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.

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