October 24, 2006
One for the Aussies
I thought Australian politics had become surreal when George Bush and John Howard were seen planting a tree together in Washington and a reporter from commercial television said the two men did it to show how deeply rooted their relationship is.From Martin Flanagan's column in today's Age, on the new and entirely foolish ABC policies for countering "bias" in news, current affairs and satire. The whole thing is worth your attention, as is Mr Flanagan's recent giving of the Stephen Murray-Smith Memorial Lecture.
The Howard Government chose not to be represented at the Wave Hill commemoration, an event said to signify the birth of the Australian reconciliation movement. As Peter Garrett, Labor’s shadow spokesman on reconciliation, pointed out to me at the event: he has no-one to shadow. The fact that the Howard Government has no Minister for Reconciliation is one of its most commendably honest acts, but what does it mean in real terms? It means, according to Patrick Dodson, that there is no dialogue. I have a saying: if you want to see white Australia - and by white Australia I mean John Howard’s Australia, which obviously includes people who are not white - step over into black Australia, then look back. What you see is a government that has no regard whatsoever for the thoughts and opinions of the people with whom you are standing as fellow Australians...
In the book I have written with Tom [Uren] I quote cartoonist Michael Leunig as saying the difficulty in working in the Australian media at this time is that we are expected to be moderate in a radical age. I find it highly significant that the two people I consider to have been the most serious critics of the Howard government over the past decade, Robert Manne and Malcolm Fraser, are both classical conservatives. We have all watched the many attempts made to make it appear that both these men have 'turned' or 'gone to the left' when an examination of their records shows they are simply applying the same principles they have always applied to the changing world around them. In the course of this lecture I hope I can appeal to decent conservatives.
I don't know if any of my few visitors are regular readers of Chris Clarke's excellent weblog of poetry, nature writing and occasional commentary, Creek Running North. Unfortunately if you're not, you may not get the chance to become one, at least for some time. This utterly bites:
After family discussion regarding a commenter's threat of violence against our dog, Creek Running North has been taken offline.Mr Clarke's beloved dog, Zeke, is an aged and frail shepherd, and his recent ill-health has been something of a concern for CRN's readers (while inspiring a number of fine posts from Mr Clarke including an extraordinary poem about past days of running we now can't reread). Presumably, recognising this, the tool who made the threat thinks they've been very clever in finding the right button to push. Well, at least as clever as a Skinner pigeon.
Creek Running North will stay in the blogroll in the hope of its return, or in remembrance.
Update 29/10: Well, turns out CRN shrugged this off so fast they were back up the day after I posted (factoring in the International Date Line). Then it took me five days to notice. So we've got that going for us. Check out Zeke's poem of disdain.
You Are Here
From Stephen Poole's review of The View From the Centre of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos by Joel Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams:
[O]ne of the book's most interesting and useful ideas [is] that of "scale confusion". The authors explain how in physics, for example, the strong atomic force is irrelevant outside the nucleus, and gravity is irrelevant at tiny distances (until the very smallest). Things in general are only important at certain scales...But as Mr Poole points out, the author's search for cosmic meaning involves scale confusion, and I would say the very notion that humans should find meaning in their lives by convincing themselves they are central to the universe is saturated with it. Human meaning exists at the human scale. The cosmos can look after itself.
Scale confusion reappears in the book's final section, which seeks to apply our new cosmic insights to life right here, right now. "Since civilisations cannot behave like individuals and vice versa," the authors argue, "to describe individual acts as civilisational may be a kind of scale chauvinism (the logical fallacy in which a favourite size-scale is considered more fundamental than the others)." Politicians are incontinent scale chauvinists, always muddling concepts of individuals, families, nations and civilisations to deleterious effect.
Myself, I see a lot of scale confusion in the anthropic principle, the ultimate expression of human cosmic centrality. Here the (supposed) slim probability of humanity's existence, when coupled with the importance of this fact to us, is meant to suggest that it cannot be mere chance that the Earth had developed to be capable of sustaining intelligent life on it. Of course, the chance that the Earth might have proved inhospitable is one calculated on the cosmic scale, while the fact that it did not is important only to us. Similarly, that the universe was one in which life might eventually come to be is a matter of great significance for living things, so if we were to accept that a universe such as ours coming into existence is a one-in-a-billion (or some other very large number) chance, that it did so might suggest some special feature of physics that fore-ordained life, or perhaps even the presence of conscious design behind it all, until one realises that all potential universes are equal in the eyes of the cosmos and ones that support life are only distinguishable from the welter by ourselves. To draw conclusions from the small probability of ending up with the life-friendly physics of our universe, or an Earth that had not been stripped of life by the slings and asteroids of outrageous fortune (yet), is rather like suggesting there must be something peculiarly portentous in my now typing the word "hedgehog", given how unlikely it is that eons of cosmic and planetary development, natural selection and human history would lead to the precise point where I would type that word rather than, say, type "squid" or "underfelt", or have gone to bed already and not bothered with this silly blog, or have been an intelligent semi-aquatic dolphinoid whistling a dissertation on kelp derivatives*. If there is nothing to choose between alternatives, then the fact that each is highly unlikely does not mean that one out of all the others happening is a matter of significance. The fact that a universe in which life can exist is (perhaps) only one possibility among many, many others is a matter only significant to us, and it is the height of egotism for us to apply that significance at higher scales. We got lucky; simple as that.
In its way, the anthropic principle is the mother of all apophenia, a gigantic case of false syncronicity. If after getting onto a plane while feeling a bit nervous, you fly through an airpocket and get a nasty jolt, you might imagine your anxiety was the result of some sort of precognition, forgetting that you'd felt nervous at the beginning of every other flight during which nothing frightening had happened. Similarly we can be sure nobody is remarking the particular kind of formless void their universe turned out to be seems very unlikely when they consider all the alternatives, perhaps significantly so; the expression of that fallacy is confined to universes and planets like our own, at least until the next asteroid arrives.
* Or, as the Russian scientist from Fred Hoyle's The Black Cloud argues in mocking his colleague's assertion that the cloud might be intelligent because it is heading towards Earth, it would be like claiming intelligence guides the path of a tennis ball rolled along a lawn and stopping on one particular blade of grass. "Why that one? Why not one of million others? Oh, it must be directed! What a bloody argument!" You'll notice this is an analogy that manages to avoid degenerating into idle aquatic anthropomorphism.
October 23, 2006
If I Was American I'd Mention Kool-Aid
Reading the Herald's letters page today I wondered if John Brennan, 2GB program director, was taking a leaf out of the book of Captain Lloyd Bucher (see below) when he deliberately filled his confession to the North Koreans with absurd nonsense to signal it had been coerced. How else would one explain this astonishing paragraph in Mr Brennan's pre-emptive strike on Chris Masters' Jonestown?
There are remorseless attacks on this man by his critics. He reminds me of another man some 2000 years ago who had the worst interpretations put upon His kindest actions, yet He went on; who had His words warped, twisted, falsely reported, minimised, yet He went on; was slighted, even laughed to scorn when He gave of His very best, yet He went on.It would be pretty churlish to imagine Mr Brennan seriously intended to compare this hate-mongering mouth-for-sale to Jesus Christ, never mind the ratings he pulls in.
By the way, apologies for the rather lame title of this post but I couldn't quite bring myself to call it "No, a carpenter; not a cottager..." as I first intended. Although apparently I can bring myself to point that out.
Update: Other Herald letter writers respond to Mr Brennan.
October 19, 2006
Serving the Hungry Mile
Here's Chris Graham, editor of the National Indigenous Times, commenting in today's Crikey about Paul Keating's reaction to the decision to name East Darling Harbour, known during the Depression as the Hungry Mile, after Barangaroo, the wife of Bennelong (particularly PK's crack that "if the NSW Government is having pangs of colonial conscience, it can support the Perth Aborigines against the Western Australian Government in the Noongar appeal. That would be useful rather than trivial."):
The former PM makes an excellent point. White Australia has a very nasty habit of embracing Aboriginal culture when it suits, then stomping all over it when it thinks there’s cash or land involved.
For a start, it’s grossly offensive to Aboriginal people to name someone who is deceased (which is why place names have almost always been based on Aboriginal words, not individuals). But given that the average blackfella spends as much time worshipping the memory of Bennelong and his wife as they do handing out how-to-vote cards for John Howard, it probably won’t offend too deeply.
Because, you see, to quote the Herald, Bennelong was "the Aborigine adopted by the first white settlers." In other words, he was a ‘jacky jacky’. A blackfella who gave aid and comfort to the enemy.
It’s no coincidence that the first black man to help the white invaders has been immortalised by that most odious of institutions, the Bennelong Society. And it’s ironic that his wife is now being immortalised by that other great western institution, the shopping mall.
It’s a very ‘white’ thing to honour Aboriginal culture with the name of someone who helped decimate it.
October 10, 2006
The Sacred Honor of the Great Speckled Bird
Over at Millard Fillmore's Bathtub, Ed Darrell, with apophenically good timing, brings us the story of the USS Pueblo, captured in January 1968 by the North Koreans and held for eleven months. Despite mistreatment, the Pueblo's crew took advantage of their hosts' cultural confusion to register their disdain of the attempts to turn their capture to the DPRK's propaganda advantage, such as when they convinced their captors that photographs taken to show how well they were being treated would be enhanced if the crew gave the middle finger salute that was a well-known Hawaiian good luck sign. Pressured to sign a confession of American wrong-doing, the Pueblo's captain, Lloyd Bucher, made sure to fill it with florid absurdities and double meanings, such as swearing its truth "on the sacred honor of the Great Speckled Bird". His description of the mission briefing was worthy of Spike Milligan:
Our first stop was Hawaii where I visited the kingpin of all provocateurs, including spies. None other than Fleet General Barney Google. He was all I had been told, sly, cunning, closed mouthed, bulbous nosed, smelling of musty top secrets and some foul smelling medicine that kept him going twenty hours a day in pursuit of the perfect spy mission. He talked haltingly with me but persuasively about our forthcoming mission. “By God, Bucher, I want you to get in there and be elusive, spy them out, spy out their water, look sharp for signs of electronic saline water traps. You will be going to spy out the DPRK. By the sainted General Bullmoose we must learn why they are so advanced in the art of people’s defense.”Mr Darrell has more.
Surely we had to find out how come such a newly created government could lead its peoples so quickly into the number one position. As we went about detecting this valuable information, particularly the oceanic salinity, density, ionic dispersion rate, humpback whale counts, both low and high protoplasmic unicellular uglena and plankton counts. This information was of the highest value to our own scientists for the development of war mongering at sea when no one was looking.