2016, when the area northeast of Fanling was opened to casual visitors—it had previously been part of the so-called ‘frontier closed area’. Naturally, I wanted to check out the cycling possibilities. The ride through the area that I’ve constructed has developed over the past few years as I’ve added more narrow paths to the road sections, but there is one road that I’ve included for the past two years even though I’m forced to turn back after a few kilometres.

Lin Ma Hang Road roughly follows the border all the way to the eastern extremity of the New Territories, but there is still a police road block on the road, presumably because what lies beyond remains a closed area. Nowadays, I cycle along this road partly to see whether the road block has been removed, because I would love to see what lies beyond it.

Anyway, I was cycling along Lin Ma Hang Road yesterday when I spotted a stand of the yellow flowers that I featured in Starburst. Naturally, I stopped to take a photograph:
I then took three more photos as I continued along the road:
After about 100 metres, the display came to an end at a rough track, and I thought that if I followed it, I might be able to take a few photos from behind:
The trees in the background of the next three photos are on the far side of the road and provide a reference for how extensive this stand of flowers actually is:
The bushes on the left in the third photo are in the process of being overwhelmed by mile-a-minute. And this is a closer view of that photo:
The yellow flowers in the next two photos are partially obscured by grass flowers and sundry other vegetation:
I’ve included the final photo to show the track from where I took the previous seven photos:
I found this display to be much more impressive than that featured in Starburst. Do you agree?

postscript
There are a couple of unnamed roads leading off Lin Ma Hang Road, and Fortissimo is an account of what Paula and I found at the end of one of them.

Friday, 20 November 2020

starburst

When I included three photos of the yellow flowers opposite ‘happy garden’ in Autumn Flowers #4 last week, I did mention that there were still a lot of unopened buds, but I wanted to conclude the series, even though this display was nowhere near its best when I took the photos. However, we cycled past happy garden last Saturday, and I was struck immediately by how many more flowers there were.

I didn’t stop to take more photos though—we already had more than 70km on the clock, and I wanted to get back home to have a cold beer (or two). Nevertheless, I did want to get some pictures of the improved display, so the following day I deliberately detoured this way on the route home after walking into Fanling by the usual direct path from our village, and I took the following three photos:
Unlike many of the flowers that I’ve included in my Autumn Flowers collections, which are so tiny that you wouldn’t see them unless you were looking for them, these flowers are 5–6cm in diameter, so you can imagine how arresting this display is. This is a close-up:
The flower on the right is actually about 8cm across.

The next day (Monday), Paula was working, so I decided to continue my exploration of the Tam Mei valley, which is about 20km west of Fanling. My original route through the valley was all along roads, but I’d already discovered four new narrow paths that could be incorporated into the full tour since returning to Hong Kong last month, so I didn’t expect to find any more. However, I was wrong, and I added three more paths to the tour, including one that I repeated later in the day to see whether I could remember all the twists and turns. I couldn’t! Although I did remember where to turn off the road, and I did end up at the same exit, somewhere in between I must have turned left at a junction when I should have turned right, or vice versa.

I also stopped at various points elsewhere in the valley to photograph outcrops of yellow flowers. While not quite as impressive as the happy garden display, these four photos do convey something of the sense of joy that I feel at seeing such bright manifestations of floribundance:
Having compiled the above report on Wednesday, I had intended to conclude here, but Paula and I were cycling out west yesterday, and part of our route is a circuit around the village of Lok Ma Chau. I must have come down this hill dozens of times, but because the hill is steep, I need to focus on keeping the bike under control, and I’d never noticed the flowers on my right before:
The photo doesn’t begin to convey how I couldn’t fail to notice the bright yellow despite looking straight ahead.

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

an alien invader

When I included a photo of mile-a-minute in Autumn Flowers #4, I received an email from a friend expressing confusion as to what I was referring. I hadn’t been aware that the name ‘mile-a-minute’ referred to more than one species. However, when I googled the term, top of the search list was Persicaria perfoliata, which has become a serious nuisance in the northeastern United States, where it spread from a nursery site in York County, Pennsylvania, in the 1930s. This species, which is also known as ‘Devil’s tail’ and ‘Asiatic tearthumb’, is a native of East Asia, although I’ve never seen any examples here in Hong Kong.

‘Mile-a-minute’ can also refer to Russian vine (Fallopia baldschuanica), which is often sold in the UK as a garden plant. In fact, I bought a small seedling (for 10 pence) in my local supermarket many years ago, but I got rid of it when I saw how it was hell-bent on overwhelming everything else in my garden.

In order to identify what I’d always known simply as ‘mile-a-minute’, I added ‘Hong Kong’ to the search criteria and was directed to the website of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, where I learned that here in Hong Kong, ‘mile-a-minute’ refers to Mikania micrantha. It is a native of the subtropical zones of the Americas and was first recorded in Hong Kong as long ago as 1884. My mistaken statement that it originated somewhere in the Himalayan region was probably based on reading a while ago that it is a serious problem in Nepal, where it has covered 20 percent of one of the country’s national parks. It is now found throughout East, Southeast and South Asia, and on many Pacific islands.

A single stem can produce between 20,000 and 40,000 seeds, which are dispersed aerially and have a high germination rate. It has been recorded as growing at a rate of 8–9cm per day, and it can also grow from small stem fragments, so eradication is extremely difficult. It grows best on abandoned farmland and other forms of disturbed ground, and along roadsides and the edges of woodland, but because it doesn’t like shade, you won’t find it in forested areas.

Anyway, I’ve been taking photos of this pernicious weed for the past week, so here they are, with comments where appropriate.

The first six photos were taken along a 6/7-metre section of a footpath on what was once the floodplain of the Ng Tung River. This area was once extensively cultivated but is now in the process of being ‘developed’. The first photo shows how mikania concentrates its activity on the sunnier (south) side of whatever plant it is using to piggyback upon:
The next four photos show how densely this weed grows. Its leaves are so large that they inhibit—or prevent altogether—photosynthesis by the ‘host’ plant:
The tree with extra-large leaves being climbed over in the next photo is about 6 metres tall but presents no problems to this vicious vine:
The next photo is of mile-a-minute on the banks of the upper reaches of the Sheung Yue River:
We cycle this way regularly, so I plan to take another photo in May next year to see how much it has grown in the meantime.

The next four photos were taken along a little-used path on the south side of the main road to the east out of Fanling (we live to the north, but I consider the south side to also be part of my neighbourhood):
The high-rise block in the background of the third photo is still under construction and is part of what will, eventually, become a huge public housing estate that has already blighted the view from our balcony. I will never again be able to photograph the leaping dragon (bottom of the page) that gives the area its name!

The next four photos were taken along San Tin Tsuen Road, a quiet road carrying very little traffic to the west of Fanling that we cycle along regularly:
I expect the tree in the centre of this photo, currently weed-free, to be engulfed in due course:
…while this photo shows the heights to which this dastardly invader is able to go (the lamp-post is about 7 metres high):
This photo shows how mikania sticks to the sunny side of whatever plant it is climbing up:
I took the next photo along the frontier road, another casualty of recent construction work, in this case a joint science park with Shenzhen. The road was never built to carry eight- and ten-wheeler tipper trucks laden with earth, so it is now pitted with large numbers of potholes:
It shows clearly how mikania is restricted to the edges of wooded areas.

The final photo was taken two days ago during my exploration of the Tam Mei valley, which lies about 20km west of Fanling. It is a general view of the havoc caused by this marauding menace:
The banana plants won’t last much longer.