Sunday, 26 August 2007

Atlas Moth

This morning, I had a much more welcome insect visitor to the house than the usual mosquitoes, coconut beetles, and the 'mad bomber' May beetles,which fly, at great speed, and very noisily, from one vertical surface to another, knocking themselves out as they do so.

It's an Atlas moth, of the saturnid group, and is gigantic; you can see from my photo just how large and beautiful it is.

I don't know the exact species; the Wikipedia page shows another species as Attacus atlas, but at the foot of the page, quite a few photos of another moth, identical to this one.

But it does mention that in Canton, the local name is Snake's Head Moth, and perhaps you can see why. You can see a definite snake image at either side of each wing, glaring fiercely to left and right.

As it happened by lucky coincidence, I was, just last night, idly browsing through:
In the Blink of an Eye: How Vision Kick-started the Big Bang of Evolution - by Andrew Parker (no relation), where he discusses the snake's head.

He says that ultra-violet light, particularly strong in mid-day sunshine, when moth-eating birds are around, actually intensifes the snake's head image at the expense of the other wing-pattern elements, which really come into their own as protective camouflage in other lighting conditions.

Many birds and insects can perceive ultra-violet light reflections, which we can't, quite so well. Many flowers, that look dull to us, show an ultra-violet light patterning that is positively like a reflective direction sign to a nectar-seeking bee.

In other words, this moth has actually evolved mimicry of an attacking snake for some light conditions, and mimicry of an bit of old tree bark or forest floor for others, which is quite a subtle and wondrous thing to do.

The other wondrous thing about this moth is that it has no mouth parts, so cannot eat anything at all during its adult life. It survives, for about two weeks, entirely on its puppy fat, while it flies gracefully around the forest, looking for a mate before it dies.

Makes you wonder, doesn't it, if the adult moth is the 'real' animal, or if the caterpillar, which is itself quite remarkable, is the 'real thing'.

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Religion Hits the Island

Today, we went over to Guyam Island, for Tex's despedida party - he's back home to South Oz again next Friday.

Right next to our picnic party was a gathering from the 'The 2nd Golden Ladies Women Fellowship'. I'm really not quite sure what separates Ladies and Women or quite how they can form a Fellowship, but that's by the way.

They did conduct a number of very earnest preachings, and sang very tunefully to the guitar played by a nice old lady.

After I met them, I thought, for a bit of mischief, I'd get some of them to re-enact the painting 'Ta Matete' that I did my best to extract the Michael from at:

Alas, my snapshotting, as you can see, was not up to Paul Gauguin's Great Artistic Genius.

I'm not much into missionaries. We've had a bunch here called 'Surfers for Christ', for G**'s sake!

I greatly admired one of the first I met here, on Samar Island,because he was actually helping the villagers build themselves a new community centre, and getting down to a bit of carpentering and hammering himself. He gave me a lift back to town in his pick-up, and on the way, started to talk about the local islanders' beliefs in devils and spirits. There, they hang a Venus Comb shell above their doorways to keep out the local wandering demons.

He was very informed about them, and quite fascinating, but then suddenly, he got all uptight, and a little red in the face, as he came out with a bit of the Biblical:

But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you. Or else how can one enter into a strong man's house, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man? and then he will spoil his house. He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad. Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men.

And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

...which to tell the truth, flummoxed me a bit. Almost as much as the other 'Christian' missionary who got all the families in a little Cebu Island seaside town to turn out all their heathen (ie Roman Catholic) idols, and take them down to the beach. There, he burned all their Santo Ninos and portraits of the BVM, and instantly enrolled them as 'real' Christians.

Every Visayan (from the middle part of the Philippines) household has a Santo Nino, an idol of the Christ Child.

When I applied to become godfather to a friend's newly-baptised infant, I was grilled for some time by the local clergy about my religious beliefs. I have none at all, so I was obliged to dodge a bit, and say:

"Well, I'm certainly not a Protestant! I am, in fact an Catholic"

What worries me most about missionaries is that many of them are actually trying to convert members of their own religion (as the Surfers for Christ, and others) are doing, in a country which has been very solidly Roman Catholic for some centuries.

I'll return to this subject in later weblogs.

Numbers: Austronesian Numbers Spreadsheet

I've just sent a note to friends announcing my new weblog, and advising that I'd put the whole spreadsheet of my Austronesian numbers project online, and of course, I got it wrong.

The correct address is:

Sorry, and all that.

I'll try, in later posts, to explain what it comprises, and how I'm trying to use it.

Cannibalism in the Atlantic

Someone recently told me that I seem to have had a bit of a lurid part in the 'Life of Pi', a Man Booker (2001) prize-winning novel by a Canadian, Yann Martel.

[Bits of] synopsis:
"While on a ship when his family leaves politically oppressed Pondicherry for Canada, the Japanese ship Tsimtsum mysteriously sinks into the ocean (most likely due to an engine malfunction).

Everyone, including Pi's family, is lost at sea and Pi is the only survivor of the fatal accident.
He manages to survive due to being tossed into the lifeboat before the ship went under, and is joined by a zebra who jumps into the boat and breaks its leg due to the impact.

Pi then mistakenly helps a dangerous 450-pound Bengali tiger by the name of Richard Parker, only to realize his mistake after the tiger is on board. There are other animals on the boat with Pi, including a hyena, orangutan, various insects and other pestilence. At first Pi believes that Richard Parker the tiger has abandoned the boat, and focuses on surviving the hyena. It is not long before the hyena begins to feed on the zebra. After the zebra's death, the hyena kills the orangutan, prompting Pi to approach it, lest he be next. It is then that he notices that Richard Parker has been resting under a tarpaulin and has been aboard the lifeboat the entire time".
Life of Pi Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

It must be one of the best bits of pretentious creative- lit books I've never read. You can write 'magical realism' if you're Gabriel García Márquez, with a genuine backgound of very real, and sometimes horrifying experience, to which you can add some magic or prestidigitation.

But you shouldn't be able to gain credit for merely creating a boatload of creatures that you can manipulate to do what you want.

Thinking idly, I've just invited a magical realist character, for my next Great Novel, based very heavily on on an old tale, of Candide, by Voltaire.

My prize-winning novel will have, as central character, a completely artificial man, made of wood by a very sympathetic old grandfather/ancestor figure.

He'll have no idea of Self or Ego, but will be helped by a sidekick and amanuensis, a hopping insect.

The names ¨Pinocchio¨and "Jiminy Cricket" came immediately to mind and I don't know quite why. Can somebody help?

However, that's not the only lifeboat story I seem to have been involved in:

In 1837, Edgar Allan Poe wrote The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. This book tells of four shipwrecked men who, after many days' privation, drew lots to decide who should be killed and eaten. The cabin boy drew the short straw. His fictional name was Richard Parker.

On 25 July 1884, a real cabin boy on a lifeboat from the Mignonette, sunk by a hurricane in the South Atlantic, was killed and eaten by the other three remaining crew members.The diners were each sentenced to six months hard labour and later emigrated.

Their meal's real name was Richard Parker.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

What Connects a Mahu and a Bayut, 6000 miles apart?

Ever since I got into the trick of accessing JSTOR, I've been coming across worthy academic papers on some very strange subjects.

For example, I came upon this:
The Community Function of Tahitian Male Transvestitism: A Hypothesis
Robert I. Levy Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Jan., 1971), pp. 12-21

Here was an aspect of Austronesian culture that had often puzzled me here in the Philippines, but I didn't realise that exactly the same occurs in Tahiti, 6000 miles away from here.

Even the local Surigaonon word for them, bayut, is recognisably closely related to the Tahitian mahu.

It seems that Tahitian society licenses, quite strictly, occasional and very blatant transvestism every bit as much as the Philippines society does (and, of course, so do other South-East Asians, like the Thais, with their katoeys).

Because the practice is limited and licensed, it's perfectly acceptable. There's no queer-bashing here.

There tends to be one mahu in each village, the belief of villagers being that "it is natural" or "God so arranged it" that there should be at least one and no more than one. Tahitian sexual identity is undifferentiated in its contrast of maleness and femaleness in relation to Western expectations.

It is proposed that the presence of the mahu helps stabilize this identity for men by providing a highly visible and exclusively limited contrast, implying for other men in the village, "I am a man because I am not a mahu.

Levy studied village life in Piri village on an island, Huahine, 100 miles from Papeete, the capital of Tahiti.
In 1961 there was a sixteen year old boy in Piri, who was referred to sometimes by his personal name, sometimes as "the mahu." Although there were photographs of him proudly displayed in his foster mother's house showing him in dancing costume, complete with brassiere, he wore male clothes ordinarily, favoring however the neutral sarong-like pareu, worn by both sexes, rather than the Western style trousers now worn frequently by men in the village. His speech and manner were somewhat feminine - resembling feminine style without exaggerating or mocking it. His feminine role-taking was made apparent to the villagers primarily because he performed women's household activities, and because his associations were of feminine type. He cleaned the house, took care of babies, plaited coconut palm leaves into thatching sections, and made decorative patch work quilts. He associated with the adolescent girls in the village as a
peer, walking arm-in-am with them, gossiping and visiting with them.

There were two other men in Piri who had feminine mannerisms. It was sometimes said about them that they were mahu-like, but they were not said to be mahus. They had wives and children, and performed men's tasks in the village. There was also a man in his twenties who had been a mahu in Piri, when the present one was a child. According to the village reports he had given up being a mahu, had gone to Papeete to work, and was now living as an "ordinary man." Mahus were not defined by effeminate
behavior alone; they also had to fulfill some aspects of a woman's village role, a role they could give up to become ex-mahus.

The very idea of overt everyday transvestism shocked me at first. When I lived in Palawan, on the western side of the Philippines, the city council held a Drag Queen Festival, with transvestites coming from all over the country. I considered it just a bit of vulgar commercialism put together for tourists, and the local mob.

When I came to Siargao Island, I found the same situation, when my own small parish held a Drag Contest.

It was then that I realised, seeing the wholesome family audience, that the whole idea of mahu/bayut was a sort of institutionalised gender-joke. The audience were cheering their very own bayut as much as they could, and jeering at out-of-towners. Their very own bayut won the 'contest' of course.

And these guys are gals. Here are two of our very own local lovelies:

This is Jennifer, chief cook to my odious neighbour, Andreas, of Patrick's resort. She/he is a bit snooty, and certainly has the best-looking legs hereabouts. But 'she' comes from Katangnan, near Cloud 9, so she didn't have a hope in this contest, held at 'Tattoo', our local jungle disco, in Purok 3.

And this is Eyay, aka Nelson. I've known him since he was 12, and only showing slight tendencies towards being a little too eager to volunteer to help around the house.

Regrettably, he suffers from a very visible case of testosterone-induced facial acne, and was never endowed with any physical grace or beauty. He, though, being from Purok 3, was the local audience's favourite jester. He, if I needed to show that homosexuals are made, not born, is the perfect example. He desperately needs peer approval, and this way he has a chance to get it.

Just so you don't get me too wrong, here is a picture of my two good friends,Adie and Diding:
I've known them since they were 17, and employed them for several years as beadsmiths. Now they run (very well) the bamboo 'Nine Bar' just 100 metres up the road from me, and it's a great place.

Next time you're here, we'll have a drink or two there, and relax to some cool old-fashioned music.

But I'm involved in a race against time. I'm waiting for their combined ages to meet mine, when I'll definitely commit bigamy, and marry them both.

Roll on, 2027!

JSTOR - An Incomparable Library on the Internet

JSTOR is one of the truly great information resources on the Internet.

It's an absolutely free collection of academic journal articles stretching back for more than a century, from a huge range of different fields - in fact, almost anything you might be seriously interested in, and want to find out what those who were older and wiser than you have to say about it.

But it's difficult to get access to it. If you're an old fart living on a tiny island, miles from nowhere, you've got no chance. Unless you cheat.

I got a tip, from another blog, sometimes even more interesting than mine.

So, now, I'm a 'respectable resident' of a very correct Yankee small town in NE USA.

It's actually one of those two-storey pseudo-Gothic timber houses on Main Street, made by traditonal Yankee craftsmen, with a big lawn, shaded by ancient remnants of the old forest, and a 3 limo garage (for my beat-up old Chevy, my wife's Honda Civic, and my son's brand-new Suzuki combo van/pickup).

Upstairs, my son lives his very different teenage life, and, thankfully, the glass-fiber insulation I put in last year keeps his terrible music from me and my dear wife. (I like the Beatles, and she likes the Stones; we've been been discussing the difference ever since I first made her intimate acquaintance in the yard behind Matty's old grocery store - it's gone now - there's a Wal-Mart, full of Chinese stuff).

Our home has 2 CRs (CR = comfort room in the Philippines) - one upstairs ( for us) and one downstairs (for our occasional guests and our 'helpers').

(When I'm taken short at my real island home, in the middle of the night, and have to plod through the back yard to a dark room, where I clear out the resident frogs, toads and snakes, have a pee, and stamp out a few cockroaches, then I start to imagine a really nice CR, with a mahogany seat, a well-stocked bookshelf, and a simple handle that flushes out everything).

Or, at least, that's what I would like to think. If I really was there somewhere in the Yankee North East, I'd be writing a new John Updike novel every other week, or running for President.

But this trick doesn't always work.

I tried to join the New York Public Library.

They're a bit backward. They actually wanted to send me a plastic library card by snail mail, and gave me an area choose-list to help me write my address.

I chose New Babylon; can't think what made me do that - perhaps it was reading a report that morning that the Green Zone in Baghdad had been hit by mortar or rockets again.

But, anyway, I was on a totally wrong-thinking track.

The first response came from the New York Public Library - 'Your library card has been returned - addressee unknown'

The second must have come from the real resident of the fake New Babylon address I gave to the NYPL:

somewhere amongst the gubbins, the message quoted:

"rampaging white mobs and white night-riders must be made to understand that their days of free head-whipping are over. Black people should and must fight back. Nothing more quickly repels someone bent on destroying you than the unequivocal message: "O.K., fool, make your move, and run the same risk I run, of ...

This is a direct take from a Stokely Carmichael speech, given over 30 years ago, in the cause of Black Power.

Isn't the Internet wonderful? Somehow, from trying to cheat a public library system, I've connected to another old fart, who's living on a time-isolated island in New Babylon, still thinking that those great ideas of 30 or more years ago might have some effect in his lifetime.

Some hope. Sorry, Randy, old chap.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Gauguin, Tarts and Tahiti

Many travellers in the Pacific in the 18th and 19th centuries found and described the beautiful islands of the South Seas, and the myth grew rampant that here was a paradise on earth.

Paul Gauguin can take a lot of the credit, and the blame, for the over-glamourisation of Polynesia.

He led the perfect 'Riches to Rags' legend of a Great Artist, giving up his wife, family, and plodding stockbroker's job to go off, way beyond the Far East, to those fabled isles where noble savages lived in loving, primitive innocence, picking their daily bread fruit from the nearest tree.
His images have given us much of our mental picture of the South Seas.

His well-known depictions of paradise on earth have led us to this:

and this:

So how did he do it? Just how did he paint pictures that, a century on, would still influence retirees from Florida to ride a floating apartment block halfway across the Pacific Ocean?

We'll take a critical look at this famous painting, Ta Matete, painted in 1892.

It would cost you a few million dollars nowadays, if you ever have any opportunity to buy it.

It's a definite Classic.

But it's a fake.

That's not to say that some forger other than the great artist, Paul Gauguin himself, actually daubed this awful thing, but that the great artist, Paul Gauguin himself, was a total phony from the very start.

Firstly, he deliberately incorporated some Ancient Egyptian pictorial conventions into his picture, copying well-known images like this one: (he probably picked up one of those Egyptian souvenirs sold by hucksters in Suez - (actually, I'm not at all sure that the Suez canal was actually there when Gauguin travelled east - I will check that out, but I think he must have been, as he wasn't the sort who would endure a long trip around the Cape)

Notice how the girls' legs point left, at very precise angles. Their upper arms are shown at a very distinct angle, and their forearms are held precisely, either slightly down, or about the same degree up.

The Ancient Egyptian jobbing painters who created this picture, still fresh on its desert tomb wall after 30 centuries were no revolutionaries; they were following, very strictly, standards that had long before been laid down by their great-great-grandfathers.

But Gauguin was a Revolutionary Modern Painter

He also copied those details, but still couldn't get them quite right.

The French (under Napoleon) had invaded Egypt almost 3 generations before Gauguin arrived in Tahiti, and these images had been around for very nearly a century.

Paul Gauguin - Revolutionary Artist? - not quite.

But he did lead the kind of life that a pimply adolescent (as I was when he was my hero, with pretensions to becoming a similarly Great Artistic Genius) could sympathise:

Gauguin was attracted to Tahiti however not only as a means of escape and renewal (by a return to origins) but also because it provided new subjects for his paintings and because life there was said to be free from all money difficulties' has only to raise an arm to find food'.

Escape? Renewal? Return to origins? Wonderful stuff. from all money difficulties? Even better !

In some respects he was to be cruelly disappointed. Tahiti was a French colony. On arriving at Papeete, the capital, he found that the Europeans were already established there. 'It was Europe, the Europe from which I had thought to free myself, and, into the bargain, all the irritating kinds of colonial snobbery. '

There are a few other revealing points about this famous painting. Look at it again, without your 'South Pacific' pink tinted glasses.

The graceful Egypto-Tahitian ladies sitting decorously on their traditional South Sea Island bench, fanning themselves quietly and modestly, are nothing of the sort.

They are, in fact, the town prostitutes. They are delicately fanning themselves with their official medical papers, issued by the Medical Officer of Papeete, certifying that, following his latest intimate inspection, these young ladies are clear of venereal diseases, and fit for carnal use by the sex-deprived matelots of the French Navy, currently on a port call, if they can can afford them.

And there's more.
After several months he moved some 25 miles from Papeete and went to live in a bamboo hut, with a thirteen-year-old Tahitian girl as his vahine; he dressed himself like the natives, went on fishing expeditions with them and tried to familiarise himself with their customs and way of thought.

If Gauguin had been a Salon-exhibiting painter of today, he'd very rightly be denounced as a paedophile, and quite possibly be considered seriously for a lynching, by the very same type of people who now visit Tahiti in their floating condos, inspired by the Legend of the Great Artist.

Gauguin died on 8 May 1903, in the Marquesas, where he had moved for a cheaper life. He had already suffered the effects of syphilis, and his legs were covered with open sores. Repeatedly in debt, he suffered spells of intense depression which reached their climax in January 1898 when he tried to commit suicide by taking arsenic.


He had become a legend even in his lifetime. 'You are now,' so Monfreid wrote to him in December 1902, 'that unheard-of legendary artist, who from the furthest South Seas sends his disturbing, inimitable works, the definitive works of a great man who has as it were disappeared from the world.'

This article owes a great deal, including the pictures to: TAHITI - The Story Of Paul Gauguin and it's only fair that I urge you to visit there and read the much more wholesome legend of Paul Gauguin.

Cloud 9

Siargao Island is best known by surfers, although a few other discriminating types are beginning to come here. This the famous wave, Cloud 9.

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Starting Out

This weblog will be an irregular notebook about my life (and occasional thoughts) on a small Pacific island, at the far right hand side of the Philippines. You can see what the place looks like at my website:

I change my obsessions with the seasons, and my current one is number systems in the Austronesian languages, of all things. I've been working on it for about four months now.

I thought, originally, that my findings would upset the entire current paradigm about the history of the people around me (the Austronesians), who managed to settle all the South East Asian islands, including the Philippines (where I live), Indonesia, and then went on to Easter Island, Hawaii, New Zealand, and west to Madagascar, just off the coast of East Africa.

Of course, I was wrong, but not all that wrong.

The Austronesian migrations were the widest spread of a distinctive human culture and anguage before the European expansions following the Age of Exploration in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The people who undertook this quite amazing migration share that culture and language with my island neighbours. Some of that culture is good; some very good, and some bad. (For a bit of the bad, see:

I'll be writing a little about bits of that culture and language from time to time in this weblog. It will include random jottings that don't merit a full web page.