Erenlai - Adam Materna
Adam Materna

Adam Materna

An enthusiastic traveller with deep interest in languages who has also participated in nonprofit voluntary programs aimed at cultural development in small communities. Currently pursuing a Master Degree in International Communication at National Chengchi University, Adam Materna has been travelling the world since 15 years of age in order to satisfy his curiosity concerning various cultures. His first interests towards Asia root out from martial arts, a passion he remains true to this today.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009 01:54

Flu or not flu?

According to some people illnesses are apparently just myths, so there is no point in protecting yourself against them. It’s been a while now since I’ve chatted with my countrymen at a pub in Taipei. My friend was ill and I was coughing at the time so we both arrived at the pub with surgical masks on, even though they were not as cute as those worn by some Taiwanese. Nevertheless one of the first comments we received was how stupid it was to be wearing a mask, since they don’t work anyway. Well I suppose that all the medical staff, construction and disinfestation workers are wearing them just for the fun of it. These days however it is the grunting of the H1N1 flu that is in the spotlight.

To be fair some experts do argue that there is very little evidence that masks offer much protection against the flu. Contrary to that we have the words of Dr Ronald Cutler, deputy director of biomedical science at the University of London: “If you sneeze with a mask the virus will be contained so from that point of view if everyone wore them it might stop the spread.” What a surprise you might be thinking. How come that against a disease which is spread by droplet infection, the masks are not harmful, but may in fact be helpful? Or is it just a huge governmental conspiracy to make us spend those enormous sums of money on purchasing these useless masks? And of course when we say government, we mean all the governments of the world!

It’s always fun to listen to people who think they are so ingenious they can reason about everything, even if it is to camouflage their whining about how the surgical masks are uncomfortable and bothersome. Maybe some people wouldn’t mind getting H1N1, as it’s like getting the newest Louis Vuitton handbag for them. Let’s just hope they will not want the rest of us to see and admire their latest toy.

It is not usual to wear a respiratory mask in Europe if you are not feeling well and when I arrived at the Frankfurt airport a few months ago I could feel their gazes on my own skin. People looked at me as though I was some sort of a freak or maybe a ninja. In any case I refused to submit to that social pressure and I kept my mask on. Taiwan has taught me well. All the warning signs, people wearing masks, and alcohol dispensers for washing hands are certainly the right way to go, and in this case I think that not only my homeland can learn from Taiwan. Especially when it looks like this swine flu has a real appetite, especially for pregnant women and young people.

It reminds me of those old creepy guys who use their wealth and influence in order to bind themselves with a young woman. As it turns out that this 2009 H1N1 began circulating in pigs in 1918 so is certainly no youngster. At the same time there was also an influenza occurring in humans. Even though some may argue that certain individuals are not that different from pigs, biologically it can be said that humans and pigs are considered different hosts for a virus. Therefore despite having a common ancestor in 1918 the human H1N1 evolved differently from the swine H1N1 and today this swine H1N1 is essentially a new virus for humans. That is why the immunity we may have to seasonal H1N1 doesn’t really protect us from it.

Lately there has been a lot of fuss about the vaccine against this particular influenza. People are afraid that the governments want to kill us with this unsafe vaccine, especially those who don’t pay their taxes. Luckily, for these skeptics, there is another way. John Cannell MD says that one of the best ways of prevention from the flu is the consumption of vitamin D. Naturally you can buy it in the form of pills, but human body is also capable of producing vitamin D by exposing itself to sunlight. This may be difficult information for some Asian people to accept, but you can protect yourself from the 2009 H1N1 influenza by getting a tan.


Friday, 30 April 2010 15:03

Noblesse oblige

Travelling is a wonderful thing, but once in a while one must check himself. Culture shock is a very real thing and every traveller has to deal with it. One of the more general rules says that one should be polite and reserved. Delete all the characteristics of your personality and really try to appear as a general representation of a human being. But when you go back to the places that you came from you are off the hook...Or are you?

My recent trip to old mother Europe proved rather enlightening. The Taiwanese are in general very polite and helpful, always trying to do their best and to appear as well-mannered as possible. But all these things are relative. Other nationalities may see such helpfulness as being noisy and annoying and so the polite thing to do might be just leaving them alone. On the other hand if you want to be a part of the global community maybe you should look around and try to adapt, even if  only a little.

I’ve heard many things during my stay in the Czech Republic. Apparently I was being too proper, too polite, even snobby. I would not dare to ask for shop assistants that would smile at me, but am I asking for too much if I want them to say “hello” to me? Even with all the hard labour these people are doing every single day I don’t think it is overwhelmingly exhausting to say a word even if it is a hundred times that day. The French can do that, the English are managing and the Taiwanese even manage to do it with a smile on their faces almost every single time.

It would not be fair however not to present the argument I have heard more than once from my fellow countrymen. That wishing “a nice weekend” for instance to somebody you don’t know and who is only a customer is just fake and insincere. It robs you of your precious time for nothing but a plain lie. And I have to say that being a member of that splendid nation, I can’t say the Czechs are overly voracious. It seems like it is too much work to be nice to other people, very well strangers. But I’m sure there is an argument for assuming that all strangers are potential hostiles. Is that your kind of society?

The Communism regime sure did some work on us. Maybe that’s what led to inventing a kind of humour that not many foreigners understand, as well as all the bad anticipations.

They say that good manners are a gateway to success and bad manners are a gateway to a good hiding. Unfortunately it appears that success is something that won’t be forgiven if you live in the Czech Republic. Needless to say, in the past, regime success usually came hand in hand with some wonderful Party activity. So that is where the heartburn stems from. But can the Communists be blamed for everything? It has been more than twenty years since the Velvet Revolution. Of course the opposition will say that the Communism regime was present for more than forty years. Who wants to wait another twenty years?

Maybe it can start with that simple “hello” and “good day to you.” Good manners are not a duty, but a privilege. How else can we change things? Improve things? We start from ourselves, we show our good side, our civilised side. Can we be a little pleasant and a bit forgiving? Does it matter that the other person does not want you to have a nice day? It shouldn’t because one can be better than that. Things will not get better by themselves, simply because people want them to. Noblesse oblige. If we want all that is around us to improve, it should probably come from the centre.

So be a better man. Say “Hello.”

(Photo courtesy of B. Girardot http://flickr.com/photos/litanies)

 
Monday, 31 May 2010 16:55

Culture or rapture

To ask what is culture or what does it stand for may seem to be easy, but there are probably as many meanings to that word as there are cultures and subcultures or maybe even more. For instance, one can say that a culture is often in relation with some kind of religion. Sometimes they are even understood as being an inherent part of one another. Thus there are good things and bad things those two have in common. The one that is absolutely brilliant is their almost magical property of being impervious to any and all criticisms. And isn’t this convenient?

This is in fact something that one comes across quite often in Taiwan. How many times have you heard the phrase: “Well, it’s just a different culture.” And the discussion ends. It doesn’t even have to do anything with criticising one culture or another. Naturally this answer may be perfectly suitable for some situations. It doesn’t really matter if you eat with chopsticks or a knife and a fork. Both achieve the same effect and such a low-consequential decision deserves very little if any justification. You may as well say you just like chopsticks better. But what if you were trying to eat a steak with your chopsticks and I would suggest you use a knife, so you can cut it into smaller pieces? If you don’t like what I’m saying you can just utter this magic formula and that’s it. It’s a bit silly, but most people will just ignore it.

Now imagine another situation like genital mutilation, a practice that can make you a sexual cripple, is a threat to your health and I could keep on going. I don’t think the “it’s a different culture” is enough of a justification. Extraordinary claims or actions need extraordinary evidence or reason, so who are we kidding? There are cultural practices that ought to be scrutinized and criticized.

There is no doubt that culture relates to human values and consequently to human well-being as well. Everyone has heard “cultural values” at some point.

Although religion has been challenged by science in many domains, it seems as it still retains its prime in the discourse on morality and human values. It indeed looks like religious and cultural values are the ones most often used as moral guide-posts. Some people even go as far as to say that we would know no morality, so we would apparently be killing each other on sight if it was not for the moral imperatives of religion. In fact, to many people it appears science can’t tell us what we should value. Science deals with facts and values seem to simply belong somewhere else. What a clever detour. Is this not to say that values are a certain type of facts? They are facts about the well being of conscious creatures and these facts can be observed.

Everybody knows it is possible to live in a failed state where people murder and torture each other on daily basis. We know it is possible to move from there to an arguably better state and we also know there are right and wrong answers to how to move along this continuum. Seems to me then that when we talk about values we effectively talk about facts, because there are truths to be known about how humans and human communities can prosper. There are indeed right and wrong answers to the question how humans flourish.

Or is it a good idea to subject women to pain and suffering by publicly beating them by their partner while people around watch and do nothing? It is not their business after all. Is this truly the best way to encourage healthy emotional relationship and good behaviour? Can we say in the almighty spirit of tolerance that this question has no answer or that the answer doesn’t matter? It’s simply a different culture, a different habit.

But do not confuse tolerance with apathy or indifference. Of course there might be different ways to achieve the optimal state of human well-being, but that is not to say there are simply no wrong answers to that question. There are also all kinds of food that are healthy for you. Some are probably less healthy for you. Nevertheless there is a clear distinction between food and poison. Why doesn’t this fact that there are right and wrong answers about human nutrition tempt people to say there are no rules?

How dare you question the practices of an ancient culture, such as punching a woman in the face when you don’t like what she said? I say who are we to pretend that we know so little about the human well-being that we have to be non-judgemental about such a practice? This is not necessarily a legal question, because even if something like that is forbidden by the law, it doesn’t me unfortunately that it ceases to exist in the culture. In Taiwan for example maybe you wouldn’t even dare to call police, because you would “lose your face” by doing so.

Apparently, generally speaking, people value difference of opinion when talking about morality. Killing an infidel might be moral for my neighbour. Others will be happy with just a mutilation of their children’s genitals. Others fulfil their morality by meditating on compassion or giving strangers their last penny. It is just a different culture. It is a different religion.

If you show up on a biology conference and say you don’t like evolution and you don’t believe in it, nothing will happen. Nothing will happen because you’re not an evolutionary biologist. If we want to talk about facts, certain opinions must be excluded. This is the meaning of having a domain of expertise, this is how knowledge counts. If every opinion counts, than effectively no opinion counts. It just doesn’t matter what Joe from the gas station thinks about evolutionary biology.

How did we convince ourselves that there is no such thing as moral expertise or even a genius in the area of morality? I wonder who came up with the mantra of tolerance saying that every opinion has to count or that every culture has a point of view worth considering.

I think that most people would agree that a group of suicide bombers does not have a point of view on biology or physics worth considering. How is the ignorance of such a group any less obvious on the subject of human well-being?

Maybe it would be better if we allow simple rigorous observations to propose the answers rather than keep on listening to all the mambo-jumbo that is coming on us from all the directions. Or you’d rather rest assured that all that nonsense is equally tolerated? I’m certainly not saying that we should silence everyone, but I’m saying that we should not probably be basing our actions on such evidently random opinions

Photo by C. Phiv

 
Friday, 09 November 2012 13:53

Brain Food?

Imagine a service designed to help you acquire knowledge in the most efficient way possible. It goes straight to the source and organizes information in a clear, concise fashion that serves you key ideas from the titans of knowledge, bedrock concepts from various disciplines, as well as highly specialized interests, on a silver platter.

In short, that is Knowledge Buffet (KB). But the promise and potential of what you could find on www.knowledge-buffet.com in the future is even more exciting. Not only a platform for creating a customized program for your personal learning, but a more effective approach to constructing university courses or setting up multidisciplinary research.

We live in an age of informational overload. There is a reason why they say “knowledge is power” rather than “information is power.” It is because you have to sort through this information to arrive at the final station of actual knowledge. And as almost any student will tell you, this is not fun.

Almost everything you can think of is available online today. Information is largely free and readily accessible pretty much anywhere. And we can’t handle it. It is not about information; it is about the exact piece of the puzzle that you need. Anyone who has ever spent hours googling away like someone with OCGD (Obsessive Compulsive Google Disorder) knows exactly what I’m talking about. And this beast of a haystack is only getting that much bigger every day.

Did you think time was the only thing you spent during all those frenetic online searches? Think again, because whether you know it or it, you’re squandering ATTENTION as well. Any information requires some amount of attention and when you add up all those 30 second YouTube videos…death by a thousand cuts or a thousand bite-sized meals or a thousand tweets or…

Sometimes procrastination can be your worst enemy, so there appears to be a genuine need for a more effective way to find information and not only find it, but if possible, arrange it, sort it out and generally pre-digest it for goal-driven easy use.

I know what I’m talking about because long ago, during the dark ages of my university studies, this seemed to be an unattainable dream. Instead of peeling off layers of human understanding and the secrets of the universe to eventually add my shred off insight into the blend, I spent my time looking for a particular chapter from a particular book.

This experience is really the motivation that stands behind the creation of Knowledge Buffet and the desire to get rid of all the unnecessary clutter so that you can focus on what matters. It is imperative in any field to have solid basics, but wasting time and attention on figuring out what the basics are and where to find them is counterproductive.

Customization is the word of the future. Software and hardware today is inevitably speeding towards highly personal use. Finding the optimal way to acquire knowledge for any individual is what KB represents, whether it is designing a homeschooling curriculum, preparing for any type of exam, mastering foreign languages or simply helping you find your dream university major.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009 02:19

Noble Nobel

Please enough already! I don’t know how many times I have heard this lately. The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that none other than the President of the USA, Barack Hussein Obama II, shall be awarded with the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. And it’s all wonderful and everyone is so happy about this. Finally some truth and justice is done in today’s corrupted world. On several occasions now I have heard, not only from Taiwanese, how great it is. And just like that, the future seems brighter already.

Naturally I’m all for following the herd and my applause is usually one of the loudest, but in this case I have to take one step back. Of course we all like the guy. He is the first African American to have ever been elected into the Oval Office in the White house and just the name of the building says how hard it must have been for him. He’s also young, charismatic and looks like he actually loves his wife. On the other hand he’s also conducting two wars and the U.S. still practices rendition, thus I really have to salute the Committee for their devotion and courage. I’m sure they will all be major candidates for ‘the greatest fan’ award. Unfortunately, I fear that I already undermined my own nomination, when I asked: “Is this really the right guy to be winning a peace prize?”

It’s not that bad though, I think the committee members heard just one of Barack’s brilliant speeches and their hearts were so moved that their whole bodies twitched and as they did, their brains jumped out and ran towards Obama to ask for an autograph. Maybe it’s my own character imperfection, that I can’t fully appreciate this memorable moment or the great significance of this prize. Never mind of course that they forgot to award a few people like Mahatma Gandhi or in the fields of science Nicola Tesla and Thomas Edison, they still managed to honour great names like Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Henry Kissinger and many others. It’s a great award.

So I completely agree that Barack’s speeches are apparently award-winning and it reminds me a little about all the beauty contests like Miss Universe, Miss World, Miss Galaxy, Miss McDonald’s, Miss Small Small Town etc. that I have seen. During the interview part there is always some kind of sly question for the finalists like: “What is the one thing our society needs?” The answer naturally being: “World peace.” That’s the moment where I cry like a baby pulling my hair out and shouting exuberantly that it’s the right answer almost as much as every judge on that show. It’s a wonderful moment full of pride and hope. But then those judges usually settle down and want to see the girl’s ass. And if the ass is good, she’ll win.

I dare say that it may be possible for the Nobel Committee to do the same thing. I’m not particularly interested in Obama’s ass, nor do I think this is what we should be evaluating on the current US president. On the other hand if you must, suit yourself. But if you look at the bottom of Obama’s administration are you really sure that this contestant should be the one to win the Nobel Peace Prize?

Photo by C. Phiv


Wednesday, 07 October 2009 21:26

Stinkiness has no borders

It was another beautiful day in Taipei. The sun was shining and even the sweat itself was sweating. I was just walking down the street, when I saw a familiar image. Apparently the new Tomb Raider video game has entered the market in Taipei. And with this monumental event there is now a commercial poster in front of every other 7-11 store. There is nothing wrong with that of course…but then I saw it was not quite the same Lara Croft as one would expect…Lara Croft? Honestly, we all know that the extraordinarily well-developed pair of sidearms wrapped in those tight curves-revealing cases is not the only reason why we like her. But it helps. Don’t mind that she forgot her pouty lips in the locker, but those blue-eyed contact lenses make her look like she just escaped from a sanatorium. Which brings me to the point, why do the locals need to translate even the images? Imagine if we made our own blond and blue-eyed version of Bruce Lee.

But I’m sure I’d find some people who would say: “Well, it’s just a different culture.” But “culture” comes from Latin ’colere’ that means “to cultivate” and you’re certainly not broadening your horizons if you need to make Lara Croft flattened and Asian, so people won’t start worshipping her enormous near godly qualities. Because if you do that, then don’t try to make me feel bad about not wanting to eat your stinky tofu. But no matter in how many odd ways the skin of your face can fold and form an expression of utter disgust, I’m pretty sure there will always be someone saying: “You haven’t tried our stinky tofu? How come, it’s a Taiwanese speciality!” For which my answer is; tofu doesn’t run, fly or swim, so stop trying to feed me with this shit!
The culture might not be as different as it seems though. Not in this case at least. I am talking about the crown jewel of Czech cuisine, that is the stinky cheese and I can say with a clear conscience that it may very well compete with the Stinky tofu. In both cases I can’t help but wonder about the logic that stood behind the creation of such culinary masterpieces. I bet it was some guy living in a time of war and starvation. The poor fellow lost his nose in an unforeseeable explosion and so he decided to come up with something eatable but with such a foul aroma, that a normal human being would never even dare to come close to it. The Czechs however are most proud of their beer and we all know that after a few pints of that earthy vintage, you can be talked into almost anything. Hence the common knowledge argument; that the stinky cheese goes best with a cold beer. Do you see the strategy?
This brings me to the notion that in the interest of further broadening Taiwanese cultural background, one of Lara Croft’s guns should be exchanged for a bowl of tofu. First of all, if she throw’s it, it’s equally as deadly a burst of bullets and secondly the cultural reference is so much stronger.

At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter if you decide to cripple all your rhinaesthesia cells via tofu or cheese. You are just a member of a different sect, as the true meaning of the word “culture” reveals. It is nothing more than cult - urges and you will always meet someone who will proudly announce how he ventured into the unknown, tasted the unimaginable and now he’s bringing the wisdom to his own people. Don’t let this guy bring you down. On such an occasion you should take comforts in saying: “I think I would like to keep my sense of smell a little longer.”
It’s the little things…


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