Archive for June 2013

the lover, the lunatic and the poet

June 23rd, 2013 — 9:38pm

I was reading Russell’s essay on scepticism recently, which was written in 1928 between the wars. He is fearful of the irrationality of the general populace – and quotes the following scene:


“In 1919 I saw The Trojan Women acted at the Old Vic. There is an unbearably pathetic scene where Astyanax is put to death by the Greeks for fear he should grow up into a second Hector. There was hardly a dry eye in the theatre, and the audience found the cruelty of the Greeks in the play hardly credible. Yet those very people who wept were, at that very moment, practicing that very cruelty on a scale which the imagination of Euripides could have never contemplated. They had lately voted (most of them) for a Government which prolonged the blockade of Germany after the armistice, and imposed the blockade of Russia. It was known that these blockades caused the death of immense numbers of children, but it was felt desirable to diminish the population of enemy countries: the children, like Astyanax, might grow up to emulate their fathers. Euripides the poet awakened the lover in the imagination of the audience; but lover and poet were forgotten at the door of the theatre, and the lunatic (in the shape of the homicidal maniac) controlled the political actions of these men and women who thought themselves kind and virtuous.”

Although the scale is different, it reminded me of the politics in Australia around immigration and asylum seekers. The general population of Australia seems to have lost its head at the moment, and is on the brink of voting into power by a huge margin a real gumball of a man whose politics are rooted in vulgar arguments on many issues. Apart from the deep embarrassment I feel over the whole situation, as well as the idle hope that he doesn’t lead us into some new war or destroy our precious wilderness, it leaves me despairing of the future of Australia and humanity generally. I have to check my impulses sometimes – i used to think of myself as fairly centrist and not at all an intellectual. But faced with this kind of situation i find myself wiring money to the wilderness society and quoting Bertrand Russell.

Yet i need to defend the irrational. I normally dip liberally into the ice cream tub of the irrational when i am writing here. But that is only because there is so little that we truly do know about anything. I am at heart a sceptic. And when one lives as a sceptic, knowing how little we truly know, then Love and Poetry are the green and red guiding lights through the black waters on the harbour of lunacy. Russell’s insight i think was that scepticism, by reminding us of how little we really know about anything, should leads us to act more humanely towards each other, and to do so would in fact be more rational in the end.

Update: since Gillard has been humiliated and deposed there have been some thoughtful articles on her time in power and on Australia’s problems with its anti-intellectual and misogynist attitudes. For the record I think she was a great PM; “If Sir Alex Ferguson was picking a team of premier league world politicians, she would be there in the starting line-up.” as John McTernan says here.

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Tram #2

June 13th, 2013 — 12:20pm

tram courtesy

i saw that strange couple on a tram again today. They were still discussing philosophy.

“the theory of all possible worlds being actual concrete worlds is just fantastic. I mean, i don’t personally find this a challenge to my conception of existence at all” said the man.

“oh really?” said the girl “how so?”

“well, the word ‘concrete’ is actually a distraction. It begs the question a little. If you are going to call this reality ‘concrete’ then what you are immediately suggesting that it is already established that this reality is a solid thing in comparison to other kinds of reality. And in order to elevate other kinds of reality to ‘concreteness’ then there is so much concrete everywhere most people will find that just a bit absurd, a bit greek perhaps. but let me argue another way. This reality as i see it is nothing like concrete at all – it is in fact a dream. It’s a very good dream, and it’s the dream that i am dreaming now, so it is the superior dream among dreams. But it is simply that, a dream. And dreams can indeed take as many forms as you imagine. There is no limit. And each one can take the form of ‘reality’ no matter how absurd it might seem from the perspective of this particular dream, once you are in the new dream, everything is coherent and ‘concrete’ if you like. So the many worlds theorem describes for me perfectly the life of my dreams and imagination, infact this is the fabric of my universe in a nutshell, so i don’t have any problems with it at all.”

The girl was munching on some chips and chocolate, when a little caterpillar crawled out of an apple that sat on her lap.

“so this dream, this reality, which happens to be the concrete one at the moment, is like an apple” she said

“how so?” asked the guy

“So in your many worlds theory, for every reality which exists, there must be countless other realities which are exactly like it in every respect – except for just one thing which is different, which makes them separate realities. Let’s not look at how small that different thing has to be, let’s just say it is the smallest thing that anyone notices. So before you even get to the really crazy realities out there where donkeys talk and pigs constantly fly around, there are in fact already an infinite number of realities which are identical to this one, except for that one thing which happens to make them different. And what could that one thing be? Well it could be anything at all. In fact, your theory must say that there is an actual reality out there which is precisely the same as this one, where you and I are having this conversation, but suddenly in the middle of this conversation which is happening right now in that other universe, a pink rabbit quickly flashes into and out of existence right in front of us, for a second, just long enough to notice. And then both realities continue in exactly the same way, because in that reality it is completely normal for a pink rabbit to have flashed up. I am not talking about the reality which is like this one up till now, where the rabbit flashes into existence and out, and then there are other consequences which start to go to work to make that reality digress from this one – no, that is not the alternate reality i am interested in. I am interested in that reality where the whole design makes it possible for a pink rabbit to wink in and out of existence right at this moment and for that to be perfectly normal, and for everything else to go on in precisely the same way as in this reality, right to the end of time. I am interested because it says something about cause and effect. It says that cause and effect can be made to do whatever you want, once you stand back from the system. The rules can be re-written in any way you like. And in fact, until that pink rabbit came and went we perhaps wouldn’t know what the rules of reality were, or even what the alternatives were, because they hadn’t been fully realised before that point. And even if something really happens right now which in another reality might be the most absurd thing, which in another reality is the equivalent in absurdity to a pink rabbit winking in and out of existence, we wouldn’t know, because for us we are conditioned to think it is normal.  We are in fact conditioned by the reality we inhabit, just like water fits it’s puddle in just the right way.”

“i’m not sure about that” said the guy. “Anyway how is that like an apple”

“Well, i was going to say that each world makes complete sense in every respect, in relation to these other worlds which are similar to it, except for that one crazy pink rabbit. And in fact, it is this exception which gives the worlds a connection to each other. For if you flipped it around, and looked at this world from the reverse world, it would just be the most crazy thing that a pink rabbit didn’t appear at this moment. It would seem to make no sense at all, it would be as if all the laws of the universe just broke down right then. You have to get into that mindset where the rule book is in fact just as complex and arbitrary as reality itself, and there is really no explanation for things being as they are, except that every possibility must get played out somewhere. This might seem difficult to accommodate at first, but it really is the most natural solution, and it reflects the world of my imagination perfectly. Of course this moment in time would probably stand as the most significant and astounding proof of the ultimate theory of everything in the pink rabbit universe. But every universe will have such a moment somewhere, perhaps at the moment it is ‘created’. It will be a signifier, a little glitch when seen from the outside. This is the stem of the apple in fact, the origin, the moment that modus ponens breaks down.”

The guy nodded, and took out a little notebook and started to scribble in it with a pencil stub as he spoke.

“The ultimate theory which explains all this is going to be as complex and arbitrary as the reality it describes. In fact is will be a mirror image of reality, and just as endless. That is why we need a simple tool box of rules which are fit for most every day purposes, even if they have their faults. It is not as if there is ever going to be an ultimate tool which can accomplish every task on earth is it? Who would want to use such a tool? Tools will keep getting better more refined, but i think that hammers and axes will remain useful for a long time yet.”

At that point it was my stop and i had to get off the tram.

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symmetrical dreams

June 12th, 2013 — 12:51pm

Spoke to a philosopher yesterday, an interesting guy, with a quiet almost shy voice.. long pauses to think. I liked that. He’s trying to bring scientists and philosophers together – no easy feat. A lot of distrust on both sides he says. He spends three months every year in Oxford, a nice lifestyle..

Cold weekend, big frosts. We lit a bonfire and I looked at Saturn through the telescope, it was quite spectacular in the perfect still air, the 3.6mm lens just teasing out the atmosphere’s wobble. Imbibed rose’s mulled cider and fished foil wrapped potatoes from the fire.

This morning, after a mineralogy exam, I am a temporary storehouse of intimate knowledge on chain silicates.. phase diagrams.. fractional crystallisation etc.

Sitting in the lonsdale st roasters cafe afterwards.. ‘espresso dynamo grind’ (i think of an old poem) – read about the ‘screw’ theory of learning. How we return to subjects again and again, and each return we go a little deeper. ALso reading in an excellent book on optical mineralogy about symmetry in 3D – the screw and the inversion/rotation, the cube balanced on a corner – both have a certain aesthetic pull to them. I must investigate further.


A few nights ago I woke up after dreaming about swimming in grandpas & nanas pool. Deep and cool. The house was sold but we had left three pianos there to be picked up later. I met the new owner, he was refitting the downstairs ‘pool room’ but lots of grandpa’s Illyrian decorations were still up (they had been left there in the hurry of leaving) and he seemed to like them. As i awoke from the dream i thought of connections with greece (my study of it) and that part of the family. Also that mad rush to empty the house out after grandpa died, all the parts of it I remember. The paved patios cut out of rock, nanas gardens, the attic with the funny old orange tv (regretfully chucked on leaving), the huge staircase plunging down the centre of the house. A very strange layout, designed by grandpa.

I think about the family now. How the threads of genealogy flow through people and mix.. the trends. the flavours. the histories, passed on incompletely, imperfectly. something is lost but something new is created at each new link in the chain. walkers meet sekoranja.. strange fusion of exiled anglo and slavic purpose. then mix’d again.. with the blue hardy blood, the aussie benson first australian, the watt scot. Then again (with watt) into scarf and clarke.. the old nuclei is hatched and broken, a discarded house, families drift apart. the subjects become the objects, then the indirect objects, then they wink out altogether (into subconscious).

There is a dark weird version of tuggeranong that exists in my brain when i have these dreams. Feels a bit like a version set in the future, but it has a warped quality like reality redrawn on a chewed up piece of bubble gum. It stretches from cowley place down to kambah and then up into the mountains. It is always night.

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cold winds; tram

June 3rd, 2013 — 9:17am

tram - thanks to

Overheard when i was on a tram the other day, a man with no hair but tattoos all over his body talking to a short girl in a bowler hat and torn jeans:

“I have a philosophical idea that i’d like to run past you. It seems that unlike in the sciences where there are generally accepted theories, in the humanities at any one time in any one discipline, there are many competing theories, and every one of them is constantly being trashed by certain camps which uphold a competing theory, and as a consequence there is no agreed way of discerning any real objective truth about anything. But i wonder if it is the nature of subjectivity that in the humanities no theory can every be truly known, as there is no apparatus associated with it. Even if we think we understand a theory in fact it is just our own recreation of it in our own mind which have fabricated, an imperfect copy, so we can never do the original the justice it deserves. I’ll exclude various borderline humanities like oh psychology where there perhaps is a certain intersection with material and focus on the purely theoretical. This problem is the cause of the endless disruption, and in fact hinders progress in the humanities because we are constantly reverting to ground zero, every theory is a house of cards which is liable to tumble at any moment so there is no real progress. Well, the problem at the core of it is i think that we expect theories to all occupy the same reality-defining space – like they do in science (where they all do attempt to define the same reality ie the physical world). But in the humanities that space is actually a subjective space, which is the mind of whoever is contemplating it, and there are a potentially infinite number of these spaces. The upshot of this is that there can be contradicting theories that are equally valid, so long as they occupy a different space. The point is not to find one theory that rules them all, but simply to build within whatver mind/space you occupy a theoretical stucture that ‘suits’. And by suits i don’t even mean that it has to be correct exactly but perhaps there is an aesthetic quality to it as well. Anyway that’s as far as i’ve got with that thought. Oh except to add that more can be done by accepting a theory’s self defined truth and attempting to build onto it (as there can be no invalid theories as long as someone has chosen to put it in his mind/reality) than by attempting to destroy and replace it. There might still be disagreements about how one applies the theory to this reality i suppose. ”

“So you’re saying that theories are like tools” said the girl with the torn jeans and hat. “that it is no use debating whether a theory is true or false. each theory inhabits its own theory space, which it can only share with theories which are complementary. but that does not mean that theories which are contradictory are false in any absolute sense. They are simply false in that particular theory space. in their own theory space which they inhabit they are true. What really matters is how useful a theory is. And a theories usefulness is a direct function of its simplicity – which in fact, is its beauty. When we wish to apply theory to a problem, we should chose the tool that fits the task. The others can remain on the bench. The classic example is Newton’s physics vs Einsteins relativity. Newton’s theories are much better for many applications, it is no use saying they are ‘false’, it is more like arguing about how fine a point is required on the chisel. The same is true of theories in the humanities, or any discipline. Effort needs to be applied to demonstrating the usefulness of a particular theory, rather than attempting defend it as ‘true’ which can actually never be resolved.’

At that point i had to leave the tram.

Cold winds blow off the Monaro.. it is the time of year for bone white knuckles and frost. The land is hard, hard. The old farmers used to say this. We all occupy the tiniest fleck of existence between the vast twin cosmoi of death: the death that is after, and the death before.

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