Saturday, January 22, 2011

Saturday Morning Bleargh.

Hi all.

Sorry for not posting much this morning. I’ve been working overtime the last couple of days and have had practically no time to myself since Wednesday evening. At least no time worth blogging in — I spent Thursday evening in a daze and last night seeing a mate off to his new job in Alice Springs.

So I’ll just share this amusing article which I just read (it gets a few things wrong, but still very cool), and this image macro which I saw last night:

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Floods: emergency housing needed.

Today’s post is another appeal from GetUp regarding the floods in eastern Australia. The sheer scale of the disaster is unfathomable and I’m sure there isn’t a person who hasn’t been personally touched by it or knows someone who has. A friend of mine lives in Kerang and I’ve no idea if she’ll have a job when she returns there.
The recent floods have had a devastating toll on communities, homes and lives. Now thousands of Australians in flood affected areas face the daunting question of where to have their next sleep. Together, we can help.

As the process of rebuilding begins, thousands of people will need a place to stay as they put their homes and lives back together. But with more than ten thousand homes still without electricity, and many more uninhabitable, no government or aid agency could ever house all of those in need.

So we’ve launched an emergency national housing drive to connect empty beds with flood affected Australians who could use a place to stay while their homes are repaired or rebuilt. You can post your offer of housing (a spare room or an extra bed) and search for available housing online at:

Housing is most urgently needed within reasonable driving distance of the affected areas, particularly in Queensland, northern New South Wales and Victoria, where flood waters are peaking and levees breaking, as well as Tasmania and other parts of the country.

Please forward this message to anyone you know in the region who might be able to help and be sure to post on facebook and twitter. Those without internet access can call 1300 998 603 to get assistance or to offer a bed.

No matter where you live, your help could still make a world of difference to a person or family in need, so please offer what you can. The process is simple:
  1. Post your offer of help. Your name, address and contact details remain hidden and you can change or remove your offer at any time.
  2. Flood-affected Australians, relief organisations, friends and relatives can search the site for housing. We'll do our best to get your offers where they are needed most.
  3. You will receive emails when people are interested in taking up your offer. It's up to you to call or email those people, decide if it's a good match, and make the necessary arrangements with them. Then you can remove your offer.

As progressive Australians we share a belief in service to one another and today is a great opportunity to put that belief into practice. There are thousands of families who’ve lost everything and who need a comfortable bed and a warm welcome. Let’s do what we can to help.
PS. You can also help by spreading the word about to everyone you know. In addition to email, facebook and twitter, word of mouth is very important, particularly to reach people in flood affected communities without internet access who are looking for a place to stay. Those without internet access can call 1300 998 603, but we are encouraging everyone who can to use the website, to reduce the burden on our call centre.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Empiricist Strikes Back.

I recently got into a discussion where the case for my correspondent’s particular flavour of God was framed as rationalist against my empiricist atheism. Implicit in this are a whole lot of assumptions and accusations; that empiricism is somehow irrational is the most obvious one. This was quite odd, as I was using the word “rational” in its less strict sense, to refer to any form of valid reasoning, deductive or otherwise; my correspondent decided, and later insisted (which is something you never do), that I was using it in its narrow sense, to refer only to reasoning that is mathematically provable, despite the fact that this definition would have rendered my points meaningless.

The scientific method is rational under the former definition, and not under the latter. Yet it is widely accepted as a knowledge-generating technique. We can take from this that just because something is not mathematically certain, doesn’t mean it can’t be certain enough to be assumed, unless to do so would be question-begging, and unless and until a later development casts doubt on it. In the case of the scientific method, neither of these conditions are in play.

The usual problem with what might be termed hard or deductivist rationalism is that it tends to lead to solipsism, which basically means that you accept Descartes’ proposition I think therefore I am and nothing else, or at least nothing which you cannot derive with mathematical certainty from this proposition. This usually entails hard atheism, moral relativism (or its less paradoxical functional equivalent, moral nihilism) and theoretical, if not practical, selfishness — traits commonly associated with the stereotyped perception of atheism, but atypical in actual fact.

As mentioned, my solipsist correspondent is unusual in this regard in that he is not an atheist, but he defines God as existing outside the Universe, which is a common trick among theologians when they’re up against empiricism.  Now, if you define Universe as referring to everything that exists, then the notion of something existing outside it is paradoxical. So instead he uses the cosmological sense of Universe, which refers to everything we can observe (or infer from observation). Unfortunately, as far as we know, the second definition is functionally identical to the first, as it’s a principle both of science and of deductivism that what cannot be observed or inferred/deduced from observation cannot be claimed to exist.

I wonder if anyone’s thought of claiming that God follows a form of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle — that he exists, but you can’t detect him if you’re looking for him. They’d still have to back up why they thought he did, and even then it would mean that as far as we or anything else is concerned, he may as well not exist; but it’s the only way I can think of that he could both exist and be undetectable. Practically, I think, it would be as much a dead-end as the existing-outside-the-Universe trick, but it just struck me curious as to whether it had been tried.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Old Cretin’s At It Again.

Everybody’s favourite Emperor Palpatine look-alike is attempting to paint education as the enemy of religion in general and, of course, his own religion in particular. Bizarrely, he has done so as part of an address to various ambassadors to his own country, in a direct attack on the governments they represent.

You almost have to admire the bastard. Not everyone would have that level of honesty. Or sheer balls. One is reminded of Sir Humphrey’s assertion that one official meeting between politicians can negate two years’ patient diplomacy behind the scenes.

But seriously, Popeatine. The only reason this hasn’t caused an international incident is that nobody pays any attention to what he says. Oh, they notice; and people like me with a bit of an axe to grind will chew him out; but he doesn’t have nearly as much influence as he’d like to think. Even relatively friendly governments are much more concerned with the opinions of the actual Catholics on the ground who vote for them, than they are with the official opinion of the Church.

As I was saying, though, I almost admire his honesty. Education — real education, the provision of facts and techniques for rational thought and inquiry — has long been a threat to religion; but as it’s usually also seen as a good thing, religion is usually hesitant to openly oppose it. It’s refreshing to see a major religious leader come straight out and say he doesn’t want facts taught in schools.

And, despite his supposed lack of experience with the subject, he’s once again speaking out about sex. Not long ago there was an utterly bewildering suggestion from the Vatican that condoms were A-OK for preventing disease, but only among sex workers, whose existence I was pretty sure the Church was not OK with in the first place. The “only among sex workers” bit stinks of retcon: the Pope isn’t supposed to be capable of being wrong when speaking on matters of doctrine, so they couldn’t retract it in this information age, but they were able to restrict its scope.

The very idea that education somehow constitutes an attack on freedom seems initially incoherent, as more information can only make one more free. It may illuminate one’s lack of certain freedoms, but it doesn’t remove them itself. But what he means, of course, is that parents are no longer free to keep their children in ignorance. I honestly cannot fathom how he considers this to be a good thing. Children have a way of finding these things out one way or another; better it be from a trusted and accountable source, in an open environment that encourages tolerance and inquiry.

If parents are given the right to withdraw their children from classes, it is the children’s freedom that will suffer. Children have a right to education, and deserve equal opportunity in this, regardless of who created them.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


My readers in Melbourne will know just how horrible the weather has been here lately. Humidity has hovered at over 90% for days, and never before have I known 27ºC to feel so hot.

Of course, compared to what’s going on in Queensland, Melbourne is fucking parched.

At least a dozen people have died, scores are missing, and the damage bill was $13 billion at the time of writing and rising as fast as the waters. Thousands of homes have been destroyed. It’s the sort of thing that boggles the mind. In some cases the flood water has risen by as much as nine metres in as little as four minutes. I don’t see the state recovering this year, maybe not for a few years. The cleanup alone — ironically hampered by a lack of clean water — will take weeks, more likely months. The bushfires we had in Victoria two years ago were deadlier, but in terms of property damage it seems that this disaster is far worse, and its effects will last longer.

So I’m dedicating today’s post to doing my bit to help. I’m rather strapped for cash at the moment, but I’ve sent a small donation through. As they say, every little bit helps. Details for donations are located at

(I’d give them here, but apparently some people are running scams that way, so a link to the government website is more trustworthy.) If everyone reading this can send a little bit, then things will be that little bit easier for those involved in the rescue and clean-up operations.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Height of Rudeness.

A very bizarre thing happened yesterday. It was Quincy’s birthday. That wasn’t the bizarre thing. Her housemate arrived home — fortunately before it had started raining — to find a bag of wrapped presents on their doorstep. That wasn’t the bizarre thing. There was a card, but no other note. The presents were from an old family friend. The card was addressed to Quincy and her family. The card was the bizarre thing.

You see, on both the card and envelope, the part that had included Quincy’s parents’ names had been cut out and removed before they had dropped it off.

What sort of insanity have these people descended to, such that they will agree to pass on birthday presents to the daughter with whom they have refused to make any form of contact for six months, but will do so in such a way as to make it so perfectly, literally clear that they are cutting themselves out of her life? What level of doublethink leads to such passive-aggressive, schizoid behaviour?

I hope they come to the wedding. I will be so wonderfully, infuriatingly nice to them that the cognitive dissonance will turn their brains to noodle soup.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Cultural Cringe.

Yesterday, one of my workmates expressed incredulity that another workmate had never heard of Ebenezer Scrooge. It’s kind of odd to be bringing up A Christmas Carol for the second time in a short while, but that’s what prompted me to compose this post. Or rather, the ignorant workmate’s response, which was a withering refusal, on being told it was by Dickens, to even consider reading “anything like that”, prompted me to compose this post.

This particular book is an especially good example: “scrooge” has entered the English language as a by-word for an unpleasant miser, and the basic plot of the novel has been adapted and repurposed so many times (most recently by Doctor Who a couple of weeks ago) that it has become a trope in its own right. Yet wilful, dismissive ignorance of the novel seems to be not only acceptable to, but encouraged by, the culture I find myself in.

I’m not setting out here to defend Dickens from anyone who doesn’t like him. I myself have only read a few of his works. My problem is not that this person doesn’t like a “classic”. Any honest person who reads enough “classics” is bound to find one he doesn’t like — I don’t care for To Kill a Mockingbird, and I find much contemporary “literature” to be pretentious and near unreadable. Even with works I enjoy, I can see how others might not; Les Misérables is both beautifully written and superbly detailed, but the plot is very obviously an excuse for Hugo to comment on early-nineteenth-century French society. But I recognise the place that To Kill a Mockingbird has earned in the canon. The problem I have is the attitude that because something was released before last year, or written by somebody dead, or in any way associated with tradition, it’s worthless.

Not only are you missing out on a lot of things you might otherwise enjoy, but your enjoyment of a huge number of more recent works is severely diminished if you can’t see on whose shoulders they are building. The Princess Bride is a great story in its own right, but so much of its humour comes from playing with various fairytale tropes. And it’s even funnier if you’re familiar with Les Misérables, as Goldman works in a wonderful parody of the style of that novel.

The sheer incoherence of a culture that sneers so at its own foundations baffles me. Such an attitude can only lead to cultural impoverishment. We can hold that off for a little while by importing things from other cultures — as indeed we do, as foreign cultures are held in much higher regard (in a lot of cases) than our own or its closer relations, if only for fear of offending those who are not yet so postmodern and cynical as to be ashamed of their own culture. But even this doesn’t stop us from losing sight of the giants on whose shoulders we are privileged to stand.

I’m a big fan of multiculturalism, and of cultural progress, and of new traditions and techniques and tropes, but this doesn’t have to mean throwing our own traditions and treasures out if they’re worth keeping, just because they’re old. If they’ve survived this long, it’s well worth asking why. They might not have much to offer us any more, but usually a concept, or a story, that’s lasted has lasted because it is still useful, or entertaining, or enlightening.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Buzzwords and Bullshit.

The real problem with buzzwords isn’t that they’re completely meaningless. If they actually were completely meaningless, they’d never have become buzzwords in the first place. The problem arises from the fact that they have become  semantically bleached — stripped of meaning — in common usage. They are still treated as meaningful in two cases: by the usually very small minority of people who do know what they really mean and can competently use them, and by the unfortunately larger group of people who want to appear to know what they mean.

The problem then manifests when the people in the latter group try to interact with people who aren’t in either group. This often comes up in a teaching environment — both in schools and elsewhere — especially where the person or group who prepared the course is not the person teaching it. They know that this buzzword is involved somehow, that it means something relevant to the course, because it was mentioned dozens of times when they learned it. Unfortunately, concepts have a tendency to seem as self-evident as they are simple once we genuinely internalise them. Their original teacher, even if he did understand the concept itself, probably considered it more obvious than it was and consequently failed to explain it in adequate detail.

I’ll illustrate with an example that I remember from primary school (it carried over into secondary school too, but wasn’t quite as bad there). A lot of fuss was made about self-esteem. It was apparently a very important thing to have. But as far as my class was concerned, this notion had come out of the blue very suddenly, as fads are wont to do when you’re completely unaware of and uninvolved in the processes that produce them. More problematically, we had no idea what it meant, and nobody’s attempts to explain it left us much the wiser. We hadn’t heard of esteem before, except maybe when I’d listened to old records of the “highly esteemed” Goon Show, which didn’t help me actually understand the word at all.

The best I could gather was that if you were being picked on, it meant you didn’t have enough self-esteem, although if you were picking on people, that also meant that you didn’t have enough self-esteem. I tried again and figured out that self-esteem meant being assertive without picking on people. (I had never conflated those two things in the first place, although everyone seemed to assume that all the kids had. As far as I could tell, you picked on someone either because you were mates, or because you were a coward; you could tell which sort a particular case was by noting if it was reciprocated.) So I tried to put that into practice and assert myself, to claim some sort of identity for myself. Yet when I did, the one teacher who seemed so obsessed with the word in the first place would put me down herself.

Years later, I gradually pieced together what self-esteem was supposed to mean, and I figured out a few things that it certainly wasn’t. It wasn’t the sort of thing you could just tell people they should have. Certainly you couldn’t just tell people that they needed to have it to be worthwhile (which was more or less the impression we got in school), and that if they were in any of these fairly common situations then they didn’t have enough. I’m sure it did far more damage to a significant number of kids than schoolyard bullying itself, as it’s the sort of psychological process that is self-perpetuating. The sheer irony of how counterproductive such an approach actually is depresses me. Not only that — it now seems so obvious to me how counterproductive it is.

From this, it’s quite obvious now that none of my primary teachers — certainly not the one who actually drummed the buzzword into us — were actually competent at understanding the concept and its implications. This may have been their own fault, or (given how systemic their failure was) the fault of their own sources and teachers; the effect on the students would have been no different. That’s why it was a buzzword: not because it wasn’t meaningful, but because people pretended it was. Buzzwords are neither falsehoods nor lies, but they are most definitely bullshit.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Happy New Year.

I haven’t forgotten WTA over the Christmas break; I’ve just been busy. I thought I’d actually mentioned that I’d be taking a week off in my last post, and only realised I hadn’t when Quincy pointed it out. No matter.

I got a new bicycle for Christmas, which is quite awesome. Quincy’s been getting back into cycling and I decided to start riding with her. I haven’t cycled in years and my old bike was so far gone it was better just to replace it, and my folks decided that that would be my Christmas present. Have I mentioned that my family is great? (I’m getting a newer car too, but I’m trading my old one in for it.) So far we’ve been able to ride about 15km in a stretch, which isn’t too bad for a reasonably cold start. We had a bit of an embarrassment the other day, when she was struggling a lot more than I was up a hill, and then we realised that all the packs she was carrying added about 10% to the weight. In future, I’ll be making sure to carry my fair share.

Coming up to a few major milestones this year, the most obvious one being the wedding. As for new year’s resolutions, I’ve never been much for them, but I will resolve to try to emulate Quincy a little more and write myself a bit of a backlog of entries for WTA (rather than, as it’s been the last few months, putting half the entries together the night before posting). The other thing I’m going to start doing is tweeting alongside the regular blog: mostly just jokes and one-liners I come across in the course of my day, hopefully as a counterpoint to the relatively dry tone of the blog itself. I’ve set up @Oolon_WTA for this purpose, all the simpler and more obvious usernames having been taken. Tweets will show up in the right-hand column, above the fold.