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31 December, 2006

Happy New Year !

So, it’s New Year’s Eve again. For Wifie and me that usually means a glass of champagne at sunset and a bit of reminiscing. For the people next door, it obviously means running around the garden with a pack of drunks howling like deranged monkeys. Down in Sydney they’ll all be standing around in the street in huge, bored crowds, hour after hour, waiting for the fireworks to start. Sadly, fireworks is one of the few forms of entertainment that is not better on TV. Also sadly, it is something I learned to appreciate as being appropriate to chilly winter evenings. It isn’t something that properly takes place in the middle of a hot summer night.

Maybe the strangest thing about New Year’s Eve is the making of resolutions. It’s not such a bad idea – review your performance to date, think about what you need to change, and then resolve to do it. Aside from the fact that you should be doing this all the time anyway, at least doing it one day a year is better than nothing. But New Year’s resolutions don’t seem to be like that. They seem more to be a ritual of casting off your guilt.

It works like this. On New Year’s Day, you think about what your resolutions should be. You definitely should give up smoking – and lose weight – and try harder at work – and try harder with your spouse – and so on and so on. Then, having named all these things you should do, you name them as your resolutions. That means they are safely disposed of. You don’t have to do them. You don’t even have to feel guilty about not doing them. They’re your New Year’s resolutions. Packaged up. Stowed away. Done and dusted. It’s like the picture of Dorian Gray. You can stick your resolutions in your moral attic and they’ll keep you safe all year while they get the lung cancer and grow obese. Cool, eh?

So, this year, I resolve to work night and day for world peace, to eat only organic tofu, to treat my cat Yuli with the affection and care he so clearly doesn’t deserve, to refrain from strangling a single brush turkey, to write only fascinating and humorous blog postings, and to spend my time wisely.

Happy New Year everyone!

29 December, 2006

A Brief History of Blogging

One of the thoughts that drifted through my mind while laid out with the flu all Christmas concerned the history of blogging. I don’t mean its actual history – which runs all the way back to last Tuesday – but the way it sits in the long story of human communication.

Imagine you were an anthropology student, or sociologist, or even an Eng. Lit. student (why not? they’ve got to do something), and you want to set this incredible phenomenon in context. (Yes, it is an incredible phenomenon – Technorati is tracking 55 million blogs at the moment and this, I hear, will soon be dwarfed by the number of Chinese blogs we can expect to see.) How would you trace its roots? What would you say counted as an antecedent?

Well, obviously, there were plenty of online web journals long before the word ‘blog’ appeared but this doesn’t take the ‘history’ of the pastime back beyond the mid-90s. So what about the other media? TV diaries and radio diaries haven’t been common – except as specialist, ‘magazine’-type shows (where people give their opinions about what’s on at the cinema, or on TV, or in the news, or in politics). Alistair Cooke’s Letter From America was probably the most famous and by far the best of these. Going back even farther, you get columns in newspapers – and I don’t mean just editorials or literary critics. There have been some incredibly high profile, riveting and very blog-like newspaper columns even in my own lifetime. In particular, I remember Bernard Levin writing in The Times. As a teenager I was a huge fan. In fact, my first ever scientific publication was partly in retaliation to a piece he wrote called ‘The Don With The Luminous Nose’. I always thought the ideal life would have been to be a columnist with a big newspaper.

Ah well, at least now I’ve got my blog…

Before that there were, well, diaries. Mostly they didn’t get published – unless you were already famous and died – but there were notable exceptions, such as Samuel Pepys’ diary. My favourite 18th Century blogger is James Boswell, the chronicler of Dr Johnson’s life. His Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides is a great read (trust me). And, of course, Caesar’s Gallic Wars is still on my list of books I ought to read one day.

So who was the first blogger ever? Well, I reckon it must be that guy who wrote, ‘In the beginning was the word…’

28 December, 2006

Explaining Myself

My regular reader may have noticed a profound silence. The rest of you may have been shaking your heads in sad disapproval at the gap between the date of this posting and the date of the previous one. You may be thinking what a fair-weather blogger I am, that at the slightest excuse for a festive season, I down keyboard and head for the Sherry bottle. But it’s not like that.

If you could hear my pathetic little cough, see the trembling of my enfeebled limbs as I type doggedly, feel the heat of me and touch the light sheen of perspiration on my still-febrile brow, you would know that what has kept me from you all these days and left me here dissolute and dissipated, has been not a reprehensible and decadent abandonment of the Flesh to pleasure but the ravagement and despoilation of my flesh by the flu.

I've been laid up by this nasty little virus for so long that it ruined my last few days at work, my wedding anniversary and Christmas! And, if I don't improve a lot more very soon, it'll get New Year's Eve too. (In case no-one has named this strain yet, I'd like to suggest the 'Bahum bug'.)

Boy, was that a bad one! A taste of the great pandemic to come no doubt. I can hardly wait!

But I’m feeling much better now, so expect the postings to start again.

19 December, 2006

A Choir at Christmas

Christmas is a funny time of year. It’s only at Christmas, for example, that a man might wander into the foyer of his office building, as I did yesterday morning, to find 30 people standing in a group singing their hearts out.

It was a visiting choir and they sang very well. I stopped for a while to listen as they went through a range of Christmas-themed songs. The foyer of a modern office building is as wide and as deep as the building itself and at least six storeys high – bigger than most cathedrals – and the stark, uncarpeted floors and unadorned walls give it a very cathedral-like acoustic. So it was a rare treat to stand on a fourth-floor balcony looking down on them as they performed.

They had several good voices among them and I watched one chap, a tenor with a good, accurate voice with lovely timbre, step forward from the row of men at the back of the group to be the soloist in a piece that I did not recognise but would guess was by Bach. He was an old boy – perhaps seventy – and did it wonderfully and with great feeling, perhaps a little embarrassingly so. As he made his way back to join his fellows on the back row, I saw him stagger a little and put a hand on one of the ladies’ shoulders. Two men hurried forward to help him and I found myself greatly moved that he had actually suffered to bring us that lovely performance. No-one in the choir seemed to find it unusual that he needed help and he resumed his place with no-comment and no-one missing a beat.

He wasn’t the oldest person there by a long way. There was a pianist, playing an electric piano, who could have been his mother. She had the fragile look of an Egyptian mummy and the wild, white hair of a comedy witch. She had obviously been a good pianist at one time and her long, sticklike fingers flitted across the keys with confidence but these days she was obviously becoming a little error-prone and played not a few interesting ‘improvisations’. At one point, she set off boldly into ‘We Three Kings’ while the choir set off equally confidently into ‘Silent Night’. It took about four bars for everyone to grind to a halt and start again.

The conductor – the director, perhaps – was a woman who clearly knew what she was doing and who had a kind, coaxing way with this oddball but talented crew. I like to think it was she who did the arrangements, which were intelligent and subtle (not like the over-elaborate stuff I do), with interesting harmonies sliding about within a good, solid framework, and the many voices so nicely balanced in the mix.

They had a flautist too – a tall, shapely woman with wide hips and large breasts who looked magnificent while she played and quite ordinary when she stopped. I’ve often remarked how beautiful it make a woman look to play a musical instrument. It’s something about the way they sit or stand so pertly but also some unconscious effect of the gestures the instrument forces upon them. Take a lady violinist for example, sitting straight-backed, chest out, her neck stretched and swan-like, her head turned slightly aside in an attitude at once aloof and yet poignant, her arms (if you ignore the instrument) raised in a gesture of longing, an unrequited embrace. Fanciful, perhaps, but there you are.

I met Wifie for lunch some hours later and we saw the same choir singing in another office building and paused to listen. By then, after more than three hours of singing, they were struggling for the highest notes and the eccentric old pianist had been replaced by a stout, middle-aged lady who strummed simple chords with fierce concentration. It struck me again how much effort these people had gone to, to bring us such lovely music on that ordinary Monday morning. The toll the performance was taking on them must have been nothing to the months of work in learning and rehearsing the pieces. They will never know, of course, how grateful at least one person was for their efforts.

16 December, 2006

Mighty Mouse

I don’t remember how old I was when we got our first TV. I was young enough to look forward to seeing Watch With Mother each day so I would guess the late 1950s. Sadly, there is no-one left alive to ask anymore. I do recall, though, that my first experience of really loving a TV show was in 1960 when I became hooked on Mighty Mouse.

For those who don’t know, Mighty Mouse was a tiny – but hugely muscular – superhero, modelled on Superman, who lived in a world of evil cats and oppressed mice. He had a simpering, eyelash-fluttering girlfriend and a penchant for saving the day at the eleventh hour. And for some reason, he caught my imagination. So much so that I would often run around the playground, the streets, or my house pretending to be this brave and noble creature. (One was so uninhibited back then! I’d feel quite embarrassed to do it these days.)

It’s hard to see now why I liked the little fella. Perhaps my still-fresh exposure to the horrors of schoolchildren and my experience to that point with playmates, had made me hanker for a super-powered guardian who would deal swift and unambiguous justice to the brutish and scary people who surrounded me. Not only was Mighty Mouse good and fair and utterly reliable, he also smiled a lot. Just what a sensitive and scrawny little tyke like me needed at age 6. But why play at being him? Why not just imagine he was real? Was it nothing more than me wanting to be the one to beat up the bad guys and get the adoring girl?

And, if so, how much of that ethos of vigilante justice and heroic masculinity did I internalise? (along with a taste for lycra bodystockings and capes - er, that's a joke by the way. Or is it?) And was Mighty Mouse responsible for my early and lifelong love of science fiction, or was he just my first contact with it? It was at about that age that I started reading the Dr Doolittle books (my mother lied about my age so I could join the local library at 6) and I normally suppose this was my introduction but now that I think about it…

Funny thing is, I still feel a trace of the warm affection I felt for this cute little guy. However much he may have warped and distorted my life, I just can’t help liking him!

Maybe I’ll just have a quick run around the office doing my Mighty Mouse impression, for old times’ sake.

Taking The Lexus For A Spin

One of the reasons why it’s so hard to make a living as a writer – or any kind of artist – is that people’s standards are so low that they will read all sorts of rubbish and often think it is good.

I’m reminded of this miserable fact on reading a recent news item in Slashdot. Now, Slashdot styles itself as ‘News for nerds, stuff that matters,” so you wouldn’t expect literati to be reading it and the standard of writing is deplorably low (though no worse than most of what you find in the IT press). However, this particular piece commented positively on the writing quality of someone’s blog and it turned out that the style being lauded was of a type I hate with a passion.

Let me quote you the item in full so you can see what I mean. It was by someone calling themselves ‘kdawson’.

‘In Bruce Sterling's final column for Wired, he summarizes the output of a survey of Net prognosticators conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. The piece is peppered with Sterling's trademarked stop-you-in-your-tracks imagery. An example: "The bubble-era vision of a Utopian Internet is dented and dirty... The Lexus has collided with the olive tree, and its crumpled hulk spins in a ditch as the orchard smolders."’

I hope that you, dear reader, can see what awful drivel this quote from Sterling is. In particular, the imagery is especially bad. A ‘dented and dirty’ vision? A crumpled Lexus spinning in a ditch? (Does Stirling know what a ditch is?) Why ‘hulk’ (implying age and decay)? I get the Lexus but why an ‘olive tree’ (a weak attempt to symbolise Utopia?) and why ‘orchard’ instead of ‘grove’? This is one of the worst pairs of sentences I have ever read!

Yet Stirling has been a regular online contributor to Wired magazine for a long time now and has quite a following. It’s true he says sensible things on the whole but his style is execrable. And it isn’t just him. All over the Web and even in print, people write horrible stuff like this, using imagery that is inappropriate, inconsistent, misleading and silly. Striking, ‘stop-you-in-your-tracks’ imagery is great when it works but these days, instead of dazzling you with the brilliant light of revelation, it leaves you feeling like you’ve walked into a soggy curtain of wet wool.

13 December, 2006

Making The Point

Believe it or not, people have actually asked me the question, ‘If you don’t believe in God, what is the point in anything?’ It’s usually people who didn’t know me very well. Once they get to know me better, they learn to avoid giving me an opening for a two-hour rant.

Behind this question are the assumptions (a) that ‘point’ (or purpose, or meaning) is set by some supernatural force outside the world of mere mortals, and (b) that without this supernatural point-setter, only living forever, in a Universe that lasts forever, can allow there to be a ‘point’ to it all.

To me, it seems bizarre that anyone would think this because I can’t see that the words ‘point’, ‘purpose’ or ‘meaning’ mean anything at all outside of an individual’s own mind. Certainly, the everyday world of physical reality – the one that makes your bicycle work and your kettle boil – has no meaning or purpose. It just is. We can talk about it as if it did have a point but if we do, we are only being beguiled by language, we are not reflecting the true nature of things. Stars and planets to not have any meaning. They are just big balls spinning around and around in the void. As purposeful as water swirling down a plug-hole. As pointless as photons bouncing off a wall.

When I go out for lunch, on the other hand, I am full of purpose, my every movement has meaning, there is a point to every step I take, every corner I turn, every coin I hand over. I, like every one of you, am just brimful of it. Even my cat – which is about as close to inanimate as a living creature can get – is just bursting with purpose. There’s a point to everything he does. He may not be aware of it – in fact, I’m pretty sure he has only vestigial self-awareness at best – but he does things for a reason. People (much more than most other living things) have purposes, goals, objectives. What they do has ‘point’, it has meaning. Why? Because the whole idea, the whole concept of there being a ‘point’, is one that has been made up by people’s minds to explain what they do.

And that is not to denigrate it. We can each live lives choc-a-bloc with purpose, and steeped in meaning. We can feel the thrill of achievement, we can exercise our wills to succeed, we can revel in the high moral value of our endeavours and scorn the lack of it in others’. In short, we can live the full, rich lives we have always led without the point of them having to be given to us from outside. And what is wrong with accepting the human scale of our purposes, the personal scope of our meanings? If you make a sacrifice for love of your child, that is worth something to you and to all of us. It doesn’t need supernatural sanction. If your life is dedicated to the pursuit of truth, it matters to you and to everyone your life touches. What does it matter if no-one knows about two billion years’ from now?

These are our lives and this is our time and we are the ones who give them meaning.

12 December, 2006

Two Weeks To Go

Two weeks to go and then everything changes – because that’s when I retire.

I still can’t quite imagine what it will be like. Of course, I won’t stop being busy every day. There are so many things I want to do! But I won’t have to be busy doing other people’s things. My life will belong only to me, for the very first time. And for the first time since I left my parents’ home, no piece of my life will have to be sold to anyone else to pay for its upkeep. It will be something like being rich - but without the private jet.

I suppose it is so hard to imagine because it is such a long time since I had any kind of freedom. I left school and started work at 17 (I went to sea, working as a galley boy on a North Sea trawler). I did various manual jobs after that (mostly in factories) before I went to university. During my undergraduate days, I lived on a government grant but during my PhD studies, I worked, doing freelance programming jobs and writing weekly ‘how to…’ articles for a computer magazine. After that, I did a year as a computer auditor for the British Government and then joined a small company as a human-computer interaction consultant. I then went back to uni and did four years as a post-doctoral research fellow, investigating topics in artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction before joining a multinational software company in their R&D centre in Cambridge. Gradually, I moved out of R&D and into design and management, then out of the UK into Switzerland and, finally, Australia.

And here I am after 25 years of work and 18 years of education, two weeks away from the end of all that, suddenly about to be able to please myself as to what I do and when I do it.

In some ways it will make little difference to my life – I’ll still spend large chunks of each day slaving over a hot computer, solving problems and being as creative as I can. Yet, in all the ways that matter, it will make all the difference in the world. Self-determination! Freedom! To spend my life how I want to! There is no other kind of wealth in the world that matters! It is an incredibly privileged position to be in – and one I intend to relish as long as I can.

Keeping On

Are human beings still evolving? Well duh! We’re still replicating, our genes are still mixing and mutating, therefore we’re still evolving. It’s amazing that anyone could ask such a question. A much more sensible question is: in what way are human beings evolving?

What brought this to mind was an article in today’s press about some research which shows that lactose tolerance – the ability to digest milk – has only arisen in some African populations in the past 3,000 to 6,000 years. It has only been a human trait in any population for 8,00 or 9,000 years – since people began keeping cattle. It is such a powerful survival advantage for pastoral peoples – estimated at a ten to one breeding advantage – that it has evolved separately in three or four places by different genetic mechanisms and has spread widely.

So, I ask myself, what are the evolutionary pressures on the world today? Obviously some of the killer diseases, like tuberculosis, malaria and AIDS are culling populations that would benefit greatly if they developed a resistance. Then there are the ‘epidemics’ of the modern, Western world – like obesity, asthma and depression – that we could use a few genetic tweaks to be rid of (or to keep on breeding despite them). Then there are the coming problems of global climate change and ever-increasing pollution levels. People who need less food, can breathe more particulates and tolerate more UV might have a distinct advantage.

On the other hand, one of the greatest barriers to reproduction has been education and increasing standards of living. The Western world is reproducing at well below the replacement rate (the rate at which the population would be maintained – about 2.1 children per female). In this situation, being poor and ignorant has a reproductive advantage which is being selected for even as we speak.

Trying to imagine what a human being five or ten thousand years from now might be like given today’s selective pressures is a bit depressing. It definitely won’t be the big-brained, scrawny types from 1950’s science fiction. I can see no pressures moving us in the direction of increasing intelligence. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case.

On the other hand, as we increasingly take our evolution into our own hands – through direct manipulation of our own genome – disease resistance, longevity, resistance to obesity, tolerance of environmental and man-made toxins, greater physical size, physical attractiveness, and so on will be what we aim for in ourselves (just as we engineer the same things in our food crops today). However, the idea that this will mean ‘the end of human evolution’ is stupidly naïve. Whatever we would like our genome to be, our environment will always have the last word.

09 December, 2006

The Perfect Anti-Spam Technique

I just want to explain a simple but completely effective way to stop spam.

Like me, you probably get loads of this stuff in your email all the time, offering you cheap software, get-rich-quick schemes, and fixes for your sexual dysfunction – not to mention the more flagrant scams like requests to launder money for rich Nigerians. Like me you probably loathe and despise the people who send out this rubbish and wish there was a way of making them suffer for it. Also like me, you would like to stop the practice completely and force these parasites to go out and get proper jobs.

Well, now you can. This simple but effective technique will stop spam forever and drive every spammer in the world out of business. And here it is. Ready? OK.

When you get an unsolicited email from somebody offering to sell you something, don’t buy it.

That’s all there is to it. If everybody followed this simple rule, there would be no more spam, ever.

08 December, 2006

Crime and Punishment

Sex offenders are scum. Alright, we can all agree on that one – especially sex offenders who prey on children, potentially leaving them psychologically scarred for life. But then, armed robbers are also scum, the kind of person who will leave his victims physically scarred and maimed for life. And while we’re at it, corporate swindlers are scum too – people who leave thousands of retirees without their superannuation, and thousands of families without an income. In fact, when you think about it, there are some pretty sick and disgusting people in this world.

So why are sex offenders singled out for special, lifelong punishment? Corporate scumbags get a relatively mild slap on the wrist by comparison. Violent scumbags do their time and then they’re free to go. But sex offenders are put on lists, they’re watched and monitored, they’re excluded from certain kinds of employment, even companies that run websites (like Rupert Murdoch’s MySpace) can get access to lists of their names so that they can exclude them from membership.

Well, I can think of a few obvious reasons – we feel more protective of our children (and our womenfolk) than we do of other groups of people, and sex offending has an very high rate of recidivism, so we know they may well do it again. Yet, emotionality aside, are we not maybe underrating the horror and obscenity of other classes of crime by focusing on sex offenders?

If a young bank teller is left brain-damaged or quadriplegic for life because an armed thug shoots her in the course of a robbery, isn’t that pretty bad too? Is it alright for this guy to live where he likes without telling the police but not the sex offender? Why is that? Or what about the millionaire – or billionaire – scumbag who rips off his company’s pension fund leaving thousands of poor workers to an uncertain old age, or fattens up his bank account in series of dodgy deals that mean his company collapses, throwing thousands out of work, leaving all those families, all those children, with not enough to live on? We don’t make evil men like these report to the police even after they’ve served their time (if they ever do serve time). We don’t publish lists of their names for any company who wants them so that they can be excluded and further punished.

Why not? Why are some hideous crimes with huge costs in human suffering a reason for lifetime stigma and punishment while others are not? Is it some kind of religious hangover from the good old days? Sex is evil and people who do sex are animals so sex crimes should be punished more than other crimes? Or maybe it’s the other way around. People who commit violent crimes are sort of like the warriors and heroes we have been taught to admire in other contexts, so they shouldn’t be punished as much as they really deserve? People who commit frauds and other ‘white collar’ crimes are really just entrepreneurs who took it a bit too far – it’s almost not a crime at all?

As you can see, I haven’t quite put my finger on it yet but there is something very wrong about the way we look at all this. It’s always unsettling when a society sanctions indefinite punishment and endorses lifelong persecution – even of scumbags – but it’s somehow worse when it is only certain groups who are picked out for this treatment and not others who seem equally deserving. It makes me wonder if we’re being manipulated by some vested interest somewhere.

07 December, 2006

A Big Hand For Mysticism

What’s the sound of one hand clapping?

“Ap, ap, ap”? (Well, ask a silly question…)

The real answer is, of course, that one hand can’t clap – by definition – so the question makes no sense. Yet this is the kind of stuff that passes for ‘deep and meaningful’ in the minds of people who like mysticism. Famously such koans are studied by Zen Buddhists and used to help them achieve a state of ‘awakening’ or insight into the nature of things.

As a psychological trick to force people into using ways other than reason to understand the world, I can see how such nonsensical stuff could be very useful. If the story or statements in a koan are not accessible to reason, yet your guru is saying ‘explain this or get lost’, you will come up with some kind of response – probably something equally nonsensical (and equally deep-sounding). People being what they are (highly suggestible confabulators) I have no doubt that such ‘training’ leads people truly to believe that they are having mind-expanding insights.

But, even if the trick works, what is the point? Does it help the world in any way whatsoever that people believe the answer to the question ‘Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?’ is ‘No’ – or ‘Yes’ even? Heavens above, human beings are irrational enough already without finding ways to trick the mind into ‘intuitive’ (as opposed to rational) insights. The problem is that ‘Buddha nature’, like all these other bizarre constructs, isn’t a real thing and our beliefs about it make no difference to the Universe at all. All that we get for taking such notions seriously, is a change in our own thinking; specifically, a move away from reality and towards fantasy and abstraction.

And that is why mysticism is so harmful; because people can convince themselves that nothing we do here matters, that things of ‘the flesh’ are corrupting or irrelevant, that abstract ideas matter more than avoiding suffering, that there are rewards waiting for believers in fantasy realms, or farther around the wheel of life, if they perform superstitious rituals, or that life is just a test of some sort, not the real thing at all.

What’s the sound of one hand clapping?

It is the cries of millions dying in poverty and ignorance.

06 December, 2006

Knowledge Multipliers

Still on the subject of the fragility of human knowledge (see yesterday’s post), have you ever wondered why the accumulation of knowledge is going at such a pace these days?

I used to think this was entirely due to the fact that we have as many geniuses alive today as have ever lived in the history of the world up to this point. Ditto for very clever people, ditto for ordinarily clever people, etc.. More bright sparks means more knowledge. It seems a pretty obvious outcome. In fact, the exponential growth in world population might also account for what feels like an exponential growth in knowledge.

These days, however, I think that this is not the whole story. I think there may be a multiplier in effect too. In fact, three multipliers.

The first one is science. Science is pretty new and its a really great way of accumulating knowledge because the way it works ensures that new knowledge almost always builds on old knowledge and almost never just replaces it. It also, because of experimentation (testing supposed knowledge against reality) makes sure that incorrect ideas get thrown out as quickly as possible so don’t confuse future research and waste everyone’s time. Science also acts as a a channelling or coordinating mechanism for vast numbers of researchers, within and across different areas of understanding so that they can stay focused on the important and unresolved issues. It is an extremely efficient process.

The second is specialisation. Not only are there as many people alive today pushing the frontiers as have existed in the whole prior history of the species, but there is such a huge population now that even the most bizarre and obscure fields of study can attract a ‘critical mass’ of interested minds. This, I suspect, is something unique to our age and is being felt as sudden and rapid progress in every conceivable area across the scientific and technological smorgasbord.

Finally, there is the decline in religion and other odd superstitions. If our great minds aren’t studying theology, if our best thinkers are not trying to communicate with the dead, if their minds are not crippled by the kind of madness that would have them praying and flagellating themselves rather than doing anything useful, they have more chance of being productive.

Actually, I’m not as sure about this last one as I am about the others. For a start religion hasn’t declined all that much and many great minds are still crippled by it. For another thing, our modern world has many other ways of distracting the brightest and best (like the pursuit of wealth, drugs, sex, rock’n’roll and so on). It’s hard to say if the good outweighs the bad here. (Someone should do a PhD on the subject.)

Anyway, if I’m right, the pace will only get faster as the population keeps growing, up to the point where there are so many of us that we spend all our time trying to fix the problems that overpopulation has caused and we have no time to think about anything else! Which is why I agree with Stephen Hawking who recently told the audience at an award ceremony that the human race should colonise other worlds so that we’re not so vulnerable to catastrophe. Or, to put it another way, we’ve got to get off this little rock before the tide of our own effluent engulfs us.

05 December, 2006

Fits And Starts

Michel W. Barsoum, a professor of materials engineering at Drexel University, in Philadelphia, believes he has evidence that the great pyramids of Giza were partly constructed from concrete. It is a disputed claim at the moment but if true, it would mean that the Egyptians were building with concrete 4,500 years ago – 2,500 years before the Romans used it. It would mean that the technology of making concrete and the engineering skills around using it have come and gone at least a couple of times in human history and possibly many times more.

In an unrelated but similar finding, Tony Freeth and Mike G. Edmunds, of the University of Cardiff, along with researchers in Greece and the USA have X-rayed the Antikythera mechanism and now know a lot more about its construction. This amazing device is a brass calculating machine with perhaps 37 cogs that was used to calculate the Moon’s position in the sky, based on theoretical work by the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchos. The mechanism was probably made between 150 and 100 BC. Nothing as sophisticated as this was made again until a thousand years later. Another example of technology and engineering skills gained and lost. Think about 4,000 year-old ceramics, metallurgy, navigation, astronomy, architecture – all of it discovered and lost and discovered again, sometimes several times over.

Mostly, when they hear tales of ancient technical sophistication, people react with surprise and astonishment that anyone could have thought of these things so long ago. It’s as if they believe that human intelligence has increased over the millennia. Or as though ancient scientists and engineers were like precocious children, being unnaturally clever – cute, even. When I hear such tales I feel either sadness or fear.

The sadness comes from the realisation that, if it had not been for wars and religious insanity, the knowledge of ancient peoples could have been accumulating for all these centuries instead of huge chunks of it being wiped out over and over again. The rapacious craving for power that drives us, continues to destroy our finest works. The madness of religion continues to make people attack those who work to understand the world.

The fear comes from a realisation of how fragile human knowledge is. It takes so long for a civilisation to achieve the wealth and stability needed to begin to accumulate understanding. And it takes but a moment for an invader to come in and crush it, or a religion or political ideology to rise up and burn the books. Even in a global civilisation like ours, with knowledge duplicated all over the world, even a half-hearted nuclear war, a carelessly released genetically-engineered pathogen, a religious revival, a slide into climate-change-induced poverty, could wipe out all we’ve learned almost overnight.

The fact is that knowledge isn’t power. Power, as Mao said, comes from the barrel of a gun. Knowledge is a delicate and beautiful porcelain tower that any old jack-boot can kick down.

03 December, 2006


Alright, don't laugh, but I've just invented a joke. Now I knwo a lot of people say funny or witty things all the time but how many people do you know who have actually invented a brand new joke? Not many, I'll bet. I myself know only one such person - my old friend Rod. He invented a joke in about 1993. It was OK too - although, like 99% of all the jokes I've ever heard, I have completely forgotten it - something to do with a kitchen sink, I think. As far as I know, that was the only joke made up in his whole life. And I think this may be mine. So savour this moment.

I tried it on Wifie, of course, before letting it loose on the world. From her pained groaning, I think it must be pretty good. You might not think that is a good sign but, believe me, I'd have had The Irritated Frown if it had been anything less than hilarious. Wifie is a very tough crowd!

So, without further ado, here it is.

Q: How can you spot a sacred cow?

A: She moos in mysterious ways.

Write down the date everyone. This is an historic moment!

01 December, 2006


Australians don’t seem to know quite who they are. That is, they are constantly banging on about their ‘national identity’ and ‘what it means to be an Australian’. Of course, some people know – politicians, the more right-wing among Sydney’s taxi drivers, the handful of remaining farmers, and so on. This rather vocal group of ultra-conservatives thinks it’s something to do with ‘mateship’, ‘openness’, ‘honesty’, ‘patriotism’ and so on (to quote from a recent radio phone-in show). Interestingly, they also know what it means to be un-Australian. Apparently this is people who are ‘intellectual’, ‘academic’, ‘urbane’, who don’t like sport, or who are un-patriotic. (They use the word ‘un-Australian’ quite unashamedly, despite the sinister associations it has with the word ‘un-American' – as in The House Un-American Activities Committee. But, of course, it would be un-Australian and probably ‘intellectual’ even to know about those dark times so far away and long ago.)

It’s all very sad. The main reason that politicians want Australians to have a sense of their ‘national identity’ is so that they will make good cannon fodder if there is ever another war. (Sorry, I mean so they’ll be ‘patriotic’.) Politicians are nasty.

The main reason that Australians want a sense of themselves is probably that they’re only human and we humans naturally like to know what tribe we’re in. The thing is, though, everybody here (except a handful of aboriginals – who are in an even worse state) left their own tribe behind just a short while ago. Culturally, they are Greeks, or English, or Vietnamese, or whatever, but they can’t really belong to those tribes anymore.

The sad thing is that national identities exist mostly to make people feel better about themselves by claiming to have traits that are better than other people’s. They exist to exclude or denigrate other groups. They rest largely on alleged racial characteristics that make one society superior to another in some way (the Italians are great lovers, the British are a ‘bulldog breed’, the Germans are thorough and efficient, the French… well, the less said about the French, the better.) And it’s all bullshit. National, or racial, or tribal identity is a dismal hangover from humanity’s distant past.

Being part of such a young and thriving society as Australia could be such a great opportunity. Why should we do anything the way it was done before? Can’t we learn from the mistakes of nationalism, racism, and exclusion? What about a society that feels good because it is human? Or has pride in itself because it is so diverse? Or which welcomes outsiders because it feels it is part of the world at large and embodies something of every culture within its wide compass?

Personally, I’m a citizen of the World. I’m a human being first and an Australian, Brit, European, Westerner, or whatever, second. My views on other people and on myself do not depend on where I happen to be sitting today.

It isn’t so hard to know who you are.

30 November, 2006

National Day of Action

You’d never guess, sitting here in a CBD office amid the usual hum and bustle of my white-collar colleagues, but today is a national day of action in Australia. Tens of thousands of people all around the country are on the streets protesting against the government’s new industrial relations laws. I’d like to be out there with them but these days I’m my own boss and my job security is simply a function of my sales ability. Still, I sympathise with them. Ordinary people in ordinary jobs are facing a future far more uncertain and a working life far less pleasant than they have enjoyed in the past few decades. And all because the government wants to create an environment in which business can prosper and the economy can grow.

Those of you in the USA and similar corporation-dominated societies will recognise the situation. In order for these economies to survive, they have to grow. If they don’t grow, you’re in a recession, and the investment goes elsewhere. Without investment, the economies shrink. Then you have depression.

And how do you get growth? Well, you can be lucky – like Australia – and be sitting on all the raw materials all the growing economies need, or you can raise productivity. Productivity means getting more for the same cost, or the same for less cost, or, best of all, more for less cost. It’s the reason we’re working harder and longer hours, why living standards are falling, why the rich are getting relatively richer and the poor relatively poorer, it’s why we need to ‘globalise’, why standards of service are falling, why manufactured goods are of lower quality. To get productivity up, the corporations have to squeeze and squeeze and keep squeezing.

That’s why Australia has new industrial relations laws, making it easier to sack people, guaranteeing fewer benefits (like holidays), and weakening the power of trades unions to do collective bargaining an behalf of their members. More for less. All the time more for less.

It wasn’t so long ago that the European countries and the Communist countries – and even Australia – were trying, and often able, to provide free education at all levels, to everyone, free health care across the board, generous pensions, low-rent public housing on an enormous scale, and universal free access to services such as legal representation. For a brief period – after World War 2 until the Reagan/Thatcher era began in the late 70s – governments all over pursued an agenda of social reform and sharing of wealth.

Now the agenda is economic growth. But you’ve got to ask: if economic growth means that we get less and less benefit as we are squeezed harder and harder, why on Earth would we want it? I’m pretty sure that this is the kind of question in the minds of the marchers out on the streets today.

I wish them all the very best.

27 November, 2006

Coonan the Barbarian

That Coonan woman has been at it again. Today she told an audience of media parrots that she thought Rupert Murdoch’s and James Packer’s criticisms of her ineffectual broadband policy were motivated by self-interest. Well, duh. To quote the Senator, “I can appreciate that if you have got a real commercial interest in getting people to buy very expensive product and content, you'll be trying to get the government to subsidise it as much as possible." All I can say is that throwing up this kind of smokescreen is just so pathetically typical of politicians it makes one sick.

Either the woman is stupid and has missed the point completely, or she is deliberately obfuscating to justify the Government’s failure to do anything useful about the appalling state of broadband in this country. Of couse the big content providers want a decent broadband network in Australia. That’s because there is a demand here for broadband services that cannot be met. What Coonan should take away from Murdoch and Packer’s comments is not that they want to make a buck but that there is the opportunity to build a world-class industry here, not that they’re trying to force her silly government into making investmants they don’t want to make but that the people of this country are crying out for a decent service. And when I say ‘the people’, I mean the voters, the ones she’s supposed to be serving. Geddit?

Mostly, I think that what Murdoch and Packer have to sell is trash but I want broadband for all the other, useful services it offers. For example, all my friends and relatives in the UK and the US now take broadband so much for granted that they really can’t understand why they shouldn’t send family photos that are 2 megabytes large, or why we can’t talk to them using Skype. We’re becoming cut off here from the rest of the world because we’re such a technological backwater. And here’s another example. My hobby is to write music but, even at low bitrates, a single song is 4 or 5 megabytes large. It takes me an hour or two to upload one file like that to my website – but the line quality here in Australia’s third largest city is so poor that I’ve given up trying. My line won’t stay up that long! And another example. I like to stay up-to-date with updates from Microsoft for my operating syystem and my Office applications but I can’t because downloads of 137 megabytes (which the backlog now amounts to) would take over 80 hours at my connection speeds!

The UN last week declared that broadband should now be considered a ‘utility’ like electricity and water. That may be going a bit far but I know what they mean. Without broadband these days, one is cut off from so much that is going on in the world, from one’s own family and friends even! This is the point that the Coonan creature fails to grasp. This is the fate to which she and her ridiculous peers are consigning this country.

24 November, 2006

One Small Putt For A Man

Yesterday a Russian cosmonaut hit a golf ball off the Soyuz docking platform of the International Space Station as an advertising stunt for a Canadian golf club manufacturer. The stunt went well, it seems, and the ball is expected to do about 48 Earth orbits before finally burning up in the atmosphere.

When I first read that this was going to happen, my reaction was (predictably) one of dismay. That the wonderful and noble quest for humankind to build a new home in space should be so debased and degraded, seemed an awful thing. That the ISS, or, at least, the Russian space programme, should be forced to raise cash by selling its astronaut’s time to advertisers struck me as scandalous and a terrible indictment of our materialist world.

Yet, as often happens, a little reflection gave me a different view. Of course it is an unspeakable crime to waste the time of highly-qualified and highly-trained astronauts in batting balls around to make a few dollars – not to mention that of the NASA engineers on the ground who had to do protracted safety studies – yet isn’t the whole business so wonderfully human? I mean, you spend billions upon billions of dollars, thousands of people dedicate their lives, decades of planning, design, building and execution unfolds, people die for Heaven’s sake! And for what? So that one day some ridiculous company can stage a ridiculous marketing show.

Well, of course. That’s what has to happen. That’s what this is all for. We’re not going into space to change human nature. We’ll still be the same clownish little monkeys Out There as we are down here. Were going into space to be us – only somewhere bigger. And that means whacking golf balls 48 time around the world, and holding zero-G raves, and getting drunk, and having fights, and making love, and keeping pets, and frying the longest sausage in the known universe, and filming episodes of Home and Away on a starship, and on and on and on.

That’s who we are. That’s who we always will be. Painting asteroids in corporate colours in our Destiny. I just hope the rest of the Galaxy is ready for us.

23 November, 2006


In my continuing and, might I say, futile attempts to get my fiction published, I joined a small writers collective a couple of years ago. The group, Crime Writers Queensland, publishes its own books and audio tapes which are collections of short stories by members. Almost all the members are published authors, some with quite a good local reputation. I'm hoping to get a story in their new collection. It will be their seventh book and will be called 'Seven'. The book launch is planned for 7/7/07. Lucky? We all hope so.

Anyhoo, to follow up the enormous success of the poem I published yesterday, here's a very short story. We do these from time to time as an exercise. The story has to be precisely 100 words long and the theme is set at the meetings. I quite liked this one, so I'm goimg to inflict it on you. Just because I can...

The orbital bombardment was over and the shock troops had already gone in. We would be next. I nudged Dannee who’d been sitting beside me since we left Deepstation, fiddling with that stupid little radio of his. “I hate this bloody waiting,” I growled.

“Listen.” He handed me the earpiece. “It’s from down there.”

I glanced out at the scarred planet below and listened. The lilting, musical language meant nothing to me but two sounds kept repeating among the gabble: “mae dae”.

Dannee said it must mean “Fuck off aliens”.

My stomachs lurched as we tipped into our approach run.

22 November, 2006

Home Alone 2

Since I’m home alone and missing Wifie so much, I can’t help thinking about how bad it would be if she had gone forever. How would I ever stand it?

I had a small taste of the nightmare about five years ago when, out of the blue, she had a stroke. She just felt a bit off one day, went up to bed early and found she couldn’t brush her teeth. Somehow, I realised immediately what it was and got her to the hospital just before she had a second and then, soon after, a third and massive one. It was a shock that such a thing could happen so suddenly and with no warning but the really bad thing was knowing, afterwards, how close I’d come to losing her.

This little sonnet came some while later and was published in The Love Blender, a great little online poetry magazine which all romantics should read regularly. I named the poem ‘Snap!’. You’ll see why.

“I’ve lost co-ordination in my hand.” And the
world becomes a darkening storm of grim purpose;
racing down spiteful roads; pushing through the blur of
slow people to reach the one in the uniform;
“I think my wife’s had a stroke.”
“I think my wife’s had a stroke.”As I sit and talk
to you, as I sit alone and gasping in fear
in the night, as your long recovery plays out
in tiny, heart-bursting finger movements, fewer
words mis-spoken, our bruised eyes reflect the horror
of what might have been. The handful of lucky breaks
and hasty choices that saved your life seem a too-
thin thread on which to hang all a man’s happiness.

21 November, 2006

Bonded Slave

Wifie’s away. She flew off this morning to visit some relatives in Melbourne. I miss her already – which is odd because it’s an ordinary working day and I wouldn’t normally see her until I get home in a few hours’ time. It’s just knowing that she won’t be there that is creating the anticipation of loneliness.

She and I have been together for almost two decades. It will be our umpty-umpth wedding anniversary next month. We’re still very much in love and I suppose, after all this time, we will be for the rest of our lives. As with so many other aspects of my emotional life, the bond that ties me to my wife is a deep and mysterious thing, lurking in the deepest and oldest recesses of my being, accessible to consciousness only in its effects, and completely beyond my control.

I suppose I’ll go home and potter about, listen to Blondie and the B-52’s and surf the Web – the usual things a fifty-one-year old does these days. I’ll be at a loose end – for no particular reason. Silly. But I’ll be off-balance. There’ll be something missing, like that thing you know you’ve forgotten to bring and you just know you’ll need it when you get there.

Bonding with someone is so strange! Something to do with evolutionary imperatives no doubt – it creates a stable environment for raising children, or it prevents social upheaval in small communities by reducing sexual adventuring, something along those lines. But to me, the mere phenotype, the helpless puppet of my DNA, all I can do is drift around the kitchen feeling uninspired and hoping the week goes by quickly.

The upside, of course, is that when it’s all going as Nature intended and both of us are in the same time zone at the same time, it’s pretty damned good and I’m quite happy to hand over the reins of my soul to my genome.

19 November, 2006

Dumber and Dumber

You know, Dolly Parton once said, ‘Never watch anything dumber than you are.’ It’s pretty good advice, although very hard to achieve considering the state of modern film and television. It’s even hard to apply to reading these days. The editorial standards of most newspapers have slipped below the point where they irritate one beyond endurance, magazines are worse, and as for books! Well, let’s face it, most of them are written by people who are only barely literate and edited by people who are hardly better. Worst of all, of course, are advertisements. Mind you, writing advertising copy is probably the kind of job you can only do if you don’t have the intelligence to realize what blight on civilization you have become. The literacy of most advertising ranks just a step or two above text messages, somewhere below emails and blogs.

Partly, it’s a failure of intelligence. Let’s face it, spelling and grammar are just too hard for most people. But it is also a failure of education. I’ve known some reasonably bright people who were pathetically unable to string two words together. Partly it’s the fault of the Americans. Their attempt to ‘simplify’ spelling many years ago has left them with a semi-phonetic spelling system which has thrown away most of our language’s etymology, making it impossible for American children to learn spelling by understanding the linguistic and historical roots of words. It was a mistake on a global scale since they now export their impoverished version of English to the world and drone countries like Australia parrot American as if it were their own language.

Yet there’s something much more serious going on. There’s a tendency for people – even professional writers – not to care about expressing themselves correctly. They don’t think that they need to worry about precision because people will know what they mean. They communicate without care. In itself, not so bad, but if people are not trying clearly to express what they mean, my suspicion is that they are not trying hard to be clear about what they mean, that their thinking itself is sloppy and careless. And it certainly seems to be the case.

As a very minor example of this very significant problem, consider plurals. People today have enormous difficulty with plurality. They cannot distinguish phenomenon from phenomena, fewer from less, and words like fora and schemata are almost gone from the language. Worse than these (which, after all, are probably just laziness) is the inability to use collective nouns as singular (the crowd are chanting, everybody who lives here are poor) and to use the names of singular entities as plurals (Manchester United are pleased with the result, the Government are voting on the bill, Microsoft are releasing Vista in January). These examples are not just sloppiness with language but sloppiness of thought – the inability to distinguish a collective entity from its members.

Even in something so apparently trivial, can be traced our first steps on the slippery slope to losing all the hard-won benefits of civilization and universal education. If we let our language fall into ruin, we let our ability to think clearly fall with it.

17 November, 2006

Running In Neutral

Watching Yuli, our cat, sitting perfectly still and staring vacantly at a blank wall just a metre from his face – as only cats can do – I was reminded of an interesting little episode from my past.

Wifie and I were hiking through a very beautiful part of the Arizona desert, an area of low hills covered in gorgeous cacti of various kinds. We were walking single-file on a narrow track and a strange hissing sound gradually edged its way into my awareness. Suddenly I realised what I was hearing and called out ‘Rattlesnake, darling!’

To my amazement, Wifie took off like a mountain goat, leaping and bounding down the track for dozens of metres before she came skidding to a halt in a cloud of dust. I looked down at where she had been just a few moments ago and there, writhing and spitting under a cactus bush, well within striking distance of the track, was the most angry and irascible rattlesnake you are ever likely to bump into.

I was a nice, safe, couple of metres away, so I edged gingerly around it and went down to join my belovèd. She was experiencing a variety of emotions. Somewhere in the mix was well-deserved guilt that she had cleared off and left me to the mercy of our vicious friend but her most powerful sensation was bewilderment because she had no recollection at all of doing a hundred-metre sprint down that rocky track. She remembered my warning and the next thing she knew she was at the bottom of the hill looking up.

One often hears phrases like ‘blind panic’ and one frequently realises that one’s mind has been ‘running in neutral’ for the past couple of minutes but what struck us both about this particular incident was that Wifie had, for quite a number of seconds, performed intelligent, purposeful, skilled, not to mention athletic behaviour with no conscious awareness of it. It was such a perfect illustration of the fact that animals like us can get by perfectly well in the world without having to be conscious at all and the imputation of conscious awareness to other animals is entirely unnecessary.

Which brings me back to Yuli.

16 November, 2006

Cranky of Karana Downs

I read a newspaper article today about how Rupert Murdock had said Australia's broadband service was a 'disaster' and needed $10bn spending on it. Fair enough. Then I read our own alleged 'Communications Minister' - some woman called Coonan - saying it wasn't a disaster because quite a lot of people could get it and there was lots of demand.

My regular reader will know that I have some strong views about this country's lack of broadband, so it will be no surprise that I got a bit miffed by the Coonan woman's comments. So miffed in fact, that I dropped her a line. This was it:

Dear Ms Coonan,

I read with some irritation your spirited defence of Australia's current broadband situation. I live in the Brisbane suburb of Karana Downs and there is absolutely no broadband available here - not even ADSL 1. (Although there is ADSL 1 available at my local exchange, the exchange is too far away from my house for me to receive it.)

My usual internet connection, with a 56K modem, is between 16.9 and 21.4 kilobits per second (yes, kilobits). I run a small, high-tech business from home and I can't help but agree with Rupert Murdoch that the state of broadband in this country is a disaster. I don't live in the outback, I live in a suburb of Australia's third largest city!

Frankly, it's pathetic.


Graham Storrs.

I'll let you know what the dear lady's reply is if I get one.

14 November, 2006

Smart State Buys Stupid Cars

When you live in a state that calls itself ‘the smart state’, you would expect its government to do at least a couple of smart things now and then. Don’t you think? Well, not Queensland. The smart state seems to go out of its way to be as stupid as it can be.

It’s not just the big things. Like damming and wrecking the Mary River because it wakes up after decades of ignorance and denial and realises we’re running out of water and we’ve got to have some fast! Which, by the way, means hundreds and hundreds of families get thrown out of their homes to make way for this folly and the rare, indigenous lungfish is driven to extinction. (You know, they tried. They hoped for rain for years and then they prayed for rain for years but, for all their efforts, we still ran out of water. You can hardly blame them for that!)

No. It’s the small things too. Like not having daylight savings like the rest of Australia ‘because it would lead to more skin cancer’. Although the Cancer Council of Australia denies this, based on the research, I suppose we’re to believe the Premier instead because… well… just because. Or like the cars they buy for the state’s senior civil servants.

These are easy to spot because (a) they have distinctive number plates (b) they are all large-engined and foreign-made and (c) their drivers seem to be even more pushy and aggressive than most. I see a lot of these cars on the roads of Brisbane. As I sat in my car this morning on Moggill Road and then on the Western Freeway – two of the smart state’s longest car parks – I saw two of them. One was a big, black 4-wheel drive, BMW 5X and the other was an even bigger, silver, 4-wheel drive (I couldn’t see the make or model but it was really, really ugly). Others I have noticed lately were Audis, Alfas and Lexuses.

I suspect there are at least a hundred of these cars about – possibly a lot more. I looked up the price of a BMW 5X today and they start at AU$75,000 and go up to about AU$120,000. The others I’ve seen are a similar price. So if there are 100 of these about, the state must have spent something like AU$10 million on them. So I ask myself:
  • Why is the smart state spending AU$10 million on ego-massage for its civil servants?

  • Why is the smart state sponsoring foreign imports of cars to the tune of AU$10 million?

  • Why is the smart state encouraging its employees to drive around in cars with engine capacities between 3 and 4 litres at a time when global warming is choking off the state’s water supplies?

The only answer I can find to these questions is that the smart state must be seriously stupid.

12 November, 2006

Thinking About Retiring

I’m retiring soon. I know what you’re thinking. Someone as young and vibrant and full of the joys of life as I am can’t possibly be retiring. But it’s true.

I’ve been trying to write something about what it means to retire but it's hard. The thing is, it’s a bit of a non-event, really. I’m not filled with anxiety about losing my purpose, my identity, or my role in society. I don’t feel I have work left undone. I’m not chagrined that I haven’t achieved all my goals. I have no fear that my status will suffer, or my self-esteem will fail. I won’t grieve for the loss of my workmates (in the contracting business I tend to move from place to place often enough for the gaining and losing of acquaintances to be perfectly normal.) And I certainly have no concern at all that I won’t have enough to do!

Work has been such a chore to me most of the time. However interesting the job, however good the company, part of me has always resented it bitterly. Even when the work has been incredibly interesting – and I have worked in universities doing post-doc research and, for many years in industrial R&D – there was always the knowledge that someone else was setting the agenda, that I wasn’t able to pick and choose what I wanted to engage my interest in. Not that I didn’t work hard and with complete dedication for my various employers – thanks to my good old English working class upbringing – but I have wished all my life that I didn’t have to do it. And the only reason I have done it is for the money.

And that's my only concern. I worry a bit that maybe I won’t have enough money. After all, no matter how well set-up things seem now, the economy is in the hands of politicians, so it could collapse at any moment. But, to be honest, if that happens, having a job wouldn’t be much help anyway.

More than that, I worry that not earning money is an end to fantasy. You know the way couples talk, ‘maybe well get one of those (houses, cars, trips to Antarctica, whatever) one day. While you’re still working it’s always just possible, just within the realms of belief, even if, in your heart of hearts, you know how unlikely it would be. Yet to stop earning is also to give up some of that, to say, ‘OK, what we have now, how we live now, is pretty much how it will always be, until we die.’ I think Wifie and I are fairly sensible types but one has to wonder how much such silly talk sustains one.

I suppose we’ll see. Certainly it will be nice to have the time to reflect on it.

10 November, 2006

Christmas is Coming

It’s almost always sunny here. It’s always green. The trees don’t lose their leaves in winter (not the natives anyway) and there are always flowers of some kind blooming all year round. And because Brisbane is just a few hundred kilometres from the Tropic of Capricorn, the winter days are only a little shorter than the summer ones.

As a colleague of mine once remarked, ‘In Brisbane you can’t tell the season by looking out of the window.’ He’s wrong – if you know what you’re looking for – but he’s right enough.

So it’s always a bit weird when Christmas starts to loom.

My poor brain, trained by several decades of living in England, Scotland and Switzerland, expects the darkness to start seeping into the daytime at both ends, it expects the cold to grow ever more penetrating, it expects lowering clouds and squally rain, bare trees and stuffy, overheated houses. Instead, it gets clear blue skies and warmer nights. Then, just when I’m starting to think about beaches and cold cocktails by the pool, up pops Santa!

Of course, he pops up earlier and earlier each year. This year the first displays of Christmas tree decorations and Christmas cards appeared in September. I suppose, given time, this Christmas bling bling will be on sale all year round. Then you won’t be able to tell the season by walking into a shopping mall either.

It’s a shame, though, that Christmas in Australia has all the same trimmings as Christmas in Europe. I know that’s because most of the people here came from there – and not very long ago either. But it’s so weird to have pretend snow and icicles all over the place when the weather is a humid 35 outside. It’s odd to sit in a café in shorts and sandals when there’s a guy in a fur-trimmed red hood and stout boots sweatily yo-ho-hoing nearby.

Why can’t Santa be a barefoot surfer, his reindeer flying dolphins? Why can’t we deck the halls with boughs of grevillea? Why aren’t our Christmas trees wattles, our decorations banksias cones and gum nuts, why not kiss under the Cooktown orchid? It’s all nonsense anyway, so why not have some appropriate nonsense?

Yet it is the old nonsense that has a way of persisting, year after year. It seems that a European Christmas is as indestructible here as an Australian plastic banknote.

08 November, 2006

What do you think of it so far?

I’ve been writing this blog for about ten weeks now and this is my 45th posting. While I’m entertaining myself enormously – I love writing, especially about myself and my own ideas! – the intention is that other people will be entertained too. I don’t get any stats from Blogger (which hosts this blog – thanks guys) but AdSense (which runs those intriguing and highly clickable ads – hint) tells me how many pages are looked at each day – and it’s going up, slowly.

So it is probably time to take stock, check the direction, feel the pulse, take my bearings, test the water, and do a lot of other clichéd things. I am, after all, a usability specialist and my mantra has always been ‘Ask the user!’ So I’m asking. Is this blog the kind of thing you like to read? Will you go on reading it if it stays the same? Are you looking for something else? Is there more I could do to satisfy you? Is it becoming repetitive? Does the writing need more sparkle? Is all this wit and erudition getting a bit tedious?

All I ask is that you take a moment or two to click on the ‘comments’ link below and tell me how I’m doing. I know it is a lot to ask. Lurking (joining newsgroups or reading blogs without ever offering a comment) is a fine old Internet tradition and I’m always loathe to break the silence myself. I can only say that will not sneer at anything you say (however tempting) and I will not ignore even the most anatomically difficult suggestion. And you will have the immense personal satisfaction of knowing that you helped set a fledgling blogger on the right track.

In fact, to make it as easy as possible for you, I include a couple of prepared responses for you to cut-and-paste into the comment:

  • I think your blog is wonderful. It is like a beacon of sanity in this crazy world.

  • You suck. My buddies at the NRA all say you’re a moron.

  • I was looking for the collected works of Stevie Smith actually.

So, your turn now.

07 November, 2006

Melbourne Cup Day

It’s Melbourne Cup day here in Australia. For those of you elsewhere, the Melbourne Cup is a horse race which, for some reason, ‘stops the nation’. Everybody has a bet, every office runs a sweepstake, every pub is packed and has its giant plasma screens tuned to the sports channels, and every neighbourhood is dotted with lunchtime barbies where those at home gather around TV sets to watch the great event.

As someone who doesn’t gamble, the whole thing seems a bit odd. I remember the Grand National back in the UK, which was similar in that it was the one day in the year when everyone had a flutter - but inspired nothing like the national fervour of this race. In fact, the Grand National was the only day in the year when my mother would place a bet. My mother worked in a bookmakers for most of the time I knew her and she almost always picked the winner on Grand National day (one year, her horse came second but she always placed ‘each way’ bets, so she was OK.)

I don’t gamble because the chances of winning are too low – even in a horse race, where the ‘field’ is rarely very large. I suppose I know too much about statistics and about cognitive biases to be anything but unimpressed by any odds that are not strongly in my favour.

My mother and father invested a lot of hope in winning ‘the pools’ and played religiously. I remember them marking up their entry forms each week – columns of carefully drawn Xs in the tightly-packed grids – and then eagerly scoring their copy coupon as the football results were read out on a Saturday. I couldn’t understand the care with which they picked their configuration of drawn matches. Neither had any deep knowledge of the form of the teams involved and they seemed to use a vaguely superstitious rule that their choices should be distributed in a way that didn’t follow any obvious pattern.

I used to ask them why they bothered. A block of Xs, or some other regular array would be just as likely to win as any other configuration. But they had a strong aversion to any kind of clearly non-random pattern. You see the same thing with people who pick numbers for the big national lotteries. Everyone hates to pick an obvious pattern.

I think I understand it now. If you put all your Xs in a block, or all your numbers in a sequence, even the most statistically naïve of us can begin to see how extremely unlikely it is that games or the draw will fall out in just that pattern. Something like that would be almost impossible! It makes us aware of the futility of what we’re doing – the fantastic odds against our gamble paying off - even if only vaguely. And, of course, they’d been watching the results come through week after week for years and they had never, ever, seen such a pattern come up.

Needless to say, my parents never did win the pools. Alas.

06 November, 2006

Why The Bad Guys Always Win

What do you think empathy is?

The Free Dictionary defines it as the "identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings, and motives” which is something like what I might have said. Merriam-Webster Online is rather more verbose but essentially similar; “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

Psychologists tend to see empathy as an aspect of personality. It doesn’t actually feature as a major ‘personality factor’ in modern personality models, however, the famous Hans Eysenck sort of had it in his own personality models in that his personality dimension of 'psychoticism' was defined as the absence of empathy. Therapists seem to have a higher respect for it and give empathy far more weight as a tool for probing and understanding other people – which is sort of understandable, really.

My own view is that empathy is a major personality trait, and that it’s opposite is not psychoticism in general but psychopathy in particular. Like other human traits, empathy is probably normally distributed – which means that a tiny percentage of us is deeply empathic while an equally tiny percentage is deeply psychotic – unable to comprehend that other people have feelings at all. The great mass of us are in the middle somewhere. However, if empathy is normally distributed, we should expect that half the world has less than an average amount of it and, that for every person who resonates to the suffering of others, there is another one who is indifferent to it.

If I’m right, this is one of the saddest facts about the world that I know. While there are 3.2 billion people with above average empathy, there are also 3.2 billion with below average empathy. Which explains why there are plenty of people quite happy to kill whales, or chimpanzees for food. That’s why there are plenty of people willing to torture other people, or to hack them to death with machetes. That’s why there are bullies in the workplace and the schoolyard, why people are happy to get rich while other people starve, why 'men of faith' will condemn women to unwanted pregnancies and babies to unloving parents. It's also why so many will ignore the future suffering that global-warming will bring in favour of present comforts, and why people cut you up when you’re out driving.

The only bright side is that, for every one of these perfectly sane monsters, there is someone else who joins Amnesty International, gives up their seat on the bus, and weeps for starving children.

Unfortunately, when a person with high empathy confronts their opposite number with low empathy, the guy with the machete is the one with the big advantage.

05 November, 2006

Georgette Heyer: An Infamous Army

Fed up with the deep and meaningful book I’d taken with me on holiday, I borrowed Georgette Heyer’s novel An Infamous Army from Wifie.

Oddly enough, I read a lot of Georgette Heyer novels as a young teenager. My mother was a big fan and, since I devoured every book that came into the house in those days, regardless of genre, I got through plenty of bodice rippers. I also read the entire works of Eric von Daniken and Denis Wheatley, to name but two of the weird authors my mother was into. It’s true that better authors also came my way from that source – Shakespeare, Browning, du Maurier and le Carré, for example – but for the most part my mother favoured rather sensational and mystical writers. Still, it is arguable that 13 is the best age at which to be reading von Daniken, or Denis Wheatley, and that one should save the sensible stuff for when one is old enough to appreciate it.

So I approached the prospect of being stuck with nothing to read except a Georgette Heyer novels as something akin to being stuck with a Dr Seuss book, or a Rupert the Bear annual – something a child would put itself to sleep with.

Yet An Infamous Army turned out to be the best read I’d had in ages. Of course, it had the usual Mills & Boon plot (boy meets girl, boy and girl fall madly and instantly in love, boy and girl stupidly get all confused and upset with one another, boy and girl finally work it out and live happily ever after) but it also had the background and events of the battle of Waterloo, thoroughly researched and very well presented. And it was well-written too – something I’d forgotten about Georgette Heyer. The characters were convincing, the settings and situations realistic and the great battle itself was so evocative that I still carry many of the images around in my head weeks later.

All-in-all, I’d recommend it to anyone. It wasn’t Vanity Fair by any means but it was a real page turner.

04 November, 2006

No, Seriously

Have you ever heard someone say of someone else that ‘he’s a serious person’? I’ve come across the phrase a few times in the past few years. It is always spoken by a senior executive or high-ranking politician and always refers to another senior exec or politician. I’ve often pondered this quality of ‘seriousness’ that they seem to see in one another (and, by implication, do not see in other people.) Indeed, I am aware, from my various encounters with CEOs and political leaders and the like, that they clearly do not think that I am a ‘serious man’. But, since I am extremely serious about almost everything – to the point of being uncomfortably intense – the quality is clearly nothing to do with seriousness in any sense that I normally use the word.

I used to think it simply referred to some quality like gravitas that such people possess. Now, I know I haven’t got gravitas. I tend to be glib. I smile a lot. I like to be friendly and accommodating. So that’s possible but, as I have come across the phrase in more contexts, I doubt that this is what is meant. Although the people who use the phrase like to cultivate an air of gravitas, I think this is just because they feel that the people ‘under’ them wouldn’t respect them if they acted like ordinary people. And that is probably true, people being what they are.

So I turned my attention to what the people who call each other ‘serious people’ have in common and I think I’ve finally worked it out. The people who use the phrase are typical of their type. They are the self-interested, sociopathic types – all men – who push and bully, grab and scheme their way to the top. Typical leaders, of course, but ones who are, perhaps, just a bit more of all these things than their fellows. What they really mean by ‘serious person’ is ‘someone like us’, someone who also likes to gather power to themselves, someone who is also a player in their games of pushing and shoving, someone they can deal with and understand, who has the same values, who could be helpful – or dangerous – to them. That is, someone that they need to take seriously – as a threat, or a collaborator.

Now that I’ve worked it out, I’m glad that these people don’t think I’m a serious person. I wouldn’t want to be mistaken for one of them.

03 November, 2006

Exercise: A Cost-Benefit Analysis

You hear a lot about how exercise can extend your life. I did a little looking into this the other day because, well, frankly, I don’t like exercise and it sometimes bothers me that I don’t do any. I suppose I would do it if I thought it would be worth it though. I like food but I’ve more-or-less given up everything nice in order to avoid being obese. Here the trade-off seems acceptable: eat less on the one hand and look better, feel better and live longer on the other. But exercise… It just doesn’t seem so obvious that the benefits are worth having.

The problem with exercise is that it’s boring. For long periods, you have to do pointless things – like cycling, walking, chasing a ball around a field, bending and stretching, chasing a ball around a small room, and so on – which preclude doing more interesting things, like reading, writing and making music. Why should I waste my life doing boring things? Well, there are two reasons. One is that someone is paying you to and you need the money (which is why I commute two hours every day, for example). The other is there is some other kind of reward – the chicks will flock around you, you can kick sand in other blokes' faces, your clothes will fit better – or you get to live longer.

In which case, I guess it comes down to living longer. So how much extra life would make it worth all that boredom? Let’s face it, we’re not just talking about spending a week at a fitness centre and being set up for life. This is something you have to do day in and day out for the rest of your life – at least half an hour every single day! And when it comes to counting the cost of such thigs, I'm with Oscar Wild (who said, 'To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable.')

Well, it looks like, for all that effort, you get three extra years of life. Three. Instead of dying at 74.5, like your average Australian male, I’d die at 77.5. Let me be clear here. Australians who have exercised regularly all their lives might live an extra three years – if the global pandemics, global warming, or world war three don’t get them first. And, assuming that ‘regular exercise’ means half an hour a day, a quick calculation shows that they will have spent 81% of those extra three years doing the exercise necessary for them to live that long!

So, an extra three years, four fifths of it spent hitting balls with sticks, or spending my time with a good book and not fretting about the few extra months I could have had?

No contest!

31 October, 2006

Looking For The Centre

Have you ever wondered where your centres are? Your, physical, mental and moral centres, that is? People are always talking about 'the core of their being', 'the centre of their moral world', and so on. So I thought I'd take a look for mine - and the results were quite surprising.

First, my physical centre. That sounds easy enough. If I stand up straight, arms at my side, I imagine my physical centre, my 'centre of gravity' in fact, or, more properly, my centre of mass: the point about which I would rotate if I were set spinning in deep space, would be somewhere around my upper abdomen. My stomach, perhaps. That seems like a very satisfying place to think of as my physical centre. But what if I didn't stand up straight? What if I sat down? What if I sat down and stuck my legs ad arms out as far forward as I could? My centre of gravity would move forward in that case. In fact, it would probably move so far forward it would be outside my body - somewhere between my chest and my thighs! However obvious the conclusion is, it seemed very odd to me when I realised that my centre of mass could be outside my body. It made me have to think about it differently. My centre of mass doesn't actually belong to me. It isn't a part of me at all. It belongs to the volume of space that my body occupies. I don't actually have a physical centre. I'm just part of a spatial volume that has one.

Alright, what about my mind? I definitely feel centred there. I feel like a little person, sitting behind my eyes, looking out - an homunculus in fact. But that's just my experience of consciousness and, if there is one thing modern psychology is telling us, it is that consciousness if definitely not central to the operation of our minds. For a start, almost all other minds seem to get along just fine without it. For another thing, neurophysiologists have evidence from brain scanning experiments that, as the brain works, the consciousness only gets to hear about what is going on some 25 to 50 milliseconds after the event. It seems that consciousness is, absolutely literally, an afterthought. What the role of consciousness is, I'm still not sure. Some say it is there to construct the illusion of an integrated self. Some say it is an apologist for the mind - like the President's Press Secretary - trotting out plausible confabulations to explain the mind's mysterious behaviours. Whatever it is, it isn't the centre of my mental processes, however much my introspections tell me it is. The mind, it seems, has no real centre, just a peripheral spin doctor.

I hardly dare ask about my moral centre. I suppose I’d be looking here for a set of ‘core values’, perhaps some kind of statement of beliefs – like ‘do as you would be done by’, or ‘live and let live’. But, if I have a moral code, it is not in the form of anything so inflexible as a set of precepts. Instead, when I peer into the shifting, depths of my ‘moral being’ I find nothing solid or permanent. Instead I see a set of traits and dispositions – empathy, intelligence, curiosity, scepticism, and so on – all of which colour my moral response to life and make me who I am but none of which is even remotely a ‘moral centre’. As with the other centres, when I look for it, it disappears. Is it possible to be a good person with no moral centre? Is it better to have a kind disposition than a life founded on a set of slogans?

On the whole, it has been a bit of a revelation that the whole idea of ‘centre’ seems to make little or no sense when used to describe oneself. But then, most of our received wisdom about human nature is pretty dubious when you look at it closely.

29 October, 2006

What’s The Point of Talking?

There is much lofty talk about how the power of speech separates us from the lower animals. Next time you take your seat on a number 47 bus, listen to the chatter around you. I bet you won’t hear a single noble sentiment or even one priceless scientific truth. Our lives are filled with a ceaseless babble of pleasantries and gossip, idle remarks and clichés. We do it face-to-face, by telephone, by letter and by e-mail. We even turn on our radios and TVs to hear others doing it in soaps, chat shows and reality TV. So why do people spend so much of our time in seemingly pointless communication?

In the animal world there is a lot of chatter too. Open your window and listen to the birds singing if you need convincing. Animal studies show that the utterances animals make generally carry very simple messages. Things like: Here I am! Does anyone fancy sex with me? Look out everybody, danger’s coming! I’m OK, I’m one of you! The food’s over there! It’s quite an impressive repertoire when you look at it but the question is: do these animals actually intend their communications, or is each simply an inevitable reflex triggered by circumstances?

It is possible that chimpanzees at least really do know what they’re doing when they communicate. Experiments have been going on for decades to try to teach chimps to speak. Unfortunately they don’t have the vocal chords for it, so researchers teach them to use sign language or to build up sentences using plastic symbol shapes. One chimp called Washoe was taught to use sign language. The researchers claimed that, not only could Washoe ask for things and express its feelings but it could even make jokes! Dolphin studies have produced evidence suggestive of even more sophisticated language use. Yet, even if all this evidence proves to be well founded, chimp and dolphin language would still be far cruder than our own.

Yet people don’t use their gift just for worthy, noble purposes. For every “Origin of Species” or “Principia Mathematica” that is published, there are mountains of women’s magazines and romantic novels. It seems, looking at the numerical evidence, that chit-chat is the primary purpose of human communication. For instance, in a study of electronic mail messages in one large organisation, it was found that about 80% of messages were casual, social interactions and only 20% were work related.

Yet this is not necessarily a bad thing. Some linguists suggest that the reason language evolved in the first place was just so that we could socialize with each other. We are, after all, merely another species of primate. Genetically, we are 98% similar to chimps and gorillas. Like our hairy cousins, we are social animals. What do apes do in their spare time? They groom each other. They pick fleas out of each others’ fur and straighten it and stroke it. It is an activity that strengthens the bonds of trust and friendship within the troop. What do people do? We chat. We engage in a kind of linguistic grooming. And it’s very efficient too. The average size of a primate troop is about 30 individuals. Primitive human societies average just under 150. The belief is that it is through language that we can maintain such large groupings and bigger groups mean better chances of survival. It doesn’t keep our pelts clean but, as with chimpanzee grooming, it serves to keep our societies together. It binds us to each other and it creates the social cohesion that makes human life possible. Idle chat is perhaps the most socially valuable activity that most of us ever engage in.

28 October, 2006

Writing For Free

Anyone who knows me will be aware of my pretend band Gray Wave. I write all the music, play it through software synthesizers direct from the score, do the post-production work, publish my own CDs, and then I sell them through my website. It’s a great hobby (or so the tax man tells me – I like to think of it as a loss-making business) but I’m never going to get rich. And the main reason for that (apart from the quality of the music – which I think is wonderful by the way!) is that my CDs don’t appear in any record shops anywhere. Heck, I don’t even accept credit cards on my site – I ask people to pay by PayPal (which I know is too much trouble for most people – and impossible for people in many countries - but the credit card companies would charge so much it wouldn't be worth it.)

Writing the music, performing the music, and publishing the music turns out to be the easy part. It is marketing and selling the stuff that is hard. I’ve tried various ways to get some publicity for it but nothing seems to be effective. The thing that has worked best has been putting up ‘band pages’ on social networking sites like SoundClick, UK Gig Guide, Triple J Unearthed, and MySpace. (Mind you, uploading 5 megabyte files to these sites is no joke without broadband and with a line that usually drops out before the upload is complete – No, love, I live in Brisbane, Australia, not the Gobi Desert.) This kind of publicity has actually driven a lot of traffic to my site but I think the people who go there are mostly interested in hearing the music for free (which they do) rather than buying my CDs.

It’s very much the same in the book business. Since I joined Crime Writers Queensland, I’ve met a lot of people who have published novels. Crime Writers Queensland itself has published six short-story collections. None of them has sold more than a couple of hundred copies. That’s because they all go in for either self-publishing or ‘partner publishing’ (where the author shares the costs with a publisher) so, in all cases, they effectively handle their own publicity and sales. Even with a ‘real’ publisher, the chances of them doing a decent job of pushing a new author into book shops are vanishingly slim. It’s pretty much put me off even trying to publish my books. I’m thinking of serializing them on my website instead.

Same with the music. Since I can’t sell it, I might as well make it freely available. I just need to work out a licensing scheme so that people who download it can’t sell it either. It would be just my luck to make someone else rich selling stuff I’ve given away!

26 October, 2006

Even Cats Aren't That Bad

Women who wear skimpy clothing encourage men to rape them – according to a Muslim cleric widely reported in the news today. It’s the same kind of notion as people who go about wearing expensive jewellery encourage people to mug them, or people who look weak and vulnerable encourage people to beat them up. The basic assumption in this kind of thinking is that men (in particular) will commit crimes if given enough temptation. The cleric in question actually likened the skimpy dress situation to putting meat down and expecting a cat not to eat it. So he obviously thinks that men have no moral sense at all and will behave like mindless animals whenever the opportunity arises.

Clearly he is wrong. Clearly there is more to people (even men) than that. Clearly all those people who believe that sexy rape victims, ostentatiously wealthy robbery victims, and feeble assault victims ‘deserve what they get’ because ‘they were asking for it’ do the vast, law-abiding majority a great injustice. Of course, the chap in question says it was all a big misunderstanding and his words were taken out of context. He just wanted to point out the dangers of young women putting temptation in men’s way.

Well why not lecture the men? Why not tell them they can’t behave like cats? That they are people and that they live in a society that expects more of them? That if they really can’t control themselves they should get psychiatric help for their pathological sociopathy? Strangely enough, he doesn’t seem to have mentioned this.

And while I’m ranting, isn’t it convenient that it was a Muslim cleric who said all this? Now the white, Christian politicians can stand in front of the TV cameras with grave expressions denouncing the guy and making themselves look like good, caring people. But how many times have they heard similar sentiments from their colleagues over lunch? How often have all of heard it from people in pubs, from rabid taxi drivers, from friends and relatives? It wasn’t many years ago that sentiments like these were accepted as true and reasonable by almost everyone – and they are still as common as muck. Muslim clerics may still be naïve enough to say such things in public meetings. It doesn’t mean they are the only people who still think them.

24 October, 2006

Shall We Dance?

What is marriage? I ask because I came across two quite different ways of looking at it recently. One was in a film. It’s rare that anyone ever says anything sensible in a film (or anything at all, much) let alone something thought provoking. In this film ‘Shall We Dance’ which, I confess, I was watching mostly because Jennifer Lopez is in it, one of the characters is asked what she thinks marriage is about and she says it is so that you will have someone to be a witness to your life (‘witness’ in the Jehovah’s Witnesses sense of the word, I presume). This resonated.

The other was on the radio – someone discussing equal rights for same-sex couples, who reminded me that Australia’s Conservative government recently legislated that marriage can only be between a man and a woman – purely so that homosexual marriages could not happen here. I don’t think that this is pure homophobia (although it is clearly a lot to do with that). I think that the legislators are trying to protect some deeply-internalised notion of what a marriage is – even if none of them seems able or willing to put into words what their reasons are.

I’m definitely in the ‘Shall We Dance’ camp when it comes to defining marriage. For me it is to do with finding someone to participate intimately in your life and with whom you too can be deeply involved. It is about declaring to the world the sense you have of the specialness of your chosen partner and the kind of bond you have with them and intend to maintain with them to the end of your days. It is about both of you declaring your intimacy; saying to the world that you are as close as two people can possibly be, emotionally and physically, and that you want the world to know and acknowledge that intimacy and treat you differently because of it.

There is nothing in my sense of what a marriage is that would exclude same-sex relationships. It seems to me that if someone says to you ‘I’m married’ or ‘We’re married’ you know what they mean. It is a request for you to treat them in a way appropriate to that declaration.

Is marriage about children? No, I don’t think so. Not anymore. The social and economic conditions, the financial and legal inequalities that meant that marriage and ‘legitimacy’ were the only safeguards for children are disappearing. Families start these days with single parents, or as couples, but they split and re-form in other, often elaborate configurations. Child support legislation and the divorce laws (when either of them works properly) apportion financial and caring responsibilities as well as access rights. Marriage ‘for the sake of the children’ seems to me a fundamentally flawed idea that has often done more harm than good.

Is it about controlling sex? Yes, I think that it is; certainly in the minds of puritanical Conservative politicians and their religious voters. For the people who think that sex is ‘wrong’ or ‘dirty’ or ‘sinful’ unless ‘sanctified’ by marriage, it will always be their primary means of controlling people. That these same people tend to believe that homosexual sex can never be sanctioned under any circumstances, means that, for them, marriage need only ever be for men and women – it doesn’t work on gays because it doesn’t prevent the sin! But I think it’s about controlling sex in a more rational sense too. By becoming married, a couple assumes a certain status in society such that most people who are aware of this status will not bother to approach them for sex (and certainly not for any deeper kind of relationship). Similarly any approach for sex by someone who is known to be married carries with it the message that that person is an untrustworthy vow-breaker, someone you should be cautious about dealing with.

Marriage ‘takes you off the market’, as they say, even if Jennifer Lopez comes calling.

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