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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.

22 October, 2006

Quentin Crisp - Doing It Without Style

I met Quentin Crisp once. He gave a talk at the University of Hull when I was an undergraduate there. I was the president of the university’s poetry society at the time and we were introduced. In fact, I was part of a group of about six who went back to someone’s house with him afterwards and kept him up rather late, chatting. He spoke about Style, as I recall, about how style was so important it could somehow ameliorate the worst crimes and excesses. He gave the example of Eva Perón talking to a mass of poor people, explaining how she suffered with them and, each time she raised her arms in one dramatic gesture or another, a host of golden bangles would cascade down them.

Even as a callow youth, I could see that this was a pretty crass argument. Skinheads were pretty popular at the time and rather stylish in a brutal kind of way. They also loved kicking the s**t out of gays. In fact, I was completely unimpressed with Mr. Crisp. He looked old and tired. It seemed to me he didn’t really believe most of what he was saying. It was as if he was trying too hard to be outrageous and controversial. I wondered if it was only to impress a roomful of daft teenagers, to hang on to his celebrity and notoriety, to enjoy a bit of hero worship after a life that had certainly earned him a little. And I wondered if maybe he was so hard up he had to do these ridiculous talks to make a living. It seemed odd to me at the time that somebody so famous could be strapped for cash, although now I quite understand it.

No matter. He seemed happy enough to be with us that evening. Despite his silly talk he was actually a quiet and polite man, not outrageous or impressive in any way, except (and I’m not sure now if I remember this or whether I’ve made it up) there seemed to be a flinch about him, a slight cower, as if he was aware that at any moment we might all turn on him and denounce him. I felt sorry for him although I didn’t find him a sympathetic person. Perhaps that’s what a lifetime of being yourself despite other people’s prejudice and hatred will do to a man.

On the other hand, maybe he was just having a bad day. The stories about his wonderful wit and entertaining stories certainly seemed to belong to a different Quentin Crisp than the one I saw that evening. Or maybe a roomful of student admirers is enough to dampen anyone’s spirits.

14 October, 2006

Why It All Looks So Familiar

Faithful reader, I just wanted to let you know that I will be away from home for the next week. This is to explain why there will be no blog postings during this period. I haven’t got bored. I haven’t died (well, I’m assuming not). I haven’t thrown down my keyboard in disgust at the whole pointless, narcissistic exercise. I haven’t been abducted by aliens. I haven’t run off with the blowsy blonde next-door, defected to the East (I suppose that would be Argentina from here), or been arrested (again, I’m making assumptions here).

No. I’ve just gone on holiday.

So, while I’m away with my toes in the sand, here are some alternative blogs to keep you going. You’ve got to promise to come back though. It’s awfully lonely out here in cyberspace – no-one can hear you scream and all that – so have a heart.

Bye for now.


Birdmonster - really, really trying to be amusing.

Timbuktoo Chronicles - Basically, to prove that my blog is quite interesting by comparison.

The Mustn't Grumble - "Rockin' Old-Timey Gypsy Jazz Folk Swing" if you can believe that. Very pink.

Nurse Ratched's Blog Spot - with a bit of a 'doctors and nurses' theme...

13 October, 2006

Rock Kicking

I've often thought that Dr. Johnson's famous refutation of immaterialism (he kicked a large rock) is a great metaphor for the scientific method. The essence of the scientific approach is that all ideas, whatever they are, must be tested against reality. That is, as in Johnson's case, if someone comes along with a fanciful notion - like that the world exists only in our imaginations - we go out and kick a rock and see if our toes get bruised. Of course, there are some very strict criteria for how to go about this rock-kicking (or the experimental method as it is known), but that's basically it. Scientists, unlike any other kind of thinkers, are the ones who go out and kick the rocks.

I started thinking about this again after reading an article in New Scientist about confabulation. This is a normal mental process where we, quite unconsciously, make up stories to explain things which have no apparent explanation. It becomes very obvious with some kinds of senility or severe memory loss, where people will sometimes invent quite fabulous tales to explain why they come to be where they are, in the company in which they find themselves. But, while confabulation can be pathological, it is also very much a normal part of who we are. Children can easily be encouraged to confabulate, as can people taking part in experiments that simulate eye witness testimony. And, having confabulated, people have a tendency to believe their own, untrue stories thereafter.

So, I wondered, what is there to stop us all from confabulating ourselves into a complete fantasy-world in an ever-ascending spiral of improbable tale and false memory? The answer, I would guess, is that we live among other people, who are always ready to correct our false recollections and to disapprove if our confabulations become too fantastical. We also happen to live in the real world and, no matter what we tell ourselves about it, it stubbornly refuses to be anything other than it is. So our tendency to confabulate is offset by our own informal rock-kicking, as well as social pressures to conform to a consensus about what is credible.

But what if our society was very limited - to just two people, say? Might that not lead to folie à deux, as each person's confabulations and false memories influence and modify the others' memories and understanding of the world? And what if we lived in only slightly bigger societies - villages, say - and very influential people were confabulating? One technique to cause people to confabulate more than usual is to press them to give an explanation for something they have little actual knowledge about. It is dangerous, because they are likely to form false memories in agreement with their 'explanation', so will believe it afterwards. Imagine a tribal elder, or some other leader, asked by their tribe or village to explain why the hunt failed, or why the floods washed out the crop. Imagine the confabulations they might come up with. The spirits of the earth? Magic? Gods? It wouldn't take much imagination.

Perhaps all myths and religions arose this way, from our natural tendency to confabulate, coupled with people we look to for guidance being put on the spot. Once a particular confabulation took hold as the common way of explaining the world and people throughout a society begin to lay down false memories of having spoken to God, or having seen an angel, the whole psyche of a culture could shift away from a grounded, reality-based understanding, to a mythical, fantasy-based one. If the rest of society is not laughing at you when you say you feel the grace of God, what is to keep you anchored in reality anymore? And, of course, it is not just the religious confabulations that get a grip on a society, non-religious ones can also thrive. Recent examples would be communism and fascism. Which explains why human societies all have their crazy mythologies and why, at times, these have spiralled out of control into the horror of the Inquisition and the Holocaust.

With the rise of rock-kicking science in the last few hundred years and its unparalleled and obvious success in improving people's lives and explaining the Universe, you might expect that the mythical confabulations would start to weaken. And, indeed, this seems to have happened. The body-blows to the mythical world-view dealt by scientists like Newton, Darwin and Freud, had it staggering for a while and probably explains what seems to have been a shift away, during the 20th Century, from the completely baseless nonsense confabulations, like religion, to more scientifically-based confabulations, like fascism and communism.

That science has survived at all despite these insane political confabulations using it to justify their conclusions, is testimony to its incredible effectiveness as a way of understanding the world. Much of the revival of crazy mythologies we are witnessing today is probably because of the taint these failed political experiments have left on science. The forces of mysticism would like science to be abolished completely because they know that by determinedly kicking all the rocks, we will eventually dispel all the myths. My fervent hope is that the practical value of science continues to bolster its support until that day comes.

So keep kicking those rocks, everyone.

12 October, 2006

Write On, Baby!

I read in this month’s Psychologist (what, you mean you don’t read it?) about a psychologist who was accused by the British Psychological Society of having ‘a romantic relationship’ (as they put it) with one of his patients. He denied it but, many months later, the patient wrote in her blog about her involvement with this psychologist and, some time after that, he too wrote, in the same blog, about how the relationship had helped him. The blog entries were used as evidence against him at his hearing and he was dismissed from the Society.

Apart from these curious insights into the steamy world of British psychology, what I take away from this tale is that blogging can clearly be a dangerous pastime. Of course I knew this already. I have been reading for the past year or two, various stories of people being unable to get jobs because prospective employers are checking out their blogs as well as their references – and not always liking what they see. There are also tales of people being disciplined or sacked because of what they reveal about themselves or their employers in blogs. If I read more widely, I suppose I’d also have seen various divorce cases and such also related to blogged revelations.

Mind you, writing has always been dangerous. Ask Galileo. Ask Solzhenitsyn. Ask Salman Rushdie. The thing is, though, it used to be dangerous because brave or naïve people would write true and honest things, things that needed to be said, but that a repressive State or some religious loonies would find objectionable. These days, while that still goes on, there is the added danger that employers will also choose to exercise their ability to oppress people whose views they don’t like.

Of course, if you don’t want to run the risk of being victimized by some petty capitalist or corporate lackey, you don’t have to write a blog. You can keep your thoughts and opinions to yourself. On the other hand, how much power are you willing to put into the hands of such people? Surely the deal you make with an employer is they get your body and mind for a period of time and you get a few dollars in return. There’s nothing in the bargain about them controlling what you think or do in the time they haven’t bought.

Or there shouldn’t be. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. The power relationship between employer and employee is so uneven that the poor old worker can be bullied and pressured into giving away far more than he or she is paid for. So be careful what you write in that blog.

Or be self-employed, like me.

11 October, 2006

Beautiful Things

I nearly bought a flat in Tunbridge Wells once. For some reason I didn’t and ended up with a house in Portsmouth. If I had, though, I might have been a neighbour of Clare, who writes the blog Three Beautiful Things.

3BT (as she calls it) has a simple premise. Each day she writes down three beautiful things that have happened to her, or that she has witnessed that day – just a few sentences about each – not the long, rambling monologues I write. She writes nicely and succinctly and gives the impression of a life that is comfortable and cosy and sprinkled with happy moments. Of course, her life may be nothing like that – we only get to see the three highlights of each day and none of the low spots.

She also gives the impression of carrying out some kind of exercise her therapist set her (not that she has one, that I am aware of). I can almost hear him or her saying to Clare, ‘Now I want you to focus on the good things in your life and, every day, write down for me three beautiful things that happen to you.’

And it’s not such a bad idea at that. I have often observed that it is these small and precious moments in one’s day that make one happy – a butcher bird practicing its song outside the window in the morning, that beautiful lemon-coloured orchid suddenly in bloom and perfectly framed by the tree it is growing on, Wifie lighting up at finding a bright, shiny new dollar coin in her change... I have always tried to notice and savour such moments. Some are more special than others (like the day I was sitting on a little bridge in the North of Scotland, watching a river slide past, when a dapper little weasel crossed the bridge from one end to the other without even seeming to notice I was there) but the lesser ones are there in every single day.

Maybe it takes a quiet, contemplative nature even to be aware of all these beautiful things going on. It strikes me that if one is running around looking for excitement, or entertainment, or even achievement, one would miss most of them. In which case, I’m blessed – and so is Clare.

10 October, 2006

A Sense of History

On 17th October 2006, one week from today, the Brits are going to do something eccentric. So what’s new? Well, they’ll be doing it as a nation, rather than as 60 million individuals, and it will involve blogging.

The National Trust and English Heritage have organised an event in which they hope to get hundreds of thousands of Brits to participate by each of them writing a blog on 17th October, describing their day and how they have been influenced by history. The hope is to raise the nation’s awareness of its history (even more) and at the same time to create a huge corpus of writings by ordinary people all over the UK that will be an unique historical document for the benefit of future historians.

As an ex-pat Brit myself, I’m filled with a peculiar yearning to participate. Unfortunately, it’s just for people living there (and, anyway, I’ll be on holiday on that day and unable to blog about anything). I can’t help thinking that the organisers have missed a trick though. Being British doesn’t stop just because you’ve moved overseas, nor does the effect of having been raised among people so much aware of their national identity and history. Surely, the hyper-blog they create next Tuesday would be enhanced by the voices of the millions of us who have gone off to live elsewhere but still carry that heritage with us. The document would then be a global testament to the thoughts and feelings of Britons everywhere.

So, what would I have written?

October 17th 2006: On holiday today in Lennox Head NSW, Australia. Drove here from Brisbane on Sunday and it’s great to be here at the beach again. My wife, Christine, and daughter, Becky, are with me and, since Becky is now 20 and itching to travel and explore, I can’t help but wonder if this might be our last family holiday. It is hard to know how best to make the most of it. Laugh a lot, do something memorable, have long and deep conversations, try to act normal. Who knows?

There is no history here – or very little. Brisbane itself is barely 150 years old and Lennox Head perhaps half of that. There may have been Aboriginal habitation here going back 40,000 years for all I know but their history is as alien to me as it is to all the other settlers here. The broad Pacific Ocean with its promise of migrating whales and frolicking dolphins is visible from my hotel. There is more of my own history there than here on land, but even that stretches back only to bold European explorers of the 17th Century.

I have stood in cathedrals in England that were begun in the 6th Century. I have walked along Hadrian’s Wall. I have stood in henges and touched carved stones from three thousand years before the Roman invasion. My surname is from the Viking settlers who came to Northern England in the 9th Century. In the complexion and colouring of my many relatives, I see my Celtic ancestry. Even the stories about the two World Wars, told by the people who had lived through them, that filled my childhood, anchored me in an idea of being British that has held me fast all my life.

It is strange to be in a place with so little history. The history of Australia is all ahead of it. Under this glorious sunshine, beside this blue ocean, on these white sands, we are writing that history now. Shaping it and causing it. Are we building something that will last five thousand years? Even five hundred seems optimistic.

08 October, 2006

We Stand Accused

Almost every day, I am accused of being a criminal or some other kind of moral degenerate. So are you.

Our accusers feel this defamation is justifiable either in the public interest or in the interest of maximising their shareholders’ profits. I believe that, most of the time, they do not even notice that they are doing it. Yet they are degrading and demeaning all of us and, as a result, destroying he moral fabric of our lives.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. At work I need to exchange some graphic designs with an external design company but I can’t because all the graphics files are intercepted and removed from our emails. This is because the organisation I work for has a policy to prevent employees exchanging ‘unsuitable’ (weasel-speak for ‘pornographic’) material via email. Although I don’t traffic in offensive or pornographic images or deal with anybody who does, all of my emails and all of the emails of people who write to me are scanned for image attachments and, if any are found, they are interdicted. Of course, my employers don’t know that I am such a morally upright person but why do they assume that I am not, rather than assume that I am? Why do they presume that I am guilty, rather than that I am innocent?

Here is another example. I get home from work after a hard day of being accused of transmitting offensive images and I settle down to watch a DVD. Before I can see the film I have hired, I am compelled to sit through a minute or two of threats from the publisher about what will happen to me if I copy that disc for sale or redistribution. Every single time any of us views a DVD we are forced to endure these threats. They even disable the fast forward so you can’t skip them. Why? Why do these people assume that I need to be threatened all the time so that I won’t copy their precious disc? Why do they assume I have such low moral standards that I need to be warned about the consequences of theft every time I watch a film?

It’s easy to find other examples. Who hasn’t had to endure the degradation of scans and even searches at airports? The last time I flew, they even made me take my shoes off and X-rayed them separately. Why do they think I plan to kill and maim people? Do I look like a murderer? If not, why treat me like that? Who hasn’t been stopped as they leave a department store – typically the down-market kind – and forced to have their bags searched, just in case you had decided to throw away a lifetime of rectitude that day and steal something from them? If you want more, think of how the tax office treats you.

The usual excuse for this kind of insult to our integrity is that ‘there are a lot of people out there who aren’t as honest as you’ or ‘it’s better to be safe than sorry’ or somesuch. So, on the one hand we have businesses who would rather assume we are all criminals and treat us all like scum than risk losing some of their profits to actual thieves. On the other hand we have organisations and governments who think that saving a few lives or avoiding a little moral outrage is worth subjecting everyone to humiliating indignity and intrusive surveillance.

We live in a world where there are terrorists, thieves, pornographers, and worse. The people who commit heinous crimes should not be tolerated in a just society. But if we are worried about crime, we should be taking appropriate steps to combat crime. We should tackle the problems of ignorance, poverty, oppression and abuse that lead to crime. Putting bars on our windows and carrying pepper spray is not the solution. That just brutalises us all. Constantly accusing, threatening, warning and violating the dignity of people – just in case they might be thinking of committing a crime – is not the solution either. Effort spent in preventing crime by building a just and well-informed society, effort spent in tracking down and prosecuting the perpetrators of crime, is fine. Effort spent in trying to protect ourselves from crime by assuming everyone is a criminal and treating them like dirt is just paranoia run wild.

In a society where the automatic assumption by the people with power is that everybody is bad (‘just to be on the safe side’), the moral climate of that society has to suffer. There is no presumption of innocence except, ironically, in the courts. It is acceptable – it is encouraged! – to think the worst of everyone. However good you are, however good you have been, you will be treated as if you are seething with the most evil intent. The fact that ‘it isn’t personal’ makes it all so much worse because individual goodness counts for nothing. In the eyes of those who run the governments and the businesses, you are a thief, a paedophile, a liar and a terrorist. This is the society we live in. This is where our children are learning their moral code. This is the Hell we have made.

We have allowed ourselves and our loved ones to be demeaned and degraded every day in all kinds of ways for the sake of a tiny extra bit of safety and a few cents off the price of a DVD.

07 October, 2006

Blacklisted !

I had an unsettling experience yesterday. I was blacklisted by a spam-watch company for spamming.

Of course, I don't spam, never have spammed, never will spam. In fact, I despise the practice and occasionally take the trouble to write back to spammers to let them know what I think of them. (Sometimes I have a little fun and disguise my email address as or - in the hope I can give them a sleepless night or two.) So it's a bit much when my emails (to one of my customers) start bouncing from their site saying I've been locked because I'm a spammer!

So I called up my customer's IT helpdesk and explained they were blocking me erroneously. Yep, they said, sorry about that but there's nothing we can do about it. Apparently, they subscribe to a service that provides them with lists of who to block and they can't do anything to modify those lists. Well, call your service and thell them they've made a mistake, I reasonably requested. Can't do that either, they said. The service they subscribe to takes many 'feeds' from other organisations and the one that had blacklisted me was one of those.

Oiling the barrel on my Kalashnikov, I went to this evil company's website. They seemed pretty proud of their ridiculous service. In fact, I discovered, when they find a spammer, their normal practice - and you may want to sit down before I tell you this - is to blacklist the ISP from which the spam originates! They quite happily state this on their website as if it is a good thing! Who do these morons think they are? Their recommended fix for the problem of having your business disrupted by them is to take it up with your ISP.

So I emailed my ISP with their recommendation - and my email bounced - because I was blacklisted. So I phoned my ISP who said they'd get on to the collection of scabrous mongrels who had blighted my day and ask them to un-blacklist me. Which they did and, shortly, I was able to email people again. Gee, thanks everybody.

But isn't it sad that we live in world like this? Isn't it awful that there are people who spam people? Isn't it sickening that disrupting my business seems like a good idea to the people who want to stop spam? It's as if, in order to stop my letterbox being stuffed with about half a dead tree's worth of junk mail each week, I would be allowed to go to my local post office and nail planks across their door. Or, in order to stop random Indians phoning me every evening with unintelligible offers, I should be able to go and cut all the cables at my local phone exchange. Is this really the kind of world we want?

Of course not! There are some things worse than spam.

06 October, 2006

Silent Movies

Have you noticed that movies have less and less dialogue in them? There is an increasingly-popular 'show not tell' philosophy in the film business these days. Apparently having the characters speak - especially about what they are feeling or how they interpret the events that are engulfing them - will 'slow down the story' and 'reduce the dramatic tension'.

I mention this because I saw the film Wicker Park on TV last night. It was a bizarre love story with an incredible plot and I'd recommend anyone not to watch it. It was the 'hero' of the tale - tall and manly, stupid and taciturn to the point of dumbness - that reminded me how silly it has become that no-one talks much in films anymore. I particularly remember the final scene, where the star-crossed lovers finally get together after two years of unwanted separation and, while the camera orbits them a few times (don't you hate that?) and then pulls away, rather than vent their feelings in a torrent of words the way normal people would, they just hug each other and cry, pulling faces that I suppose were meant to convey their relief and joy at having found one another again.

Not too surprising since, during their courtship, they hardly spoke either. Nor does it stand out in the film as a moment of excruciating silence, since most of the film was excruciating and silent throughout.

The thing is, I can't understand how two people could possible fall deeply in love without actually speaking to one another about their feelings. I don't understand how a film can have any depth or subtlety without there being words in it. I know film is a primarily visual medium but, if it aspires to tell a story that is more than just rip-roaring action with clichéd characters, it really does have to use words. If the characters do not speak, we rely on the situation to disambiguate their gestures and give meaning to their actions. Which is to say, the film can only portray feelings and motives with which we are already familiar and can recognise. And, since film-makers are seeking the widest-possible audience, the feelings and motives they portray must therefore be ones which as many people as possible will recognise. They therefore have to be clichés and the characters have to be stereotypes who feel only clichéd emotions and are driven by clichéd motives.

And what an example to our society! Don't speak your loss, just trash a phone box whilst crying. Don't declare your love, just gaze into your partner's eyes with a soupy expression. Don't try to explain the complex mixture of reasons and emotions that drive you to murder, just look as crazed and psychopathic (and, preferably, foreign) as you can and get on with it!

Show. Not tell.

I don't think so.

The Value of a Good Café

I spend a lot of time in cafés. No, I'm not a man of leisure who hangs out with my arty, intellectual friends, discussing the virtue of form over function amid gay laughter and bawdy ribaldry. Far from it, I'm a dour, antisocial recluse who recently turned down a party invitation with the words, 'I'd rather be head-butted in the groin.' But, if I was this gay Bohemian, I would certainly need a good cafe. Somewhere a little bit dingy, perhaps, but welcoming. A place whose owners and patrons alike appreciate their good fortune in having such a colourful crowd as my own, arguing about Brecht and insulting the waiters all day long.

The time I spend in cafes is mostly spent writing. I'm writing this in a café. It's the Glove and Gown in the Wesley Hospital in Brisbane (don't ask - long story) and it's not bad at all. It's a bit large for perfection and there are an unusual number of nurses around but, apart from that, it has a buzz of life and laughter, the coffee is good (and they do a wonderful date scone) and I can sit for an hour, undisturbed as I sip my way through two large cappuccinos and tap out these immortal words on my little computer.

Over the past few years I have written three-and-a half novels in Brisbane cafés - almost entirely during my lunch breaks - along with many short stories and other pieces. Once I find a good one, I go there every day. Of course, the staff get to know me. One of them, sadly closed now, used to reserve my favourite table for me. In fact, I think the staff in these places actually like the mild eccentricity of someone who comes in every day, orders pretty much the same thing, and writes obsessively for an hour. One becomes part of the ‘colour’ of a place – and I’m always pleased to contribute something in return for the pleasure of being given this small space in which to pursue my compulsion.

Of course, the food has to be good and the coffee has to be excellent but there is usually one place in any part of central Brisbane that meets these criteria – if you look hard enough. But the main thing is having a café where the staff accept that, although you may take twice as long about your lunch as most other diners, you have the right to be there and to enjoy that precious, uninterrupted time. Most recently, my favourite spot has been Cristo’s in West End but, in my line of work, I move from place to place as I get new contracts. I’ll be in a different part of the city for my next job and I look forward to finding another, equally salubrious spot.

03 October, 2006


On 24th October 1998, the spacecraft Deep Space 1 took off from Cape Canaveral in Florida and headed away from the Earth. As it travelled through the Solar System, the little spacecraft successfully tested a package of 12 different new technologies that might be used in space exploration during the 21st Century. It also rendezvoused with comet Borrelly along the way, and snapped a few pictures. DS1 was powered by an ion propulsion drive which used electric fields to eject a stream of highly-accelerated charged particles. The particles it used were xenon ions and, by an odd coincidence, the launch happened exactly 100 years after xenon was first discovered.

It was the Scottish chemist, Sir William Ramsay who, with Morris Travers, discovered xenon in 1898. Ramsay devoted much of his career to discovering the so-called ‘noble’ gasses (helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon and radon) and, with Travers and Lord Rayleigh managed to find them all except radon. It was partly for this that Ramsay received the 1904 Nobel Prize for chemistry.

The noble gasses are peculiarly unreactive and tend not to form compounds with other chemicals. That is why they are also known as the inert gasses. This means that the only interest people have in them is largely for themselves and their own peculiar properties rather than the chemistry they take part in. Yet, even so, many laboratories around the world are dedicated to research into some or all of these gasses. Xenon, for example, has found uses in ultra-violet laser technology, electron tubes, bactericidal lamps and various applications in the nuclear industry.
It found its way into space because, for a gas, its atoms are relatively heavy. Once a gas is ionised by stripping electrons off the atoms, it can be pushed around using strong electric fields. Xenon ions can be ejected from DS1’s ion drive at more than 100,000 kilometres per hour using only the power the little spacecraft can generate from it’s own solar panels. It doesn’t produce much force (about as much as you would feel from a piece of paper lying on your hand) but, if it is applied for long enough, the tiny acceleration it creates can push a spacecraft to extremely high speeds.

DS1’s ion drive was turned on two weeks into the mission and the delicate blue haze of its xenon exhaust signalled a new era in deep space exploration, demonstrating a technology that might take us on our first journeys to the stars. It is impossible to believe that Sir William Ramsey could ever have dreamed that the work he did, in an obscure branch of chemistry, would have led us here?

Ultimately, all aspects of the physical world are related through the fundamental laws which govern them. The astonishing power of science is that it can reveal the underlying patterns in the world and uncover these laws. Later, technologists can use these findings - findings from a wide range of different fields of study - to create devices like ion drives that were not even dreamt of a few generations ago.

And that is one of the best arguments I know for letting researchers pursue their own interests rather than be directed by the State into areas that are deemed to have immediate value. We cannot predict what particular pieces of knowledge will prove useful in the future but brilliant and resourceful scientist have the best idea of anyone where they should be probing and how, in order to push back the boundaries of our ignorance.

Give them their head.

Garden Birds of Australia

Australia has seven of the world’s ten most venomous snakes and five of the world’s ten most venomous spiders. It also has two of the world’s most stupid birds.

The olive-backed oriole doesn’t look particularly stupid. It looks like quite a nice bird – a big, thrushlike creature, that might, at first glance even have a glint of intelligence in it eye. But don’t be fooled. The olive-backed oriole is a moron. It makes a rapid, piping ee-oo-ee-oo noise that is not so bad the first time you hear it, or the second, or even the hundredth. But by the time you’ve listened to that idiotic warble thousands and thousands of times, day after day, week after week, you begin to realize that the olive-backed oriole is not playing with a full set of gum-nuts.

Then there is its habit of attacking windows. Not just once or twice but repeatedly, hour after hour, for days and weeks. Flying at windows, sitting nearby and ee-oo-ee-oo-ing at windows, and sitting on windowsills pecking aggressively at windows – from dawn till dusk. The dammed thing never gets tired. It never takes a break. And it never, ever shuts up! How does a bird with so little sense and such an irritating manner survive? Why haven’t all the other birds got together and hog-tied it?

I’ll tell you why, because any creature large or small, with any compassion for its fellows, or sense of its own duty to creation, is saving its strength for the chance to destroy the dreaded brush turkey.

The brush turkey is such a menace that, even though they are as common as liars in a parliament, the government has had to pass laws to prevent people killing them in their millions.

This bird even looks the part. It is like a dwarf turkey, black, with a red and yellow head that is so ugly you’d think the whole species would be hiding in the darkest forests out of shame rather than strutting about the gardens of Brisbane in broad daylight. I suspect the head is really some kind of obscene fungal growth. It is certainly impossible to believe it could be a real head with a real brain since the brush turkey seems to have only one behaviour in its whole repertoire. It scrapes at the ground. That’s all it does. It scrapes at the ground.

And, when it scrapes at the ground – with it’s ludicrously outsize talons – it scrapes up everything that is growing in the ground: your beautiful collection of bromeliads, your newly-planted bulbs, your lovely annuals, everything! It also scrapes at things it finds growing in pots – geraniums, cacti, seedlings, even that avocado that was just sprouting. And why does it do this? Why is it hell-bent on destroying your garden? Because it wants to build a great big pile of fallen leaves, twigs, bromeliads, and whatever it can get its size 10 feet onto. And I don’t just mean a pile. I mean a small hill. I mean a cubic metre of topsoil, mulch and (ex) plant-life. It works at this all the time. It never lets up. It is the Terminator of the bird world. It will not stop!

In the end, having a garden is impossible. Having a barren wasteland with a great big mound in it is possible. But a garden? No. As you stare bleakly at that fat black pustule strutting through the ruins of your garden, the only thing left to you is an insane, gnawing compulsion to get your hands around the damned bird’s revolting neck!!

Frankly, I think a garden full of brown snakes and red-back spiders might be preferable to one with olive-backed orioles and brush turkeys.

02 October, 2006

Dabbling in Theology

Theology must be money for old rope.

I say this because whenever I argued with my mother about religion – as I often did from about the age of 11 onwards – she would say things like, ‘There are plenty of clever people in the church, people with degrees and doctorates.’ It used to flummox me at the time. I just couldn’t understand why people so highly qualified could still be so obviously wrong.

Eventually, it dawned on me that the great bulk of these degrees and doctorates weren’t in real subjects at all – they were in theology! I’d imagined for a while that the upper echelons of the church (the Catholic one, of course) were peopled with physicists and mathematicians, chemists and philosophers. The reality was somewhat shocking. In effect, religious loonies were running courses in religious lunacy so that other religious loonies could get degrees in it! What’s more, it wasn’t just going on at church-funded colleges. This was happening in real universities!

I t took me a while to get over this. However, I had the small consolation that my mother’s argument no longer had any weight. It was also not long after that, that I became aware of Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley, well known for his voluble contribution to the troubles in Northern Ireland. The words, ‘Yes, like Ian Paisley,’ were the perfect riposte to the lots-of-clever-people-in-the-church argument.

It was always my mother’s fondest fantasy, that I would join the church and become a Jesuit. There were times when past wives almost drove me to wish I had done. But what fun, to be a theologian. I could have made a significant contribution to the debate on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Here – without even the benefit of a dodgy PhD – is my 2c worth. The number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin is:

  1. As many as God wants to.

  2. None. Angels are too big – unless they’re insubstantial and can all be in the same place at the same time. Then you could have any number you liked.

  3. Any number you like – as long as they only do it one at a time.

  4. None. Dancing is wicked and evil – like fornication without the good bits – so angel’s aren’t allowed to do it. Fallen angels could probably get away with it though – so this might be a good test to discriminate between the two types.

It’s like that old joke, really – still popular in universities – where the kiddies write above the toilet roll dispenser, ‘Sociology degrees. Please take one.’

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