Sunset at a Desert Camp

The Dangers of the Desert

The desert is a dangerous place. We recently went on a peregrination with the Huicholes to Wirikuta, a sacred place in the deserts of San Luis Potosí. Every two years they make the peregrination to collect hikuri (peyote), which they use in ceremonies and for medicine for the two years. It also helps them raise funds for the tribe. Karla has been planning this trip for a while, but I joined at the last minute – actually, the night before we left – because her driver pulled out. So we left on Saturday – along with Lola, Ana and Hugo, who traveled with us – and stayed the night at a friend’s house in Querétaro. The next day we joined the caravan.

As I said, the desert is a dangerous place. For example, a fist-sized fly might invade your car as you’re driving along a straight and narrow road, and the efforts of the driver to remove the monstrous insect with his over-sized sombrero might cause the car to drift off the road and down the embankment, crushing scrub and flinging loose stones and nearly flipping over. That would have been the end of the journey, because the car weighs a couple of tonnes, but I’m not the kind of driver that flips cars.*

Sacred Waterhole with offeringsThe peregrination involves traveling to sites sacred to the huichol (Wixáritari in their language), which were invariably waterholes. This makes sense – in a desert, waterholes are going to be considered holy. There, the shamans gave people blessings with water from the sites. They also blessed vehicles, chanting and spitting water over the engines and keys. The pilgrims left offerings at the sites, such as candles with ribbons, handicrafts, and other things. I thought it was strange to leave man-made objects in these pure natural sites, but Karla pointed out that the rituals kept the sites important to the huicholes, and that protects the waterholes from more serious contamination.

We drove long into the night. During the day the wide desert surrounded by mountains on the horizon is majestic, and the sunsets are awe-inspiring, but at night the view from a moving car is desolate. Eventually we saw a long uneven row of red lights stretching across the horizon, blinking in unison. The line was too long to be some town’s decoration; the lights blinked across about a third of the horizon. Rigel insisted the lights were on ships, bobbing out on the sea, and because it was dark and we had no idea where we were we couldn’t definitively say she was wrong. We could only point out that lights on ships aren’t all red, and don’t blink on and off in unholy unison. All we could do was continue driving with that spooky and unnerving sight haunting the night on our left.**

The desert is a dangerous place. When you’re camping in the desert there are no toilets, and to relieve your bowels the best bet is to walk away from camp for 10 or 20 minutes and hope you find a clump of cactus big enough to squat behind. We’ve been scouts our whole lives, and we’ve taken the kids camping plenty of times, so this wasn’t an issue for us. Of course sometimes, in the dark, in the process of preparing the site you might get turned around 45 degrees or so. Normally this doesn’t matter, but in a place where everything has spines the consequences can be horrendous. I won’t go into excruciating detail, merely mention that some of those shrubs have long spine-covered branches that can go right between your legs as you bend, so always double-check your surrounds.

Symbols in blood on stoneAt one point we all chipped in to buy a lamb, and the peregrination went to the Cerro Donde Nace Las Lluvia – the hill that births the rain. Beyond this, we were told, the true desert began. Here there was a ceremony for the sacrifice of the lamb to appeal for our safe passage. The blood was used to bless things much like the water was, and to write symbols on the rocks of the hill. The children were quite upset about this, having already tried to feed carrots to the lamb. Rigel insisted it was not just that an animal was sacrificed for our safe passage, so Karla suggested we could make a blood sacrifice without killing anything. Rigel got very excited about that, and they used blood from Karla’s menstrual cup. Rigel used it to draw a lamb on the rocks.

We traveled down unpaved roads within an indigenous reserve, and made camp a short way from other groups on the peregrination. There was a scuffle to find or clear places for the tents and cars and fires, and as the sun went down we cooked pasta for the first meal of the day. You can tell we didn’t organise the meals, because there’s no way we’d conclude that food that needed to be boiled was the best choice to take to a desert. Anyway. Since the large bus that was bringing most of the huicholes couldn’t get down the rough roads of the desert, I drove back to the town to give some people a lift. In the dark there is only cactus shrub lining the ruts in the car’s headlights, and I could only hope the guide was good enough and the area uncomplicated enough to not get lost.

That night there was a ceremony around the main campfire, and the night resounded to the cacaphonic murmur of the blessings of the shamans and the rhythmic stamping of the feet of the crowd as they danced. Everyone contributed a stick of wood to the fire, and hikuri was passed around in a pot. The huicholes joked and laughed in their own language.

The desert is a dangerous place. The ceremony went all night, with people dancing and eating hikuri. So people were tired and high when they went to evacuate their bowels. In the morning there was a wide semi-circle of effluent just a couple of metres outside the campsite, and one unfortunately-place steaming pile in a path directly between two tents. It made us long for the days when all we had to watch out for were spines.

The next day we missed the caza de hikuri (hikuri hunt); the huicholes left early to scour the desert for the cactus and were gone most of the day. We took the kids out for a hunt with some of our friends who know the rituals. Hikuri are small cactus, just a little nubbin on the surface with a root system, normally growing under bushes or in the midst of other cacti. Traditionally, the first one that is found is left in the ground, and an offering placed around it – ours consisted of a candle, an “eye of god”, some chocolate and some home-grown tobacco. Some songs were sung to celebrate the hikuri. Then we searched for more of the cactus. The kids became surprisingly good at it, finding a dozen or so between them. I found four, two of which I gave to Karla and two which I left, and then I started collecting them. I came back with five. In the harvesting process the top of the hikuri is cut off and the roots left behind so the cactus regrows. In addition to the first one, any hikuri with flowers is also left behind.
Adults and kids singing in the desert
Karla stayed awake all that night trying different recipes for hikuri, and went most of the following day before the lack of sleep caught up with her. That day we drove to Real de Catorce, which requires driving through a very long mining tunnel before arriving at the town. I was exhausted and had a headache, so Karla took the kids on horseback to the next place on the peregrination while I slept in the hotel. After so long in the desert we all loved the flush toilet and hot shower in the hotel room.

That was the end of our peregrination, bar the drive home. We stopped in Querétaro for a dinner held in honour of Hugo Blanco, the old man who was traveling with us, who turned out to be a very important and respected Peruvian agrarian reform activist. He’s had a serious life, being gaoled for his activism, deported from his own country, and barely escaping Pinochet by being smuggled out of Chile by the Swedish consulate. He’s a very interesting activist, who incorporates environmental protection as a necessary component of improving the lives of indigenous and working people.

People at Dinner with Hugo BlancoWe left Hugo in Querétaro after the dinner and drove back to Cuernavaca. We were stopped in Toluca by some police for a bit of extortion, but Lola called her brother and, after speaking to him on the phone, the police waved us on. I’m not sure what happened, but I’d like to learn how to do that myself. Coming over the mountains to the west of Cuernavaca we passed some fire trucks and police cars parked by the road, and later saw a line of small, recently lit fires from the road into the forest. Cuernavaca has experienced an unusual and sudden burst of forest fires that have threatened the outer suburbs and burned nearby towns, all in the week after the parliament passed a law allowing the governor to sell land in state-owned reserves. There’s a common train of thought that the fires are deliberately set to devalue the land so there is no opposition to its sale, and the police are there as part of the project.

Cities can be dangerous places, too.

* Although, to be fair, I can no longer say that I’m not the kind of driver that runs off the road.
** The following day, while driving down either the same or a different road, we had no way of knowing, we saw a huge installation of electricity generating windmills, and realised these must be the source of the blinking red lights.

Review: 100 Episodes of Night Vale

Welcome to NightvaleFor four years now a surreal horror story has been broadcast over the tangled nodes of the internet. The podcast Welcome to Night Vale has appeared in twice-monthly installments since June 2012, making it one of the longest running fictional podcasts around. The 100th episode has gone live, which is a good excuse to talk about it. This show has everything: Battles, intrigue, revenge, subterfuge, love, philosophical ruminations on the nature of existence, and interns.

The genius of the show is its format. It’s presented as a radio show, which makes Welcome to Night Vale one of those rarest of fictions – a second-person format that works. As a listener, you are presumably within the isolated town of Night Vale, and affected by and involved with everything that happens there. The format lets the story wander between third-person reports of events in the town and first-person commentary by Cecil, the presenter. Although eminently likable, he is an untrustworthy narrator, projecting his emotions and judgments onto whatever he is reporting. It’s fun hearing the monologues of other people in the town and getting completely different perspectives — it’s a good storytelling technique to have people present their own versions of the truth instead of a monolithic narrative agreed to by everybody. The format also allows for repeating segments, such as the existential nihilism of Traffic and the musical tones of the Weather.

Night Vale is a Poeish and Lovecraftian place, ruled by hooded figures, terrorised by glow clouds, invaded by cities hidden under the bowling alley, and generally harassed by secret government agencies. Anything that happens in an episode, no matter how throw-away a punch-line or bizarre a revelation, is maintained throughout the show. The Faceless Old Lady Who Lives In Your Home was introduced as a creepy concept, and Hiram McDaniels, a literal five-headed dragon, was a metaphor taken literally, but they ran against each other in the Mayoral election. This is what allows the show to work – from the viciousness of librarians to the completely forbidden nature of the dog park, everything is retained and becomes a normal part of the Night Vale world.

Cecil is the announcer of Night Vale Community Radio, and it is his dulcet tones which make up the majority of the podcast. The fact that his voice is so nice to listen to is a main element of the success of the podcast. The normal manner of reporting the weird phenomenon is a sublime juxtaposition, used to great effect. He also adds the main personal element to the show, particularly through his relationship with his boyfriend, delightfully revealed in wistful digressions, interviews and phone messages. A good argument could be made that the show is love story.

Like any great fiction, a lot of meaning can be read into Welcome to Night Vale. The show satirises pretty much everything, starting with the terrifying nature of our bosses. For politics there is a huge race for mayor, complete with dirty tactics and outright threats, but the votes are ignored and the winner (spoiler alert) is ultimately decided by pulses coming from Hidden Gorge. There are arbitrary rules of society that must be followed, places that are off-limits for no explained reason, constant manipulation by secretive organisations, and the peppy evil of conglomerating corporations.

All in all, Welcome to Night Vale has a peculiar aesthetic that will enchant fans of folk horror and bizarre circuses … but beyond that it is a marvelous story, that is well-constructed and superbly performed. Start from the beginning and enjoy the show. The podcast is free, with the writers and crew earning a living by touring live shows, selling related merchandise, and soliciting donations. There’s also a book out.

http://podbay.fm/show/536258179

This is adapted from a review I wrote for Radio Monash

Anonymous Sources And Respectable Media

The use of anonymous sources is vital for the effectiveness of the fourth estate. There are plenty of situations where telling the truth can get someone into a lot of trouble (see Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning), even when it’s a truth that the general public has a right, or even a need, to know. The journalists and their editors make a judgment call on the trustworthiness of their source, and the reader needs to make a judgment on the sagacity of the journalists and editors in who they trust.

The Washington Post published a story citing anonymous sources who claimed that a secret CIA report concluded that actors linked to Russia affected the US election to help Donald Trump get elected. A lot of people dismissed this report out of hand simply because it was in the “mainstream media”, and they think that just because they misunderstood news stories in the past then the mainstream media lies.

There is a difference between “true” and “factual”. The Washington Post article is factual. It does not claim that Russia attempted to help Trump get elected, nor does it claim that the CIA thinks Russia attempted to help Trump get elected. It reports on claims by anonymous sources. The journalists and their editors obviously trust these sources, but how does the reader assess the trustworthiness of the source?

First, consider the Washington Post as a source. It relies on its reputation to conduct its business, as opposed to RT.com, for example, which relies on the patronage of the Russian government, or thefreethoughtproject.com, which seems to rely on clickbait headlines. If the Washington Post publishes too many stories based on anonymous sources that turn out to be false, their reputation — and therefore their business — is going to take a hit, so they’re very careful not to do that.

Second, consider what the anonymous sources are saying. Is it likely to be corroborated or refuted in the future? In this case we’re talking about a government agency, which is unlikely to let a completely false report of its findings stand. Further, this sort of story tends to get investigated, and indeed senior Republicans are calling for a bipartisan investigation into the matter, so the veracity is going to be checked. The Washington Post knew that would happen, and wouldn’t have gone ahead with the story unless they were certain of vindication.

The CIA could be mistaken, of course. This sort of intelligence is a notoriously slippery beast. However, we should assume they have a basic competency at their job. Could the CIA be outright lying? Again, it’s possible, but what would they gain? They’re likely to see their powers expanded under Trump, even more than they were with the previous few presidents.

Try to remember that you have to live with uncertainty, and rejecting or accepting something based solely on whether it fits the worldview you’ve concocted isn’t a valid way to interact with reality. If it makes you feel any better, even if something does contradict with your worldview it doesn’t mean your worldview is wrong.

Jellyballing the Jellyfisheries

People eat jellyfish, and therefore people fish for jellyfish. They call the practice jellyballing — because if you get a chance to name something, you should name it something cool. Unfortunately, far more jellyfish are caught each year than previously assumed. We currently have no idea what effect this is having on the jellyfish population, or what effect overfishing jellyfish will have on the marine ecology. Considering we’re overfishing pretty much everything in the ocean, I imagine it’s not going to be good. Hakai has a short piece on this, well worth the read.

(image copyright Brocken Inaglory)

Mathematical Proof that Aliens Do Not Exist (Sorry to Burst your Bubble)

Every now and then random people in the world go bat-guana crazy about something, whether it’s about a Big Foot sighting, or believing that a trust-fund billionaire troll-bot will govern for anyone other than other billionaires, or evidence of extraterrestrials. This latter went big in 2016, moving from cow-probing theory-spinning abductees to legitimate astronomers and physicists who tried really, really hard not to sound like they were talking about E.T.

However they tried to dress it up, it was ridiculous. A star, KIC 8462852 (now known as Tabby’s Star), was showing behaviour they didn’t recognise, and the cry of “ALIENS” reverberated around the internet. Sound like a familiar argument?

In fact, the probability of contact with extraterrestrial intelligence is so tiny that there is literally no evidence compelling enough to refute the maths. I explain this here.

The Wrong View of Science

There are many forms of poor thinking, and most have been on vivid display in the past year or so. One that often gets overlooked is scientism, the “the uncritical application of scientific or quasi-scientific methods to inappropriate fields of study or investigation”. There’s a large number of people with a religious fervour for science, but aside from pithy memes the apologists can’t support their position.

I studied Scientific Practice and Communication at Monash University this semester, which did a good job at introducing second year students to the way science actually works (as opposed to the way it is promoted to work), outlining poor science and misuse of the scientific method, and problems with the modern research environment and peer-reviewed journals. Sometimes they seemed to contradict themselves, but it’s a tough line to walk. One professor described the importance of The Royal Society’s motto Nullius in Verba (Take Nobody’s Word For It), and then in the same lecture lamented that the problem with modern discourse is that now people thought it was okay to question experts. Of course, questioning is good, but it needs to be backed up with an alternative idea that is coherent, logical, and sound. Often science experts are challenged on non-scientific grounds and the competing ideas are unsound and incoherent, but it can be difficult for non-experts to distinguish which is better.

All that aside, science cannot save the world by itself, and should not be applied to questions outside of its paradigm. I wrote a longer piece arguing this point, with examples, for the university paper Lot’s Wife. Read it here.

The End of a Six-Month Anti-Hiatus

For complicated reasons involving rushed decision making and decapitated pig heads I went back to university this past semester. My plans to post my writing here collapsed after a few weeks, partly because I joined a lot of uni societies but mostly because leaving five years between finishing the prerequisites for a second-year maths course and studying the second year maths course makes the process really quite difficult. I pulled a credit though, so dropping this paid off.

Now I shall explore the peculiarities of this world and this life, through science, literature, film & TV, things written for university subjects, and general musings.

Review: The DC Movies & What Went Wrong

Let me tell you, yet another review, this one more of a meta-review on the direction of a movie studio. The End of the Decline for DC? That’s right, I’m calling it. Or at least, Suicide Squad shows they finally realised they’re heading in the wrong direction.

No, The Backstory Isn’t Important

One of the big problems with Suicide Squad is the inordinate amount of time spent on backstories. They gave several minutes of screen time at the beginning of the movie to all the anti-villains getting captured – bearing in mind there are six of them – and filled in more detailed backstory for a couple of them, as well as setting up the plot overall.

Each particular backstory was well thought out, but that many at the beginning of the movie really began to drag. They simply weren’t necessary, and they detracted from the overall story.

All that was needed was for Amanda Wallace to indicate she was putting together a team of bad guys, some of whom have powers. That’s it, that’s all the set-up that’s required. That way, all the fight scenes from the bad guys getting captured can be moved into the body of the movie, where they can be used to further the plot rather than backstory, and be used to give a good surprise. The powers would be an impressive surprise rather than something that was foreshadowed to the point of tediousness.

I am reminded of Fast and Furious 7. Warner, watch it, study it, learn from it, and run free…