13 November 2008

Letter 4.19

Since WW2 the driest year in Sri Lanka has been 1983. The drought, of course, was not so bad as it was in Africa; but bad enough. Still no less solar energy striking the earth's surface, and presumably about the same amount of water evaporates from the oceans, so someplace must be getting an excess of rain, unless it just falls back in the sea. One theory is that the whole drought is due to some inexplicable 'hot spot' that developed over the last few years somewhere in the South Pacific Ocean, only a few degrees above normal but over a large enough area to affect the world‘s weather. Dump that on the theoretical pile.

In any case, the drought has ended...with a vengeance! It was assumed the rains had come and gone, only half filling the reservoirs, and promising continuing power-cuts in the foreseeable future. Predictably, the clouds gathered, and we had 4 weeks of rains, during which time it rained a little or a lot every single solitary day, and there was almost no sunshine. The plains had floods; the people were evacuated and helicopters flew emergency supplies to them, but of course in the hill country there is no chance of floods. A lot of crops were damaged or destroyed. The rains ended (again), and now the weather is dry (the doors don't stick anymore) and crisp, though it's probably too late for a real winter season like the cold one of last year.

However, the rains went on a bit too long for the devale which is just up-hill from me. A devale is a place for the deva, or local god, in this case a two-room building, one for the god herself (I'm told she's female), and one for the occasional visitor, a few a week from what I've been able to see. The god is a stone statue about 18 inches high of curious proportions, the head being as big as the torso, but otherwise unremarkable -- only the usual number (usual for humans that is) of arms, legs, and heads. I don't mean that this statue is a representative of the god. It is, I'm told, the god herself. Anyway, the day after the rains ended the roof (tile) collapsed and took the wall with it, or perhaps it was the wall (adobe) that collapsed and took the roof with it; in any case it fell downhill and took a chunk of my roof with it too, though nothing that can't be spared; overhang and verandah. My roof (asbestos) fortunately managed to not get broken over my room. But a big mess, a day's work to clear up, and then a workman had to dismantle much of the rest of the devele before (today) 3 workmen began rebuilding it. They are paid by the owner of the devale, which is not the god herself, who is only resident, not owner, but I'm not sure whether the devale is owned by one man or whether he is a front man for a committee of owners, or what the arrangement is. Perhaps, I'm like the god herself in this regard.

A few days ago I walked into the nearby village, as I often do, and saw there were flags up, and a banner on a rope overhanging the roadway, and other signs of festivities. The reason, I found, was because a deputv minister was coming to give a speech that day to inauguratethe installation of a telephone in the village's sub-post office. It's a grey dial phone, which one can hire by payment to the sub-postmaster (I suppose he's called). All calls must go through an operator. A great day in the life of the village.

A few days before that there was a shramadana, which is when all the villagers get together to do some public work. In this case it was clearing the weeds from the dirt road which connects up to the main road. Lots of people out with hoes, someone hooked up a tape deck to a loadspeaker (at full volume, naturally), a banner on a rope overhung the car road announcing the work. The road needed it, for the sides, by the water ditches, were quite tall with weeds. The road is motorable only about half its length, the last half being blocked by landslides; but there are signs that there are plans to asphalt the road its full length, which is maybe 3/4 of a mile. These signs -- gravel piles, etc. -- have been there since at least last December. Considering the work the villagers were putting in they don't seem hopeful of its quick realization.

One time in the village I passed a house where a woman was sitting outdoors in a sort of bamboo frame, curtained on three sides, but open in the front. Before her several men dressed in very elaborate costumes -- brocaded sarones, the first time I've ever seen men wearing them, and what on a total would be called a middy blouse, but is in fact a traditional sort of men's blouse worn on ceremonial occasions -- were dancing furiously in front of her, while several other men were wailing on flutes and beating drums. This was an exorcism of sorts, for the woman was ill (fever and so on), and the dancing was intended to cure her. It was a bit difficult to discover this, for when I asked different people everyone seemed greatly embarrassed, and they gave me slightly different explanations of the goings on, as they wanted to soften the truth of the matter. I guess they supposed I would dismiss the whole thing as primitive superstition, as they themselves were half-inclined to do. However, when I later inquired of the woman I found that she had in fact recovered. If she had died there would have been a stronger basis for dismissing the whole thing as primitive superstition (as opposed, no doubt, to the sophisticated superstition of the Western medical tradition). But it sure is a lot simpler to take two aspirin and then call the doctor in the morning (particularly since there is now a sub-phone in the sub-p.o.).

Recently I listened on a short-wave radio to one of those hot-gospel American stations that beam around the world. I've noticed before on these shows a propensity for the archaicism 'that which is', which can sound quite strange when combined with modern usage. For instance, the broadcaster said something like: 'The main book, Get All Excited, Jesus is Coming Soon, as well as The Destiny of America and the Time-Line Chart that tells you what all is happening and the order of events in which it will happen, over 100 news items in Bible references, is yours for just $15, that's right, send just $15 to Today in Bible Prophesy. God bless you, we want you to know that which is happening.' Well, the phrase 'that which is happening' struck me as odd, so I also noticed another 'that which is', when I heard on the same program, 'Just in case Russia strikes first our submarine can release that which is in them that can make a cinder out of Russia, Bless your hearts, we've got 19,000 nuclear warheads aimed right at them.' Of course, with stuff like that going out (and giving every appearance of having private U.S. sponsorship, even when not broadcast from US soil) one begins to think Radio Moscow tirades are not so paranoid as might be at first assumed.

The local schoolmaster has naw informed me that there are 'talking cars' in America. If true, I wonder what they say when you push the horn? 'Get off the road, you SOB!'? And no doubt they're prograumed to say, on a monthly basis, 'Have you mailed in your payment this month? If not, then when Nissan executives push a button, I will drive myself back to their office.' Or, 'I am the computer working for X corporation, and according to my records I have no registered any payments from you for the last three months. So far you and I are the only ones who know about this, but if I do not receive a payment from you within ten days, then my program requires me to inform a human...unless (heavy computing) you happen to know a nubile young piece of software...'

These days I'm reading a quite extraordinary book called 'Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid', which is an exploration of intelligence, both human and artificial, and therefore talks much about the principles of programming a computer. It does it with considerable wit, play, and lightness, but, though written for the newcomer, it requires careful attention to follow the mathematics, and since it's 750 large pages, I shall probably continue to be-reading-it for quite some time. I disagree with much of what he has to say, but enjoy working out exactly what my disagreement is, and thereby clarifying my own views on the nature of mind.

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