10 August, 2007

cleaning out the tubes

So John Howard wants to personally clean up the internet. It always frustrates me greatly when politicians of any given country make pledges to alter the nature of the world wide web. Do they even know what the first two Ws in WWW stand for?

Aside from the little problem of logistical impossibility, my first issue with his plan (or at least the way the media are reporting it) is the way porn is lumped in the same sentence as child molestation. Can we please not put these things in equivalent categories? Many, many ordinary - and perfectly moral - people look at, and enjoy, pornography in various forms. Basically since humankind began to express its ideas visually, there has been porn. From boys happily sodomising each other on Grecian urns, to the interactive user-sharing websites of today, there have always been people who enjoyed looking at depictions of others having sex. It's part of human nature, so as long as no laws are being broken, let's just grow up, deal with it, and move on. The issue of children being exposed to internet porn is really a very simple one, and it comes down to parental responsibility. If you're worried about your child being emotionally traumatised by the site of people having sex, then get yourself an internet filter; it's not the government's responsibility to do this for you.

Sexual predation of minors, on the other hand, is much more complex issue. Pedophilia is justifiably one of the most despised crimes that can be committed in human society. And, indeed, the internet would seem to provide an all-too-convenient environment for child-abusers to home in on their prey. But before we decide the best way to counter this problem, it's essential that we understand the facts. A recent Internet Caucus in the US (neatly summarised here on Boing Boing) shows how out-of-touch most efforts to deal with online "sexual predation" really are.

In the vast majority of cases, the young victims of these crimes are not children, but teenagers. In the vast majority, there is no deception involved; the so-called predator never disguises his/her age or identity. In the vast majority of cases, if sex between the minor and the predator does occur, it is consentual.

As a perfect example, let me tell you about a boy I briefly knew a few years ago, who we'll call Robbie. I received a message from him on a gay dating website of which I was a member at the time. After adding him to my msn account, he quickly told me that he had lied about his age (you were supposed to be eighteen to join the site, although this was not strictly enforced), and that he was in fact fourteen years old. There was a certain sadness in the way he chatted that piqued my usually-latent saviour complex; he reminded me of myself at fourteen. Thinking that perhaps he needed someone to talk to, I decided to be friendly to him. About fifteen minutes of casual chatting later, Robbie told me that he thought he was falling in love with me, and begged me to meet up with him in a romantic capacity. Alarm bells ringing, I politely declined, citing his age as the reason I couldn't even consider it. Robbie was very upset, but soon got over it. A few weeks later, he told me about a guy who we'll call Tom, who he'd met on the same site, and who was now his "boyfriend". Tom was even older than me, and Robbie eventually admitted that their relationship was a sexual one. I tried to get Robbie to see sense. I tried to explain how his insistence that Tom was "the nicest guy in the world" was belied by the fact that he was in his late twenties and fucking a fourteen-year-old. Robbie's "relationship" with Tom quickly fell apart, but it was only the first in a string of sexual encounters he would have with much older men. Every time, he was "in love" with them, until they inevitably revealed themselves to be total creeps. Gradually, I despaired of trying to tell him how dangerous his behaviour was, and grew tired of suggesting he try meeting boys of his own age. Before long, I ceased chatting with him altogether.

Clearly, what happened to Robbie was by no means an open-shut child molestation case. He invited, even begged for, the romantic attentions of much older men. Basically, he was a very messed-up and deeply unhappy kid. Through our chats, I came to discover his mother had died when he was very young, and he and his sister (a pregnant heroin user) had a decidedly difficult relationship with their Dad, by whom he had never felt loved. Robbie was painfully easy to analyse: this boy had never felt affection or even acknowledgement from an adult male, and now finding himself teenage and gay, the need for attention combined dangerously with his developing sexuality. Obviously Tom and the other guys who preyed on Robbie's vulnerability acted inexcusably. But if Robbie had not had such a troubled upbringing, I don't believe he would ever have cast himself in this role of teenage seducer.

Which brings us back to the internet. Clearly the issues that led to this situation were sad and complicated. The fact that Robbie, Tom and the others had access to the internet was simply not one of these issues. There is no doubt in my mind that, if Robbie had not had the internet, he would still have found a way to become sexually involved with older men (and would hanging around public toilets or other beats really be any better?). If Tom et al hadn't had the internet, they would still have found a way to prey on young teenagers (and would hanging around schoolyards or other youth venues really be any better?). The relationship here is much more complex than predator-prey. And it is certainly much too complex to be solved by restricting the world wide web.

Howard's pledge to "clean up the internet" just seems like yet another flashy vote-grab: making it look like he's doing something, when in reality he's made no effort to even understand the issues, let alone tackle them.

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09 August, 2007

bye bye baiji

After failing to find any sign of the species during an intensive six-week survey, a team of researchers has declared the Baiji, or Yangtze River Dolphin, to be extinct. This marks the first time in over fifty years that a large vertebrate has been wiped out as a direct cause of human activity, and the fourth time in about 500 years that an entire evolutionary branch of mammals has become extinct.

Baiji were one of only four species of freshwater dolphin

Traditionally considered the "Goddess of the Yangtze", early folk-tales described Baiji as the reincarnation of a drowned Princess. The dolphins were a treasured - and protected - national symbol of peace and prosperity.

From the UK's Guardian:
In Mao's Great Leap Forward, the overthrowing of idols saw their protection lifted and they were hunted for food and their skin. ... Conservationists described the extinction as a "shocking tragedy" yesterday, caused not by active persecution but accidentally and carelessly through a combination of factors including unsustainable fishing and mass shipping.
Numbering in the thousands before China's industrialisation, the Baiji population had dropped to an estimated thirteen by 1999, at which time it was declared the most endangered species in the world. The illegal (though widely practised) technique of electric fishing - along with habitat destruction, including the building of the Three Gorges Dam - undermined efforts to conserve and restore the dolphin population.

China's Yangtze River

I've never been a flag-waving "Save The Whales" type, but I find this story so very sad (although I suppose it's not altogether surprising, looking at pictures of what's become of the Baiji's former home). Everywhere you look, environmental issues are increasingly accepted as a necessary concern going into the future. And yet it seems, particularly to governments like China's, the welfare of our planet - and that of the creatures with whom we share it - is ultimately less important than the rumbling train of economic progress. I'm scared that the powers-that-be won't begin to take environmental conservation seriously until it begins to affect their own back pockets. And I'm scared that, by then, it may be too late.

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03 August, 2007

who'd have thunk?

My dear friend lili has very kindly presented me with a Thinking Blogger Award.

Along with this meme/award comes the great responsibility of sharing the love. Here are the rules:

1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think,
2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme,
3. Optional: Proudly display the 'Thinking Blogger Award' with a link to the post that you wrote

There are multitudinous worthy bloggers, not least among them several loved-ones of mine. However, I have decided on this occasion to spread the tendrils of linkage a little further afield, and acknowledge some people who I do not know personally, but whose blogs constantly set my brain ticking over.

1. The Adventures of QueerPenguin - from politics to pop-culture, Sam always has a fascinating perspective.
2. Forksplit - a blogger from the US whose stories about her life are at times hilarious, and always astonishing.
3. Jabberwocky - she writes about her family with disarming humour, honesty and pathos.
4. Pavlov's Cat - quite simply one of the Australian Blogosphere's national treasures.
5. The Supermercado Project - gotta love a man who makes you think and laugh at the same time.

Ah, blogging! It really is just one big love-in, isn't it?

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02 August, 2007

munkey's eye view


Six thousand years before hobbits ever heard of magic Rings, the gloomy, beautiful tale of Tolkien's most tragic hero is played out.

While billed by publishers and the media - inevitably trying to capitalise on the legacy of popularity inspired by Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films - as a "new" Tolkien work, Narn I Chîn Húrin (The Tale Of The Children Of Hurin) was actually conceived in 1918 - one of the first stories by the man who would come to define the fantasy genre. In fact, this is by no means even the first publication of the tragic tale; several forms of the story have been available in print for decades. However this edition marks the first time the various versions of the saga of Túrin Turambar
- Tolkien's great, ancient anti-hero - have been compiled and edited together into a seamless and cohesive narrative. As such, the book is as much the work of tireless editor Christopher Tolkien, as it is that of his more famous father.

The Children Of Húrin is set amidst the struggles of Elves and Men against Morgoth - the first, and more terrible, Dark Lord - and his monstrous cohort Glaurung the Dragon. Túrin son of Húrin is born into a world overrun by Orcs and grieving over devastating losses in battle. Because of the heroic deeds of his father, Morgoth has placed a curse on Túrin's family. After his mother, in fear for her son's safety, sends him away to live with an Elven King, Túrin grows to be a mighty warrior, but constantly feels the weight of destiny upon him. Through his heroic deeds and determination to escape his fate, he only tangles himself more tightly within Mogoth's curse, and unleashes more unthinkable tragedy on himself and those he loves.

There is little humour in this world of bleak legend - no chortling banter between amiable hobbits or crotchety dwarves to lighten the dangerous, sorrowful landscapes of this war-ravaged world. Drawing largely on Tolkien's own love of Scandinavian and Greek folklore, this is a tale aching with the forlorn gravitas of true ancient mythology. The language - archaic and at times unwieldy - adds to the air of authenticity. While self-contained, this story is inescapably a fragment of something much larger. Laden with references to other events, characters and places from the pre-history of Middle-Earth, Túrin's tale is a prime example of the richness, complexity and consistency of Tolkien's created world, which has yet to be equalled by any other fantasy author.

While the creators of this publication have endeavoured to make the story accessible to even the most casual reader of The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings, the truth is that this is impossible. Set several millennia before Tolkein's more famous works, most of the significance of The Children Of Húrin will be lost on readers who don't have at least a cursory interest in the more distant history of Middle Earth. There is no denying that this is a profound and beautiful tale in itself, but the context and relevance of events will escape many. On the other hand, this edition may serve as a well-placed stepping stone for those who have enjoyed the famous trilogy, and wish to delve further into Tolkien's somewhat dauntingly expansive back-catalogue.

Featuring the gorgeous - somehow fragile looking - illustrations of Alan Lee, The Children Of Húrin is not for the casually curious, but is a dense and moving journey into the epic and exquisite world J.R.R. Tolkien created.

(out of 5)