Archive for July, 2015

gosh we larfed…

I went to Alan Davies stand-up comedy show the other night. Yes it was funny, really funny. Not just for me, everyone around me was chuckling and laughing aloud throughout the show. A couple of hours of humour does the old soul a lot of good and so was well worth the price of entry. Certainly more soul-uplifting than a night on the tiles.

It is only after I had returned to the sobriety of the outside world and tried to retell the jokes that made us all laugh so much, I recognised that there were no jokes. Joke telling is domain of Ronnie Corbett, “There was an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scot in a bar………….” which may make me smile slightly, but certainly never laugh with tears rolling down my cheeks. Jokes may be clever, sometimes, witty, sometimes but they are always contrived. And that is where they lose that side-splitting response.

The telling moment was when Alan was relaying a story from his childhood about how his father, with whom he apparently had a loveless relationship, responded to Alan spending an extravagant 85p on a tennis ball. Alan said, “if he had calmly explained that ‘while I know, Alan, that you have done what you thought was the right thing, the shopkeeper has taken advantage of you’, then I probably would not have become a comedian.” It was the actual, marginally-psychotic, response of his father that made for an hilarious, eye-watering recount for about ten minutes. The difference between being a comedian and not was in having had very unhappy experiences as a child and a loveless relationship with a neurotic father.

And there was the difference between the hilarious Alan Davies and the mildly amusing Ronnie Corbett. Alan Davies was somehow turning the unhappy aspects of his childhood into a lucrative career, bringing joy and hilarity to about 1500 Dunedinites. My seat at this event cost $69.90.

At its entry-level it is called self-deprecating humour. There are theories about why we enjoy this. Anthropologist, Gil Greengross published a study in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology in 2008 with the title: Dissing Oneself: The Sexual Attractiveness of Self-Deprecating Humour. This is based on a combination of two factors, a) that potential partners do not like you to brag, they like humility; but in being clever enough to find witty humour in your faults or misfortunes then you actually use a ‘minor’ fault or misfortune to demonstrate much more desirable attractions of intelligence and a sense of humour.

Another anthropologist, Kate Fox, says: “Pomposity and self-importance are outlawed. Serious matters can be spoken of seriously, but one must never take oneself too seriously… As long as everyone understands the rules, they are duly impressed both by one’s achievements and by one’s reluctance to trumpet them.”

It may be the reality, but the ‘why’ is confusing. Usually the law of natural selection would tell us the loudest-crowing cock gets the hens. But Sapiens breaks a lot of rules of nature. I must write about Yasal Harai’s book “Sapiens” sometime. But essentially Harari believes Sapiens has achieved its global dominance by creating cultural myths and beliefs to over-ride the laws of biology, for the purpose of achieving the unnatural mass co-operation; that is the reason for our global dominance. Not as heavy as it may sound at first, but I will go into in more detail another time.

But there is a big jump from impressing a potential partner to having an audience of hundreds or thousands of ticket-paying members tearing up in laughter at a sad or even tragic event. Alan started by building an empathy with the audience, mocking his issues of aging and getting moderately-seriously injured going through the traumas of child-rearing, (Such humour has its vaudeville roots in the good old custard pie in the face gag) before getting into the heavy stuff of recounting a loveless childhood with a neurotic father which is going a big emotional step further than being a little self-deprecating. This is not a forgivable character flaw, this is publicly exposing private, personal misfortune.

Mark Twain is quoted as saying “Humor is tragedy plus time.”  Thats a bit like people getting through a tragedy saying “One day we will look back on this and laugh.” Conversely someone may respond “too soon” when a joke is told about a recent tragic event. So when we are significantly separated from a tragedy by time, geography, social status etc., a tragic event can be seen as funny. But still the question is ‘why? Why does someone else’s misfortune bring tears of joy and laughter to us’. Why do we quite happily part out with $69.90 to hear about someone else’s misfortunes and weep with laughter rather than weep with sadness?

Psychologists write a lot of psychobabble about laughter and phiosophers write a lot of Philocrap. As I can read it the modern consensus is based on studying our primate relations. Modern researchers conducting experiments with chimpanzees believe that, unlike traditional explanations from observers such as Plato, Aristotle and Freud who thought it was all about humour, the modern opinion is that primal laughter evolved as a signaling device to highlight readiness for friendly interaction.”

When Robert R. Provine tried applying his training in neuroscience to laughter in the late 1980’s years ago, he began by dragging people into his laboratory at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, to watch episodes of “Saturday Night Live”. The people just didn’t laugh much at all.

So he went out into the streets and malls and recorded thousands of incidents where laughter was provoked. He found that 80 percent to 90 percent of them came after straight lines like “I know” or “I’ll see you later.” He also found that most speakers did more laughing than their listeners; that they used laughter just to break up their sentences. It is actually a largely involuntary process. “ Laughter is an honest social signal because it’s hard to fake,” Professor Provine says. “We’re dealing with something powerful, ancient and crude. It’s a kind of behavioral fossil showing the roots that all human beings, maybe all mammals, have in common.” 

images-3Professor Provine and associate Professor Panksepp determined from their studies that the first primate joke — that is, the first action to produce a laugh without physical contact — was the feigned tickle, the same kind of coo-chi-coo move parents make when they thrust their wiggling fingers at a baby. Professor Panksepp thinks the brain has ancient wiring to produce laughter so that young animals learn to play with one another. The laughter stimulates euphoria circuits in the brain and also reassures the other animals that they’re playing, not fighting.Professor Panksepp says. “Sophisticated social animals such as mammals need an emotionally positive mechanism to help create social brains and to weave organisms effectively into the social fabric.” Their conclusion is that laughter is a social lubricant and that who and what you laugh at reveals your spot in the social pecking order.

That did not quite fit with my feeling about why we were all laughing so hard as Alan Davies recounted the dramas and misfortunes he has experienced in life and his “Little Victories” (as the performance was entitled) over these misfortunes. This was no social lubricant with either Alan Davies or with any of the rest of the audience as I had no intention of socialising with any of them. Nor do I buy in to the Provine/ Pankskepp natural extension that mature Sapiens specimens are as simple minded as monkeys and babies who guffaw at pretend tickles. It may of course simply be that Sapiens has evolved as the most dominant species on the planet because essentially we are a cruel, nasty species which is genetically encoded to take enormous pleasure in others misforunes, but I do not wish to believe that as I am speaking of my own species. 

So I will propose my own theory. Because we have all suffered misfortune, we can empathise with the comedian who has suffered his own particular misfortune. But the comedian also has the strength and courage to stand before 1500 strangers and actually mock his own unhappy memories. So when we cheer him loudly at the end, we are cheering and celebrating his spirit in challenging his adversity, and in so doing, defeating the forces that conspire to break our human spirit. We applaud that he has the strength of character to publicly expose his misfortunes rather than allow them to eat him from the inside. We share in his triumph. We laugh with him, not at him. For in a mature Sapiens, laughter is the ultimate challenge to the forces of adversity and, as such, is the best medicine for the human spirit.






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Stars in their eyes

Well, having recently publicly recommended that the Matariki star group replace the Southern Cross on our national flag, it behoves me to actually learn a little bit about the Matariki and why this star cluster was  such a significant influence on Maori tradition. And quite an interesting little journey in space and time it was.

Matariki (translated as ‘ little eyes’) is a star cluster that appears in the South-East horizon of the night sky in May/ June in New Zealand and the Maori new year is now said to start on the first new moon after its appearance. Other tradition has this cluster has also been associated with the winter solstice and the star cluster named as Matariki, the mother, surrounded by her six daughters whose role is to assist the weakened sun to return to strength

Identifying notable stars and associating them with natural phenomena or religious significance is well recorded from ancient times, but still, it makes you wonder how the Maori actually came to settle on this cluster of seven stars, (usually with the naked eye only six can be identified; officially there are nine named with hundreds actually in the cluster, but for some reason, Maori myth refers to seven).

After a little further investigation, I learn that this same cluster of stars is recognised in Hawaii where it is named Makaliʻi hiki (also translates as ‘little eyes’). The Makaliʻi hiki in Hawaii rises shortly after sunset and is visible for four months from October/November to February/March. In Hawaiian tradition, this was a four month period of celebration of the harvest called Makahiki. Warfare was forbidden and it was a period of feasting, sports, dancing and celebration. The Makaliʻi hiki were also a navigational guide for the Hawaiians. Since the Maori have referred to their spiritual homeland as being Hawaiiki, joining these two geographical dots is a reasonable conclusion.

This same cluster of six stars is also recognised in Japan under the name Mutsuraboshi (“six stars”) in the 8th century Kojiki and Manyosyu documents. The constellation is also known in Japan as Subaru (“unite”) and you may note that the Subaru car logo contains six stars. Interestingly Japanese often saw seven stars instead of six. Travelers to Japan may be familiar with Shichifukujin (literally “seven happy gods”) which are often seen at temples and in miniature at souvenir shops throughout Japan. Locals in some prefectures of Japan still call the cluster “Shichifukujin”.  In Japan, as in Hawaii, this is recognised as the harvest time.

As with many things Japanese, the recognition of this cluster of stars was imported from Chinese astronomy observations. This cluster of stars seem to be among the first stars mentioned in astronomical literature, appearing in Chinese annals of 2357 B.C. The Chinese were a very advanced civilisation in the study of astronomy.

Seven stars Sumerian tablet, circa 2500 bc

Seven stars Sumerian tablet, circa 2500 bc

The Babylonian star catalogues name this same group MUL.MUL or “star of stars”, and they head the list of stars along the ecliptic, reflecting the fact that they were close to the point of vernal equinox around the 23rd century BC. Several Sumerian tablets have depicted the seven stars that reference the harvest period.

But the common name for this cluster of stars is Pleiades. The Pleiades cluster is within 4° of the ecliptic and is in the constellation of Taurus. The heliacal (pre-dawn) rising of the Pleiades marks late May/ June mid winter season in the Southern Hemisphere, likewise in the Northern Hemisphere the cluster can be seen in November from dusk to dawn.

Pleiades is mentioned in Greek mythology in the poems of Homer and Hesiod around 1,000 BC, in which the Pleiades were seven sisters: Maia, Electra, Alcyone, Taygete, Asterope, Celaeno and Merope. 

According to Greek mythology, after a chance meeting with the hunter Orion, the seven sisters became the object of his pursuit. Enamoured with the young women he pursued them over the face of the Earth. In pity for their plight, Zeus changed them into a flock of doves, which he set in the heavens. 

Even though the Greeks actually name nine stars of the Pleiades, they acknowledge that only six stars are distinctly visible to the naked eye. Apart from the seven daughters they also name Atlas and Pleione as the parents. These two stars do exist although they would have been invisible to the searching eyes of ancient Greeks, Chinese or Persian astronomers. But of the seven sisters, they write that the star Merope is often called the “lost Pleiade” because she was not seen by astronomers or charted like her sisters. The ancient Greeks explained that Merope was most faintly visible because she took a mortal husband, Sisyphus, the King of Corinth. It is a mystery how they knew of more than the six visible stars.

This same cluster of six/ seven stars appears in the folklore throughout the Americas, from the Cherokee to the Aztecs (Tianquiztli , the marketplace). In Norse folklore the same cluster was known as Freyja’s hens, identified as a hen with six chicks. In Celtic tradition the rising of this cluster between the Autumn equinox and Winter solstice was a period to mourn the dead which led to festivals of “all souls day” and Halloween. They also appear in Hindu writings.

So, that was quite a trip around the world and through history from something that I thought was a unique Maori tradition. That makes it not only significant, but also very curious. The cluster is, after all, over 400 light years away, so it’s certainly not as luminous as, say, Venus the morning/ evening star which is only about 4 light minutes away from earth. Matariki/ Pleiades is a collection of six specks in the night sky amongst a million specks that could be viewed in the sky of the ancients which was free of urban light pollution.

This is all based on the knowledge that the cluster was identified around 2500 BC in Persia, China and possibly even Britain with Stonehenge as appearing at the right time for the annual harvest. That this knowledge would travel with the people from Asia during their migrations would be the logical process upon which the referencing of Matariki came to be in Aotearoa around 1200 AD.

But then, with further investigation, I learn that the Australian Aborigines also include this same Pleiades star cluster, which they call the Meamei, in their dreamtime folklore. According to their mythology, the cluster represents seven girls chased by the hunter, Djulpan. This is an identical myth to the Greek myth of Orion, the hunter chasing Pleione and her six daughters. Again they speak of seven stars although only six are visible to their naked eyes.

So the Australian Aborigines, who have been living on the Australian continent for 60,000 years, have the same mythology about the same star cluster as was written by the Greek poets less than 3,000 years ago. The Aborigines, isolated from Greek poets and Chinese or Persian astronomers had acquired the same knowledge and myth about this small cluster of stars up to 55,000 years prior to recorded discovery in the northern hemisphere. And the Australian Aborigines had no need to monitor harvest time, they did not plant crops. However sites of the celebration of Meamei still tended to be where bush foods grew or where water was found. But for them the rising of the Meamei (Pleiades) was a sacred celebration involving the dramatisation of the fleeing of the seven sisters from the advances of the  hunter, Djulpan (Orion) as passed down from their dreamtime mythology. The narrative does have variation between tribes/ nations within Australia.

I was easily able to link the dots from Aotearoa to Hawaii and then onto the ancient Chinese astronomers. But there is no way I can connect any dots between classical Greece and the Aboriginal dreamtime. And when we look at the night sky as it would be seen in the clear night skies before the intrusion of the night lights of cities, and follow the star map that takes us (in the south) from the Southern cross via Orion’s belt to Matariki, just a quarter of the night sky, we can only wonder how all these cultures from all around the globe, focused on this single star cluster:

Someone must have told us very early in our ‘sapiens’ consciousness that this cluster was a special part of the heavens and given us all a star map to hand down through the generations as a place of veneration.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

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He sees dead people…..

I was an interested, but not convinced, viewer of “Sensing Murder”, the television series where psychics claim to communicate with the victims of unsolved murders in New Zealand. Despite some skepticism, I was much more a fan of this show than any of the magician shows, even though the magician shows were far more entertaining and delightful than “Sensing Murder”. But even though you had no idea how a $10 note you saw torn up before your eyes turned up intact in the wallet of a random spectator, you still knew that it was just an illusion. Not even the magician denies it is just an illusory trick. Unexplainable, much more so than “Sensing Murder”, but still an accepted fake, a deceit of the senses.

“Sensing Murder” claims to be a genuine psychic experience, not an illusion. But it would still have been very easy to dismiss as fake. Yet, probably for that very reason, I could not so easily dismiss it as such (was I victim of a double bluff ? where the potential for faking it is so obvious that we don’t believe they would be so dumb, therefore it must be true). And this doubt made it made much more compelling viewing for me than David Copperfield which I knew, beyond doubt, to be fake. So when Kelvin Cruickshank and his amazing troupe of dead people rolled into town for a performance, I thought, why not?

I expected to be one oddball amongst a couple of dozen gypsies, but was quite stunned that, arriving 20 minutes before the start, I could hardly find a seat. Almost as far from the performance as I could be. There was also quite a range of ages and characteristics represented. It was a congregation that most churches would be very envious of, and even if they had those numbers, they surely would not be getting $65 in the collection box as Kelvin Cruickshank was (plus book sales). On the dot of seven KC (as he referred to himself) strode confidently into the room without a sign of the limp that his name promised.

He spent quite a bit of time warming up (or calming down) his audience before deciding that he could see enough dead people to make a decent show and then over a couple of hours he spoke on behalf of a dozen or so dead people to the appropriate people in the congregation. None of my lot turned up, but then they wouldn’t, would they? Just not their thing. There were tears and laughter among the chosen few as he passed on messages. He certainly appeared to be picking up some specifics that you would not expect; like the ‘dead man’ reminding his wife about his dentures in the glass and asking why? It turned out they hadn’t put his dentures back in his mouth when they buried him.

The lady next to me, not being shy, stuck up her hand to catch KC’s attention and insisted on being told about her family; a bit out-of-order but KC quickly told her that her mother was not a nice lady and then asked who the alcoholic was. That settled her down as she later said she had nursed an alcoholic brother who had since died and her mother had been such an unpleasant person that she had not even gone to her funeral. He also told her that her friend (beside her) had a spirit visitor called William (it was her father).

So where am I at the end of that. Any the wiser? Well my position is the same as it was when watching “Sensing Murder”. I don’t doubt these psychics can pick up messages and images, but the question I have is: ‘where from?” The answer of the psychics and the grief-stricken is that it comes from the souls of the dearly departed. That this pinpoint of energy, the soul,  manifests itself and other images in hologram form in the mind of the psychic and transfers written or verbal messages to the same psychic mind to be passed on. Who am I to say that is impossible? No one living through the last fifty years can rule anything out as impossible as the inconceivable has become reality in so many fields.

Is there a chance that he spikes the audience with stooges? Anything is possible, but I would almost bet the house that the lady with the bitch mother and alcoholic brother beside me was no stooge. I certainly don’t think a stooge-based show could be taken around NZ, to so many small, intimate towns, and sustained for too long before the secret was blown. And he has been going around the country for a few years now. 

But there is another source that also cannot be dismissed. The sceptics generally claim that the psychic simply throws out enough generalisations as bait until he/ she spots a reaction and builds from that with just some shrewd intuition until he/ she gets close enough to the truth, usually led by taking unsubtle leads from the emotional subject. I am sure a bit of that goes on at the lower end of the psychic business but, to give him his due, Kelvin Cruickshank was leading the conversations and certainly not taking cues from his audience. But one thing I do not underestimate is the huge amount of untapped capacity in the human brain. The often quoted “we only use 10% of our brain’s capability” is now generally accepted as a complete myth, nonetheless there do seem to be a variety of different ways that brains work to create different talents in individuals.

We know some peoples’ brains are left sphere dominant (language and logic) and others right sphere dominant (creative, intuitive, holistic). Some people are naturally mathematically wired up, even to the point where some have absolutely outstanding mental computing capabilities. Read about Arthur Benjamin as one example. Others are wired up for spatial understanding; there are numerous examples of outstanding child prodigies in music. Our brains can be variously wired to deliver unbelievable outcomes.

I do not think it unreasonable to think that different people with different brain-wiring that accentuates the right brain sphere to a level of intuition well beyond the cognisance of the average person. And I do not think it beyond the realm of possibility that at the highest end of the intuitive spectrum, one brain may be capable of actually reading images and messages from the energy waves sent out of another brain. That it is possible for some brains to communicate at a subliminal, non-verbal level. You may mock, but then you must conclude that he sees and talks to dead people.

So, you may ask, whose mind could he be reading in “Sensing Murder” when the victim was unknown to him and long since deceased? The answer is very simply the minds of the production staff who had so carefully researched the programme before he became involved and the police who are in attendance with the psychic process. All with their own information and theories.

I am not saying he is not a medium for the dearly departed. In the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I have myself witnessed events that have been pretty compelling as regards contact after death. I am certainly not denying the journey of the soul; again as I mentioned in an earlier blog, I refer you to Anita Moorjani’s compelling recounting of her near death experience.

But I am just wondering whether these travelling psychics are truly in contact with the dearly departed or whether they are in contact with the brains of the dearly grieving. If I was an exceptionally intuitively wired-up person who received images and messages into my brain that seemed to have very highly emotional resonance with grieving friends and relatives, and this was how I would earn my living, then I think I might also be presenting myself as a medium for the dearly departed rather than a mind-reader for general entertainment. It may well be that the psychic may have no more idea than I do where these images and words come from.

But if he helps people break out of the spiral of grief, then that is a positive thing and well worth the $65; I am even happy to donate my $65 to help others break out of that cruel spiral, for the natural cycle of life depends on saplings seeking the sunlight beyond the shadow of the fallen tree.


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The flag debate in the clod (cold light of day)

When we were first asked to submit ideas for a new flag, given an endless supply of digital crayons and the prospect of immortality as the flag designer, I, like several hundred others, launched enthusiastically into a design which I then proceeded to post-rationalise.

I may have been pre-programmed to respond with enthusiasm having spent much of my working life in the advertising agency world where a CEO telling us that he wanted to change the company logo was as close as it got to being given a licence to print money. And as much as the CEO might also cleverly post-rationalise his decision, no-one was fooled; he was seeking corporate immortality. So when the agency came up with the brilliant idea of running a competition to ‘engage the target market in the process’ then it became printing money while getting someone else to do the work. Double bonus. John Key also decided to ‘engage the target market’ but he clearly had his own ideas on what the new flag would look like, if he gets his way.

And so let me review. I went (surprise, surprise) for a black flag with graphic fern front and centre and a token reference to the monarch with the ER emblem. In other words I picked up the very clear vibe of exactly what the CEO (John Key) clearly wanted (something as close to an All Blacks jersey without the sponsors’ logo as possible) and fed it back to him. Well, that is the easiest sell and also the one for which he is unlikely to quibble over the exorbitant bill. That is advertising client relationships 101.

ERI sent it off to the ‘flag  engagement’ website ( for the consideration of the judging panel (in the ad agency world that was usually the CEO’s wife) but I had it rejected for some protocol breach which I assume was to do with the E:R symbol being unavailable. The upside is that I can charge another $50,000 for removing it in version 2. Oh that’s right, I am not the ad agency this time, this is a freebie.

Someone independently looked at it and wondered why I had even put any Royal reference on the design as he was sure the whole point of the referendum was to get rid of royalty from our flag. I hadn’t thought that; I thought John Key was a big fan of the Royals?

So that rejection did give me motivation to sober up (metaphorically) and put it through the clod review. After the white-hot heat of the night, let me examine the brief/design/rationale in the cold light of day. So:

John Keys, on the Paul Henry show, said the big problem with the current flag was you could not wear it as an item of clothing, in the same way you could with a silver fern on black background design. So he is thinking that our political flag should be usable as a marketing tool. I think the Key flaw in the briefing is that the PM is not distinguishing between corporate identity and brand identity. Proctor and Gamble (P&G) owns and markets a number of brands. P&G is the solid corporate structure behind the brands. It gives credibility, through its status on the share market, to the brands that are marketed from underneath its umbrella. Braun, Gillette, Oral B, Pantone, Olay, Head and Shoulders etc.

In New Zealand we promote ‘made in NZ’ in the same way a corporate promotes ‘owned and operated by………….”. Made in New Zealand’  has, since 1987, been presented as a red  kiwi with white triangle border on a blue background. John Key sees the All Blacks as the strongest brand in our national stable and has clearly a preference to simply upgrade the white fern on black background from All Blacks logo to New Zealand’s official flag. But that is no more valid a reason to use the All Blacks branding for New Zealand’s flag as it would be for P&G to use Pantone’s branding as P&G’s corporate branding.

So, let us review the briefing:

Q1:   Do we want our nationhood defined by and restricted to a sports team?

A: I would think even the most avid All Blacks supporter would want our nationhood to be represented on our national flag as being much more than a rugby game.

So let us return to the base question, is there any reason, other than sligning our nationhood with the All Blacks,  for changing our flag? Going back to the critic of my original design who was quite convinced that the main reason for this flag change is to delete any reference to the Royals. Maybe he was right? Maybe it is just a start point towards moving towards a republic. Delete the Union Jack and any association with Britain and we are being conditioned for removing Britain constitutionally. Perhaps John Key is just the smiling lion when it comes to the Royals? Is the ‘popular’ option of adopting the current world champions logo as our official flag merely a smokescreen for an ulterior motive?

Well there are no doubt pros and cons for the republican argument, but changing the flag as a preliminary decision is surely putting the cart before the horse. Flag design change would come after a decision, through referendum, to establish a republic or independent kingdom or whatever John Key has in mind. Certainly not before. But before I vote “No Change” as a protest against the flag change being a Trojan Horse hiding President Key, since we are spending $30 million on it anyway, is there any other reason why we should review our flag design?

Well there might be, actually. Jack Tame for TVNZ ran an informal survey in Times Square New York where he sought respondents from all continents and asked them if they recognised the NZ flag. Only two did (other than a Kiwi and an Aussie), but alarmingly the biggest issue by a U.S. mile was the high number of people who were certain it was Australia’s flag.

So, Q2:   Is there anything wrong with most people confusing our flag with Australia?

A: Well actually, YES!!!!! So in my review of the briefing, the #1 objective would be to distinguish our national identity from that of Australia. But in that case then I most certainly would NOT be advocating an “All Blacks” flag. It would be a humiliating concession to claim that the primary distinction between Australia and New Zealand is our rugby team, which has won about two thirds of the games between the two countries (although are 2:2 in World Cup titles).

So what do we need to review to distinguish ourselves from Australia without conceding existing international status?

1: I think we keep our Union Jack. That gives us the status of being globally connected through the British Commonwealth and the British Royal family. We should not concede that status to Australia and leave us looking like a banana republic. However, I do think that it should not fight our own national identity, so some toning down of the visual impact of the Union Jack could be preferable.

2: We need a symbol that is globally recognised as being typically New Zealand. That comes down to a clear choice between a fern and a kiwi. The fern is a branding device for most of our national sports teams and our national lamb exporter. The kiwi is the symbol, since 1987, of our national “made in NZ” endorsement. The New Zealand people are affectionately known as Kiwis. The fern may be synonymous with New Zealand through the sporting arena profiles, but the people from all walks of life, in all arenas whether science, military, sporting, commercial or whatever are known as kiwis. For me the Kiwi symbol wins the day.

Q3:   Is there anything wrong with the Southern Cross on the flag?

A:  Am I being petty when I tense up explaining to people who the NZ flag has 4 stars and Australia has 5 stars?

Whatever the answer, the Southern Cross is another feature that confuses our flag with that of Australia, and yet I would oppose getting rid of stars; I think they are a good design feature of a flag. And for some reason I wondered about the Matariki star cluster. The rising of this cluster has been traditionally identified by the Maori as signalling the start of the new year. It is the mid-point of winter months and presumably is the time when nature starts its regeneration process.

So I considered the idea of replacing the Southern Cross, a maritime navigational guide, with the Matariki which is a symbolic part of Maori tradition. The seven stars do provide something of a visual distinction, but more importantly, our flag should reference the Tangata Whenua and the influence of that culture in the uniqueness of 21st century New Zealand.

Kiwi flagSo, with all that in my re-briefing, here is the flag I designed. I have submitted it to the official flag evaluation people, and oh joy, my design this time has been accepted for consideration (as one of about 5,700 others). Having looked at the gallery there are a few not too bad designs amongst them. So the first job of bringing that down to four is a bit daunting. Then a popular vote reduces four to one, and then a final popular vote decides whether that is preferable to our existing flag. Something tells me familiarity will rule the day.



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A universal language

“So what do you know about the tower of Babel?” I asked Danny over coffee. Seemed as good a morning-talk subject as any. “The one in the Bible? asked Danny, “dunno, why?”.

So the ‘why the subject itself occurred to me’ is that I was thinking about the linguistic challenge facing the multi-national astronauts working in the international space station. I recalled the Biblical story that God confused the one common language on earth in order to prevent men building the Tower of Babel to reach the heavens. So that just seemed an interesting mirror to the past.

The ‘why I asked Danny’ was because he had been raised in a religious school and spent some time of his career teaching in a Jewish school; I thought with that background he might have an insight or at least a conspiratorial opinion on a classic Bible story. But no, it drew a blank. He told me to Google it; that’s school teaching 21st century style.

So to summarise the Biblical story according to Genesis 11: ‘throughout the land mankind spoke one language and they moved eastwards to the land of Shimar (Sumer). And they said: “Come let us build a town and tower with its top reaching to heaven”.’ The Tower of Babel, a baked brick structure intended to reach the heavens, was halted by God and his angels, because (Gen. 11: 6-9) “the Lord said, ‘If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.’ So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world.”

Akkadia & Sumer 2200 bcBut what was it about this Babel tower that so concerned the God of the Bible, Yahweh? The Tower in question was built in Shimar (Sumer) which was Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq). Archeology dates the arrival of humans into Mesopotamia between 3500 and 4500 BC. as they moved eastwards from the Mediterranean. This is from carbon dating the virgin soil beneath the earliest records of human occupation. The Bible records in Genesis 10:10, that a descendant of Noah’s son, Ham, a man named Nimrod was the first ‘king’ of this region and built his  city called Nippur. We know from unearthed and translated Sumerian tablets that a six-seven story Ziggurat had been built in the city of Nippur where this priest-king lived.


The Sumerians are known for their skilled metalwork, stonework and statues. But more importantly they developed mathematics system based on 60, a twelve-month calendar based on moon cycles and a cuneiform alphabet which they used to keep records on clay tablets using a stylus. We also know that the oldest records of the science of astronomy are from Sumerian tablets dated back to the 3rd millennium bc and that they demonstrate that the Sumerians had a sophisticated knowledge of the solar system.

Mesopotamian Pottery tablet VA/243

Mesopotamian Pottery tablet VA/243

The tablet VA/243 shows all known planets in the solar system in correct relative size, including Pluto and, importantly, showed planets circuiting the sun (represented by the star of David). It was not until the 16th century AD that modern astronomers worked out that it was the earth travelling around the sun not the sun travelling around the earth.



Venus and Jupiter visible to the naked eye, align 30 June 2015

Venus and Jupiter aligned 30 June 2015

While the five planets out to Saturn can be seen with the naked eye and were known  to ancient astronomers, Uranus was only discovered by William Herschel in 1781, Neptune discovered by Johann Galle in 1846 and Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. And yet these three outer planets are depicted accurately on this 3,000 BC Sumerian tablet.



Babylon itself is first mentioned in tablets around 2300 BC as a small city in Akkad. Its status grew and around 1800 BC, a ruler named Hammurabi expanded the borders of the Akkadian/ Babylonian Empire, conquering Sumer. Babylon is recorded as replacing Nippur as the “Holy City of Mesopotamia”. The Babylonians adopted the Sumerians cuneiform alphabet and then adapted it to their own Akkadian language.

The literal words of Genesis 11 are that the whole earth spoke one language. But this is the Bronze age. There were well-established civilisations in Egypt, Ethiopia, Greece, Sparta, Troy, China, Europe, North and South America and archaeology demonstrates that there were already many languages around the world. Being so concerned about this one baked-brick tower trying to reach the heavens also seems a bit pointless when  just along the road the Egyptians were building their pyramids, in Britain Stonehenge was built 3000 bc, in South America pyramids were being built and the remains of many ziggurats have been uncovered throughout Mesopotamia, having been built between 3000 BC and 600 BC.

So perhaps it was not the tower itself that was of concern but rather what was actually inside the tower. Perhaps it was no more than an historical account of the Babylonians conquering the Sumerians, plundering the library of knowledge, cosmology and science stored in the Priest-King’s Ziggurat in Nippur and replacing the Sumerian cuneiform language with the Akkadian cuneiform language so that the knowledge contained in the Sumerian tablets would become confused within a generation.

And so it could get all too academically speculative or just dismissed as another Biblical myth that just doesn’t quite stack up against archeological evidence, except for the uncanny message that it is recorded in the Bible which tells us that a common language would enable men to reach the heavens and so a diversity of language was imposed on man to prevent that achievement; and that situation is now being challenged 4-5,000 years later.

While the modern exploration of the heavens was initiated as part of the USA/USSR cold war, it is today very much a global mission. USA launched the space station Freedom in 1987 with support from the European Space Agency (Columbus Laboratory) and Japan (Japan Experimental Laboratory). In 1990 NASA launched the Hubble space telescope into low earth orbit. Russia then abandoned its plans for a successor to the Mir space station and in 1993  became a partner of the International Space Station (ISS). Without Russian support, the Western partners probably would have had to give up the Freedom Space Station.

Though NASA no longer sends its own shuttles into space, it has an agreement to help staff the ISS until 2020 and, as part of this agreement, will continue to send astronauts to the ISS in conjunction with the Russian Federal Space Agency. So astronauts from around the world, including Japan, Canada, Europe in addition to Russia and the United States, travel to the ISS. Several languages are spoken on board. This communication challenge is assisted by the spoken dialogue computer on the ISS, named Clarissa, which is programmed to understand both English and Russian. But future NASA astronauts will be required to learn Russian before they go into space. Because the Russian Federal Space Agency is facilitating the space flight to and from the ISS, it makes sense that the NASA wants astronauts to be able to correspond with their fellow space travelers. For over ten years all European astronaut activities are conducted at the European Astronaut Centre in Germany. In fact all the other astronauts on the ISS: Americans, Russians, Japanese and Canadians are also trained with European laboratory equipment. And European astronauts receive training in either Houston, USA, Star City in Russia, Tsukuba in Japan or Montreal, Canada to learn to operate the systems and components of the partners. The arrangement between the international partners is that any partner who owns a laboratory or another infrastructure element on the station trains the astronauts of all partners for it. We will also soon have to take into account that China, as the emerging dominant global economy, will probably start playing a much larger role in reaching the heavens.

To seriously explore the heavens we need international financial and intellectual co-operation and so we really do need a common language. An Anglo-Asian-Euro common language may possibly evolve in time, but it seems far more likely that will much sooner adapt Clarissa into a virtual common language by translating multiple languages instantaneously into a receiving earpiece; sreating a virtual common language. The confusion of language will then be unravelled. Maybe they will name it Nimrod. And when we understand each other, will “nothing we plan to do be impossible for us”?

So from the rubble of the Tower of Babel emerges, 4-5,000 years later, the Satellite of Apple reaching the heavens; such is the imagination of man. But will the Gods intervene again? Will the satellite come crashing down to earth and will Apple’s universal language become confused? And just how did the ancient Sumerians know about the outer planets 4-5,000 years ago?

This is the conversation I was trying to have with Danny. Coffee has that effect on me, its surprising that it is still legal. I must contact Peter Jackson and see if there’s a movie in it before I come down from my caffeine buzz.


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