Saturday, 28 June 2008

All True Guide To Norway

An Englishman Abroad: Alltruism goes to Norway

I have recently returned from a visit to Norway, the homeland of my viking girlfriend.

It seems that Norway has changed somewhat since viking times (and for some reason the education about Norway that we get in the UK covers only viking times).

Long gone are the giant, wolf-hide draped axe-men that my school-given knowledge of Norway led me to expect. I didn't see any berzerkers, and was not asked to quaff mead or beat the Gods in an eating contest once, despite having been there nearly a week. Raping and pillaging were conspicuous only by their absence, and the only shield-bedecked longships you can find there today are in museums.

The thing that first struck me about Norway is that it is more civilized than the UK in almost every way - toilet flushes work better, heated floors are standard, mixer taps work, there's a cheese-slicer (which the Norwegians invented) in every kitchen, the milk cartons have a handy transparent indicator on the side so you can see how much is left, ikea style and lamps are everwhere, there's no violent chav culture, the people are more trusting - the mailboxes for a whole street are all together, and not locked, yet people don't steal each other's mail like they surely would in most parts of the UK.

On top of all that, there's modern art everywhere...even in isolated, uninhabited regions high up on the mountains!

The example to the right, I'm reliably informed, is not some druidic relic from ancient days, but was put there fairly recently, probably after a committee had a talk about it.

Quite why they decided on this particular spot, high in the mountains amidst the glaring white isolation of the tundra, I don't know. Square polo, nowhere to go? Stick it up in the endless whiteness of the tundra!

Even the scary looking death metal fans are usually cheery and friendly, unlike the glazed-eyed dance-anthem loving chav thugs of the uk. Some of them do have quite bizarre facial hair though, which suggests that the viking spirit is still in there somewhere.

The carparks are cleaner, with more efficient ticket systems plus simple, friendly ways to help you remember where you've parked (the Carrot level, the Cat level etc). Even the oven chips cook twice as fast as the ones you get in the UK. Brilliant!

Norwegian public transport is great, and really drives home just how awful it is in the UK. The Norwegians have bendy buses that run on time and have a better way of getting tickets, and as an added bonus they are clean and well maintained!

Also, a tiny amount of snow doesn't bring it all to a grinding halt. In England it takes approximately 1cm of snow to bring all transport to a grinding halt and plunge the nation into chaos.

In Norway, they keep going in all but the most horrific conditions. The mountain roads are lined with poles, at least 10 feet tall. This is to help the snow plows find the road when it is hidden under snow, so that they can clear it. Only when even the poles are completely buried in snow will the Norwegians grudgingly admit defeat and close the road.

Houses in Norway are made of wood. It seems that there are only 2 little pigs in the Norwegian version of the story (with no brick houses in sight), but there's presumably more wolves.

This shouldn't work, but amazingly, it seems that it does. The wooden houses of Norway are warm and comfortable, despite the unforgiving weather.

Some of the blondes (and blonds) in Norway don't look like the blondes here - they don't have roots and their eyebrows match....freaky! It's almost as if they were born with hair so pale, which, as we in the UK know, is impossible - the palest naturally occurring hair colour is a kind of mousey brown.

Another striking difference I noticed was the shoes - the Norwegians have a very different taste in shoes to us Brits, and seem to fall into two categories - hiking shoes (for obvious reasons in their mountainous habitat) and bizarre shoes (brightly coloured and quite small, and seemingly not mass produced as I never saw two pairs even slightly similar to one another).

Vegetarians don't exist in Norway. There is a sense when ordering a vegetarian pizza that the friendly people taking the order want to add at least a bit of meat out of genuine pity for you, after all, without meat its not *really* a meal now is it?

Food packaging design is one of the few areas where the Norwegians seem to be lagging far behind the UK, with lurid designs and dodgy-colour images of the food that will bring a tear of 70s nostalgia to any Englishman's eye.

When Norwegians go for a holiday in Norway, they leave their wooden houses nestled amongst the mountains and head out for...smaller wooden houses, nestled amongst much bigger mountains!

Here's a view of some of the highest mountain peaks in Norway - the photo really doesn't convey the sense of scale - these things are huge:

The towns are clean, most of the buildings are easy on the eye, and you get a sense the people really care about these things, unlike in the UK, where the architecture and poor standards of cleanliness accurately reflect the "can't be bothered" culture.

A sign of the Norwegians' understandable pride is the number of Norwegian flags dotted around the place. These seem to say "I'm proud to live in this beautiful country". Of course, there's a few British flags dotted around Britain, but these seem to say "I'm an overweight racist who always wears football shirts", which is not quite the same thing.

The beer there is good, but expensive - especially if you're from the relatively poor United Kingdom. £5-6 for a beer is common. Even the rip-off merchants at the airport only charged slightly more, at £8 for a pint (actually just over, at 0.6l).

Although part of this vast price difference between beer prices in the UK and Norway is due to Norway being a significantly richer nation, beer is still more expensive there even when you factor this out. As well as being more difficult to afford, any alcohol stronger than beer is also harder to obtain - only the state-owned monopolies (called "Vinmonopolet") can sell wines and spirits, and these have fairly limited opening hours.

Although the lack of the convenience of being able to pop down to the offie on a Saturday night and pick up a couple of bottles of wine might seem like a step backwards it actually seems to work quite well - overall, the Norwegians seem to have a more sensible attitude to enjoying alcohol than the "oi oi daaahn in one!" binge-drinking culture that has left most of the British population as drooling, brawling cretins.

Also on the plus side, they don't generally use the incredibly stupid brim-measure system we are unfortunate enough to have to endure here in the UK, so you have a fighting chance of getting to your table with most of your precious beer still in the glass, and less chance of spilling someone's pint and getting your head kicked in.

They used to say "the sun never sets on the British Empire", and that wasn't far from the truth - there was always a part of it where the sun was up. The British Empire isn't quite what it used to be (I blame the decline of tea-drinking and the increasing use of coffee), but perhaps Norwegian summers can take over its duties in the phrase.

The sun literally never sets on the Norwegian summer. Its quite odd - bright daylight right up to 10PM or so, and even at 2AM its still quite never really feels like its night time at all.

Unfortunately, the price for the extra daylight in the Norwegian summer is paid back every winter, which has only brief glimpses of daylight followed by darkness that covers most of the day (and all of the night). If you don't have SAD, spending a winter in Norway should give you a fair chance of developing it. But hopefully when the Norwegian summer comes along, you'll be cured again!

The Norwegian language is a total mystery to me, as a staunch monolinguist (i.e. an Englishman). Although I can't understand (or correctly pronounce) a word of it, many written words of Norwegian do bear an uncanny resemblance to English words given a bit of a Scandinavian polish (a couple of accent marks, extra Ks and some vowels juggled around a bit).

This does give the strange impression that the people responsible for these words were just writing in English but striving to convey a Scandinavian accent. One example of this is the Norwegian version of the Kit Kat called Kvikk Lunsj, which means, as you might have guessed, "Quick Lunch". See, I told you about the extra Ks!

Although most of the Norwegians speak English rather better than many English natives, for some reason sign-writing duties seem to be passed to the individuals with the worst grasp of the language:

"Squeeze Danger!" sounds like a good Pepsi Max slogan to me!

I fought the glacier...and the glacier won

(Under construction)

All True Facts: Norway

Norway is actually the flattest country on Earth, but was dramatically redesigned by King Olaf the Modeller in the late 16th century. The famous mountains are hand-carved from polystyrene (you can see proof of this - the white bits near the tops are where the paint has come off due to wind and rain erosion. The mountains are repainted every spring, but by winter the violent weather will again have started revealing the white of the polystyrene as it tears off the paint).

as you can see, the harsh wind and rain up in the mountains has eroded large areas of paint!

Fox's Glacier Mints are made from glaciers that crushed Viking peppermint farms in the 1200s, saturating the ancient ice with a strong minty flavour.

Norwegia cheese is made from bits of Norway, mined from the Fjords, causing their current depth. Norwegia literally means "wedge of Norway".

The country was saved from an attack by thousands of evil spirits in the late 80s, by 4 guys with special backpacks. In gratitude, the Norwegians decided to incorporate the logo of these intrepid Ghostbusters into their language as an extra character - ø /Ø, which is pronounced "ur".

Friday, 27 June 2008

Religion and Politics - Gay Rights and Abortion

Should religion and moral views be handled politically?

The question itself is a little ambiguous – obviously the state (“politics”) cannot make you hold a certain view and cannot make you believe in a particular religion – such personal matters simply cannot be handled politically.

One's personal religious and moral views are relevant to others only when they are translated into actions – a view that remains inside one's head is invisible to politics.

It is only the behaviours that result from religious and moral views that are relevant politically, and influencing (and restricting) behaviour for the good of the society and its people is politics' raison d'etre – the alternative is anarchy.

Unless you are an anarchist then you must accept that the behaviours that result from religious and moral views must be handled like all other behaviours; that is to say they must be regulated and restricted - to a greater or lesser extent - by the politics that is the basis of our society.

I think most of what I've said above will not be controversial – almost everyone accepts that there must be some restrictions on our freedom in order for that freedom to be meaningful, and almost everyone accepts that freedom (within limitations) is something positive and worth striving for.

It is the extent of those restrictions / limitations that divides opinion, and indeed for the entire length of recorded history, societies have been strengthening and softening the restrictions imposed upon their people. Over time, there has been a tendency for change, on average, to be more in the liberal direction (less state intervention and more personal freedom). This trend may have been reversed in much of the Western world in recent years with the instigation of the “War on Terror”.

While morality can be more “shades of grey” than just black and white, the state has to legislate one way or the other. People who feel the state should not be getting involved in matters like gay marriage seem to overlook the fact that the state has to either allow it, or prohibit it – there is no middle ground there. The state doesn't necessarily have to take a moral stance, but it does have to make a call one way or the other.

The real issue is how the state decides what is to be prohibited.

Such decisions are based on many elements – reason, religious beliefs, morality and pragmatism, to name but a few.

One of these, religion, is obviously not a sound basis for a society deciding what freedoms to restrict. Those who state that society has no business telling us what is right or wrong should realise that right and wrong are meaningfully determined only in relation to other people – aka society.

Also, as mentioned above, society prohibiting something doesn't necessarily constitute society making a moral judgement – it can simply be a pragmatic one (one recent example would be the banning of drinking alcohol on public transport in the UK – society is not saying there is something intrinsically wrong about drinking alcohol there, but in practical terms it is better for society to prevent it and thus prevent the violence, accidents and other problems that it was shown to play a major part in causing or aggravating).

It is religion that has no business telling us what is right and wrong – why trust the Bronze-age writings, warped beyond their original context and meaning by millennia of societal progress (not to mention numerous key mistranslations on the way to their current forms), of the Bible or Koran over reasoned thought, modern ethical philosophy and pragmatism?

It is a fact that secular nations (that is to say nations that are secular in practice, even if not constitutionally secular) are generally more pleasant and more prosperous than nations where the religious laws are the law of the land.

Societies that choose what freedoms to restrict based on informed judgement using reason, contemporary science and ethical philosophy rather than out-dated and often mistranslated ancient texts are going to be better places for reasonable people to thrive.

However, some of the current issues dominating this topic of debate are gay rights and abortion. I will focus on these two issues.

Firstly, gay rights (and specifically gay marriage) – this one is easy – of course gays should have the same rights as the rest of us. Denying gay people the same rights as everyone else is morally no different to denying rights to people based on their ethnicity, their having big ears or their having ginger hair.

The only objections to gays having the same rights as heterosexuals are based on:

a) mistranslated Bronze-Age scriptures and

b) the “yuck factor” - e.g. In contemporary Western society many heterosexual males find the thought of the act of two men having sex quite “yucky”. But they tend to exhibit a lot less “yuck factor” at the thought of cute girls getting off with one another. This may explain why lesbianism isn't mentioned as a sin in the Bible, written as it was by males.

A lot of homosexual males presumably find the idea of heterosexual sex just as “yucky”!

Of course, just because people find something “yucky” doesn't mean that that something should be made illegal. I personally find childbirth and cleaning up other people's bodily excreta particularly “yucky”, but I'm very glad that we have midwives and nurses!

In the case of gay couples adopting children, I think that, as in all adoption cases, the interests of the child should come first. If there was evidence that being raised by a homosexual couple was disadvantageous to the child then I'd oppose it. I've yet to see such evidence, and moreover have no reason to suspect such evidence would exist.

Abortion is a trickier issue, and a good example of the difficulties of imposing legislation, which is largely “black or white” - “legal or illegal” - on issues that are really more “shades of grey”.

The common complete anti-abortion argument is flawed – it essentially states that human life is sacred from the moment of conception, thus avoiding the difficulties of the “shades of grey” by making all abortion “wrong”.

However, this argument breaks down with a contemporary understanding of evolution (unless you extend it to all living species including plants and bacteria, which is absurd) – species aren't the rigid, separate things Creationists would have us believe. “Human” refers to a narrow part of the continuous spectrum of possible genetic combinations, which brings us right back to the “shades of grey” problem once again.

It is only by happen stance that there isn't a continuous spectrum of living intermediates between humans and chimps – if there was, legislators would have to draw the cut-off line between “human” and “non-human” somewhere, but exactly where would be an arbitrary decision, and no doubt a controversial one especially to families where some of the children were deemed “non-human”. Perhaps this sounds contrived, but the very same thing happened in South Africa with the line between “white” and “non-white”.

Abortion then, being a “shades of grey” situation (either species-wise or in terms of the age of the potential baby), is a complex issue to legislate on, but clear abortion legislation is vital due to its potentially drastic effects on both people and society.

Destroying a recently fertilised human egg isn't taking a human life in the normal sense of “human life”, it is taking only a potential human life – a zygote doesn't have any of the qualities which come to mind when we think about what “human” means to us – it can't feel emotion or pain, hope or despair, laughter or anger (and most spontaneously abort naturally and unmourned in any case) and doesn't have a “personality”.

But a new-born baby can do a lot more of these things – it can feel pain, and does have a personality – and I think every decent person agrees that killing a new-born baby is wrong. Between these two points is a grey area, but a society has to draw a line somewhere – and while all the best available evidence needs to be considered, the exact location of that line is going to be largely arbitrary.

The interests of both the mother and the potential child need to be considered. If the potential child is unwanted, and the parents unwilling and unable to raise it effectively, it may be that aborting the collection of cells before it develops to the point where it becomes capable of suffering is the right thing to do.

Also, in societies where abortion is illegal, abortions are still conducted, but often crudely (and later in the pregnancy), causing more suffering.

More generally, evidence suggests that increases in the numbers of children born to parents who didn't want them and were financially and emotionally incapable of raising them well are connected to increases in social disorder and crime.

Allowing people to abort unwanted children could thus potentially save lives and increase the quality of life for people, without causing suffering (as the zygotes / embryos are incapable of suffering as we understand it). If you can easily increase happiness without causing suffering, you need pretty good reasons not to do so. In the interests of society, and the protection of its people, abortion is at worst a necessary evil.

In an ideal world abortion would not be needed, but in the real world, it is.

Politics governs the real world, and has to legislate accordingly. Religions should only determine what their followers should and should not do – they should not seek to force others outside the faith to follow their rules.

It is the job of politics, not religion, to decide what people within society can and cannot do, for the benefit of all